Over the past few weeks, I have learned some bittersweet lessons about work relationships inside the academic community that my erstwhile, busy, juggling between administrator-teacher-researcher roles precluded me from seeing. The episodes have left me emotionally drained and tired but I would like to think, a better Chair than I was previously.
Lesson 1: Context is everything.
As Chair, I am unafraid of challenging colleagues about what I perceive as a wrong doing. Whether it is failing to submit a required report; tampering with the schedule without prior notice, or missing classes without filing for official leave, I come down heavy on the side of equity. But in this job, my being forthright and public (bringing matters to a wider audience rather than a one-on-one talk) is my Waterloo. My intentions of collective lesson learning (what do we as a community take away from this bad experience?) never gets picked up; instead I just earn personal animosity.
A friend gave me a useful piece of advice: to not gain enemies unnecessarily. Behavior modification can be attained by playing politics, not though carpet bombing. I must learn to overlay my social network map onto my decisions. Which colleagues are friendly, and who does not get along with whom? Who is most loyal to a former teacher? Only by harnessing these connections can I avoid the being labelled enemy number one.
Lesson 2: Indifference is the new normal.
I have gotten into two serious fights with colleagues about hiring and firing. To these fights I have brought to bear my expertise in legal argumentation, with the expectation that if colleagues READ my position, I’ll win them over to my side. Alas, I realize many would rather not join the fray or make their positions public.
I need not generate a yes-you-are-absolutely-right crowd. Given that policy decisions in my academic community are not time-sensitive (they need not be done right away), I should just pay careful attention not to scare the indifferent. There is no point in emulating Machiavelli’s Prince, who is better feared than loved.
Lesson 3: Colleagues are not automatons.
Being task-oriented and impatient, I realized that I see colleagues by way of a simple traffic light system of green, red and yellow for the three University tasks: teaching, research and extension, or institution building. Those with at least two “greens” I never worry about; those with at least one red or yellow, I pay attention to. To the last two, I give personal pep talks, advice about applying to graduate schools and research fellowships, insights in to packaging research proposals or preparing a manuscript. Instead of appreciation, a junior colleague bluntly stated that I see them as “my projects”; he said that I come across as disciplinarian, intent on molding them to be like me, but not really caring about their well-being beyond their respective careers.
From this I learned that I need to pay more attention and take time to recognize my colleagues’ personal quirks. I need to participate in more group lunches, out of school outings, encouraging them to bring their families to gatherings, and take more time out of my office to see and talk to them individually.
Lesson 4: Do not fix things if they aren’t broken.
I had a weird conversation with a colleague over the phone who pointed out another colleague’s lapses in student advising. There was a parallel episode of a colleague complaining about another who has not been helping in the preparations for the curriculum review of their cluster. To both, I offered to talk to the colleagues in question about how can they improve on their job. Surprisingly, the complainants emphatically said NO, I SHOULD NOT because I will make things worse rather than better.
Because personal relationships are a premium over working relationships, I should let minor incompetency slide. Aggravating as it may be, I should derive comfort in knowing that this incompetency will never amount to anything threatening to the collegial body.
Realizing that I am the least political and least social when it comes to my job as Division chair was never easy. But it’s never too late.
Rosalie Arcala Hall is a Professor at the University of the Philippines Visayas and a founding member of the editorial collective at University of Venus.