Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary!

Question:

I am a part-time tutor in a local college but was a full-time interim manager of our writing center for 2 months while my manager (I’ll call her Mary) was recovering from cancer. I was told that I was a creative and highly competent interim (student traffic has doubled since the prior semester, I think because of new staff I had to hire) by the Dean of our department; having accomplished many needed projects during my short tenure. It has been a month since Mary has been back and I have resumed my part-time status.

Recently and without prior discussion about the issue, a fellow tutor and I were forwarded a very disturbing email apologizing for a conversation I had with a college administrator where I was accused of being rude and arrogant. This email had a very punitive tone and was forwarded to the Dean. It was later revealed that the complainant meant for her words to be held in confidence. I sent a response defending myself and asking Mary to please discuss any future complaints with me first before making assumptions. I rec’d two more punitive emails that were similarly emailed to the Dean. Realizing that my colleague and I are perceived as clear threats to Mary, we think this hostility will only escalate and destroy our chances of becoming faculty at the college.

We feel demoralized, disrespected and–both of us are middle-aged professionals with master’s degrees and are not accustomed to being treated this way. Please note that although Mary is supposed to be in the Writing Center (WC) where I work helping students, she is rarely there and spends most of her time attending non-WC-related meetings and hobnobbing with senior faculty and administrators. Although my fellow tutor has been at the WC 3 months, she has exchanged perhaps two words with Mary and had to introduce herself (Mary was someone I hired at the recommendation of the Dean.) Note that there has always been a consistent over-reliance on email and cell-phone communication as Mary’s management style.

Do you think my colleague and I are justified in resigning? I just got an assignment teaching a class at the college and have been assured by the Dean that this matter in no way impugns her opinion of me; it does bother that that such a poor manager who is absentee, abusive, and doesn’t defend her own staff is allowed to continue.

Signed,

Resigned???


Answer:

Dear Resigned???:

Should you resign? Why? Because Mary has criticized you? You responded rightly asking Manager Mary to speak to you first before sending a criticism up. MM, you say, responded to your e-mail defending yourself with two more punitive e-mails. Now you ask: Do you think my colleague and I are justified in resigning?

I think there is not a sufficient reason for you to resign. Rather, why not confront MM again? Tell her you are disappointed and displeased about her follow-up e-mail. Ask her to spell out how you might make the Writing Center even more effective. Say you know that pleasing those who come to the center is important to you and that you also want to have a good working relationship with her. Honey attracts more flies that vinegar. This does not mean that you must eat crow, How’s that for mixing metaphors?

I’m sure you regret and have reflected why you were seen as rude and have done what you could to be humble about that rather than defensive. Looking in the mirror to see how others perceive us, perhaps mistakenly, is not easy, but it is one of the things that is wise to do. Those who work with others are smart to invite criticism and seek out how they are perceived. Delighting customers, both internal and external, hinges on making criticism welcome.

You say that e-mails are much used in your work setting. E-mails are impersonal. They do not make communication the two-way-send-respond-respond process that it needs to be, especially when there is criticism. Face to face allows for that give and take and retake process; one that calls forth resilience and resolution. You were wise to request that Mary speak to you before sending a criticism up.

This incident that has exposed MM’s sour side can be viewed as an opportunity to collaboratively create a constructive working relationship. First, prepare for a time-out session with Mary by listing the dos and don’ts of how you want her to communicate with you and also what are the dos and don’ts for making the Writing Center even more of a success. Put them in writing. Then during a face-to-face meeting, ask if these do and don’t rules are reasonable, and if not, how she would modify or add to them. Such an exercise makes explicit expectations for each other. Before you two end your meeting, schedule a time to review what you have agreed to and also a regular time to talk about what has been going well and what might be improved.

Should your co-worker be included in this encounter with MM, include her and also the Dean. It was MM who brought the Dean into this by sending her/him e-mails critical of you, so it is appropriate for him/her to be part of such an encounter. Also since you have spoken to the Dean about the difficulties you have with MM, you might wisely approach him with this proposed encounter and ask her/his leadership in such a meeting.

I don’t mean for you to become obsessed with this. Apparently you have worried about it enough to send your concerns to Ask the Workplace Doctors and to think about resigning, so, I think, you will be consumed by it until you find a resolution that may not be perfect, but is good enough to live with. Other than the communication needed to arrange such a meeting, my advice is not to gossip about MM with others.

I hope this these thoughts will provide a framework for your thinking about what’s next. I have worked in colleges and universities for most of my life. I know that conflicts are to be expected and are best resolved not by harboring resentment, but be good-spirited, candid confrontation; even agreeing not to agree. Unfortunately, those who hold superior positions too often are not supportive. They do not see themselves as benevolent coaches, who engage those in their charge in skull sessions to praise what went well and talk about how they might be a more effective team.

Let me add that I have observed more than one faculty, who was blamed for doing wrong, outlive such accusations, and even rise to a respected position. So keep your head up. Do what you do with grace and goodwill. Do all you can to bridge troubled waters in a spirit of WEGO. You may have noticed that some of the Q&As posted on our site end with these words: Working together with hands, head, and heart takes and makes big WEGOS. Do let me know if these thoughts make sense and/or spur you to other answers to your query.

William Gorden