If you haven’t seen Kerry Ann Rockquemore’s column this week, check it out. It’s about email as a venue for escalating conflict. I’d add a friendly amendment and say that any quick electronic form of writing can do the same thing -- facebook, twitter, whatever. Poorly thought through messages can take on lives of their own, and quickly escape their intended or original contexts.
Rockquemore addressed the issue from the perspective of junior faculty, because that was who asked the question. I’ll add an administrator’s perspective.
The low cost of electronic communication often leads to an oversupply. That shows up in “reply all” emails, or diatribes with twenty unnecessary recipients on the “cc” line. When you’re on the receiving end of one of those, it feels like a declaration of war. The temptation to hit back can be powerful. Most of the time, though, the first task at hand is de-escalation.
Typically, that involves at least three steps. First, take several deep breaths, and try -- really try -- to suss out the kernel of truth in the cascade of nonsense. I’ve seen wild misinterpretations and extrapolations, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen something entirely fabricated. There’s usually some nugget of truth in there somewhere, even if it’s highly embellished. The reason to bother with this step is that if you don’t, the third step won’t work.
Second, step away from the keyboard. If you must resort to it, respond only with “let’s discuss in person.”
The third step is meeting with the person face-to-face, and usually one-on-one. Get away from an audience, and you reduce the temptation to grandstand. It’s easy to demonize from a distance; face to face, it’s hard not to notice the humanity of the person in front of you. If you’ve been demonized, face time matters.
If you don’t do step one, step three won’t work; you’ll go in on the assumption that the person needs to be diagnosed, rather than confronted. Admittedly, there are times when that’s true, but that should be a when-all-else-fails conclusion, rather than an opening bid. Too quick a move to that can prevent getting to the real issue, even if only by coming across in your body language.
In my early days of deaning, I sometimes feared being accused of stonewalling, so I answered those diatribes point by point. That only led to more, usually involving a tendentious parsing of language. It took a while -- and some trial and error -- to realize that it’s about playing the long game. Fly off the handle at the daily provocation, and they’ll never stop. Some people actually enjoy drama, and go out of their way to generate it; once they’ve identified you as an easy mark, you’re in trouble. Over time, it’s really not about a few chronic complainers with theatrical tendencies; it’s about the vast majority in the middle. Stay professional and appropriate, and over time, the contrast with the hotheads will become clear. The majority may not stand up to the hotheads, but it won’t stand behind them, either.
The vast majority consists of people who want to be able to do their jobs without unnecessary drama. They usually know who the complainers are. They’ll watch you to see if you’re a hothead in a suit, or if you’re able to see the big picture and maintain poise. Part of leadership involves setting a tone.
All of this assumes, of course, that the basic issues are somehow addressable. Sometimes they aren’t. The Great Recession wasn’t the doing of any one college, but its ripple effects forced many administrators to make decisions they would rather not have had to make. Attacking the administrators for doing what had to be done misses the point. When decisions happen in a context of force majeure, they’re barely decisions at all. At that point, attacks on local administrators amount to shooting the messenger.
Rockquemore is right that switching the medium frequently improves the message. My hard-learned lesson was that the same holds true for the response.