Higher education thrives on debate. Faculty and staff have diverse expertise, and the resulting conflicts force campus representatives to reevaluate their positions and develop broader frameworks for their actions. In the end, different understandings yield stronger operations and more effective services. Ultimately, interpretive differences strengthen an institution.
University employees who assert opposition, however, run the risk of not only making enemies, but also sabotaging their career opportunities. Far too often, I encounter faculty and staff who have irked enough colleagues that their careers hit walls. These employees routinely offer their services, but no one takes them up on their offers. They apply for administrative positions, but they go nowhere.
Faculty and staff have to manage how their colleagues perceive them. But perception management does not mean avoiding conflict. The university system depends too much on conflict for its employees to avoid it. Instead, perception management means offering a different perspective without others feeling attacked.
How do you do that?
1) Provide sufficient opportunities for others to speak. Many refuse to interrupt when they can’t find significant pauses or other conversational cues. They need opportunities to enter the conversation gracefully. Also, people process information differently. Whereas some process verbally — that is, by discussing — and jump quickly into conversations, others mull-over new information or translate it into a more familiar framework before responding. They need more time. A simple solution would be to ask periodically for others’ thoughts or questions and to sit back quietly until they finish responding.
2) Acknowledge what others say. Simply rephrasing others’ statements before developing or changing a topic can improve the social dynamic. So too can validating others by openly appreciating their ideas.
3) Help develop ideas before arguing against them. Arguing about minutiae kills ideas before they develop, and nobody likes a serial idea killer. Instead of starting with why not, first explore how to.
4) Smile and laugh. Smiles and laughter are contagious and feel good. If you want to promote positive feelings about you, then you have to promote positive feelings while people are around you, especially during disagreements.
5) Focus on people’s strengths. In higher education, we work with the same colleagues for decades. In an environment where so many people can’t get fired, finding fault with others gets old fast. Search for positive characteristics in every single one of them, or risk a lifetime of a hostile work environment.
Many of us have advanced degrees in fierce autonomy and contentiousness. Professionally, we identify flaws and propose alternatives. Those are our strengths. Those are our institutions’ strengths. Ironically, the very characteristics that strengthen the institution can weaken its sense of community. Our professional strengths can cripple our careers.
These five simple tactics can help us manage our colleagues’ perceptions of us. They allow us to provide alternative perspectives without others feeling attacked. They synchronize both professional and institutional success.