I have recently began reviewing my notes from some of my former graduate courses and I came across a casually typed statement that inspired me. In my notes I wrote “we are an organization of people and that is political.” For context the “we” is referring to colleges and universities and their composite parts. I know why this statement struck me then and still does now. When talking to colleagues or graduate assistants I often hear them bemoan the fact that there are often political systems that exist in their work environments. “I hate drama! Why can’t we just do our jobs and help students?” is one phrase that I have heard on more than one occasion. The struggle of power and influence exists in every aspect of our lives. Although most will espouse a distaste for engaging in “politics” persons will always work to ensure what they perceive to be a desirable outcome. It bears repeating that we are political because we are an organization of people.
I hope that does not terrify you. As a student of political science, I am energized by the prospect of watching power and influence in action. I view being able to competently engage in this as pivotal to my profession. In this and future blog posts on this topic I hope to offer even a small amount of usable advice to help you avoid or respond to the situations that I have found myself in throughout my career.
Control the narrative
One of the keys to ensuring that you have an upper hand in disputes in the workplace is to ensure that you control the narrative. I am not referring to having reporters on your payroll, but if you can do that . . . it may be worth it. What I am referring to is ensuring that you limit the situations in which your supervisor or someone above the chair receives information (or a complaint) that takes them by surprise. Worse yet is when that person asks you to respond and you have no information on the situation because you didn’t document it with as much detail as the other party. these situations occur in my professional life and the one thing that I have taken away is that I HATE being surprised by these things. Over time I have developed a series of protective behaviors which include:
- Verbally request what it said in writing at the time it is said
- If that request is not granted within 48 hours – request it via writing
- Write up a small summary of the interaction for your own notes
- Send an email summary of the conversation to the person you had the conversation with.
- Send your supervisor an update including the information that was agreed on as a rudimentary update
- You can CC the individual you had a conversation for extra security
How many of you are wondering if this is really necessary? I bet that some of you may haven even thought “Wow, this is petty.’” I challenge your disbelief and your dismissal of these actions because these guidelines are responses to actual incidents in my professional life. I have been involved in disputes with students, parents, supervisees, Deans of Students, and other professionals who have years of experience on me. I have lost out on hundreds of dollars because I didn’t have written documentation of an agreement between myself and an employer. I will not let this happen again.
Please note that these guidelines do not immediately absolve a professional from all their disputes against other political actors. For instance, I have had supervisors confront me asking about a situation that was reported to them (usually by their own supervisor). It is a relief to indicate that they received a status update via email on xx-xx-xxxx date. I prefer this to panicking and attempting to remember that you stopped by their office two weeks ago sometime after lunch while wearing purple and any other clues to help jog their memory as well as your own.
That’s all folks… for now!
After some thought (and due to time crunches) I think I am going to start this as a series of posts with chunks of information rather than a large one with all the information. I will probably collect some better examples if I write sporadically as well! Thanks for stopping by and reading about controlling the narrative. Check back sometime in the future for more sensible solutions to politics in the workplace!