Understand To Be Understood

I was consulting for a research center within a well-known university in a major metropolitan area. The center's leadership team was having difficulties working collaboratively, but was showing signs of progress after completing their individual Birkman surveys and analyzing their reports with me in both a team and individual consultation. However, one of the administrators (Caren), a brilliant, innovative thinker, said that while she had a better understanding of the group dynamics at play, she still felt overwhelmed by her work load and under-appreciated by her colleagues.

We agreed that working individually together for a few sessions was a logical next step. In addition to feeling overwhelmed and under-appreciated, Caren identified a sense of being the "scapegoat" of the group, and how infuriated she was with her inability to assert herself.

I recommended that Caren begin taking notes when others infuriated her to try to identify what it was about their behavior that was bothering her so much. In processing her notes, we came up with two possibilities that deeply resonated. One, was her angry feelings at seeing others get away with the very behaviors that she policed herself about-acting selfish or being the center of attention.

Caren also noticed how carefully she weighed her words before speaking, which often resulted in her having to (uncomfortably) compete for air time during meetings. Caren was not raised in the United States and her colleagues' rapid-fire speaking style felt rude and aggressive when compared with the "wait your turn" culture in which she had been raised. Compounding Caren's frustration was her realization that she was a very impassioned speaker and had demonstrated it numerous times when given a specific role at meetings and during formal speaking engagements. However, when the situation was more informal, she found herself shutting down and becoming resentful.

Caren blamed her low profile within the university community as a direct result of the difficulties she was experiencing within her department. Upon further discussion, we were able to understand why an important book she had written on South American poverty issues (written during "off hours" as a way to raise her status in the publish-or-perish university world), had attracted little recognition from university officials and colleagues. We realized the obvious fact that since the book was written in Spanish, most of her colleagues had not read it and were unable to share any comments with her.

We further talked about how Caren's ability to write a book while working full time demonstrated an admirable work ethic, but it also reinforced her image of being overworked and underappreciated. We determined that Caren needed to become more strategic and find less heroic ways of being productive.

Subsequently, Caren wrote several articles (in English), based on her book for publication in the United States. The ongoing visibility of shorter pieces received much more attention from university officials and colleagues, strengthened her confidence, and helped Caren find her voice during departmental meetings. Finally, Caren was able to focus her upcoming sabbatical on meaningful pursuits aligned with her life goals. As a result, Caren returned from her three-month sabbatical feeling productive, re-energized, and optimistic about her future contributions to the university.