Wednesday, February 29, 2012

I seem to have gotten caught in an email sparring match against my will, and am trying to step back to determine how to proceed. If at all. I share this because I would appreciate your wisdom, insight and input.

You all know (I think) that I'm working as an interim in a position that is responsible for some highly visible events on a state university campus. One of those events, the keynote address for National Women's History Month, occurs in a few weeks. For the last six months I have busted my you-know-what to pull this thing together, and am very pleased that Marlee Matlin will be coming to campus to deliver that address. There is a committee responsible for the event, but in reality they exist in name only. When I first came on board I was told by the head of a co-sponsoring department that it's too hard to have committee meetings because everyone is too busy to meet, so we conduct all our business via email. 

Yes, I know, this is not a good thing, and it is this very deficit that set the stage for the current unpleasantness. As the new girl in town--and an interim, at that--I opted not to take on that "tradition." With hindsight I could have pressed the matter, citing my lack of institutional memory and knowledge of how things have been done. There is no documentation of process related to how this event comes together. There are copies of occasional emails, and signposts of certain traditions: a calendar that is published, a button that is produced, and standard timelines related to contracts, etc. Nothing else is in place to serve as guide and land mine detector. Had I done things differently I don't think it would have helped.

I have been in contact with the committee throughout the planning of Marlee's visit, soliciting input, seeking counsel on occasion, and keeping the group informed. Sometimes they respond. Mostly I soldier on and get the job done. It has been a mountain of work, and no one from the committee has helped. No one. The expectation is that this is "my" job.

Two days ago I met with some of the key players in planning. People like event coordination (procurer of tables, chairs, and plants, etc. for a reception and to dress the stage), catering, the facility manager, parking services, student ambassadors who will serve as ushers, and so on. After that meeting I sent an email to update the committee, and WHAM! Someone was unhappy because I had broken form with what has always been done. "I wish the committee had had at least one meeting to assist you in making these kinds of decisions." Oh, that carefully crafted sentence just reeks of practice skewering the unsuspecting colleague.

I did a slow burn for a couple of hours. Talked out my anger with Marlee's agent since the issue at hand has an impact on Marlee (nothing phases her agent--she's one of my heroes), and after I had settled down sufficiently I spent considerable time crafting my own carefully worded email response. I was so good. I didn't make it personal, get defensive, or suggest that perhaps my critic might want to walk a mile in my shoes before dumping on me. I took responsibility for my ignorance, addressed the concerns and proposed a solution to allay those concerns. I opened the possibility of reviewing how decisions get made. All without rolling over or yielding my firm belief that this will be a great event for our community. I hit "send" feeling confident that my reply was professional and would be received graciously.

Ha! This morning I got treated to another masterfully written blurb that wants to lay at my feet the failure of the committee to be more closely involved. It is at this point that I can't decide what step to take next. It is clear to me through the pattern of what has been written by my sparring partner that I am up against someone highly skilled in manipulating language and circumstances to keep herself above the fray (a fray of her own making, in my view). I don't operate this way. I make every effort to be honest without causing offense or injury, take responsibility for my actions, apologize when necessary, and eat crow if it comes to that. I am not mean. I don't play power games. I don't jockey for position. I play fair, and if anything, I am too accommodating. 

If there is a further response from me, it will be directed solely to the individual in question. To this point all emails have been "reply all" to include committee members. I feel, however, that another reply takes this down a road where things can only degenerate. So I ponder, reflect, take time to let it sink in and get flushed out. It eats at me a bit, though, which is no doubt obvious by the fact that I've written about it!

But enough for now. If you'd like to share your thoughts I'd be interested in how this appears to others. Have your say. And have a great day. 


Mary Beth said...

Ah, dear friend. Sigh.

As you know I've spent my whole career in university administration and I absolutely recognize the behavior. And your being an interim is the icing on that cake.

Do you have a supervisor or other mentor (maybe someone who knows all the players and has been there a long time) that you can ask for guidance? Often folks like that can give you the best advice, even informally.

Other than that, I'd suggest that in the meantime you go ahead as you have been (unless someone steps in to help, which would be ever so refreshing!) and get a meeting scheduled now for shortly after the event, but definitely after the evaluations have come in. Call it a debrief. You want to go over what went well, what didn't, what to do differently in the future.

And one of your agenda items can be: "I understand there was a desire to have the committee run differently this year; please tell me how it should be planned for next year."

Jan said...

What a mess! I'm glad it's not me. good luck. My thoughts and prayers are with you. BTW, I really like your image of thinking and speaking!

Jan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
The Bug said...

I'm kind of a hothead - & I HATE for people to accuse me of things that aren't my fault. It's hard for me to let go of those things. So I'm not really the right person to give advice. I like what Mary Beth suggested - especially the debriefing. Won't it be "funny" if no one attends that meeting? Ha!

Teri said...

OMG, I am here too. Only in a congregation. And the event was 2.5 months ago and only now is someone from the committee saying "I'm angry at you for this." Never mind that "this" is unarticulated and not about her (or me) at all, but....yeah.

All that to say, I feel your pain.

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