or Why I Still Remember a One on One from 2 Decades Ago
What do you do when office politics become personal? How do you make the choice to stay or leave? Read more about how I had to navigate interpersonal politics with a supervisor and my personal decisions on how to snap-back.
I recently asked my readers to help me pick a topic to explore in a blog post and was not surprised by the choice to explore office politics. To be completely honest, this topic has scared me to explore because I have approached my blogs from a personal perspective on my jobs and what has impacted the development of my values. I have been waiting to write about this topic because I knew it was going to stress me out and make me worry about the politics of relationships in offices I haven’t worked in for years, decades even!
However, I have committed myself to explore professional development topics from a place of vulnerability, really looking at the choices that reinforced my personal values or helped me re-learn a new way to express my values. These behaviors have been challenging to share, but all of the behaviors have been my own. And in this topic, I am now including former co-workers who helped shaped the office and its political landscape. In order to maintain some professional respect for these co-workers, I will refrain from talking about the institution but will use the preferred pronouns they expressed at the time to help me avoid talking in obtuse terms. I can only promise to tell the situations as I remembered them and as how I processed the learning, and I respectfully offer to change any details I may have forgotten.
I have also decided to offer this topic as a series, and will explore creating and challenging an interpersonal relationship and its affect on the office culture as the final entry. So here we go:
I wanted to preface the story with some context about this institution. Originally I was hired to work in a multicultural affairs office that was only a few years old. The second professional staff member hired into the department, I was proud to further the mission of the office. I had a friend who worked at the institution who was able to offer me tips on how to navigate the division and I was thrilled to be following my passion working with ethnic minority and other under-represented college students. I was ready to follow my passion!
Or at least I was excited until my hiring manager, a couple of weeks into my new role, returned from a one-on-one with the SSAO (senior student affairs officer) and shared some information that would impact my relationship with the leadership within the division for the length of my time there. She shared what the SSAO felt about my skills and abilities and ended the conversation with “I wish that Joseph identified more with his Latino identity than his gay identity.”
To say I was shocked would only capture half the reaction. Mostly I felt targeted and ‘othered’ – that nothing I would do would mask what made me stand out on terms I didn’t agree to nor felt represented my best work. That the SSAO had an opinion about my identities, after only working there for a couple of weeks, felt like pressure to perform to prove him wrong but not knowing what he was using as his criteria.
I believe now that the interpersonal relationships I would need to work with there would never be on my side and I was entirely set up to fail. I see now that the groundwork for the story presented below and perhaps a newly learned lesson.
This feeling would pop up time and again. Below I’ll share a significant instance but will return to this workplace again when appropriate.
“Maybe you should consider a new career…”
Have you ever been told that you aren’t good at a career choice you find as your passion? No? I have. Believe me, it isn’t something you forget. Even nearly two decades later I have very vivid memories of being told to look for a new passion.
This is probably one of the hardest entries I have written, because it is so personal and after reflection, the experience has shaped my career since working in this office so many years ago.
By the time I worked with this supervisor in this office, I had worked in student affairs for about five years and had worked for about 5 different supervisors, 4 alone for this position. I had even held an interim director role for a year at this institution and had held my office culture together despite being absorbed into a new office structure.
My responsibilities included running campus-wide programming and had developed a sense of respect among students, many of whom were disillusioned with the culture surrounding social justice in the post 9/11 years. I was hungry for new and different opportunities and thought I would find myself an advanced position within this office, as it built new leadership roles in the new office structure. I believed my previous leadership experiences were valued and I would be able to build a legacy of work at this institution.
And I was sorely wrong. So much so that the year of supervision with the last supervisor still rears its head nearly 16 years later.
Supervision Skills Matter
I have written about the office in the first of the series and how disconnected our staff team was and how manipulating the office culture was that helped shape our individual experiences. To this day, I am wary of developing new relationships with new coworkers because of the manipulating behavior I experienced and the reality that I can easily re-create it since I know its power to exert control of the office culture. But at the time I still operated as if my personal decisions were the ones impacting my supervision.
Some of my memories have been dulled with time, like the names of our programs or the amazing students I supervised. But nearly all of my weekly one-on-one sessions with my supervisor still stick in my mind because I dreaded each and every one. I was so scared of failing and being fired that I didn’t know how to succeed anymore; my only emotion was survival and it was hard to focus on the bigger picture when all of my supervision was focused on how poorly I was doing. I would hear about failed collaborations that didn’t lead anywhere, disappointing student attendance at programs, poor advising or supervising; the list would go on and on.
..But What Was I Supposed to Learn?
But I don’t remember anything focused on skill building. I don’t remember her talking to me on how to lead with my strengths but only by improving my deficits and becoming this fabled ‘well-rounded leader’ that she compared me to. Even though I had led my own department for over a year and sat on the directors council within the division, I was treated as though my skills were flat and unmoveable. The dread still sits in my chest about my one-on-ones and it’s funny how this same dread would show up with each successive supervisor regardless of my relationship with them.
While I was working hard to develop better interpersonal relationships with my coworkers, I had the feeling that some of our personal conversations were creeping into the one-on-ones, which only made me feel distrustful of the coworkers I was so desperately trying to get closer to. I was surprised when these experiences would turn up in an end-of-the-year evaluation, as if hearing about my coworker relationships in the summer would somehow impact my then-relationship with them months prior. I was torn between being close and collaborative with my coworkers and trying to accomplish our departmental and divisional goals alone. It was truly a maddening experience trying to manage these competing emotions.
I remember clearly the meeting where my supervisor tried to counsel me out of higher education administration and student affairs. She was giving me a formal notice that my contract for the following year would not be renewed and that the next academic year would be my last one in that role. I wasn’t shocked by the news of being told I wouldn’t continue in this role, but I was completely in shock when she shared her impressions of me and my value to the field of student affairs.
She didn’t believe I had demonstrated anything that made it look like I had a future in this field and suggested that I look into other careers outside of student affairs in which I would be more successful. While offering no specific options to stay in the office or within the division, she believed that my work in the field was over and probably should be something else. To be honest, I was in so much shock, I don’t know what else was discussed other than knowing my job would be over in a quick year and she could wash her hands of my work. I was in shock for about five months after this meeting.
All I felt was shame. And all I still feel is shame.
I had sacrificed personal and family relationships to graduate with a masters degree in less than a year, I had moved to a city where I didn’t have any family at the time, and I was in no financial situation to not work while I figured out some other option outside of the field I had invested so much time and energy.
I had put all of my eggs into this basket and was being told that I wasn’t good enough. And once you hear it, you can’t un-hear it. You can work to change your personal perception but you can’t un-hear how someone feels about your professional work.
I don’t think I told anyone for months about the situation, because I felt so ashamed that I knew my last day of work and it was because I couldn’t cut it. Embarrassed that my peers were getting praised for their incredible work and I was playing the waiting game to get out so the department could demonstrate excellence with someone else. I was angry, but it didn’t go anywhere because I wasn’t sure who I was angry at: myself for putting myself in this impossible situation or my supervisor for not providing the feedback I needed to be successful.
Getting Stuck in a Shame Spiral
It’s funny how this meeting and all my other one-on-ones will sometimes pop up in my life so many year later. I remember telling a supervisor I had recently in the past five years that I needed some personal time to process a meeting after being told in a year-end evaluation some information I personally disagreed with and the evidence presented was unhelpful.
All I could think about were my meetings and how I was never going to be good enough to improve no matter how much feedback I was receiving, and that made me feel unteachable. And then I felt shame for not improving on something I had been told about so many years ago, which made me think I was not very good with receiving or processing feedback. I felt shame for feeling bad and wanting to retreat into myself, which made me feel selfish. And shame for letting this early supervisor still get under my skin and into my head, which made me feel like I would never move on from these interactions.
Even now, with my on-going job search, I wonder if she was right and this field just isn’t for me. I know the case isn’t directly related to her impressions about me almost two decades ago but once in a while, I’ll think that maybe I should have re-careered earlier like it was suggested to me 16 years ago. And that feeling just sits there.
Eleanor Roosevelt Saves the Day
r these feelings and how acutely they impacted my professional sense of self. Though they have impacted me recently, as described above, the acuteness of the impact is less and less each day. I want to describe the ways I was able to clarify my values around my sense of self and how it shows up in my professional supervision. As Eleanor Roosevelt has been attributed as saying, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” And to be quite clear, I was done giving that implicit consent.
Below are four of the lessons I learned from being poorly supervised. These lessons have served me well with all of my supervisors, and I am still learning how to put them into action in every new work environment. I won’t say I took lemons and made lemonade, but I learned to stop accepting lemons altogether.
What I Learned: Focus on skills, not opinions
I wish I could remember the catalyst for this, but I remember that I decided it was time to look to the future and put my energy into developing skills for the next job. The freedom to improve my skills for some other position was, frankly, very liberating and likely I was going to be recognized and utilized in ways this office would not see or notice.
I was no longer afraid of the negative feedback because nothing would hurt me more than being told I wasn’t good enough to do the job – so why not do the job the best it was possible and then some? Since I knew I wouldn’t receive the positive feedback or a new contract, I had absolutely nothing to lose. But it did make me realize something that had eluded me previously: Focus on Skills Not Opinions.
Because I had been supervised from a deficit mindset by this supervisor, I never really received positive feedback on what was working and what I needed to improve the learning environment. I began to challenge the negative feedback I was receiving by asking, “do you have any data that [whatever negative thing] is negatively impacting the learning environment that students are in when working with me on [random program or project]?” When nothing was offered to provide support for these opinions, I would say “Ok, if that’s your opinion I’ll take that into consideration but I certainly welcome data that supports this if it is distracting from the learning environment.”
I wasn’t so arrogant as to believe that my skills were immutable, but I learned in that year that I didn’t have to believe every negative opinion about my work if it was just an opinion. And by challenging the opinions made me feel like I was in control of my professional work, rather than just listening to opinions about it. I wanted to improve but only when there was data to suggest it. And I found that little data could be pointed to other than something like ‘this is what I’m hearing’ and then asking how it was collected among other feedback. I was no longer interested in only hearing negative feedback if only negative feedback was asked for.
What I Learned: I needed to develop a supervisor/ supervisee philosophy
One of the biggest takeaway from this experience was any need to be very forthcoming and specific with supervisors about what I needed from a supervisor. Data would be needed to suggest changes to my personality or ways of working, and that operating from opinion-only leadership wasn’t going to change my behavior.
I needed a supervisor who supported skill-based learning and gave specific feedback on how to improve my work, like specific conferences or working through ACPA annual conference sessions together to develop a development model. Positive feedback as constructive feedback was necessary in order for me to grow and learn as a professional. I needed someone who would listen to me when I was skeptical and was patient when I tried to work through the issue with whatever evidence I had.
And I have promised myself that I would be the supervisor I didn’t have in my formative years. I would coach to success, give specific skill-based feedback, listen more than talk (when possible), give room for choices in approaches, speak to the importance of values in our work, ask more questions before assuming an issue was going to be unsolved and encourage a feeling that they have a future in our field.
What I Learned: Pay attention to the early warning signs when you notice them
The experience with the SSAO happened years before the experiences with this supervisor but I believe that now they are entirely connected. The ways I was being scrutinized had little to do with my actual work but were based on how I was being perceived while doing this work. If the culture of the organization allowed a senior leader to inappropriately scrutinize my identity, I shouldn’t have been surprised my work would be scrutinized the wrong way, too.
This lesson has been re-learned over and over, I haven’t quite gotten the timing right, but I am now much more attuned to the signs that how I am being evaluated doesn’t match the outcomes I am witnessing and what my students are sharing. I don’t recommend any particular outcome, since all of that is dependent on so many factors. But I know now that the psychic damage to my confidence isn’t worth any paycheck, since the damage can last for years and years.
What I Learned: I still need to be vulnerable
It was challenging to look past the inevitable outcome that my position was going to end and I wouldn’t be able to continue the good work I had created. But in order to meet the challenge, I would need to be vulnerable and ask for feedback from others and cobble together my professional development plan from my own goals. I had never approved my work before, but knew I would need to trust my instincts more than I had before. Being vulnerable and taking a leap of faith in my own future knowing that I would land in the next, better for me job was worth the risk.
I also had to embrace the vulnerable feeling of knowing my time had an expiration date and still show up at 100% effort and energy for my students. While I was not happy to leave for the sake of the students, I still had to show up daily to provide the best educational experience for the students. It was humbling but necessary to continue to center myself in the support and experience of the students. I have since learned that our moving on can be less damaging to the students than we expect, and that practicing self-care during the last few weeks allows for a better transition. But in that moment in that position I needed to okay with answering questions truthfully, being honest about what worked and didn’t work in my previous position and set up the students for success without my direct input.
And I have always said that the students are going to be alright. Their resiliency is underrated and I am proud of the people they became through their work with other amazing student affairs colleagues who have followed me.
I have a footnote after sitting on this story for more than a couple of weeks. I was trying to think about how I should end it – should I share what I thought about this person? How I didn’t listen to any constructive feedback about the search I was forced to do and did almost entirely the opposite of the advice offered? How I haven’t spoken her name in nearly 15 years and only refer to her as ‘she who must not be named?’ Honestly, all of this felt so petty and separate from my story.
I decided that the thing I needed to end with is what values I took away from the entire experience after time and distance.
What I Learned: I am not a co-star in my own life
My confidence in myself needs to be grounded in my values and that I am not a co-star in my own life. Up until this final office environment, I had worked at the mercy of supervisors who had their own agenda and I wasn’t focused on what I wanted or needed to advance. I relied on their guidance and believed that my career was solely in their hands.
Being told I wasn’t going to continue in that job was a mixed blessing. I missed the students terribly but left feeling relief that I would finally leave to work in an office where I would look at my own development and expression of values with my own filters (even if the experience was fraught with my own poor decision making). Instead of a co-star in someone else’s drama, I would be the star of my own professional life.
Often I have been asked where my sense of confidence comes from and it is because after being told I wasn’t good enough, and believing it, I have the daily opportunity to prove my own worth to myself. I no longer seek external approval of my skills – I only seek feedback on doing better by the students impacted. Even this jump into writing about and training others about student affairs management is an effort to show myself that I can do it more than proving it to others.
Everything else is just an opinion, now. While I sometimes stumble in my confidence, and would take years for me to be completely at-ease with what I knew about students and my role in their education, it continues to be grounded in the belief that I know what I know and no one can change that based on their opinion of me anymore.
- Mindtools: 7 Ways to Use Office Politics Positively
- Forbes: 4 Steps to Mastering Office Politics
- Harvard Business Review: Playing Office Politics Without Selling Your Soul
- The Muse: Why Avoiding Office Politics Could Hurt You More Than You Know
- LinkedIn: 16 Reasons Why People Don’t Share Their Knowledge – and what to do about it
- New York Times: Why You Should Tell Your Co-Workers How Much Money You Make
- Harvard Business Review: Power and Politics in Organizational Life
- Anonymous Employee: Poor Supervision Harms the Workplace
- Professional Development Training: Good Supervision Versus Poor Supervision