Periodically, students approach me for my opinion on who should be their academic advisor, or who to invite to their dissertation committee, or whose project to join as a research assistant. I feel that I have an obligation to advise them candidly and fairly, because their academic futures may depend on these choices. Similarly, I would like to know the risks, as well as the benefits, of getting involved with different graduate students, faculty members or non-academic collaborators. I’m lucky enough to have my choice of neat projects, so I have to be careful about allocating my time.
At the same time, I’m both personally and professionally cautious about saying anything negative about my colleagues. Professionally speaking, I don’t want to be the jerk who talks about other people behind their backs. Personally speaking, I want exactly the same thing! This is not just because of possible consequences, but because it’s not the kind of human being I aspire to be.
Balancing these competing obligations is a toughie. How can I be realistic about people’s flaws without being nasty? I’ve seen this issue come up a number of times in the past few weeks, both for me and for others, so I figured I’d try to set out my ideas with some clarity. If nothing else, reflecting on the choices I make will help me do better the next time I have to walk this line.
Here are my principles:
First, I try to speak from a place of empathy. No one* wants to be the bad guy, but no one is perfect, either. I try to speak about the flaws of other people with as much compassion and understanding as I’d want them to use when speaking of me. For example, I hate when people mention my flaws with the expectation I will change them immediately. (Believe me, if I could, I would.) Because I hate it so much, I try not to come across that way when talking to or about someone else.
Second, I emphasize how flaws are often the flip side of people’s best qualities. This lets me put any discussion of negative qualities in context of the person’s larger self. For example, I am strong-willed and determined – exactly the kind of person you want on your side if you really need to get something done. However, this also means that I can be incredibly stubborn. The same things that make me awesome are the ones that make me difficult, while my mediocre qualities rarely get me in trouble!
Third, I keep it focused on the situation at hand. If someone asks me about, say, an academic advising situation, I will make sure that they know that any issues I raise are specifically relevant to academic advising, not fixed qualities of the person being discussed. I also emphasize that what is a flaw in one relationship can be a bonus in another. For example, some students want a lot of freedom to pursue their own academic projects. Others want lots of structure. An advisor that makes the first student happy will make the second miserable, and vice versa. Flaws are always contextual!
Finally, I keep it practical. I try to end the conversation with questions for further reflection or suggestions for action, rather than encouraging people to make character judgments. For example, I recently advised a friend about working with a particular individual. I told her this person’s strength was collaboration, but their weakness was that they were easily distracted when asked to work independently. We spent a few minutes brainstorming strategies for handling a distracted colleague, and my friend decided that implementing them was a worthwhile investment of her time and energy. Because she was able to make this choice consciously, I think their long-term working relationship will be a good one.
This approach is heavily based on the “treat others as you’d like to be treated” notion of moral behavior. I’m not perfect, and I don’t want my personal and professional relationships to be based on some unachievable ideal! I would much rather people knew what they were getting from me. That way they can choose projects that play to my strengths, or help build systems to support me where I’m weak, or decide that they’d rather not work with me before we have a meltdown. This is how I would like to be treated, so I make it my business to treat others that way (and, not-so-coincidentally, to model it as an appropriate set of behaviors for others to learn from).
It’s also, of course, based on research. I’ve been involved in a research group about creativity for the last … gosh, has it really been four years? One of the things we kept returning to is that excellence comes from playing to your strengths, then matching those strengths to the problems you choose and the ideas you grapple with. I want to spend my time nurturing my strengths and working in situations that reward them. In fact, I’d like to build a life for myself where even my flaws are strengths. You can’t do any of those things if you aren’t willing to acknowledge your flaws and work with (or around!) them.
I also came across this very interesting paper, which suggests that how positively we see other people may be a personality trait. I tend to believe that traits like these are relatively malleable, particularly given extended practice. My repeated practice with the techniques of empathy, flipping, focus and practicality might be part of what helps me see the best in others, even when I’m not consciously using them.
I think the thing I need to work on most is my third principle, being focused on the situation. I still tend to speak about people’s qualities as if those qualities were fixed, when in truth people function very differently in different social contexts or in different groups of people. But practice makes perfect, right?
* Okay, maybe Sauron.