Updated: Oct 7
Professional story: I had been promoted in a previous role, and while meeting with my new direct manager, she asked what my plans were for a new course that I was to develop. When I told her my plans, she thanked me and followed up by sharing her own thoughts. We talked about a few other things and scheduled our next bi-weekly check-in. She ended the conversation by saying “do what you feel is best in designing the course; I trust you to make the best call, and I know you have put a lot of work into this.” A couple weeks later after I had developed the course she expressed concern and doubt about my leadership because I had not met her expectations. I had not designed it the way she wanted. I was shocked and confused because I had misunderstood our last conversation.
Although she framed her comments as supportive and trusting, she expected me to redesign my course with her blueprint. She had given me an order without expressly communicating that. And, because I was unaware of her leadership style, I found myself in the next four months’ of meetings with a manager who did not have confidence or trust in me. This situation strained our relationship, which made doing my job more stressful than it needed to be. And, when I talked to others at the organization about what I could have done better, they all agreed that there was a certain way our manager operated, and they were surprised that I did not know that. They highly respected her and adapted to her leadership style. I wish someone would have told me, but it was left to figure it out on my own. And, I was too late at that.
In any organization, there are seen and unseen messages, micro agreements that are shared and ways of being that form the every-day fabric of our interactions. One person’s leadership style does not set the tone alone. Culture manifests in the words we use, the emotions we unearth, and in the interactions we normalize, support, or acquiesce to. Every habitat has physical conditions that--- nurture some, have just enough for others to survive, and leave others to wither away. Organizations become the spaces we inhabit. We are in communities as social systems with complex power dynamics.
Academic application. When graduate students enter higher ed spaces with the intent to do great things, they may be left to map the terrain on their own. In these unfamiliar spaces, they have to figure out the sign posts, the language, the ways of negotiating status, and how to make sense of what is said and left unsaid. Even with an external facing robust structure, graduate students are not always provided the navigational capital needed to troubleshoot when inevitable problems arise. There are a myriad of reasons why supports may not exist, from gaps in implementation of well-being people, to staff turnover, to ineffective communication.
There is not one easy answer or one easy solution as each context is unique. However, advisors, program coordinators, professors, and leadership can be active and intentional about making their culture visible. And, if the culture is changing, under construction and developing, acknowledge that too. By failing to have critical conversations or acknowledge barriers to success, institutions are leaving a significant investment to navigate on its own. Being highly motivated and self-directed as a graduate student does not mean that by default, a person should be self-directed in navigating the maze of higher education..
For graduate students seeking to understand the cultural norms in their university, there is a different type of work to be done. There is need of strategy, cultivating situational awareness, and empathy.
The situational awareness component involves taking an inventory, and asking questions.
Who or Whom has a position and power in your department? And, what actions does that power manifest as? What does that person/those people say, do to reinforce their status?
Who does not have an official position, but others respect, value their opinion, and follow his/her/their lead? How does he/she/they align with the people in power or set space a part from them?
What does success look like with regarding skills, attitudes, treatment of others? How do you know? Who or what sets the bar for success? Can you set your own bar?
The strategy component involves taking some time to synthesis what you have found in your situational awareness, and ask follow up questions.