During a recent WSU football game, I was tweeting my support for the team. I realized my small group of followers were likely already at the game, or otherwise busy. I thought “hmmm…maybe some of the rest of the university members would just tweet to THEIR followers to get some buzz going.” That ws my good intention. So, I sent an email message to the allemployee list. Uh oh. Slip of the finger also sent the message to the entire university including students, but I had not noticed.
Here’s where this gets interesting.
I started getting very puzzling and puzzled responses. Things like “who is this?” and “why should I follow YOU?” Well, that was not what I was asking, but a rereading of my email made me see how the message could be misconstrued. It did kind of sound as though I was seeking followers. Ooops. No so,I just wanted more buzz for WSU. While I would welcome more followers, that would not be the way to ask!
So, I clarified with each responder that I hoped they would get their friends to cheer on the team using Twitter if that would work. Then I asked a couple of the more angry responders whether they were employees or students, since some of the responses had to do with being disturbed while studying. The reply: STUDENTS.
Before I could decide if an apology email to all students would be of help or make matters worse by adding yet another email to their day, I received a half-dozen emails, very angry, telling me that I was abusing my power, that I was “demanding” some action from them, that I sounded like a high-schooler. You get the idea. So, after getting a few (thankfully) more calmly worded messages asking what this was about, I sent an apology and short explanation to the whole group again about my mistakenly hitting the wrong email listserv.
Suddenly, the tone changed. Wihtin minutes some students sent hilarious stories of their own slip on an email, some told me no problem, some assured me it was OK. A couple of people also sent emails saying they felt badly that they had reacted so negatively at first and now understood. The funny thing for me: I now had hundreds of very reassuring emails in response to my apology, thus making my email box a bit large, but certainly a lot more positive. Hey, I can deal with 7000 happy messages any time!
So, what can we learn from this? Well, obviously I know I will be very careful with email addresses in future.
But what else? Why did people first go to a negative place, making an assumption that there was some bad reason behind the initial email message? How does a message asking for support for a football team morph into a demand or an abuse of power? What stories do we tend to tell ourselves when we make meaning beyond the facts? Why does that happen?
WSU has worked with a wonderful person who has helped us with making our workplace more civil and welcoming (see http://thera-rising.com/ ) using various techniques and providing every day examples. One of the scenarios used in the workshop asks us to imagine a lady driving in a car ahead of us. Suddenly, she stops and jumps out of her car. She flings open the rear door and begins to do something in the back seat. You cannot get around her, and you are late to a meeting or class. What do you think? What do you do?
Most of us think very nasty thoughts about her and her rude behavior (I won’t detail the possible language used, out loud or in the mind). Some of us would probably beep or otherwise signal how upset we are. What could she possibly have to do in the back seat in the middle of the street? How dare she waste my time with some dumb fumbling?
Well…what if in fact there is a baby back there and suddenly the mother found the car seat had come loose? Should she keep driving to make you happy or should she stop and attend to what could be a serious threat to the baby? If you knew there was a baby back there, would you be so angry? Probably not. In fact, you might even go and help! The facts: she stopped in the middle of the road to frantically do something in the back seat. Our story (not facts): she is rude, she does not care about my agenda, she is a fool (or worse), or she just wants to mess me up.
Wow. Folks, this kind of thing happens all the time. Situations get escalated when there is no need to escalate. And similarly, I have seen groups of otherwise wonderful people create a whole environment of negative responses from a simple request:
A few years ago at another university, the President asked for data on programs in a particular college. Specifically, the President was looking for enrollment and retention data, which is pretty mundane and typical data we look at. The Provost directed the Dean to ask departments to provide more detail than could not be seen in any detail using general reports. Within an hour, two department offices reacted quite abruptly, calling for swift action from unions and others to “save” their programs.
Here is how it played out: the data request came in from the Dean’s office asking for enrollment data on programs. The person taking the call told others the Dean wanted this data and had never asked for this before. A person who had been in that department for a number of years heard this and noted that the “last time” anyone asked for such data, departments were threatened with closing programs. The worry grew legs! Soon, people in the department knew that the Dean must be ready to retrench faculty and lay off staff. A call went to a second department and they were also quickly convinced that this was a first move in closing programs and laying off staff. Then anger: why hadn’t the Dean , the Provost, the President TOLD ANYONE??? We could have saved our programs if only we had known!
Finally after twenty or thirty minutes of wasted energy, angry talk, and furious emails, one person called the Dean and asked why this demand for data was happening now!
The answer: the university was doing some new marketing and wanted to demonstrate how successful they were in various programs. Success these days is measured in part by how many majors we have and how many are retained from year to year as well as how many graduate successfully. Turns out, that university had a very good track record on all counts in that college and the President wanted to get the happy word out!
All that negative response, fear, and very stressful activity based on a simple request for data (fact) that was turned into a story (program closures), that led to negative reactions (fear, anger).
Sooooooo….. the lesson: perhaps as our WSU community moves even further into being more inclusive, more welcoming, and safer … maybe we can also work on thinking first in positive ways. Ask “what are the facts? What do we know for certain?” The rest is the story we tell ourselves. If your story is negative, you will react negatively. If you stay curious about what is going on, stay positive, the story changes. We end up with a more positive approach to whatever change or question or situation may arise. We then react with real interest, calmness, and civility.
We react as we would expect WSU Warriors to react. Go Warriors.