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How's Your Professional Grace?

The beginning of a new academic year brings hope, optimism, and new faces for faculty, students, and the University. However, the sunniness of summer can quickly give way to interactions with people and situations you didn't anticipate or like.

When faced with colleagues and meetings that leave you feeling less than optimistic or just plain irritated, it helps to look at how "seasoned" and successful faculty members maintain their optimism, enthusiasm, and hope.

Having been exposed to some excellent faculty and administrators, I discovered a particular attitude supporting their careers' upward trajectory. I define it as 'professional grace. It is "being kind, considerate, thoughtful, and having a sense of propriety in the work environment with everyone you encounter."

While professional grace may be a general attitude, it is also positive and brings hope and enthusiasm. We are all aware of the negative attitudes and a lack of hope that can circulate throughout Academia. So, why not work to increase positive vibes in your department and University?

I believe "professional grace" comes down to four actions. If you want to develop and extend professional grace to your students and colleagues while maintaining your sanity, give it a try!

1) Don't place your expectations on others

Max Lucado once said, "Lower your expectations of earth. This isn't heaven, so don't expect it to be". Too often, the level of expectations that we have of others leads to frustration and irritation in our jobs.

  • Have you ever been frustrated with scientific colleagues when they don't focus on manuscripts like you do?

  • Are you frustrated with students who don't seem to care or are apathetic?

  • When someone doesn't have your same goals, drive, and aspirations, do you get irritated?

These are just three examples where you put your expectations on others. Indeed, you will have expectations of people in your life closest to you; however, extending your expectations to colleagues can lead you down a path of irritation and frustration, derailing your focus on what you should and could be working on.

Others will often take steps differently than you. If you allow others to have their journey free from your expectations, you can keep your eyes on your goals and the road you want to travel!

2) Listen before you speak

The old saying, "God gave us two ears and one mouth, so we can listen twice as much as we speak," applies here.

The finest academics I have worked with have been those who listened before speaking. As a young academic, I witnessed how speaking first and not listening can backfire. I worked for a Provost once ( "...worked for.." as opposed to "...worked with...") who spoke first and never listened. Before hearing about the challenges or issues, he told everyone what to do and how to solve their problems. As a result, issues rarely got resolved, circulated throughout the department, and landed back in the office of the Provost.

When you listen first and then speak, you'll be amazed at what you hear and how quickly issues can be resolved and solutions emerge.

3) Develop calmness instead of anger

It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you'll do things differently." - Warren Buffett

Professional grace can be challenging to maintain when you face setbacks or difficult situations such as:

  • The IRB didn't approve your protocol

  • You receive lousy reviews on your grant

  • Half of your students don't show up for class

Academia is full of situations where it is easy to pop off and blow up. Once, as a young academic, I didn't receive my paycheck. That is a rare situation in an educational environment, but it happened. At the time, I was young and needed my salary to pay bills. Instead of being calm, I ranted and raged through the department, disrupting my department and disrespecting my colleagues. It wasn't my best moment. The situation was quickly fixed; the University cut me a check. The problem was resolved. I got a result. However, I got something I didn't want: a reputation for being a hothead. I would have arrived at the same outcome had I been calm, and my reputation wouldn't have suffered.

The next time you've got a situation that pushes your buttons. Take a few minutes, take some deep breaths, leave the building, and go for a walk, or give it 24 hours before you respond to the issue. Just realize that anger rarely gets you anywhere and often damages your professional and personal reputation.

4) Develop resilience

Recently, I watched a new President at my University initiate a series of massive and costly changes that created mental stress among the faculty. Suddenly, out of the blue, the President retired, and the University began reversing the changes.

In today's changing academic landscape - you're always one new Dean, Provost, or President away from restructuring. Most of the time, you have little control over the changes that will impact your academic career, and usually, the only thing you can do is stay calm and figure out how to overcome the challenge. Being resilient in constant flux is critical to maintaining professional grace.

As academics, we know that writing research papers and receiving better teaching evaluations are essential; however, once you change your attitude and focus on extending professional grace to your colleagues, you'll find that you'll approach your objective tasks with the hope and enthusiasm that may have silently fled with the onset of a new academic year and new challenges.

Keep Moving Forward

Cheers, Tim


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