I’ve read Lean In twice and I have to tell you, Sheryl Sandberg’s world sounds like a really great one. Everyone, men and women alike, has a seat at the table. Everyone’s voice is heard. And everyone’s opinion is valued. Everyone on the team has a supervisor who cares about their growth and development as a professional. Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it?
As student affairs professionals, I think we all have visions of grandeur that this is the world we’ll end up in. Then you hear the sound of a record screeching to a halt, the sound you always hear in the movies when a daydream ends abruptly. Reality hits and you find yourself thinking, “What happened? And where is this fabulous supervisor I was promised in graduate school?”
While Sandberg paints a lovely picture of a world in which everyone finds a sage elder to guide them, sometimes this is not the case. You arrive on campus at your dream job only to realize that it’s not everything you thought that it would be. That sage elder who has been guiding you all those years retired and the person who replaced them is tolerable at best. Buried beneath the surface of your dream job is a bully of a boss. The departmental restructure did a number on your organizational chart, and now you’re dealing with the supervisory equivalent of the Soup Nazi. How do you survive and thrive in a field that espouses growth and development without anyone with said values to guide you? To those lucky few who have been fortunate enough to have wonderful supervisors throughout the entirety of your career, stop reading now and go enjoy the rest of your bagel. To the rest of you who have found yourself in Jason Bateman’s shoes for one reason or another, I implore you to continue.
Having no one to help guide you on your professional journey on a regular basis can feel like a lot of things: isolating, frustrating, and exhausting, just to name a few. But fear not, SA pros, there are several people who can help guide you in your professional journey until the right supervisor comes along:
1. The Empathetic Friend: This is the friend who you can call and when they answer say, “I just need to vent for a few minutes so I don’t hurt someone!” And they’ll gladly let you do it because that’s what The Empathetic Friend does. They take the brunt of your shouting so you don’t fly off the handle at an inopportune time. They listen for hours as you go around in circles about how everything is ridiculous. They agree that if you were in charge, all of the world’s problems would be solved.
2. The Real Talk Friend: We all have them. The friend we never ask for advice because they’re going to tell us exactly what we don’t want to hear, which, coincidentally, is exactly what we probably should be hearing. Yes, The Empathetic Friend is great when we want to feel better about ourselves, but at some point you need to call up The Real Talk Friend to tell you what you have been likely avoiding telling yourself. What do you have control over in this situation? What action steps can you take to make your work life tolerable? What should you be doing in order to improve the situation? How can you improve your ability to manage up?
3. The Non-Work Friend: Sometimes you just need to talk to someone on the outside, someone who doesn’t know the ins and outs of your office politics, someone who has no idea what all the acronyms you use on a daily basis actually mean. You need an outside perspective, someone to talk about non-work things with. Go to a movie. Go for a hike. Just go do something non-work related to avoid dwelling on the ridiculousness that Monday morning will likely bring.
4. Yours Truly: This may sound obvious, but you are the captain of your ship and the master of your destiny. As easy as it is to feel stuck in such a plight, you do in fact have some control. If nothing is going to change in the foreseeable future and you are in a position to job search, it’s something to consider. Change is scary, but staying in a terrible work environment can be even worse. If you’re stuck where you are for the time being, call up The Real Talk Friend and strategize on how you can make things better. Take a chance, make a change, or hold on for one more day. The choice is yours.
While there are lots of horrible people to work for in any field, there are an infinitely greater number of wonderful ones to work for in the field of student affairs. My wish for each of the folks out there dealing with their own Kevin Spacey situation is that you find the fantastic boss you deserve.
Disclaimer: This post is in no way reflective of my current employment situation. If you see my current supervisor, please relay the message.