Over the course of this semester, which is quickly careening to the end, I have had to have a series of difficult conversations with people. This is one of the toughest parts of running a research group, and it is a part of managerial skills that you do not get taught. So, how do you deal with these situations? I think these situations are somehow inflated for women managers. Is it because we are seen as mother-figures? Is it because we are supposed to be nicer than men? Are they, factually, the same for men and women, and women just inflate them in their minds?
Like many of us, I try to deal with these types of situations professionally and with kindness. One of the first times I had to have a truly uncomfortable situation was when I had to fire one of my first graduate students. This student was pretty much phoning it in. After leaving my lab, he joined another, bigger lab that could absorb this type of attitude. My small, nascent laboratory could not afford to have a lackadaisical researcher in the lab. After his first warning and subsequent failure to work properly, I had to let him go. The student was upset and actually cried. Yes, he was a man. Although I felt bad about having to fire someone, I am glad I did. It was the right decision for my laboratory. I was also to the point and clear with the student.
I want to be firm and not a bitch. I want to be caring, but not a push-over. It is a fine line. Also, I want my student to respect and listen to what I am telling them. Yet, because I am a woman and young-looking, I worry that sometimes they do not.
I find that these conversations go better when I am well-rested and clear-headed, but what if I am stressed out or, worse yet, hormonal? Once, when I was pregnant, I actually cried in front of a student while trying to have a difficult conversation. Embarrassing. But worse, I feel like it undercuts my authority. I don’t think it did in this case, but I was worried about it. I don’t think men have to worry about these things. It is particular to women.
So, do you have any tips for steeling yourself for difficult and uncomfortable situations? Please share them here!