27 December 2010

A Problem Like Maria

Over the years, I have spent considerable effort in developing a "poker face" for my job. This has come in handy in a variety of situations---stories from educators that would make your hair stand on end, a misinformed politician espousing a view on how to fix education, ridiculous meetings, and so forth. In all situations, I must try to be gracious. I am not always successful, but I do my best to keep emotion or reactions from showing on my face---my last resort to be furious note-taking so I can avoid eye contact or risk the chance that I am going to say something that will get me in trouble.

But I also use these opportunities to watch the other players at the table. There are some with well-cultivated poker faces of their own. You learn to find one another and perfect side glances and other signals when the attention of others is focused elsewhere. And those times where I am not a major player at the table...when what's at stake isn't mine...I enjoy the opportunity to watch body language all the more.

Awhile back, there was a meeting of mucky-mucks. A very impassioned woman---who I'll call "Maria" for the purposes of this post---attended in order to testify about her program. Also in attendance was her Mother Superior. These were not two peas in a pod. Maria had major attention-seeking behaviors. Mother was more conservative in approach, and although her verbal skills had polish, she had absolutely no poker face. Each time Maria was about to speak, you could see Mother Dear cringe with embarrassment. Maria was oblivious of anything happening around her. She never directly answered a question---instead choosing to talk about what she wanted. She never noticed how some of the people she needed to sway at the table pulled out their phones to check messages or collected paperwork together as if signaling they wanted to leave. She went on and on and on about things, and while I have no doubt she spoke from the heart, the mucky-mucks treated the end of diatribes like one might treat a random story from a toddler inserted into an adult conversation. Mother was not happy, her face wrinkled with displeasure...her body tense.

I have to wonder if Mother Superior will solve the problem that is Maria. Big Momma is good with things and stuff, but not so good with people; however, it is her job to make sure that the most competent people are working for her and represent both her and the program well. If Maria isn't doing that, then she has to do something about that. Maria likes attention---she thrives on being looked at as unique. Mother must find ways to give that to Maria...compliment her where possible and appropriate. But Mother also has to make it clear what is and is not acceptable in terms of communications. She needs to look for a seminar to send Maria or watch some video clips together that show good and not so good examples of how to behave in meetings. She must have the hard conversation about what she's noticing, what the job requires, and what she expects. If Maria can't close the gap (after some time and coaching to make the changes), then she needs to be replaced. Sorry, Mother, but you're paid to do that job. Ignoring Maria (which appears to be the current strategy) is not going to make her go away. If anything, she's just going to scream louder anytime you give her an audience.

I admit that I have my own failings. I am not always the forgive-and-forget type. I don't like people who don't follow through on their promises---I don't ever trust them again. I absolutely hate the sort of politics that have to be navigated and all of the indulgences to be paid in order to get something done...and I know it sometimes shows on my face. I just hope I never become a problem like Maria, failing teachers and kids in the process.


Hugh O'Donnell said...

Bless you, Goddess, for your forbearance.

We have a newbie Board member who fits that description, hasn't learned anything about working together and trust, and who cannot be fired. And from whom there is no escape at meetings. Please send soothing thoughts our way.

Hope you had a grand Christmas, and best wishes for a Happy New Year!


The Science Goddess said...

Thanks for the good wishes. Things are way too busy here, but I hope to catch my breath a bit in January.

Here's hoping your "Maria" gets things figured out better than the one I know.

Hugh O'Donnell said...

Here's hoping your "Maria" gets things figured out better than the one I know.

After a year and a half...no hope.