The only thing we have to fear is fear itself. Franklin Delano Roosevelt
Years ago, when I was an assistant professor, I was required to speak with THE DEAN [a.k.a. He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named] about the leadership of my department. THE DEAN, as we think we know, holds the power of academic life vs. death over faculty. Let me tell you: this was a high anxiety moment!!! I really struggled to keep this appointment. Awash with stress hormones and with sympathetic nervous system fully engaged, I timidly crept over the threshold to THE DEAN’s office. And then… [to be continued]
Just the other day I spoke with a distinguished professor. Earlier in his career he realized that a then more-distinguished colleague had the knowledge he needed to transform his research program. But he could not bring himself to speak with her. As he told me: “She was unapproachable.” And so he did not, and his research program languished, until… [to be continued]
Now that I am a dean, allegedly with the power of life vs. death over academic promotion, faculty far more distinguished and important than me creep into my office and begin the conversation by apologizing for taking my time. More importantly, the faculty who could really benefit from my insights and experience never even talk with me in the first place… [to be continued]
Why we fear
This is the era of teams: team science, medical teams, collaborative grants, consortia, team education, social networks. Against this background isolated individuals cannot prevail. Nonetheless, individuals isolate themselves. If only we could counter this tendency to self-isolate, our colleagues and our institutions would be that much more effective.
Our first step is to acknowledge the source of this self-isolation. We avoid threats, whether real or illusory. Threat makes us anxious, and anxiety is aversive. As previous posts have explored, our brains regard others with knowledge, insight, resources, and/or power that we lack as both assets and threats. Sometimes others are genuine threats; as Henry Kissinger wrote: “Even a paranoid can have enemies.” But too often the threat is perception only; to interact with another risks rejection, could undermine one’s self-image/stature/expertise, and exposes vulnerabilities. Nothing is wrong with us when we feel this anxiety; it is because we are human and this is how human brains work.
Our second step is to reject implausible alternatives. For example, we tell ourselves: I don’t know with whom to interact. If only I did, I would interact quite readily. This might have been plausible back in the 20th Century, but these days academic networking software and online bibliographic systems, if not Google itself, make identifying potential interactors easy. [The abundance of potential interactors, however, poses its own mental challenge, “decision paralysis”, the topic of a post to come.] Also, there are the usual suspects: too little time, too much trouble, etc. Somehow we are able to make time and take the trouble to do things that are not threatening. Finally, we tell ourselves: Because we are academics at academic institutions, the normal threat-fear paradigm does not apply; hence it must be something else. Not so!
If “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” – if “fear is the mind-killer” – how do we alleviate fear of threat so that we can approach those who might benefit us?
It’s not as if this is a novel question. Just try a web search on
Fear of asking for help
Fear of asking a boy/girl/someone out
Fear of asking questions
The major advice online (other than that such fear is widespread) is the somewhat magical assertion: reading that the fear is unwarranted and various self-visualization exercises will usually be sufficient to dissipate the fear.
What actually works?
[…continued from above] I survived my meeting with THE DEAN. In fact, after he was no longer THE DEAN, I worked with him on several projects and came to know him as a person. He was the nicest, least intimidating individual you’d ever encounter. My colleague who deemed his colleague “unapproachable” was required by his professional society to invite her to participate in a symposium. When he summoned up his courage and did so, she turned out to be the nicest and most approachable individual imaginable. She generously offered to help renovate my colleague’s research program. My colleague and I have both learned from experience that DEANS and distinguished colleagues are people too. As it is said, they all put on their pants one leg at a time, have no horns, and breathe no fire. Some are generous and kind; some are not. But this is not because they are deans or distinguished, but because they are people and people vary. In summary, through experience both my colleague and I have now been desensitized to fear of threat in interacting with academic authority and distinction. [In the interest of full disclosure, tenure helps too.]
The question then becomes: How can we facilitate such experiential desensitization if we avoid interaction in the first place?
- Previous posts describe ‘commitment devices’.
- Enlist, conspire with, and/or hire others – peers, superiors, mentors, and/or coaches – to force us to do what we cannot bring ourselves to do voluntarily. For example, a group of peers can agree amongst themselves each to lunch with a previously unfamiliar ‘important’ or ‘distinguished’ colleague once a month, to encourage one another to follow through, and to report outcomes to the group. I have personally facilitated career development groups in which participants were explicitly assigned to ask for help on an escalating scale: first from a senior colleague, then from someone in another unit, and then from someone at another institution. This exercise succeeded, whereas voluntary help-asking on an individual basis had never occurred.
- Cognitive behavioral therapy. Although CBT is typically applied to clinically disabling behaviors, there is no reason why it cannot be applied to professionally/academically disabling fear of interaction. Many self-help programs are variants of CBT. Ask your therapist is CBT is right for you. Or, if asking for such help from a person is too aversive, try a web search for “self-administered CBT”.
- Do unto others. We are all both faculty developers and faculty developees. As the former:
-Try to minimize your threat level to others. You may think you are not threatening to others but, as stated above, their perception of threat is in their minds and may have nothing to do with you. Thus, when others manage to overcome their anxiety and reach out to you, be as collegial as possible.
-In The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell emphasizes the importance of Connectors, Mavens, and Salespeople, individuals with special talents, in disseminating information throughout social networks. If we are one (or more) of these, we have special roles to play in connecting prospective interactors.
-Actively facilitate interaction. It is often not sufficient only to offer help, advice, an introduction to a third party, access to a resource, etc. What is needed is active intervention. When a colleague needs interaction but will not interact spontaneously:
-Make the introduction yourself
-Personally host the lunch, coffee, etc. at which the parties interact (or, if this is too much, at least schedule the meeting for them)
-Match-make: refer both parties to one another and arrange a meeting at which they connect
-Arrange ‘play dates’ for faculty
-Follow up. Never assume that a promise to interact will be honored spontaneously
-Hold their hands when they are afraid of crossing the street
But, you protest, all this should not be necessary for people who are (a) adults, and (b) academic faculty! Yes, it should not be necessary. But it often is. Remember introductory chemistry. We need to add “activation energy” to overcome the inertia and repulsive forces among molecules to get them to react with one another. To overcome inertia and anxiety, interpersonal interactions often require activation energy too. We can facilitate our colleagues, and hence our institutions and ourselves, by supplying this energy. As in chemical reactions, some groupings of colleagues will not interact regardless. This means only that you haven’t found the right reactants yet (and not that don’t exist).
- Initiate chain reactions. Each of us has limited activation energy to contribute. But if one of us can activate others, who can activate others, who can activate still others, and so on, the reaction will propagate.
Hopefully, we will be both the enactors and the objects of these interventions.
TO DO LIST:
√ Have lunch with a colleague with whom you’ve not previously interacted. It won’t kill you. It’s just lunch.
√ Before the day is out, use your phone to arrange an interaction of two colleagues by talking to them. Repeat as necessary.
 1932 Inaugural address
 My colleague, Professor Eileen Dolan, reports the following response to a child’s query: “What’s an associate dean?” The response: “You see, dear, nobody wants to associate with THE DEAN. So they pay someone to do this. This person is called an associate dean.”
 Channeling Mark Twain, rumors of my powers are greatly exaggerated – although, as the remainder of this post makes clear, people believe these rumors anyway.
 Luke 6:31
 ETIQUETTE, by W.S. Gilbert
The Ballyshannon foundered off the coast of Cariboo,
And down in fathoms many went the captain and the crew;
Down went the owners–greedy men whom hope of gain allured:
Oh, dry the starting tear, for they were heavily insured.
Besides the captain and the mate, the owners and the crew,
The passengers were also drowned, excepting only two:
Young PETER GRAY, who tasted teas for BAKER, CROOP, AND CO.,
And SOMERS, who from Eastern shores imported indigo.
These passengers, by reason of their clinging to a mast,
Upon a desert island were eventually cast.
They hunted for their meals, as ALEXANDER SELKIRK used,
But they couldn’t chat together–they had not been introduced.
For PETER GRAY, and SOMERS too, though certainly in trade,
Were properly particular about the friends they made;
And somehow thus they settled it without a word of mouth–
That GRAY should take the northern half while SOMERS took the
On PETER’S portion oysters grew–a delicacy rare,
But oysters were a delicacy PETER couldn’t bear.
On SOMERS’ side was turtle, on the shingle lying thick,
Which SOMERS couldn’t eat, because it always made him sick.
GRAY gnashed his teeth with envy as he saw a mighty store
Of turtle unmolested on his fellow-creature’s shore:
The oysters at his feet aside impatiently he shoved,
For turtle and his mother were the only things he loved.
And SOMERS sighed in sorrow as he settled in the south,
For the thought of PETER’S oysters brought the water to his
mouth. He longed to lay him down upon the shelly bed, and stuff:
He had often eaten oysters, but had never had enough.
How they wished an introduction to each other they had had
When on board The Ballyshannon! And it drove them nearly mad
To think how very friendly with each other they might get,
If it wasn’t for the arbitrary rule of etiquette!
[their story concludes at http://www.readbookonline.net/readOnLine/43558/ ]
 A device that was normally used in inter-faculty communication before Al Gore invented the internet.
©Martin E. Feder 2015