I don’t know

One of my biggest personal grievances in academia is the awful mental rutting that can take place in meetings. It is almost tribal when one academic, rather than admitting they don’t know, starts building a defensive wall. What is the purpose of this? Commenting for the sake of commenting, specifically in a derogatory fashion just to appear superior somehow? The damaging effects this can have include:

  • Meetings lose their focus, and start to drag on…and on..
  • That person starts to appear unapproachable to other colleagues. This acts as mark of IQ territory to the culprit, yet starts to erode future help from others.
  • Younger and/or less experienced colleagues believe everything that is said and wander off on some wild goose chase.
  • People feel disheartened.
  • The mood in a group drops.

I often find those who are the most comfortable, and capable, use the fabled phrase:

  • Sorry I don’t know, I don’t understand…

This does not reflect some sort of ‘weakness’. It demonstrates a higher level of interpersonal skills. Presenting a strong facade to those that need it, of course, is important and different to this particular gripe. Equally, this grievance has nothing to do with genuinely differing opinions aired in a constructive way.

In a challenging environment, having all partners working together is essential. Innovation can feed off positivity and mutual respect. If we can be comfortable approaching each other to discuss ideas and problems, progress can be made. If people feel tired of rutting, innovation will suffer. We become private individuals, relying on our ever increasingly drained personal resource to tackle all problems. The innovation environment slowly starts to quench itself.

An argument might be had for turning these experiences on their head, enabling emerging academics to recognise and develop appropriate mitigation strategies. I often consider developing management skills similar to our immune system. But it must not be considered the norm.

Every case is different, and some rutting might occur infrequently. The line between competence and confidence can be smudged by an ability to shout loud. Academic life should be a richly rewarding environment, and we should encourage decisions and environments that enable research to deliver on the promises we keep.

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