Monday, May 20, 2024

Live peer review, leadership roles, and handling hard better

EcologyLive peer review, leadership roles, and handling hard better


Last week, I had a post about the nuts and bolts (and emotions!) of responding to reviewers. In it, I talk about how my initial reaction to constructive criticism of my manuscripts is for my brain to fall out, leaving me unable to process anything for a while. I still think of myself as someone who is not very resistant to criticism, but who is resilient – I often feel pretty flattened by negative feedback, but bounce back fairly quickly. My approach is to give myself some time, then use a variety of strategies (post it notes, responding to X number of comments before taking a break, lots of chocolate, etc.) to revise the manuscript in response to the reviewer feedback. And, as I hope I made clear in that earlier post, it always ends up better as a result. The process is totally worth it in the end, but it’s definitely a process. 

What I want to cover in this post is something that I’ve been trying to figure out now that I have an administrative role: when getting feedback on something (e.g., a revised policy related to teaching), it feels to me like a live version of peer review. I’m realizing that many of the strategies I have used successfully to deal with the emotional parts of responding to peer reviews of manuscripts don’t work as well in the live setting, so I’ve been trying to develop some additional approaches. This is definitely still a work in progress for me, and I’d love to hear how others deal with this! 

Around the same time that I was thinking about this, I stumbled across the Handle Hard Better impromptu speech given by Kara Lawson, the coach of the Duke women’s basketball team. It’s less than 3 minutes, so it won’t take long to watch it. This is the key part (to me, at least):

Make yourself a person that handles hard well, not someone that’s waiting for the easy. Because if you have a meaningful pursuit in life, it will never be easy.

I had a whole variety of reactions when I first watched this – some of them complicated – but my overall takeaway is that this idea of trying to figure out how to handle hard better is a really helpful framing. The key then is figuring out how to actually do that! I’m still figuring it out, but right now one thing that is helping me is thinking about potatoes.

Let’s consider a specific scenario: there was pretty broad agreement that we needed to change some things about our teaching expectations policy, so the Undergrad Affairs Committee (UAC) in my department, which I lead in my role as undergrad chair, took this on. The UAC spent the fall semester thinking about this and drafting new text. This winter and spring, I brought that draft wording to a variety of other committees, small groups, and a full faculty meeting to get feedback. The story has a happy ending – we adopted the new policy and people in general seem pretty happy with it. But, along the way, there were some hard and/or tense meetings, and some parts of it felt pretty intense for me.

At one point during the most intense part of the process, I received some very strong pushback and felt like the whole thing might fall apart. At that point, my brain was shouting “abandon ship! abandon ship!” (Clearly the “flight” part of fight-or-flight takes over sometimes!) It felt not only like I should give up on revising this protocol, but maybe also like being associate chair wasn’t going to work out for me – it all felt too intense. 

Fortunately, right in the middle of that, I had a hard run scheduled. I was doing the same loop with a big hill in the middle three times. On the first loop, I was like, “ugh, this is kind of hard, but okay, push through”. On the second loop, as I was heading up the hill, I was like, “ugh, this is really hard! Why am I doing this?! I should never pay attention to paces again and just do light, easy jogs for the rest of my life”. Then I got to the top of the hill and my watch gave me my mile split; it was a lot faster than I had thought it would be and I was like, “hot damn! Push on!” The third loop was hard but I felt like I was in the homestretch and could see that I was going to get through this hard workout and feel really good about myself at the end. And I did. 

As I headed in to work after that workout, with a meeting scheduled that morning about the policy that I thought was going to be really hard, I realized that I was probably on the part of the policy update that was equivalent to heading up the big hill on the second loop – the most intense part of the process where it feels hard and I want to give up, but, if I push on, I will get that great sense of accomplishment at the end. 

I think reminding myself of that – and trying to keep that sense of perspective that things might get hard, but I can handle it and the end result will be worth it – has been helpful. But I also needed a somewhat more concrete strategy. Which brings me to the potatoes.

Hot potatoes

During a conversation I had around that same time, I realized it could be helpful to think of some of the feedback as a hot potato. When the hot potato is a decision email on a manuscript, my approach of taking a break before really thinking hard about the feedback is basically a way to let the potato cool off before I pick it up. However, when the feedback is live, I seem to have the opposite tendency, where I basically try to immediately internalize the hot potato – and that hurts! Other people are better than I am at using an approach along the lines of: let’s put this hot potato on the desk here and all consider it together. That feels pretty far from where I am now, so, instead, I’ve been trying to think of my goal as just holding the hot potato – maybe a little uncomfortable, but not as much as trying to immediately ingest it. I think just going into a meeting with the idea of thinking of all the feedback as hot potatoes has helped – it’s a little silly, and I can just think “hot potato!” to myself during the meeting as my reminder. 

More recently, I saw somewhere (but unfortunately can’t recall where) that someone else came up with basically the same idea, and actually printed out a picture of a hot potato to hang in her office to remind herself of this. In that spirit, I recently ordered myself some stickers of a hot potato to be a visual reminder for myself.

Non-anonymous feedback from people you know well

Another thing about these meetings is that, in addition to feeling like a live version of peer review, there is the added factor of it being not at all anonymous. Instead, the feedback is from people who you know well and with whom you interact regularly. In some ways this helps – sometimes it helps to take the sting out of a comment if you know person X always brings up topic Y. But sometimes it makes it harder – it’s not fun to have people who you view as colleagues and friends upset with something you are proposing. I think this is still the hardest part for me. I do my best to explain why, but that’s not always going to remove the disagreement. One of the things I recall from the scicomm training I’ve done is that scientists tend to think that, if we all are presented with the same information, everyone will arrive at the same conclusion, but that’s not the case.* That applies in some of these situations, too. 

In last week’s post, I felt like I could end with a summary of my overall suggestions – I’ve been responding to peer reviews for a long time now, and have a set of strategies that work pretty well. The things in this post feel much more like things that I’m actively working on figuring out. I’d love to hear from others about approaches they use! 

* I guess that, if I wanted to torture the potato analogy, I could remind myself that, when handed a bunch of potatoes, not everyone would make the same thing with them.

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