Feeding the crazy

I want to tell you a story about a friend – let’s call him Todd.

Todd used to work in an academic ‘think tank’ run by a famous professor, let’s call him Kenny.

Kenny and Todd worked together for a number of years. Kenny was a demanding boss. He consistently tasked Todd with a series of high stakes, last minute projects. Todd always delivered on these projects, even though it caused him great stress.

Screen Shot 2015-01-14 at 11.55.02 amWhile Kenny was leaning on Todd heavily, he never fully invited Todd into his intellectual circle. By ‘intellectual circle’ I mean the people who collaborated with the think tank, or came to its seminars.

Kenny’s colleagues knew Todd was involved in the think tank work, but they didn’t understand exactly what Todd’s role was. Todd learned pretty quickly that if he presumed to talk to these colleagues when Kenny wasn’t around, or send emails to them, he would get the silent treatment. Even urgent requests about pay would get no answer.

I can only guess this silent treatment was Kenny’s way of exerting control. By holding Todd at a distance, and refusing to publicly acknowledge Todd’s contributions, Kenny could preserve the fiction of being a solo genius and avoid the danger of Todd being poached by another colleague.

Todd, being a modest kind of person, assumed he was left out for reasons that had nothing to do with Kenny’s ego. Todd merely assumed he wasn’t good enough. This made Todd paranoid. Eventually every action Kenny took, especially the silences, would drive Todd into a frenzy of self doubt.

This dynamic is best demonstrated in the story Todd tells about the photocopier.

While waiting for a print job to come through Todd flicked idly through another document which Kenny had left on the photocopier’s tray. It was useful to the work Todd was doing. Todd respected the office rules about not interfering with other’s printouts, so he left it there, but questions and theories about Kenny’s reason for printing it raced through Todd’s mind. Was this a test of some kind? Todd invented increasingly elaborate ideas about what this ‘test’ was about and how he could pass it.

Come Monday Todd was a nervous wreck. On being summoned to Kenny’s office, Todd felt an intense sense of dread. He nearly fainted with relief when the professor merely handed him the document, saying: “sorry – I forgot to give that to you last week”. Todd realised he’d spent three days feeding his own crazy for absolutely no reason. Suffice to say, in the interest of his own mental health Todd didn’t stay in that job much longer.

Silence is the most potent form of communication. Silence is particularly potent when there is an imbalance of power – stated or not.

Think about the last time you waited for your new love interest to call. Mercifully this is about 17 years ago for me, but I still remember the feeling of watching the phone and willing it to ring. After a couple of days I would come to the conclusion that I was totally unlovable and would be alone forever. Then they would call and act like nothing had happened because, indeed, nothing had happened! The worries were all in my own head. I fed my own crazy because I had temporarily accorded the man in question power over my emotional state.

Silence in the workplace can have a similar dynamic – affecting one person far more than another. This is because silence between two people can become a void that is quickly filled with all kinds of hopes, desires and theories. Silence on its own doesn’t necessarily let in the crazy, but silence from a powerful person can open the door to crazy like almost nothing else.

Why am I talking at such length about silence? Well, the most common complaint I have from students is lack of feedback from their supervisors. Most supervisors, myself included, need at least a month to give considered feedback on a 10,000 word chapter – sometimes longer. But I often talk to students who are working themselves into a froth of anxiety after only a week.

Most of the time, as the relationship develops, students grow more comfortable with silences, but supervisors need to be aware that they are always in a power hierarchy. Actions, even innocent ones, can be misinterpreted in ways the supervisor may be completely unaware of.

What do you think? Has there been a time when silence from another person has led you into a frenzy of self doubt? What happened and how did you deal with it?

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34 thoughts on “Feeding the crazy

  1. Regan says:

    In my working life, I’m coming at it from the other end and learning that strategic use of “silence” can be useful.

    My instinct has always been to respond to emails and requests immediately – sometimes this means I respond in a less-than-considered way (and wish I’d thought about it more before kneejerking a response) or create work for myself by introducing myself into an issue that would have resolved itself in due course anyway. While I don’t think days or weeks of silence is necessarily helpful, I’m finding leaving things for a few hours or a day or so is often the best approach (and one I’m feeling less guilty about).

  2. sciencesonneteer says:

    I’ve been in a similar situation with an (ex-) supervisor. What I found even more frustrating than the weeks of silence was the ever-changing goal posts, and worst of all, the one word email responses to direct, simple questions regarding the changes he wanted made to my latest manuscript etc. Drove me (and everyone else in the department) to my wits end and eventually I left and found a new (even better!) project with a supervisory team who could actually communicate effectively.

    Best decision!

  3. Carmel says:

    Thesis Whisperer, Thank you for writing this i.e. acknowledging that it actually happens, that is, outside of private communication. My initial thought was how silence can be interpreted in many ways… as you say, often through the individual person, sometimes through uncertainty, which manifests into other ideas about what might be going on… And this is not to invalid anything about Todd’s experience, since I have no doubt about how he interpreted the situation he was in. I ask myself, how does one overcome that not-knowing and worrying feeling about what those pronounced silences (in each situation/context) means? That is, so as to avoid it causing so much suffering that a person ends up leaving that work environment or spiraling into self-doubt. What about directness? Asking direct questions of things we are not sure about?

    • Thesis Whisperer says:

      Todd still questions why he drove himself into such a frenzy – I think it points to the power of silence to punish and shame people. It can be difficult to talk back to the silence. Clear communication can be hard to achieve, but I think it’s contingent on the person with the most power to be more aware of how their silence can be mis-interpreted.

  4. japansociology says:

    Another powerful, and painful, form of silence is when you’re on the job market. While most applications receive no reply, it’s the silence after an interview that hurts. Waiting for the email or the phone call, and eventually realizing that it’s not coming and that you’re supposed to conclude from the silence that you didn’t make it.

  5. Tseen Khoo says:

    My thing these days is to ask whether there’s a problem.

    My thing in days past was to assume that I’d done something terribly wrong, was stupid, and shouldn’t have even been allowed to participate/write/study.

    I like now better. 😉

    (btw, linking to this in my upcoming post about toxic collaborators…)

  6. Sarah Z says:

    Unfortunately, I can relate to this. Self doubt feeds on silence, which acts like a psychological weapon. Especially in an age where it’s possible to communicate at the click of a button, you often lose sight of the fact that people are just busy with their lives and aren’t trying to slight you intentionally…well at least most of the time. ^^

  7. Burt says:

    I can understand Todd’s response given other evidence of ‘non fair play’ going on…. I had a 7 week silence from a supervisor, and yes it really caused me a lot of grief and I allowed it to affect me and my work. They initially insisted they could do (and must do) a review of a piece of work before I progressed any further with the work.After 7 weeks of not even a word response to any emails, and her PA continually cancelling and rescheduling our meeting, I starting thinking it was an indirect way of saying I don’t want to work with you any more, go find a new supervisor etc… The stress and delay upon my work this caused ended up being a deal breaker for me as the issue had needed a quick turn around etc. After ~ 9 weeks I did receive one sentence of feedback of not great consequence. I think it is a cruel tactic at times and can tangibly cause a negative impact upon the students work and well being. It’s not hard to see a one line email, “I’m caught up for next 3 weeks etc” but total silence can be very passive aggressive. (and destructive). It’s also highly unprofessional. Students with mortgages and strict timelines can’t just waste months like that, so I think it can be very very destructive at times. I have seen such disinterest and silence lead another person to be kicked out of their PhD program. It also affects a students intellectual confidence. Some think this is part of the hard journey, but I figure it is simply rude and discourteous to someone who has placed trust in a supervisor for a very critical part of their life. I have learnt the hard lesson, however, of never delaying again for a supervisor, just row your own boat… In fcat the HDR supervisor mocked me for taking my supervisors request so literally, “you don’t have to obey them you know!” I thought I was being courteous to her awaiting her feedback etc before I progressed, what an idiot.

  8. RedCarpetLibrarian says:

    Thanks for the post – I saw myself in it, working up the frenzy and wasting such a lot of energy for no real reason. I am fortunate to have great supervisors. But as I study part-time and by distance, I’d like them to acknowledge receipt of something I send for comment, regardless of how long it might take them to provide in-depth feedback.

    A quick ‘Thanks, got it’ means I would know they have noticed. ‘I’ll get feedback to you by x date’ would be even nicer. Or ‘My workloads have gone through the roof and full-time, on-campus students get my first attention as they have tighter timeframes, so I’ll get to you in x weeks’ (I hate that, but I understand). OK, I’d still chew my nails, but at least my expectations would be more appropriate.

    I think managing expectations is hugely important, no matter whether you’re a student or lecturer or – like me – both. It’s the not knowing that drives you crazy – as it did Todd in the post. My students know that they won’t get assignments back for two weeks after the due date as that’s when the possible extension period ends. So they don’t ask (or rarely).

  9. Rosie Mead says:

    This happens to me all the time! My supervisor can take a while to reply to my emails (it is so easy to forget that I am not only her student!) in the silence, I find myself thinking that she hasn’t replied because my work is terrible and she is disappointed in me. This really isn’t the case, it is usually just that reading my work is part of a whole long list of other things my supervisor has to do!

  10. sherryhoward says:

    This is one of your most powerful posts. People, including me sometimes, in hierarchical relationships sometimes mean nothing by silence–only that we got distracted or busy. When you supervise hundreds of people, it’s easy to lose track of a thread of communication that means a lot to someone. Young people need to learn the difference between people who use silence as a tool and people who need gentle reminders to follow up. Sometimes it’s a benign behavior and simple fix.

    • Matt Miller says:

      The idea of anyone ‘supervising’ hundreds of people is absurd, something demonstrated by several thousand years of military history. A military ‘captain’ supervising a similar number of people has ~4 lieutenants, each of whom typically have their own admin person (a sergeant).

  11. Nagzilla says:

    When I was working for the Former Employer Who Shall Remain Nameless®, the upper management used silence like a weapon, mostly to keep the lower level staff in line. We had many great ideas to share and valuable insight, but they didn’t want to acknowledge any idea that was not their own for fear of losing that power. Eventually, there was a mass exodus and withing my own department we had a complete turnover of eight positions in less than a year. It was crazy making. I was one of the last to leave, and suffered the consequences by having a legit mental breakdown.

    Now I’m in a job where they value my insights, opinions, and creativity. I had no idea how dysfunctional the silence was until I found a job and supervisor who didn’t use it as a source of control and gaslighting.

    Profound. Thanks for sharing.

  12. Bob says:

    Great piece. Silence is problematic because it just leaves so much open to interpretation. And that’s often done through the lens of our own worst fears in an echo chamber as there’s no feedback to suggest alternatives.

    Silence is also unfortunately used as an easy form of passive-aggression . That’s if its apparent to you in the first place, as by definition, such aggression isn’t direct.

    Related to silence are one-liner or single word replies. Oftentimes it’s unintentional. There are simply too many emails for usual pleasantries to be exchanged in replies, or the reply is rushed on a mobile device because it’s uncomfortable to use (I still haven’t gotten the hang of typing on a touchscreen!).

    It also amplifies power relations in a bad way. This old PhD comics strip illustrates the situation well:


  13. Tori Wade says:

    This is one of the saddest posts I’ve read on this blog. It is not just about silence, it is a description of some very nasty bullying in the workplace. The response that would be best for the university would be to make a formal complaint about the supervisory environment and take it up to the highest level possible. However, I do understand why this is not the approach you are recommending. Blaming the victim is a very entrenched way of responding to such an action and Todd could quickly find himself out of the doctoral program and out of the university, tarred with a “trouble maker” label that would mean he’d find it hard to enrol anywhere else. I’d be pleased if someone wants to argue that I’m wrong about this!

  14. Ali says:

    I am glad I read this before I meet my PI tomorrow after 8 months of research internship away from school. Although not as deeply as some might feel the anxiety due to non communicative superviors, I definitely noticed myself getting there being at the receiving end of delayed emails and one sentense replies. Its enlightining to have the perspective from the other side of the screen.

  15. Tony Michele says:

    Yes! I hope they realise this. I’m currently in one at the moment and I’m not sure how to handle it – wait or to ask if I should keep waiting for a response 😁.

  16. Matt Miller says:

    A bleak lesson on why physical proximity is a necessity for completing a PhD. If they won’t respond to emails, and won’t set up a meeting, you have to be able to intrude on them. Also a bleak reminder that if your boss sucks, your only alternative is to quit.

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