Challenge to Authority – Authority Responds

Last week, I wrote about Dolores the PhD science student, and the power that her tenured leadership lab researcher had over her teaching assignments, research and future career. Dolores spoke (her) truth to his power. I promised that I’d share the sequel.

If you consider times when you perhaps challenged authority, you might anticipate that Dolores experienced a hangover of uncomfortable thoughts and feelings. She was still smarting from how he had made decisions about what he thought she could handle. She began to wonder whether he had ever really liked her. And perhaps most of all she wondered where she stood now. Was he irritated with her for calling him out? The relationship mattered to her, as did the work, and she was feeling vulnerable about both.

As I indicated Dolores is a courageous soul, and  she decided that the way to move forward was to re-engage and to clear the air with him. She went in and told him that she was feeling stressed by her post-doctorate applications that were coming due, her dissertation deadline, and the research she was doing in his lab. She told him that their last conversation had been stressful for her. Further, she told him flat-out that she is the kind of person who does well to get feedback and, in particular, to hear when she is doing things well. She said that when he reneged and told her that she wasn’t going to be able to teach the course that her heart was set on teaching, it made her wonder whether he valued the work she was doing.  She said, “I’m a more effective researcher, when I receive positive feedback.” And she asked, “Do you think you can do this for me?”

She told me later, “I was blown away by how he responded.”  He said, he would try, and then he quickly said to her, “I could also use some positive feedback from you.”  She said he totally took her off guard by being so open in expressing his need. She was glad that he responded in that way.  It didn’t feel “top-down” to her, but felt collegial, adult-to-adult.  And the thought seemed so obvious to her: well, of course, he’s human, too, and we all need encouragement sometimes…even if we’re the boss. 

Later that day one of her undergraduate researchers presented to their lab on her findings. Dolores knew this undergrad would do a great job, and she emailed the younger researcher later in the day, to say, “I knew you’d do great, and indeed you did.” Quickly thereafter, Dolores’ advisor, whom she had copied on the email, replied to the thread and also complimented the undergrad on the “excellent progress you are making.” 

These seem like such little moves that Dolores and her advisor made, but can you appreciate the unusual virtuous quality? First, Dolores was again intentional. Again, leading up! And when she made herself vulnerable to ask for his support – and believe me tone is everything in such a request – she opened a door, not only for her reconnecting to the work and the relationship, but she also opened a door for him to express his human need. And while we might have anticipated him saying, “You’re a PhD candidate, Dolores, you need to generate your own encouragement,” or he could have said, “Sure, I’ll give you praise,” while he was thinking, “One day she reams me out and then the next day she asks me to be all love and flowers?!”  But he answered her in kind – like a great violin answers a piano in a duet. He answered her like a creative improv partner with a “yes, and,” – “yes, I’ll voice approval, and I’d love to get some approval in return.” A major bravo for his expressing his own humanity.

Leading by Two grows strong like two redwoods, when the roots are wrapped together.

Dolores watered the roots of the relationship (with openness and trust). And the correspondence with the undergraduate student revealed the fruits of a strengthened partnership, where they modeled a way of encouragement, 

Leading with their best selves.


  • Genuine encouragement truly transforms an environment! Bravo Dolores for leading up with vulnerability and courage.

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