As I have often said, the most common issues that visitors bring—by far—to the Ombuds Office is breakdowns in communication between supervisors and those they supervise. This could be a manager and employee, chair and faculty member, or even instructor and student. And the problems flow in both directions, with both the evaluated and the evaluators coming to discuss their options.
If you want to see a rundown of the other major issues, please check out the recently-released 2023 Third Quarter Report. But today I am writing about something I am seeing that hasn’t been tracked in the International Ombuds Association’s Uniform Reporting Categories, but rather a mood or theme that has accompanied many interactions I have had. It is an elusive thing to describe, but I would best describe it as a sense of disappointment.
This disappointment comes in many flavors. One that has struck me as particularly poignant is the disappointment that a faculty member feels when a student engages in suspected academic misconduct or, to be blunt, gets caught cheating. I have had faculty describe an avalanche of emotions, with anger and frustration near the top, mixed in with sadness and disappointment. The anger comes from our natural chagrin at someone trying to deceive us, the frustration from the realization that we’ve now got a lot more paperwork to do, and the sadness from the realization that this student, whose academic success we have been invested in, has made things significantly more difficult for themselves.
Underlying all those feelings, though, is disappointment: disappointment that the trust between student and instructor has been broken, disappointment that a mentoring relationship has devolved to a compliance-demanding one.
Another scenario: an employee, after transferring to a new job with a supervisor who seemed encouraging and supportive during the interview process, discovers a few weeks in that the reality is different. Or their boss is just fine, but everything else isn’t; the job is nowhere near what was advertised, and it seems impossible that anyone could succeed in it. The disappointment stems from dashed hopes, and maybe a haunting sense that if same pattern is repeating, maybe the transfer is themselves part of the problem.
Yet another scenario, common on campuses: a faculty member submits an article to a journal or a proposal to a granting agency. After weeks or months of work, endless revisions and second-guessing, the work is sent off. Then, weeks or months later, the word comes back: rejection. Disappointment arises primarily from an unavoidable solar flare of self-doubt that can scramble all positive communication channels.
One more: an undergraduate arrives on campus, hopeful of finding friends, interests, a community. Instead, they find it hard to fit in, and struggle to keep up with their classwork. For years, they’ve been fantasizing about all of the great things they’ll do in college, and none of them seem to be possible. I’ll also include a graduate student joining a program with the promise of support, only to find what feels like exploitation.
Looking briefly at a popular psychology article about how to cope with disappointment, it seems that there are a few kinds of disappointment: the first is a let-down that things didn’t work out for the best, like when our lottery numbers don’t come up or Megabucks doesn’t hit. Because we recognize those are random events, highly improbable events, most of us can pick ourselves up relatively easily from them. The second, which Dr. Robert N. Kraft (the author of the linked article) focuses on, is rejection-based disappointment—unsuccessful job applications, for example. Kraft suggests six strategies for managing disappointment:
- Remembering why we took the chance—what motivations and information us to make the choice we did?
- Acknowledging our feelings—instead of just saying, “whatever” and moving on, take a moment to allow ourselves to feel the sting. But don’t ruminate on it.
- Evaluating our expectations—this one is especially important for several of the examples I described above. It’s one thing to be able to blame other people’s lack of judgment for your problems (“They should have hired me!”) but a lot harder to face the reality that maybe our own judgment is flawed (“How could I have not seen the red flags?”). Perhaps unrealistic expectations played a role.
- Limiting extrapolation—present conditions to spin into infinity as the future. Just because you rolled snake eyes this time doesn’t mean the dice won’t go your way tomorrow.
- Reframing the events—don’t deny what happen, but try to see it through a bigger context. When visitors face disappointment, I sometimes pivot to exploring their “Plan B” or “worst case scenario” with them. They can be encouraged by seeing how much actually is working for them, without ignoring the things that aren’t.
- Considering probabilities—unlikely things do happen—ask your favorite poker player for their most disappointing bad beats. I can guarantee they vividly remember each one, even when some of their wins seem hazy. It’s not just gambling, either—I vividly recall tapping to a triangle choke during a random low-stakes training night three years ago, but couldn’t tell you the last time I tapped someone with one (though it has happened). It’s natural to pay attention to our shortcomings with an eye towards improving, but ignoring strengths and successes is just as hurtful as turning a blind eye to our weaknesses.
Having talked with a few dozen people about their disappointments over the past few months, Dr. Kraft, I think, has the right idea. Simply put, he asks us to put the disappointment into context, not making it bigger or smaller than it should be, then figure out how we move forward. Seems to be good advice. I’d also suggest listening to some Al Green if you want to really feel the mood.
Another thing that works is talking through your disappointment with someone. Luckily at UNLV, you’ve got someone who is impartial, confidential, and standing by. If you’re really feeling it today, maybe this blog post is for you.
And for all students, faculty members, or other UNLV employees, disappointed or not, the Ombuds Office has many resources available to help you through any conflict or communication issue you might be facing. If you are having an issue and are uncertain where to go, it is an excellent zero-barrier first stop. You have nothing to lose and quite a bit to gain.
If you would like to talk off-the-record and confidentially about any work- or campus-related concern, please make an appointment with the Ombuds. Our door is always open.
David G. Schwartz