Thursday, September 01, 2005

Ask the Admin: Potemkin Committees and Passive-Aggressive Leaders

A smart Midwestern correspondent weighed in with a (sadly familiar) question/scenario:

Our (administrative bigshot) asked the
governing boards of two research centers to do some
"strategic thinking" about the structure and
relationship of the two centers. Asked about resource
constraints, we got the "be creative" mantra.

It seems to me that there's a subtext here, which is
that there's already a decision that we can't support
both centers, that we need to combine them...The
centers have very different missions and areas, and
a single director for both makes no sense. Both
centers are supposed to be central to the "unique
identity" we're trying to develop.

My question is--Why do so many administrators play
around? Why are we being asked to spend (scarce,
precious) time and energy "thinking strategically" if
the decision has, as I suspect, already been made?
All it will do is use up a very scarce resource here
and [greatly annoy] later, rather than now.

Ouch. A vp I previously worked for used to pull this kind of stuff all the time. He’d make a decision about what needed to be done about an issue, then appoint a committee to reach his conclusion. He judged the success of the committee (and the astuteness of each of its individual members) based on how quickly and enthusiastically it reached his conclusion. Once the faculty figured this out (which didn’t take long), it became nearly impossible to get people to serve on committees (for obvious reasons).

Bluntly, it drove me nuts. My sense (and just about everyone else’s) was that if the conclusion is foregone, then just put it out there and let’s get on with it.

I’ve been chewing on this, off and on, for some time.

As best I can guess, it serves two felt needs for certain personalities: it gives the appearance of consensus to what is actually a unilateral decision, and it allows the (real) decision maker to satisfy himself that he respected the process while still getting the answer he wanted.

It’s toxic. It’s toxic because it wastes time and energy in bad faith; because it creates a false consensus that allows the manager to explain dissent as a character flaw in the dissenter; because it rewards groupthink; and because it allows terrible ideas to go unchecked.

If asked directly, I suspect the manager in question would mutter something about respecting the process, but then argue that he was educating his constituency. Once the masses go through the reasoning process, they will, obviously, come to realize the brilliance and inevitable rightness of his conclusion.

I don’t mind something like that in, say, a math class – the professor assigns the problem, the students work on it, the professor knows the answer and waits for the students to figure it out. I don’t mind because it’s a class. That’s supposed to happen. In an active organization, though, it’s patronizing at best (and frequently much worse than that). It’s profoundly demoralizing for everyone below, since it teaches that independent thought is futile and dissent is unwelcome. In higher ed, which is comprised (by definition) of smart people with pronounced independent streaks, this approach is a disaster.

What’s especially sinister about the ‘false consensus’ style of control is that it’s passive-aggressive. Rather than simply asserting control, this kind of manager manipulates people to create a situation in which his favored outcome seems only natural. Those who object to being manipulated are then the problem children; the manager casts himself as the voice of reason, calming down the malcontents. Over time, the malcontents either bail out or shut up, and the collective IQ of the organization drops.

The contrast with a confident manager is striking. A confident manager will set the broad direction clearly, and have a strong and well-communicated sense of priorities. S/he will be willing to defend those priorities when challenged, both in public and in private. S/he will not need to micromanage details, allowing considerable debate on those. In other words, a weak manager will feel the need to control little details, and may construct elaborate mechanisms for false consensus as a denial mechanism. A strong manager will not mind give-and-take on details, but will have a clear and well-delivered sense of direction. Someone confident enough to own her own authority doesn’t have to create palace intrigue to get things done; she can set the direction, and encourage healthy debate on the best ways to get there.

Sorry to get so strident on this one, but this really hits a nerve. Academia doesn’t offer great financial rewards, much mobility, or a reasonably short training period (and these days, it doesn’t often offer tenure, either); what it does offer is autonomy in the work process. Take that away, and let’s just go work at banks.

(I’ll just go wipe the foam from my mouth now.)

Got a question? Ask the Administrator at ccdean (at) myway (dot) com.