Friday, September 30, 2005


Listening Down

Okay, I’ll admit having done this a couple of times. Somebody proposes a complicated but good idea. The boss responds, “that’s a great idea for you to do.”

There are times when this isn’t completely evil. It can amount to calling a bluff. Certainly, there have been times when people (okay, senior faculty) have made comments along the lines of “if only we could change the entire national culture at once, it would cut down on cheating in class.” I invite them to try.

Other than serving as an occasional reality check, though, I’m convinced that this technique is more destructive than helpful.

At the most basic level, it punishes initiative. If I know that stepping up to the plate with an idea to help the organization will simply result in more work dumped on my desk, I’m not likely to step up very often.

Beyond that, it represents an abdication of one of a manager’s basic jobs, which is deciding how best to use the resources at hand. I’ve found (through sometimes-embarrassing trial and error) that my first thought on any given topic is frequently wrong. It takes some bouncing around, usually with trusted and thoughtful people, to whip an idea into shape. (I’ve used the blog the same way sometimes, with wonderful results. Keep those ideas coming, people!) Disposing of an idea quickly, with what amounts to little more than a snappy comeback, flunks this test.

In some ways, it’s a variation on shoot-the-messenger (which I’ve never understood). Both involve not listening. What it gives you in speed of decisionmaking, it takes away in quality of result. When a manager adopts shoot-the-messenger, or “that’s a good idea for you to do,” she pretty much guarantees that the savvier people will stop being honest with her. (I’ve seen variations on this everyplace I’ve worked. It’s an unconscionable waste of talent, especially when, as in colleges and universities, the talent at hand is so impressive.) If you get the incentives wrong by punishing honesty, you will soon be knee-deep in well-rewarded horseshit. This is not good.

The best trick I’ve learned, which I learned very early at my previous school, is ‘listening down.’ Listen to the folks low on the food chain. While they’re as prone to urban myths and personal vendettas as anyone else, they also frequently carry a clarity and memory you won’t find at higher levels. If you show yourself to be a respectful listener, they’ll tell you incredibly valuable stuff. (One generic piece of advice for every grad student and junior professor out there: never, ever, under penalty of great gnashing of teeth, ever disrespect the department secretary. Never, never, never. Grapevines are real, and they can kill. And forms have a way of getting lost...) Too many people listen attentively to people above them on the food chain, and dismiss those below. Big mistake. Secretaries have saved me more than once; they wouldn’t have bothered if I’d been an arrogant jerk to them.

(The usual objection to ‘listening down’ is that conversation is supposed to be reciprocal, and there are certain things you just can’t share. That’s true, as far as it goes, but a simple “I can’t talk about that” when something sensitive comes up allows you to maintain necessary confidentiality while still showing respect for the intelligence of your interlocutor. In its way, it’s actually honest, and I’ve had good luck with it.)

The other downside is that it takes a lot of time. I’ve been feeling that this week. Still, time spent listening pays off in mistakes avoided. Hillary Clinton had it right: a listening tour is a fine thing. “That’s a good idea for you to do” isn’t listening.

What a useful post. As a rather new administrator I'd only recently discovered the "that's a great idea, why don't you do it?" technique, and I was so happy with it. Yet I understand your objections.

My tendency, though, is to assume that everything is my job. I work hard at figuring our how to delegate, and reminding myself to do it. The "great idea for you to do" was one of my techniques. I guess a flawed one. And no, noone's actually DONE any of those "great idea for you to do" things I sent back to them like that.

So how do you listen and think new ideas are cool when the administrative resources and your own time are very limited? I mean, the idea isn't that I do all the work in every idea people bring me.

I suppose ideally perhaps mentor the person with the idea to help them do it themselves - help them figure out who could help with it? Take it to a meeting with others present and see how it floats? Stuff like that?

Listening to the department secretary is vital. As a grad student and even as a fresh professor I had no idea how important the secretary is to the working of the department.
Thanks! You're right that delegating well is really hard. It's hard because the old adage that 'if you want something done, ask a busy person' is true, so it becomes the path of least resistance to pile everything on your good soldiers. Over time, of course, your good soldiers will wilt under the burden, and everybody else will learn to duck when they see you coming.

The alternative of doing everything yourself isn't healthy, either.

The best luck I've had has been when I've had a small slush fund, and I've been able to challenge people to come up with projects that I would fund. I set the direction, but let them figure out how to get there. Of course, it only works when you have the resources to do it. It doesn't take much; a few hundred dollars, well-aimed, can do it.

When you don't have that option, the best method I've found is to get to know your people really well, and try to delegate based on subject matter interest. The obvious flaw is that some things just aren't interesting. Alas. I'm still working on that one.
When I used to run a non-profit group, one of the rules we agreed on is that if you proposed a new idea, you had to be willing to be in some way part of the implementation. But we all agreed that you did NOT have to be the person in charge of the implementation. When we all agreed that we liked a new idea, we were all responsible for implementing it and usually a leader would emerge.

In the academic world, I find that whenever I propose a new idea, the committee or chair is very quick to make me in charge of it. So I end up getting punished for coming up with new ideas (I am an idea person), and I've learned to keep new ideas to myself. Not healthy at all.

(Hey, my word verification today is "yepjoe" -- what affirmation!)
I also found as an administrator to listen to the custodial staff. They can make your life miserable by forgetting to do things that you asked, etc. They simply appreciate being respected like the rest of us!
I learned this one from experience as I WAS the one in jobs that got disrespected for years, and I watched my shitheaded colleagues learn the hard way. As always, sage advice, Dean Dad.
One important point, if the project is complex, run away from it. Far
Much like Jo I've learnt to keep my ideas to myself. Two reasons: 1. Alll the work gets pushed back to me (as CCD describes); 2. When I have spent time developing proposals, they have mostly been ignored, and you find out later that the careful document you spent hours working on has not even been read. I guess that is part of the same impulse for the boss: 'oh no this looks like work, let's shift it someplace else.'
Ya: it's a waste of talent. Even if I say so myself.
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