Wednesday, May 09, 2007

 

Escalation

This entire episode actually happened a few years ago, when I was at Proprietary U.

Psych Prof burst into my office, visibly upset. “That *#%)#% Night Dean told me last week that I could let my students substitute course y for course x and still graduate. Then today he told me he never said that and the students can't graduate! I told that lying #%)#% that he can't jerk me around like this!”

I said I'd look into it.

Later that day, I asked Night Dean what had happened.

“I don't know. Last week she asked me to look into a course substitution, so I said I would. This week I told her it wouldn't work, and she cursed me out and called me a liar. Now I've got angry students at my door saying I'm blocking their graduation. You've really got to get her under control. We can't have this kind of unprofessional behavior.”

“What did you actually say to her the first time? Actual words?”

“She asked if they could substitute course y for course x. I said it was possible, but I'd have to check.”

Eureka!

When Night Dean said it was possible, what he meant was “maybe.” When Psych Prof heard that it was possible, she took it to mean “yes.” So when ND came back the following week and said no, Psych Prof took it as betrayal and reacted accordingly; ND took her anger as inexplicable and therefore unprofessional. Psych Prof called ND a liar, which she believed to be true and he believed to be false. A single ambiguous word led to a major clash of narratives and egos.

Once I figured that out, I explained the sequence to each separately, then arranged for the two to meet to bury the hatchet. The course sub didn't stand, but we were able to work out other ways for the students to get what they needed.

The entire episode unfolded over a short span and was quickly resolved, but it has stuck with me. I think what made it so emblematic of administration is that the two conflicting stories were both internally correct. Both Psych Prof and Night Dean acted in good faith, and both believed that they were looking out for the students. Neither was lying. Each took personal umbrage at the way the other acted, and each believed that higher principles and personal honor were at stake. And both were very emotional.

I try to remind myself of this story when I find myself on the receiving end of bizarre accusatory rants. When I try to pick them apart, they usually feature a weird internal consistency, but that consistency is based on a very selective reading (or a flat-out misreading) of some key facts. But it can be hard to get past the personal bluster to do that kind of analysis. It's easier as a third party.

When I look for prospective department chairs, I look for the folks whose reaction to an incongruous event – like seemingly having the rug pulled out from under you – isn't immediately to go nuclear. That's not to say I look for doormats, though some people viscerally equate strength with bluster. Effective advocacy is more about the ability to take a moment to get a clearer picture before deciding to attack. I'm more inclined to take seriously the chair who says “wait a minute...” than the chair who rolls his eyes and says “typical.” The first is tuned in to the situation; the second is just riding a personal hobbyhorse. Over time, there's just no pleasing the second kind, so there's little point in trying.

(Yes, that reflects to some degree my own management bias. I like to believe that data are no respecters of rank, and that a good argument stands or falls regardless of who's making it. The flip side of that is that arguments based on “I've been here for 37 years,” or on volume of yelling, are summarily and deeply discounted. Not all managers operate that way, sadly.)

Taking that moment to step back requires some self-discipline, since there's frequently an immediate temptation to just lash out. But lashing out usually generates new issues (“she called me names!”), and before long, you're three layers removed from the original conflict, which is probably still unresolved.

My patience for kabuki is limited; either talk about the actual issue, even if haltingly, or change the subject. Unwarranted escalation quickly becomes a war of spite, in which slights beget slights. Better to call time out, get some clarity, and get some actual work done.


Comments:
Great post. The calm, unflappable bureaucratic poker face shows an open-mindedness and willingness to work toward consensus, while also communicating to everyone involved that a hierarchy does frame our actions in higher education.

As you put it in your discussion of hiring department chairs: "When I look for prospective department chairs, I look for the folks whose reaction to an incongruous event – like seemingly having the rug pulled out from under you – isn't immediately to go nuclear. That's not to say I look for doormats, though some people viscerally equate strength with bluster. Effective advocacy is more about the ability to take a moment to get a clearer picture before deciding to attack."

I've been exactly in the position you mention in your post: telling someone that what s/he desired was possible, then finding out later that the person is angry because s/he heard the word as probable, or, simply, heard it as a great big yes. So now when these situations come up, I say some variation of: "It's possible. But that's no guarantee. I might find out we can't do it at all. I'll let you know as soon as I can whether the answer is 'yes' or 'no.'" Yes, it's wordy. But it has the desired effect -- especially with those unambiguous "yes" and "no" words -- and it's helped me avoid the worst extensions of this particular kind of conflict.

There's no way to avoid the conflict at the center of your post: at some level, as a manager, it becomes clear that people selectively listen too often. It's only human, and we've all done it (and I'm sure the managers above me have said the same about me). The issue of selective listening is an inevitable part of the managerial landscape. But as you say, it's better to project, as a manager, the calmest sensibility possible, so that the parties can talk about the issues behind their collision rather than escalate it.
 
“She asked if they could substitute course y for course x. I said it was possible, but I'd have to check.”

Apparently Unprofessional Psycholgy Professor needs her hearing checked.

Selective attention is unprofessional. If indeed Night Dean qualified the statement that the substitution might be "possible" that does not mean it is either PROBABLE or ALLOWABLE. A psychology professor is expected to know these qualifications to terms.

I'm just a lowly adjunct, but I'd be pissed too if I was Night Dean because this extreme over-reaction was solely Unprofessional Psych Prof's fault.

yeah, yeah, I know...laying blame isn't helpful...
 
I've had similar situations happen with students, who hear words like "possible" and "maybe" as "yes." Now I always say "I don't know. I will check and get back to you." This avoids the issue. I guess I had assumed that most academics and administrators learn this lesson before they rise to the level of chair or dean (I know, hopelessly naive).

On a tangential topic, how common is it for deans to select dept chairs? I have never attended or taught at a school where that was the case (about 8 schools); the practice everywhere I've been is that the chair rotates through the dept. In large depts, it rotates through those who volunteer, with the dept faculty selecting from those who actually want the job.
 
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