Monday, May 07, 2007


Telling Without Telling

Last week I saw another iteration of one of the little games that drives me crazy. At a meeting at which all of the academic deans were present, the director of a center said something to the effect of “I don't want to name any names, but some of your faculty aren't following through on their (task x). You should really stay on top of that.”

What, exactly, do people hope to achieve with statements like that?

If the statement contained some sort of verifiable fact claim -- “Dave didn't do task x last semester” -- I could do something about that. I could check, and either dismiss the claim or have a discussion with Dave.

If the statement were made privately, I could press for details, and get enough sense of the specifics to either follow up or dismiss.

But when the statement is both public and purposely vague, it's useless.

If this were the only time I'd seen something like that, I'd probably write it off to somebody either not thinking or just being chickenshit. But I've seen it a lot. It usually functions as a de facto threat. “I know something you don't know, and I'll save it until I really want to score some points against you.” Its emptiness makes it irrefutable, since there's no actual content to refute.

Alternately, it may be a passive-aggressive way of trying to instill self-doubt. “You aren't on top of what you're doing, and we know it.” This is one area where experience matters. In my early days of administration, I sometimes fell for this. Over time, you learn that some people just have issues with authority, and like to gain a sense of control by playing bizarre mindgames. Don't engage.

The most charitable interpretation is that they think I can somehow triangulate what they're talking about, and use that as the basis for action. The real world doesn't work that way.

On the few occasions in which I had the presence of mind to press for specifics, I always got variations on “I don't want to get all wrapped up in a whole thing. Just keep an eye on that.” This is worse than useless. Now, if I investigate, I'll get “why are you looking? On what basis?” If I don't, and something eventually comes to light, it'll be “the dean knew all about it and didn't do anything.” Either way, I'm wrong.

There was a time when I thought that folks who tell without telling were honestly trying to convey information, but were just worried about reprisals. I was young and naive. If there's something concrete and specific to convey, and they don't have any other agenda, they can just say it. Hell, worst case, they can leave an anonymous tip. An anonymous tip, if it contains something resembling a specific factual claim, can at least be verified. But these abstract claims are far too vague for follow-through, even if the folks who say them somehow feel cleansed by the experience.

The social dynamics of public meetings make it difficult to do the Socratic/Joe Friday interrogation that you'd need to do to give the statement any actual meaning. The smarter ones count on that.

One of my recurring fantasies involves the ability to cross-examine people on the spot. Just for my own edification, I'd like to know how much of the absurdity I'm presented with results from actual lying, as opposed to mere sloppy thinking. I've heard that it's better to deal with a knave than a fool, since a knave sometimes gets tired, but I'm not convinced. At least sloppy thinking can be clarified.

“Ah,” I can imagine a sour reader wondering, “but you tell without telling on your blog all the time.” Yes, because I don't expect the reader to do anything about it, other than comment. I'm not making any of this your responsibility. What I'm objecting to is the urgent, knowing, yet damningly vague call to action. I don't call 911 and say “I don't want to give any addresses, but there's a fire somewhere in your town. You should really look into that.”

Why do people do that?

This exact thing happened to me in a very public meeting this year. The guy who did it later apologized profusely, saying repeatedly he "didn't know why" he'd done it.

From my perspective, it was easy to see that he did it because he was frustrated and angry and had no real argument to make.

It's a power move, and a cowardly one. Knowing that, though, doesn't make it any less annoying.
"Why do people do that?"
You answered your own question when you wrote they are "just being chickenshit."
Here is where I think email comes into its own. There's nothing like a quick one-liner after a meeting:

"Sorry I didn't get to chat with you after the meeting about the issue you've been having with [...]. Keep me in the loop with anything that's causing problems for you."

I hate people who Cc: things like this to their bosses, but I do think it's the kind of situation where you can have an informal conversation with anyone important who was at the meeting saying "Oh, about that stuff X was talking about, I've asked them to keep me informed about it."

You've documented the issue if the shit hits the fan, and of course the people who do this kind of stuff will never give you a specific example to work with.

I think it's a classic situation where the "cover your ass" strategy is unfortunately the best first move. Sometimes someone says something 3 or 4 times and it becomes gospel, even if there's no evidence.
Ugh. Sounds like someone here who has a tendency to say things like, "well, you can't know about this, but" and then ends up talking 1) about things he shouldn't, and 2) in ways that seem really unethical.
The prime difference with your "talking vaguely" to us in your blog is that you are not threatening us - merely sharing generalized situations so that we can see what's going on behind the curtain.

I, too, fell for the bizarre threats and it took me a decade to realize that someone calling something black is actually the kettle.

If this person really wanted the problem fixed, why didn't they either drop you an email or drop by/make an appointment to see you in person without cowardly confronting you in front of the group.
My first supervisor did that to me. "You're having trouble with some teachers, but I'm not going to say who. You need to figure out who they are and fix it."

I didn't last there, and I'm not sorry at all.
On the whole, I agree with db, but when he said, "I hate people who Cc: things like this to their bosses", I have to disagree. If one of my subordinates sent email to someone on my level, but in a different chain, I'd have wanted to be copied. Remember one of the first principles of bureaucracy: what ye do to the least of my subordinates, ye do to me.
Don't take it, press the person who tries this trick. You get one enemy, but it only happens once
It sounds to me like maybe they are trying to cover themselves in case the thing they are alluding to ever blows up big. Then they can say, "Oh, I brought that to the attention of the Dean years ago, but he didn't do anything" and that makes it your fault instead of theirs. It seems to me like that would be an effective (though mean and cowardly) strategy in situations where the person speaking to you doesn't REALLY want the situation to change, but is worried they might get blamed for letting it continue further down the track.
Isn't it generally wise to avoid attributing things to malice when they can be justifed by appealing to human stupidity?
Anonymouse asks:

Isn't it generally wise to avoid attributing things to malice when they can be justifed by appealing to human stupidity?

Eli replies: Not in meetings
The values and other necessary concerns have brought around some of the better details and ideas which must have been followed. business management personal statements
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