Friday, May 23, 2008



In a conversation with one of my department chairs this week, addressing a move we're considering making to respond to a state mandate, he asked a variation on “how do we know this will work?”

I responded that we didn't, but that we knew that doing nothing would surely fail, and that the move we're considering seemed the most reasonable choice available. If he had a better idea, I was happy to hear it, but in the past year that this has been on the table (and we've been discussing it and our possible responses), nothing better has come along.

He didn't want to involve his people without a guarantee.

I walked him through several contingencies, outlining the likely (though not guaranteed) consequences of each of several possible courses of action. He agreed, but it was pretty clearly one of those “you're not wrong, but I'm still not buying it” agreements that inevitably leads to foot-dragging and high-minded blowing off. It was the educated-grownup version of “(sigh) whatever.”

I've seen this move before as a simple deflection. It's a staple of the passive-aggressive playbook. “I can't possibly act until conditions are utterly perfect in every way. You failed to perfect them. Therefore, my inaction is your fault.” But this wasn't that. He wasn't angling for an excuse not to act. He seemed to actually mean it. He needed a guarantee.

So much of managing involves contingencies, shades of gray, and best guesses that I sort of get used to it. Although the blogosphere lends itself to moralistic posturing – as does academic life generally, for that matter – actual situations in all their messy thickness usually don't lend themselves to simple morality plays. It's true that invoking complexity can be a way to evade guilt, but it's also true that things can actually be complex. And when you're used to that, calls for certainty come across as naïve, if not stupid.

They aren't stupid, necessarily (though I'll stand by 'naïve'). They can reflect a history of broken trust and misunderstanding. Or they can reflect a personality type. Or a wildly exaggerated estimate of the cost of failure. Or a susceptibility to hype, or Manichean thinking, or probably a hundred other things. But whatever their source, they're debilitating, and they make actual progress much harder.

Somewhere between 'optimism' and 'pessimism,' there's something much more useful. I'll ask my more articulate readers for a good word for it, but it's something like 'a willingness to risk hope.' It's forward-looking, yet tinged with the awareness of the inevitability of failures. If you've ever asked someone out, you know what I mean. There's that willingness to take a leap without a guarantee, knowing full well that there's a very real possibility of rejection. If you've auditioned, or gone on multiple unsuccessful job interviews, you've seen it.

One of my pet obsessions is behavioral economics. (I have some pretty pedestrian obsessions.) From what I've read of it, it's apparently pretty well established that most people overestimate the cost of future failure or losses. Accordingly, they'll forego opportunities for fear of failure, or stay with failing enterprises because they're 'safe.' They'll take slow, sure decline over the risk of abrupt failure, even if that risk also carries with it the real possibility of a better life.

Yes, there's wisdom in prudence. But prudence isn't stasis. Sometimes you have to take a deep breath, walk over to the hottie, and hope for the best. If you do it enough, you'll discover that rejection isn't the end of the world. And that the thicker skin and additional perspective you've gained actually makes future successes more likely.

If you want certainty, don't ask her out. She certainly won't say yes. But I don't see the success in that certainty.

A familiar problem. I knew that "passive-agressive" would show up in the discussion as soon as I read the first sentence!

Why? I think it is definitely fear of failure, which seems worse in academia simply because the people there have often never failed. It is also a good technique when time is on your side, either because delay will make the problem moot or because it will lead to a rushed action that can be exploited by one of the parties. (Look at what gets slipped into an appropriations bill at the last minute.)

And I have seen it used by both faculty and administration. We had a problem at our college that resulted from the Provost sitting on something important for two years (including one year after an initial round of comments, which themselves took a year).

At least the faculty have the excuse that our only real free time to think about such matters in depth is during the summer when we are not being paid at all.

I think the right word *is* optimism, because the real continuum is from pessimism to pollyannaism. Perhaps "optimistic realism". That describes the areas where I have seen success. Naive optimism often relates to failure.

Cultivating it is a real challenge, and it is easily lost if groups (on either side) are (or were, withing institutional memory) punished for failures that were not of their own doing. If there were real problems in the past, you might need group therapy (marriage counseling, to continue your analogy) to get it all out in the open and start over.

Tenure is supposed to be your friend here, as it removes the fear of failure. Maybe your dept chair, who presumably serves at your will, lacks that security as chair.

In this case, I would be tempted to ask "What part of mandate don't you understand?" The one way to fail in this case is to do nothing, so you might tell your chair that he can choose anything, but "E. None of the above" is the only choice that will get him/her an immediate failing grade, and that the entire college will fail if the eventual choice does not work.
Two perspectives here, though there's no guarantee how useful they might be:

1) Addressing the possible worst-case, legitimate motivation: "a history of broken trust and misunderstanding" (in your succinct wording). I don't know about anyone else, but when administrators acknowledge that faculty commonly feel burned from past experience and that they are taking steps to be different, my ears and mind are going to be far more open. Comparison point (using very stretchy mental fabric): You think American military leaders will have to do some extra work to build morale after Iraq, even though the professional ethic of the military is to follow civilian orders? My guess is that they'll have to work overtime to explain the reasoning on options and "what if this fails" scenarios. (And I don't envy them.) One-shot "we're going to do this" declarations are the most likely to be received cynically. Very different: "Here are the options after we've all had a chance to provide input, here's why we chose this path, here are the tactics we're choosing, and here are two backup plans in case this gets screwed up in results." It's commonly the back-up plans that are missing in higher-ed administrator-speak.

2) I'm with you on behavioral economics as a fascinating area (it's the psychological equivalent of Viviana Zelizer's sociology of money insofar as undermining neoclassical economics is concerned). Maybe one way of using people's emotional filters on planning/change is to acknowledge it specifically and then make an open-ended challenge to those with both views: what small empirical tests can we use to see who's right? Not judgments based on anecdotes, but predictions with relatively low stakes. (Obviously, this has to be done before major decisions are made, in the mulling stage.) For example: "We're hearing two different claims about program structure and enrollment. Let's look at our enrollment in this program and that of two other institutions. Given what we all know about the institutions, what predictions are you willing to make?" The true grumps will refuse to put their ideas on the line, or give all sorts of hedges. No hedges allowed, since we all recognize that the data is limited. Several rounds of this and ...

(In a more political context a few years ago, I opened a discussion of priorities with, "This organization has tried two different strategies in the state: supporting statewide candidates and supporting ballot initiatives. It's a natural experiment, and maybe we should look at the results..." I need to go back to that phrasing, I think.)

Related but side While driving all over creation in the last week (aka central Florida), I've been trying to figure out if there's a way to hook Bayesian perspectives into policy analysis, but I suspect I just don't have the mental tools. I'll write about this on my main blog later today, but it seemed semi-related, since Bayesian statistics allows "prior probability" (i.e., prejudices) in explicit modeling.
I'm wondering if there are also departmental politics in play that are shaping this chair's responses to you. In other words, perhaps the reason he/she won't give the go-ahead isn't because he/she is naive but rather because he/she *isn't* naive about the consequences of failure within his/her own dysfunctional department? In which case, having plausible deniability (I never signed off on that atrocious plan! Indeed, I fought for my faculty!) is more important than the appearance of working with the administration, and in fact it's actually *more* advantageous to appear to resist the administration?

All of this is speculation, but there are departments on my campus that are more likely to run in this way than in one that might seem more sensible. And ultimately, there is logic to it, logic that does go back to issues surrounding "a history of broken trust and misunderstanding." It's neither stupid nor naive... I'd say it's more cynical than anything else.
I don't know the full background but let me throw another consideration into the pot. The Chair could be trying to keep those who he is responsible for safe, secure, off his back, take your pick.

Keep in mind that academic chairs are generally not trained as leaders and sometimes are not willing to take a risk in their "official capacity" that they would gladly accept on the personal level. I would call this more of an aversion to blame, i.e. "if I don't do anything new I won't be blamed for how things go."
Hey, I just had an idea: Would it be possible for you to suggest to the chair that you go to the next meeting of that department to answer questions/concerns (or call a special meeting to do so)? My dean has done that a couple of times on issues for which he needed our support, as have other administrative types. It usually goes a long way toward getting people on board - or at least getting depts. to vote on participation in things. If you only talk to the dept. through the chair, things can get mangled. Also, it strikes me that you need to know if the chair is stonewalling individually or if this really is a whole department who doesn't trust the plan being proposed and why.
I have struggled mightily with this in my own classroom - most of my students internalize failure so much that to fail is to be a bad person and they want to be good so they do whatever they can to be perfect. All you can do is encourage risk taking in the future and hope your faculty learn that losses don't cost as much as they might think. This is difficult though - you have to be really sure that you soften the blow of a "loss" while highly praising those who are willing to go out on a limb. I think this can be done though....
I was going to label this behavior "paralyzingly risk-averse", but then I realized it's not really about risk. After all, if you give him a guarantee, there's still the risk of you being wrong.

No, he's just blame-averse. If things go wrong, he wants to be able to point the finger at you and say you promised him ponies and flowers if he signed on.

Knowing that, maybe the way to light a fire under his butt is to make sure he knows that he will be blamed for the inaction, and that you can guarantee him that the inaction will lead to bad things. He won't be happy, but he might go along to avoid the greater of two evils.
I've worked places where the department head would get blamed if the plans failed, and the dean would get the credit if the plans succeeded. If that has been the case here (or if he's been in that situation before) I can understand his reluctance.
Of course, you are assuming that you are right and the other person is wrong.

Having been on the receiving end of many (seemingly good-hearted?) edicts involving The Need To Do Something . . .

"We must Do Something!"
"Something is pointless!"
"Then you come up with Something Else- We Must Do Something!"


The problem is tractable only at a level beyond the ability/authority of either actor to affect it.

Like a lot of Do Somethings floating around life in general.

I am reminded of the toddler randomly throwing his/her clothes about while parent sorts the laundry . . . toddler cheerfully exclaiming "I'm Helping!"

Hmmm quite a few current/recent environmental (and/or economic) "initiatives" come to mind . . .
Like several others here, my first thought is that the chair's payoff matrix is radically different than yours.

Odds are very good that at the end of his tenure as Chair, he will remain in his department. If he backs a plan that blows up in his department's face, he can look forward to a quarter-century of criticism and ill-feeling from his of whom will be the next Chair. Plus, the person he stuck his neck out for---you---won't be able to help him. OTOH, if it works, he gets essentially no credit. In a non-fluid labor market, that's not good.

Better to make you force the issue, and then he gets the same payoff if it succeeds but with plausible deniability if it fails. Anyone who has succeeded well enough in academia to become a department chair knows this on a genetic level. Your payoff matrix is different but similarly shaped by the organizational structure you work in. (For that matter, it's also true for the politicians who passed the state mandate you are dealing with.)

I'm an evolutionary biologist, so I tend to think of these sorts of questions in a natural selection context. Given the environmental pressures of a given bureaucratic milieu, what sorts of people are likely to succeed in each niche? What are the selection pressures on them? Trying to convince someone to do something that's maladaptive because you want them to is not going to work well, even if it's for the good of the whole ecosystem. Selection is at the level of the organism, as Papa Charles pointed out. :)

I've worked in two types of bureaucracy (academic and government), and have observed a third (large corporate) at close range. All of them make sense in the context of this rule. Also, with study, it is possible to figure out how to use the weight of the organizational structure to accomplish what you want to...I like to call this "bureaucracy aikido". My old boss has his Red Tape Belt in this particular martial art, and has managed to make a career doing pretty much what he wants, at a good salary, and with the respect of his colleagues, in a very conservative organization. I'm not sure I'll ever equal my sensei, but Glasshoppah learned a lot, let me tell you.
What's the relationship between the behavior you've documented here, which is all too familiar and all too mistaken, and the "precautionary principle" favored by a good number of environmentalists? Sounds awfully similar to me.

And "optimism" or at least "cautious optimism" is the right word.
Reminds me of when I taught elementary school and was in charge of 60+ after school day care riders. I set up a tracking sheet with the name of each rider and his/her day care provider. So from the time the kids came to my location until I put them on their vans, I knew who had been there and loaded on the van. No child was lost.

If a child was supposed to be at my location after school was dismissed and was 5 minutes late, my aide began searching for him/her. The office called the child's parents and teacher, and if necessary the secretary would have called the parents of the child's friends. We would have known within 15 minutes or less if we had a missing child.

Thank goodness, we never had one. Usually the kid was goofing off on the way to the cafeteria (my location) or the parent had forgotten to tell Day care duty teacher (me) or the child's teacher or office that the parent would pick up the child that day.

If this system had failed, we would not have just had ego bruising, we would have had every adult's nightmare-a missing child.

There was no room for failure
and everyone,
I mean everyone, who was involved with this knew it.

We were dedicated to keep this system current and meeting the needs of our clients- children below the age of 12.

We had NO room for failure, nor did we worry about our egos. If one of us suggested a change which was shot down, no one had pride hurt.

Each one of us knew that if someone could explain how a proposed change wouldn't help our goal of keeping those children safe, we let the idea go.

Again, our egos were not involved. We were all on the same page emotionally and had the same mission--To keep our children safe.

We daily evaluated the procedures, (a short 3-4 min conversation about needs and SUCCESSES), and asked for and received input from teachers, parents, day care providers about the results of each and every change, no matter how minor. Basically the input question was, "We did things a little differently today. Did you have any problems on your end?" The answer was usually, "no".

Having this system work was TOO IMPORTANT to even think of our egos or allow any room for failure. And it didn't fail. Not once, thank God.

It seems to me if a whole department of professors wants the success of each student and wants to implement whatever procedures help that success, the chair and his/her profs would say, "Well we will work to make Choice A a success."

If the chair says, "We will make this work as well as we can but I need power to make on-the-spot corrections or adjustments", a procedure will work.

Experienced cooperative workers can make any boss look good.

If a change does not work, all concerned will have valuable information of how it has to be changed for the next round, if necessary.
In a perfect synchronicity, I read this and thought it was a good exploration of why we are risk averse or have a fear of failure. And one reason why Obama's message of hope scares some.
Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?