Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Clueless in Seattle

An alert reader sent me this story from the Seattle Times. It's about the hiring and abrupt firing, with allegations of physical assault, of Washington State University Provost Steven Hoch. It's worth reading in its entirety, since every detail seems sillier than the one before it. Even without any additional information, I read the story very differently than its author apparently does.

A quick read would suggest that Hoch is the bad guy, and he may be. (I don't know any of the principals in this case, and I don't have any inside information about it.) Certainly the headline -- “WSU did not verify provost's references” -- would lead a casual reader to suspect that Hoch had, say, a taste for heroin or a penchant for streaking. But read on, and a few gems come to light.

Apparently, prior to starting there, a few administrators Hoch thought would report to him “made it clear that they would not be answering to him, but only to [President] Floyd.” Alarmed, Hoch sent a memo to the President, outlining what he thought the proper chain of command actually was. The President, Elson Floyd, responded:

"I write to tell you that I find your memorandum ... deeply troubling for several reasons: 1) In over three decades of university administration, I have never received this type of confirming correspondence from a colleague. In my judgment, it sends a strong signal of lack of trust; and 2) I do not intend to have a relationship with colleagues desirous of reducing conversations to writing."
Floyd goes on to say in the e-mail that as "you gain a deeper familiarity with the WSU culture and climate, you will come to understand that I have created an organization that is more driven by relationships than reporting lines."

Wow. Just, wow.

“I have created an organization that is more driven by relationships than reporting lines.” If there's a more succinct summary of narcissistic management, I haven't seen it.

Reducing unclear (or high-stakes) conversations to written summary is Management 101. It's done specifically to prevent misunderstandings that can result from selective memory, inattention, ambiguous language, or worse. Hoch encountered a scenario different from the one he thought he had agreed to, so he tried to get written clarification. That's what you're supposed to do. It's a way of clarifying boundaries. The President took offense, since narcissists hate boundaries.

Later, when Hoch started the job, the underlings took offense when he took the written chain of command literally. He reacted badly, but he was right to be shocked.

Now, the President is insinuating – without proof – that there's a deep character flaw in Hoch. (That's the subtext of “we should have checked his references.”) There may or may not be, but that sort of tut-tutting is straight out of the manage-by-favoritism playbook. If someone didn't play along, the only possible explanation is a character flaw. (Soviet psychology worked by the same principle – if you're unhappy in the workers' paradise, you must be insane.) It couldn't be, say, a realization that the courtier system is fundamentally flawed.

Now Hoch looks bad for accepting the extraordinarily well-paid fallback position to which he's contractually entitled, and the President is quoted in the story as deliberately fostering a hostile work environment. Amazing.

Honestly, I couldn't make this stuff up.

It's notoriously difficult to spot toxic situations before getting into them. People are often on their best behavior during the interview/courtship phase, and enough of that ritual is scripted that it can difficult to pick up red flags while there's still time. At that point, information is limited and filtered, and often viewed in the most optimistic possible light. And very few people have enough self-awareness to know their flaws, let alone the confidence to confess them. (Weirdly, I've seen plenty of people with just enough self-awareness to explicitly deny their own flaws, even while displaying them. How exactly that works I'll leave to the psychologists.) Besides, if you're on the market in the first place, it's probably because there's something unsatisfying about your current situation, so you may be willing to discount red flags at the new place on the grounds that hey, at least it's not the old place.

I suppose it's possible that WSU is the land of milk and honey, in which peace and love reign, and into which an outsider attempted to introduce sin. Anything's possible, I suppose.

But I don't buy it. I wish Dr. Hoch well in his new faculty role. And I suggest that if he wants to clear his name, that he publicly donate a huge chunk of his salary to the WSU foundation for student scholarships. Kill them with kindness.