Wednesday, March 25, 2009


Following Someone Nice

I'm increasingly convinced that one of the most common flaws of so many administrators is a misguided urge to be nice.

This often manifests itself in some long-undiagnosed but longstanding performance issues hitting a crisis level, but with a paper trail of relatively positive evaluations. The managers explain the positive evaluations with variations on “I didn't want to upset them.”


Yes, some performance issues are abrupt, and can properly be treated as such. But most of them are cumulative, so that any single instance may seem trivial. Lateness is like that. A single instance can (and does) happen to everybody once in a while, often for reasons for which they couldn't reasonably be held to account. When those happen to people with strong records, the occasions are properly understood as aberrant. But some people make lateness a way of life, forcing their coworkers to pick up their slack in their absence.

The problem is that, in an effort to be nice, some managers just look the other way long enough that the employee starts to think that nothing is wrong. Then when a straw comes along that breaks the camel's back, the employee screams that suddenly being held to account is arbitrary. Worse, there's a sense in which the employee is right. The law works on 'precedent,' which assumes that if hundreds of previous straws did no harm, then another one won't, either. That's a flaw in the law, but it is what it is.

It's especially bad when you're a new manager working with a longstanding employee whose previous manager wimped out on evaluations. Now you're trapped by somebody else's failures, and attempting to fix the problem will be held against you. Establishing an actionable paper trail in the wake of a previous manager's failures can take inordinately long, when it's possible at all. In the meantime, if you try to do the right thing, declining performance will almost certainly be accompanied by bad attitude and internal politicking. Whether it's worth the headache is often a very real question. But if you decide it isn't, be prepared to be challenged by other low performers you actually do address.

To my mind, 'niceness' is a much lower-order good than fairness. Fairness dictates keeping in mind the damage done to everybody else, and to the mission of the place, by the low performer.

Although we're paid far less than our counterparts in private industry, managers in higher ed have a much tougher personnel challenge. It's easy to maintain high standards when you have an at-will system. But when you have tenure and/or unions in place, weeding out the worst takes far more time, money, and effort, and the probability of failing anyway is dauntingly high. Any move you make will be challenged procedurally, the union will grieve you, and you will be charged with discrimination against whatever protected class the employee can claim. If the low performer is well-connected on campus, expect a popular movement to arise in opposition, and your actions to be taken as part and parcel of a much larger and more sinister agenda. And because the issues at hand deal with personnel, you won't be at liberty to rebut any of it in public. This can go on for years.

This is the stuff they don't tell you when you take that first administrative gig. Each newbie has to learn it for herself. Far too many deal with it by avoiding it entirely, and simply looking the other way when people fall short. That makes the job that much harder for the rest of us.

Yes, good communication can help. Yes, frequent feedback is a good thing. But those both take time, and both will quickly be challenged by an entrenched employee with street savvy. In some cases, they will even be challenged as violations of past practice. When the past practice in question isn't your own, that's particularly galling, but there it is.

It's great when managers are smart, and well-read, and cordial, and safely funny. But I'm increasingly convinced that most of it boils down to temperament. You need to be likable, but you can't need to be liked. If you need to be liked, you won't do it right. If you can't handle confrontation (or, to be fair, if you're a confrontation junkie), you won't do it right. If you're doing it right, some people won't like you. It's a harsh truth, but a truth. Nice is nice, but fair is fair.

Although we're paid far less than our counterparts in private industry, managers in higher ed have a much tougher personnel challenge.

And you can say this because...?

A consistent theme here with you, DD, seems to be "my job is tougher than everyone else's... we're different in academia..."

The fact is, managers in all jobs are having to work to get employees to align their personal goals, ambitions, and desires with those of the "corporate" entity, whether it is business, academia, or military. The best leaders actually lead through measures other than fear and intimidation (so, your assumption that "at will" makes leadership easier is flawed.)

You aren't that different...
Putting aside the problem of defining "parity" with "counterparts in private industry" I think a stronger case could be made that " . . . we're paid far more than our equivalent counterparts in industry . . . "

As far as the "challenges" of leading a homogenous group of generally intelligent, well-educated, like-minded people in a static (cushy?) environment, well . . .

I know, I know, it's human nature. Everybody thinks they are underpaid, under-appreciated, and that their jobs are the toughest in the world.
Anonymous above is mistaken: the job is tougher because both payoffs and prods are smaller. It is much more difficult to effectively motivate an employee who essentially can't be fired (tenured faculty) while also motivating employees who are scandalously underpaid (most administrative staff). Dean Dad is correct, "Anonymous" is wrong: "the reason that turf battles in academia are so fierce is because the stakes are so *small*".

In more constructive response to DD's main point, I'm reminded of a line from a Buddhist teacher years ago, about being a teacher/leader; he said:

"You have to dare to be disliked."

I agree.
DD: I read and enjoy your blog even though I've never been an administrator or professor, and after April 13, won't even have anything to do with academia anymore. I also read Joel on Software even though I've never had anything to do with computer programming or running a software company. In my head, your blog and his have a lot in common. You both explain to me how the world works, why the system is the way it is... Why running things is much harder than it looks, what the constraints are. And to the extent that I ever do have a management role (my new job will involve some of that) I'll have learned a lot from reading your blog. But even if I never found myself in a similar role, I think I'm more enlightened about the world thanks to your perspective. I have a lot more sympathy for my bosses.

Anyway, I just wanted to say thanks for that.
In a similar vein to Mary's, I've been a retail manager for 8 years (Good Lord, has it really been that long?) and am looking to do the flip into academics. I'm only teaching one section of Freshman Comp ATM, but it's always refreshing too see that managing people is managing people.

And yes, I was/am a "nice" manager at my store; it makes actual management horrendously difficult. I pity whoever follows me.
Thanks, Dean Dad. This is what I've been saying for a couple of years now in my comments about tenure.

Tenure is NOT a guaranteed job-for-life. Getting rid of someone with tenure is messy--which it should be--but it is certainly do-able.

Here's how to fire a tenured professor who, to use your example, is always late:

1. The Dean requests a meeting with Professor Late. The union grievance chair is invited. At the meeting, the Dean provides documentation. He says something like "This record will not become part of your personnel file unless you continue to be late to class. If you show up on time, the problem will be over. We'll be done. However, if you continue to be late, you should anticipate another meeting which will have some real consequences."
The union grievance chair talks to Professor Late and tells him that he needs to show up to class on time.

2. Professor Late is still late. The Dean schedules another meeting and invites the union grievance chair. The Dean provides further documentation. This time, the Dean says, "I've prepared an official letter of reprimand that will become part of your personnel file. Please note the last sentence: 'Repetition of this behavior could result in further disciplinary action, up to and including suspension or dismissal.' Got it?" The union grievance chair explains, again, to Professor Late that he can't be late all the time. "I don't have a magic wand that can make this go away," he says.

3. Professor Late is still late. The Dean schecules another meeting and invites the union grievance chair. At the meeting, the Dean provides more documentation, and proposes suspending Late for five days without pay. The union grievance chair persuades the Dean to reduce this to one or two days. The Dean reminds Late that "repetition of this behavior could result in further disciplinary action up to and including suspension or dismissal."

4. Professor Late is still late. Ditto all of the above, but this time he's suspended without pay for a week.

5. Professor Late is still late. The District dismisses him with cause. The union goes to arbitration. There is a clear and concrete paper trail which the arbitrator cannot ignore. Furthermore there is a clear pattern of "progressive discipline" from a verbal warning to a letter of reprimand to suspension without pay.

6. Bye-bye Professor Late.

I've been union president and/or grievance chair for 20 years, and I've NEVER seen this happen. While Professor Late is certainly at fault, so are administrators who don't do their jobs.

Following on Philip's comment: This will work even if Professor Late has been late to class for twenty years without being criticized for it. As long as a bright-line standard is applied to everyone, and is broadly seen as reasonable, I suspect that most staffers would accept that it's just a more explicit application of a long-standing implicit contract.

Other performance issues, such as what constitutes "good enough" teaching, are much harder.

Gotta run...don't want to violate an implicit contract with my committee. ;)
It is relevant that DD has worked both in a private organization without tenure and a public one with tenure.
Dictyranger is, of course, correct: "Performance issues, such as what constitutes 'good enough' teaching, are much harder" to quantify.

But the same principles--adequate documentation and progressive discipline--are all-important. Poor student evaluations and poor classroom observations are a start. Putting a bad teacher on what we call a "needs improvement plan" at my school comes next. The plan has to be specific, do-able, and measureable. If Professor Bad doesn't demonstrate any measurable improvement, then all the rest can follow. It almost never does, but whose fault is that? NOT the union's.

I've never worked in academia. I have supervised UAW employees though. The process there was pretty similar to what you described. But you forgot step 1.1 where everyone assumes it's personal.

And Step 1.2 where Late's friends all get attitude problems because I’m picking on late.

And step 2.1 where you tell me offline that I'm being an ass and that if this is how I want to play the game i should be prepared.

And step 2.2 where late’s friends file every grievance they can think of.
Step 3.1 is where you talk with my group and get everyone organized in wasting my time on stupid grievances.

Step 3.2 is where my boss (whose time is also wasted asks me if this is worth it).

Step 3.3 is where ‘work to rule’ is applied in as unproductive manner as possible. I’m not sure how this would apply in a college.

Step 3.4 is where everyone who isn’t involved wants to know why I’m trying to hurt Late’s family for no good reason.
Step 4.1 is where you turn it up a notch start to screw with my peers and
step 4.2 is where senior union leaders talk with my boss and ask HIM if this is worth it.

You see how it goes. I’ll bet that colleges might not have work to rule, but they do have shared governance and the two probably balance out.

I’ll ditto the other comment about DD’s comparison to private industry. They’re different and you might make more in HRM than a community college. But it’s not as easy as you seem to think it is.
"To my mind, 'niceness' is a much lower-order good than fairness. Fairness dictates keeping in mind the damage done to everybody else, and to the mission of the place, by the low performer"

- I cannot agree more!
For Joe: I don't think this sort of thing is easy (and I bet Philip doesn't either). I work in a unionized government facility, so trust me, I've seen everything you describe and more.

I do, however, think it's possible to correct an underperforming employee, especially if there's at least some level of cooperative feeling and shared mission. It's also important to do so, because you don't want to be seen as playing the other employees for suckers.

The folks here where I work really do seem to care about doing a good job, by and large. So, the "problem children" (about 5% of the total workforce, I'd say) do stand out, and everyone knows who they are. I've even seen other staffers back up a supervisor's negative review when it was clearly warranted.

If the workforce is divided into warring camps, however, all bets are off. That happens just as much in private industry as it does in academia, though. It's just that the private-industry version of slacking looks different.
People don't seem to read these comments after two days, but I'll go ahead anyway.

I've honest-to-goodness NEVER seen anything like Joe's 1.1, 1.2, 2.1, etc. scenario. Honest!

In my little community college world, what with peer evaluation and tenure review, it's other teachers who make many of the to-(try to)-fire-or-not-to-fire decisions. Sad to say, the rule of thumb is the flakier the teacher, the harder he is on his colleagues.

And if you think being a union guy means joyful days spent dumping big buckets of shit on administrators' heads, try explaining to a gaggle of looney faculty geese that if they want to fire a good teacher like Professor A, they need to have a better reason than "he doesn't seem to fit in with the rest of us in the department."

Then explain to another righteously indignant group that while you certainly understand that Professor B is not only a nitwit but an asshole as well, he still has due process rights. Even Charles Manson gets a fair trial.

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