Tuesday, September 01, 2009



Keeping with the amusement park theme from yesterday (variations on a theme park?), most of yesterday was devoted to a real life version of whack-a-mole.

Whack-a-mole is a game wherein you have a mallet, and you stand facing some 'ground' with a bunch of holes in it. Each hole contains a mechanical mole, and they pop up at random intervals. Your job is to hit each mole on the head as quickly as possible when it pops up. It's remarkably satisfying.

The real life version is satisfying, too, when it works. At least for a little while.

Befitting the last moments before classes start and the onslaught hits, emergencies popped up all day. An adjunct backed out! The server is down! Two key people are suddenly fighting!

Typically, half the battle is getting everyone to calm down long enough to get the full picture.

When things get abruptly weird, there's usually a temptation to just solve it. Just do it. And in rare cases -- small child obliviously in path of oncoming car, say -- that's the right response. Whack the mole and don't waste time thinking.

But here, most of the time, abrupt solutions cause more issues than they solve. The adjunct backed out? Just give the class to so-and-so! But then so-and-so doesn't want it, and someone else did, and why weren't they considered, and this has happened before, and The Administration has its favorites, and I'm in a protected class, and...

No, no, no.

I don't know the psychological principle behind it, but when stressed, most people seem to develop a sort of tunnel vision. That one mole looms large, and they can't see anything else.
But focusing on one mole is a guaranteed way to lose the game. There are always more moles out there. The trick is not to lose sight of them. In this setting, that means stepping back for a moment, bouncing ideas off other people, and coming up with something beyond the unthinking response.

It's even worse with interpersonal conflict. Some of the behind-the-scenes people are running pretty ragged right now, and having a hard time keeping up with everything that has to get squared away before classes start. Unfortunately, one person's third priority is another one's first, and the latter is getting pretty annoyed at the former. Under stress, even good people quickly resort to escalating blame, since in their frustration they don't consider other explanations. (To be fair, I do this with other drivers all the time.) Blaming causes CYA behavior, which leads to avoidance, which means the problem gets worse, which leads to more blaming...Again, no, no, no.

In these situations, you have to do a tricky two-step: acknowledge the frustration and urgency, then get everyone to take a step back anyway. That's what my day of whack-a-mole has been. It's closer to 'hostage negotiator' than 'firefighter.' Yesterday, it worked. Today, we'll see...

The real life version is satisfying, too, when it works. At least for a little while.

Then you notice you're surrounded by a bunch of dead or dying moles.

Keep up the good admin work. One definition of "manager" I read was "the person who insists on coordination." I like that idea -- insistence.

I tend to think the metaphor of putting out fires works better. At least it's not seeing the people involved as the problem, necessarily.
I personally like the whack-a-mole metaphor, myself, much better than putting out fires.

That said, when you mentioned playing negotiator, I loved the scene in "The negotiator" where Kevin Spacey (the police negotiator) is trying to negotiate a truce between his wife and daughter. His character says, "I once talked a guy out of blowing up the Sears Tower but I can't talk my wife out of the bedroom or my kid off the phone." It is a great moment, showing how our skills don't always work, especially when we really need them the most!
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