Tuesday, January 17, 2012


Handling Good News

“How to Handle Good News” should be a handout given to every new administrator.  It’s remarkably easy to handle it wrong.

Happily, I’ve had occasion to reflect on this recently.  A couple of key projects are starting to bear fruit.  These are projects that we’ve done the right way: specifics designed by faculty, assessment mechanisms built in from the outset, time and resources dedicated.  If not for the requirements of pseudonymity, I’d devote serial posts to celebrating them.  Pseudonyms being what they are, I’ll just say that it looks like we’re finally starting to make real progress on some longstanding and serious issues.

That said, it would be way too easy to kill them in the crib by celebrating them the wrong way.

The most obvious mistake is stealing credit.  Anyone who has had the experience of the boss (or advisor) taking credit for their work knows how demoralizing that can be.  It’s a pretty effective way of killing initiative, making the hard workers feel like suckers, and poisoning the well for years to come.  I’d hope that anyone with brains and at least some sense of empathy, if not of ethics, would know that.

A more common one is reframing the project retrospectively to fit into an alien agenda.  (“Alien Agenda” would be a great name for a band.  But I digress.)  If the folks who did the hard work feel like their efforts were hijacked for some other purpose, they’ll be wary of stepping up in the future.  The trick here is knowing where the boundaries are.  (This is where I’d expect admins who come from outside academia to run into issues.  They wouldn’t have as clear a sense of the boundaries.)  For example, trumpeting these projects as proof of the importance of outcomes assessment would probably strike many of the participants as betrayal.  They’ve used assessment well, and that’s to their credit, but it wasn’t really the point.  Turning it into the point after the fact would be bad faith.

I’ve also seen success celebrated in a really passive/aggressive way.  “These folks did something terrific, unlike some people...”  Don’t.  Just don’t.  Annointing some people as favorites leads to awful internal politics, perverse incentives, and tremendous misdirected energy.  Praise the work, not the people who did it.

Good news calls for celebration, but it needs to be constructive.  Notice success, ask questions, encourage more, provide resources, and for the love of all that’s good, don’t steal credit.  Especially in public, praise goes to the work more than the worker.  If Professor Jones did an amazing job on a course redesign, talk about how wonderful the course redesign is, not how wonderful Professor Jones is.  Others can also do great work, but nobody else can ever be Professor Jones.  Highlight verbs, not nouns.

The exact mechanisms vary by personality and context, but the principles shouldn’t.  When success comes along, celebrate it in ways that might actually encourage more success.  Let everyone get the message that they can be celebrated too, if they just step up.

And for the administrator, learn to celebrate vicariously.  It takes some self-discipline, but it’s for the best.

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen success turned into bitterness by being celebrated the wrong way?  Alternately, have you seen an encouragement that really struck a chord?

The "Employee of the Month" approach. When your faculty do great stuff, naming them the equivalent of the "Employee of the Month" just makes them feel like they might as well have gone into work in Fast Food. Give them money, give them time to continue doing awesome things, or even just thank them in a public forum - in person - where the President of the University/College or similar people are present and thus it seems like it actually means something. A monthly email with "employees of the month" just makes a lot of faculty pissed off.
Whatever you do, do it for all of your employees. And don't hand out free toasters or whatnot. I honestly don't get this. At my school, tenured & tenure-track folks get recognitions for every 5 years of service. And they get to pick out a toaster or other cheezy home electronic item, usually in the $10-$100 range as a "thank you" to them for their loyalty.

That's a dumb way of recognizing anything. First, if I need a toaster I'll go buy one. Second, this recognition is open to every tenure-track employee on campus - but not to the 45% of our instructional staff who are not on the tenure track, large percentages of whom have taught here for far longer than 5 years. Why not? HR told us it is because we aren't "real employees." Right...I'll be sure to let my students know...

Seriously, I think they're afraid of the added cost of all those toasters! Which gets us back to the start - don't use meaningless gimmicky stuff like free toasters to recognize success or reward loyalty. A simple, public, 'thank you' would do wonders.
Adding to Anon at 6:10-don't limit it to faculty at all. Many staff are often deeply involved on projects. I helped to write, submit and manage a $1mill grant from the feds and another from the state. Who got the credit? The faculty members. Why are faculty only eligible for certain awards. Unless it's an award specifically about teaching, it should be open to everyone. If faculty and staff stopped thinking of it as Us VS Them, maybe admin would too.
In my experience a simple, genuine Thank You goes a long way. For me it doesn't need to be a big public thing; I find them too often awkward and embarrassing. I remember once almost literally bumping into the a chair of our of the board of trustees in the hallway. (I teach at a tiny school where such encounters aren't uncommon.) The chairman mentioned that he had read about a grant that a colleague and I recently received, and offered congratulations and a simple thanks, adding that it was just the sort of thing he likes to see the college doing. It was a simple, genuine gesture that was much appreciated.

I agree with anon 7:43. Grants, initiatives, and so on almost always are a team effort and involve extra work by staff as well as faculty. An inclusive thank you is important and is essential to maintaining morale and good will.

In general, I am wary of awards and such. They almost inevitably create resentment and seem to suggest that recognition is a limited commodity. Perhaps a nice celebration meal for all (faculty and staff) participants is a nice gesture and bit of recognition. Awards or merit bonuses don't feel so good to me. (My former president once tried to give me a secret bonus; I returned it.)
Along the same lines as Dr. Crazy's comment, a circulated email announcement is rather like a slap in the face. Don't give into that temptation, even at the busiest time of year.

If it's big enough that the politicians want to get in on the event, don't let that be the only way in which the achievement is celebrated. I know that administrators can't say no to politicians without repercussions, but don't let that be the end of the matter.

Politicians are great at tooting their own horns and getting the photo-op. That should be different than the people of the college or university recognizing and celebrating whatever's been accomplished.
I'm in industry, so a totally different environment, but one of the things that drives me crazy is our culture of taking 1 minute to tell someone they did a great job, then spending the next 5 minutes telling them:
1. What they could have done better
2. What other work they now need to do

I mean, seriously. split up those conversations, and just let praise be praise. Sigh.
Also, only praise things that are actually positive. While teaching at a high school, I once worked under a principal who was incapable of writing an email that didn't sound like a press release, and it pretty much made me want to stab her.

My favorite was the time when she tried to spin telling the teachers that we were not allowed to eat the food bought for parent-teacher conferences (which were required for us to attend and in the evening) because the school could only afford to buy enough food to bribe the parents into showing up into something about how bravely the school "family" was going hungry to show our commitment to something-or-other. Seriously, just tell me I can't eat the food. Apologize. Don't try to make it into some kind of positive and awe-inspiring thing that you're making us do. (I've done these conferences at several schools and the teachers have always organized potlucks for themselves, so I wasn't even particularly expecting to get free food at this one, which made the whole thing even more weird and off-putting.)
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