Thursday, July 21, 2016


The Unspoken

What do you do when a colleague’s spoken commitments and unspoken commitments seem to conflict?

I read a piece this week in preparation for a workshop that really rang true.  It’s about high performers who seem to have persistent blind spots, or isolated areas of chronic footdragging.  It suggested that a common cause is an unspoken commitment that the spoken commitment seems to violate.  The challenge for the manager is to get that unspoken commitment to the surface.

I’ve been in that situation myself, so it resonated with me.  For example, I believe strongly that widespread use of OER would be beneficial for students, and especially for lower-income students for whom textbook costs conflict with, say, rent.  I also believe in the freedom of individual faculty to pick their own instructional materials.  If I didn’t have the latter belief, I could push much harder on the former.  As it is, I have to resort to persuasion, which is necessarily both slower and patchier.  I console myself with the thought that freely-reached agreement has more staying power than force or fiat, but the path to get there is longer and curvier than would be ideal.  Something like Tidewater’s Z-degree strikes me as admirable, but also as coercive in a way that makes me queasy.  And students are paying the price, literally, in the meantime.

Unspoken commitments can be irrational (I don’t think that particular one is) and persistent.  They’re taken as ground rules for how the world works, not really open for debate.  People often don’t even know they have them until the commitments are threatened; at that point, they may or may not be able to connect the dots.  Instead, they’ll have a visceral sense that something isn’t quite right, but they’ll try to pin it on something concrete that’s only tangentially related, if it’s related at all.  From a management, time spent chasing those proxy issues is about as productive as shadow boxing.  

The article suggested bringing those unspoken commitments to the surface, the better to address them directly.

Which is great, when it works.  But self-awareness is not evenly distributed.  How do you help people bring those assumptions to the surface, especially if they’re afraid that they’re being judged at the time?

It’s especially tricky in a collective bargaining environment, in which someone can hide behind a representative.  After all, it’s conceivable that the unspoken commitment, once spoken, could lead to an inexorable conclusion.  As the old saying goes, it’s hard to get a man to understand an idea when his paycheck depends on his not understanding it.

As an employee, I’ve routinely resisted armchair psychoanalysis when it has been tried.  It struck me as overreaching; if I do my job well, my inner self is my own.  But as a manager, I can’t help but see cases of very intelligent and capable people hit the same blind spot repeatedly.  When the pattern holds for years, and resists surface-level measures, you have a choice: you can accept chronically low performance, you can terminate (assuming the option exists), or you can try to get to the root of it.  

Wise and worldly readers, have you found a reasonably effective way to isolate the unspoken?

Program note: I’ll be at the Aspen future presidents program next week, so the blog will take a break.  It, and I, will be back for the first week of August.

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