Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Why Managers Sometimes Fall for Crap (Part 1 of...)

As a faculty member, I adhered faithfully to the widespread belief that managers are morons. There was ample evidence for that thesis: they fell for tall tales, rewarded (or just noticed) all the wrong things, and had absolutely no idea what I did in class. (In a way, this belief motivated me to go into administration – I can’t possibly be any dumber than those people…)

As a manager, I can’t deny any of the specific charges, but I don’t think I’ve become noticeably dumber, either. Instead, the position carries with it, structurally, certain blind spots.

Some of those blind spots are obvious. As a teacher, for the most part, you stay in the academic discipline in which you were trained. (At most, in a small school, you may have to cover an adjoining one – sociology and psychology, say, or physics and math.) As a manager, you have to oversee disciplines far removed from your own, and the higher the management position, the more true this becomes. A college president has to oversee everything from music to nursing to literature to the non-credit evening yoga classes; asking her to be expert in all of those would be insane. While deans have smaller scopes of control than presidents do, we still have to venture far outside our home disciplines, which means that, when it comes to subject matter, we frequently have to take the faculty’s word for it. To a professor, that can look like idiocy.

We can’t sit in on every class, all the time, either, so much of what goes on in the classroom will, of necessity, go unnoticed. I like to think of that as respect for professional autonomy (I have no intention of micromanaging every instructional decision everyone makes!), but it’s also in part just a concession to reality. I know that basing evaluations on limited inputs is less than ideal, but limiting input is the only way to get anything done.

Other blind spots are less obvious from the outside. One of the lessons that managers have to keep re-learning (and that wouldn’t kill others to notice, either!) is that other people see things differently than you do.

I’ve had occasion to see this recently in comparing retirements. We’ve had a few faculty retire this year, and each one managed her departure differently. One wanted a full day of acknowledgement, with former students, pomp and circumstances, gnashing of teeth and rending of garments. Another wanted to slip away without mention, even going so far as to ask that the customary retirement gift not be personalized, so she could donate it to a charity that could then sell it. One wanted a departmental party but nothing larger; another insisted on calling in luminaries from past decades to an after-hours party at a posh restaurant with an open bar.

I’m okay with any of these; being allowed to call your last shot strikes me as a basic professional courtesy. That said, I have to take on faith that each one’s stated desires are, in fact, what they want. (Hence, the oft-noted blindness of administrators to irony or sarcasm.) If I wrote off a heartfelt request as ironic, the charges of arrogance would fly fast and hard. So I take a chance, and try to honor requests as they’re made. If someone requests the wrong thing hoping to be talked out of it, well, sorry.

(Corrolary: Never self-deprecate to a manager. Never, Never, Never. S/he will believe you!)

(Sub-Corrolary: This is why pompous windbags sometimes get rewarded. For all their flaws, at least they don’t self-deprecate.)

Differences in perspective emerge where you wouldn’t expect them. Without getting too detailed, I recently had a relatively banal request from a student to verify a grade. Ordinarily, I would expect the professor to check her records, report the grade, and that’s the end of that. This professor took extreme umbrage, charging all manner of interference and intimidation, questioning my motives, etc. Now, what should have been a five-minute matter will involve several days of diplomacy.

I can’t respond candidly (i.e. “get over yourself!”), lest I fuel the fire even more. So I do the it’s-just-procedure dance, carefully reassuring all and sundry that doublechecking a grade is not, in fact, tantamount to a full assault on tenure, higher education, democracy, and All Things Good. You’d think this would be obvious, but it isn’t.

The unpredictability (and inexplicability!) of others’ worldviews means that managers have to fall back on rules of thumb, heuristics, procedures, etc., all of which are sometimes wrong. Omniscience isn’t an option, and what professor Bob thinks is clear evidence of an evil conspiracy will strike professor Mike as beneath notice. Each will think his perspective is unquestionably right. In that, at least, they’re both wrong. And each will, at one time or another, decide that I’m an idiot for not seeing what is unquestionably right.