Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Transparency or Integrity?

There's a pretty good piece in the Chronicle detailing the issues department heads face. The part that resonated with me:

Sometimes you agree fully with an order a the dean has given you, yet you know that it will not go over well in your department (for example: When you've been told to reduce significantly the number of "exceeds expectations" ratings you award to faculty members in line for a raise).

Other times you disagree strongly with the dean's proposal or order, but you must carry out the task...

The tension here comes from the narratives that faculty members develop to explain decisions and policies made above them. Most of the time, those narratives interpret actions and policies as the products of arrogance, misunderstanding, and even incompetence. Such conclusions are easy to reach because professors do not have the information that a dean has with which to understand the challenges of the moment, and they are not under pressure from others (in the central administration) to make changes.

Yup. But the same logic applies as you continue up the food chain. Just as chairs are caught between deans and departments, deans are caught between vp's and chairs, and I'd bet that vp's are caught between presidents and deans/departments. Hell, I've seen presidents caught between boards and staff.

One of my pet peeves about most management literature – leaving aside the faddishness, the celebrity-worship, the boosterism, the crimes against the English language, and the complete lack of historical awareness – is the unstated presumption that the readership consists entirely of CEO's and wannabe CEO's. They're written for and from the top. But most management takes place in those in-between spaces.

This is much more pronounced in academia, where the front line staff has tenure and there's no single clear profit imperative. When you have shared responsibility, broad mission, and limited incentives, and you're somewhere in the middle of the food chain, management consists largely of informal influencing to generate least-bad outcomes. It's just not the case that visualizing your inner Atilla the Hun will get the job done.

I've frequently been charged with fulfilling mandates with which I disagree. It's a pain. It's a bigger pain when you don't have the traditional tools of management at your disposal, so you have to softly persuade folks to do something you don't really buy either. (It's an even bigger pain when they respond by cogently raising the exact same objections you raised to your boss, unsuccessfully.)

In that situation, there's a basic tension between the ideal of transparency and the need to maintain the integrity of the chain of command. Were I to hold up transparency as the goal, I'd broadcast my disagreements. But that would simply excuse foot-dragging, open up the field for endless politicking, and divert energy from making the move the leadership wants made. (And it's folly to suggest resigning any time you disagree. Intelligent people who think will disagree. The only way to generate unanimity is to appoint idiots, which raises much nastier issues.) Depending on how it's done, it can reach the level of insubordination.

In the least-bad case, there's a clear split between decision and execution, so you know when it's appropriate to raise objections and when you should just shut up and get it done. In reality, though, execution usually involves a cascade of lower-order decisions, many of which raise unintended (and/or unforeseen) consequences. The bane of the middle manager is tending to those lower-order dilemmas in the service of a larger project that you consider misguided, especially when the lower-order dilemmas are nasty, unforeseen, and potentially precedent-setting. I still haven't seen a management book that addresses these dilemmas intelligently. (I'm open to suggestions!)

On a personal level, I try to distinguish between really fundamental disagreements, and disagreements that are closer to “I wouldn't have done it that way, but whatever.” The latter, I think, is simply the price of admission. (A series of the former prompted me to leave my previous job at Proprietary U.)

To the outside observer, though, it's easy to infer intentions from actions. Absent information about constraints, endorsing a least-bad option can just look like endorsing a bad option. To folks who aren't accountable for performance, it can seem great sport to speculate about the overpaid knuckle-dragging mouth-breathers who must have come up with that whopper. It's easy to remain pure when you don't have to choose, and it's easy to pass judgment when you aren't burdened with facts. And the informal grapevine isn't (effectively) bound by confidentiality rules, or even by truth.

Sigh. When the rubber chicken circuit finally pauses, I'll need a long sleep.