Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Following Someone Nice

I'm increasingly convinced that one of the most common flaws of so many administrators is a misguided urge to be nice.

This often manifests itself in some long-undiagnosed but longstanding performance issues hitting a crisis level, but with a paper trail of relatively positive evaluations. The managers explain the positive evaluations with variations on “I didn't want to upset them.”


Yes, some performance issues are abrupt, and can properly be treated as such. But most of them are cumulative, so that any single instance may seem trivial. Lateness is like that. A single instance can (and does) happen to everybody once in a while, often for reasons for which they couldn't reasonably be held to account. When those happen to people with strong records, the occasions are properly understood as aberrant. But some people make lateness a way of life, forcing their coworkers to pick up their slack in their absence.

The problem is that, in an effort to be nice, some managers just look the other way long enough that the employee starts to think that nothing is wrong. Then when a straw comes along that breaks the camel's back, the employee screams that suddenly being held to account is arbitrary. Worse, there's a sense in which the employee is right. The law works on 'precedent,' which assumes that if hundreds of previous straws did no harm, then another one won't, either. That's a flaw in the law, but it is what it is.

It's especially bad when you're a new manager working with a longstanding employee whose previous manager wimped out on evaluations. Now you're trapped by somebody else's failures, and attempting to fix the problem will be held against you. Establishing an actionable paper trail in the wake of a previous manager's failures can take inordinately long, when it's possible at all. In the meantime, if you try to do the right thing, declining performance will almost certainly be accompanied by bad attitude and internal politicking. Whether it's worth the headache is often a very real question. But if you decide it isn't, be prepared to be challenged by other low performers you actually do address.

To my mind, 'niceness' is a much lower-order good than fairness. Fairness dictates keeping in mind the damage done to everybody else, and to the mission of the place, by the low performer.

Although we're paid far less than our counterparts in private industry, managers in higher ed have a much tougher personnel challenge. It's easy to maintain high standards when you have an at-will system. But when you have tenure and/or unions in place, weeding out the worst takes far more time, money, and effort, and the probability of failing anyway is dauntingly high. Any move you make will be challenged procedurally, the union will grieve you, and you will be charged with discrimination against whatever protected class the employee can claim. If the low performer is well-connected on campus, expect a popular movement to arise in opposition, and your actions to be taken as part and parcel of a much larger and more sinister agenda. And because the issues at hand deal with personnel, you won't be at liberty to rebut any of it in public. This can go on for years.

This is the stuff they don't tell you when you take that first administrative gig. Each newbie has to learn it for herself. Far too many deal with it by avoiding it entirely, and simply looking the other way when people fall short. That makes the job that much harder for the rest of us.

Yes, good communication can help. Yes, frequent feedback is a good thing. But those both take time, and both will quickly be challenged by an entrenched employee with street savvy. In some cases, they will even be challenged as violations of past practice. When the past practice in question isn't your own, that's particularly galling, but there it is.

It's great when managers are smart, and well-read, and cordial, and safely funny. But I'm increasingly convinced that most of it boils down to temperament. You need to be likable, but you can't need to be liked. If you need to be liked, you won't do it right. If you can't handle confrontation (or, to be fair, if you're a confrontation junkie), you won't do it right. If you're doing it right, some people won't like you. It's a harsh truth, but a truth. Nice is nice, but fair is fair.