Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Climate Change

A thoughtful reader forwarded me a link to his blog post, in which he sets out a few, fairly narrow conditions under which he considers it appropriate for administrators to “tackle the faculty.” They are:

- When you have a legal obligation or a mandate from further up the administrative food chain. "I know you don't like it, folks, but we have to do it."
- When you have some actual power to enforce. "If we don't get cooperation with the new policy, we won't be able to fund Project X. Take your pick."
- When you have strong support from vocal and respected campus leaders. "On the recommendation of the Faculty Senate, I am instituting the following policy."
- When your position is so morally compelling that you couldn't do anything else. "I cannot in good conscience support the current policy."

I responded less graciously than I should have. Having had a few days to think about it, I think I wasn’t so much responding to the four conditions as to the question itself.

In managing creative and independent-minded people with different scopes of responsibility and finite resources, some level of conflict is inevitable. But there’s conflict, and then there’s conflict.

In the very short term, when a given issue is on fire, the options can be pretty stark. But over time, what really matters is the climate in which the issues are discussed. Savvy administrators who intend to stick around a while understand that the real issue is climate change.

(Full disclosure: it took me years, and a lot of patient feedback from both readers and faculty, to figure this out.)

The climate will affect even the way that questions are heard. In a nervous and antagonistic setting, a dean asking “what went wrong?” will sound like “whose fault is this?” In response, then, you’ll get either blame-shifting or histrionic counterattacks (“how dare you?”), neither of which addresses the question. In a high-trust setting, you might get actual answers to the question, which could lay the foundation for actual improvement in the future.

With that in mind, the real task is not to figure out how to ‘win’ this battle or that one, or even deciding which battles to pick. It’s to figure out how to establish a climate in which searching discussions don’t have to become battles. Make conflict the exception, rather than the norm.

That’s a slow process. Trust is earned slowly and lost quickly; building it where it hasn’t existed for a while will be halting, gradual, and uneven work. The transition will be awkward, as people don’t quite know what to believe, and will sometimes strain to interpret benign moves in sinister ways. As some move faster than others, some miscommunications will occur, and old habits will sometimes die hard.

But it’s worth it.

I have to admit being pleasantly surprised at the ways that some folks on campus have stepped up lately. They’re beginning to notice that it’s safe to tell the truth, and that playing “follow the bouncing blame” isn’t worth it. As the climate warms up, some questions that used to be too risky to even bring up are becoming speakable, and in some areas we’re actually starting to get a handle on some issues that would have been radioactive a couple of years ago. In a couple of cases, I could feel a palpable sense of relief in the room when difficult questions resulted in thoughtful and honest discussion, instead of the usual posturing. Dare I say it, we’re actually starting to address reality.

In this setting, hard rules about when to fight and when not to just seem off-base. The point is to get to where most issues don’t result in fights.