Friday, November 05, 2010

Ask the Administrator: Apologies

An occasional correspondent writes:

I'm an adjunct at a local CC. This semester, I haven't been very good about grading assignments in a timely manner. One particular student has been constantly asking for an update on his grade. I finally caught up with everything last night, but came in this morning to find out the student had gone to my department head, his department head, and my department dean to complain about me. When my department head came to me with this information, he was very supportive about being on "my side" and letting me know the student didn't come across as very credible. I responded with "Well, it's too bad he went to this extreme, but it's reasonable that he would want to know his grade and he had a legitimate reason to be upset. I'm sorry about all of this." At this, my department head give me something of an incredulous look, sort of "I'm throwing you a line here, why are you doing this?"

So here's my question. Should one deal with student complaints the way one deals with a car crash? i.e. You never say "I'm sorry, it was my fault" because that admission can come back to haunt you. Is it better to reply, "Oh, those wacky students. I'll take care of it." I think this question applies to anytime one is blamed, justly or unjustly, for some workplace SNAFU. Is "I'm sorry" always an admission of guilt that automatically weakens your position?

I hate to default to “it depends,” but it actually does.

Smart managers will reward truthfulness. In a setting in which people are secure in the knowledge that messengers don’t get shot, people will be much more willing to come forward with uncomfortable truths. That’s a good thing, since it will bring hidden problems to light and make it easier to address them. It will also save a great deal of time and work decoding messages, since people will be likelier to deliver truths unencrypted.

However, not all managers are smart. Some of them, I hate to admit, will tend to either shoot the messenger or “solve” problems by finding someone to blame. In a pin-the-blame-on-the-donkey environment, admitting a mistake can be terribly costly.

I’ve worked in both settings. (Happily, right now I’m in the former.) Which more accurately describes your setting, I don’t know.

If you’re in a “find someone to blame” environment, the safest thing to do is to say as little as possible. There, if confronted with a partially true accusation, the prudent course is a noncommittal but dismissive expression, with as few words as possible. You’re essentially acknowledging receipt of the message, without even addressing its merits.

(In a really toxic setting, if you run out of other options, you can always resort to “HOW DARE YOU, SIR!” I should warn you, though, that anyone with experience will take that as an admission of guilt.)

Some people will try passing the blame on to someone else, but I don’t recommend that. It just makes an already toxic setting that much worse. You can also resort to blanket denials and/or webs of self-justifying lies, but again, you’re just digging yourself in deeper. The right to remain silent should not be underestimated.

Depending on the severity of the accusation, if you have a union, you might want to have your union rep with you. In most areas I assume this wouldn’t apply to adjuncts, but if you’re lucky enough to have an adjunct union, this can be a productive approach.

Interestingly, the strongest “pin the blame” culture I’ve seen was actually in a heavily tenured setting. Shaming was the weapon of choice for maintaining order. Over the years, it led to a beaten-down, hangdog culture. No, thanks.

One of the ways to tell if a local culture is functional or dysfunctional is by seeing what happens when someone actually does admit fault. Does it lead to problem-solving or blame-pinning?

I suspect plenty of wise and worldly readers have had experiences with this. Readers, what would you advise?

Good luck!

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.