Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Handling Good News

“How to Handle Good News” should be a handout given to every new administrator.  It’s remarkably easy to handle it wrong.

Happily, I’ve had occasion to reflect on this recently.  A couple of key projects are starting to bear fruit.  These are projects that we’ve done the right way: specifics designed by faculty, assessment mechanisms built in from the outset, time and resources dedicated.  If not for the requirements of pseudonymity, I’d devote serial posts to celebrating them.  Pseudonyms being what they are, I’ll just say that it looks like we’re finally starting to make real progress on some longstanding and serious issues.

That said, it would be way too easy to kill them in the crib by celebrating them the wrong way.

The most obvious mistake is stealing credit.  Anyone who has had the experience of the boss (or advisor) taking credit for their work knows how demoralizing that can be.  It’s a pretty effective way of killing initiative, making the hard workers feel like suckers, and poisoning the well for years to come.  I’d hope that anyone with brains and at least some sense of empathy, if not of ethics, would know that.

A more common one is reframing the project retrospectively to fit into an alien agenda.  (“Alien Agenda” would be a great name for a band.  But I digress.)  If the folks who did the hard work feel like their efforts were hijacked for some other purpose, they’ll be wary of stepping up in the future.  The trick here is knowing where the boundaries are.  (This is where I’d expect admins who come from outside academia to run into issues.  They wouldn’t have as clear a sense of the boundaries.)  For example, trumpeting these projects as proof of the importance of outcomes assessment would probably strike many of the participants as betrayal.  They’ve used assessment well, and that’s to their credit, but it wasn’t really the point.  Turning it into the point after the fact would be bad faith.

I’ve also seen success celebrated in a really passive/aggressive way.  “These folks did something terrific, unlike some people...”  Don’t.  Just don’t.  Annointing some people as favorites leads to awful internal politics, perverse incentives, and tremendous misdirected energy.  Praise the work, not the people who did it.

Good news calls for celebration, but it needs to be constructive.  Notice success, ask questions, encourage more, provide resources, and for the love of all that’s good, don’t steal credit.  Especially in public, praise goes to the work more than the worker.  If Professor Jones did an amazing job on a course redesign, talk about how wonderful the course redesign is, not how wonderful Professor Jones is.  Others can also do great work, but nobody else can ever be Professor Jones.  Highlight verbs, not nouns.

The exact mechanisms vary by personality and context, but the principles shouldn’t.  When success comes along, celebrate it in ways that might actually encourage more success.  Let everyone get the message that they can be celebrated too, if they just step up.

And for the administrator, learn to celebrate vicariously.  It takes some self-discipline, but it’s for the best.

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen success turned into bitterness by being celebrated the wrong way?  Alternately, have you seen an encouragement that really struck a chord?