Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Ask the Administrator: Again with the Klingons...

A longtime correspondent writes:

I am a mid-level academic administrator who supervises a few dozen faculty. Of those, maybe two or three make occasional but persistent misjudgments that require some time disentangling. None of these are particularly serious--they're on the level of mislaying paperwork, failing to follow up on commitments, or making requests that they should know cannot be approved--but each incident does take my time to resolve, and oftentimes it wastes student, staff, or colleagues' time.
My concern is not about individual incidents but the energy it takes to treat these colleagues fairly. Over the medium and long term, this pattern tends to erode my trust in their professional judgment. But because they are generally contributing members of my unit, I want to and should treat them like their colleagues. The problem? Every time a potential issue comes up, some amount of effort goes into focusing on the issue at hand and not the broader pattern that makes me think "Oh, no, not again." I feel like I am in a behavioral-economics experiment, trying to find out how much energy it takes for me to keep my focus.
Any suggestions you have for not letting such patterns be draining in the long run?

Many years ago, I remember seeing a sketch about the twentieth Star Trek sequel.  (I’m thinking it was either on The Simpsons or In Living Color.)  Geriatric Sulu announced to Geriatric Kirk that a Klingon ship was approaching.  Kirk sighed and said resignedly “again with the Klingons…”

We all have some version of “again with the Klingons…”

If it were a one-on-one relationship between equals, you could just decide how much irritation is worth tolerating, and allocate your exposure accordingly.  (I have known people whom I adored in small doses, but knew I couldn’t handle in large ones.  To be fair, I’m sure some have thought the same of me.)  But as a manager, sometimes you don’t have the option of just looking away.  Other people in your area will watch how you handle the Klingon.  Tolerate too much, and they’ll decide that anything goes and either go wild or distance themselves from the entire unit.  Come down too hard on the Klingon, and they’ll defend him, even if they don’t like him.  They’ll do that just to establish the principle that administrators are always wrong, especially -- because most dangerously -- when they’re right.  Any longtime administrator can tell tales of faculty who will demand privately that you go after so-and-so, only to declare in public that they are shocked and appalled at the very thought of it.  

And that’s why dealing with Klingons can be so draining.  They’re constantly tempting you, whether consciously or not, to lose your cool and blast them out of the sky.  But if you do that, the collateral damage to you will be far more than they’re worth.  At some level, they know that.  

Kudos for making the conscious effort to separate the person from the action.  There’s no reason to give the Klingon a free pass for selfish or idiotic behavior.  If that means having the same conversation repeatedly, then that’s what it means.  C.K. Gunsalus’ wonderful The College Administrator’s Survival Guide included a great tip for a second and/or third iteration of the same conversation: follow it up immediately with a written summary, asking for any corrections right away.  At least then you’ll be able to parry any claims that this is the first time they’re hearing of something. If the Klingon gets annoyed, well, fair is fair.  After a while, if it comes to that, the memos can be arranged into a paper trail.

In terms of emotional self-management, though, I’ve found a few strategies that usually work for me.  They’re a bit contradictory, but that’s how emotions are.

One is to focus on the long term.  Will you still be annoyed about this next week?  If not, would you still be paying the price next week for the impulsive response you had today?  Leading by example may not have the short-term visceral thrill of catharsis, but it wears better over time.  As a wise person once told me, the best revenge is living well.

The second, which is related, is to choose your battles.  Separating the person from the action is really helpful here.  Would you still feel called to action if someone else had done the same thing?  Are students being harmed by it?  

The third, which I’ll admit using when the first two don’t quite cut it, is to direct your anger somewhere harmless.  On really bad days, I’ll blast angry music in the car on the way home and curse up a storm just to get it out of my system.  Working out is also helpful -- not only can you express your frustration physically, but you can actually make yourself healthier in the process.  If the Klingon winds up motivating more vigorous cardio, well, so be it.  

Good luck!

Those usually work for me, but I’m sure there are other ways.  Wise and worldly readers, how do you handle those human versions of the pebble in the shoe?

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