Wednesday, March 20, 2019
When Ladders Disappear
Some costs are harder to estimate than others. I’m not quite sure how to estimate this one, but I’m convinced it’s both real and increasingly substantial.
When organizations have multiple layers and ranks, it’s possible for employees to envision an upward career trajectory. If enough employees actually move up, over time, an expectation forms that if you do your job well and don’t do anything egregiously awful, there’s a real possibility of promotion. Sometimes that can become an unearned sense of entitlement, which isn’t ideal, but if the possibility hovers in that sweet spot of “plausible, but you have to work for it,” it can actually motivate people to work more or better than their immediate rank or pay level would seem to require. They’re building credits for moving up. To use a phrase I don’t like, they see it as paying dues.
When revenues get tight, colleges will often eliminate intermediate layers. The idea is that if you have to do triage, you want to ensure that resources go to direct service, meaning those who work directly with students. In the short term, the logic is hard to refute. Barely a day goes by that I don’t see someone on the internet rail against “deanlets” and all sorts of imagined parasites lodged in the theoretically bloated administrative ranks, as if community colleges and research universities are interchangeable.
But taking away those ranks takes away a career ladder. Over time, the folks on the front lines may start to wonder why they’re paying dues in the first place. That leads to departures, or burnout, or just a gradual reduction of effort from “proving myself” to “doing only what’s required.”
In other words, the very measures undertaken in response to decline can actually accelerate decline. The previous baseline included performance above what was being paid for, because the folks going the extra mile had some sense that it would eventually be rewarded. If that sense goes away, then gradually, those extra miles go away, too.
In other words, an apparent short-term efficiency gain brings with it a long-term cost that’s hard to quantify, but that is both real and compounding. It’s a reaction to the loss of a plausible future.
I don’t know what the term is for that, or whether anyone has quantified it. Higher ed is prone to it even in good times, given that someone who achieves the rank of full professor in her 40’s has no higher to go for the next few decades unless she switches jobs entirely. Outside of faculty roles, it’s often impossible to move up until someone above moves on. If that person’s job vanishes behind her, then there’s nowhere to go.
In austere times, worrying about people’s career ladders may seem like a luxury, but it isn’t. It’s part of what motivates folks to step up.
Is there a term for that? If so, has anybody quantified its effects?