Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Day 09 (Round IV) "In the trenches": work smarter and harder edition

Taking over from a post over at Dean Dad, in which DD comments upon the lack of accountability which post-tenured faculty tend to get away with:

Your points about the pitfalls and problems of the system are, as always, well-taken. And, as somebody who's now a tenured beneficiary of the system, I would still agree with you that its structure is archaic and its potential for abuse by lazy senior faculty substantial.

However, leaving aside (what I believe to be) the unlikelihood of fundamentally dismantling the system, I'd put forth that it is possible to bring some pressure to bear on the non-performing seniors. In the current system, however, that pressure does not, as you've said, result from the implicit or explicit threat of termination.

On the contrary, the pressure can from administration come via the withholding of indulgences, resources, or enablements. I have observed expert administrators finding ways to reward those who, like TR, carry more than their equal share of the service burden: travel money, the go-ahead on pet initiatives, attention from and the ear of the boss; while tacitly withholding (or, let's say, "declining to commit the resources") to those who aren't pulling their weight.

This usually means that the administrator has to put up with a lot of self-entitled whining from the non-performing seniors: such folks seem to be remarkably unselfconscious about complaining when something is withheld, even if they are remarkably unresponsive to appeals to their work ethic. But if the administrator is willing to be a bit thick-skinned about sitting through the whining, s/he can still send the (mandatorily unstated) message "if you don't perform, you don't get the resources/indulgences/initiatives".

My observation and experience as an over-performing research/teaching/service contributor suggests that people like me are often willing to carry the extra weight, if we receive the extra resources/indulgences/initiatives. In fact, some of us figure out that, in the context of an academic administration in which there will inevitably be under-performing members, a little bit of extra work can grant extra power within the organization, even if you're junior to the non-performers.

As you say: you'd never even get out of HR if you tried to fire the non-performers. But you can isolate their infectiously bad attitudes, you can reward those who work harder, and you can actually bring a good deal of peer pressure to bear. In some jobs I've had, I've observed some (by no means all) under-performers, when they look around and observe a harder-working junior being rewarded, up their productivity, because not all bad or lazy behavior is ineradicable.

And, in the worst-case scenario, if the under-performers refuse to change, by rewarding the harder workers with resources/indulgences/initiatives, you as administrator are sending the clear, but legal implicit message, "hard workers get rewarded; under-performers become isolated."

That can't be a bad thing--even if it's not the ideal solution.

A commentator over at DD suggested that "the martyrs just need to stop permitting themselves to be martyred", which I think reflects a hopelessly simplistic, and not particularly incisive, understanding of what's happening. Mostly the "martyrs", as she put it, are in the position of taking on too much work because they don't feel safe, or perhaps diplomatically-equipped, to decline. And, another significant percentage of those folks--hardly "martyrs"--take on the extra work, not because they feel intimidated into accepting, but simply because they can't stand to have the work either (a) not happen or (b) happen poorly. Some of us take on extra work because we think it's work that is worth doing well. Of course, this is heavily impacted by one's own sense of the institutional culture in which one works--if you see your oboss working harder, and smarter, than anybody else, then the motivation to work harder and smarter yourself is vastly enhanced.

As I have said to my graduate students on the job market, and mentored junior colleagues just-hired: one of the best avenues to security and clout in a new job is to work about 5% harder and behave about 5% nicer than the local norm. It's not productive or wise to work FAR harder, as this can lead to either (a) alienation from colleagues who are put off or intimidated by an overachiever, or (b) to winding up in just the "martyrdom" position that Susan described.

But working a little bit harder, and being a little bit more graceful, than the local norm does a bunch of things, all positive:

  • it tends to confer the additional clout, and access to resources, that I've described above;
  • it tends to make one stand out positively against one's colleagues, because the normative reaction amongst academics to service duties is to either whine, resist, or under-perform;
  • it tends to confer a good sense of how the organization works, and which parts work well; and, as you perform a *little* better and act a *little* nicer, it tends to make a smart administrator select you for the more interesting, challenging, and hence rewarding service duties.

Dr Coyote

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