The problem with managing professors

Professors are difficult to manage; and not just because they have tenure. The root cause is that any of the proven management techniques we’ve derived over then last 100 years are not applied to academic institutions.

Let’s review a select few basic management principles and how they are violated in academe:

1. Reward people for the behaviour you want to encourage.

Professors are hired to do three things: Research, teaching, and institutional service. Yet they are only rewarded for research. More precisely, tenure and promotions are based upon research activity. Furthermore, engaging effortfully in teaching and service reduces research output. In effect, professors are punished for doing the aspects of their job that fall outside of research. So rather than being eccentric weirdos, professors are actually behaving rationally when they “don’t do their job.”

2. Establish concrete metrics and goals for performance.

Let’s take for granted the questionable assumption that research is the be-all-and-all of a professor’s job. What does that mean? The tonnage of articles produced every year? Articles published in high-impact-factor journals? Readership within a chosen field? Grant size from the Tri-Council (that’s a Canadian thing)? Depending on the institution, the criteria for a good publication record are fuzzy at best, and with most things academic, they are open to debate (The default position usually ends up being the use of the most simplistic metric possible: rate and number of peer-reviewed publications). In such a situation, how is a Department Head/Chair supposed to conduct a performance review and encourage quality teaching and service activities? Short answer is, they can’t–or at least they can’t without being hypocrites or appealing to reasons divorced from rational argument.

3. Everyone should have a common understanding of what makes for good performance

The violation of this principle is an extension of the previous one. No one has a common understanding of what “doing their job” means. And at the same time, they all judge each other for what they think is bad performance. Professors are no different than anyone else: Their self-worth is tied to how they compare to other people; comparisons are stronger with peers in domains that are personally important; and the skills and achievements that are valued are skewed toward things that they are good at. Simply put, high output publishers look down upon low output publishers; good teachers look down upon bad teachers; self-sacrificing, service-oriented professors look down upon self-involved individualists. Without a common understanding of performance–and attendant reward system–everyone feels entitled to judge one another and mutual disrespect is fostered.

4. The meaning of “academic freedom” has become warped over time

Academic freedom means that you are entitled to express ideas within your field of expertise without fear of institutional repercussions. “Tenure” is built upon that idea. But it does NOT mean you are free to commit any malfeasance you feel like, it does not mean you can express any idea without consequence regardless of whether it’s in your field of study, and it does not mean that you can pursue your own goals regardless of the impact it has on the institution and those around you.

Unfortunately, academic freedom and tenure have become confused with never losing your job. In many respects, tenure is an antiquated notion in modern Western society, where there are far more protections for workers than there used to be. When you’re talking about white-collar jobs at the level of the professoriate, it’s already pretty hard to get fired. There must be a documented record of underperformance over time, opportunities and guidance need to be provided for the employee to improve, and the reasons must be in reference to clear performance indicators, employment law, and human rights.

Most workers know that their jobs are contingent on their on-the-job behaviour and job performance, they know how those things are evaluated, and they behave accordingly. The link between employment and behaviour is not quite as clear-cut for professors. The reasons are because of everything I said above, and because that’s what happens when you become a professor right out of grad school, never having held a low-paying, disempowering job where real injustice is common.

I paint a bleak picture. Mostly for dramatic effect. The fact is, most professors actually do their jobs–all aspects of their jobs–and do them well. Frankly, it’s amazing the institutions function as well as they do given all the violations of good management practice that occur. But you’ll find that as a Department Head/Chair, an inordinately large portion of your time will be spent dealing with the 10% of problematic professors that unfortunately belong to your department. Don’t worry, it’s not you, it’s them.

I’m going to end here as this post is longer than I wanted it to be, but it did allow me to get a few things off my chest. Although I present no solutions, there’s still value in highlighting the problem.

I’m just funning with you. I’ll get to suggestions for dealing with these issues in the next post.

You’re not a volunteer

conceptual picture with keep trying and quit road signs

You are now the Head of your Department, or an Associate Dean, or an Area representative, or Chair of the university’s tenure and promotion committee….. Although you might feel like a volunteer, don’t act like one. And by that, I mean, don’t act like you can quit anytime you feel like it just because you’re not being paid (or paid commensurately).

Although you might feel like you’ve been dragged kicking and screaming into administrative leadership, you still agreed to it. You’re an adult; and probably a tenured adult. No one forced you to do anything. So own it.

Don’t use the threat of quitting your leadership position as a bargaining chip when you’re not getting your way. That’s not leadership; that’s a tantrum. For people to follow you, they must feel like you’re invested in managing the problems of the group. That you’ll be there when times are difficult. Those are the times when leaders are necessary. You are shouldering the burdens of administration so others are free to pursue their work unencumbered.

You are not entitled to hold people hostage just because you happen to hold a job no one wants. The threat of abdication is a sign of self-involvement and immaturity, which is the antithesis of leadership. Ask yourself why you chose to do the job. Was it to make change? To help others? To fix problems? These are laudable goals that are for the benefit of others. People are willing to work with you if they think your aims are the same and you are willing to self-sacrifice to achieve them.

Alternatively, did you choose to do the job because you don’t know how to say “no”? To look good? For respect? These are goals focused on the self, and if those are your reasons, you are destined for a breakdown. Don’t expect accolades for taking on a leadership role that others don’t want. Most people are ultimately focused on their own problems, especially when under stress. What distinguish leaders from others is their ability to focus on the needs of others, even at the expense of their own well-being.

Leadership is tough mostly because you are responsible for others–for their well-being and for their actions. And these same people will probably not thank you for it. But it can be a gratifying experience if you are truly interested in the well-being of others and you can find a way to make their lives better. It will also tell you something about yourself and whether you really are the selfless, empathetic, helpful person you think you are.

Leadership: Do it. Don’t do it. But don’t say you’ll do it and then abandon your post when times get tough. You ultimately cause more harm than if you said “no” in the first place. Not just because people have to spend time filling the vacuum you’ve left when they didn’t expect to; your actions are negatively affecting students–directly or indirectly. Those are not the actions of a leader, let alone an educator.


Online Industrial-Organizational MA Diploma

I-O Official Logo by Greg Chung-YanIt’s been awhile since I’ve updated any of my blogs. Not because I’ve run out of advice, heaven forbid. I’ve just sort of channelled my pedantic nature into creating content for an online course that I’m piloting this summer. It’s part of an online MA diploma certificate program in Industrial-Organizational Psychology I’m developing. I mocked up a webpage explaining what it’s all about (mostly to justify the expense of having bought up all these domain names). (Nice and simple)

I’m trying to make it as multimedia as possible, with voice-overs, vlogging (which is a lot harder than it looks), actor role-plays, etc. If you have more ideas, let me know.

It’s okay to be neurotic

There’s no shortage of management self-help books. By and large, they all probably give sound advice as to what to do and when; what methods, strategies, and tactics will prove effective given a particular set of circumstances. Robert Greene’s 48 Laws of Power is an example of a narratively compelling book, organized into a list of easily digestible “rules” of leadership and influence. It’s also an example of the persuasiveness of romantic stories over scientific studies. Don’t get me wrong, I actually like the book and believe there is some “good stuff” in it. But historical anecdotes should not be confused for empirical evidence. (If you want to read a scientifically grounded book, read Stephen P. Robbin’s The Truth About Managing People.) But I digress.

Other than the unwarranted authority and decisiveness by which self-help books dispense advice, I take issue with the lack of consideration of the people who are supposed to enact their advice. Although you might know what you should do in a particular situation, it doesn’t mean you will. Normal people can be, among other things, insecure, conflict averse, shy, socially awkward, afraid of looking stupid, critical, judgmental, and self-conscious. It’s also difficult to act appropriately in the moment when you’ve never had experience with a similar situation. So while it might be all well and good to give someone strategies on how to manage conflict, where is the motivation, will, and strength of character supposed to come from? Intellectualizing a problem does not put fire in the belly.

My advice starts from the assumption that you went to grad school for reasons other than acquiring power; that as a high-achieving intellectual, you are prone to introspection, self-doubt, procrastination, and dysfunctional perfectionism. This is obviously a gross misrepresentation of many academics, but I think this is a more useful jumping-off point when offering my counsel to a professor-turned-administrator than assuming you’re a budding … let’s say, Charlemagne.

So if you are wary entering your new administrative role because you don’t think you are a natural leader or you lack the requisite background, that’s normal. If you’re neurotic or blindingly insecure, you’re not alone; so are many other successful leaders. These are things that can be managed and compensated for. The mere fact that you volunteered for this new role–no matter how reluctantly–suggests to me you already have the prerequisites to be a successful leader: a service orientation and a desire to help your department, faculty, and university.