Disgruntled, tenured, and silent in the academic workplace

As some readers are quite aware, these are trying times at many universities, private and public alike. Finances are precarious, budgets are tight, and cutbacks are often the norm. At some schools, board members and senior administrators have turned into micro-managers. Highly paid senior administrators are proliferating at many universities, even as full-time faculty and staff are being laid off. Many will hire pricey consultants to help them do the work that they are not competent to do themselves, despite their hefty paychecks.

Instead of best practices winning the day, some of the worst excesses of private, non-profit, and public sector management seem to be festering in all too many institutions of higher learning.

In response, the voices of accountability, or at least those of the devil’s advocate, should be the tenured faculty. As I wrote in one of this blog’s most popular posts, tenured faculty typically have gone through a rigorous review process spanning many years, resulting in job protections much greater than those of the average worker. This includes the right and privilege of academic freedom, which is among the qualities that make colleges and universities different from many other workplaces.

In fact, the term “faculty governance,” a supposed bulwark of higher education culture and practice, relates directly to the exercise of academic freedom. It anticipates an active role for faculty in determining the future of an institution, and this may include questioning, probing, and criticizing proposed and adopted policies within the university.

But there’s a kind of hush…

All too often, however, certain tenured faculty remain silent. They may deeply object to what is transpiring around them, out of principle and/or self-interest. They also may enjoy additional institutional privileges, sometimes by dint of accomplishments, other times because of connections, and on occasion due to demographic status. If they would only speak up, they could make a difference.

But rather than jeopardize their privileges, they have nothing to say.

While others are questioning unwise and/or unfair practices and policies, they are nowhere to be heard. Oh, they may grouse in private, perhaps vehemently so. Maybe they’ll send a (private) e-mail of support to one of the “dissenters,” “rabble-rousers,” or “bomb throwers,” but when it comes to publicly aligning themselves with those who are sticking out their necks (sometimes on their behalf!), they stay mute.

If letters of protest are circulated, they may consider signing, but not until confirming that many others have signed on ahead of them. If a resolution criticizing a bad administrative move is being considered at a faculty meeting, they’ll wait a half second to see how others vote before raising their hand. If a close colleague or co-worker faces retaliation or termination and approaches them for help, they may express sympathy, while adding it’s a shame that there’s nothing they can say or do.

They obviously had the intellectual chops to get tenure, but in the aftermath of obtaining that brass ring, they’ve decided that it’s wiser to conduct themselves on a risk-free basis. If there are battles to be fought, let others step up to the challenge.

Over the years I have talked to faculty at many different universities about this dynamic. It is not uncommon, especially at more dysfunctional institutions.

The perks of silence

The disgruntled, tenured, and silent will stay in their offices, with fingers crossed that no one comes for them, while continuing to collect and enjoy the perks of silence.

The least admirable of these folks will kiss up to the very people whose actions they so (privately) criticize.

This is, of course, their right. Tenure does not oblige one to exercise the freedom of expression bestowed by that status. Nor does it prohibit anyone from stroking the egos of those they silently oppose. After all, why risk retaliation and sacrifice one’s privileges — earned or not — when others are willing to do so?

“Askhole” behavior in non-profits: An insightful and entertaining Vu

In a marvelously insightful and entertaining piece published on his Nonprofit With Balls blog, executive director Vu Le calls out non-profit leaders and organizations who are constantly asking their employees and other stakeholders for feedback and ideas, only to reject or ignore their suggestions over and again. He uses the term “askhole” to capture this behavior, and many who have experienced work life in this sector will find themselves chuckling in agreement.

Le begins by illustrating askhole behavior in an everyday social context. It’s hilarious:

Basically, you know that one friend who keeps coming crying to you about something, asks you for advice, and so you hit pause on Netflix, listen to them attentively, empathize, and give them reasonable suggestions, and then later you find out that they completely ignored you or did the opposite of what you recommended? That’s an askhole. Or someone who keeps asking for advice until they get an answer they agree with. That’s also an askhole.

Although Le is especially critical of the askhole dynamic confronting communities of color, it may apply in virtually any non-profit context. In essence, askhole behavior in the non-profit world promotes false hopes and leads to jaded attitudes, especially when it occurs repeatedly. In a line that jumped out at me, Le says, “We’ve been giving the same answers for, like, forever.”

Le does not merely curse the darkness. In his article, he offers good advice on how non-profits can avoid askhole behavior, such as “before launching some listening forum, check around to see what work has already been done,” and “if you insist on doing a listening process, get your org or foundation mentally ready and committed to trust the community’s feedback and act on it.”

So here’s the question for you non-profit dwellers: How many town meetings, “open door policies,” online surveys (helloooo, Survey Monkey!), strategic planning discussions, and coffee hours have you been invited to by senior administrators and perhaps board members? Of these, how many times have your concerns or suggestions been seriously considered, much less acted upon in an inclusive way?

Your answers will go a long way toward determining whether you have a healthy or dysfunctional organizational culture. They also will correlate strongly to the overall morale of rank-and-file stakeholders within your organization.

***

Hat tip to Kayhan Irani for the Vu Le article!

Related posts

Myths and realities about working in the non-profit sector (2014)

One-way feedback: In-house employee surveys and the illusion of open decision making (2012)

“Strategic planning”: All too often, a time-sucking bridge to nowhere (2011)

Recycling: Five years of February

Each month I’m reaching into the archives to highlight a piece from that month for each of the past five years. Especially for those of you who missed them the first time around, I hope they provide interesting and useful reading. For each post I’m including a short excerpt; you may click on the title for the full article.

February 2014: “I want to help stop workplace bullying” — “Periodically I get e-mails and voice mails from people who would like to get involved in addressing bullying at work. More often than not, they have experienced or witnessed workplace bullying firsthand, and now they’d like to do something on a broader scale to prevent bullying and help others who have been targeted. Here are my thoughts on this topic . . .”

February 2013: On creating organizational culture: What if your boss simply doesn’t care? — “We talk about good leaders who strive to create healthy organizational cultures, the places where people want to work. We talk about bad leaders who crack the whip, bully, and treat others as expendable parts. But what about bosses who don’t think much at all about the quality of work life within their organizations? What if notions such as supportive work environments, fair compensation structures, and organizational justice don’t cross their radar screens? What if all that matters to them are profits/revenues, avoiding liability, pleasing their boards & superiors, and getting ahead?”

February 2012: Recipe for healthy employee relations: Encourage speech, nurture civility, and prohibit abuse — “Organizations can, if they wish, clamp down on employee speech, encourage cutthroat competition, and bully workers relentlessly. Much of this will be legal, given the weaknesses of worker protections beyond employment discrimination laws. Of course, most of us know that such practices are a recipe for disaster, or at least guarantee an underperforming, low-morale workplace. With that in mind, let’s set out a few basic parameters for something better . . .”

February 2011: School bullying and workplace bullying: More alike than different? — “Beyond our families, our first encounters with others in a structured setting come via school. Is it not surprising that bullying behaviors modeled and validated in school settings reappear and evolve devolve in the workplace? More stuff to ponder here.”

February 2010: The University of Alabama-Huntsville shootings and the academic workplace — “I usually hesitate to use this blog to provide instantaneous analyses of developing news stories, but already it is clear that Friday’s terrible shootings at the University of Alabama-Huntsville will carry broader implications for academic workplaces. Three professors were killed, and two other professors and one staff member were injured during an incident that took place at a faculty meeting. In custody is Amy Bishop, an assistant professor in UAH’s biology department. Earlier that day, Bishop learned she had lost an appeal of her tenure denial. As soon as that piece of information was reported, the story behind this tragedy started to sharpen quickly.”

How to clamp down on worker dissent

If you’re a senior executive or manager and want to make sure that your workers don’t get too uppity, you might achieve your goal by being a tyrant and by encouraging your lieutenants to be the same way. Surely management-by-intimidation works, right?

Well, maybe, for a short while. At the same time, it surely will give rise to claims that you’re a jerk and maybe even a bully. And given a chance, your employees will leave for (hopefully) greener pastures.

A “better” approach

Fortunately, there’s another, more effective way to clamp down on worker dissent and possibly not have to answer for it. The trick is to do it with a smile, albeit an insincere one, and then take some action steps such as these:

  • Create a workplace culture that values superficial politeness over honest work relationships. Make sure that superficial atmosphere — what psychologists Linda Hartling and Elizabeth Sparks call a “pseudo-relational” organizational culture — sweeps employee concerns or differences of opinion under the rug. 
  • Insert a civility rule into your employee handbook that ensures, say, when a young staff assistant complains angrily about management inaction on her sexual harassment allegation, you can nail her for acting inappropriately, “in violation of our employee policies.” By turning targets of mistreatment into transgressors, you can get rid of pesky complainers.
  • Keep using the word “transparency” over and again, even as you become less transparent.
  • Favor and reward a group of loyalists who will act as surrogate defenders to slap down any criticism on your behalf. 
  • Bully and expel a dissenter or two to send a message to everyone else that they’d better not question the organizational line.

But hold on! At some point, this approach doesn’t work either. Once your employees figure out the passive-aggressive culture of your workplace, they’ll take a hike when other options open up.

Instead, try this…

Of course, the best way to reduce worker dissent is to keep an open door and an open mind to employee concerns. An energetically healthy workplace is not necessarily free of disagreement or conflict, but rather one that handles such matters honestly, transparently, and respectfully, whenever possible.

By creating an organizational culture of genuine openness, mutual accountability, fair expectations, dignified treatment, and maybe even some kindness and humor to go with it, you’ll reap the benefits and feel good about what you’re doing.

If more employers understood these basic “soft skills” of good management, then (1) our workplaces would be more productive; (2) workers at every level would be happier and healthier; and (3) the number of work-related grievances and lawsuits would shrink markedly.

It seems so easy, right?

***

As long-time readers may recognize, I’ve been using this blog as sort of a work-in-progress to sift through, relate, mix, and match assorted information, research, and insights. I’ve drawn upon a good dozen or so previous posts to crystallize ideas for this one. Thank you for your continued readership!

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Workplace gossip: From intelligence gathering to targeted bullying

Especially in the work context, the definition of gossip can be hard to corral. The online Merriam-Webster dictionary defines gossip as “information about the behavior and personal lives of other people.” In the workplace, however, these shared tidbits can also include details and rumors about salaries, working relationships, and working conditions.

In many instances, this is the stuff of everyday conversations at work. However, the presence of frequent and intense workplace gossip may signal deeper dysfunctions about an organization’s culture. It may manifest itself in offsite social media exchanges. In more severe instances, what might appear to be casual gossip is really part of a targeted campaign of defamation or bullying.

Earlier this month, Sue Shellenbarger of the Wall Street Journal wrote about dealing with gossip at work:

Office gossip can be a welcome distraction. It just can be hard to know what to do when you become the focal point. Overreacting or saying the wrong thing may fan the flames, but ignoring some kinds of gossip can damage your reputation or even career.

The full article (subscription necessary from this link) contains advice on what to do if you are the subject of workplace gossip and includes video and radio clips. (Editor’s note: To access the article online, I Googled “Shellenbarger” and “gossip” and got a clean link.)

Healthier gossip

Shellenbarger aptly notes that gossip can have its beneficial qualities:

Not all gossip is bad. Some workplace talk can help ease stress or frustration over perceived injustices, research shows. . . . Knowing and sharing gossip are ways for employees who lack power to gain informal influence among their peers.

American workplaces, especially, are more likely to be built around a top-down, command-and-control organizational and communications structure. When employers do not provide healthy avenues for exchange and feedback, informal conversations may be the only way to share important information. Sometimes there’s a fine line between gossip and useful intelligence gathering.

In addition, what some employers might label as gossip may actually be, under certain circumstances, forms of legally protected speech, such as sharing concerns about discrimination or sexual harassment, or engaging in discussions about working conditions. Employment discrimination laws, occupational safety and health laws, labor and collective bargaining laws, and assorted whistle blower provisions may be sources of protection for certain types of worker speech.

Gossip as a bullying or mobbing tactic

A graphic accompanying Shellenbarger’s article recommends that when a “rumor is false and threatening your reputation,” confronting the source(s) of the gossip is the appropriate response. On this point, I strongly urge caution and remind us that universal recommended responses may fail to account for critical nuances and can have bad consequences. On balance: Confronting a subordinate is less risky; confronting a peer (or peers) is somewhat riskier; and confronting a supervisor or superior is a very different situation and can be fraught with risk.

If gossip is for the purpose of maliciously trashing someone’s reputation and pushing them out of the workplace, then the situation may be part of a bullying or mobbing campaign. This is a far cry from casual or even reckless rumor mongering. We’re now talking about orchestrated, deliberate behaviors.

Spreading malicious gossip is among the most frequent bullying tactics used, especially by those who demonstrate psychopathic qualities. Calculatedly and without conscience, they plant the seeds in casual conversations and e-mails: Oh, you know what I heard? Guess what so-and-so told me. You can’t share this with anyone, but….

***

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One-way feedback: In-house employee surveys and the illusion of open decision making

A recent conversation at a conference confirmed my suspicions: More organizations are using online, “anonymous” surveys to get feedback from their employees. This practice appears to be especially common during strategic planning or organizational assessment stages.

Typically, an employee will get an e-mail in her inbox, inviting her to complete an online survey, often using programs such as SurveyMonkey. Topics vary widely, but usually they cover some aspect(s) of employment relations or management decision making.

Multiple choice, yes-no, agree-disagree questions will predominate, sometimes exclusively, thus sharply limiting the range of feedback.

The catch (or, catches)

So the employee may be thinking, great, they want my opinion! I’m fortunate to be working at a place that welcomes what I have to say!

But hold on. Frequently these surveys are done with an underlying agenda, usually one that seeks validation for an already favored course of action. (A telltale sign is when obvious choices or answers are not provided as response options, or when the survey is framed to exclude entire points of view.)

Call me a cynic, but here’s the usual situation:

1. The raw survey data are not shared with those who participated. Instead, a sanitized summary may be prepared and released.

2. If the survey results favor the desired outcome, they likely will be trumpeted to the high heavens.

3. If the results are ambiguous, you may not hear anything more, or those in charge will say the feedback was inconclusive and requires more thought.

4. If the results run squarely counter to the desired outcome, it’s possible that you’ll never hear another word about the survey, or reasons will be generated to disregard it (e.g., “it’s just a snapshot,” “too few respondents,” “we really shouldn’t be swayed against our better judgment”).

If organizations want genuine exchanges about planning, actions, and evaluations, they should consider making these survey results completely available, edited only for information that is defamatory or confidential — or at least guarantee that the individual tallies will be released regardless of how they come out.

Recipe for healthy employee relations: Encourage speech, nurture civility, and prohibit abuse

Okay, I’m kinda thinking out loud here, but I’ve been pondering the lines between promoting positive organizational cultures and drawing clear distinctions on when certain abusive behaviors call for sanctions.

In the U.S., the omnipresence of at-will employment — the right to hire and fire for any reason or no reason at all — and the low density of labor union membership means that most employers enjoy wide latitude to develop and implement employee relations policies and practices.

Organizations can, if they wish, clamp down on employee speech, encourage cutthroat competition, and bully workers relentlessly. Much of this will be legal, given the weaknesses of worker protections beyond employment discrimination laws.

Of course, most of us know that such practices are a recipe for disaster, or at least guarantee an underperforming, low-morale workplace. With that in mind, let’s set out a few basic parameters for something better:

1. Encourage speech — The late Peter Drucker, management guru extraordinaire, nailed it in his book Managing for the Future (1992), where he extolled the virtues of employee input and participation in problem solving. Drucker urged that “partnership with the responsible worker is the only way” to succeed in today’s knowledge and service economy.

Worker silence is a sign that many have withdrawn emotionally from the broader enterprise and are doing what they have to do to survive. An organization that encourages a robust, honest exchange of ideas and feedback is much better off than one that sends the opposite signal.

But be forewarned: Once someone is punished for stating her opinion or offering constructive criticism, trust can easily disintegrate. This has to be a “walk the talk” commitment if it is to flourish.

2. Nurture civility — Civility, fairness, and genuine inclusion should be practiced by management rather than preached. It’s all about creating a culture based on actual, observable practice and conduct.

However, imposing company civility or speech codes is problematic. The give and take of ordinary human interactions needs to make room for occasional sharp exchanges and flaring of tempers. When conduct gets out of hand, someone should step in (see below), but an everyday dust up should not be punished. In fact, it may be the canary in the coal mine that signals a deeper problem worth addressing.

3. Prohibit abuse — When speech becomes abusive, intervention is necessary. Bullying, harassment, and intimidation should be prohibited. Some aggressors can be coached or counseled; others should be disciplined or terminated. Targets of their behavior should be safeguarded and protected from retaliation for reporting the mistreatment.

This is an ultimate test of organizational ethics, especially if an aggressor happens to be a senior person. Strewn around too many workplaces are a lot of lumpy rugs, with very ugly, destructive behaviors swept under them.

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