Thursday, March 10, 2011

Tiger Chair

As a typical professor of Science, I know little about effective management skills, except what I have been able to pick up along the way by experimenting on students and postdocs. Most of my faculty colleagues have had similar experiences (i.e., a lack thereof), including those who find themselves in charge of committees, departments, and so on. I should therefore have sympathy for these colleagues when they struggle to "manage" us faculty, surely a difficult task for anyone.

And I do have sympathy, to some extent. What I hate, though, is the Scold Approach of management used by some chairpersons of various academic groups. I have recently experienced two modes of the Scold Approach:

Mode 1: in which someone in charge of something scolds a group of people in advance of their having done anything wrong. That is, the scolding is proactive, based on the assumption that some or all of us are likely to screw up, do something annoying, or waste the chairperson's time. This assumption may well be based on experience, but is it effective? Does it in fact decrease the chances of people doing the things they are criticized in advance for hypothetically doing?

Mode 2: in which someone in charge of something scolds certain unnamed people (typically, just one or a few) in a larger group of people, most or all of whom are blameless of the incident provoking the scolding. Recently, while sitting in a group that was scolded for something rather strange, I then spent the next 5-10 minutes sifting through the possibilities to understand the reason for, and the targets of, this criticism. I concluded that one or two people who were at the meeting were being scolded for possibly not being at the meeting, although they were definitely there and had not missed any meetings for months. As far as I could tell, all of us at the meeting were vaguely warned that we should all be at the meeting because 1-2 people might not have attended even though they did.

Is the Scold Approach an approved management technique, widely known as an example of best practices for persons tasked with producing deliverables whose outcomes for stakeholders need to be assessed? (for example)

This approach doesn't work well on me, perhaps for the same reason that use of the terms stakeholders and deliverables in an academic context makes me queasy. That is, being proactively scolded does not inspire me to be a better person who follows the rules in a timely way.

In place of mode 1, I would instead prefer being made aware of the rules/guidelines/deadlines/policies and politely reminded of what is required, and in place of mode 2, well, I would just get rid of mode 2. If there is a specific issue that potentially affects a small number of people, why not just talk to those individuals and not bother the rest of the group unless it becomes relevant to do so?

Those would be my preferences, but perhaps my approach would lead to misbehavior and chaos. I haven't found that to be the case with my gentle, non-scolding approach to parenting, which may or may not be different in important ways from being in charge of an academic committee or unit.

Perhaps mode 1 does decrease problems and makes a committee or unit run more smoothly? And perhaps mode 2 is a good way of reminding the group about procedures and expectations? I am hoping that readers will chime in and say "No no no, those are terrible ways to lead a group of people. It is much better to be nice and efficient than to be scolding and random. The next time someone proactively scolds you like that, you should snarl at them and show your fangs."

But feel free to dash these hopes.

25 comments:

Gears said...

They are probably using the tactic of shaming in front of your peers as Mode 2. In the management world that's probably a useful, well-tried tactic but in academia where you are herding cats, it's entirely different.

I'm with you that scolding isn't needed in front of a whole group, especially not professors. But if they are explaining "Look, I know we all hate this but we need to do it for ABET..." that's not scolding in my view. That's probably more on the sympathetic management side, which is what I prefer

MamaRox said...

Why is it that professors so rarely seek out or are offered some management training? This sort of thing could done upon hire, like the fire/lab safety training many of us are required to do. It could also be done by online modules, etc. I've seen so many poor managers in academia, many who seem to have not learned from their many years with grad students and postdocs...

Rachel said...

AHHH I hate the scold approach! I'm only a lowly grad student but have definitely had experience with both... certain administrative assistants in our department seem to be extremely fond of Mode 1 and it drives me craaaazzzyyyy. I have to admit that I've sometimes used Mode 2 on undergrads in labs I teach... I never thought about how obnoxious that is. Hmm, may have to rethink.

BiophysicsForAll said...

I don't think scolding is effective, but I don't think snarling and showing your fangs would help much (if at all). For me, how I manage my students (or committee members, or whatever) follows the Golden Rule (do to others as you want done to you), and this works really well to create a happy, productive, responsive group.

I consider myself an effective manager, and I make my Golden Rule management style as well-known as possible (for example, explaining to new faculty members how I deal with various sticky situations with students). For me, this is the best way to eliminate scolders who can be saved. Entrenched scolders, like most entrenched people, are not likely to change and hence contact with them (including snarling) should be minimized.

Anonymous said...

I am so glad this post is not about Charlie Sheen. Though his strategy might come in handy here.

Anonymous said...

I wonder if these people also raise their kids this way - poor kids to always worry about what they might be able to do wrong. Positive approach "training" is generally shown to be most effective in all settings. E.g. people show up on time and get their work done when it is appreciated.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

The important issue is not really the effectiveness of scolding per se. Any manager that thinks it is necessary to scold has already managed ineffectively and thereby gotten herself in that position.

Figuring out a better strategy than scolding once you are in that position is missing the point; you should be figuring out how to not get in that position in the first place.

Anonymous said...

There is another Scolding Mode that comes to mind: have unwritten rules (or expectations) that newcomers are not told about, then lie in wait until they unknowingly break these rules (or fail to meet these expectations), then ambush them with a Scolding. For extra points, perform the Scolding in front of other people or even better, in a meeting.

I have experienced all of this in grad school.

For extra extra points, you can do what my host parents did when I was on a high school exchange in a country where I had only a moderate grasp of the language and culture upon arrival: in addition to post facto scolding, also punish them for breaking the Rule, because they "should have known" about it (even though it was never communicated to them), assert that they broke the Rule on purpose, make insinuations about their character and family upbringing, and generalize these to all individuals of their racial/ethnic/cultural/national background. The optimist in me wants to hope that this sort of abuse doesn't happen in academic settings, the pessimist in me says there are bound to be examples of it in academia, too, and we can only hope they are rarer than elsewhere.

Monisha said...

What about the possibility that scolders in mode 1 actually think they are "politely reminding and clarifying the rules," but the recipients experience it as scolding?

We've experienced such faculty meeting interactions in our department (which is generally as well run as possible in awful economic times), with different faculty having very different responses to a behavior that could be interpreted as polite reminders OR advance scolding....

Anonymous said...

I have never understood why academia is so resistant to the expertise of the non-academe world. (Perhaps this is why academia and professors are seen as insular and aloof?) I don't understand why universities don't hire *managers* to be department heads and the like -- you know, people who have trained for this type of position -- instead of plucking up the one willing professor and hoping s/he is decent at figuring out how to manage.

The best-managed research group I was involved in was in government; our group was run by a team-of-three: 2 managers (one who was the uber-boss and represented our group and got us money and did all the politically necessary stuff; and one who ran the day-to-day people management, budgeting and so forth) and 1 technical expert.

And universities should support management training to grad students, post-docs and professors. Not sure, though, how to make management valued in academia. In industry it makes monetary sense; not sure why that's not the case in academia.

(FWIW, management in all the non-profits I've worked for or volunteered with has been pretty bad, too, similar to academia.)

Worm Pilot said...

I am so often puzzled by the academic pipeline. You start out in grad school, figure out how to work at the bench, write, and think. Go to a post doc, and supposedly do more of the same, being responsible for primarily yourself (maybe a grad student or undergrad?). Then immediately become a PI, which is essentially like running a small business, and throw in some teaching in there somewhere. You are never taught to manage or teach, or really do much besides work at the bench and design experiments. No wonder so many academics are poor managers! And it's sad to say the system keeps perpetuating this.

In fact, I am leaving my post doc because I work for one of these poor managers (she is a 'way after the fact scolder'), and I'm done. Maybe I should get some management training myself and then start programs at universities to teach new PIs how to be effective managers...hmmm....

Think of how many grad students and post docs would thank me...

Silver Fox said...

Please rest assured that private business and industry is not devoid of poor managers, many of whom have had training that didn't take.

Anonymous said...

I admit to having used method #2 - let me explain my reasoning. I'm in high energy physics and public shaming is routine - and often (mostly?) unjust.

I was in one situation where a post doc in the group where I did my PhD repeatedly ignored polite, private emails noting that the solution to the problem he was facing was in my thesis and he publicly tried to give credit to this solution and the work involved in implementing it to another person. I finally publicly corrected him because (a) I need to make sure I get credit for my work and publicly crediting someone else for a major work in my thesis is seriously harmful to me and (b) public corrections are harder to ignore.

In another situation, a tenured faculty member had tried to step in to lead the project I'd been leading for several months (I'm a post doc.) This effort was thwarted because I was way more productive. Even after this, after several months he had not actually done anything and the project risked failing. So I publicly called him out on not having done anything.

In another situation a (different) tenured faculty member repeatedly ignored presentations I'd given on a proposed method. Again, despite repeated private reminders, he eventually gave a presentation proposing a method, ignoring what I'd said completely. This presentation was public and my supervisor actually thought, wow, we're this far in and she hasn't yet even considered the method we're going to use for the measurement? and thought that I had screwed up. So I publicly corrected him with citations to the (public) record of what I'd said earlier. Finally after my (male) supervisor repeated my suggestions, then the problem faculty member listened to my ideas. Just not when I'd said them.

If someone publicly does something which is harmful to me and repeatedly ignores/rebuffs private, polite corrections, I cannot ignore that. And if someone does something truly harmful that is private, that also deserves a response, sometimes a public one, depending on the act. I am not a doormat. Saying things publicly puts them in the public record and makes problems harder to ignore. It helps to make ugly, dirty, nasty, unethical things that other people are doing to me public because (a) it helps me get allies in helping solve the problem and (b) people who do these things deserve to lose the respect of some of their colleagues.

That said, I am not yet in a position where I am managing many people. Sometimes making a problem public is a good way to attempt to manage bad behavior by someone above you in the hierarchy. I have not done this to people who are below me in the hierarchy and while it may be appropriate sometimes (for instance, so other students know that a particular behavior is not OK) I agree it should be done with care.

Anonymous said...

I have participated in some "management" training, but it has all been useless to me because the training was done by people with no experience managing a research group. The people doing the training had no clue what the particular issues are for academics. They had lots of boring powerpoints with text slides, lots of cute nicknames and acronyms for methods, and were more interested in describing horrifying little games to play to establish bonding, trust, or whatever than in talking about relevant strategies. Now I laugh whenever I read comments about how professors should seek management training. Yes, maybe we should, but it would have to be relevant to our working lives.

Alex said...

What anon at 11:11 said. Saying that we should be trained in something is not the same as saying that all of the available training out there is actually valuable. Much of it is probably as sucky as anything in academia.

See Silver Fox's comment for more information.

Anonymous said...

I went to a talk last week by someone who was supposed to be teaching us professors about communication skills and how we in turn can teach these to our students in an integrated way in our classes. This communication expert showed a powerpoint presentation that violated all known laws of using presentation software for communication purposes: lots of text in small Times font, lots of arrows and shapes that served no purpose, lots of extra things that we were told to ignore but that were there to be stared at along with the things that apparently were important. This expert should come to some of our classes to see how it should be done. I'm not actually saying that we are all perfect and have nothing to learn, but I wish my university would stop wasting our time with these 'experts'.

Alex said...

Anon at 01:46 reminds me of a conversation I had yesterday with an industrial scientist. He wanted to rant about the problems with how universities train students, how students lack concrete experience and are rooted in theory. He proceeded to spend an hour rambling about a vaporware project that had no defined goals, resources, personnel, facilities, etc., and how involvement in this project would give students real-world experience that's so much better than school and totally different from an internship.

Anonymous said...

Ironically, the management professors in our department are by FAR the worst managers. It could be they're doing it on purpose so they can cut down on service obligations, but I'm not so sure that's what's going on.

Ms.PhD said...

Wow, I love all the constructive suggestions here. I'm totally with CPP- something went wrong already, or you wouldn't need these kinds of conversations.

mode 1 = controlling. Someone can't figure out how to motivate/reward people, so instead they're scolding. That's just lame but it works well on very insecure people who crave approval and thrive on guilt (not that I'm recommending it!).

mode 2 = passive-aggressive. I'm scolding you for you're not sure what and you might not even be here to hear it? Also lame and usually ineffective, because the people who are disobedient or not the types to feel bad about it and the people who are listening probably aren't the perpetrators (as you said yourself).

So I think the real question here is, do you ever use these approaches on your group or collaborators, FSP? How do you avoid getting yourself into these kinds of situations?

yolio said...

Total management fail. Scolding is almost never effective management. It just creates resistance.

I have a book rec on this subject: "Clevers" by goffee and jones. These are business school types talking about best practices for managing highly trained/skilled workers, such as academics. They have a really interesting perspective on the whole thing.

Anonymous said...

A possible reason for Mode 2 scolding is fear. The manager wants to scold a particular person, but is unwilling to do it directly -- usually for some bad reason. Perhaps (s)he is afraid that the scaldee will take it personally, that it will start a "you are singleing me out because I am ___ (fat|old|young|foreign|tall|short|any other ridiculous and non-pertinent category).

A general scolding sends the same message, and allows the disingenious response "I did not single you out. If you happen to be one of the people guilty of the offense, please correct your behavior, but this is a generic warning to all."

Peter said...

Due to the tendency of people to regress to the mean, scolding always seems to work, and praise never seems to work.

After someone does a great job, it is likely that they will do a poorer job on the next thing as they regress to their own mean. Thus, if a boss are not aware of this, praise will seem ineffective, as the response to praise will be a poorer job than the previous time (which it would be no matter what - the effect of the praise is likely small as compared to the regression effect).

On the other hand, if someone does a poor job, then it is quite likely that they will do a better job next time. In this, they will be regressing to the mean from the below, rather than from above (progressing to the mean?). Thus, to the boss who is unaware of this effect, scolding will seem super-effective because after the scolding, the person did a better job the next time (which they would have done anyway as the regressed to the mean).

All of this together, means that a boss who has not taken this effect to heart can end up becoming a scolding nagging passive-aggressive constantly-negative boss, because, in their experience, negative feedback is the only thing that appears to get results. The tricky thing, and this requires humility on the part of the boss, is to accept that these "results" would have been obtained without the boss's praise or scolding, simply through a well-understood statistical phenomenon.

Peter said...

In response to my own comment, I made a blog post talking about this very effect and showing how the "boss" of a random number generator would be forced to conclude that praise (when it produces a high number) is a poor method of producing high numbers, but that scorn (when the machine produces a low number) is a totally effective method of preventing low numbers!

Azkyroth said...

"There is another Scolding Mode that comes to mind: have unwritten rules (or expectations) that newcomers are not told about, then lie in wait until they unknowingly break these rules (or fail to meet these expectations), then ambush them with a Scolding. For extra points, perform the Scolding in front of other people or even better, in a meeting.

I have experienced all of this in grad school.

For extra extra points, you can do what my host parents did when I was on a high school exchange in a country where I had only a moderate grasp of the language and culture upon arrival: in addition to post facto scolding, also punish them for breaking the Rule, because they "should have known" about it (even though it was never communicated to them), assert that they broke the Rule on purpose, make insinuations about their character and family upbringing..."

You're rather fortunate in (probably) not being susceptible to being a target of stage 3: "have it explained to you that the person in question has a disability that makes it extremely difficult for them to absorb unstated expectations and leaves them easily 'overloaded' in tense social situations...and a) either pretend to absorb this knowledge and then utterly ignore it when making decisions about assigning blame later on, or b) ignore the 'disability' part and browbeat the person for 'making excuses' or 'expecting special treatment.'"

I still find it difficult to believe Neurotypicals don't set these social conventions up on purpose for precisely this reason.

Anonymous said...

my postdoc lab was full of Scoldings and Public Humiliation during group meetings. And as if that wasn't enough, the PI would frequently follow these up with mass e-mails sent to the whole group - and the group was large, including collaborators on the email list - to continue the Scoldings by e-mail as well. No one liked the PI but he was a big name in the field so many students and postdocs wanted to be associated with his lab and have his name on papers and just took the verbal/psychological abuse as coming with the territory.

(the power of tenure...)

I was so glad I didn't do my PhD in that lab because the grad students were constantly paralyzed with fear and too afraid to be creative in their research or exercise any independence of thought in case it led to another public scolding and humiliation. The grad students (those that stayed because they felt they had no options) ended up being just good soldiers and very highly skilled and efficient knowledge-workers but not very independent as scientists.