Leadership Strategies for Dealing with Jerks

My last post about jerks in academia struck a chord with many but also raised questions – jerks abound, yes, but what should we do about them? What can we do to ‘out’ them and so to attempt to ameliorate their behaviour? I said that I believed strong leadership was crucial so in this post I’ll expand on what it might be possible to do.  Leadership in higher education is a strange beast, as spelled out in a recent article in the Guardian. Academics are driven by love of their subject and they tend not to react well to others telling them what to do – that would certainly be the case if someone wanted to drive their research direction. An ex-head of my department used to say of attempting to steer the department as a whole that it was like herding cats – a phrase that I suspect many in similar positions would use. Many academics simply don’t care about the big, departmental picture, they only want to solve their pet problem, get their experiment to work or write up their Big Idea. And that is where jerkish attributes can start to creep in, whether or not with conscious or malicious intent.

So what can a head of department do? Another phrase I have heard used regarding these tiresome people is that heads of department have no sanctions. I only partially agree with that statement, I think it’s a cop-out, a pale excuse for not even trying to do anything. Cultural/peer-group pressure does matter. (Note that I have not been a head of department myself, so these are only theoretical thoughts, not ones I have had an opportunity myself to put into practice to try out their effectiveness.)  Let me give you an example contrasting two different departments in Cambridge. In my own, all faculty are required to teach, without exception. People from outside are sometimes surprised to find that someone as senior as the Cavendish Professor, Sir Richard Friend, despite having so many other irons in the fire including 3 spin-out companies, does his fair share of teaching and examining. He regards it as his duty and quite recently wrote (and delivered) an entirely new course on Energy.

Contrast that with another science department in the University, equally full of superstars as my own but where they are allowed to buy themselves out of their teaching duties, literally ‘buy’ or just by being difficult I don’t know. Consequently the early-career potential superstars of tomorrow have to shoulder a greater burden of teaching than they otherwise would, to their own detriment. Now the senior professors no doubt say (as I’ve heard at least one mutter) ‘’the best thing I can do for the department is pull in the grants/write Nature papers”. I believe that is a self-serving justification, an attempt to fool themselves that their selfish behaviour is acceptable.  Why is their need to write papers or grants more warranted than for those setting out on their careers? Shouldn’t they be thinking of how they would have felt 20 years earlier in a similar situation?The thing is, in my department, because it is the expectation that everyone will contribute to the teaching load, everyone does do it, more or less competently but with good grace. In the other department it is a source of friction. Who is allowed off? At what stage of seniority can you start pulling rank and say ‘no’? The head of department who originally allowed this to happen made a grave mistake and one it is extraordinarily difficult to turn around.

That is one specific example of where the leadership can establish a framework in which everyone settles in and just acquiesces in an acceptable state of affairs. I would rue the day if any subsequent head of my own department changed the norm.  The most recent development on this front, which should strengthen things further, has grown out of our department’s Athena Swan application. We are currently a Silver Award holder and in our last submission’s action plan we stated we would set up a workload model. This we have now done, so that the head of department is able to see exactly who is doing what. The model covers a great deal more than simply teaching and examining (which we had always monitored through an annual survey): it now includes administrative work within the department and beyond, all those committees that occupy time centrally and in the department; it includes responsibilities such as running one of the major groups (of which there are around 10 in the department), outreach, mentoring and appraisal; and it includes any teaching in college. Each of us can see where we sit on the histogram which includes everyone else, although we can’t actually identify any of the other individuals on it. It means that the head of department has ammunition to prod the more idle members of the department into accepting a little more responsibility and a few more tasks. It is too early to know how well it will work – and one can always argue about how different activities should be weighted -  but it does at least provide a good starting point for considering who are the good citizens and who the lazy devils are who need a stiff talking to. Outside Cambridge such a model may be quite normal, inside it is something of an exception.

Other departments could probably cite other expectations of the norm which ‘enforce’ appropriate behaviour. But let me turn to another topic, which I touched on in the last post, that of promotion. Here it is the university as a whole that needs to set expectations, with whoever sets the criteria for promotion needing to think beyond the obvious paper-writing/grant-winning/research set of activities. I am in the middle of reading the paperwork for this year’s cycle in Cambridge, so let me share some specific facts about Cambridge’s new procedures (these are public documents, as far as I know available beyond Cambridge without password).

For promotion, a threshold must be reached (and of course just reaching the threshold won’t be sufficient due to the numbers applying, exceeding it is usually required) in each of three categories: research (which has 3 times the weight of the other headings), teaching and ‘general’. For promotion to professor, the requirement in this last category is

There must be an effective contribution to the subject other than in teaching and research. This may include administration and, where appropriate, management of research groups, and the creation and management of multi-institutional/national/ international research facilities. It may also include contributions to the subject made more widely, for example, widening participation activity and the design and delivery of outreach programmes, also editorial work, and clinical work (if applicable).

So a wide range of activities can be highlighted in this section, including quite explicitly outreach and widening participation. But, and this is the crucial thing, if an applicant can’t find anything virtuous in terms of good citizenry to insert here, their application will fail. It is not sufficient to say they are wonderful in research with prizes galore to their name, a fistful of papers in Science and Nature and millions of pounds in grant income; they will fail if they can’t demonstrate at least some modicum of good behaviour under this ‘general’ heading (and of course have some decent quality teaching to their name too). This is a good start in stopping jerkish behaviour setting in too soon and has come about over the years because the leadership within the University has realised that these activities need to be valued, not just assumed to go through on the nod, as I suspect happened in years gone by.

Unfortunately, I fear too often some of the worst offenders are those who have already reached the giddy heights of a professorship. However, maybe those who are progressing through the system, having to think about their behaviour now at an early stage, may be less likely to fall into bad habits if they know promotion depends on contributing something to the greater good. Of course, some of the things in the above list can still be carried out entirely selfishly – running a research group really is a sine qua non if you’ve got a team together to write all those top-notch papers and may serve your own interests more than those of the department; organising conferences can simply be an opportunity for a bit of networking and trading invited talks. Nevertheless, the list also implies that those who do some of the stuff that others may regard as drudgery, including outreach but also the perhaps less attractive administrative tasks such as admissions or safety committees, will get due credit. That may help to sweeten the pill just a little for those who find (too) much of their time is absorbed by these activities.

I would be interested to hear what other departmental or instutional strategies people are familiar with that may serve to encourage good behaviour and ‘punish’ bad. I am sure there must be good examples that have been developed to suit different environments, and I hope people will add these in the comment stream as a way of disseminating best practice.

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11 Responses to Leadership Strategies for Dealing with Jerks

  1. This reminds me of the wonderful Laurie Taylor column, a few weeks ago.

    “”Bugger me.”

    That was how Dave, an MA student in the Department of Media and Cultural Studies, responded to the news that he had been named Poppleton’s “Top Teacher” in the annual staff awards.

    According to a member of the judging panel, Dave’s success was based on three considerations: the number of hours of undergraduate teaching for which he is responsible, the seniority of the teachers he has replaced and the breadth of topics he is required to cover.

    So not only did Dave teach for 27 hours a week, he also taught in place of such distinguished academics as Professor Lapping, Dr Quintock and Dr Piercemuller, and covered a range of cultural studies topics that included acculturation, anti-essentialism, Baudrillard, Judith Butler, intertextuality, Angela McRobbie, performativity, queer theory, symbolic order and Raymond Williams.

    Dave was unable to attend the ceremony because of teaching commitments, but Professor Lapping, who accepted the award on his behalf, told the audience that without Dave’s consistently underpaid help it would have been impossible for senior staff in his department to devote themselves wholeheartedly to fabricating the impact section of their submissions to the research excellence framework.”

  2. Nigel Grant says:

    Could this be managed through employment contracts?

  3. Claire Ainsworth says:

    In addition to rewarding non-jerkish behaviour, I wonder whether it is possible to reframe the way some academics think about teaching, outreach and admin, so they start seeing the personal benefits of doing these things, rather than seeing them as “drudgery”.

    The idea that one can learn a great deal from one’s students seems to have fallen out of vogue in some quarters, but having other minds exploring and questioning your subject area can give you a fresh perspective on on a research problem. Ditto outreach. And the personnel and project management skills you learn in the admin side of things will make you a more rounded, more effective researcher.

  4. Again, another great post on a critical topic. This is an important issue for the good and effective running of any academic enterprise. What you’ve outlined is very familiar to me. The very best researchers broadly fall into two camps those exemplary characters that act as an inspiration and cover all bases with professionalism enthusiasm and diligence and others who are self absorbed in the importance of their own life and priorities.

    At a lesser level of achievement again there is two groups; those that realise their contribution to the ‘team’ is important and those who have (often with no great evidence of differentiation from them and their colleagues) aspirations of becoming a research prima donna. So when we look at the two groups … the high achieving egotist and the aspirational egotist, unfortunately for a smooth running department my experience is the latter are to be blunt a nightmare.

    We have a workload allocation model that allocates hours to duties from a catch-all 80 hour for minor jobs/housekeeping, say 150 hours as chair of safety committee, through staged levels for different modules/numbers of students/level of engagement up to to say 400 hours as a Director of Research managing (people, resources, profiles, strategy etc) a Centre of up to ten academics and forty researchers. We then allocate hours on the basis of full economic cost earned for research. The model doesn’t take account of hours you might spend on external committees, external examining, editorships etc as it assumes you’ll get that credited over time by building a CV for promotion/advancement. Unlike your anonymous histogram our one is transparent and we call all see what each of us has. It does lead to obvious anomalies… I have 2550 hours of duties this year (versus the 1650 hours of a ‘working week’ year) … this is due to a) about 60% of my time if funded my external research, b) I have Director role and c) I undertake a broadly average teaching role lecturing on two modules etc.

    You can buy yourself out of teaching/admin by securing a fully funded external fellowship. Otherwise there is little scope for arguing I’ve a large research portfolio I need to do less teaching/admin. This is helped in two ways 1. Transparency of model, 2. Role models e.g. the high performing research stars seen to be doing full spectrum of activities well and the lesser grafters, like your truly, with silly numbers of hours. So someone on 1700 hours saying they need less admin and more time for research feels they need to make a compelling case other than self-serving L’Oriel ‘I’m worth it’ one.

    There are colleagues on <1650 hours in part due to having little or no external research funding contribution. This can and does lead to some tension to be honest. But in allocating new ‘must-be done’ duties the focus will fall on those at bottom of list with some balance given for aptitude/skills etc.

    One main problem that Universities haven’t grasped with yet is that a good avoidance strategy with teaching and admin is to be poor/crap at it in the hope that the department will move the duties on to someone else and you’ll be left alone to do your so-important research (see personas discussed above). To often this goes unsanctioned and whilst if your research performance isn’t up to scratch you can be not submitted for RAE/REF and probably expect no institutional support for your research at best and at worst a P45 there doesn’t seem to be a similar sanction for underperformance at teaching/admin in the broad based departments.

  5. David Pyle says:

    A very important post, thank you, and a very helpful starting point for discussion. I completely agree with the analysis of the perils of ‘buy out’, and the advantages of having a transparent workload model. Without a workload model, it is just too easy for the teamwork-shy to take a back seat, except when their own self-interest is threatened.

  6. Clare says:

    Great post Athene, and very timely for me because I am just about to begin an ‘acting up’ line management role and I will be responsible for a group of 20 or so academics. I expect that this will be extremely challenging – our group comprises staff who are engaged in all aspects of the academic role to some extent; almost everyone teaches, many are PIs, others are engaged in commercial activity and a number also contribute to delivery of overseas programmes. And then there are of course School and Faculty-level committees and working groups. In essence, most (but certainly not all) are engaged and displaying ‘good citizenship.’ However, in my institution we use a much loathed Workload Allocation Model (WAM) which according to our most recent staff satisfaction survey, is at the top of the staff dissatisfaction list. The WAM is a very blunt instrument and imperfect tool for capturing activity but it is used to try and ensure parity amongst staff in terms of the daily grind. I will be responsible for WAM for the group and I know that this will be the most difficult aspect of the new role. WAM is often wielded as a defensive shield by staff – “I can’t do that because my WAM is full…” but used as a weapon by Faculty executive and senior management – “you can’t have any more staffing resource because there is ‘spare’ capacity in the group’s WAM…” The real issue with WAM is that 1 unit is meaningless. It is an arbitrary number that doesn’t correspond to any unit in real time unless it is applied to face-to-face contact where in terms of teaching, 1 h of contact is 1 unit. And there is the crux of the matter, everyone assumes that 1 unit is 1 h for all activity and unfortunately this is not the case. Thus the ideal 1300 units of WAM per staff member is not equal in any real measure and it is possible to fill up your WAM with the likes of PG supervision, research, module leadership, contact hours and so on and actually not really contribute to the collegiate environment we would wish to nurture. So while a supposedly transparent framework exists to share tasks and workload, it doesn’t necessarily help. “My WAM is full” is something I expect to be ringing in my ears for the next 12 months.

  7. Bob Newport says:

    I can’t help but express support for the sentiments outlined in this pair of blogs: there are ‘jerks’ in every walk of life, we all know that, but recognition of the fact ought never to become an excuse for failing to attempt to challenge the behaviour and to mitigate its negative effects. I’m the wrong person to comment on whether I was a good HoD or not, but my assumption of the fixed-term role coincided with a drive to oblige departments to merge into larger entities (Schools) – and in the process to shed staff. I say this merely to highlight the fact that the potential to act like a truly huge jerk was most definitely present, and the necessity for timeliness and decisiveness was certainly self-evident. If anything saved me from going too far along the wrong path – and you’d need to talk to others to assess that – it was the legacy of lessons learnt early in my career. The most potent of these came from being at the receiving end of one sort of ‘jerk’ or another, or watching/supporting others in that situation, and making a conscious note never, ever to behave like that myself were I to be tempted to in later years; and the most useful of these lessons actually came from the four years or so working outside of universities between postdoc posts and lectureship. There’s something about that non-university experience that enabled the generic to be isolated from the particular by the time I re-entered the system.

  8. Bob says:

    Workload models can be very useful (I produced the first one here almost 15 years ago) – but only if they are reasonable and genuinely transparent, and even then they need to be viewed as ‘accurate’ at the +/- 20% level. They can also be used as a mere exhibit in/of management: a device to demonstrate that the required boxes are being ticked without actually addressing workload problem areas.

  9. LL says:

    Hi Athene. Great to see someone asking the difficult question about what academic leaders should do. I don’t know how many times I have been spun the ‘the head of department has no power to…’ line, but it is a lot.

    You made the following statement in your previous blog on jerks “I think a crucial first stage has to be to seek out ways of not rewarding the selfish, the loud-mouthed, the bad-mouthed and the downright nasty.”

    I note much of the discussion above has been around how academics behave ‘jerkishly’ towards fellow academics, and so I feel I should make a plea for us also to think about ways to ‘not reward’ those who act like jerks towards their more junior colleagues (students, post docs and assistant staff) as well. This is particularly important in the context of Athena Swan and the retention of women in all areas of academia, who it would seem are on average more put off by jerks than their male colleagues.

    If it seems that if the only thing that matters to your average academic jerk is their research, their research profile and their ability to outcompete their peers and colleagues, then the only effective sanction that any HoD can have against such people is to curtail in some way their research activity.

    By way of example we can consider PIs who have terrible records of PhD student supervision, against whom complaints have been made (albeit often informally) and whose students often leave their labs prematurely because they feel bullied, unhappy and demotivated. It remains within the power of a HoD not to support future applications for studentship funding by such profs or not to allocate any quota studentships to them (where these still exist). If they can no longer get students in to carry out their research, these PIs will be forced to reconsider how they behave. Who knows, the threat of such action may even be enough to change behaviour. On the positive side, one could reward good behaviour by giving preference in studentship allocation to those supervisors with track records of good student supervision.

    Similarly, HoD’s are usually required to lend their support to many types of grant application made by PIs within their department. Again, I simply don’t see why this support cannot be made conditional on their being able to demonstrate what you describe as ‘good citizenship’. In what other type of organisation would those who are known to treat their colleagues and employees with disrespect, disinterest and even cruelty, and who avoid their admin/teaching responsibilities be allowed to continue to employ new people and pursue their own selfish ends unfettered?

    I realise all of the above would require extremely strong and fearless leadership and I believe that lack of this (and institutional support for this) is really the crux of the problem. HoDs are expected to provide ‘stewardship’, that is to protect and maintain the organisation for the benefit of their academic colleagues. They are not, as far as I can tell, appointed to transform, lead or challenge the culture of their organisation and behaviour of their colleagues. This is probably a sweeping generalisation, but of all the departments I have worked in at my current institution (and there have been a few) I have yet to come across a HoD who has had a transformational impact on their nature of the department they lead. Perhaps those HoDs would have liked to have had more impact, but didn’t feel empowered and supported by their institutions to ‘put their foot down’?

  10. As various of you imply (and on twitter) a workload model is only any use if management actually use it. It does at least provide the ammunition if they choose to do anything with it, and makes it harder for individuals to imply they’re already at full stretch if the model proves conclusively they are bone idle. It can of course do nothing about bullying of the kind LL mentions, particularly where the bullying is of more junior staff. That is a completely different set of problems, often intractable particularly as (in my experience) it is not usual for anyone to want to make a formal complaint because that unfortunately tends to be a no-win situation for anyone involved. However, I still feel it is important that individuals feel able to raise the matter of bad behaviour, even if not at the formal level, because that way at least someone knows, and if many people raise concerns about the same individual there is then some possibility of something being done, even if informally. I have seen this work occasionally, but it isn’t easy. As I’ve said before, confronting bad behaviour sadly always tends to come with a cost attached.

  11. Jeanette says:

    Well done for raising this issue. It strikes many chords for me.

    One of my aims for this year was to try to promote semi-altruistic, mentoring behaviour within a department. I’ve not been a Prof for very long, and I remember the early career stages well. I hoped to encourage and help colleagues climb the ladder. My reasoning being – the more who clamber up, the greater the dilution of the jerks?! I also worry that the current system incubates jerks, so seemingly lovely colleagues can go over to the dark side.

    According to the pop-psychology books, the best way to change people’s behaviour is to change your own and then hope to influence others.

    I haven’t had much success to be honest! I have been asked to be quiet a few times.

    I wish there were answers and I’m hoping someone produces a map for us. Jeanette