Do team-players let your university down?

A key reason I write blog posts is that it’s generally a wonderful form of catharsis. Digitising my irritations usually helps me to get some sort of perspective on things — when I close the laptop at the end of converting my thoughts to pixels I generally feel just that little bit better. But that’s not going to be the case for this post. I guarantee that even after I’ve finished hammering away at the keyboard I’m still going to be seething.

Here’s why…

Say the words “Project Transform” to almost any member of staff at the University of Nottingham and I guarantee you’ll hear a litany of complaints. Transform represents an overhaul – a “re-imagining”, if you will — of practically all aspects of our university. With any type of major change like Transform there of course will inevitably be gripes and complaints; we all tend to resist upheavals. Moreover, some aspects of Project Transform are, to be fair, long overdue. But Transform has been handled – and continues to be handled – in an exceptionally heavy-handed and frustrating manner (at best). Staff who are “within scope” of the Transform process — particularly, and especially, administrative, professional, and managerial (APM) staff – have in many cases been treated shabbily by the University. The levels of uncertainty related to their future role(s) within the University of Nottingham (UoN) have been especially problematic.

Many of my personal bugbears with Transform over the last year or so relate to our school’s undergraduate admissions processes. (I’m an admissions tutor). In the School of Physics and Astronomy we have an exceptionally well-organised and rather successful admissions process. This, you’ll not be surprised to hear, has got nothing to do with me; the smooth-running of our UG admissions is due almost entirely to our talented and dedicated admissions secretary and her APM colleagues. (The contributions of APM and technical staff to the higher education sector do not get enough recognition — they are the lifeblood of any university. To be fair to Nottingham, the University put quite some effort into raising the profile of technicians a couple of years back. See “HE’s Unsung Heroes“). Informal and formal feedback from applicants to our courses (and their parents) highlights time and again the key importance of dedicated, School-based staff.

Yet the University demands ever-greater centralisation of admissions. This is a core “mantra” of Project Transform: centralise to maximise efficiency. But an entirely centralised admissions process makes no sense for very many schools/departments. Applicants want to get to know the academics and the staff in the school to which they’re applying. (And, again, we know this from the very clear feedback we get from applicants.) The argument that centralising admissions will somehow “improve the student experience” seems to me to be a complete non-starter. (Did I mention that we have an extremely efficient process already? If it ain’t broke…)

I could bang on about Transform for quite some time — its effects on staff morale could be the subject of a lengthy (and daily) series of posts  — but that would be a little too Nottingham-centric. My real aim in writing this post is to flag up an aspect of the ethos of the Transform process which is common to very many universities and is deeply corrosive: the “be a team-player” mentality.

Very often, criticism from rank-and-file academics of university processes/decisions is met with an argument from their line managers/senior colleagues which runs something along these lines: “We need to be careful that we’re seen to be team-players. Otherwise we could get labelled as trouble-makers and we’ll be marginalised and have no influence”. This is an infuriating and self-defeating position to adopt. Academics who care about their students, their colleagues, their school/department/institute — and, ultimately, the university itself — complain because they are team-players. The team is struggling; it needs to hear some home truths. The academic that is truly a team-player will point out those home truths to those who are leading the team.

Time and again when large companies fail, a primary reason for the failure turns out to be the unwillingness of  many in the organisation to countenance bad news. This post by Lawrence Serewicz at his Thoughts on Management blog makes the point exceptionally well:

The desire to hear good news, especially in collective meetings, is understandable. No one likes to hear bad news no matter how important it may be. The larger the meeting the less it will be an appropriate place to discuss bad news because it can be seen as criticism. If the bad news becomes a criticism, then in a large group setting it can become like a re-education camp where underperforming units are held to account or to blame. Such an approach will be unintended, but it can easily become the default setting when people set out to discuss bad news. The challenge is to find the right place, the right amount of people, to discuss bad news.

A team-player is someone who recognises that there are problems and goes out of their way to communicate those problems — to be the bearer of bad news. Almost invariably, however, “a team-player” is now interpreted in the university context as someone who doesn’t “whine”, who accentuates/exaggerates the positive (and sweeps the negative under the carpet), and who is willing to compromise to the point where valid and pressing concerns are not raised.

Those team-players regularly let the team down.

Author: Philip Moriarty

Physicist. Metal fan. Father of three. Step-dad to be. Substantially worse half to my fiancée Lori, whose patience with my Spinal Tap obsession goes to far beyond 11...

3 thoughts on “Do team-players let your university down?”

  1. I think there are 2 different kinds of “bad attitude” people. (In the US we often label complainers as having a bad attitude)

    There’s people who resent having a job that for one reason or another they don’t like. So everything is wrong and they have no interest in a solution because they get their satisfaction from the complaint.

    And then there’s the people who care. They care deeply and they get angry when things are going badly and no one is fixing it. They complain as well.

    A key to good management is sorting the difference. You can turn the people people who care into idea generating dynamos. They come up with effective ideas and make managers look awesome.

    The thing is – it is easy to just lump anyone who gripes into a pile of bad attitude and dismiss them with a big “no one likes change” response. But the reality is that it is a bad management technique not to listen to anyone. And it is worse if you can’t discern who is complaining because they resent the job and who is complaining because they actually care about the job.

    Complaints are the most important thing a manager can listen to. That is where you get the information you need to make things better.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Complaints are the most important thing a manager can listen to. That is where you get the information you need to make things better.

      Precisely. But, unfortunately, this takes some degree of humility and a willingness to admit that things to need to change. These characteristics are sometimes lacking in higher levels of management. They then do exactly as you say: bury the problems with self-comforting excuses like “Academics are generally reactionary — it’s no surprise they’re opposing these changes”.

      Liked by 1 person

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