Friday, April 12, 2013

Why did the academy lose when Adam Smith won? (How efficiency gets in the way of meaningful work)

In one of the best TED Talks I've heard in a while, +Dan Ariely  addresses the question of what makes us feel good about our work. The core of his argument is that we naively assume that traditional incentives like money are the best way to motivate, increase productivity, and produce happiness in work settings (in this way, it is quite similar to the main argument of Dan Pink's book, Drive). Ariely spends most of the talk addressing the issue of incentives and what his research suggests about what really motivates us.

But, at the end of his talk (about the 18:25 mark), he changes gears a bit and shifts to something of an historical commentary regarding how the industrial revolution has influenced the nature of the work we do. To make his point he starts by contrasting Adam Smith and his emphasis on efficiency, with Karl Marx and the importance he attached to meaning.  The fact that, with regard to the work we do, Smith won and Marx lost is apparent almost everywhere one looks. Factory workers assemble cars and computers, the food I'll eat at dinner tonight likely went through five or six pairs of hands from the time it was grown to the time I took it through the grocery store checkout line, and large organizations are divided into departments and divisions where everyone plays a unique and specialized role. Gone are the days of the artisan or craftsman who saw a project through from start to finish.While the implications of this shift from meaning and wholeness, to efficiency and fragmentation are clear for industrial settings, it's also important that higher education consider its own "industrialization" and what this means for those of us who spend our time on college campuses.

In our ever quickening attempt to model ourselves after industry and corporate America, we have come to worship efficiency. This is particularly true of large campuses like mine where division of labor and specialization have become increasingly prevalent. Admissions officers decide who gets in, student affairs staff welcome students to campus and help them feel comfortable, academic advisors make sure they have classes on their schedule, financial aid counselors make sure students can pay for everything, and faculty members teach classes (we've even divided the faculty role into "teaching faculty" and "research faculty," signalling our view that teaching is no longer an inherent aspect of being a college professor). Not only does this fragmentation take its toll on the student experience, there are hidden costs in terms of the meaning and purpose faculty, staff, and administrators attach to their work.

In his talk, Ariely asserts that we find meaning when our work involves us in creating, developing, or producing things or ideas, particularly when we can see those things through to some kind of meaningful closure or conclusion.  The problem with the current division of labor in higher education is that the structure of most campuses means faculty and staff are only involved in a narrow segment of the student experience. Few of us have the kind of prolonged engagement with students that positions us to see them develop across time. There are at least two problems with this fragmentation. First, it creates an environment where meaning is hard to find. Students drop in for an advising session during their second semester and we don't see them again. We admit them with high hopes that they'll be the first in their family to graduate, but we never see them again after their campus visit. They take our intro to psych class and we never find out if they decided to take the next course in the sequence. Fragmentation in structure, leads to fragmentation in relationships and interactions. And, without relationships, meaning is tough to come by.

Second, a fragmented structure makes it difficult for members of a learning community, whether it is faculty, staff, or students, to keep sight of the overarching purposes that unite them. If all I ever do is admit students, take them on tours, or teach the same history course, I forget that these independent activities are intended to contribute to a much broader and more meaningful set of objectives.

So, what to do? I'm not so naive as to suggest that institutions should dissolve all departments, divisions, colleges, etc. Or, that any one of us should be able to perform every function on a college campus. However, campus leaders would do well to examine their structures and identify potential points of integration where fragmentation could be reduced. For example, how might faculty members play more of a role in academic advisement?  How could admissions officials be involved in meaningful interactions with students during orientation? What would it mean for a college president to teach intro level courses?

By giving up some efficiency, we stand to gain a great deal of meaning. And, ultimately, that increased meaning could have far-reaching effects on quality (and maybe even be more efficient than we think).

Friday, April 5, 2013

Should leaders be a little less like George Washington?

One of the things I enjoy most about working on a college campus is the frequent opportunities I have to attend lectures where I can listen to really good thinkers share their thoughts. A few weeks ago, Ron Chernow was on BYU's campus discussing his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Washington: A Life. In the book, Chernow attempts to reveal Washington as a much more dynamic, passionate, and human (even flawed) leader than we typically assume. In his remarks at BYU, Chernow began by dispelling a number of myths about Washington (e.g. the cherry tree legend, his wooden teeth, his supposed wig, his overestimated height) to invite the audience to reconsider their image of Washington as a flawless, perfectly disciplined, almost god-like character from history. He then went about sharing insights from his research that suggest that Washington was, in fact, a fiery man with a temper, a son with a strained relationship with his mother, and a conflicted slave owner who struggled to know how to own slaves and believe in the inherent worth of human beings. At first glance, it seems that Chernow's book is meant to destroy Americans' image of Washington as a spotless hero, worthy of adulation. And, while the book is intended to paint a more realistic portrait of the complexity of Washington's character, it is anything but derogatory. Rather, by understanding Washington as a real man with real struggles, his successes and abilities are magnified and he seems that much worthier of respect.

As I listened to Chernow that morning, I couldn't help but wonder what the implications of his book are for leaders, particularly leaders who feel pressure to maintain a public image of perfect poise, unflappability, and effortless success. Chernow notes that one reason Washington has long been held as this type of character was that he was incredibly emotionally guarded and intensely private. While this meant that Washington was a well-respected leader, Americans had very little affection for him. It might be fair to wonder whether Washington's contemporaries liked him, or just merely respected his abilities as a leader.

For me, Chernow's book makes a good argument for the importance of appropriate self-disclosure for a leader. That doesn't mean airing all of our dirty laundry for all to see, but it does mean being human and allowing others to see us in this way. Our fear, of course, in letting those we lead see our flaws is that they will somehow consider us unworthy or incapable to teach the class, lead the department, or make the tough decisions that face those at the top. However, there are a number of reasons why being open is a good thing for leaders.

1. It humanizes us. When we let others really see who we are, we become real and accessible. Hearing our stories of failure, horrendous mistakes, stupid oversights, fears, and anxieties positions others to see themselves in us. That's important because a distant, untouchable, flawless leader isn't just hard to like, he's hard to follow because he charts a course that we can't possibly travel.

2. It connects us. When a leader is open, transparent, and willing to self-disclose, she creates a space where others in the organization feel comfortable doing the same. That openness leads to better communication across all levels of the organization and facilitates a free-flow of information that is vital for decision-making.

3. It provides a model of growth and becoming that lifts the entire organization. One of my favorite parts of Chernow's lecture was when he described the experience he has of being asked the rather naive question, "What was George Washington like?"  His response is both witty and astute: "At what point in his life?" One thing that Chernow has done very well in his research is to shed light on how Washington changed across time.  Yes, at the end of his life, Washington was a tremendous statesman, politician, general, and leader.  But, the man he was in 1797 when he retired from the presidency, was much different than the precocious young military major who led troops in the French and Indian war. Washington became a great leader over time, but few people know that he went through growing pains. Leaders who are open and transparent about their experiences, particularly those that have shaped them, provide a vision for others of how they can grow and become over time.  And, that might be one of the most important things a leader can do for those in her organization. 

In short, we want and long for leaders who are like us--imperfect, occasionally stupid, and muddling along. But, too often, we don't see that side of them (and they/we all have it) because they won't show it, or we won't allow them to because of our expectation for heroes who never fail and legends who "never tell a lie."