So you want to be a university manager?

October 1, 2013 at 11:12 am | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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So you want to be a university manager? You’ve come to the right place! This short guide is all you’ll ever need to make a success of your new role as a steersperson of one of our great institutions of learning. Once you’ve worked through the Five Key Areas, and memorised the Six Key Messages, you’ll be ready and raring to set out on your new, exciting career path.

In fact, if you’ve got any other management guides (OMGs), you can chuck them in the garbage can right now. You’re a university manager (UM). The usual rules of management don’t apply to you.

That’s because OMGs are all about how to manage normal people. But being a UM – the privileged state of UMhood, as UMs like to think of it – isn’t about managing normal people. It’s about managing academics.

Key Message 0: Academics are not normal people.

In any management guide, there are five Key Areas you need to think about: Morale, Incentives, Listening, Respect, and Communicating. This guide will help you improve your managerial practice in all five areas. We’ll start with the slippery concept of staff morale.

Key Area 1: Morale

OMGs will tell you that good management needs to focus on staff morale. This is nonsense. Academics pride themselves on being rational thinkers. The scientists among them, especially the economists, will give you a useful tip: they don’t work with anything they can’t measure. Neither should you!

Staff morale is notoriously hard to measure. That’s because it’s touchy-feely, not rational. Even mentioning morale, let alone trying to improve it, will upset your more autistic academics, provoke the cynical ones, and make all of them less likely to read your emails. Besides, most academics are left-wing contrarians who don’t want their morale improved, because then they might have to approve of ‘the System’.

This is why you can’t just measure staff morale by asking the staff.

Important Note:  Student morale is another matter, because students haven’t been at your institution long enough to turn into academics. So student morale can be measured by asking the students. As you know, it is measured, and it matters for funding. Staff morale isn’t, and doesn’t. So if you’re keen on morale, focus on the customers who pay your salary, not the people who take up too much of your time already.

Key Message 1: Leave academics’ morale to academics. They’re smart, aren’t they? They can figure it out.

Key Area 2: Incentives

OMGs say that a good manager needs to reward staff. They often quote research which is supposed to show that people respond better to positive incentives (rewards) than to negative ones (punishments).

Important note:  ‘Reward’ doesn’t necessarily mean money – which is just as well, since your institution probably doesn’t have any. It means social rewards. A social reward can be anything from a smile, an honourable mention at a departmental meeting, or praise in an annual review, right through to rewards that will actually cost you: biscuits for committees, free drinks, or a departmental party.

Ignore the temptation to be nice. Academics are smart and will see through your attempts to conciliate them. Negative incentives are much more effective. Some UMs employ both, but carefully: an initial brief commendation followed by a long list of criticisms. Academics pride themselves on seeing both sides of an argument, and this move will make them feel uncomfortable about actively hating their UM.

Key Message 2: Never praise an academic if you can avoid it.

Key Area 3: Listening

OMGs say that a good manager is one who listens to staff, walking the floors, knocking on doors, inviting open, informal communication.

With academics? Are you joking, OMG? Given half a chance, most of these people would talk for hours on their specialist subject. You don’t have time for that.

Besides, many academics are introverts who are afraid of human contact. They’re also hugely overworked. They’re not going to thank you for coming and bothering them, especially as their natural left-wing cynicism leads them to believe you won’t pay any attention to what you hear.

For the same reasons, there’s no point encouraging social occasions, or, if they do take place, attending them.

Unfortunately, the idea that managers should listen has gained ground in recent years. So a good UM will occasionally schedule ‘listening forums’. If you plan to do this, make sure the setting is formal and that there are plenty of senior academics present. And be careful not to make any clear statements about how – or whether – the information you get will be processed at higher levels. (Promises are hostages.) That way you’ll deter people from making complaints that you might have to do something about.

Key Message 3: Academics don’t want to be listened to. They want to be left alone. If they were that social, they wouldn’t be academics.

Key Area 4: Respect

It’s a favourite OMG mantra: respect your staff.

Why? If they were worth respecting, they wouldn’t be academics. They’d be managers, like you, earning your salary. These people are grunts. They wouldn’t last an hour in the real world.

On the other hand, it is important that they respect you.

Some management theorists insist that respect is gained by soft skills: emotional intelligence, sociability, and so on. For normal people, this may be true, but remember: as an UM, you’re dealing with academics. They’re most at ease with abstractions, so make yourself an abstraction! Your people will respect you more if they hardly ever see you. At the same time, you need to make them feel that a word from you could ruin their future.

UMhood isn’t about soft soap. It’s about power.

Key Message 4: Respect, in academia, should flow one way only: from the bottom to the top.

Key Area 5: Communicating

OMGs will tell you that good communication is essential to successful management. Let’s unpack that a little.

Management jargon is often sneered at by people who say that language should be about communication. These people are idiots. They don’t understand what management jargon is for.

Besides, academics love jargon. For them to complain about your jargon is pure hypocrisy!

Remember, most of your institution’s recent funding increases have been spent on either your salary or your new office, not on hiring more academics. Academics know this. They see the UM as the enemy. They are also ideologically indoctrinated to perceive ‘the System’, and anyone who supports it, as evil.

You can’t sweet-talk these people. As that great management theorist Niccolo Machiavelli said, your only option is to crush them before they crush you.

Management language is about two things: making yourself look powerful, and making yourself look efficient. It’s a weapon in the fight all UMs have to fight, every hour of every day. The language you use is the headlock by which you subdue your staff.

Efficiency is why you’ll hear managers saying ‘actioning’ instead of ‘putting into action’, ‘progressing’ instead of ‘making progress’, and ‘less’ instead of ‘fewer’. Less syllables = more efficient.

Power is why a smart UM will often appear to act inconsistently. If you’re inconsistent, you’re unpredictable, and that makes people uncertain. As they get more anxious, they see you as more powerful.

Important note:  Inconsistency also works with the OMG notion that managers should immerse themselves in details. You can’t possibly get your head round all the details of managing a set of academics, so don’t kill yourself trying. Instead, make sure you master a few details efficiently. That way, you’ll be able to make excellent use of random micromanagement.

A good UM is a master of this art. By micromanaging only a few aspects of your institution’s systems, you can ignore the constraints which, in practice, prevent the kind of changes you demand from actually happening. Then you can criticise the academics for not making those changes. Meanwhile, you display a hopelessly disorganised grasp of other institutional processes. This reminds your staff that life isn’t fair, thus lowering their expectations to realistic levels.

Remember, people who are depressed often slide into learned helplessness, so a depressed academic is likely to be an inert academic. And inert academics are much, much easier to manage.

Key Message 5: Management jargon is there for good reason. Use it well.

Congratulations! You’ve now reached the end of the only guide you’ll ever need to being a university manager.

That’s it. That’s all you need to know.

The path to UMhood lies before you. Go for it!

And remember, with great power comes …

Most OMGs would end that sentence with a boring old cliché: ‘great responsibility’. Not this guide. As an UM, you’ll learn to end it with ‘greater salary’. Enjoy!


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