Managing Up

January 05, 2007

There comes a time when every assistant professor, if he or she is to survive in academe, must learn how to "manage up." By that, I mean learning how to negotiate the intricacies of a relationship with a dean or department head.

That skill seems to come naturally to some new Ph.D.'s; for others, like myself, not so much.

I recall that a few years into my first teaching job a student wrote to my dean to criticize my classroom conduct. The dean sent me a note asking to see me. I refused, replying that he should simply dismiss the student complaint and "take my side." The dean again requested to see me, explaining that he could not reject a student petition without investigation. After further (and increasingly terse) memo exchanges, there came a confrontation in the hallway. Voices were raised, tempers spiked, and one shocked secretary told me later that she thought that a fistfight was about to erupt.

I backed down, grudgingly, described my side of the student dispute, and, even though the dean decided in my favor, drove home later in a fury. But sometime that evening it occurred to me that I was angry at my supervisor for doing his job, which was both unfair to him and shortsighted of me, since I had fantasies of one day being in his position.

No one teaches you "managing up" in graduate school. So it is no surprise that one of the leading complaints I hear about junior faculty members, across fields, is that they don't know how to deal with authority.

Shouldn't we all know better?

Certainly, for a good deal of our apprenticeship, we are students beholden to advisers, committee members, and -- probably somewhat more distantly -- administrators. But drawing from observations offered in these pages, and from the experiences of friends and colleagues, it seems quite easy to sail through the graduate-student years and not comprehend what it means to have a "boss."

Many of us approach our academic careers with a certain amount of idealism and even elitism. Isn't the professoriate "different," in that we are granted autonomy in our work and have little in common with those poor cubicle dwellers of the vulgar trades?

The answers to such questions lie in individual experience. Being an assistant professor in a department of French at the University of Pennsylvania, for example, is indeed a different experience from being a sales associate at a midrange paper supply company in Scranton. In no profession, however, are immune to the need to learn how to navigate the organization so that our achievements will produce the benefits they deserve. Getting along with an academic boss, then, involves a set of basic strategies that probably make sense in any workplace.

Before I proceed, let me offer this caveat: If your chair reminds you of the regional manager in the television series The Office or of Captain Queeg in The Caine Mutiny, your only recourse is keep smiling and look for a job elsewhere.

But if you are dealing with rational human behavior among reasonable folk, here are some things you need to know as you learn how to manage your relationship with your bosses:

It's Not All About You. You work at an institution with many layers of managers who each have their own goals and aspirations. Luckily, your interests often coincide with theirs. If you publish enough, teach competently, and stay out of trouble, you and they both look good. But it is vital to be aware of the benchmarks that are particularly attractive to the leadership of your institution.

I recently attended a managerial workshop in which a senior university official urged us to "know the mission," meaning that we should familiarize ourselves with the master plan and mission statement of the university. The advice seemed self-evident until I realized that I had never read my university's plan or statement.

Likewise, each unit itself has (or should have) a mission statement and a five-year plan. Read them. Ponder them. Talk to senior professors and your department head about ways in which you can contribute to both.

That you would do so in the first place will be noteworthy: Most of a department head's meetings with junior faculty members begin with the latter asking for something. One dean told me about an assistant professor who began every exchange -- no matter the occasion or subject -- with "I want." Occasionally, you need to ask what you can do for your department.

Pick Your Whines. Gaining a reputation as a malcontent will not enhance your career. Certainly you may take legitimate grievances to the boss: a leaking office roof, a lazy teaching assistant, a need for more lab money. But it is all too easy, when you are the suffering party, to get tunnel vision about the relative importance of such problems and amnesia about the frequency with which you raise them.

One tip on maintaining a macro-perspective is to keep a diary of your interactions with authority figures: How many times have you made requests, and for how much? Were they issues that were truly "deanworthy," or could you have handled the problem yourself?

As important as the frequency of your complaints are the tone and style. Do you present your petitions as reasonable queries or as petulant demands? A simple rule: Never approach a boss with a problem without having investigated two or three practical solutions.

Don't Make Threats. It is often said that power in academe is not as clearly defined as in most other realms. A professor can outrank a provost in some matters; alternately, according to human-resources rules, a staff assistant might be nearly unfireable. It is tempting for a junior faculty member, overly flattered about his or her own achievements, to try to play the power game. But assuming that you have more power than you actually possess will most likely lead to embarrassment and disaster.

It is certainly possible to get what you want by threatening to resign, for example, and some life-or-death issues may warrant such a threat. But that weapon can only be used once and leaves a trace of acrid smoke in the department ever afterward.

No matter how valuable a junior faculty member is, people who have a reputation for all-or-nothing antagonism, a tendency toward the dramatic, or a habit of dropping hints about accepting another job elsewhere will eventually compromise their value.

I know of junior faculty members who announced they would accept job offers elsewhere unless they got what they wanted. In two cases, the bosses said, "Fine. Do it." In one of those cases, the unfortunate assistant professor, it turned out, was bluffing and had to plead momentary insanity as an excuse.

The lesson: While there are full professors out there who seem to be getting away with murder, those on the tenure track are probably only indulged a few misdemeanors.

Don't Dodge the Grunt Work. Show up for meetings. Answer your e-mail. Attend your office hours. Every profession, every job, entails activities that are unromantic and seemingly lacking in value for the individual. Academe is full of pointless committee assignments, problem-student advising, and reports that no one will read.

It would be criminal for a supervisor to load up junior faculty members with such tasks to the point that they couldn't focus on their primary goals of research and teaching. On the other hand, no assistant professor should think that personal gratification -- teaching only the courses you like, advising only the students who intrigue you, and doing only the committee work directly related to your research -- is possible or politically acceptable.

Ralph Izard, a professor emeritus of mass communication at Ohio University, advises junior professors to have an honest conversation with their supervisors about time management and at some point feel free to say, "I can do that. What would you like me to give up for it?" The key to making that argument is that you be perceived as already fully booked.

Avoid Bad Blood. Only after you start a new job do you discover the factional fissures and intradepartmental rivalries. Senior professors may try to involve you in their fights or ask you to take a side. You should state clearly, if asked, "I think while I'm on the tenure track I should just concentrate on my work and not get into a battle with anyone." Only the most churlish senior professor will, at that point, keep pushing you to join in his crusade.

Then there is the allure of joining in when others -- the tenured class -- are belittling the administrators. It is oh-so-tempting to take part in the fun, and oh-so-fatal when a supervisor later hears about your witticism made at her expense.

It seems obvious but apparently needs to be said: Don't publicly deride anyone who is going to vote on your future or decide your salary. Remember also, when you trash-talk someone, other people might be laughing but they're also thinking, "What does he say about me when I'm not in the room?"

Dissent Is Fine; Discord Is Not. One chairman told me of a new assistant professor who argued about almost every subject the department faced. "In some cases he was right," the chairman said. "But in all cases, he was tedious and alarming. Even people who agreed with him on a point were thinking, 'Whoa, do we really want this guy around for 30 years?'"

Obviously, you need to strike a balance here. There is no reason to become a toady, but your "no's" should never take on the appearance of personal attack or vendetta.

Finally, Learn to Acknowledge Defeat. Faculties vote, bosses make decisions, and you will be judged not only by the quality of your opposition but by how graciously you accept that it did not carry the day. Every good employer appreciates an employee with this philosophy: "I'll tell you what I think even if you don't want to hear it, but at the end of the day, if we go in another direction, I'll do my best to make it happen."

Following these guidelines will not convert you into a vocational mouse, nor will you be groveling before your "betters." Academe is indeed all about mutual respect. But for the newly minted Ph.D., respect must be earned, slowly, over time, by your efforts in research, teaching, and service. Integral to success in all three categories is managing your manager.

David D. Perlmutter is a professor and associate dean for graduate studies and research at the William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Kansas.