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Was Socrates a jerk?
February 4, 2014
 

We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.

     - Martin Luther King, Jr. 

 

Pop quiz: Which one of the following are the least enjoyable to you:

a) A week-long headache that will not go away.

b) A long winter of polar vortex type temperatures; or

c) A colleague who is such a jerk that you dread coming to work.

 

Chances are you might have answered 'c' because sometimes there is nothing worse than a co-worker who makes everyone's life miserable and unpleasant. Perhaps they are so condescending that they make others feel inferior and not valued. Maybe they are prone to fly off the handle in meetings with rants. Or maybe they just don't play by the rules to get what they want. Whatever the behavior, it can interfere with the functioning of the department, reducing its productivity and maybe affecting our students.

Every organization of course must deal with individuals who make the workplace unpleasant and RIT is not immune. In fact, a recent national study of 528 department chairs across the U.S indicated that 83% reported having to deal with a non-collegial member of their department. (See the article: "Tenure's Fourth Rail"; found at Inside Higher Ed).

What can be done to address this issue?

For starters, direct conversations about behavior and the annual evaluation are tools in the toolbox. But these conversations are not easy for a supervisor to have unless they have concrete and specific examples to ground the discussion. And even then it is not easy. Recently some institutions have implement collegiality rubrics to help department chairs work with difficult employees. I encourage all departments to have open and frank discussions, preferably before issues arise.

A number of thought leaders believe that collegiality should be a separate criterion for tenure and promotion decisions and the courts have supported institutions in using collegiality as a factor in such cases. (See the post "Collegiality as a criterion for personnel decisions" at the Academic Administration blog).

But I want us to be careful about shaping an environment that is "too collegial". By this I mean it would be unfortunate if we created an environment where we all think and act alike, where divergent viewpoints are stifled, and cultural differences are filtered out.  Such an environment would clearly discourage innovation. Divergent viewpoints and disagreement are important and healthy for an organization. Socrates may or may not have been a jerk but he did look at the world differently.

In my mind, civility and collegiality issues are best handled by filtering them through the lens of the department well-being. Faculty are partially evaluated for their service contributions and they have an obligation to support the productivity of their department. If they are disrespectful, well, then this de-motivates their co-workers and this behavior ultimately causes friction and interferes with the success of the unit. Is the behavior so malicious that it is interfering with the productivity and the effectiveness of the unit? If so, then it absolutely must be dealt with. 

The good news is that RIT, for the most part, is a highly collegial place to work. The recent data collected from the COACHE, climate, and engagement surveys bear this out. I like to think that the RIT Honor Code (RIT policy P3.0) has something to do with this reality. But I'm sure we can do more. For example, we can celebrate those instances where people go out of their way to help people and to treat each other with respect. The Academic Kindness blog aims for this across all universities (see the article "Blog aims to 'normalize' kindness in academe"). Wouldn't it be nice if we created something similar just for RIT?

In the meantime, we would all do us a favor if, as Martin Luther King said, we all learned to live together.

 

 

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