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Is your institution’s culture a ‘network of mutual non-aggression treaties’?

  • 26 April 2019
  • By Dennis Sherwood

A guest blog kindly contributed by Dennis Sherwood, founder of Silver Bullet Machine

I’m an outsider. As neither an academic nor in HE administration, I have no right to interfere. But as an outsider, and one who has worked closely with many academic teams, perhaps I can act as an observer. If so, may I offer an observation about the culture I have often experienced at universities: a culture I describe as a ‘network of mutual non-aggression treaties’.

Let me explain …

Alex, a post-doc, accidentally overhears Sam, another post-doc, tearing more than a strip off Chris, a PhD student. Alex later sees Chris in tears. What does Alex do?

Alex could approach Sam the next day, and point out that Sam’s behaviour is unacceptable. But Alex and Sam are peers, and so Alex might think, “If I confront Sam, that sets a precedent for others to confront me if I do something they don’t like. I don’t want that to happen. Better to do nothing. Anyway, it’s not my job.” So Alex and Sam voluntarily sign a tacit local non-aggression treaty.

Alternatively, Alex could have a word with a more senior academic, Pat. But that’s not easy, for no one wants to be a ‘sneak’. And even if Pat were informed, what would Pat do? Pat is highly respected academically, but has a very ‘light touch’ as regards any ‘management’ role. Pat is naturally shy, and hates any form of confrontation, especially as regards behaviours. Pat also knows that some colleagues regard ‘management’ – or rather ‘being managed’ – as the intolerable imposition of authoritarianism, an attack on academic freedom. So Pat leaves well alone. The network of mutual non-aggression treaties extends.

Yes, one of the attractions of academia, in contrast to ‘big business’, is greater independence and freedom, and not having to sing the company song each morning. But those who take the view that ‘all management is an infringement of my human rights’ are failing to recognise that they are part of a community. And, in my opinion, all communities – and the individuals within them – achieve better outcomes when members of those communities honour the obligations of membership, as well as enjoying the rights.

Usually, the rights are clear: as a member of this department, I can access certain information, I can use certain equipment. The academic obligations are usually clear too: I have to commit so-many hours each term to teaching, I should attend the weekly seminar. But in my experience, the societal and behavioural obligations are often not clear at all. New people look for cues from others; those with more experience have learnt how to fit in; some push the boundaries to discover what they can get away with. Very often, the resulting culture of mutual non-aggression treaties is not unduly dysfunctional – students get taught, papers get published. But not always, as evidenced by the recent news about NDAs, gagging orders, and the underlying, unchallenged, unacceptable behaviours.

This type of culture is not unique to HE: I have observed a similar culture amongst, for example, doctors and lawyers – the common thread being a combination of high achievement and a well-developed sense of autonomy. But the fact that HE is not alone is no justification for complacency.

‘Culture’, though, is a troublesome word, and an elusive concept. It is amorphous, hard to change. And according to the textbooks, culture change starts at the top, and so must be driven by the Vice-Chancellor. In an academic context, however, this ‘rule’ does not hold, for one of the benefits of mutual non-aggression is that culture change can be initiated, and succeed, locally: if a department, or a team, or a community of peers wishes to change their own culture, they can do so, for no one else will stop them.

What, though, do you actually do? Here’s a suggestion …
There’s a clue in the words ‘culture change’. Culture change is not about inventing something novel; rather, it’s about changing what happens now. So a good starting point is to identify what happens now, and then ask “how might [this] be different?”. This is pragmatic, especially when applied to specific aspects of every-day life, such as ‘meetings’, ‘interactions between a supervisor and a student’, or ‘sharing knowledge’, all of which are cultural microcosms. What happens now is real, and can be described; the question searches for difference, and so can lead to change.

Taking ‘meetings’ as an example, if the community assembles, and each person is invited to describe, as insightfully as they can, their own personal experience, the result will be many specific points, which might include:

  • Meetings are valuable: I learn about what others are doing.
  • Some people arrive late.
  • I like to talk about my research, and meetings provide a good opportunity for me to do so.
  • I feel under pressure to ask ‘clever’ questions.
  • Attendance is patchy – it’s unusual for us all to be there.

It’s important that these observations are true statements about what actually happens. Yes, we all know what should happen, but it’s the reality that counts. And the reality is that some people arrive late. How might that be different? What does it take for us all to arrive on time? Well, I’m very busy, and I always have a huge number of emails to clear…

That’s the key conversation. Does my need to clear my emails take priority over my obligations to everyone else not to waste their time (if they wait for me to arrive), or to be courteous (by being present at the start of the meeting so as to listen to what others are saying)? We’re back to rights and obligations. And a ‘grown-up’ discussion can identify, and explore, specific behaviours, which, if changed, can collectively result in a shift in the overall culture. Behaviours that can be changed not by diktat, but because particular pennies drop in individuals’ minds.

Discussions of this type require that all members of the community participate, and that it is ‘safe’ to speak the truth. These conditions themselves are deeply cultural: the person who is always ‘too busy’ to attend meetings – and so is the person whose behaviour needs to be influenced – is likely to be ‘too busy’ to attend this one, and if more junior people fear that they are constantly being judged by those more senior, they will be very careful about what they say, or remain silent.

Yes, these are tough problems, but they can be addressed. It’s all about rights and obligations.

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