Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Parsing Organizational Confusion

Hidden Cultures in the Academy
I recently worked through Erin Meyer's The Culture Map. While this book is about working across cultures primarily in the area of business, it occurred to me that I may have observed some of these cultural differences even within my own university.

Because we are talking about assumptions, it occurred to me that one reason why various professors and administrators may talk past each other, not to mention past potential students and stakeholders, may be a reflection of cultural differences. And as universities aim for greater diversity, these sorts of underlying tensions are only bound to increase.

Here is a list of contrasting priorities that may underlie some organizational conflicts:

1. Explicit versus implicit communicators
Some people are wired to spell out things clearly and in detail. I have experienced times when my repetition has crossed a line of annoyance. After reading this book I realized that some cultures consider it insulting when you spell things out too explicitly. "What, do you think I'm stupid?"

2. Why versus how people
America at large is wired to the "how." As I read this contrast, I remembered times when one set of faculty were thinking, "Just tell me what to do," while someone else felt it was essential to explain the why and give extensive background.

Similarly, there are many professors who think if you do not give extensive theoretical background, you are not yet ready to talk about relevance or concrete implications. Suffice it to say, as prevalent as this "culture" is for academicians, it rubs against the broader culture of the majority of students, who want to know what to do with what is being taught.

3. Egalitarian vs Hierarchical
I have observed within the academy varied assumptions about hierarchy. So I have known some leaders who are very hierarchical. For them, you communicate through the hierarchy. A professor should not contact the president and a division chair should not contact a Dean from another school. Same level communicates with same level.

But others have a much more "egalitarian" sense of communication. We used to call one of the presidents at Asbury Seminary the "open door" president. One president at IWU used to say, anyone can contact me but I will respond through the established channels. Suffice it to say, there is great potential for conflict if everyone is not on the same page about these things.

4. Who makes decisions?
Another cultural difference has to do with who makes decisions and how set they are once they are made. Some faculty bodies are very consensual. They want to reach a consensus before a decision is made. In other situations, a leader gets input from everyone but it is understood that the leader will make the final decision.

The German-Dutch-North European model is a consensus model. You do lots of ground work, the team (including the leader) reach a consensus, then you stick with the decision. I have observed faculty following this sort of a pattern in recent years. "Shared governance" seems to mean, we collectively make all decisions rather than, we have authority in some areas and the administration has authority in others.

The adaptability of decisions is another area where people differ. For some a decision made is done. Others view decisions more as adaptable if new information or factors arise.

Again, a lack of clarity on such matters is bound to lead to confusion and unnecessary conflict.

5. In-your-face conflict?
Many academic cultures are very conflictual. This gets at another cultural variation--how much negativity is considered appropriate and how damaging is such negativity. For some personalities, in your face conflict is perfectly normal. For others, it is deeply alienating.

6. Relationships vs. Tasks
Some people want to build relationships. It's important to eat together and like each other. How can you work together if you do not ever go to lunch with each other? Others are about getting the job done. You do your job and I'll do mine.

People may assume it's one or the other. Which is it for your team?

7. Keeping the Schedule
It is possible as universities get more diverse that we will see conflict over the question of schedule. How important are deadlines? How important is it to be on time?

At the top is a chart that may capture some of these often unexamined assumptions.

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