Saturday, March 25, 2017

why I teach

People come to academia for a lot of reasons. For me, it's all about helping the students grow.

Yesterday I accompanied a bus full of students from my program down to Boston for an alumni networking event at Boston Children's Hospital. We also had alumni from several other organizations, including MassGen and MEEI. Our alumni are really great. They do so much for our students. It's really nice to see, and it is a big part of what makes our program so special. It's such a privilege to be part of an inter-generational process.

I have these students for a few semesters, and of course I do what I can to share with them as much of my knowledge and experience as I can when they are with me, but the classroom is just one touch point. Becoming a professional in our field requires much more than just completing some classwork. That's why I try to help give them opportunities to explore and experience things beyond the classroom. I can't claim Boston Day as my work - it's been going on for a number of years - but I help with it. And I help bring a lot of other opportunities.

Being a teacher for me is about providing opportunities. Whether a student grows or not is not really up to me. I can provide the opportunity, and I can provide the support, but the student has to choose to grow. I teach because I get to watch when they choose to reach for that opportunity. None of these students had to come on the trip. They chose to take that opportunity. Some of them were nervous about networking, but they came and they gave it a shot. Watching people try to do something they've never done before, and giving them a boost when they need it, is what makes teaching so rewarding, and getting to watch them grow and succeed is why I teach.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Student Class #8 - performance evaluation

Students continue their leadership of the Organizational Behavior class with today's entry being performance evaluation. Here's the pre-work:
Hey Guys!
Please read the article, watch the short clip, and answer the following questions below for tomorrow's class. What characteristics do you think would make a good performance evaluation?
2. What characteristics do you think would make a poor performance evaluation?
3. What type of categories do you think would be found on a performance evaluation?
4. If you have had any experience with performance evaluations, come prepared to discuss your experiences in class.
Caroline, Carly, & Regan

My thoughts:

The video is a good introduction to MBO and fits well with the article.

My personal experience in the Army was that I always had to do a self-evaluation prior to receiving my supervisor's evaluation. It was questionable how much that self-evaluation actually played into the evaluation I received, particularly the feedback from my senior rater, but it was an exercise I think was worth doing regardless. It forced you to think about how you were going to contribute to the organization.

Calibrating evaluations is difficult for everyone. The article offers two extremes,
Some managers dislike giving negative feedback and will inflate their workers' ratings to avoid difficult conversations or to make his department look good up against his peers...
Other managers feel that unless you were awarded a Nobel prize, you're nothing more than an average performer. These managers rate their employees lower than they should. This can demoralize employees and lead them to seek out new employment.
My experience is that this challenge is enhanced by the culture of the organization, and how much senior leaders hold their subordinate managers accountable for giving accurate evaluations. In the Army organizations I worked in, 90% of the civilian staff received top block ratings (e.g., on a 1-5 scale with 5 being the best, 90% got 5's). That makes the system meaningless.

Officer evaluations were subject to forced ranking, where the senior rater had a limited number of top blocks to give to officers. Forced ranking is good for the organization, I think, if there are enough rated individuals in the senior rater's span of control. When a senior rater has a small number, good people can get less recognition than they deserve.

One of the most heart breaking evaluations I received was when I had been working very hard and knew I had had a lot of success, and the senior rater gave me a "center of mass" or average rating. Just to give a flavor, the senior rater said, "MAJ Bonica is in the top 7% of majors that I senior rate. His intellectual and leadership skills allowed him to effect several critical command-wide changes, which will have a positive impact for years to come..." And yet I received a middle-of-the-road rating.

I like the leader who gave me that rating, but I was in a pool where he didn't have the spare ratings to give, and he felt he had to save a top block for someone else, and I was going to be the bill payer. That's the kind of thing that happens in a forced ranking system.

In small organizations, formal performance evals are sometimes not done at all, or might only serve as HR CYA. In large organizations, like the military or Fortune 500 firms, performance evaluations can take on real power and can have lasting effects on someone's ability to be promoted. In the military this was very true. You needed to have a percentage of your evals be top blocks (the larger the percent, the better) or you would not be promoted and would not be given leadership opportunities. Forced ranking can lead to unhealthy competition among officers who know they are jockeying for the limited number of top blocks, especially when they know their careers depend on the top blocks.

I believe the forced ranking system has both positive and negative effects on officer culture. On the positive side, it puts real pressure on people to come up with initiatives that have significant impact. However, it has two powerful downsides: 1) It has the effect of officers pursuing short-term, flashy projects that appear to have significant impact - short run appearance being more important than actual effect; and 2) it has negative effects on team work - it makes officers think about how they can stand out as individuals, rather than support colleagues who are working on real projects.

In my interviews with senior executives, I've only run across a few who have willingly participated in 360 reviews. They have all said they were painful, but valuable to their development. I would have liked to see a 360 evaluation system implemented in the Army. While most senior leaders are decent people and good leaders, there is a large enough minority of really nasty individuals who make their way into senior ranks that left a wake of destruction in their path in order to look good to superiors that I think some input from subordinates would make a difference. Input from subordinates into these leaders' evaluations might have forced them to behave differently.

As a pre-tenure college professor, I get something close to a 360 evaluation. I get evaluated by my chair, and I get evaluated by my students. My colleagues have some input on my evaluation as well.

Every evaluation system creates a set of incentives. Without forced ranking, superiors are likely to take the easy way out and give everyone a top block. With forced ranking, you see dysfunctional competition. With a 360, you might get leaders who are afraid to discipline their subordinates and push them to do unpleasant tasks. Finding the right balance is a difficult challenge.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Student class #7 - communication

We're back today from spring break and continuing with our student-led organizational behavior course.

Today begins the second of three parts of the course. This part is "Two", and will focus on interpersonal behavior. Jess and Sarah are leading today's class and below is the prework:

Jess and I will be talking about effective communication.Here are the few things you need to do:
1. Think about how you talk to your friends vs. how you talk to a person you see as your superior? What changes do you make to your body language and wording in each situation?
2. Come prepared to discuss a story about you! Can be about anything you feel comfortable sharing with others.
3. Read this article:,%20Fred%20C,%20Communication%20Schooling%20V1%20N1%202010.pdf

My thoughts:

1. I know I talk to friends and family quite differently than I speak to superiors. Many years in the Army instills a strong sense of social distance. I think good leaders know when to use social distance and when to remove it. Social distance is not always a bad thing, and is not the same thing as not caring. With a superior I am more formal and reserved, and I try to show deference to the position in order to show that I will support the superior. Perhaps because of my background, both in the military and before, I was raised to believe that you show deference to a legitimate superior, so it does not trouble me. I know not all people feel that way and I know not all people act that way. Some of the ways we showed deference to a superior in the military were to stand when a superior enters the room, to be quiet when the superior is speaking, and to stand in certain ways when addressing a superior (attention or parade rest depending on the situation and your respective ranks).

2. Coming to UNH I've run into a number of funny situations where my previous experience caused me to miscommunicate with my colleagues. One circumstance arose when I was dealing with a service provider who had to send invoices to our department to get paid for a project I was working on. The contractor wanted a second e-mail address to send the invoices to as a back up, in addition to mine. I gave the contractor the department chair's e-mail, but clearly instructed them to send the invoices to me. The contractor immediately started sending the invoices to the department chair. She very politely passed them on to me so I could deal with them. This made me mad because I had told them not to do that. So I wrote the contractor an e-mail with the chair cc:'ed, telling them to send the invoices to me, as I had told them, because they chair would just be sending them to me anyway, and it would make her mad. The chair was taken aback by my assertion, and sent me a separate e-mail saying effectively that she would prefer I not speak for her and that she would never get mad about such a petty thing. She and I exchanged a few e-mails and it became clear we were not communicating, as she continued to get more upset with me.

To understand this miscommunication, you have to understand that had this happened in the Army, my supervisor would have let the invoice non-sense go once, but would have expected me to fix it. If it continued, an Army supervisor would have gotten mad - not at the contractor, but at me. There is a strong ethic in the military that subordinates are supposed to take care of superiors by preventing distractions from getting to the superior. Eventually I had a face to face conversation with my chair and explained that when I said she would get mad, it was actually a compliment in that I was acknowledging her position and authority, not an insult to her character (she took it to mean that I thought she was thin-skinned). Once we were able to clarify the communication, we were able to have a laugh about it.

I continue to occasionally run into little confusions like this because, although many things in my environment look like the did in the Army, in fact they are quite different. Academia is a very different culture than the military. Even academia in the military is different from civilian academia.

3. I thought the assigned article was quite good - it is succinct and well organized, and has some solid points. It's primary audience is education professionals, but it's easily applicable to any workplace.

I particularly liked the discussion of barriers to communication - I hope we discuss those. The article references "psychological distance" as a barrier - I more often think of "social distance".

Monday, March 13, 2017

Ivy league envy

Interesting article from the Economist about lower tier universities' obsession with research:
Ivy League envy leads to an obsession with research. This can be a problem even in the best universities: students feel short-changed by professors fixated on crawling along the frontiers of knowledge with a magnifying glass. At lower-level universities it causes dysfunction. American professors of literature crank out 70,000 scholarly publications a year, compared with 13,757 in 1959. Most of these simply moulder: Mark Bauerlein of Emory University points out that, of the 16 research papers produced in 2004 by the University of Vermont's literature department, a fairly representative institution, 11 have since received between zero and two citations. The time wasted writing articles that will never be read cannot be spent teaching. In “Academically Adrift” Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa argue that over a third of America's students show no improvement in critical thinking or analytical reasoning after four years in college.
rest here:

I've heard it said that academics are not writing for the general public - they are writing for each other. But if even the academics aren't reading what is being published, what's the point?

Where should lower tier universities be putting their emphasis, if not trying to chase the very top tier universities? Teaching, obviously. But I think also in community service. I think universities, particularly state universities, ought to be deeply involved with helping their communities - local, state, national, and international - solve problems. Some STEM programs do in fact do that. Some business programs do, as well. But I think so should the humanities. And I think all of us could do more. Community involvement, and problem solving for the community, would add much more to the classroom experience for students than professors continuing to dig deeper into some very narrow vein of knowledge, and would create a reason for the community to support and value the university. 

Saturday, March 4, 2017

student class #6 - personality

Hard to believe we are approaching the end of the first part of my organizational behavior course. The course is divided into three parts - the first part is called "One",  and I asked the students to explore issues around personality, motivation, identity, and other aspects of the individual in organizations. It's been amazing to see their creative research and responses.

Monday is the last class in "One", after which we switch to "Two" or the interpersonal. Shayna and Logan are leading the last class and their theme is "personality". Here's the pre-work:

We wanted to send out our pre-work early to give you guys time to complete it.
1. Read these two articles: & Watch this ted talk Please answer these questions and bring thoughtful responses to class on either paper or a laptop:
1. Have someone who knew you during your childhood (preferably a parent or relative) and someone who knows you now (college friend, significant other, etc) take the MBTI test and answer the questions as if they were you. Reflect on these. Are they the same or different? Were you surprised by the results? Rank the personalities from most to least accurate.
2. Look up your horoscope. Are the traits of your sign similar to the traits of the personality you were given when you took the MBTI?
3. Which statement do you relate to the most?
I feel that I can control my own destiny and what happens to me is my own doing.
I feel that things happen to me because of fate, luck, or a powerful being.
4. What Big Five Trait do you think is most desired by recruiters and why did you choose this trait?
5. Who do you relate to the most from this list: Flanders from the Simpsons, Stewie from Family Guy, House, or Darth Sidious from Star Wars?

My response:

1. After having taken the MBTI several times, and actually having gone through training so that I could administer it, I arrived at the decision that I was an ENFP.

My sister says I am ENFJ.

My friend said INTP

Me     Sister     Friend
E           E            I  
N          N            N 
F           F            T  
P           J             P  

In the many iterations of the MBTI that I have taken, the one area that always was constant was "N". So it's unsurprising that my co-raters would come up with N. I have ranked myself I, T, and J at various points depending on how I was thinking about the test, so that's also not surprising.

I'm older than my sister, so it's somewhat unsurprising that she would see me as a J, even now. My friend knew me first in an academic environment where we taught together. I'm pretty reserved at work, and I'm actually pretty reserved in general, which I think is why I regarded myself as an introvert for a long time. What made me switch my self-perception was when I had someone re-frame the extroversion question in a problem solving context. The way they framed it was, if, when presented with a problem, you need to go find someone to talk to about it, then you are most likely an extrovert; if you have to sit someplace quiet and think it out for a while, then you are an introvert. I realized then that my normal response to problems was to find someone to talk to about things. My reserved nature is a learned trait - I do it to not make a fool of myself. But I'm a natural extrovert. And I think if I presented the question to my friend that way, he would likely agree.

When I told my friend that I got "feeler" where he got "thinker", he told me "Interesting. I give you more credit as an academic than you do. No surprises there!!!" So that has more to do with the context of our relationship, I think, than whether I am a T or not. He could be right - or I might flip easily between - but I still think F is a better description.

2. I was born toward the end of May, so I am a Gemini. According to the site, "Gemini Horoscope", Gemini traits are:
Strengths: Gentle, affectionate, curious, adaptable, ability to learn quickly and exchange ideas
Weaknesses: Nervous, inconsistent, indecisive
Gemini likes: Music, books, magazines, chats with nearly anyone, short trips around the town
Gemini dislikes: Being alone, being confined, repetition and routine
This is actually remarkably accurate for me, or at least how I see myself. Except maybe the chats with nearly anyone - I don't do that. I'm not a chatter. I prefer depth to breadth. I am fairly intense - my conversations do not lend themselves to chat.

Another comment from the horoscope that struck me: "People born under this Sun sign often have a feeling that their other half is missing, so they are forever seeking new friends, mentors, colleagues and people to talk to." I'd say that is accurate. To some degree, I would say that arose from external factors of my life, more than being born under the Sun sign. As I mentioned in class, I've moved about 20 times, and lived in 10 states. That has an effect, a certain lack of sense of place. If there was one thing that has always moved me, it was a sense of looking for home, but now I don't know that I want it. It's a yin-yang tension in me.

I generally don't put much stock in atrological signs, mostly because they are archetypes with a lot of flexibility - you could see some aspects of yourself in any of them.

Furthermore, the idea that everyone born during a certain period of the year is this same is incoherent to me, making assignment to astrological signs random. You could just as easily assign people on the first letter of their last name or the 7th digit of the social security number. To the degree that there is truth to the astrological sign, there should be a process of divining the right one for you. Finding an astrologer to help you with this process would make more sense.

3. I definitely believe in agency, so I agree with the first statement. Machiavelli has an interesting paragraph toward the end of The Prince about this:
It is not unknown to me how many men have had, and still have, the opinion that the affairs of the world are in such wise governed by fortune and by God that men with their wisdom cannot direct them and that no one can even help them; and because of this they would have us believe that it is not necessary to labour much in affairs, but to let chance govern them. This opinion has been more credited in our times because of the great changes in affairs which have been seen, and may still be seen, every day, beyond all human conjecture. Sometimes pondering over this, I am in some degree inclined to their opinion. Nevertheless, not to extinguish our free will, I hold it to be true that Fortune is the arbiter of one-half of our actions, but that she still leaves us to direct the other half, or perhaps a little less.
 and then a little later:
I conclude, therefore that, fortune being changeful and mankind steadfast in their ways, so long as the two are in agreement men are successful, but unsuccessful when they fall out. For my part I consider that it is better to be adventurous than cautious...
(He goes on to make some very misogynistic metaphors which I don't feel like dealing with, so I'll leave them out.)

Basically what he is saying, in my mind, is to act as if you have agency, even if you perhaps do not, because fortune tends to favor those who act than those who are reserved.

4. This is a great question. I think it depends on a number of factors. For early careerists, I think it's conscientiousness:
Standard features of this dimension include high levels of thoughtfulness, with good impulse control and goal-directed behaviors. Those high on conscientiousness tend to be organized and mindful of details. (from here)
When I have an entry level employee, my main concern is that they are going to show up on time, do what they are told, and behave professionally. That's very much a minimal standard though - just what it's going to take not to be fired. If you are conscientious, I can train you. If you are not, I need to fire you, and that's a huge hassle. If you are conscientious, but not creative or particularly driven, I can leave you forever at an entry level job. At least I don't have to fire you. I think that's what most hiring managers are looking for, particularly in the kinds of jobs most HMP students land in - especially at the big hospitals.

I do think that all of the five are important, and I also think that being high in any of them has negative aspects. Too high a level of conscientiousness, for example, results in wasteful perfectionism. Too high a level of agreeableness results in not being willing to challenge faulty thinking. I think that's a downside of how much of the Big 5 literature is written - it's as if being high in all of these has no downside. But that's just not true.

5. I'm going to have to confess I don't know most of these characters well enough to know which I would be most like. I'm trying to think of a movie character that I would identify with. Someone who is pretty smart and curious, but does a lot of dumb stuff, most of which fails with small poofs rather than large explosions. I'd almost certainly be the goofy side-kick, not the star. My kids, who are about the age of my students, used to watch the show Kim Possible. I'd say I'm like her goofy side kick, Ron Stoppable.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Student class # 5 - "Change"

For student class #5, we are talking about change. Here is the student assigned pre-work:
Kyle and I are teaching tomorrow's class on change at the individual level. It's a difficult topic but we cannot wait to explore it with you all. In preparation, please read the attached article.  
While reading, please think about a change you've made or been thrust into and consider whether you were able to be resilient or not. Why? How does change affect your mind? What is your go-to response? Be ready for a discussion!
The article is "How Resilience Works" by Diane Coutu

Ungated summary:

My response to the thought questions:

I think I'm usually pretty resilient to normal levels of stress and change. I can usually adjust.

I think when I get into trouble, and I think this is broadly true, not just  of  me, is when the change is dramatic and involves a challenge either to my important, closely held aspects of my identity, or the change is a challenge to expectations that I have built up about something.

Two examples of difficulty with change:

1) I made a change from being the CFO of one Army hospital to being the CFO of another Army hospital. Army CFOs all have a baseline knowledge of the core functions of the Resource Management Division, but we all tend to develop special skills depending on our interests and opportunities. Coming out of my first CFO job, I had invested a lot of effort in analytics skill - particularly around measuring clinical productivity. When I arrived at my next assignment, I found out that the command had decided to create a special analytics department and that while I could do some of this work, the organization wasn't going to look to me as the principal. I reacted very poorly, and frankly unprofessionally. I didn't offer the new analytics chief my assistance, but instead backed away from the function. I was unhappy and the organization lost out on my support in this area because I had allowed my professional identity and my personal expectations about what my job would be to cloud my judgment, and I did not do my real job, which was to support the organization to my fullest capability, regardless of what my formal role was. In time, things worked out and the story ends happy. But it was a rocky period.

2) After retiring and coming to UNH, I went through a difficult period - a depression. It's not uncommon for people who retire from the military to suffer from depression - I joking call it "post partum". There were three factors to this depression for me. 1) Your identity has been tied up so totally for so long as a soldier that when it is suddenly gone, you don't quite know who you are or why you are. 2) For me, I had always had the thought that once I got to retirement, I would achieve a degree of fianncial and personal freedom, and that was a motivating force to get there. It turns out not to be sufficient for the lifestyle that my family needs, at least for now. 3) I had unrealistic expectations of what it would be like to be a professor, and was inevitably disappointed as a result. All is good now, but it was a hard transition because of the confluence of challenges to identity and expectations.

As the article talks about, I think you have to have some transcendent purpose in order to be resilient. For me, and for both of these examples, I think I ran into trouble because I lost my sense of that transcendent purpose and looked too narrowly at my own immediate "happiness".

The Stoics are very good at working resilience. The Stoic philosophy is really one of resilience through controlling one's expectations and identity.  Epictetus's The Enchiridion is a short book of proverbs that I highly recommend. Free here:

One of my favorite quotes from Epictetus:
“If someone speaks badly of you, do not defend yourself against the accusations, but reply; "you obviously don't know about my other vices, otherwise you would have mentioned these as well”

Monday, February 27, 2017

student-led class - character and values

Students in my Org Behavior class leading a discussion of character and values based on the Via Institute on Character survey. The students all took the survey, then the student facilitators listed each students 5 self-identified character strengths and we had to guess who was who. Fun exercise!