Sunday, February 21, 2010

Social Skills Absent?

When telling and hearing tales at the ISA this week, or in reading the stories about the killer professor in Alabama, I ponder the following question: does the profession of professing attract/reward those with deficient social skills? Are our politics worse than in other professions?  I am not sure.  I do think we suffer from confirmation bias--that we notice the outstanding cases that confirm our views, that we ignore those examples that do not, and, just as importantly, we have no clue as to how things play out in other professions.

Certainly, tenure and its lifetime job security make it hard to punish or select out those who are pathological if people can cover up their flaws for five or six years while accumulating a tenurable record.  It may also be the case that this profession attracts those whose social skills are not great because the emphasis is on research, despite the fact that social skills might be handy for teaching.

Another problem is that we are not trained to do administrative stuff, either for positions within departments (chair/head, graduate director, whatever) or within professional organizations, so that we get folks into positions of authority who have no clue how to lead or manage. At one of my old jobs, the guy who had been chair as the place spiraled down more than a decade ago threw his hat into the ring to be the chair again this past year!!!  To be clear, I have had good department chairs and bad ones, and ones in between.  So, if one of my chairs (past or present) is reading this, I am talking about someone else.

However, if we profs had better knowledge of the rest of the world's jobs, we might not be so quick to think we are exceptional.  My year in the Pentagon demonstrated to me that a hierarchy where management and leadership are trained, rewarded and emphasized, where evaluation is a regular exercise, where selection is an on-going process (up or out for the officers), you still get the stinkers who are bad managers--the Tommy Franks types who kiss up to superiors and kick down inferiors.  While the Joint Staff was largely filled with excellent people, there were folks out there (including a defense attache who served in the Balkans during my time that I will not name) who were deeply flawed human beings.  And, of course, the recent story about the Canadian Air Force colonel arrested for multiple murders among other crimes suggests that this is not just an American thing.

And to be fair, I don't mean to pick on the military, as all professions have their flawed individuals.  It is just that militaries and universities are probably on opposite ends of the spectrum for job security, especially after the first few stages.

So, what can we conclude?  Nothing really.  I don't think our job is more stressful.  Indeed, this one prof's story is so outrageous in part because we do not go "postal" on a regular basis.  It is not as an easy a job as people make it out to be, but it is a good life.  It is probably easier to live in a difficult academic situation than under a tyrannical boss in a regular business--we can usually control what we do (our research, our teaching) and how we do it.  We just have limited ability to do it where we want to do it--which explains why I spent six years in West Texas.  And this academic job market is going to make it hard for many folks to escape the bad situations

PS  And as the NYT story suggests, we do not screen for criminal records when we hire, at least not as far as I can tell.  The story does suggest something though--PhD's who insist on being called Doctor might, just might bear more watching than those of us who prefer to be called Prof.


Anonymous said...

So you are saying that there is less job security in the military than in the private sector (say, investment banking)?

Steve Saideman said...

I have no clue about investment banking, although recent events suggest that one is not punished for massive mistakes. If a Navy Captain runs his ship into some rocks, his career is over. Is there the same kind of evaluation/accountability in investment banking? One reason I used the military in my example is that I have studied and experienced it to some degree. I really have no clues about the private sector, which is precisely my point--that academics think we have bad politics and bad social skills, but it may be the same at Bob's Bank of Bad Investments.

Anonymous said...

Having worked in the private sector, the government sector, and academia, I would say that there are good and bad people in all settings.

I'd be particularly wary about people who have shot a family member to death.

Steve Saideman said...
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