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Emotions, Academic Work, and 'No Hard Feelings’

How do you feel about your higher ed job?

June 19, 2019
 
 

No Hard Feelings: The Secret Power of Embracing Emotions at Work by Liz Fosslien and Mollie West Duffy

Published in February of 2019.

Do you ever wonder how universities manage to function at all?

Think about it.   Our institutions of higher education are run - for the most part -  by people with little to no training in running anything.

A Ph.D. is a prerequisite for most academic leadership roles (president, provost, dean).  Some large proportion of people with “director” in their titles (such as myself) are also terminally degreed.

In my Ph.D. program, I did not learn anything about running an organization or managing a staff.  Did you?

Perhaps, it is out of a recognition that our system of academic training that is poorly matched to the realities of the academic work, that causes some academic leaders to read business books.  We are trying to fill in the blanks.

If you are of a mind to look outside of academia to improve how you manage and lead your academic organization, then I recommend spending some time with No Hard Feelings.

The premise of the book is simple.  Emotions matter at work.  Good managers and leaders, according to this argument, embrace the emotional life of their colleagues.

Here I’ll admit to being a bit old school.  My bias is to want to keep emotions out of our decisions and actions.  As a social scientist, I like to think of my choices as data-driven.

No Hard Feelings makes a convincing case that emotions at work, either our own or our colleagues, will quickly lead to trouble.  The authors cite data on employee burnout and disengagement and trace much of the reported worker dissatisfaction to poor workplace emotional intelligence.

The business of higher education is not likely to get any easier in the years to come.  We face a structural mismatch between our costs (rising) and our revenues (falling, due to demographics and public disinvestment).  The reality of academic life is that too few people need to accomplish too much work.

Being mission-driven, higher ed employees (faculty and staff) will do whatever is necessary to serve our students and to create new knowledge.  Faculty and staff will fill the gaps, tackling the invisible but essential work that makes a university run.

The permanent scarcity that is now the defining feature of postsecondary economics is bound to result in some grumpy academic employees.

No Hard Feelings is full of practical tips for both workers and managers to recognize, regulate, and boost emotions at work.  How these ideas translate to academia is an interesting question.

The mismatch between the demand from smart people who want to follow academic careers, and the supply of good academic positions (including faculty and alt-ac roles), is enormous.

Universities might not have to pay attention to how the people who work at them are feeling, as there seems to be a long line of smart people willing to take academic jobs.

Not paying attention to the emotional life of those who work in academia would be shortsighted.  To navigate the economic/demographic/competitive challenges ahead,  every school will need everyone (faculty and staff) to fully engaged and focused.

No Hard Feelings skims the surface of the challenges of employee emotions and workplace productivity.  The tone is light and personal, as befitting a popular business book.  Academic readers will wish for more data and critical discussion of the research, and fewer anecdotes.

The shortcomings of No Hard Feelings as a business book should not, however, dissuade university people from picking it up.

If your intuition that the people that you work with are maybe not totally happy, and you maybe want to do something about that, then No Hard Feelings can help get that discussion started.

How do you feel about your job in academia?

What do you think that your school could do to increase the level of engagement and emotional safety that you feel in your academic work?

What business books have helped you think about your higher ed job?

What are you reading?

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