The Miserable Colleague

C.K. Gunsalus considers the options when you work in a great department, except for one person who has administrative clout and drives you crazy.

February 24, 2009

Dear Survival Guide:

I work in a terrific department, all except for one person who makes life miserable for everyone, including our head. This guy, I’ll call him Mr. Big, is friends with the provost and is always reminding us of that. Worse, the provost pulls strings for him: whenever he doesn’t get his way, we get word back that he should be accommodated. This covers everything from hiring those he favors to his getting the teaching schedule he prefers. He is rude and vindictive to all but the worst sycophants. His scholarship is remarkable but now he’s stopping others -- including me -- from working on topics he considers “his.” When he graces our faculty meetings with his presence, he is horrible to people, diverts the agenda to his interests, etc. I could go on and on. Help! I like this university otherwise. Is my only choice to leave?

--Sleepless at Big U (a composite of several readers)

Dear Sleepless,


You sound like you have an out-of-control academic star on your hands, and perhaps a classic bully. My advice depends on your personal situation. Do you have tenure? If not, are you up soon? Where will Mr. Big come down on your case? If you don’t have tenure, and you’re up soon, and Mr. Big isn’t on the warpath against you, you probably need to stick it out until you have tenure before you start looking around. If tenure is distant or if Mr. Big will oppose you, looking for greener pastures may be the most prudent way to go -- or at least finding ways to insulate yourself better where you are while waiting for the economy to improve enough to make moving a possibility.

If you have tenure, you’re in a better situation. You need to assess your circumstances on several levels: How much can you insulate your life from Mr. Big’s? (not enough, it’s clear); how many others are affected (it sounds like “all”); how much will is there among your colleagues, especially your head, to make some changes in your own collective conduct?

Starting at a play that has the greatest potential for fast payoff, consider whether you can divert Mr. Big to other settings. For example, doesn’t a person of this enormous stature belong in offices closer to the provost’s? Shouldn’t the provost create a role or title for this intellectual asset more fitting than being housed in your humble department? If you and some others start asking these questions (use some finesse, not a bludgeon), there’s a reasonable chance you might be able to divert his most avaricious attentions elsewhere, like to your provost’s doorstep.

If he spends time seeking glory elsewhere, at least your unit may be able to get back to functioning. The provost (who is reaching over not only your department head, but also your dean, to intervene on Mr. Big’s behalf), sounds like he or she deserves much more of Mr. Big’s attention. This is a ruthlessly mercenary -- and practical -- step to take. Think of other ways to expand Mr. Big’s horizons for himself. Your department sounds like it just doesn’t have the political capital to defend itself. Send him, if you can, to environments where there might be more of a level playing field.

If you cannot think of a way to do this, or it’s beneath you, assess what other ways there are to divert Mr. Big away from mucking about in your unit. Someone this entrenched, especially with the provost behind him, isn’t going to change a lot. The question is whether your department can change the reactions he receives, in concert, in ways that make it less rewarding for him to keep acting out in your space? Remove the gratification he is getting from being the center of attention at your meetings by making it more difficult to achieve. Seek out a critical mass of others who feel the way you do who might be willing to take some action, even in small ways.

Say you take on how Mr. Big derails your meetings. Work with a few others -- including your head -- to adopt new rules for how faculty meetings are conducted. If you have a critical mass of people willing and able to respond when the new rules are violated, you can change the “feel” of those interactions a lot. Say you adopt new rules about discussing only items on the agenda. When Mr. Big diverts the meeting, be prepared (practice in advance) to say: “Oh! Sorry. We’re all getting used to our new rules. Since that wasn’t on the agenda, under our new rules, this needs to come up next time.”

Your allies need to be nodding and agreeing and to chime in. No aggression, just earnest commitment to following the new rules. If you do this in a low-key enough way, you can take away the gratification of being the center of attention and raise the cost enough that it’s simply not worth the trouble for Mr. Big.

If Mr. Big’s points are on-topic, but obnoxious, the strategy to adopt will take practice in advance and at least one ally. Your goal is to respond to the attack while staying calm, centered and triggering responsive backing. To practice, brainstorm with your ally the kind of thing Mr. Big says when he runs amok. It shouldn’t take long, as he likely has a stable of common themes or rhetorical attacks that will come to mind as you discuss them. Have your ally pose a comment in his style, and practice responding with a genuine, quietly-voiced comment that conveys two things: appreciation for the useful part of the comment and noting the sting from the obnoxious part. “Ouch, that certainly makes your view clear. Let me respond to your thoughtful point that….”

Keep going on the useful point. Your ally (or allies) can help by nodding as you make the observation that the insult (or whatever) was mean and by taking up only the useful part in the ensuing discussion. If Mr. Big tries to escalate and go on the attack because you called out the hurtful part of his comment -- a likely tactic -- it will be important that the group not let him divert to a discussion of whether you were out of line in your response. Assure that you were not by using a low voice and no loaded language. Your comment on the hurtful part should be very short and very quiet and be followed immediately by focusing on the valuable content. The goal is simply to label the comment as "not nice" and proceed. This is hard to do. It will also be remarkably effective if you have no heat behind your comments, are simply observing the ugliness and plowing on with the substance -- and if your remarks seem generally accepted and agreed upon by the group. The power of the group to affect even the strongest personality is greater than you might expect.

As to areas of work being labeled his special province, you need to find low-key ways to expand the boundaries where you’ll still be protected. Can you get an award or grant or build a high-status collaboration that will be seen as a benefit to the department or university? Can your department head help you come up with ideas for opening up areas? Will your head help protect you? Have you asked? Does he or she have any ideas for ways to push the boundaries here? This may take some brainstorming, and there’s likely to be a way to pull it off.

Your goal should be to change the environment slowly and in a subdued -- and noticeable -- way over a period of months. This problem didn’t develop overnight and it is not going to go away quickly. Stay non-reactive and low key yourself: the high road here, as always, will be longer, bumpier, harder, but better.

Questions for this column are welcome. Send e-mail to:[email protected]


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