for the love of all that is good and holy just tell me already
September 7, 2010 2:36 PM   Subscribe

Help me, I am an academic chair. How do I not get annoyed and frustrated at work?

I am an academic chair at a small college. It is like being a middle manger with no actual authority, but a lot of responsibility and work.

This situation just came up. I work with someone I really like a lot. If I had subordinates, he would be a subordinate (he is not faculty). But being a faculty chair, I don't actually have subordinates. Anyway, this person knows quite a bit about what is happening on campus, but always holds back quite a bit. I find myself asking an irritating version of 21 questions, just to squeeze out a little tiny bit of helpful information. This is not gossip, it is actual relevant work information. He also tends to try to be neutral and to not actually identify anyone. It is maddening. It is not part of this person's job to share this information with me, so I cannot "demand" that he do so.

I realize this person is like this, so how can I not get annoyed. I kind of go into this barrage of questions, kind of like perverse Socratic questioning. This annoys both of us, and I end up feeling like a jerk. I really prefer to put things out in the open, discuss them and loath the kind of cryptic responses I get. My alternative is to not engage in this dialog, but then I would miss learning something I should know.

So do any of you have experience with something/someone like this? What do you do?
posted by wandering_not_lost to Work & Money (8 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
"Sometimes I feel as if I have to repeatedly ask you for pertinent details about work. It would really help me get a better understanding of this situation if you could provide a little more detail about what you know regarding this matter. Do you feel that you can't be forthright with me? Is there anything you need from me that would make you feel more comfortable?"
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 2:42 PM on September 7, 2010

Is he in your department, or is he an IT guy?
posted by vincele at 2:57 PM on September 7, 2010

Whoever he is, Spikelee's advice is good. Just be direct and sensitive to the fact that he might think of you as someone who has a lot more power than you actually do.

If you don't know much about the guy, I'd be careful. He might be more clever than he looks, and he might have all that information because he knows how to play dumb and get people to reveal their hand. If he has information you really need, that's one thing, but if it's campus gossip, I'd find another source.
posted by vincele at 3:04 PM on September 7, 2010

I might have been that guy, though quite some time ago, when I worked part time as a university department secretary while I worked on my MA. You don't give much detail, but here's my take based on what you've provided.

Department chairs come and go. He probably learned a long time ago to keep his mouth shut, if not for his career health then to stay well removed from unproductive, often silly, departmental politics and infighting. Your wheedling probably makes him doubly wary.

He also tends to try to be neutral and to not actually identify anyone.

Yeah, Joe McCarthy hated that, too.
posted by Short Attention Sp at 3:44 PM on September 7, 2010 [4 favorites]

I would think long and hard about whether the information is worth the stress you go through to gain it. (Not to mention the stress you put your friend through!) One thing that might help is to image what would happen if your friend quit his job, (God forbid) died or just refused to talk to you about this stuff. Would you be unable to function? If so, there are more serious problems with your job than the problem in this thread.

I can't do that cost-benefit analysis for you, because what you consider a cost (or a benefit) might be different from what I consider a cost (or a benefit), but personally, I'd only engage in this sort of behavior in the most dire circumstances. It sounds really irritating and stressful. I'd rather deal with the fallout of not having the information than the stress of acquiring it. And I would never -- at least not regularly -- do that kind of nudging to a friend. I would consider it rude. So if I felt I HAD to have the information, I would take spikelee's straightforward route.

I suppose that if I had some idea of the specific things my friend couldn't (or wouldn't) talk about, I could be specific about NOT asking for those things: "I know you can't name names, but can you tell me if someone in the department is planning to quit in the Fall?" But if I said that, I would stand behind it and not try to manipulate my friend into telling me who he was talking about. E.g. I would not say, "Tell me this: does he have red hair?"

This is just my opinion, but the following is bullshit:

You: Is someone going to quit?

Friend: Yes.

You: who?

Friend: I can't tell you that.

You: Okay, but tell me this. Is he a younger faculty member or an older one.

Friend: Younger.

You: Fat or skinny?

Friend: Fat.

You: Does he have facial hair?

Friend: Yes.

You: Hmm. That has to be Bob or Danny. They're the only guys in the department with beards. I KNOW Danny is not planning to quit, because we just gave him tenure and he's so happy with his course load.

Friend: That would be a good assumption.

You: So it has to be Bob.

Friend: I didn't say that, you did.

That's utter crap. He DID say it. There's absolutely zero point to a conversation like that. He can't later claim that he didn't tell you it was Bob, because he did. So if those are the sorts of conversations you're having, and you MUST have the information, I would just take the guy far away from campus (go for a drive together or whatever), say "I will NEVER reveal that I heard this from you," and just ask him to spill the beans.
posted by grumblebee at 3:54 PM on September 7, 2010

I am a former college administrator at a small college. Bless you darling, and note the adjective "former."

However, honestly, I was good at what I did and did, and at the end of the day, found satisfaction in the work. From your question and my experience, I have an very good sense of the scope of your work and accountability/responsibility, and I know exactly who you are talking about, and have spent many similar, frustrating, "informal" meetings with the same person.

I am sorry to tell you that you have to cut this person utterly out of your loop, both as a source of information, and as anything but exactly his job description as it relates to supporting your position. You don't have to tell him that this is what you are doing, simply review the list of his duties, rely on him to complete those duties, and forevermore stop any meetings with him, informal or formal where you expect him to share or professionally report. I promise you that there are better, more efficient ways to learn the answers to your questions on campus, and by cutting off this part of your relationship with this guy, you will quickly find them.

I understand that it seems that he should be the best bet for the reports and info you require, the most direct route. But you are wasting your time--he has placed himself within a particular groove of small campus politicking and it is one that is not available to you to needle. What you will find by cleanly and quickly cutting all but the most perfunctory and professional of your ties with him is that your interactions and his support will be in all ways more pleasant, you're learn where your real informational support is, and interestingly, I wouldn't be surprised if, eventually, he starts coming to you on his own accord and volunteering info and additional support.

It may seem like the thing to do is to figure out some open and honest exchange with him that will show him the error of his ways and lead him into better, more revealing discourse with you, but I promise this is not the thing to do, and will likely, on a small campus like this, ruin all other good and likeable aspects of your relationship with him as he will take an attempt at such an exchange as a slight--it is, after all, how he works and how he has worked for a long time (you're the new one). I hate to be so didactic about all of this, but this is what I have experienced, over and over, in this kind of environment.

Good luck. Take the time to think about what you REALLY want your focus as an administrator to be, and hang the rest. Is it students? New curricula? Faculty development? Don't worry about how your department has been run before, run it with your passions at heart and everything else will weave in at the edges. I'll be thinking about you!
posted by rumposinc at 4:42 PM on September 7, 2010 [6 favorites]

I have never been in your exact situation, but I have been an interested observer of small college campus politics. To my mind, rumposinc's reply hits the nail on the head. Don't waste your time on this person. He is a drain on your productivity, and on your ability to get things done in the underfunded/underappreciated situation of being a department chair.
posted by Morpeth at 9:34 PM on September 7, 2010

He also tends to try to be neutral and to not actually identify anyone. It is maddening. It is not part of this person's job to share this information with me, so I cannot "demand" that he do so.

Sounds wise, not maddening, though I could be thrown by the cryptic framing of what he does and what you want to know. Look at it from his perspective: He's not your subordinate, but you certainly think of him as such (He would be a subordinate if you had them? That's like saying I'd have a nice house if I had money.) It isn't his job to give you this information and there doesn't seem to be much in it for him to name-names and pick sides fpr a pretend-boss if there is any risk at all in doing so. If you really "should" know this stuff for work purposes, go through the official channels and spare him the risk. If there are no official channels, then yes, this is gossip and you need to find a better source or a better bribe.
posted by Marty Marx at 2:19 AM on September 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

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