Organisation - October 10, 2013

'It can go on festering for years'

Roelof Kleis

Inappropriate behaviour is like cancer, getting out of control and eating away at job satisfaction and, in the end, productivity as well. Doing nothing about it is not an option, says the external committee which has studied the offi ce culture within Wageningen UR. Emeritus professor of Communication Strategies Cees van Woerkum explains key points in the committee’s report, In consultation. On learned helplessness, the need to educate leaders and the dreadful plight of PhD students.

Were you shocked by what you heard in the course of this study ‘Not in the sense that there is more undesirable behaviour here than in other organizations, no. But I was shocked by the seriousness of the individual cases and their consequences. I am increasingly convinced that inappropriate behaviour is a reflection of an unhealthy office culture. Things are not going well, frustration grows, people become blunter with each other, undesirable behaviour starts and you get into a downward spiral that can be extremely damaging. In the literature on the subject, this is known as a low trust community: a group of people who have to work together but have very little confidence in each other. In this situation things often go from bad to worse. Really you need some kind of early warning system so you can nip this sort of thing in the bud. I am totally convinced that that is worth doing.

Some people say that things are not so bad here, pointing to the figures in the employees’ survey. It happens no more often here than elsewhere. But that is not the point. The point is, what are the consequences of undesirable behaviour? It makes a huge difference whether you are a high trust community or not. They are usually much more productive. Parts of our organization are low trust, and that’s where it goes really wrong. And that can go on festering for years sometimes. People came to us with examples that happened years ago, which they were still upset about. And that is a big drain on your motivation, your pleasure in your work and your creativity.’

The committee maintains that the ‘tone at the top’ is crucial for the extent to which undesirable behaviour is tolerated. So is the tone at the top of our organization bad? ‘No, you shouldn’t see it like that. We are only saying that this is extremely important. We haven’t identified hotspots of undesirable behaviour. Management teams have a special responsibility to notice this sort of thing and they should take a good look at themselves as well. In the recommendations we say that the selection of middle management should partly be based on competences which support the work of the human resource manager.’

But what do we do with the people who are already in place? Send them all on courses? ‘That’s not a bad idea. It wouldn’t be a bad thing for people in leadership roles to do a course once a year. On how to conduct a bad-news discussion, how to deal with conflict, how to supervise and coach people. And so on and so on.’

Power relations often play a role in undesirable behaviour. You particularly make a point of the dreadful plight of PhD students. What is wrong there? ‘A professor used to have about eight PhD researchers. Now there may be as many as 30 or 40, and they are supervised by people lower down the ranks, who do not always have any experience. Some of them have only just got their PhD themselves, and they don’t always have the capacity or the time to do the job well. So it sometimes goes wrong. There is no regular contact, and the supervisor has little feel for the dilemmas facing the PhD student. Too much is expected of them, and they are given too little encouragement. PhD students often walk around feeling a bit lost and unsupported. They have few options and relatively little influence. And that creates the right environment for inappropriate behaviour. Take the authorship of articles, for instance. You did 90 percent of the work and then someone is added to the list of authors without consulting you. I consider that fairly intimidating.’

In consultation

The study on undesirable behaviour was done in the first half of this year at the behest of the WUR Council (the employees’ council) and the executive board. The aim of the study was to clarify where and under what circumstances undesirable behaviour occurs. The final report, In Consultation was presented last week in Impulse. The report is now being discussed in various forums within the organization. A working party is tasked with translating the recommendations into measures. Anyone who has a good idea is welcome to submit them. The executive council and the board of directors will decide on what concrete action to take at the end of November.

Fewer PhD students per professor, then? ‘That’s not what I’m saying. The quality of PhD supervision must be improved. PhD students should draw up learning plans for themselves. And in fact, supervisors should draw up plans for themselves too. How am I going to tackle this supervision process, how will I monitor progress and how am I going to collaborate with other PhD supervisors? That should be given more careful consideration, and more time should be spent on it.’

 A common problem that you highlight is that there will be no place for some people in the organization in future. What do you mean by that? ‘That’s about people who are working fine now but will not fit into the organization as it is envisaged in the future. They are often told this out of the blue and without proper preparation. In the first place, then, there is the confusing fact that they are functioning fine and yet there is no longer a place for them in the organization. These are two very different things. In these cases there is an attempt to build up a dossier, often in a very inappropriate way. And people see that as a trick. Personally I think these discussions should be held much earlier and more openly to ask people how they see themselves in the organization in five or ten years’ time. It will often be the case that people aren’t going to fit into that future with their present competencies. The implications of that need to be talked about in no uncertain terms.’

Isn’t saying goodbye to people unavoidable sometimes? ‘People understand perfectly well that staff have to go sometimes. But they cannot always accept the way it is done. That abrupt, blunt, incorrect and secretive way of going about it. It happens here too. And if people can’t sort it out together, you have to call in a crisis manager to ‘make a clean sweep’. That is a mark of incompetence, and it is a bad thing if an organization lets things go so far. You need someone in charge who tackles these sorts of issues in the early stages. Really, change management should be part of the skills package of everyone in a leadership role. Every leader should be a change manager. Because nothing stays the same, it always has to change.’

But you also put the ball firmly in the employee’s court, in cases where they are passive and victims of ‘learned helplessness’. What do you mean by that? ‘By ‘learned’ we mean that they have never been taught to take initiative. There are people who have just been handed assignments and have carried them out year in, year out. They haven’t been stimulated enough to go out and acquire assignments themselves. In Communication Sciences we had a marketing plan for attracting funding as early as the early nineteen eighties. For a researcher this is a significant part of the job. How can you sell yourself most effectively? How good is your visiting card? It’s all about personal branding. You can’t just wait and see anymore.’

The committee recommends being clear and concrete about Wageningen UR’s core values. How will that help? ‘Undesirable behaviour is only one side of the coin. You should look at desirable behaviour too. I don’t think there is anything wrong with holding annual discussions in your own group about how you go about the things we all agree are important.’

You can only speak up for yourself if you feel you are in a safe environment. How do you create such an environment? ‘Those in leadership positions should raise this sort of issue. If you translate it into rules: directors of science groups should talk with heads of department, team  leaders and professors once a year about how they approach undesirable behaviour, how they discuss it and what the outcomes are. That should be monitored. These people should make a point of that in their own groups. People should be asked in their ‘results and development’ interviews whether they have experienced any undesirable behavior, and the culprits should be tackled about it. And this should happen consistently.’

Every leader should be a change manager. Because nothing stays the same, it always has to change

 It is often about conflicts with managers. What then? ‘Then you go one above him or her. Managers can be challenged about their behaviour just the same as anyone else. Managers should not just set goals and monitor the work, but also create trust and inspire people. Undesirable behaviour should have consequences, repercussions. There isn’t a system of checks at present, and it needs to be much more transparent. At the moment, results & development interviews are often administrative obligations. Undesirable behaviour should be raised in those interviews.’

The committee’s recommendations are not very concrete. ‘That’s true. It is just a push in the right direction. We hope that it will set an awareness-raising process in motion, that people will take up the issue, and that a few mechanisms will be built in. Because some of the cases are absolutely appalling. There are people who think undesirable behaviour is just incidental. But I don’t see it like that. It happens everywhere, every day. And the worst of it is that nothing is done. When people obstruct each other, take sides and form coteries, you are a long way from where you want to be. That kind of behaviour wrecks collaboration, and it has a huge effect on productivity too.’

Have you revealed all in this report? ‘This is not a study that provides insight into the whole range of incidents of undesirable behaviour within Wageningen UR. A study of that kind would require a very different approach, and would cost a lot more time and money. We have held discussions which gave us insight into where things can go wrong in the organization.’

Would a real investigation have brought other things to light then? ‘No, I don’t think so. We looked at what conditions create the context for undesirable behaviour. Our approach was definitely the right one for doing that, but not the right one for finding out exactly where and how often it goes on. We had sixty cases reported. But if people don’t report anything, that doesn’t mean there’s no problem. The people who report it hope and trust that something will be done with their story. People who have lost all trust in the organization don’t come to the committee either.’

So you didn’t get to hear the worst cases? ‘Possibly not. We don’t know. I am extremely uncertain on that point.’

Photo: Guy Ackermans