Academic assholes and the circle of niceness

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Two of my favourite people in the academic world are my friends Rachael Pitt (aka @thefellowette) and Nigel Palmer. Whenever we have a catch up, which is sadly rare, we have a fine old time talking shop over beer and chips (well lemonade in my case, but you get the picture).

Some time ago ago Rachael started calling us ‘The B Team’ because we were all appointed on a level B in the Australian university pay-scale system (academic Level B is not quite shit kicker entry level academia – that’s level A just in case you were wondering – but it’s pretty close). I always go home feeling a warm glow of collegiality after a B team talk, convinced that being an academic is the best job in the entire world. Rachael reckons that this positive glow is a result of the ‘circle of niceness’ we create just by being together and talking about ideas with honesty and openness.

Anyway, just after I announced my appointment as director of research training at ANU, the B team met to get our nerd on. As we ate chips we talked about my new job, the ageing academic workforce, research student retention rates. Then we got to gossiping — as you do.

All of us had a story or two to tell about academic colleagues who had been rude, dismissive, passive aggressive or even outright hostile to us in the workplace. We had encountered this behaviour from people at level C, D and E, further up in the academic pecking order, but agreed it was most depressing when our fellow level Bs acted like jerks.

As we talked we started to wonder: do you get further in academia if you are a jerk?

Jerks step on, belittle or otherwise sabotage their academic colleagues. The most common method is by criticising their opinions in public, at a conference or in a seminar and by trash talking them in private. Some ambitious sorts work to cut out others, whom they see as competitors, from opportunity. I’m sure it’s not just academics on the payroll who have to deal with this kind of jerky academic behaviour. On the feedback page to the Whisperer I occasionally get comments from PhD students who have found themselves on the receiving end — especially during seminar presentations.

I assume people act like jerks because they think they have something to gain, and maybe they are right.

In his best selling book ‘The No Asshole Rule’ Robert Sutton, a professor at Stanford University, has a lot to say on the topic of, well, assholes in the workplace. The book is erudite and amusing in equal measures and well worth reading especially for the final chapter where Sutton examines the advantages of being an asshole. He cites work by Teresa Amabile, who did a series of controlled experiments using fictitious book reviews. While the reviews themselves essentially made the same observations about the books, the tone in which the reviewers expressed their observations was tweaked to be either nice or nasty. What Amabile found was:

“… negative or unkind people were seen as less likeable but more intelligent, competent and expert than those who expressed the the same messages in gentler ways”

Huh.

This sentence made me think about the nasty cleverness that some academics display when they comment on student work in front of their peers. Displaying cleverness during PhD seminars and during talks at conferences is a way academics show off their scholarly prowess to each other, sometimes at the expense of the student. Cleverness is a form of currency in academia; or ‘cultural capital’ if you like. If other academics think you are clever they will listen to you more; you will be invited to speak at other institutions, to sit on panels and join important committees and boards. Appearing clever is a route to power and promotion. If performing like an asshole in a public forum creates the perverse impression that you are more clever than others who do not, there is a clear incentive to behave this way.

Sutton claims only a small percentage of people who act like assholes are actually sociopaths (he amusingly calls them ‘flaming assholes’) and talks about how asshole behaviour is contagious. He argues that it’s easy for asshole behaviour to become normalised in the workplace because, most of the time, the assholes are not called to account. So it’s possible that many academics are acting like assholes without even being aware of it.

How does it happen? The budding asshole has learned, perhaps subconsciously, that other people interrupt them less if they use stronger language. They get attention: more air time in panel discussions and at conferences. Other budding assholes will watch strong language being used and then imitate the behaviour. No one publicly objects to the language being used, even if the student is clearly upset, and nasty behaviour gets reinforced. As time goes on the culture progressively becomes more poisonous and gets transmitted to the students. Students who are upset by the behaviour of academic assholes are often counselled, often by their peers, that “this is how things are done around here” . Those who refuse to accept the culture are made to feel abnormal because, in a literal sense, they are – if being normal is to be an asshole.

Not all academic cultures are badly afflicted by assholery, but many are. I don’t know about you, but seen this way, some of the sicker academic cultures suddenly make much more sense. This theory might explain why senior academics are sometimes nicer and more generous to their colleagues than than those lower in the pecking order. If asshole behaviour is a route to power, those who already have positions of power in the hierarchy and are widely acknowledged to be clever, have less reason to use it.

To be honest with you, seen through this lens, my career trajectory makes more sense too. I am not comfortable being an asshole, although I’m not going to claim I’ve never been one. I have certainly acted like a jerk in public a time or two in the past, especially when I was an architecture academic where a culture of vicious critique is quite normalised. But I’d rather collaborate than compete and I don’t like confrontation.

I have quality research publications and a good public profile for my scholarly work, yet I found it hard to get advancement in my previous institution. I wonder now if this is because I am too nice and, as a consequence, people tended to underestimate my intelligence. I think it’s no coincidence that my career has only taken off with this blog. The blog is a safe space for me to show off display my knowledge and expertise without having to get into a pissing match.

Like Sutton I am deeply uncomfortable with the observation that being an asshole can be advantageous for your career. Sutton takes a whole book to talk through the benefits of not being an asshole and I want to believe him. He clearly shows that there are real costs to organisations for putting up with asshole behaviour. Put simply, the nice clever people leave. I suspect this happens in academia all the time. It’s a vicious cycle which means people who are more comfortable being an asshole easily outnumber those who find this behaviour obnoxious.

Ultimately we are all diminished when clever people walk away from academia. So what can we do? It’s tempting to point the finger at senior academics for creating a poor workplace culture, but I’ve experienced this behaviour from people at all levels of the academic hierarchy. We need to work together to break the circle of nastiness.

It’s up to all of us to be aware that we have a potential bias in the way we judge others; to be aware that being clever comes in nice and nasty packages. I think we would all prefer, for the sake of a better workplace, that people tried to be nice rather than nasty when giving other people, especially students, criticism about their work. Criticism can be gently and firmly applied, it doesn’t have to be laced with vitriol.

It’s hard to do, but wherever possible we should work on creating circles of niceness. We can do this by being attentive to our own actions. Next time you have to talk in public about someone else’s work really listen to yourself. Are you picking up a prevailing culture of assholery?

I must admit I am at a bit of a loss for other things we can do to make academia a kinder place. Do you have any ideas?

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[...] does this happen? Well, just like academic assholery, I suspect it happens in small ways every day. I’ve written before about my friend Peter, who is [...]

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