Archive for month: October, 2012

Unicorns, the Cult of the Average, and the Happiness Advantage

90% of your happiness is due to internal, not external matters.  Watch this video to put a smile on your face for a week.


Shawn Achor’s message of positive psych, gratitude, and positive action turns normal ideas of success on their head.  Normally, we think that if we are successful then we will be happy, but for a variety of reasons this doesn’t work.  If we are happy, through gratitude, acts of kindness, and generous thoughts, we can first be happy, then successful.

Thanks to Lesley Millar for sharing this link.

Do Universities Retard the Development of Their Faculty?

As I’ve read more on predictable patterns of adult development by such authors as Jane LoevingerWilliam TorbertRobert Kegan, Susanne Cook-Greuter, and others, I’ve been thinking about the ways in which universities encourage and inhibit the development of their faculty. For example, in a framework presented by Cook-Greuter (here), there are three conventional stages of adult human development in which  77% of adults typically find themselves:  diplomat, expert, and achiever.

  • In diplomat, an individual makes meaning by conforming with group norms, and a leader in diplomat will often use words, like “family” and “loyalty” to describe what is important to them at work.
  • In expert, an individual makes meaning through exercising and advocating the expertise of his or her discipline.  Other disciplines are typically less enlightened than the expert’s, and sarcasm and phases such as “yes, but…” rule the expert’s speech.
  • In achiever, an individual makes meaning through making goals and getting results with others, and disciplinary expertise gives way to working with others to get the job done.  Deadline and metric talk rule the speech of the achiever.

The stages following the three conventional stages (individualist, strategist, alchemist & above) involve higher degrees of system complexity, tolerance of ambiguity and diversity, and an ability to integrate across different systemic levels.

With these distinctions as background, we notice something almost immediately.  Because universities are organized strictly by discipline, and because universities value expertise within a discipline above almost everything else, it would be reasonable to assume that many faculty members are in expert from a developmental perspective.  The kinds of battles that break out within departments for the hiring of this or that subdiscipline, for example, support this inference, and the quotation (attributed to Kissinger and others), “Academic politics are so bitter because there is so little at stake,” may be interpreted as exactly the pitched battle among those locked in expert one would expect from a developmental stage that does not respect the knowledge and knowhow of those in a different discipline (or subdiscipline) than yours.

To those inside the university, none of this is particularly noteworthy, except to say that expert is a very early stage of adult development.  And here’s the rub. To the extent that universities are organized to keep their faculty in expert, they retard their development as adults, and keep them in a relatively immature stage.  In business, the move to achiever occurs relatively early for someone rising through the leadership ranks.  In universities, it is fairly common to enter as an Assistant Professor and exit as a Professor Emeritus and be in expert the whole time.

This is not good or bad news in and of itself, and developmental theorists are careful to say that later stages are not better or worse than earlier stages.  And clearly from the standpoint of research expertise, having a large cadre of experts is in the university’s interest; however, from the perspective of the individual faculty member, many faculty members may have yearnings to develop and move beyond the bounds of expert.  While only 3% of the population has a PhD, 48% of the population is in a developmental stage above expert. The faculty member who desires to grow and develop finds few organizational mechanisms for doing so.

Academic leaders concerned with the development of their people would do well to first understand the problem through an adult development lens.  Programmatically, a number of interventions are possible once the difficulty is seen this way, but as long as the university is viewed as a collection of experts, little can be done to address the further development of its faculty.

Monkey Business, Unequal Pay & Fairness

I’m attending a course on negotiation at Harvard and we were shown a  one-minute clip from Frans de Waal’s TED talk on Moral Behavior in Animals (full video here):


Capuchin monkeys are fed different foods and the monkey fed a less desirable food has a surprising reaction to it.

Student-Centered versus Student-Led Education

It is increasingly commonplace to hear calls for student-centered education, but increasingly I’ve been thinking that the term doesn’t go far enough and have been using the term student-led learning instead.

First, a lot of language concerning education has teacher-centered bias built in.  One example is the  recommended shift from the sage on the stage, lecturing with 20-old course notes, to the guide on the side who practices active-learning, problem-based learning, experiential learning, or some other X learning in the classroom to the hoped benefit of the students.  Indeed this shift is desirable, but the sage-guide shift still considers the instructor as the prime mover in the educational setting; the subject of both phrases, sage and guide, is the teacher.  In this sense, education continues to be somthing that is done to or done for the student by the teacher.

Second, many of the most compelling educational experiences extant are those in which students genuinely lead the effort.  Elsewhere (here and here), I have written about Junior Enterprise in Brazil and Europe as an exemplary model of students leading their own deep learning efforts, and other examples include student design competitions and significant capstone design experiences.

Embedded in this distinction are also important issues of control, trust, and courage (here).  The kind of education that really unleashes students as confident lifelong learners who have the courage to take initiative depends, in part, on the ability of faculty members who can relinquish control and really trust students with a central role, a leadership role, in their own educations.  Of course, this relinquishing of control should be measured and done thoughtfully in ways that students are capable of handling; however, too often the messages we send when we lecture and steer a course through a rigid syllabus with little or no flexibility or student choice are that the student is not capable to guide his or her own learning and that he or she cannot be trusted with even small decisions in their own education.

Framing the question as student-led learning rather than student-centered education is an important linguistic step in letting the kids drive the car of their own educations.

Olin Announces Distinguished Academic Partner

Franklin W. Olin College announced ThreeJoy Associates president, Dave Goldberg as a distinguished academic partner (here).

“We are extremely fortunate to have someone with the creativity and passion of Dr. Goldberg working with us in our efforts to change engineering education,” said Vincent P. Manno, provost and dean of faculty at Olin College. “He believes, as we do, that student passion, courage, and initiative are the forces that will bring about the needed change, and we welcome him as an ally and colleague.”

Goldberg joins MIT’s Woodie Flowers in this role (here).

Silver Medal Universities and Unhappy Faculty

Medalists: Gold, Bronze & Silver

As the memory of the London Olympics fades into the rearview mirror, an interesting piece of psychological research gives us a clue to the origins of a certain kind of dysfunction in a number of universities.  Researchers have noticed that among medalists in the Olympics, gold medalists and bronze medalists tend to be happy campers, living happy post-Olympic lives, and that silver medalists tend to be dissatisfied wondering what might have been.

The problem according to one research study (here) is “what if” or counterfactual thinking and the idea is straightforward.  When gold medalists consider what might have been, the counterfactual thoughts that run through their minds are all negative (“I might not have won the gold medal!!”) and they are justifiably grateful for the result they achieved.  Similarly, bronze medalists when they consider what might have been, concentrate on the negative possibility of getting no medal at all, and they too are happy with their result.

Silver medalists, on the other hand, are different.  When considering what might have been, silver medalists consider the counterfactual possibility that if they had only tried a little harder that they would have won the gold medal.  This counterfactual opportunity causes them dissatisfaction at the time of the event and for periods of time thereafter.

Universities: Gold, Bronze & Silver

Similar reasoning applies to faculty happiness at what we might call gold, bronze & silver universities.  At the top of the heap, the very best universities have faculty who feel blessed to be where they are because counterfactually they would be at a less prestigious place.  At lesser institutions faculty are happy because counterfactually they might not have an academic position at all.

At silver medal universities, faculty members, like silver medal athletes, reason counterfactually how if only things had been a little different that MIT, Harvard, or Stanford would have hired them instead of the very good but not great institution that actually did.  At one university in my experience a commonplace would be to meet faculty members who would say the following:

When I first came here, I expected only to be here a few years, and I blinked and I’ve been here 25 years.  Of course, it’s a great place to raise kids.

The expectation to be in a silver medal university only a few years suggests that a gold medal university will come to its senses (and to the rescue) and hire the silver medalist faculty member away.  That this doesn’t happen is a source of deep career disappointment that often never heals.

Silver Medal Administrators

The dysfunction of a silver medal institution can be pervasive.  Faculty members have a heightened need to seek recognition in an environment unable to dole it out.  Silver medal administrators–due to their own counterfactual thinking–tend to act as if they were gold medalists, and doing so requires them to withhold honors from all but the very best faculty members.  Kudos are reserved for the Nobel Prize winners and National Medalists, and excellent faculty member has trouble getting a mention in a press release.  This cycle of seeking, not giving, and not getting recognition exacerbates individual silver medal feelings, creating a situation that sustains unhappiness and dissatisfaction among a substantial proportion of the faculty.

First Step: Awareness

Matters of status and recognition are difficult ones, but the start of a way out of the cycle of dissatisfaction is for faculty and leaders to become aware of this mechanism and to reflect on the validity of the underlying counterfactual thinking.