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.