Whenever I’m repeatedly asked for advice about a topic it becomes a post on this blog. Around this time of year many undergraduates and graduates working in the HYPER lab are considering offers to advance their careers. The most common, and rightly critical, question is how to find the right mentor and colleagues for that next phase in life while avoiding the abusive adviser/boss/colleague (I’m going to use ‘authority’ from here on) that could stall your career for years. It’s no easy task — you’re typically granted only a 30 minute choreographed interview in your potentially new authority’s carefully orchestrated office before deciding whether to commit to spending years of your life working with them. Not ideal. So this post covers the basics of:

  1. why academia tends to have problems with micromanaging authority,
  2. identifying the warning signs,
  3. handling tricky situations, and
  4. practices I use to keep from becoming an abusive or aggressive authority (what positives to look for).
Why authoritarian abuse is an issue in Academia

Nature has an article on how academia and research organizations have evolved systems with a tendency towards authoritarian abuse. Essentially, it’s a natural occurrence in a tree-like power hierarchy. Not only is our hierarchy status-based, permanent job security via tenure had the un-intended consequence of instilling a robustness to arbitrary change. This lack of accountability towards collective goals created an issue for authorities seeking to motivate faculty and egos became the natural motivational tool. Every university created the expectation that their researchers are supposed to be the world expert in X. People come from all over to learn faculty member’s opinions on X. Students sign up for years of graduate work to become experts in X themselves. Problem is, X is a much needed and popular area with Y university labs from around the world working to lead area X. Not everyone can be considered THE expert in X. Less than 1/10 federal grants are funded these days. It’s statistically guaranteed that most, even ‘geniuses’, end up feeling left out. To justify one’s smarts yet lack of prominence, narcissism creeps in. Said simply, academia promotes authority through expertise, severely limits who can be an authority, and promotes few external drivers of change such that a person’s ego becomes the most effective motivational tool. It’s a recipe for a toxic psychological mess for a community. A vicious cycle ensues…

Identifying the warning signs

Like many, you’ve probably dived head long into your current position and are only coming across this post because problems are arising. Here’s a short list I’m guessing are the most common warning signs you have an abusive authority:

  1. Authority is demanding you to work through the night or over the weekend.
  2. Authority is yelling or belittling your work to you directly or in front of others (emotional abuse).
  3. Authority is threatening revocation of resources, demotion, firing, negative reviews or referrals (power abuse).
  4. Authority is moving the finish line for when work or graduate studies is to be completed (scope creep).
  5. Authority is controlling your social relationships and contacts within the working group (sociopathy).
  6. Authority is controlling all aspects of your work, time spent during the day, and your personal notes (micromanaging).
  7. Authority is struggling with inappropriate touching, leaning, prying into personal affairs, etc. (psychological or personal boundary violation issues).
  8. Authority is persisting in an idea for your future that is different from your own ideal.
  9. Authority is avoiding documenting their interactions with you via email, Teams, or other forms of public record.
  10. Authority is unable to synthesize data or evidence that shows they are having issues with any of the above.

This list is by no means comprehensive. If it feels wrong, there’s probably a reason. Chris Guillebeau took a different approach in his excellent short read, “A Brief Guide to World Domination” by summarizing the above list as three types of individuals to avoid in the world: 1) Gatekeepers, 2) Critics, and 3) Normalizers of Mediocrity.

Another approach to this list is empathy layers/types. If deviations occur in mirroring, emotional, rational, or cognitive empathy forms, then you’re likely to run into an issue.

I’ve seen multiple students shoot their hands up to voluntarily lead groups. To witch I ask, “this is where we find out if you want to lead for the good of the community or your own personal advancement.” After which you want to see a quick nod and not a big gulp.

Perhaps the most basic read is by talking with subordinates to the authority. I’ve had multiple people tour my lab and say something along the lines of, “You have brilliant students. I can tell by the excitement in their eyes.” You can also spot negative behavior when visiting a group. People will avert direct eye contact, cross their arms when challenged, or exhibit cognitive flinching via avoiding direct answers to basic questions. Some of this can come from prior authorities and take awhile to alleviate. For example, I once had a boss, from a more authoritarian culture, who was hosting a holiday party. When he met my five year old son he immediately put his hand under my son’s chin and lifted his eyes up to look into his. My son, who’d never been exposed to this type of  behavior to my knowledge, just gazed into his eyes as if to say, “why are you doing this?” If I’d ever hit or psychologically abused my son, he’d immediately flinch or avert eye contact when his chin was lifted like that.

There is an old saying, “Those who were abused tend to continue the cycle of abuse.” If you talk with an authority abusing their subordinates the most common response is, “It’s what’s best to prepare them for the world.” It’s a well known psychological phenomena that if you voluntarily choose to participate in something abusive, you justify the abuse to yourself. This is the reason that victims of hazing justify the hazing to themselves and repeat the process to others — not justifying it to yourself means you did something incredibly silly, which our brains have difficulty justifying. So not only does the system promote this behavior in the pursuit of performance, our brains justify and repeat. A vicious cycle ensues…

Handling tricky situations

The legal system evolved to curb authoritarian abuse. If the authority is breaking a law things would be pretty straight forward. Most authorities know the laws as they are pretty clear. However, many problems are more grey and difficult to clearly establish as right or wrong. The problem could even be that the authority committing the troubling behavior/issue may not even be aware of the issue. The first step to awareness, following Gloria Steinam’s sage advise, is defining or labeling a troubling behavior/issue. Defining a troubling behavior is just the first, and perhaps the easiest, step. Once defined, you have a difficult decision to make: either cope with or escape the behavior as your resources don’t allow the time to resolve, or take the time to figure out a solution that resolves the authority’s abuse. The degree of difficulty for a resolution depends on each situation, and your going to have to use your judgement to decide what’s best for yourself.

Resolving conflicts, and particularly how to communicate during conflict, should be a required class of everyone in our society. I recommend reading another post on this site: Conflict Communication. That post breaks down how different types of people wage conflict, and includes processes I learned through the years for managing and avoiding conflict. In short, if you are having a conflict with an authority, you should setup a meeting to address it early, carefully, and productively. Do this before sides become entrenched! Establish mutually agreeable, and enforceable boundaries.

If that meeting does not go well and the problem persists, your university or place of employment likely has policy and mediators to work through an official process. VCEA has meetings with all graduate students when they start to inform them of policies and provide multiple avenues for reaching out to resolve these issues — keep these lists handy in your desk drawers. Also know someone with the WSU Graduate and Professional Student Association (GPSA). You see, the issue is authoritarian abuse puts on blinders, a.k.a. tunnel vision, and sometimes the intent of the abusing authority is to make you feel isolated and alone. You’ll get so consumed by the abuse that it will be easy to forget about the resources that can help you.

Worse comes to worse, here’s an article from the Chronicle of Higher Education on How to Fire Your Adviser.

Remember that you’re not alone in these issues of authority abuse. Talk to your friends in other research groups, have third parties document info. And keep those help lines handy when you need to support and help a friend. There will be times when you will literally have to hold their hand and walk them to the help desk.

Practices I use to keep from becoming an abusive authority

I’m not magically insulated from the drivers of toxic authority persistent in academia. Over the years I’ve developed some coping strategies to limit authoritarian abuse. One of which is writing original articles on this blog to teach others — when one teaches, two learn. So here’s a short list of practices that will promote more positive use of authority, and likely improve the performance of your group along the way:

  1. Let the universe provide the beating. The real world is hard, you don’t need to add insult to injury. Rather than create arbitrary deadlines, use conferences, grant deadlines, and other forms of public presentation to drive work output. Make every effort to ask for permission from the subordinate to sign them up for the public deliverable. It’s your job to stretch, just don’t break your subordinates. Fear of public humiliation is a strong and natural motivator. Coach them up for success and they’ll want more. But the universe works in many ways and can be used to resolve conflict too. Example — I once was in a disagreement with my advisers about a decision on a key direction for my dissertation. The answer seemed obvious to me, but they kept resisting me. Eventually, I was so frustrated I blurted out, “Because the circumference increases by r and the area increases by r squared!!” I was lucky to have rational advisers who immediately understood this mathematical justification. Why didn’t I start with that? After all, mathematics is the language of the universe. Another example — I often give folks suggestions that are not followed. If I was right the universe will show it, eventually. I plan for several of these lessons that take little time/resources to complete the cycle early on in a subordinates career.
  2. Don’t grade it. Fix it. Does it really make sense to give someone a ‘D’ grade for lab work? Why not spend the time fixing their work, and showing them how to do it better, instead? Do you really have time to pass arbitrary judgement? Best to spend that energy building momentum any way you can. I made the mistake once of trying to convince a subordinate of the urgent need to change their writing style by applying an unnecessary adjective — they are the only alumni that do not contact me when they come back to Pullman. Getting frustrated just made everything worse. Continuous Quality Improvement, a.k.a. Lean Manufacturing Philosophy, minimizes authority and quality control because everyone is involved with quality control — all steps in the production process are error proofed such that nothing gets produced that isn’t quality — no need for judgement. Authority is not required in high performing, lean, continuously improving organizations.
  3. Empathy for personal Drive. This is often a rough conversation for some: “Who are you? Why are you here?? What do you want to do???” This is one of the few times when I’ll really probe and pry into someone’s inner workings. I’m looking for raw passion that aligns with group goals and needs. More on recruiting brilliant students here. When aligned, the problem is not getting people driven to work enough, the problem is that they work too much and miss other enriching activities outside the org. I never tell people they have to work at night or over the weekend. Because I have natural deadlines and drive aligned, I have to come in and tell them to go home and take a break. To try to help students get their work done on time, we’ve adopted Agile Design principles of task backlogs, sprints, and sprint reviews. Agile just comes naturally to them and promotes mutual agreement on task backlogs.
  4. Build the cons of resilience. Abuse is often justified as building toughness. I prefer resilience as it is more fluid when fluidity is needed. I never realized it when I applied here back in 2010, but my cons for teaching actually closely match the c’s recommended in Building Resilience in Children. My Cons (from the Latin for “with”) are 1) Contrast, 2) Concentration, 3) Connection, 4) Contribution, 5) Confidence, 6) Confluence. Nail all six and your subordinates will be able to handle with ease just about anything you throw at them.
  5. I am a terrible gatekeeper. I was just at a party where an engineer friend I know lamented that 18 years ago an advisor told her she wasn’t fit to be an engineer. She now has a Ph.D in mechanical engineering. 11 years ago I was told I wasn’t fit to become a faculty member and should go work in industry instead. The most famously wrong statements in history nearly always involve someone saying something will never happen or not occur without physical law as the justification. I’ve learned to never place arbitrary limits on what those around me can accomplish. And I find that they often end up accomplishing more than I could’ve. I also find that thriving communities are diverse. As much as I have types of subordinates that I look for, their friends often end up making critical contributions. The only time I gatekeep is at the entry to the lab — I just can’t have disruptive personalities without drive messing the community up. If a lab member wants out, the door is always open for them to leave, and they can. My job is to motivate. If I can’t convince someone that what they are doing is the most important thing that they can be doing, and won’t get done without them doing it, I’m going to have a hard time convincing a program manager for funding.
  6. Promote a community of professional practice. Whenever the pressure comes down to produce more publications, etc, I always have to remind myself what we’re producing here: professionals. When we onboard new lab members everyone signs a document that commits my efforts to promoting their development as professionals. My persistent drumbeat is developing my group into a community of professional practice. This minimizes my role as an authority bottleneck while cultivating that community of professional practice. I engineer processes and scaffolding into the community that naturally promote professionals. One of which is building brilliant and complimentary teams. If I notice a problem with a couple of individuals, rather than signaling them out, I apply pressure to the community so that everyone starts applying pressure.
  7. I won’t lead so that they can. We’ve engineered practices to allow everyone in the lab to run lab meetings and lead teams. This is important so that I don’t have to. When I leave on travel, the community doesn’t skip a beat. When a sub-team gets stuck, they don’t need me to get them unstuck, because I simply don’t have time to micromanage them all. I’m training the next professional leaders, which means I have to let them be leaders.

It’s not always easy checking my own authority. When the guy at the hardware store starts lecturing me on what I can and can’t do with plumbing or electrical systems…. it’s really, really hard not to pull rank. When the subordinates question every decision or move I make, it’s hard to remind myself it’s about them understanding how I work. When the folks in industry slam academia as slow and out of touch, it’s hard to remember they haven’t seen my lab to understand that we often work faster than they do. When potential recruits pull rank and ask why WSU over a Purdue or Stanford, it’s really, really hard to let them slide for not doing their homework.

Sure, there will be times when authority is needed and warranted. Like a power outage causing hydrogen to vent into a room and quick maneuvers to contain. Authority will be appropriate and come naturally. But when we exercise authority unnecessarily it becomes wasteful and abusive.

Ultimately, folks often become abusive due to a lack of confidence in themselves. If we only realized that there are so many problems waiting in the world to be fixed, and people waiting to be connected. It’s not hard to quickly realize that the highest performing leaders are too busy helping and just don’t have time for abuse.