Diplomacy is sometimes a barrier to progress in universities

The tactful approach can be effective but it risks obscuring the necessity and urgency of improvements, says Chris Moore    

October 8, 2021
Walking on eggshells
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George Bernard Shaw has a great quote that my father used to include at the bottom of every email to me when I started my undergraduate degree: “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable man persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” It was my father’s way of telling me university was going to be a big change, and it would sometimes require me to adapt if I was to thrive.

Adaptation is something I’ve tried to continue doing since becoming an academic. Admittedly, my stubborn streak has at times made me the unreasonable man (my father clearly knew me well!), but I think I’ve adapted fairly well. I’ve picked up new concepts, learned new skills in digital education, and designed new ways of teaching and assessment that encourage student engagement and improve performance. It’s been incredibly rewarding to see the positive effects they’ve had.

But it is one thing to implement changes in your own pedagogy. It is quite another to change how your colleagues and your university work. Diplomacy is both a necessary currency and a frustrating hindrance.  

Without a diplomatic approach to any idea, project or problem that needs something from someone, feelings will be hurt and nothing will get done. The diplomatic approach, however, is often so delicate, so light-touch that the message doesn’t get through and still nothing gets done – or it gets done so slowly that by the time the initiative is implemented, the particular year of students who could have benefitted are long gone. And I’m left wondering whether we failed those students in terms of what their educational experience and employability prospects could have been. 

Administrative or bureaucratic processes are one classic go-to for rationalising why solutions to ongoing problems are never implemented. But is a more likely culprit the fact that we are afraid of saying to colleagues: “Just get on and do it”? If we continue to precede “this isn’t working” with “now, I know we all do some fantastic things”, will we ever acquire the impetus to address an issue evidenced as a real concern in a timely manner? The complacency of “everything is fine the way it is” will continue to hold us back from seeing that, actually, it isn’t and that adaptation is in order. 

Take assessment. Quite rightly, one cannot look at the effectiveness and suitability of an assessment format until it has been used for several academic years and the data and feedback from students and staff can speak for itself. But once it becomes clear that the current cohort of students is not finding assessment challenging or engaging or conducive to their learning, it makes sense to adapt that assessment to meet the needs of the next cohort – even if it involves questioning the opinion and the historic hard work of someone else.

However, even taking the direct approach of declaring (assuming you have sufficient formal authority to do so) that this is what we are going to do results just as often in a tools-down response from those who feel steamrollered or slighted. 

Aren’t we all adults, though? Can’t we handle a little directness without taking it personally? Should we not recognise that it is our responsibility to do the best we can for our students, and that this might involve adapting to this ever-changing world? And should we not have the strength to express that there are things that need doing, fixing or changing? That the thing Frank is supposed to lead on actually needs doing now and is not a mere suggestion that can be kicked into the long grass if you don’t like the look of it? 

Being the person to say all that definitely isn’t comfortable. Heck, I’m acutely aware of my shortcomings regarding tact (you may have noticed). My passion for wanting to make things the best they can be and to make a difference for my students while they’re still my students often gets me into hot water. And I am trying to do a bit more playing nice or keeping quiet in the hope that things will eventually improve; I’m not going to being able to progress professionally otherwise – especially in this digital age, in which perceived tone in communications is a constant worry. 

Yet sometimes it feels as if I’m adapting to suit a sector locked in a previous iteration of itself, in which fitting in was more important than striving to evolve and improve. Diplomacy and tact remain valuable tools, and in many cases they are appropriate. But if their overuse holds us back from adapting to a changing world, in an era of mass higher education, then they can’t be the only tools in our managerial toolboxes.

Those who deflect or put off change should reflect on Bernard Shaw’s quote, too. If their pride and inertia prevents them embracing innovations that would improve students’ experience or performance, are they really being more reasonable than those who demand change? And if they are, isn’t the dramatist right about whose approach is the most valuable?

Chris Moore is senior lecturer in anatomy at the University of the West of England.

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Reader's comments (1)

Historically, the attraction of academic life was freedom from the necessity to conform to corporate norms. Over my career, I have certainly found it more pleasant than my commercial stint. However, as someone who has never been particularly diplomatic, I have to say that my outspokenness has probably not helped my career. Thankfully, I am now partly retired and so have only a short career left so can always speak my mind. Unfortunately, university life is slowly becoming more like corporate life but with a lower rate of pay. The only reason that the system does not collapse is that jobs are easily filled by overseas applicants. This means that the government can always say that there is no recruitment problem but the job is not attractive to most UK students and rightly so. Sorry to get off message there but I wanted to give an example of my approach.

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