Elaboration on a few words of the New Public Stoicism vocabulary

We think that the standard vocabulary as is used for New Public Management, doesn’t suit New Public Stoicism. That is why we want to try to build the right vocabulary that holds the essence of New Public Stoicism. In this blogpost, I will elaborate a bit on the words “trust” and “building relationships”.

In the Third Letters from a Stoic (Seneca, p. 34-36) one can read: “After friendship is formed you must trust, but before that you must judge.” We may not need to go as far as building friendship, but we – as research managers – will be judged by researchers before there can be anything like trust. And we ourselves will also judge the researchers.

The mutual judgement will be on the expected capabilities of one another: Will the researcher be capable to write an excellent research proposal? Will the research manager be capable to understand the research proposal? And what about being judged on ones knowledge? Maybe the judgement will even be on the person: is there a so-called click on both ends? The latter bears the risk of judging on character instead of actions. Therefore both parties should remember to stand back and take time to evaluate the actions or situations as objectively as possible. Don’t judge straight away because this brings the risk of deciding by emotion, be it negative or positive. And that is not the stoic way of acting.

Given the above, it becomes clear that the judgement takes time. But this time is necessary because it is the only way trust can be build. So, even without the trust being in place, the researcher and the research manager need to collaborate and start building their relationship. This can be a scary process. The scientist may be reserved in sharing the draft proposal. The research manager may be reserved in providing feedback. It is only on a step-by-step basis that progress in the relationship is made. After completing a first proposal, a first sparkle of trust may be build. That is: if the experience was a positive one. But to go to the full, more frequent collaborations are required. And the reservations need to fade away once the mutual judgement results in the knowledge that both researcher and research manager can fully trust each other. The draft proposal will be handled strictly confidential by the research manager, while the researcher will accept feedback even if it seems harsh at times.

Only if and when this state of mutual trust is reached, in the relationship built, you can “welcome one another heart and soul, speak as unreservedly with the other as you would with yourself and […] share all your worries and deliberations” (Seneca, p.35).

How to clicker-train your researcher – ethics in research management

One of the things we hope to obtain with New Public Stoicism is to open the debate on ethics in research management. Working with research proposals and research projects, the importance of ethics is ever growing. And for good reasons!

Were we as research managers to look at ourselves in the mirror – could we face ourselves if someone asks us about our professional ethics? At some point, we started doubting this.
Four years ago I got a pug. My baby girl named Trille. Of course, we started at dog training, and I got a clicker and read about clicker training. Clicker training can do wonders. She can now do all sorts of tricks and is relatively obedient.

One day at work we started talking on how to get researchers to submit more applications. Soon we moved from motivation to incentives. And with incentives the aim moved from research to getting more money. Suddenly I could see myself clicking and shouting “good girl” and throwing a treat.
The thing is – researchers are not dogs.

If we insist on being intrinsically motivated (see the blogpost: Enthusiasm, responsibility and indifference) why shouldn’t our researchers. The moment we move from motivation to incentives – we also begin considering the researchers as our instruments in obtaining the higher goals of the university. This is okay in the context of being a subject of a research project, but this is also why the ethics around research projects are so strict. It is for a limited time and a specific context and the subject should be informed and consent.

This is why incentives are so problematic. Especially in the form of nudging. As Evgeny Morozov writes in his book To Save Everything, Click Here: “Nudging is to manipulation what public relations is to advertising. It gets things done while making all the background tinkering implicit and invisible”. It is assuming a social consensus on means and end. A consensus that might not exist. We might have people doing the right things, but not necessarily for the right reasons. And if it doesn’t work, then we just nudge a little more. Is that how we want to be? Is that how we want to treat some other people?

This is of course a fine line to walk; of course, we are part of an organisation and you play a role in this organisation, but we also have a value in ourselves as human beings. If we forget this – how will we pass our ethics review?

P.S. We think this is really important and consider submitting an abstract for a conference on this. Would it be of interest to anybody if we elaborate on this?

You are not alone

One of the mistakes we often make is to think that things are obviously worse for us. No one will understand. Statistically this is of course most unlikely. But more importantly it is unhealthy to think like that.

Yes, the top-researcher you support for an ERC application is unreasonable, your boss demands too much, your colleagues aren’t supportive enough, and yes, it is unfair that the IT department is closing all systems down the weekend just before a big deadline, and yes, your tasks are too many and too complicated.
Suddenly you find yourself spiraling into a world where everything is unfair, and you have to solve it all on your own, because nobody understands you, because nobody has even been in a situation as crazy as this.

Guess what – they have. We all have. You are not special. And neither is your situation. Well, perhaps nobody has been in exactly this set of problems, but something similar.
Is that supposed to reassure me, you might ask? Yes. Because it should remind you that others have survived, and so will you. It probably isn’t fair, but that is how it is. Can you change the researcher? No, but you choose how to react to his unreasonable demands. Can you change the IT shut down? No, but you can work around them – and suggest when future shut downs are inconvenient. Will it work? Perhaps, but you did what was within your control, and you know that someone, somewhere, was in the same position, and they survived, and so will you.

The reason why  it is necessary to break this ‘spiraling down’ is that it allows our passions to take control of us. The passions are the opposite of the virtues that we described earlier on. The passions are unhealthy mental activities that give us an irrational idea of what is good and bad – and suddenly our desires follow these false notions of what is good and avoid what is bad. The passions can convince us that if this doesn’t work out right, we will get fired. Will you? Really?

And this is one of the key problems with New Public Management. The focus on goals, projects and Key Performance Indicators feeds right into your passions. It gives you a wrong idea of what is good and bad. It gives us a target, often causing us to forget our purpose – and suddenly you are on your way down a rabbit hole.

But don’t worry. We have all been there, so there is a way out. We can’t save you, but we can help you.

Tell me why I don’t like Mondays!

Apparently, even Roman emperors are fond of the snooze button.

“At dawn, when you have trouble getting out of bed, tell yourself: “I have to go to work – as a human being. What do I have to complain of, If I’m going to do what I was born for – the things I was brought into the world to do? Or is this what I was created for? To huddle under the blankets and stay warm?””
(Meditations 5,1)

Not as a ruler, as a conqueror, father, or husband. Not as a research administrator, accountant, or head of office. As a human being.

Some might say that is too much on a rainy Monday morning. The thing is, it is not.
Often when we lack motivation to get out of bed, it is because we dread certain tasks. We don’t want to draw up yet another budget, waste time on another internal meeting, read through the second draft of a hopeless application or work on that financial report for the EU Commission where the partners have not supplied all the necessary information.

In that case it could perhaps be valuable to remember that you are not a set of skills on legs. You are a human being supporting other human beings. And yes, that might include: the budget, the meeting, the reading and the report. Saying that this is what you were born to do is perhaps pushing it. Admittedly, I find it hard to feel a deep sense of purpose every time I draw up a budget.

But that leads us back to the post on enthusiasm – or more precisely: intrinsic motivation. As a human being supporting other human beings in making a better world through research, I do feel a sense of purpose. And I was not born to be a researcher, and so this is my role, and sometimes this includes drawing up budgets, attending boring meetings, reading hopeless applications and working with difficult partners.
Reading about Marcus Aurelius’ life, I understand why he felt like staying in bed from time to time. Actually, I feel rather embarrassed about what sometimes troubles me and makes me want to stay in bed. But more importantly, if this could motivate Marcus Aurelius to get up in the morning with all the problems he had in his life – it should motivate me. As a human being.

Hopefully, you’ll like your Mondays better now.

The Virtuous Research Manager

No, we do not want to hear about how you lost your virginity.
Over time virtue mainly got linked to sex, but that is not what is meant by virtue in the stoic world. The virtues are what guides the Stoic in a world of desires. It helps him navigate between good and bad – and tells him when to be indifferent. What this means is that human nature is basically rational and social. It could also be said that our goal is to strive for human excellence through a virtuous life. The virtues are practical skills.
Translations are always tricky, and so you can find different translations of the four virtues. We will stick to these translations: Wisdom, justice, courage, temperance.
In “The Inner Castle” Pierre Hadot describes them as (page 232):
• Wisdom: The science of what ought and ought not to be done.
• Justice: The science of what ought and ought not to be distributed.
• Courage: The science of what ought and ought not to be tolerated.
• Temperance: The science of what ought and ought not to be chosen.
In later blogposts we will dive into the virtues one at a time and link them directly to research management. Still, a little explanation might help.

Wisdom is sometimes translated as prudence. It is the healthy sense of purpose, resourcefulness, good sense and excellent deliberation. In many ways this is an “umbrella-virtue”. It is what the stoic aims for. Oddly enough we haven’t seen a job ad in research management asking for wisdom.

Temperance is often also translated as moderation or self-discipline, and it includes organisation and orderliness. This will be an interesting future blogpost we think. This is relevant in so many ways in our profession, so it practically writes itself.

Courage is also endurance, confidence, bravery and love of work. This is one of the virtues we are really looking forward to explore as it can interfere with our perception of service.

Justice is fair dealing, benevolence, and public service. And it is integrity. We will soon explore this in a blogpost on ethics in research management. It also includes piety to the goods. This might seem odd – and we are not going all religious on you. Consider it a way of remembering your role in the world – and then it will hopefully make sense.

The problem of writing a post like this is that you want to explain and add details. But that is all to come. We hope that some of these terms can find their way into the core of the profession of research management and administration.

Be a control freak!

Control freaks are usually not a pleasant encounter. So don’t worry – we don’t mean it that way.
Key here is one of the core terms in Stoicism: control. One of the main reasons why I (Jakob) took a stress sick leave was that I kept worrying and struggling with things at work that were not within my control. If only I kept voicing my concerns, things would change for the better. I could gain influence and change things.
The only problem was: I couldn’t – and they didn’t.
Or, of course to some extent, but not really.

Control has a harsh sound to it, and often we hear people suggest talking about ‘influence’ instead. But control is the right word. When we choose otherwise it is often because we live in more or less informal management cultures, have flat hierarchies and thrive in the project culture of New Public Management. The thing is – in the end it is about control.

Most research managers and administrators work in an environment where there are plenty of deadlines and not a lot of control. If you work pre-award you can comment away on a project description, but in the end the researcher decides. You can propose budget changes, but they don’t have to follow your advice. You can even advise them not to apply for a certain grant, but you can’t force them not to – you might not even be able to say that you will not work on the application, well knowing that it is a waste of time. And then you start worrying… This is where the mess really begins. You worry over this and worry over that – and you suddenly find yourself in the feedback loop from hell.
Until the day when you sit down and make a list of all your tasks (or at least the main ones) and make two columns: ‘control’ and ‘no control’. Which tasks are you in control of? Focus on those! And the rest? Be indifferent. We will dive into the term ‘indifference’ later on. For the time being suffice to say that the other tasks are not bad or evil – and we don’t want to get rid of them (you probably couldn’t if you wanted to). We just don’t worry. They are just there, and we do our very best to solve them. We just don’t worry about them or waste energy on them.
So perhaps the researcher didn’t follow our advice, and the application probably will not go through. So be it – you are not in control. You are in control of giving the best advice possible under the circumstances. Did you do that? Well, then good for you. What’s next on your to-do-list?
Sometimes the control/no control divide can feel a little too rigid. In that case, try putting a percentage of your control over the task If it gets below 50-60% you should probably consider whether this is worth worrying about.

Enthusiasm, responsibility and indifference

Being around colleagues it struck me that most of us have an enormous sense of enthusiasm and responsibility towards the researchers we support. During talks over a cup of coffee, I found I’m not the only one where this enthusiasm and feeling responsible has to do with supporting the chances of improving the world by scientific research, be it fundamental or applied.

One part of our job is to get to know ‘our’ researchers by talking to them about their research field, their goals, their wishes. Then we start searching. Searching for the right funding instrument, the right calls for proposals. Whenever we come across a very interesting call with a societal challenge crying out to be solved, we act. We get in touch with the researcher who we think is most competent for the job. We emphasize the importance of this call, we try to explain the challenge from the point of view of the policy makers, aiming at convincing the researcher that he/she is the most suitable person to write a proposal and form a consortium. Very often however, the researcher is not interested. The scientist has either too much at hand already or is much more interested in conducting bottom-up research instead of getting involved in time consuming proposal writing and complex collaborations, no matter the amount of support we can offer. Which leaves us with feelings of disappointment and failure. But why?

New Public Management, the theoretical model that to date is still dominant, assumes that employees are extrinsically driven. So, as long as employees live up to meeting the KPIs set and get rewarded for this, they will happily conduct their job.

But a lot of employees, and certainly research managers, are intrinsically driven. It is about passion, involvement, relationships, co-creation, responsibility.  And to me, this answers the question “why?” We are very much involved, although we only have limited influence. While one of the cornerstones of stoicism is to focus on things within your span of control and be indifferent towards everything outside our span of control.

This means that to safe ourselves from feelings of disappointment and failure, also here we have to learn to be indifferent towards all aspects beyond our control. Stay enthusiastic, but bear in mind you can’t be hold responsible if your enthusiasm doesn’t result in an evenly enthusiastic researcher who can’t wait to start writing a collaborative research proposal. New Public Stoicism is all about intrinsically driven motivation where reason and our relationships with others play an important role, but as important is the art to learn to accept those things in life and work that you can’t control.

KPIs – target or victim?

A critique we often hear is: But now the KPIs are there! I can’t just ignore them as I’m managed by them on a day to day basis by my manager. And of course, to some extent that is true. Yet, if you can’t ignore them you can at least decide how to relate to them.

There are basically two kinds of KPIs: The good ones that make sense and relate to your job, and you are more or less in control of whether you’ll meet the KPI. And the other ones where you are being measured on something that is not under your control.
In the latter case stoicism tells us to be indifferent. That is of course easier said than done, but we’ll try to elaborate a little on how this could probably be done.

Let’s try a metaphor: You are back in the school yard. Your managers are the bullies that chased you around making every recess a hell. Now, the KPIs are all the insults they threw at you. (Remember this is just a metaphor…). In that situation you have three choices:

  1. Fight back – but they are too many and too strong, so that wouldn’t make any sense.
  2. Let the insults ruin your day and make you hate school.
  3. Ignore the insults.

The difference between 2 and 3 is whether you realise that just because you are the target of an insult this does not mean that you have to be the victim of it. Again, this is easier said than done.

Back to research management:
Before KPIs are set fighting back might be an option. Once they are there, however, you might want to calm down, Don Quixote. Injustice should always be voiced, but at some point both you and your surroundings get tired of this. And then you feel bad about ignoring the KPI’s. That is because you have been targeted, and you are supposed to take on the responsibility of something you have no or little control over. All you can do is do your job. In that case we suggest you consider whether you want to be the victim of the KPI. Now, death by KPI is rarely heard of, so if you want to keep worrying – feel free. We think that for the sake of your mental health it would sometimes be better to decide that even if you are the target you will not be the victim.

What is New Public Stoicism?

New Public Stoicism (NPS) is an attempt to build a framework for research managers and administrators living in a New Public Management world.

New Public Management is introduced to the public sector in most countries approximately 35 years ago. The idea behind New Public Management is to create a more ‘businesslike’ public service with improved efficiency, based on private sector management models. Emphasis lies on performance, value for money, financial control, collaboration with private organisations and efficiency increase. To increase efficiency different tools are used, like planning and control and monitoring. Decisions on what to achieve are drafted in the form of Key Performance Indicators (KPI). The indicators themselves are mostly given by a governing body, leaving only the work of meeting the indicator by the specific faculty or institute. A KPIcould be for instance, a specific amount of money to be raised for research projects. Performance is assessed through audits, benchmarks and performance evaluations.

From our point of view the problem is that most planning, control, monitoring, benchmarking and KPIs reflect the organisation, whereas we as research managers and administrators are human beings supporting other human beings in their job. In our daily life we focus on the researcher whom we are supporting and on the project he or she is working on. We do not consider whether this support meets the KPIs or how our work would do in a benchmarking exercise with another organisation.
Yet we bought into the language of New Public Management.This is probably a question of professional development. Research management and administration as a profession did, in most countries, not exist before New Public Management conquered the public sector. So, this is as much our contribution to the development of the profession as its philosophical basis.

The aim is not to remove New Public Management from the stage (as yet…). New Public Management is probably, to some extent, a great tool for management. But most of us are not in management, so we need our own tools in order to do the job we are here to do – within a New Public Management framework.

For this we chose Stoicism. The premise is: If it was good enough for the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, it is good enough for research managers and administrators. Stoicism focuses on what is within our control (hint: KPIs rarely are), being virtuous, relating to our fellow human beings and not paying attention to our desires.
This might seem an odd vocabulary for research management and administration. But our claim is that we are primarily in the business of trust and relationships – things that cannot be quantified. And so we will explore this in blogposts on wisdom, rankings, courage, desires, FP9, moderation, death, strategy and, of course, much more on KPIs.