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 in 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.