1. Hearts and Minds, and Magic Feathers

Inspiration for the title [1]

Why psychological obstacles (rather than knowledge) may be a major impediment to faculty development, and a class of potential solutions
Ninety percent of the game is half mental.   Yogi Berra

Faculty development comprises academic, professional, and personal growth.  It includes advancement in academic rank, but also every other aspect of what faculty do.  This blog is for both those who facilitate faculty development and those who benefit from it.

Why do we academic faculty not develop more readily? What can we do about this?

Surely we academic faculty are not lacking in ability, training, selection, or motivation. Academic faculty at leading American universities and academic health centers are the product of intense training and quality control. We are among the most intelligent, capable, and motivated of people. If any group ought need little help in advancing in their profession, it is us.

Surely it is not lack of information on how to advance. Most academic institutions have robust faculty development programs, whose heart is provision of knowledge: inform faculty about promotion criteria, policies, best practices, skills, opportunities, resources, and their own progress towards goals.   In other words, if you give them knowledge they will develop. Typically these faculty development programs involve five ‘partners’: (1) criteria and policies that establish expectations and timelines; (2) central offices that provide information; (3) units (e.g., departments, divisions, sections, etc.) that advise, but more importantly review and assess; (4) one or more mentors, who are mainly advisory; and (5) the faculty members themselves, who presumably benefit from the other partners and avidly consume advice. [Samples of typical faculty development materials, which are not the subject of this blog, are available here and here.] Senior faculty, who have already advanced and presumably ‘know the ropes’, are key information providers. In most instances, therefore, improvement of faculty development seems to involve more or better information provision. This does make sense if information provision is the limiting factor.

But while the faculty being developed clearly appreciate the efforts made on their behalf and most academic institutions invest in faculty development, the efforts never seem quite enough. Why?

Let’s ask. I have: “What’s holding you back?” We tell ourselves:

  • Insufficient mentorship
  • Obscure or irrelevant promotion criteria
  • Limited resources
  • Obviously there is a secret formula, because others less worthy than ourselves have advanced. If only we knew this formula…   It must be that we are not part of the club or the ‘in group’.
  • Limited time
  • Unsupportive supervisors (chairs, chiefs, senior faculty)

And so on.

But rarely if ever do we consider that the problem lies within…  Could it be that the problem, the limiting factor, lies inside the head of the faculty member rather than outside, such that improved transmission of knowledge may be helpful but not sufficient?

Predictably Irrational[2]

My major premise here is not that academic faculty are misinformed or under-supported [although sometimes we are] or lacking in ability, but that we are human. Because we are human, our minds are subject to predictable human irrationality[2]. The recognition of this fact has revolutionized economics, for example. Can faculty development or self-development be affected by it as well?

If so, this is bad news, but also good news. The bad news is that rational argument (logic and data) and provision of knowledge, the mainstay of faculty development programs, which one would think would suffice to sustain the development of rational beings such as academic faculty are alleged to be, don’t always work as hoped and reach the point of diminishing returns. This is because the faculty member subjects aren’t rational beings no matter how intelligent or well trained they are. The good news, however, is that because the irrationality is predictable, it can be countered, exploited, and leveraged to enhance faculty development. Other fields – advertising, sales, social psychology, organizational development, improvisational theater, business entrepreneurship, motivational coaching, analytics, generational studies, and behavioral economics, among others – already have tools to do this well. We can use these tools too. In other words, to get faculty to advance, give them information but also mess with their heads.


POINTS: “Psychological problems are the biggest barriers.”[3] “We have met the enemy and he is us.”[4]

COUNTERPOINTS: “If you know your enemy and you know yourself you need not fear the results of a hundred battles.”[5] “Use the enemy’s own strength against him.”[6]

What are these tools, how do they work, and why do they work? Subsequent posts will address these questions, and are my principal focus. Story telling is the first of these tools, as Craig Wortmann advocates[7]. Taking a leaf from Craig’s playbook, here’s a story:

Dumbo[8] is a young elephant who’s lost his mother and is shunned because of his enormous ears. After several misadventures Dumbo and his mouse companion find themselves up in a tree, to which a flock of wise crows[9] reason Dumbo must have flown by flapping his ears. But how, asks Dumbo? The crows give Dumbo an ordinary tail feather, which they tell him is a magic feather that will let him fly. Dumbo believes, and flies to fame and fortune — until he drops the magic feather. Dumbo first concludes he can no longer fly. But then his mouse companion reveals that the magic feather was just an ordinary feather: Dumbo could always fly, and still can. And so Dumbo flies again, reunites with his mother, and lives happily ever after.

Most faculty development programs are mainly if not exclusively flight lessons. In many cases, however, magic feathers are also helpful and sometimes even necessary. This blog is about the feathers and why they work.


√  The first step in any 12-step program is to admit to a problem. Ask yourself, channeling Yogi Berra: Is ninety percent of the faculty development game half mental? If so, then ask yourself: What are the ‘mental’ obstacles to development, and does my faculty development program directly address these [or only the ‘information provision’ part]?

Congratulations! You have taken half of the first step.  And a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step (Lao-Tzu).

[1] Those familiar with the Vietnam and Watergate eras may recall an extended version of this phrase; for others, a good search engine will suffice.

[2] Ariely, Dan. 2008. Predictably Irrational. HarperCollins.

[3] Some Modest Advice for Graduate Students by Stephen C. Stearns. http://stearnslab.yale.edu/some-modest-advice-graduate-students See also: Bull. Ecol. Soc. Am, Volume 68, p.145-150, (1987)

[4] http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Walt_Kelly

[5] Sun Tzu, The Art of War http://www.artofwarquotes.com

[6] From the Thirty-Six Stratagems, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thirty-Six_Stratagems

[7] Wortmann, Craig. 2006. What’s Your Story? Using Stories to Ignite Performance and Be More Successful. Kaplan Publishing, Chicago. See also Craig’s blog: http://www.salesengine.com/blog/

[8] Dumbo. 1941. A Walt Disney Production.

[9] Be advised: the crows are dated racial stereotypes.

©Martin E. Feder 2015

One thought on “1. Hearts and Minds, and Magic Feathers

  1. WWKD writes:

    You make reference to 12 step programs in two of the entries. You mention the first step is “admitting that I have a problem.” Step 1 is actually a little different as it is “admitting I, of myself, am powerless over addiction (your choice here – alcohol, narcotics, food, pornography, and others) and that my life has become unmanageable.” In the program, a lot of emphasis is placed on “powerlessness” as it can be a helpful tool to get past “denial.” I think this is where your comments relate well. Getting past the denial is critical in faculty development. I use something called the “distracting Ds” to illustrate the difficulty faculty have in this first step. The Ds are Denial (which is unconscious), Dismissal (so maybe I have a problem, but it’s no big thing), Defensiveness (I don’t have time – besides the way I do things has been working for me for a long time), Diminishment (of the person making a confrontation – Why are you making a big deal about this? It wasn’t a problem until YOU came around), and finally, Disengagement (F*** it. Nothing I can do about it, I’m too old and set in my ways.)

    The problem with admitting to a problem, is that people often see their failure to admit to a problem as an example of yet another personal failure. “Powerlessness” opens the possibility that addiction is more than an individual failure to admit to the problem – it’s much bigger and much more powerful. It creates a platform for “reinvention” – you may have heard 12 steppers speak of hitting “rock bottom” and having to start over and work “one day at a time.” A lot of the 12 step approach is about getting away from self-blame and recognizing addiction as a disease. Of course, some folks discount the approach. However, it has worked for millions of people.

    Some people say Step 1 is really about “honesty” – letting go of pride and seeking humility. Many of our faculty, especially some of those is the senior ranks, could benefit from seeking humility. Too often, we are all too aware of our own shortcomings and we “hide” inside of our successes – that’s the human vice (or sin) of pride.


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