15. The Dancing Fool Meets John Malkovich

No matter how much ‘they’ seem like ‘us’, ‘they’ aren’t; design academic assessment and faculty development programs and communications in anticipation of this reality.

The Dancing Fool – by Kilgore Trout

A flying saucer creature named Zog arrived on Earth to explain how wars could be prevented and how cancer could be cured. He brought the information from Margo, a planet where the natives conversed by means of farts and tap dancing.

Zog landed at night in Connecticut. He had no sooner touched down than he saw a house on fire. He rushed into the house, farting and tap dancing, warning the people about the terrible danger they were in. The head of the house brained Zog with a golf club.[1]

We faculty are people who form small academic units, which in turn form larger academic units, and so on up until entire universities and/or academic health centers.  The key word is ‘people’.  We have human minds dominated by System 1 thinking, whose primary cognitive bias is: what you see is all there is.  What we see most often is ourselves and the people with whom we share a common organizational culture, described by Kevin Grigsby[2] as:

‘…a shared pattern of basic assumptions shared by a social group about itself.  In an oft-cited, succinct, and easily understood definition of culture, Bower defines it as “the way we do things around here”.[3]  In defining the culture of the workplace, Peterson and Wilson explain that basic assumptions “form an unspoken or unwritten basis upon which people behave, communicate, and interact in the workplace”.[4]  Organizational culture describes these patterns of basic assumptions and related behavior within a defined social environment.[4]

So what?

What you see is all there is, and what you see is a mostly homogeneous group of highly-educated and carefully selected academic faculty with similar training.  Accordingly, says our System 1s, they share a common organizational culture.  And so, it follows, we can in principle communicate with all in a common language, design uniform career development systems and assessments, and expect them to behave in a common way.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

  • If you’ve seen one faculty member, you’ve seen one faculty member.
  • If you’ve seen one organizational culture, you’ve seen one organizational culture.
  • If you’ve seen one department/section/division/program/center/institute, you’ve seen one department/section/division/program/center/institute.
  • If you’ve seen one university/academic health center, you’ve seen one university/academic health center

Each of us views the world through the lens of our own experience and culture (see also a previous post),

Screen Shot 2015-07-10 at 10.10.51 AM.[5]

and most of us interact with others through this lens.[6]

The key implication is: when faculty members reach out to another faculty member/organizational culture/department/section/division/program/center/university/academic health center–no matter how good their intentions–their efforts at best are likely to be somewhat ineffective[7] and at worst will yield the same fate as that of unfortunate Zog from the planet Margo.  The same is true of the customary axes of diversity: gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, religion, etc. — and also of generations (Boomers, X, Millenials).  In addition:

  • Academic activities that receive great credit towards academic promotion in the home culture may receive little credit in foreign cultures
  • Cultures may seem competitors or adversaries to one another (but sometimes are not)
  • Customary manners, languages, and gestures of one culture may be offensive to others[8]
  • Those from foreign cultures may have constraints, taboos, and obligations that are invisible to outsiders.
  • Faculty from different academic cultures will dispute one another’s positions endlessly, when in reality they are simply agreeing that their cultures have different norms, assumptions, and customs.

Culture eats strategy for breakfast![9]

What’s to be done about this?  When seasoned travelers plan to visit a foreign culture, they inform themselves about local customs[10]. Lest we make dancing fools of ourselves, shouldn’t we do the same?

In the film Being John Malkovich,[11] the McGuffin[12] is that characters can enter John Malkovich’s head and see the world through John Malkovich’s eyes (before being rudely ejected onto the side of the New Jersey Turnpike, that is).  Few of us have the ability to intuit another’s culture without having seen the world through the other’s eyes, and (like Zog from the planet Margo) stumble into bad situations.  In my experience, the resulting cultural dissonance (and not resources, facilities, leadership, or opportunities) is the greatest cause of unhappiness in academic faculty.

To Do

Always remember:  Although ‘they’ may look like you, smell like you, have the same academic degrees as you, belong to the same organization as you, seem to have the same academic values as you, etc., your major cognitive bias is to assume they ARE like you.  Find a way to avoid this cognitive error until proven otherwise, lest it lead you astray.

√  Never judge people until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes (American proverb)

√  If, like Zog from the planet Margo, you choose to communicate through farting and tap-dancing, always wear a helmet.


[1] Vonnegut, K. 1973. Breakfast of Champions. Delacorte Press. http://amzn.com/0385334206

[2] Grigsby, K. 2009. Organizational culture and its consequences. Pages 115-126 in Cole, TR, Goodrich, TJ, Gritz, ER (eds), Faculty Health in Academic Medicine: Physicians, Scientists, and the Pressures of Success. Humana Press. http://amzn.com/1603274502

[3] Bower, JL. 1966. The Will to Manage: Corporate Success Through Programmed Management. McGraw-Hill.

[4] Peterson, M, and Wilson, JF. 2002. The culture-work-health model and work stress. American Journal of Health Behavior 26: 16-24.

[5] http://www.condenaststore.com/-sp/The-New-Yorker-Cover-View-of-the-World-from-9th-Avenue-March-29-1976-Prints_i8553097_.htm

http://www.saulsteinbergfoundation.org/gallery_24_viewofworld.html

http://www.economist.com/node/13326106

http://www.joeydevilla.com/2006/09/22/a-view-of-the-world-from-japan/

http://vannevar.blogspot.com/2009/04/pittsburghs-view-of-world.html

[6] Academic humor can be telling; see for example http://www.wolfescape.com/Humour/MedJokes.htm

[7] I am torn here between respecting Gary Larsen’s request (http://www.creators.com/a-note-from-gary-larson.html) and displaying his pertinent cartoon. Suggest you search for “What we say to dogs. What they hear” online.

[8] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/gayle-cotton/cross-cultural-gestures_b_3437653.html  http://www.buzzfeed.com/gabrielakruschewsky/simple-gestures-that-might-be-highly-misunderstood-abroad#.qsKJBE9BmE

[9] Footnote 62 in Bock, Laszlo. 2015. Work Rules! Insights from Inside Google That Will Transform How You Live and Lead, Twelve. http://amzn.com/1455554790

http://blog.grabcad.com/blog/2015/03/27/culture-eats-strategy/

[10] http://www.kwintessential.co.uk/resources/country-profiles.html

[11] Being John Malkovich. 1999. Polygram USA Video. http://amzn.com/6305807086

[12] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MacGuffin

©Martin E. Feder 2015

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