Manage your Boss. Teach your Professor?
by Christian Perticone - Wednesday, June 26th, 2013 Collegiate Success

There are different types of bad professors. There’s the professor who’s overly controlling, who never gives students a chance to be human. Is she just mean? Does she expect no one should have a life outside of class? Then there’s the professor who doesn’t manage the class at all. His instructions are vague, and the loud students dominate the class. What about the professor who plays favorites? That professor seems to be giving a private lecture to the girl who sits in the front everyday. And, that political professor? The guy who probably hates you because of what he assumes about your dad’s political party. The professor who constantly changes the syllabus? The professor who would rather be doing research? The professor who…the professor who…

What if you’re right? What if the professor is actually a bad teacher in one way, or another? (Or in almost every way.) How can you deal with the situation? If you only have to deal with the professor once, maybe you have to just suck it up. However, if this bad professor is in your department, or someone with whom you’ll take multiple classes, you’ll need a better answer.

The world of business management may have a solution for you. The Harvard Business Review, the bible of Business Programs everywhere, republishes some of its greatest hits as the “Best of HBR”. In 2005, they republished the now famous John J. Gabarro and John P. Kotter 1980 paper, Managing Your Boss. Could the principles underpinning this brilliantly counterintuitive paper also apply to managing your bad professor?

The paper begins by describing a situation between a boss who’s famously bad at managing people, (but a genius at making money), and his young subordinate who is quickly rising through the organization. The boss, named Gibbons, starts to irritate the subordinate, named Bonnevie. While they’re build a new manufacturing plant together, they have communication issues. Once the plant opens, it’s discovered that it can’t produce the products it’s supposed to produce. The boss blames the subordinate; the subordinate blames the boss. In reading about the consequences of this debacle, it’s not hard to imagine Gibbons as a bad professor, and Bonnevie as a talented but struggling student. If a teacher fails to teach a student, the student can rightfully blame the teacher. But is this a productive response? Was it productive for Bonnevie to blame his boss? According to HBR, the situation should be read differently:

“Of course, one could argue that the problem here was caused by Gibbons’s inability to manage his subordinates. But one can make just as strong a case that the problem was related to Bonnevie’s inability to manage his boss. Remember, Gibbons was not having difficulty with any other subordinates. Moreover, given the personal price paid by Bonnevie (being fired and having his reputation within the industry severely tarnished), there was little consolation in saying the problem was that Gibbons was poor at managing subordinates. Everyone already knew that.”

Your teacher’s a bad teacher. Everyone already knew that. Unfortunately, it’s your problem to deal with. You’re the one who can get a failing grade. You’re the one with a reputation at stake. Instead of emailing the dean and the department head to get your bad teacher fired (it won’t work), try a different approach. Try to manage your teacher. Though it may at first sound like additional work – I have to manage my classwork, and my teacher? – the practice of managing your teacher is all upside. You begin by accepting what everyone else already accepts, your teacher struggles with one, or multiple, aspects of teaching. That is to say, your professor is a fallible human being. So, according to HBR:

In light of the foregoing, it seems to us that managing a situation of mutual dependence among fallible human beings requires the following: 1.You have a good understanding of the other person and yourself, especially regarding strengths, weaknesses, work styles, and needs. 2.You use this information to develop and manage a healthy working relationship- one that is compatible with both people’s work styles and assets, is characterized by mutual expectations, and meets the most critical needs of the other person.

Your professor doesn’t have to know that you think he’s imperfect, and that he requires managing. In fact, it’s probably best that you give him the impression that he’s in charge. Nevertheless, size the situation up, and decide how to get the most out of it. Ask your professor what is the most important aspect of the class. Ask how student best succeed in class. Ask him/her to describe the perfect student. Take your investigations further. If your professor is vague during lectures, maybe he’s clearer during office hours. If your professor is a mean one in the classroom, maybe she’s nicer in her office. Pay her a visit, and a compliment. Maybe your professor is better at explaining concepts in writing. How would you know? Write an email that forces a specific answer.  If your professor is a graduate student, would it be crazy to ask how her classwork compares to yours? If your professor has kids, would it be weird to ask if his kids listen to the music you listen to? Getting a feel for your professors attitude towards his or her personal life, might give you some insight. Managing your professor requires that you understand your professor.

Managing your professor also requires you to better understand yourself. HBR describes two prototypical types of subordinates. There are the counter-dependent subordinates, and the over-dependent subordinates. Are you counter-dependent: Do you see your professor as an opponent? Do you dislike authority figures or certain types of people? Do you respond to difficulty aggressively? Are you over-dependent: Do you believe authority figures should know everything? Do you expect your professor to parent you? Do you want your professor to make sure he/she does everything possible for you to pass the class?

You are who you are, just as your professor is who he is. You don’t have to change your personality or predispositions for your professor. Nevertheless, you need to be aware of your expectations and inclinations. If your impulsive reaction to your professor isn’t helpful, consider trying a different path.

HBR’s Checklist for managing your boss can also serve to fit our needs. So check the list, and save yourself a headache or two. If nothing else, learning how to manage your professor will better prepare you for “the real world” where you’ll have real bosses to manage.

Checklist for Managing Your Boss Professor

Make sure you understand your professor and his or her context, including:

  • Goals and class objectives
  • Pressures
  • Strengths, weaknesses, blind spots
  • Preferred work style

Assess yourself and your needs, including:

  • Strengths and weaknesses
  • Personal style
  • Predisposition toward dependence on authority figures

Develop and maintain a relationship that:

  • Fits both your needs and styles
  • Is characterized by mutual expectations
  • Keeps your professor informed
  • Is based on dependability and honesty
  • Selectively uses your professor’s time and resources

1 Comment

  1. John Perticone says:

    This is a great application of principles across a different field. It is well written and makes a lot of sense.

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