Lindsay Oades on academic wellbeing, connecting to strengths, meaning and purpose, and not taking the system too seriously

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Lindsay Oades is a Professor at the University of Melbourne, where he is also the Director of the Centre for Positive Psychology at the Melbourne Graduate School of Education.  He has co-edited the Wiley Blackwell Handbook of the Psychology of Positivity and Strengths-Based Approaches at Work. I caught up with Lindsay in Budapest at the 2018 European Positive Psychology Conference and was keen to talk to him because of his expertise in positive organisations and taking a systems perspective to promoting wellbeing at work. In this conversation we talk about his own experiences of changes in the academic sector, and his key learnings getting to full professor. We also talk about what positive psychology can contribute to academic work environments and wellbeing, covering issues around values, purpose and meaning, strengths, promotion processes, performance reviews, job crafting, and academic leadership. Listen out for his great terms like ‘academic feudalism’ and ‘justificationism’.

We got so caught up in the conversation that neither of us noticed that his microphone had dropped so there is about 5 mins towards the end when he is talking about job crafting. If his distant voice is too difficult to hear, stay on to the end of the podcast where I repeat what he said word for word. The verbatim text is also below for that section.

“Don’t take it too seriously, don’t get sucked into the rumination and the competitiveness that people go through, and the valuing of each other based on the academic gaze.”

“A lot of academics mistake seriousness with excellence.”

“I…coped through…humour, patience, relationships, being in good teams, being quite purposeful…about why I was doing it, so I didn’t have an instrumental view of academia of publications for publication sake, grants for grants sake.”

“Academics love autonomy. The best way to manage academics is to get out of their way.”

Overview:

01:30 Background

09:00 Changing challenges of academic life

16:45 Key learnings getting to full professor

25:30 Values, purpose, meaning and the promotion processes

32:40 Well-being and academia, and how considered academics create to absurd systems

41:00 What Positive Psychology is about, and how it impacts his management role

50:05 Taking a strengths-based developmental approach to performance reviews and job crafting

1:02:57 Final thoughts – towards the positive university

And in more detail, he talks about (times approximate) …

1:30 Lindsay talks about the different phases of his career, from clinical psychology, to doing an MBA and then moving to a business school, and now moving “from negative to positive, from individual to larger system”, an evolution in scale, and what systems thinking offers for him. From health to wellbeing to business to education.

Changing challenges of academic life

9:00 The changes he has seen in academic life over the course of his career – huge. Increased in student numbers, internationalization, reduced funding, more managerial/commercial style, contracting of competitive funding, freezing of PhD scholarship levels and students having to work much more. Quite a different place. What hasn’t changed is the undervalue that the Australian culture places on academics. Anti-intellectualism. Thinks intellectual life valued more in some parts of North America and Europe and popular media. Changes have led to fewer positions, skepticism about ability to develop careers, larger teaching loads, multiple people scrambling for small amounts of money (academic feudalism). “You see these so called good minds spending huge amounts of time to get access to $10K…relatively small amounts of money”. “A lot of academics are very detailed oriented people, what I’d call naive rationalists, they think they are going to get a solution through reasoning and then get frustrated when politics or economics knocks them around.”

13:30 Own experience? His academic vantage point quite different as professor and director of a centre. Reflects on when he was a lecturer, dealing with teaching load and applying for funding, but was doing more applied research so used consultancies as a way of generating funding to side-step the feudalism. A deliberate decision. Institution allowed him to have a slush fund. But not all academics or disciplines are able to do this. Still went for competitive grants but now with a base level source.

Key learnings getting to full professor

16:45 Key learnings getting to full professor? Patience. Not taking the system too seriously because academic life can be very disheartening. A lot of academics would say this, that they feel very undervalued by their own institution and most of the recognition they get is from people they don’t see, from overseas who recognize the quality of your work, yet in your own institution you are told you are not producing enough or teaching enough classes or whatever. So this weird local invalidation and validation from someone a long way away. So don’t seek validation in the wrong place. And remembering what a university is, this incredibly resilient organization. They’re 8 or 900 year old institutions. They do this partly through the slowness of themselves. A lot of academics mistake seriousness with excellence. The constant workload and multiple roles that academics have to cross between teaching, research, community engagement and administration, without a lot of understanding – most think of academics as a teacher. So no real understanding of what academics do. What he learnt was probably a light touch, non-grasping view of what it is, don’t take it too seriously, don’t get sucked into the rumination and the competitiveness that people go through, and the valuing of each other based on the academic gaze. Finds it comical at times. Valuing the absurdity.

21:45 Need to find good mentors, get into good teams. A lot his good research output is from being in good teams. And a healthy skepticism and sardonic humour. When he was younger, he felt academia was ageist. Couldn’t achieve criteria for professor unless you had time. “I’ll keep doing what I’m doing because I’ll get to professor anyway because age will take of it.” So somewhat of an ageism in the way it is structured, the system values declarative knowledge that comes with age. So he probably coped through a bit of humour, patience, relationships, being in good teams, being quite purposeful, “I’ve always had my own purpose about why I was doing it, so I didn’t have an instrumental view of academia of publications for publication sake, grants for grants sake.” So a non-instrumental approach. Care about it. Always been attracted to ideas and learning. Love of learning is one his number one strengths. Conceptually strong. Good with ideas. That comes naturally, easier for him than some other people. That combined with a value and purpose for why I’m doing it, that has buoyed him along.

Values, purpose, meaning and the promotion processes

25:30 In a team at Centre for Positive Psychology at the University of Melbourne, 17 people. A very values and purpose driven group of people. He has some very clear things he is working towards, helping other people, changing systems in service of well-being. So quite purpose, meanings-based initiatives. Keeps those close. And reminds himself. So no surprise he is attracted to ideas like impacts rather than h-indices and metrics of how we stack up against others. One of the frustrating things about that when going for promotion- it is very extrinsically focused. He didn’t like the psychological impact because it took him away from what he valued about what he was doing. But having to report on all the extrinsic things that don’t connect to love of learning or meaningful impact you are trying to have. [27:40]. Lower down the tree it was the external impacts. But now at professor it was about being able to get on committees, have an impact. He calls it rampant justifactionism.

29:07 His ideal promotion process? Prefers whole of career approach, more portfolio-based, less constrained of how you have to fit yourself into a box. Stories would provide more mechanism for people to tell their stories. Using other media to make the case in more variegated and meaningful ways. From a managerial point of view, one of the ways to exploit the workforce where people love their work. It’s a strength of the workforce but also makes it easier to exploit them. It’s a danger for people who love what they are doing.

Well-being and academia, and how considered academics create to absurd systems

32:40 Well-being impacts? Has been involved in surveys of academic and managerial staff. Academic experiences different to other sectors. Has seen in the data academics have high levels of workload and stress but reasonably high levels of job satisfaction. That says there is another variable accounting for that – some value they are getting through their work. Meaning, impact, connection. And not the place to go if money is your key driver. The triggers for the stress? A lot of factors – individual, institution, department. Which institution, which faculty? Different pressures. At the individual level, obsessiveness, narcissism, perfectionism – we see these in academics, we select for these qualities too. Overthinkers, good but if overused it is problematic. All these things play out. “One-on-one I find academics generally very nice people, easy to relate to, usually quite kind and considered people. Yet the systems we create and inherit can be kind of absurd.” And it is at the individual level, the considered academic is good. But put them in committees to make decisions and they can’t make a decision and they develop systems that provide justifications. So the systems they create are not that effective. The effect is that it slows everything down. So one-on-one good people, well-intentioned people, smart people, but not always smart in the sense that they understand organizational life. Some serious problems with that that need re-dressing.

What Positive Psychology is about, and how it impacts his management role.

41:00 Positive Psychology – science of optimal human functioning, taking a strengths-based approach in the service of wellbeing. Historically a re-dressing of a deficits-based focus of psychology.

42:55 Impact of PP on how he plays out his role? All understand the language, have the expertise. But rest of the uni don’t have that language. And still a knowledge-behaviour gap in how they manage their own wellbeing, purpose etc. Everyone in the team has a wellbeing coach, wellbeing in the context of the strategy of the centre. Some take more a physical health approach. Others trying to manage their own perfectionism, change their mental attitude about how much they have to work. Ever since he had kids, he doesn’t work weekends. When he told team members they were shocked because they had themselves in the habit of working weekends. Not a sustainable practice. The critical point for him was having kids.

48:05 Another example: they have 8 people here at the conference, an expense to the centre, his view is that there is a wellbeing component to it. “My problem with my staff is not do they work hard, but do they work too much.” So this is an opportunity for them to have time to get sustained, rejuvenated. Not about reductionist managerialism/ROI.

Taking a strengths-based developmental approach to performance reviews and job crafting

50:05 At performance reviews, ask people what are they really trying to do, where are they trying to go. Have authentic candid conversations about what do people really want to do. What’s in this for them. People are varied. How do we enable different career trajectories? About knowing the people you are working with, and appointing them to match the role you want them to play. A problem though in the way universities appoint. He hasn’t formally done strengths-based recruitment but they have done teams-based strengths assessments with VIA and Realise2. Get individual profiles. And also get a team-based profile. “Academics love autonomy. The best way to manage academics is to get out of their way. If you want to manage a wild beast, give it a large paddock. …Academics love autonomy but they also love a rationale.” What Self Determination Theory tells us about this.  Autonomy doesn’t mean anything goes. Have some external research income targets to hit. Not negotiable. How do we do it. Then let the smart people do it. Don’t tell them they have to have micro-managed parts. They’ll usually find a way.

55:50 [Lindsay’s microphone dropped down here so the audio is not so clear. Here is a word for word transcript as best I could hear]

56:23 You have to do this both individually and as a group and I’ve been trying to push this strategy document so people can see where they fit into where we want to go. And that takes time.

[Turning the lens back to academia?]

It sounds really trite but the evidence bears it out. Fundamentally people at work often feel undervalued, in general or by their immediate boss. So simple things about what do you actually value about your staff and have you told them and in what medium have you told them. So that is number one.  And number two would be the stuff we talked before about strengths. Have you actually had conversations with staff about their role and the job description and how it can be crafted so that they can use their strengths more than they currently are. And that might take time as well because there are organizational constraints, that you have to deliver this or get this class taught or we’ve got to generate that income or we’ve got to get that contract done. So while at this moment we can’t get you exactly fully there at least have that conversation so there is a plan of how it is going to migrate there and those conversations are really important. Because again with academics, if there is a rationale and there has been a conversation, they will probably accept it for a while if there is good intent. So there’s a couple of things there, enabling them to feel valued and enabling them to use their strengths and mould their work, job craft their work from a strengths base.

[Doing that for each other too?]

59:03 I think too if you look at the history of the universities as well, they’ve been gendered so you have rationalist males that might not see the value of some of the stuff I was just talking about.  And […] they might not have had the skills for how to do it. And I don’t mean that in a nasty way. People have different skills. If academic life was originally a very cognitive, individual endeavor, you go into your room and do your work. That was old academia for a lot of people. This new academia, looking after people, many many more women in the academic workforce, also culturally much more externally focused than it used to be, much more community engaged, more demands from students, I wouldn’t say more demands, students have been enabled to give more feedback and they do expect a higher level of teaching quality. So a whole range of things that are different to how they have been.

[Loved job crafting, same job, but control, choices] And by job crafting I don’t just mean offloading your teaching. [Specific example of job crafting?]

1:00:53 Yeah there are a few. In academic life there is obviously research and teaching but the …it may be changing the type of teaching you are doing at a subject level or also gradually doing more research led teaching or face-to-face teaching or particular type of teaching like workshop style, lecture style. Or gradually trying to move to more admin and leadership roles but doing in a way that uses my particular skills or strengths. [end of lost mic – shorter notes continue]

1:02 So there are different types job crafting might look like – tasks, relationships, So different forms of what job crafting can look like. So different ways. Enabling people to take charge of their work life, their career. Academics are sophisticated people. They think a lot and they are willing to work hard. So it’s about capturing that.

Final Thoughts

1:02:57 Currently trying to champion the idea of positive universities. People usually just think of student wellbeing. But it is broader than that – student wellbeing, staff wellbeing, positive organizational practices. How do we take science of wellbeing approaches and apply them to universities? A group of universities around the world currently thinking about it. A bigger picture way of looking at it. He has a paper called “towards positive universities” about how to do it at a tangible level. When people talk about wellbeing, they think it’s the positive experience, feeling happy, but don’t take the functioning bit. Wellbeing from a eudemonic perspective involves positive functioning, growth, virtue. Wellbeing includes good functioning, not just feeling good but functioning well and doing well. That’s where the meaning and purpose part plays a big role. Big changes coming. Universities resilient, they adapt. Not as simple as the commercial arrangement would suggest.

Student wellbeing programs still deficit focused. Working on wellbeing literacy. We don’t have a way to communicate about wellbeing. Positive attributes. More than the absence of anxiety and depression. Wellbeing in the broader sense –where students can communicate about what is self-regulation, what is using strengths, what is wellbeing, what is meaning, what is purpose, and communicate in a way that is meaningful for them. Having senior leaders able to see this relationship between wellbeing and performance and communicate this to staff and students explicitly and implicitly.

01:10:46 Repeat of the content where Lindsay’s microphone dropped

01:14:43 End

Related Links

Lindsay Oades: http://www.lindsayoades.com

Centre for Positive Psychology, Melbourne Graduate School of Education: https://education.unimelb.edu.au/cpp

9th European Conference on Positive Psychology 2018: https://ecpp2018.akcongress.com  

Barbara Frederickson’s Broaden and Build Theory: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Broaden-and-build

VIA character strengths: https://www.viacharacter.org

Strengths Profiler Realise2: http://www.ppquarterly.org/portfolio/realise2-next-generation-strengths-assessment/ Now Capp: the strengths experts https://www.capp.co/Home

Self Determination Theory: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Self-determination_theory; http://selfdeterminationtheory.org

Job Crafting: https://positivepsychologyprogram.com/job-crafting/

Book & Papers:

Oades, Steger, Delle Fave, Passmore (eds), “The Wiley Blackwell Handbook of the Psychology of Positivity and Strengths-Based Approaches at Work”

https://www.wiley.com/en-gb/The+Wiley+Blackwell+Handbook+of+the+Psychology+of+Positivity+and+Strengths+Based+Approaches+at+Work-p-9781118977651

Oades, Robinson, Green & Spence, “Towards a Positive University”: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/17439760.2011.634828?journalCode=rpos20

Oades & Johnston, “Wellbeing literacy: The necessary ingredient in positive education”. https://juniperpublishers.com/pbsij/pdf/PBSIJ.MS.ID.555621.pdf