Doing it yourself, or helping others to do it

One of the more common challenges in HE is the “it’s just quicker to do it myself” thing. In the past week, I’ve heard this mentioned in teaching, research and administrative contexts: the idea that it might well be someone else’s role to do something, but it’ll be quicker to do it yourself.

I’ll take a guess that you’ve said this pretty recently. I know that I have.

If we want a justification for it, then we can argue that our professional lives are hectic and there isn’t much slack. As such, the marginal cost of doing it yourself is smaller than the marginal cost of helping someone else learn how to do it. You might take a more refined view of it and say that it’s just something that you’re doing now/this one time, but I’ll also guess you haven’t yet got round to addressing the root issue.

And this root issue is itself a bit complicated. Maybe the other person is new to their role, so simply hasn’t got the necessary experience. Maybe they’ve not done it for a while and have forgotten. Maybe they know but they’re not very good at it. Maybe they haven’t got the time to do.

What are you going to do?

The obvious choice to be made at the offset is whether you’re doing something about this or not. As a general rule, I subscribe to the ‘either do something about it, or put up with it’ school of thinking: if it’s a problem, then try to solve the problem, but if not then you don’t get to grumble about it. Sure, that makes me a bit of a repressed individual at times, but that’s my problem (and I’m not going to complain [sic]).

I appreciate that individuals vary, but in the contexts that we are talking about, bitching has no real value. Despite what we sometimes like to think, there are very few individuals ‘out to get us’ in the sector, just people pursuing objectives shaped by very varied incentives and interests: othering them and grumbling behind their backs isn’t going to change things for the better.

[And please do remind me of this when you catch me grumbling about something next time we meet.]

So if we’re putting up, rather than shutting up, then how to do it?

I’d suggest the way into thinking about it is to see matters as a collective endeavour. I know that treat our work as very personal, but much of it is actually highly transferable and we’re almost never in a situation where there is literally no-one else to be involved in our work.

If you can identify the common purpose that binds you to others, then it becomes easier to motivate yourself and those others to finding more efficient solutions.

Then you have to bite the bullet on dealing with the situation. Assume that this is as good a time as any. Unless there is something very obviously and immediately pressing in, just do it: there’s always going to be some reason not, so things aren’t going to improve. I speak from experience when I say that the mystical time in the future when ‘things are quieter’ doesn’t exist.

If the issue is one of experience or timing, then I’d suggest speaking directly to the person involved: try to understand their situation and their needs and try to help them understand yours. Again, this isn’t the moment for a long ‘you have no idea how busy I am’ tirade – this will just invite an equivalent response – but instead an effort to solve a problem – ‘how can we deal with this situation’. In short, you make it about the problem, not the people. as much as possible.

Of course, sometimes it is the people, in which case you need to get line management involved (especially if your line manager or those you manage are the problem). Again, focus on the solving of the problem as much as possible: management issues are management issues and there’s a whole architecture of policy and procedure to deal with those.

Maybe the key point to take is that the effort is worth it in the longer-run. Yes, it will take longer this time and it will be a faff, but if it leads to an improved situation down the line, then that will pay off for you and the team around you. Handled constructively, it’ll even improve the culture and environment for all of to deal with other things that come up.

And if it doesn’t work, then feel free to grumble to me about it.

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