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Systems of Stress

This is a post about individuals and conflict behaviors, but more than that it’s about systems and how they elicit those behaviors. This post gets pretty personal at times, but the intent is not to air my or anyone else’s dirty laundry. The aim instead is to draw on experiences during an extremely difficult time in my life that also became entwined with professional failure, but to look beyond those individual stresses and failures at the bigger picture, and to say something (hopefully useful) about how individuals respond to pressures well outside of their control. Caveat emptor, this post is also very long.

Things ended pretty badly for me in my last full time job with University of Wisconsin-Extension. There were a lot of reasons for this and some of them were personal. My life had been rather completely upended one year prior, and my capacity to hold it together in general was pretty deteriorated. It’s just hard to do much effectively when you can’t stop crying...it’s the kind of thing we don’t talk about much in relation to the American workplace. That said, I believe in the right organization and context I could have been a highly effective worker, even on a project like the unfortunately named University Learning Store. However, what I experienced was the opposite of a supportive environment where I might have been able to thrive in spite of my internal state.

Still, from my perspective the majority of the reasons that things ended as badly as they did for me weren’t personal. In many ways it wasn’t really about me or the other specific individuals involved. Instead, I believe that many of the factors that contributed to individual and organizational failures at Extension during my last year there were systemic.

This doesn’t mean that individual actors weren’t direct contributors to the failure of the project I was working on and my ability to be an effective team member within the organization. After all, discrete conversation with those willing to discuss it have evidenced some consensus that I was both directly undermined and ultimately scapegoated. There’s one individual in particular who owns a whole lot of that, and yet from my perspective the actual reason things played out the way they did had less to do with them personally and a lot more to do with how nested political, social, and economic systems are permeable, how they create stress on organizations inside of them and the people in them, and how individuals’ conflict behaviors are enacted in response to those stresses.

That’s all pretty abstract in and of itself, but that’s exactly why I think my experience inside of UW-System provides a helpful example for digging into this phenomenon. I also believe that it’s an extremely important one to understand in the face of an increasingly ecologically stressed planet and psychologically stressed population. In short, a general systems theory perspective reminds us to start at the top (or outermost) system because there’s some degree of permeability all the way down, and since the top is the planet and in terms of supporting human life it’s experiencing the most profound stresses in recorded history, it’s worth recognizing how this affects us. I’ll dig into the details from my experience inside UW and give a few thoughts about how they reflect some of the bigger picture issues, but first here’s a slightly less academic reframe of the main idea I’m after:

When an organization experiences outside stresses, that stress tends to bleed down to individuals and stressed individuals tend to default to behaviors focused on self preservation. Most of those behaviors have destructive consequences for other people and for the organization as a whole. If the destructive behavior comes from people in power, the consequences will generally be a whole lot worse.

The other layer to this involves where individuals in an organization rest on the spectrum of sociopathology since this provides a baseline for the enactment of socially destructive behavior. In the context of capitalist enterprises (unfortunately including institutions of higher education) people who engage in a high level of certain types of sociopathic behavior are generally rewarded. This creates a ticking time bomb in every organization that hasn’t guarded well against promoting (or otherwise ceding control to) sociopaths.

At this point I should clarify that I’m aware a person could be clinically diagnosed as a sociopath but have well developed prosocial behavior patterns as a result of upbringing or other key life experiences. I’m definitely not referring to these people when I use the term. I’m also not a mental health professional and so I’m also not using sociopath in a clinical sense either, but rather in the lay sense. With these clarifications in mind we can recognize that sociopaths have personally destructive behaviors even in environments that aren’t stressed. When organizations aren’t stressed, the consequences of these behaviors tend to be suppressed and in many instances even tolerated or covered for since things are “generally good” for most members. However, as stress increases there are increased opportunities for interpersonal trust to be fractured, and the sociopath’s behaviors involve exploiting those fractures. This becomes a self sustaining cycle as bonds of trust between individuals are worsened. Worse still, sociopathic behaviors tend to be involved in most people’s survival strategies if the individual stress they are experiencing is intense enough. In other words, almost all of us are capable of enacting some of the same behaviors that socially and emotionally destructive people regularly enact for their own betterment.

Additionally people tend to cluster in tribes in general and do so even more under stressful conditions. Alternatively, many people will simply isolate themselves to create insulation against the consequences that will inevitably fall on someone as stressed organizations tend to produce more failures. This separation (whether in groups or as individuals) creates more opportunities for social and political manipulation by any sociopaths, a tendency towards intergroup resentment, and a general increase in fear and anxiety in the organization. Basically, toxicity in the organization’s culture reinforces itself through reciprocation choking out prosocial behaviors. This can be incredibly hard to overcome, if not impossible.

But how does it get to this point in the first place? In the case of my experience with UW-Extension and UW-System, it was directly as a result of Wisconsin state politics. It predates 2010, but that year happens to be key in terms of the overall progression. This might sound like an extreme claim to make, especially if you haven’t been living in Wisconsin, but it’s absolutely the case and the reason why I was able to draw some larger understanding out of my individual professional failure.

The UW-System has always been a political entity, and this has not been without tensions in its relation to the campuses in its remit. After all, historically campus academic leadership has been nothing if not academic, and it’s tended to butt heads (for both legitimate and less legitimate reasons) with the larger more administrative bureaucracies. In my opinion, this owes in no small part to the fact that the function of an administrative organization like System in a capitalist economy like ours is to serve as a political intermediary between corporate and governmental interests and the schools. This happens in the name of the people of the state of course, but history tells us to follow the money, and the trail of reduced state funding, rising tuitions, increasing administrative staff, increasing administrative salaries, and large contracts with private sector businesses tells its own story. Since these academic bureaucracies have one foot deeply in the world of capitalism, they have been dragged along by the neoliberal pressures of the day. In the case of Wisconsin, they were also literally seized by the state Republicans and the money they serve with Scott Walker’s appointment of a new board of regents consisting almost entirely of his appointees. There’s also the matter of the weakening of the state’s tenure law which represented a direct assault on academic freedom given the historical purpose of strong tenure protection in Wisconsin.

UW-System, already a political entity, became a key figure in Walker’s political efforts, and from very early on this involved what was until recently UW-Extension’s Division of Continuing Education Outreach and e-Learning where I worked. The key here involved a willingness on the part of essential individuals within both System and Extension to open themselves to overtures from the Walker administration and the state Republicans even as the other institutions within the system were being directly assaulted. I’m not personally interested in recriminating any of these UW actors or justifying their choices in the context of this post. Rather, I see those choices as representing the same set of stressed survival behaviors that are mirrored by individuals across all levels of stressed organizations. Willingness to deal with bad actors who are in control, with the hope that in spite of their behavior you will maybe get something positive or helpful is absolutely one response to extreme stress. It extends if not insures your own survival, and rationalization allows a person to proceed with some sense of their own moral compass intact in spite of the compromise they may actually be making. Of course, a sociopathic leader wouldn’t even bother with rationalization except publicly as long as it serves their own desires, and the same goes for sociopathic managers. However regardless of whether leadership is acting in good faith, the most likely conflict behaviors it will enact are ones resulting in choices that ultimately create new avenues for organizational stress. It takes an extremely strong leader not to succumb to these pressures.

In the case of UW-Extension and the Walker administration, this story develops in the form of the Flexible Option degree program, and then later the University Learning Store. UW-Extension was doing exploratory work around the idea of a competency based degree program not all that long after Walker entered the governor’s office. While I personally believe in the value of a competency based framework as an approach for many aspects of education, it’s worth recognizing that such an approach has a tendency towards a vocational bias. That is to say, it can easily be used to reframe the purpose of higher education as serving the needs of employers in preparing ready workers rather than preparing learners for a much broader array of societal needs. Again, vocational education has a great deal of value as well and if you want more or my perspective on the tension here I recommend reading this post. That said, if you’re unclear on where I’m going with this, the bottom line is that like charter schools in the context of K-12 education, the competency based approach has many potential uses but in the current political context it’s extremely easy to use it as a way remake public education as a tool for unfettered capitalism at the expense of a healthy democracy.

For all of these reasons, Walker was fairly frothing at the mouth when he discovered that UW-Extension was working on the development of the Flexible Option degree. Not only was it an opportunity to lean into the agenda of remaking public higher education for corporate interests, it was also a potential political win for him that Democrats were going to be hard pressed to oppose, because hey, who was going to stand in the way of a program that enables degree completion? There were of course strings attached. Going along with funding provided by the state to stand the Flexible Option program up meant rushing it out the door. The quality of many of the early courses was lacking to put it mildly. Agreements between institutional partners were not easy to reach, and the stakes for the entire project were extremely high. You can guess what this meant for the people actually working on the development and implementation of this program inside of Extension.

In addition, scaling the program up fast meant bringing lots of people into the organization quickly. Pressure to produce content and services too quickly meant substantial shortcomings in the quality of both. Again, this was a function of organizational pressures and isn’t a critique of anyone who was doing any of those jobs. This pressure was also accompanied by the brutal understanding that whatever the values individuals held that had led them into public higher education, we were now being confronted with the financial bottom line of the organization as the only indicator of organizational success that leadership seemed to be concerned with. All of this is to say that the use of higher education as a political football in Wisconsin created a tremendous amount of organizational stress, especially when the Walker administration was simultaneously attacking perceived fiscal waste in UW-System institutions within the very lean times of recession recovery. And of course, the administration was aggravating those financial stresses by taking an austerity approach to recovering from the recession which created a perfect context in which to point fingers at any state institution that was sitting on reserve funds.

The division of Continuing Education Outreach and E-Learning in particular had been running a number of successful online programs and was sitting on reserve funds with the plan of getting a new building to move the growing staff into. After all, the organization was growing fast and it was getting increasingly crowded. There had even been all staff meetings to gather input about what employees wanted their new workplace home to include. As things heated up in the state, messaging from leadership went from noting that the timeline on a new place would be delayed, to barely mentioning it at all as everyone came to simply accept that this positive prospect in our collective future was not going to happen. We were all going to have to work with the limited space that we had, even as the organization continued to grow in order to meet fiscal goals. In other words, we were going to have to continue dealing with a very tangible physical stress in our workplace in addition to the other layers of stress...and this doesn’t even bring national politics and the Trump candidacy and then presidency into account.

At any rate, it’s somewhere at this point that the project which would ultimately become the University Learning Store first came into play. The concept for this project was also competency based and workforce focused, only at a much smaller level than traditional degrees or certificates. University extension and continuing education divisions have traditionally done work in the vein of supporting workforce development, so in many ways it was a natural fit, but that doesn’t mean the project in particular was a good idea or that the timing was good. It’s worth noting that from the outset this was a project that was not budgeted for in any meaningful way, and that given the demands all of the units in the organization were already facing with other programs, nobody really wanted to support it. Unfortunately, pushback was something that leadership didn’t really accept at the best of times within the organization, and this project was seen as a visionary third fiscal leg to support the institution during times when other program numbers were low (not a current issue at the time, and one that really only exists as a result of the defunding of public higher education). There was, in short, no way that this project wasn’t going to move forward in spite of any objections based on the very clear warning signs. Objections then were muttered between employees but by and large not voiced to leadership because there was, to put it simply, no point in doing so.

I’m hoping at this point that you have enough context to understand how things played out from here. As I mentioned at the beginning, when things ended for me at Extension, my personal life was something of a shattered mess. I volunteered to lead the Learning Store as my own personal world was collapsing around me a little less than a year and a half prior. It was a stupid decision, but very consonant with the point that I’m making here. One of my conflict behaviors is to engage in over functioning and martyrdom. With the stresses in my life and in the organization, I stepped forward because nobody else was willing to. Others used the opportunity to step back, or aside, or to use me as a shield. I wasn’t without any allies, but I specifically wasn’t able to get the resources I needed for the project to stand half a chance at doing something interesting if not succeeding. After all, provision of those resources would have spread the target for failure around instead of placing it squarely on my back. At the same time, the executive team gave me no power, little support, and most importantly no ear to express my recognition of the ways I was being undermined on the project. When my personal life collapsed three and a half months after I stepped into the role, I no longer had the personal capacity to fight against any of that. Even if I had, I’m quite certain it would have made little difference. Still, the outcome was likely inevitable for both me and the project even if I’d had the emotional resources to field some of these challenges. Whatever chance it had of being a successful novel microcredentialing platform prior to that point was gone, because the conflict behaviors of all of the individuals within this high stress setting, myself included, prevented any chance of success.

If we pull back from my somewhat overwrought tale to consider the bigger picture here, there are some fairly grim takeaways to consider. While individuals are certainly capable of pulling together in the face of adversity, they need to have support coming from somewhere. When organizations experience strong external stresses, it can be extremely challenging to shelter their members from the consequences of those stresses. The more stressed individuals are, the more likely they are to enact contentious conflict behaviors. I’m not speaking to situations where disasters are taking place. Those are qualitatively different, and I believe people are more likely to pull together in the face of them. Instead, it’s the situations that can lay the groundwork for disaster that we need to be wary of. Leaders need to be cautious in relation to how they respond to external pressures on their organizations. Managers need to be capable of working across teams to ensure decisions that support all members of the organization and not just their teams. Pressures on organizations will tend to produce the opposite responses, and giving into those pressures can result in substantial failures, or even worse decayed organizational culture. There are no simple answers here, but I believe that understanding these connections between our nested ecosystems can at least provide us with perspectives and tools that can help us do better when factors outside of our control make those within our remit harder to handle.

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