.. .. .. The Jerks vs. the Genial: Law professor Jeff Harrison started an interesting discussion last week in a posting at MoneyLaw titled “Ready, Set, Punt” (Feb. 10, 2009). He notes that likablity is a “Pretty crazy way to pick a football team right? The team would lose every game.” Harrison then asks:
“Is there any reason to think the ‘like’ factor is different for law faculty success. At least in football there will be an objective measure of success and an opportunity to cut players. In law school hiring there are no measures and the initial hiring decisions are for lifetime jobs.”
Prof. Harrison concludes by opining that likability “sounds like a great approach if you are deciding who you want to go down to the bar with after school for a drink — which sadly may be the standard by which much hiring is done. It’s a disaster for the stakeholders of a law school.”
In response, Gabriella Montelle wrote “They Like Me, They Like Me Not” (February 12, 2009) at her On Hiring weblog on the Chronicles of Higher Education website. She invited readers to answer two questions:
“Is likability a reasonable consideration in hiring, firing, and tenure decisions or do some committees place too great an emphasis on it? How does it factor into hiring decisions in your department?”
Montelle’s piece attracted a variety of responses, and one Comment by a “humanities doctoral candidate” ["HDC"] impressed Louisville U. law dean Jim Chen so much, he turned it into a separate posting at MoneyLaw called “You like me” (Feb. 13, 2009). [Chen's "Rocket man" post over the weekend about the remarkably valuable yet unselfish play of NBA player Shane Battier may also be related, as part of his ongoing talent versus character debate. via Simple Justice]. Commentor HDC’s insights included saying:
“The really good scholars are self-confident, and that confidence allows them to treat everyone else with respect and kindness. They are excited about ideas, and they are willing to share. Most of all, they are willing to collaborate — they are the ones organizing symposia, inviting guest speakers, cultivating graduate students, and just generally creating the kind of atmosphere where good work flourishes and everyone benefits.
Meanwhile, Jeff Harrison wrote “But will you love me tomorrow” (Feb. 13, 2009) in answer to Dean Chen, saying that in the faculty context likability or “niceness” is the code for “are you someone with whom I will be socially and politically comfortable.” He insists that “Nice in a faculty meeting is only slightly connected to morality, selflessness, or charity.” Going back to the football analogy, Harrison concludes:
“If personal social and political comfort are critical in determining who gets an offer to join your faculty, it’s like a team thinking more about getting drunk together than winning games.”
An anonymous commentor then told Prof. Harrison that the football analogy was not as apt for a faculty as a comparison to a baseball team. Using Barry Bonds as an example, he states:
“In other words, superstars are worthless if they create a bad vibe in the clubhouse. . . . but the point is, good scholars who aren’t good colleagues are not worth having around, and whatever is ‘good’ about their scholarship will be worthless if they aren’t the sort of person who can get along with colleagues, train students, and just generally make their work environment a pleasant place to be.”
In my experience, HDC and the anonymous commentor have it right. As Jim Harrison suggests, faculty should not be trying to hire or promote only persons who fit within their personal socio-ideological comfort zone. But, they would do well to look for colleagues who match brilliance with unselfishness and congeniality — or, to be more precise, a person who is “genial” in the sense suggested in Merriam-Webster’s definition:
3 a: favorable to growth or comfort . . . b: marked by or diffusing sympathy or friendliness
4: displaying or marked by genius
Naturally (this being the cranky old f/k/a Gang speaking), we do not mean “nice” like the smiley-faced gladhanders with gold stars for every student and colleague. Nor do we mean “nice” in Harrison’s sense of “just like me,” as sameness is boring and intellectual quicksand. Law school faculties need bright minds willing to challenge individuals and institutions, and debate issues of law and policy — but, there is no reason to accept less than respect for eachother and agreeable disagreement. [You need, of course, to respect colleagues and students enough to ask hard questions and expect rigorous thinking.]
Law faculty jobs are far too desirable and desired for us to believe that faculty or students have to put up with jerks and selfish manipulators in order to assure brilliance in scholarship or in the classroom. Because there are more than enough more-than-capable candidates, there should be a preference for the genial over the jerkish. That preference may in fact turn out to be a wonderful tool for behavior modification.
In his posting 2007 “talent versus character,” Jim Chen notes how often others have been enablers, willing to justify the odious conduct of a faculty member by saying “He’s a smart guy. Brilliant, even.” That echoed my assertion that same year that:
Daniel Goleman introduced most of us to the notion of EQ, in his 1996 bestseller Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ. (well-reviewed here; click for a quick recap of the “Four Components of Emotional Intelligence“) . . . I’m still amazed at how many otherwise-sensible people are willing to overlook or excuse the emotional immaturity and ineptness of a colleague, friend or family member (and the harm it causes other people), if the low-EQ is attached to a significantly high IQ — and, especially, if accompanied by a large bank account or a powerful position. I think having a high IQ makes the failure to appreciate, nurture and develop ones EQ rather inexcusable.
It was two years ago this week that we wrote about Robert I Sutton’s then-new book “The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t” (Warner Business Books, 2007, and an identically-titled article in American Lawyer/Law.com (Feb. 20, 2007). The article explains:
“According to Bob, an asshole is one who oppresses, humiliates, de-energizes, or belittles his target (generally someone less powerful then himself), causing the target to feel worse about herself following an interaction with the asshole. (And, as his examples prove, this behavior is not by any means limited to male perpetrators or female victims.) These jerks use tactics such as personal insults, sarcasm and teasing as vehicles for insults, shaming, and treating people as if they’re invisible to demean others. Sutton distinguishes temporary assholes . . . from certified assholes, who routinely show themselves to be nasty people. The latter, he argues, must go [from the workplace].”
A$$holes surely do not belong in law offices (even though many clients think they want such characters to champion their causes). They’re even less appropriate in legal academia — especially, when their nasty little show is turned on “impressionable” law students, the very people paying their salaries.
Sutton’s book offers a 24-question self-test to see if you are “a certifiable asshole.” You can take Sutton’s Asshole Rating Self-Exam (ARSE) at Guy Kawasaki’s ElectricPulp website. Search and tenure committees might want to ask themselves how their candidates might fare if they took ARSE and answered honestly.
At her Chronicles of Higher Education weblog, Ms. Mentor advised last week that “They’re Out to Get Me: No matter how good you are at your work, your colleagues won’t keep you if they don’t like you” (Feb. 10, 2009). She says this advice is especially important in perilous times like now, when jobs that once seemed secure seem quite shaky; and she asks whether “your colleagues already avoid you as a sour, combative personality — someone who’ll waste department energy on vendettas?”. I’d like to think that law schools would insist on basic geniality from each of their faculty members in good times, too. In the long run, their “stakeholders” deserve both brilliance and high EQ from every law professor. There are far too many willing candidates to settle for any less.
p.s. Blawging with EQ: If you have a preference for thoroughness and straight-talk, and also wonder who’s been writing good material at lawyer weblogs, check out Mark Bennett’s Blawg Review #199, at his Defending People blawg.
We can’t promise you consistently high EQ here at f/k/a, but we’ll try our best. What we do promise is consistently high-quality haiku. For example, here’s another installment in our project presenting poems from past issues of Modern Haiku. They’re written by poets who later became members of our f/k/a Honored Guest family. Here are more from Modern Haiku Vol. XXVIII: 1 (Winter-Spring 1997), which have not appeared before here at f/k/a:
almost 200 years of air–
in the room
George Washington died
…. by Gary Hotham – Modern Haiku Vol. XXVIII: 1
On the boardwalk
a blind man listens to the sea
finding its way back
… by George Swede – Modern Haiku Vol. XXVIII: 1
water splashing down–
the warmth of the sun
on my eyelids
they come to see
why we’re not speaking
… by Lee Gurga – Modern Haiku Vol. XXVIII: 1
a collie skirts
the bungee jumpers
.. by John Stevenson – Modern Haiku Vol. XXVIII: 1
the darkness deepest
where the snowy owl was
… by Yu Chang – Modern Haiku Vol. XXVIII: 1