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Note: Corrective Leadership

VU International News and Reviews No. 111 April 23 2018

April 2018

Anybody who is in a position of professional supervision faces the dilemma of when to correct the work of co-workers. This applies to university rectors and presidents quite as much as to directors and heads of sections in the university administration – and to professors who supervise doctoral candidates.

The dilemma is when to correct and when to let things pass.

One of my superiors early in my career helped me to make an important distinction in three categories of assessing somebody’s work, each of them starting with the observation `This is now how I would have done it myself`, but with different responses to the co-worker:

  • “I would have done it differently”: people do things differently and often a co-worker does a job not in the way you would have expected it – or done it yourself. But that always means that your own ‘different’ way would also have been better?
    So it makes sense to ask oneself: “Yes, I would have done it differently, but am I absolutely convinced that my way is actually the better way?”
    If not, different is actually enriching and co-workers will greatly appreciate a supervisor who is willing to give that space.
  • “I would have done it better”: this may often actually be true, as the supervisor will generally have more expertise and more experience. But everybody has to learn, nobody was born with extensive professional experience. So the question, maybe, should not be if you would have done better, but rather if the job was done sufficiently well enough.
    “Well done, let’s do it this way – and by the way, maybe next time you could do it even better in the this-or-that way” is an empowering and capacitating message.
  • “This is not good enough”: What my early career supervisor thought me was that this conclusion about what your co-worker has done “this is not good enough” should really only been draw after you have seriously considered if option 1) (different) and option 2) (good enough) have been considered and discarded.

Universities thrive if their leaders, professors, and managers have the wisdom to apply these basic rules – I confess that I try and still often fail at it.

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