Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Last sunday night at AU - a tale of three staff members

Early sunday afternoon I was finishing a report for American University’s new Provost, due monday.  I checked my email and there was a note, sent at 10 AM from one of CTE’s Associate Directors and one of my closest colleagues.  She had promised to edit the report.  She was worried I had forwarded it by Lotus Notes, AU’s email system and it had not gotten through.  This time, I reassured her by telephone, the problem was my chronic optimism about the time it takes me to finish any piece of quality work, not a technology breakdown.  Two hours later, my draft of the report was finally complete and forwarded.

At 9 PM, back at AU, I attended a ‘floor meeting’ with the Anderson first floor residents who are my most immediate neighbors.  Most floors have about 80 residents, not ideal for building community.  ‘Anderson One North,’ however, has only about 25 residents, which provides a much better opportunity to do so.  We each introduced ourselves, told ‘something interesting about ourselves and listened to some ‘policies’ from the Resident Assistant and Resident Director. We then  discussed problems that had come up during Welcome Week.  

Several residents mentioned difficulties encountered with wireless internet connectivity.  AU was a pioneer in providing wireless connectivity to its students.  The system has been steadily improved, but can, like any technology, experience sporadic unreliability.   Because I work closely with Office of Information Technology staff members, I promised to look into the matter.  Returning to my apartment about 10:30, I dispatched an email to the AU manager responsible for wireless technology, a friend of many years, describing the problem.

Among my other emails, was one from the Associate Dean of our School of International Service, another old friend, former doctoral student and colleague.  She had encountered a problem with an Audiovisual setup earlier in the day and wanted to inform me about it.  I explained that CTE’s AV group was temporarily short staffed, apologized for the incident and promised I would do my best to avoid a reoccurrence.

Not long after sending my response - it was now after 11 - I received a reply from the wireless manager.  He explained the problem, and the remedies he had implemented He promised to get back to be with additional details in the morning.  While I was reading his email, I received another from the Associate Dean, thanking me for my response. She praised my staff member for his civility and forbearance in the face of ‘overwhelming obligations.” By now , it was 11:30.  I decided my creativity had reached a low ebb.  It was time to retire.

Refreshed from a night’s sleep, I returned to the office about 9 AM monday morning and was greeted by my colleague, the Associate Director, who was already on the job.  She assured me the fully edited document was waiting in my emailbox.  As I downloaded it, I noted the time of her message - 12:15 AM.  

There is conventional wisdom in some management circles about why and how people do their work.  It is  embodied in administrative regulations, job descriptions and the practices of ‘human resources’ departments.  The conventional wisdom is that human beings are primarily motivated by  ‘compensation’ and guided in what they do by ‘job descriptions.’  This view is so pervasive that it may, for many employees, be accurate.   Indeed the motivations it assumes may be shaped by those very assumptions, embodied in structures, procedures and rules..

But last evening, at American University, it was my privilege to collaborate with three colleagues whose actions were guided by very different motivations.  Their commitment was to produce results, not just to ‘do their job.’  They viewed their AU employment not as ‘a job,’ but as a calling.


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