Of Black Sheep and Other Important People

Those of us who spend time on social media will inevitably have seen them: trite motivational memes that purport to remind you of your value to the universe, lift your spirits, console you, or keep you going. More often than not, they deserve little more than a cursory glance, perhaps elicit a little nod, or make you roll your eyes. But, once in a while, we come across a saying that makes us stop and think. This is what happened to me recently.

I was scrolling through my social media feed when I read the following:

“In a toxic family system, the black sheep is often just the person who sees through everyone else’s bullshit.”

Why did this sentence strike a chord with me? Because I’ve been there. I’ve been that black sheep, that troublemaker, that disruptor. I have been the one who has gotten a slap on the wrist for expressing unpopular views on why a process didn’t work as intended, why communication between people and organizational units fell short, and why reactionary top-down dictates didn’t yield the desired results. Most importantly, I have been in situations where constructive criticism fell on deaf ears.

Before I continue, let me address the proverbial 700-pound gorilla in the room. I understand that not every family system is toxic, nor is every organization and institution of higher learning dysfunctional. In fact, I have met committed leaders and staff whose love for education and the people who make learning possible is palpable. At the same time, most of us have also had to work with people who are invariably difficult, uncooperative, even toxic, and utterly disinterested in the promise of education. I believe, however, that today’s educational institutions—or any organization for that matter—are hard-pressed to lay claim to a complete lack of at least some dysfunction in their midst, be it due to people, processes, or structures.

So how about those black sheep, those annoying troublemakers, those rebels? Who are they? And why are they labeled as such?

I propose that they all have two things in common. First, they understand that there are problems in their social or organizational environment with the way things are managed, with how workflows are set up, and with how people interact. Second, they are vocal about these issues, which indicates an urge to bring deficiencies to light and not tacitly accept the status quo. Not all disruptors are created equal, of course. Where those employees who simply like to complain differ from potential innovators with valid insights into how a social system or organization can be improved is motivation.

Coworkers who gossip and criticize everything and everyone around them while offering no solutions are often driven by largely selfish rationales. In a 2019 article on cynicism in the academy, author Matt Reed described this type of attitude as an “illusion of wisdom” and “outward projection of strength and resolve that’s based in a deeper fear.” This “school of ‘it’s all bullshit anyway’ . . . pre-emptively rejects the possibility of anything good, then congratulates itself on not being sucked in. By defeating any attempt to make things better, it becomes self-confirming: ‘See, I told you it wouldn’t work!’” 

In short, the motivation to express discontent with the way things are is not to lead innovation and improvement but to demonstrate one’s alleged superior insights into how things are beyond repair, patting oneself on the back for knowing so, and ultimately perpetuating and exacerbating said problems.

On the other hand, there are those who point out deficiencies, not for reasons of self-aggrandizement but to instigate change that may lead to improvements. Values play an important part here, as does the belief in the soundness of purpose of an organization. In education, this is often the unbroken trust that our institutions ultimately serve the needs of the students and provide valuable and potentially life-altering educational outcomes – or, as Reed rather optimistically phrased it, the idea that “our entire line of work is premised on the future.” In essence, it is the belief that what we do day in and day out is worth sticking one’s neck out to help improve the lives of others, and through them our own. Consequently, it’s the people who voice their opinions and point to deficiencies who are the very employees whom leaders are well-advised to identify, listen to, and support.

Our institutions of higher learning are full of engaged administrative staff and faculty who believe in the value of what they do and its effect on their students. However, they also expect their environment to allow them to do the work they set out to do, make a difference, and eventually see the fruits of their labor. 

Sadly, I have witnessed how so many of them have fallen silent, resorted to expending minimal effort, and eventually stopped caring; and how innovation is stifled by often punitive institutional cultures more concerned with maintaining the administrative status quo, avoiding legal trouble, and looking the other way when something is obviously awry. Most importantly, though, I have also seen how people in alleged leadership positions have failed to recognize and foster the unique contributions many staff and faculty members could make to improve the organization.

Being a mid or upper-level leader in a complex organization like a college or university is an exceptionally difficult task, especially at large research institutions. Having to navigate an ocean of conflicting interests and pressures also brings about the necessity for information to be filtered and strategically brought to the leaders’ attention by those supporting them. Problems can arise, however, when those who control access to leaders are detached from front-line issues and employees. 

This, in turn, may result in their bosses finding themselves shielded from a range of potential nuclei of innovation that reside across the administrative strata despite an honest interest in the well-being of departmental staff – that is unless formal conduits for employees exist to make their views on organizational deficiencies known and for those insights to be taken seriously and used to instigate innovation and improvements.

Most people’s understanding of leadership is naturally skewed toward those formally in charge. However, there are informal leaders scattered throughout our educational institutions. The views and insights of these engaged and motivated employees are crucial to the vitality of organizations. And while it is impossible to identify and give a voice to all of them, I propose that starting with the black sheep, the disruptors, the troublemakers can serve as a first step. 

When a front-line staff or faculty member cares enough to bring an issue to our attention, we as leaders are called upon to at least acknowledge and consider those views in the interest of innovation and organizational learning. 

Chances are that there is some truth to those ideas. And even if an employee’s views run counter to fact, it is worth reminding ourselves that perception is, to some extent, reality, especially when such views are shared by many.

I admit that such internal outreach requires an investment of time and energy in an environment already starved for both. Yet, it may well save copious time and resources down the road, reduce turnover, and create an overall more welcoming, supportive, and motivating institutional climate where all staff and faculty can feel heard and appreciated as stakeholders in the mission of their institution. It may also foster an environment where self-interested cynics and complainers find themselves marginalized by those who speak up with true innovation in mind.

In sum, identifying black sheep and troublemakers and giving them a voice may well provide the impetus needed to counter organizational torpor and solve some of the systemic and procedural issues that plague many of our colleges and universities. However, this will only work if leaders can identify what ultimately motivates those employees to express their discontent. As I have written elsewhere, for this to happen requires empathy, as well as time, ability, and will to meet front-line employees on their terms and get to know them, and the capacity to understand divergent perspectives.

All this takes more than a handful of managers whose primary concern is to make sure the proverbial trains run on time. Suppressing any thoughts and opinions that might lead to a delay or outright cancelation of a scheduled connection will invariably maintain the status quo and hinder organizational growth and learning. Quite the opposite approach is needed., namely people-centered leadership and a clear understanding of how the well-being of the administrative and academic staff can affect institutional outcomes and lead to higher levels of engagement among front-line employees who will then better serve our students.

This article was originally published on August 16, 2019, on LinkedIn.com, and may have been updated since its original publication.