80-15-5

A colleague recently shared with me a model of triage that comes from public health management. The model posits that 80% of people with a problem will come through it just fine; 15% will need some special attention to manage their specific context; and 5% will be in real crisis.

Hold that thought.

Another colleague recently shared with me an experience of writing a grant proposal on her own area of scholarship, but including her department chair as co-author because of larger curricular ramifications of the project. The chair did virtually none of the work, but whatever, that’s the political things you have to do. The proposal was not funded. A new dean was hired for that division, that dean has put pressure on department chairs to get more proposals out the door, and so now this department chair is writing a grant proposal—on his own—that’s based on my friend’s scholarship and the earlier proposal that my friend created.

Hold that thought.

Another colleague recently shared with me her experience at a strongly unionized college of dealing with a truly unhinged faculty member, a conspiracy theorist of the fullest Alex Jones pedigree. That faculty member has now filed a grievance against my friend for requesting that any future meetings be in the presence of a third party.

Okay. Got all three? Let’s put them together.

Eighty percent of your colleagues are going to be perfectly lovely, graceful, generous people. Funny, intelligent, good to be around. You’ll forget that, because your time will be taken up in dealing with the others. Please don’t fall prey to the exhausted belief that “all of my co-workers are crazy.” Most of them are not; they’re just the quiet ones who don’t e-mail you six times a day in all-caps. You lose sight of the good ones, but they’re everywhere.

Fifteen percent of your colleagues, like my friend’s department chair, are probably reasonable and rational people who are momentarily off the rails, usually because of unseen pressures we can’t know. Whether externally rooted (a sick child, a failing marriage, a recent diagnosis) or internally rooted (the demands of a dean, an accreditor, a president), our goodwill is subject to occasional and usually temporary disability. So that 15% is a shifting cast of players… they’ll fall back into the 80% pool of reasonable colleagues soon enough, to be replaced by another temporary 15% dealing with a brief crisis of their own.

But five percent have real problems. Malicious, paranoid, narcissistic people for whom non-collegiality is the baseline mode, the default setting. These people will eat your time, will never be reasonable, will always manufacture problems where no problem ever existed. (And in a complex mathematical relationship, our dealings with them will make us into a 15-percenter, momentarily unhinged and unbalanced.)

Policy manuals are written largely in response to the 5%. Those people take on massive proportions in our psychic representation, they become malicious giants in our minds when really they’re just biting flies. Figure out strategies for identifying and avoiding them. When you can’t avoid them, bring your 80% to bear upon them.

And think deliberately about how you can manifest the joys and pleasures of being one of the 80%, to make your colleagues’ lives just a smidge better rather than a little more difficult.