• August 29, 2015

The Four Quadrants of Administrative Effectiveness

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Brian Taylor

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Brian Taylor

First, a confession: I ripped off the basic premise for this column from an essay called "The Right Kind of Nothing," by Michael C. Munger, a professor of political science and chair of the department at Duke University.

Munger argued in that January column that the best administrators are those who accept a high degree of responsibility for what goes on in their territory but don't feel the need to control everything. They know, that is, when to do "the right kind of nothing."

After 18 years as a midlevel administrator at three different community colleges, I heartily concur. And, having obtained Munger's gracious permission, I would like to expand on his ideas. In doing so here, I borrow also from Stephen R. Covey, who in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, designs a memorable matrix around the concepts of "important" and "urgent." By placing those two concepts on X and Y axes, he creates four quadrants: urgent but not important, important but not urgent, both urgent and important, and neither urgent nor important.

Following Covey's model, I've placed Munger's concepts of responsibility and control on similar X and Y axes to create what I call the four quadrants of administrative effectiveness. Each one represents a certain type of administrator.

High responsibility, low control. People who fall under this quadrant usually make the best administrators, and are among the most liked, because their willingness to accept responsibility means that they're not finger-pointers or buck-passers. Quick to accept blame, they're equally swift to deflect, and share, praise. They're rarely self-promotional types, preferring instead to lead by example and refusing to ask of others what they would not do themselves. They don't make a big deal out of being "in charge," but they're always in the wheelhouse when the ship encounters a storm.

And yet they're not control freaks. They have no interest in looking over people's shoulders or micromanaging. Rather, they subcribe to the philosophy of hiring good people and then letting them do their jobs. For college faculty members, most of whom just want to be left alone as much as possible, administrators in this category are truly a godsend. (They're also pretty rare, although I've heard an actual specimen is preserved in the Smithsonian.)

These administrators are highly effective because people trust them and believe they can count on them. They seek consensus whenever possible but aren't afraid to make tough decisions when necessary. And they usually manage to get the important things done without making any more enemies than they have to (it being virtually impossible to get anything done as an administrator without making a few enemies).

High responsibility, high control. Next is this group of administrators, who are often well liked, even beloved, because they give everything they have to the job and everyone knows it. They may be a little controlling—sweating the details, worrying that everything is done correctly and on time—but people tend to overlook the negative because they also take so much personal responsibility for everything.

These are the administrators who slave away in their offices until 8 p.m. or 9 p.m. every day—and then still take piles of paperwork home with them. They're the ones who send those e-mails messages you receive at 8:30 in the morning, when you first sit down at your computer with a cup of coffee—you know, the e-mails that were sent at 7 a.m. Or 5:30. Or 2:14.

They can be effective, to a degree, because they get things done—even if they end up doing those things themselves, which is often the case. The problem is that this level of commitment, which borders on obsessive-compulsive behavior, is difficult to sustain. Such administrators tend to burn out after a few years. They develop ulcers or high blood pressure. They have nervous breakdowns (which are occasionally, in my experience, quite public).

And even if they don't burn out, they tend to burn out the people around them, who can't withstand the pace. In the end, even faculty members and fellow administrators who like and admire these individuals personally will begin avoiding them like clingy students or desperate job-seekers, because they know that any chance meeting could result in yet another project.

Low responsibility, low control. The third administrative type is probably the least effective, though not the most despised. I say that because they are neither control freaks nor micromanagers; rather, they tend to leave people alone, like their high-responsibility, low-control colleagues. That is one of the qualities that faculty members most appreciate in administrators.

The problem is that, unlike their high-responsibility colleagues, the low-responsibility types tend to leave everything else alone, too, including their own duties. Basically, they're lazy. Some people in this category take administrative jobs simply because they're tired of teaching and want a break. Some are close to retirement, hoping just to hold on for a few more years without rocking any boats. For whatever reason, they don't want to do too much. True, they don't expect much of faculty or staff members—which can be good, from a faculty or staff point of view, at least at first—but, unfortunately, such administrators don't expect much of themselves, either.

They make rotten leaders for the simple reason that they don't lead. Eventually, even those faculty and staff members who once appreciated the autonomy will start to wonder who's steering the ship. And when they find out that being autonomous, in this case, means that they're expected to steer the ship themselves—and hoist the sails, and swab the decks—the result can sometimes be mutiny.

Low responsibility, high control. The title of most-despised administrator belongs to this group of "leaders." They're also among the least effective. (It would be cynical of me to suggest that the majority of administrators fall into this category. That's probably not true. It only seems that way.)

They are always passing the buck, forever pointing fingers, constantly throwing subordinates and colleagues under the bus. They demand the lion's share of the credit for any success, but they will quickly lay the blame for failure at the feet of someone else—anyone else. Despite constant talk of "teamwork," they're generally reluctant to involve themselves in anything that smacks of actual work. They also love to remind people that they're "the boss," as if that fact weren't already the stuff of nightmares.

Whereas low-responsibility, low-control types are lazy but laid-back, the low-responsibility, high-control leaders are an especially objectionable combination: indolent themselves yet irrationally demanding of others. Inveterate micromanagers, they love to nitpick, find fault, and demean those who are actually in the trenches, while keeping themselves as far from the front lines as possible.

To the extent that they can cow people into performing, these administrators can be moderately effective for a while. Over time, though, their ability to get things done begins to wane as the work environment becomes toxic, enveloped in an almost palpable atmosphere of anger, bitterness, resentment, and distrust. Morale declines, and ultimately productivity with it, until the administrator is finally shown the door—or promoted. In higher education, it's kind of a toss-up.

Of course, few administrators are perfect examples of any single type. My hope in writing this is that, by plotting themselves on the responsibility and control axes, the more self-aware individuals will be able to determine which quadrant they inhabit and make the appropriate adjustments—either by accepting more responsibility or relinquishing more control—to move closer to the high-responsibilty, low-control ideal.

As for those who are less than self-aware, well, maybe someone will slip a copy of this column or Munger's under their door, with the appropriate sections highlighted.

Rob Jenkins is an associate professor of English and director of the Writers Institute at Georgia Perimeter College. He blogs at www.academicleaders.org and writes monthly for our community-college column. If you would like to write for our regular column on faculty and administrative careers at two-year colleges, or have a topic to propose, we would like to hear from you. Send your ideas to careers@chronicle.com.


1. honore - July 22, 2010 at 09:21 pm

Another precious chart to reduce ourselves to.
Where's the quadrant labeled "High Dysfunction, Low Accountability"?

2. luder - July 23, 2010 at 07:24 am

Okay, I didn't read the column (maybe later), but isn't "four quadrants" slightly pleonastic? Could you really have, say, five quadrants? Three? Seventeen?

3. erskine_seminary - July 23, 2010 at 09:00 am

Um, no. By definition you can only have four quadrants.

But by adding characteristics you can make a bigger chart. I almost asked what other characteristics would interact with these in a relevant and illuminating way, but I won't, on second thought.

4. texas2step - July 23, 2010 at 09:16 am

Great article and so on target.

5. bdbailey - July 23, 2010 at 09:16 am

Interesting to hear academics criticize the idea of dividing and classifying the world around them. Of course divisions like these are indistinct in the real world and to some degree arbitrary. Of course there are gray areas and categories bleed into each other. That does not mean they aren't useful.

6. dld310 - July 23, 2010 at 09:39 am

Ok - but who tends to be the most effective?

7. cshe6339 - July 23, 2010 at 09:59 am

Geez -- there are a lot of grumpy academics out there this morning. This taxonmy is simply a tool -- a useful one at that. I think Prof. Jenkins makes it pretty clear which administrators are the most effective... Chill out folks, it's summer...

8. redweather - July 23, 2010 at 10:07 am

Couldn't the exact same taxonomy be used to describe teachers?

9. vanosdol - July 23, 2010 at 10:54 am

The quadrants are similar to Douglas McGregor's (1966) leadership styles of Theory X and Theory Y.

10. princessleia - July 23, 2010 at 02:15 pm

@luder: Yes, "the four quadrants" is pleonastic. You succeeded in sending the discussion on a predictable non-sequitur.

11. ciborium - July 23, 2010 at 03:01 pm

Adding a category like "competence" to this rubric would be useful--it can distinguish the really good high control types from the disastrous ones.

12. ovpstaff - July 23, 2010 at 06:07 pm

interesting taxonomy, but you just couldn't resist the digs at administrators. too bad, because those of us dreaded administrators who might have used your post will find the unnecessary digs counterproductive to changing behavior when needed. Yes, it's summer...and perhaps one shouldn't be so "sensitive" to what is clearly (I hope) a humorous post...but I really do tire of all the sniping that comes from the faculty quarters about administrators. Is this really helping make your college or university a better place?

13. bigbluesky - July 23, 2010 at 09:59 pm

This model is probably more appropriate in structured environments where the typical employee fits some measurable demographic profile; in other words, they would use and apply this chart to manager-type in a predictable way. Higher Ed, as an industry (if you could even call it that) has, relative to other areas, an extremely diversified composition. There is a reason Administrators/Deans often quip about 'herding cats' and 'strange bedfellows' or similar truisms, but that charm is exactly what makes the environment so difficult, er unique, to manage. Literally, management must treat individuals so individually (notwithstanding bargaining agreements) that it makes governance and policy via peer-committees highly ironic. Subsequently, the best managers are, much like parents, creating the appropriate 'formula' that motivates that particular individual to the highest degree. Moreover, to exemplify the first quadrant, an employee may not be best served by the HR/LC management model, though it is easy to appreciate the desire for autonomy without responsiblity... hey, just like my teenager.

14. jaysanderson - July 24, 2010 at 02:50 am

There is another category: Clueless bobblehead. This type of administrator makes few decisions, but will quickly reverse position at the slightest criticism. Dr. Bobblehead's opinions on any issue are determined by the last person he or she spoke to, or the loudest/scariest person in their office. The Clueless Bobblehead will throw any employee under the bus, but feels "just awful" about it--even if the same employee is tossed multiple times. Now, he seems really nice, I mean, when I reported for work today and said "good morning Dr. Bobblehead", he replied "please, just call me Clueless". Okay--will do.

I'm not bitter or anything...

15. painter55 - July 27, 2010 at 10:48 am

Higher ed administration layer is a formal structure compared to the faculty layer which is very organic. Some administrative jobs do not regularly interface with faculty, while other do so regularly. The latter type are organizational integrators that constitute a shadow system of organizational effectiveness: these people are in the High Responsibility + Low Control quadrant of the model discussed in this article. Of course, other dimensions of effectiveness can be conceived, but the best dimension are those that can be selected in a hiring decision and described in a job description. In this manner, highly effective people populate the organization.Unfortuneately, due to the inevitable power divisions that occur when people cooperate, even the best selection of effective people will degenerate in to the "doers" and the "don't-ers". It would be interesting to compare the dynamic of change in the quadrant positioning of employees with respect to organization changes.

16. captainshowbiz - July 30, 2010 at 07:02 am

I'm reminded of a well established professor widely recognized -- even famous -- as a prolific textbook author in his field. He decided he wanted to be chair of his department. Asked why, with all of his other interests, he would want to be chair, he is reported to replied: "So I don't have to deal with a chair." Asked what, as chair, he would do for the faculty, he said: "I'll leave you alone." He became chair.

17. ugg123456789 - August 12, 2010 at 01:43 am

Okay, I didn't read the column (maybe later MBT Shoes ), but isn't "four quadrants" slightly pleonastic? Could you really have, say, five quadrants? Three? Seventeen?

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