Telling people what they don't want to hear

Telling people what they don't want to hear

Right now I'm reading Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou. It tells the behind-the-scenes story of Theranos, which used to be the next great unicorn tech company thanks to its revolutionary blood testing devices that were set to unleash disruptive innovation across the biomedical industry. The only problem was that their technology didn't work, and the company was guilty of massive amounts of fraud at the hands of its founder Elizabeth Holmes --- who at the time was considered "the next Steve Jobs" --- and her partner (in more than one sense of the word) Sunny Balwani. The HBO documentary The Inventor: Out For Blood is also about the story of Holmes and Theranos; and apparently a film adaptation of Carreyrou's book is coming out this year with Jennifer Lawrence starring as Holmes.

Theranos was able, at one point, to be valuated at $10 billion not because it offered something truly valuable to the world, but because the leadership managed to trick enough people into investing in the company based on false promises, made almost irresistible by the cult of personality surrounding Elizabeth Holmes. Meanwhile, in the company itself, the culture reached epic levels of toxicity, that have to be read to be believed. These include the suicide if its former chief scientist after he was subpoenaed to testify in a lawsuit against Theranos; upon learning of his death, Theranos' response was to tell his widow to immediately return his laptop and any confidential information he had.

As the events of the story unfold, what's striking is that all the warning signs for the company's eventual downfall are in plain sight, not least of which is Holmes' hubris. And yet, as I learn about her, I can't tell if she is a master manipulator or whether she herself is the one being manipulated by others. Certainly one thing is true: Elizabeth Holmes had absolutely nobody around her who was willing to tell her things she didn't want to hear. Or at least, the pattern is that if you did tell her such things, she would not simply disagree with or ignore you --- she would fire you and try to ruin you, not necessarily in that order. Instead, the people around her were only telling her she was the next Steve Jobs.

Here I think there's a close connection to higher education, especially in the times we find ourselves in now. All of us in this business need to have people around us who are willing to give us reality checks and constructive criticism when it's warranted, and we all need to have the humility and vulnerability to accept that kind of feedback. It's an aspect of having a support network that doesn't always feel like support, but in many ways being told the full truth about our work is better than unmitigated praise.

Professors need colleagues who can become familiar with their work as teachers and researchers, and who can serve as our spotters and give things to us straight when we need to hear it. Those colleagues include other professors, and importantly also includes the department chair. It also includes students, who are not our co-workers but who do collaborate with us in their learning process and therefore have a stake in what we are doing and a say in how we do it.

In my view the ideal working environment is one in which I have a network of these people --- managers like department chairs and deans, fellow instructors in and outside my department, and honest students who have the ability and the disposition to tell me when I'm doing something poorly and can improve.  And ideally, I don't get my back up when those people tell me. I can do whatever I want with the feedback, except ignore it. The entire process of faculty evaluation, from student feedback to annual review, is supposed to serve this ideal (but rarely does).

We profs play a role similar to this in the lives of our students. Our evaluation of student work is, in some sense, our opportunity to tell students the truth about their progress toward the course learning objectives, and sometimes that truth isn't pleasant. We hope that students will hear what we have to say if it's given in a spirit of helpfulness and respect. We should do the same for ourselves.

And crucially, in these times, administrators need people around them who aren't afraid to point out flaws in their plans, give dissenting opinions, tell them that their big initiative won't work or at least won't work right now, or call B.S. on an idea that the administrator is personally invested in. Administrators need to have the courage and vulnerability to put those people in place and insist on honesty. The people who are in a position to give this kind of feedback also need courage but also the knowledge that this is part of their job.

Otherwise the university could end up like Theranos, peddling fraudulent vaporware to people who have been duped out of enormous amounts of money because some charismatic personality at the top of the organizational chart wants desperately to believe that they are Important, and will invent any sort of falsehood they can in order to perpetuate the myth.

Robert Talbert

Robert Talbert

Mathematics professor who writes and speaks about math, research and practice on teaching and learning, technology, productivity, and higher education.