Critical friendship as everyday #RUOK

Here in Australia, it is #RUOK Day today.

It is the 10th anniversary of the start of #RUOK. The aim of the organisation that coordinates the day and the year-round events that make RUOK an everyday activity is “to inspire and empower everyone to meaningfully connect with people around them and support anyone struggling with life”.

For the past five years, I have had the immense good fortune to be a critical friend to coaches, teachers and educational technologists. Throughout that time, I have been guided by John MacBeath’s observation:

The critical friend is a powerful idea, perhaps because it contains an inherent tension. Friends bring a high degree of unconditional positive regard. They are forgiving and tolerant of your failings. They sometimes even love you for your faults. Critics are, at first sight at least, conditional, negative and intolerant of failure. Perhaps the critical friend comes closest to what might be regarded as the ‘true friendship’ – a successful marrying of unconditional support and unconditional critique. (1998: 118)

My critical friend conversations with coaches explored the very public nature of their work and the implications of their roles for their families, their friends … and themselves. The five years of conversations enabled us to go to some very private places that challenged and celebrated their lived experience.

My conversations with educational technologists took place at a time of organisational change and uncertainty about the institution’s direction. Our conversations discussed the physiological and psychological impacts of uncertainty.

All these conversations were held in confidence. I did receive funding to do this but I was clear that there would be no reporting of individual cases only of generic conversations.

On #RUOK Day I am sharing parts of one of my reports that arose out of critical friend conversations with educational technologist and shared with the institution’s leaders. It considered how we might value each other rather than engage in rhetoric about caring.


Introduction

This paper addresses being valued in an organisation that learns. It is a commitment to equitable and respectful treatment of all members …

In writing this, I am mindful of Miller Mair’s observation:

Words are substantial, like paint or clay. They are not transparent and secondary. They tell their own tales. They muscle in wherever they are used to influence everything around them with the stories they wish to tell. They bring with them baggage from other places and other times. They lead off in directions that speak of their relationships with other words and other things. Words, and the choice of words in relationship, create realities of their own and do not point to things we suppose are separate and of superior importance.

I am mindful too that I am writing this specifically for two colleagues who have trusted me to produce this narrative.

The higher education institution is adopting a raft of business intelligence tools that monitor and report on staff and student performance. In organisations that have a mechanistic approach to performance these tools prioritise surveillance over care, and treat individuals as objects of study rather than subjects of appreciative inquiry. I believe that the institution is in danger of becoming such a mechanistic environment. I am hopeful that the University’s conversations about strategic direction is able to reduce this danger as might genuine consideration of staff performance review processes.

My view is that the institution can let go of aspirations to be “national leaders” or to be highly ranked in a variety of global indicators. The rhetoric of external recognition could be enabled by respectful, deep listening in our lived experience at the institution. Process would deliver outcome in an institution that avows to “walk-the-talk”.

This requires the University to value our staff. Recently, Brenda Leibowitz (2017) proposed:

… given that so many academics are intrinsically motivated to teach well, they should not be viewed as mere instruments of policy and strategic exigencies. Instead, they must be treated as academic partners whose role as professionals should be respected. Their importance must be acknowledged and they must be seen as accountable, responsible, thinking and feeling beings – not workhorses chasing global rankings for the benefit of their institutions’ reputations. (My emphasis)

The institution has promoted a narrative of engagement and retention for its student cohorts. I think this is vital for our staff too.

In the last year, I have become extremely concerned for the mental and physical well-being of some colleagues. I have a sense that unless significant changes are made in how we value each other we will continue to live in a threatening rather than enabling organisation that could learn to be different.

We can gain ground (and lose it) and this requires an agility in leadership that trusts and values colleagues whose role it is to engage and retain. There can be space for bottom-up renewal as well as top-down imposition.

I believe each of us has a responsibility to exert our agency to be valued and to value others.


My aim in writing the paper was to give voice to concerns that remain unspoken in fearful employee-employer relationships.

It was nourished by the idea that RUOK conversations are an everyday, formative commitment.

When I have my critical friend conversations, I have in mind conversations I had with Gavin Larkin many years ago.

Today is a very special day to remember him and his journey to support us all in the adventure of caring and being cared for.

Photo Credit

RUOK Mate?

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