Sorry, can’t work with you

Imagine this: you are the owner of a second tier football franchise based somewhere in Europe, say one like Tottenham, Udinese, Bayer Leverkusen — one of those. Your team is solid, good but not great. It is good enough to play consistently in the major league of your country, often earning a spot in some European competition (occasionally the UEFA Champions League, normally the UEFA Europa League).

There is nothing wrong with that, is there ? I mean, most football fans anywhere would be more than happy if the above description applied to their own home team. That would mean that they could go to the stadium every other weekend to watch pretty decent level football. Their squad would be facing off against the very best in the country and in the continent, some of them featuring superstar players — the kind most football enthusiasts only get to see on television (or, YouTube).
Yet, neither you, nor your fans, are satisfied. You wish your team could be even better, have a realistic chance at winning the national title, something that seems like a pipe dream at the present time (third place in the final ranking being the very best result ever attained, many years ago, at the end of a memorable, exceptionally good season).
You wish that its appearances in European competitions could extend beyond the second round, at which the team always seems to go down to elimination. You dream of seeing one day its captain hold a major trophy in his hands. Alas, it is simply not going to happen with your current players. A significant leap would require a few high caliber ones, perhaps even one of those “superstars” that only the richest, most prestigious franchises can afford to engage [0].

And that is really where the problem lies, which is why the lion’s share of all trophies goes every year to the same few franchises that can outspend everyone else by a factor ten. You love the game and your home town, you know your fellow denizens are football fanatics, they pack the stadium every other weekend. You wish you could give them a world class team, and you are the only person in town with the means to do it. However, your means are already severely stretched as it is. There is no way for you to assemble the additional resources to convince the new Diego Armando Maradona to come and play for you. And it is not just his own astronomical salary — it is the combined salary of all the other players required to build a team of the appropriate level around him, that makes the whole proposition unviable. He simply would not come to play for a team with which he may end up not winning anything important, unless…
Unless of course, personal reasons made him do that. It is rare, but it does happen [1].

Now, say the general manager of your team calls you, the owner, and tells you that he has had a long conversation with the very agent of The New Diego Armando Maradona (let us just refer to him as Diego, for brevity). The man told him that his client, widely expected to sign up for one of the two, three major franchises in the country, would be interested in moving to your town, for family reasons. He would welcome the opportunity of playing for your team. Yes, he fully understands that his salary and career expectations and goals would need to be readjusted, at least temporarily. In fact, he does not mind being “off the spotlight” for a few seasons.

You can hardly contain your excitement. This could be the break you have been waiting for, for so many years. Just imagine, Diego wearing your team’s jersey… Think of what your team might do with him… Maybe not quite win the national title, or an international competition, but surely it would do much better… Plus, how much enthusiasm there will be among the other players, the fans, how many more people will go to the stadium, what that will mean in terms of revenues of all kinds… You would become a legend, in your town. You cannot miss this opportunity. You tell your manager to schedule a meeting with Diego’s agent as soon as possible, and immediately call the coach of your team to communicate the great news.
You are stunned upon hearing the coach’s reaction.

It is all about fitting in…

Coach “Oh… Really ? Geeze… Diego ? Wow… Oh-kay… And, what am I supposed to do with him ?”
Owner “Er… WHAT ? Excuse me, did you hear what I just said ? I am talking Diego himself, not his little brother Hugo or some lookalike… “
Coach “Yes, yes, I heard it, and I am telling you, as the coach, that I don’t think that it is such a great idea. Are you dead set on it ? I mean, it’s your money and you do what you want with it but I would seriously think about it, if I were you… Me, I would say thanks, but no, thanks…”.
Owner “All right, am I going crazy, or you’re telling me that I should pass on the unbelievable, unrepeatable opportunity of signing up someone who can entirely turn the fortunes of our team ? I mean, I understand that we are just talking a single player, but … You have been telling me for a while now, that we need someone of a different level on the pitch, in order to be more competitive, that we lack quality, that we need at least one or two players with real talent, especially in the midfield… And now you are telling me that Diego, THE best midfielder on this planet, would not be a good, no, amazing addition ? Please tell me that you are kidding… I mean, it would not be funny but, I promise I shall try to laugh…”
Coach “No, I am not kidding, I am dead serious. I am telling you that bringing in Diego would be a mistake. I can’t work with him.
Look, I know it seems easy for you or for the fans — you hear the name Diego, and you all start salivating. But, when the dust has settled, I am the one who has to work with him every day. And I know what it is like to have a Prima Donna in the team, someone who wants things done his own way, who questions the coach’s choices, whose charisma influences the other players, around whom the whole game of the team has to be built… These are very polarizing individuals, next thing you know there begin to be rifts among players, rivalry, all sort of nonsense in the locker room… Believe me, it is much better if players in the team are of the same level. I know what I am talking about here, I am in this business for twenty years.”
Owner “So, you are telling me that it is either eleven Diegos or nothing ? That until I find a replacement for myself, who can afford bringing in eleven players of that caliber, we are irreparably stuck being what we are ? And what about the fans ? They support this team with their passion, enthusiasm and whatever little money they can set aside for entertainment — do we not owe it to them to try whatever we can to offer the best show we can offer ? That ‘we are on track to win the title sometime during the next fifty years’ is the best I can tell them ?”
Coach “I cannot answer that question for you — this is a call that you, the owner, ultimately have to make. I am just giving you my technical opinion, which is what you’re paying me for. And my technical opinion is that bringing in someone like Diego is not a good idea. No matter now much he claims to want to be here, he will not stop being Diego. His presence will disrupt the harmony of the team, cause tension among players, undermine my authority, and all of that will affect the performance of the squad on the pitch, which is ultimately all that matters — to me, to you, and to the fans. I stand by my statements to you, to the effect that we should try and bring in talents, but we should be realistic and proceed gradually, making incremental improvements — nothing as disruptive as what you are proposing. We don’t need superstars here, just solid, no-nonsense professionals with their heads firmly on their shoulders, who will do what they are told and get along with everyone else. I am willing and eager to talk to you about specific players whom I have been following, who would be perfect for us. Some currently play in teams similar to ours, and there are also a couple young ones playing in minor leagues, who have been discarded by the big franchises. The bottom line is, all of these players would fit inthat is the main goal that we should keep in mind. If fans want to root for a superstar-filled team, they need to get themselves on the train and go to the big cities.”

… or, is it ?

I suppose I can see both sides of the above dispute. It is not a dilemma that only sport franchise owners face, by the way. I am quite sure that in high-tech firms, commercial enterprises, actually just about any kind of human activity, a choice such as the one described above frequently presents itself. There is no question that a delicate balance must be struck, between on the one hand selecting the best qualified workforce, on the other ensuring smooth day-to-day operations, promoting a gregarious, cooperative atmosphere among employees, ultimately conducive to the most effective teamwork, in turn resulting in the highest productivity. I can imagine cases of individuals with superior talent, creativity, technical ability and what have you, who are affected by shortcomings preventing them from becoming effective contributors. Being unable to work with others, lack of discipline, an overly relaxed work ethics, are examples of obvious reasons why employers might prefer not to hire them.

I have to confess though, that I feel nervous about taking this kind of considerations too far. The thing is, they are often used as a convenient excuse to perpetuate a state of “comfortable mediocrity”. Let us admit it, we are all instinctively wary of anyone new coming in and raising the bar on us, in most cases simply by performing better than us, suddenly exposing by comparison limitations of ours, which until then had gone unnoticed. We do not like the idea of having to step up to the plate. We would rather be surrounded by individuals who will not make us feel inadequate or look bad, even though we typically disguise that feeling under phony rhetoric, full of cliches such as “not fitting in”, “disrupting the harmony of the group”, “not someone I would have a beer with”, and similar nonsense.
But there is no other way for a collective human enterprise to improve its operations, than by constantly raising the quality of its own people. Any reason put forward for settling with less, for being less than thorough in the search for the best qualified candidate for a position at all levels, for hiring internally, for choosing the mediocrity we know over the excellence we do not know, should be carefully scrutinized, and it remains a choice to make only in extreme circumstances, if ever at all.

To go back to my above hypothetical scenario, I know what I would do if I were the owner. I would first of all summon the coach to my office and go Donald Trump on him (of course I look much better than him — no ridiculous hair, at least). I would give my manager broad freedom of pursuing the offer of Diego’s agent. I would concurrently start looking for a new coach. Upon identifying a competent individual, capable of overcoming his own insecurity, eagerly welcoming the challenge of coaching a team with a superstar and ten ordinary players, excited by the prospect of guiding it to unprecedented successes, whose fragile little ego would not be shattered by having to confront strong personalities (call me an optimist but I am sure I would find one in no time), I would sign him on [2].

Would I be making a mistake ? Maybe, but, hey, that’s me. I would rather err trying to make things better, than play safe and enjoy my comfortable mediocrity. And, in this hypothetical situation I would be the owner. It’s my money, so, I can do whatever I want — right ? Well, yes and no.
Strictly speaking yes, I suppose, but the moment one takes on a high profile social role, like owner of a major league team, one cannot escape public scrutiny, and be to a considerable degree subjected to pressure from the customer base (the fans). In fact, I cannot imagine the desire to be successful and popular not to be at the root of the decision of a wealthy individual to commit the kind of capital needed these days to acquire a sport team. No sane owner likes to receive death threats on a daily basis, following the decision of letting go a player popular with the fans, or to be greeted by boos and cheers each time they go to the stadium with their families, widely regarded as the main culprit for the team’s lackluster performance.
Honestly, I think most sport franchise owners would do (and do) exactly what I said I would do. In fact, I think that most coaches in the above position, feeling as strongly about it as my hypothetical coach, would simply preempt being fired and resign without even arguing, knowing full well how things will go anyway.

What if the owner was the public itself ?

What if those footing the bill, were also the end users ? Public ownership of major sport franchises is exceedingly rare; I can think off the top of my head of the Green Bay Packers, unquestionably a highly successful American football team. I do not know of any example (at least in recent history) of comparably successful clubs in other sports, surely not in European football. As usual I welcome corrections, but I don’t believe that there is a single publicly owned football team, among those that have ever won the Champions League (or, its equivalent in earlier days).

Again, though, this need not be about sports only. We could be talking about public hospitals, universities, schools, firms and so on. And, what exactly would be the justification for public employees working in any public organization, in charge of hiring other public employees, for giving preference to potential colleagues who “would work well with them” [3] ?

How would we like it if we found out, say, that the administration of the our town’s public hospital had decided to fill a position of, oh, I don’t know, neurosurgeon, by hiring someone whose resume is not particularly impressive, passing on candidates with much better credentials, because the former was deemed to make a “better fit with the culture of the hospital” ? Can you imagine being told that the new neurosurgeon had best be “of the same level” of the ones who are already there ? That if people living in that region want to be seen by one of those fancy-pant doctors whom the administration deemed “unfit” despite their superior qualifications, they should “get on the train and go to the big cities” ? I think most of us would find it objectionable if a private hospital did that — if the hospital happens to be public, “outrageous” would be the adjective, methinks. But the same considerations apply to anything public.

I wonder how widely understood is the notion of “abuse of public office” among those of us who are public employees. Perhaps we need to be reminded periodically that the public organization for which we work was not established for our own benefit; that its goal is not that of keeping us happy and satisfied, but rather that of providing the best possible service to taxpayers who pay our salary; that if there is someone out there who can contribute most effectively to the delivery of said service, we are the ones who are morally obligated to “work with” that person, not vice versa; that if we feel so strongly that only people with whom we can “have a beer” deserve the privilege of working with us, the way to accomplish that goal is to create our own university, school, hospital — on our own money, not that of taxpayers …
And guess what, even then we would probably not be free to pick whomever we wanted, all the time. Ask any football team owner.


[0] A notable exception is the Italian football league. A plausible strategy to win the title is making sure that none of your players are ever criminally prosecuted and/or convicted of bribery, game fixing, use of illegal substances, racketeering, tax evasion, etc. At that point, one could conceivably hope to win the title by ending the season in ninth or tenth place, as a result of all teams that are better ranked being disqualified and/or relegated due to misconduct… I am kidding, of course — come on, not a single player convicted of anything ? Yeah, right, that will happen…

[1] I have been following the Italian football league for decades, and have seen numerous cases of highly sought after, talented players who could easily have worn a much more prestigious jersey, who made instead for personal reasons the choice of playing for a second tier team. Almost invariably, that choice meant for them not to achieve professionally what might have been reachable, had their decisions been consistently career-driven. In a few cases, however, they single-handedly managed to lead their adopted teams to stunning, unrepeatable and memorable successes. In Italy, just mention names such as Gigi Riva, Giancarlo Antognoni, Roberto Mancini or Gianluca Vialli, and of course, Diego Maradona himself, to any of those fortunate football fans (like me), who get to live with priceless memories, and you will make their day.

[2] Yes, I would dismiss the present coach even if Diego were to change his mind and not sign up for my franchise in the end. And I would not at all be surprised if, in the real world, these were precisely the circumstances behind many a coach being let go for no apparent reason.

[3] I might add that I often hear such a preference expressed openly, self-righteously, almost as if it were a given.

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13 Responses to “Sorry, can’t work with you”

  1. Devin Baillie Says:

    You mean soccer, right?

    *Runs and hides*

  2. Schlupp Says:

    What can I say? At least, your coach knows who Diego is and would in principle like to have good players. Me, I know teams where the coach wouldn’t know about Diego, because he does not follow the games of other teams (except, possibly, the team coached by his high-school buddy). And in any case, what’s so great about Diego? All he can do is score goals, after all (and/or get his team to score goals). That’s just one of those stupid “metrics” made up by bean counters and not really anything that should count in football.

    • Massimo Says:

      I suppose you are right but for one thing the line between the two is often blurry, i.e., the coach is simply trying to offer a rational-sounding justification for what are essentially his own insecurity, self-centredness and mediocrity — secondly, the end result for the fans is the same…

      • Schlupp Says:

        Yes, I guess, the results usually are the same. Still, given that your coach is giving “reasons” (bad ones, granted), it at least appears to be agreed on that one has to have reasons…..

        [I am disgruntled. Been at a place close to my heart where, fuck (yeah, I know you want proper language here, but there are limits to what I can do), the students deserve better faculty. And administration.]

      • Massimo Says:

        Next time we get together for one of our bitchin’ sessions, remind me to hit you with the stick on your fingers for use of foul language on my immaculate blog.

  3. mareserinitatis Says:

    I know that this whole article was actually a cover for your disappointment in the performance of the Minnesota Vikings the past few years…

    • Massimo Says:

      Nope, the San Diego Chargers are the last football team I “supported” before leaving the US (supported meaning, ask colleagues on Monday what was the score)…

  4. UofA_faculty Says:

    M, your hypothetical scenario, provokes a whole hornets nest of questions when applied to academic research. I realize your scenario envisioned Maradona coming in of his own accord. Still, at the admin level, is it worth it to bring in lavishly paid and funded superstars on this excellence chair or that, to move up a few places quickly in some rankings ? Or is it better to proffer broad-based support to strengthen the cadre of existing researchers for the long term ? Likewise, do we try to go after elite grad students with generous scholarships or improve our training of the ones we have or are guaranteed to have ? And grants. And research problems. And on and on…

    • Massimo Says:

      Yes, in my hypothetical scenario, that Maradona would come in spontaneously is a necessary condition. I think that personal reasons almost always underlie, at least to a degree, professional moves of mid-career, established individuals. My beef was specifically on passing on a once-in-a-lifetime, unrepeatable opportunity for phony, short-sighted and self-serving reasons — it is a manifestation of the same fundamental problem with the culture of the place.

      is it worth it to bring in lavishly paid and funded superstars on this excellence chair or that, to move up a few places quickly in some rankings ?

      This is so loaded a question 😉 The fair way of putting it is, do we use chairs that exist anyway, and have been created for that purpose [0], to bring in a high profile scholar who may raise our profile, or do we use them to promote someone internally ? That is the point of my post.
      I personally have no doubt as to what I would do.

      do we try to go after elite grad students with generous scholarships or improve our training of the ones we have or are guaranteed to have ?

      Another false alternative, in my opinion. We do both. We use scholarships that exist for that purpose to bring in strong students, regardless of where they apply from, not to keep our own here, when they may well be better served by going elsewhere.
      As for the rankings, and our worldwide reputations — I am sorry, I think it is absurd for us to act as if that is just malarkey and it should not be our concern. Our students will walk away with a degree that says UofA (or UAlberta, whatever). Are you saying it is not our responsibility to do whatever we can in order for that degree to be taken seriously outside Edmonton ? I say it is, and if rankings are part of the equation [1] it is our duty to do whatever we can to improve them. Within reason, of course.

      As far as recruiting at the faculty level goes, I think we should not go after “superstars”, but we should try and cast the widest possible net and go after the best qualified person. Looking for internal candidates right off the bat and preferring them with worrisome frequency is bad. Very bad.

      [0] Whether we like that idea or not is a separate issue — I have seen it work incredibly well at Florida State, I am sure it can also be botched but that is always true of everything. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

      [1] And they are, let us not kid ourselves — plus they are not at all as whimsical and off the wall as we like to tell each other

      • UofA_faculty Says:

        I too believe internal hiring can be pernicious and am not in favor of them. But I disagree on two points :
        1) There are situations when a stark choice is indeed presented. In my own research group, I often encounter situations I have to choose between grad students with different potential on paper to spend a certain pot of money. Just a few weeks back, I had a grad student applicant from a high-ranked university who wanted to pursue just a masters degree versus another applicant from a not-so highly ranked school who wanted to do a Phd (guess whom I picked). From discussions with administrators, they too have similar choices quite frequently. Sometimes, they have a pot of internal funding for a certain area/project, that they use to leverage into an additional chair for instance, instead of disbursing it more widely by having an internal competition. For experimental research, infrastructure is crucial and in Canada, CFI grants are the primary mechanism of obtaining said infrastructure (even more so now that NSERC RTI has gone away). Each university has a certain allocation with CFI, and administrators have significant discretion in how they use these allocations. In the realm of research ideas./projects, in previous blog postings, you have stressed the importance of not gambling with one’s early research career i.e. pursue high risk ideas together with low hanging fruit. However such is often not realistic when working with limited funding personnel/students and a choice must be made.
        2) I agree rankings are important just differ about the right method to get there. Specifically, I believe thinking longer-term is superior to going after quick short-term gains. I do have a problem with universities trying to take the short-cut by poaching superstars to get an immediate lift. Going back to your original scenario, I side with the coach. When the bench strength is weak, the addition of a Maradona will be disruptive rather than helpful nine times out of ten says me. But I also see how once the broad base of players have been made stronger (better skills, training, fitness), there can be a threshold where addition of stars can bring about rapid yet sustainable improvements. On the flip-side, judging when such a threshold is achieved can be disturbingly subjective.

      • Massimo Says:

        There are situations…

        Of course there are, I did not mean to prove a theorem, and even in my post I leave the door open to exceptions. But here at UofA exceptions have managed to become the rule, and that is not good for many, many reasons. We are at a point where we run perfunctory (borderline ridiculous) “searches” whose outcome is all but certain from the very beginning, and which end up with internal hires, or hires in which one candidate has an obvious inside track. And the funny thing is, we act as if the outside world will not raise eyebrows or go “hey, wait a minute…”

        As for the distinction that you draw between short and long term strategies, I think it is a red herring. The situation you describe is exactly that in which the Napoli football team was when Maradona first arrived. Ask any expert if in their view his arrival was “disruptive” to the team. The team risked relegation the first year, because it was a bad team, and Maradona could not by himself compensate for the downright mediocrity of the rest of the players (but without him they would have been relegated). His presence however made it possible, in the years that followed, for the property to recruit much better players than they could have, had Maradona not signed on, and that is what ultimately led to them winning their first two titles. They would not have won them by using the money initially invested to recruit Maradona to give a pay raise to the bad players they had to begin with.

        Let us talk about academia. In 1992 FSU, a very unassuming physics department, recruited Nobel laureate Robert Schrieffer. Was he at his productive peak ? No. Did he individually do a lot for the department ? I do not think so, but in any case I think it is fair to say that his individual contribution was marginal. However, i was there, and trust me when I tell you that the graduate program not only significantly increased its size following his arrival, the level and quality of graduate and postdoctoral applicants, as well as the level of the faculty whom they could recruit also improved dramatically. In a matter of five years after recruiting him, the department got itself on the map, ask anyone. To say that this had nothing to do with that high profile hire is disingenuous, in my opinion.

        Do things always work out as well ? No, of course not, it is always possible to screw up, but if you want to get better you need better people, I am sorry, there is no way around that.
        And that is where the analogy with football breaks down, because whereas a player must work for the team, scholars work for themselves, the team benefitting only indirectly. Bringing on board someone with a high profile, who will run an internationally acclaimed research program and attract students, postdocs and other faculty who would not be coming otherwise is always a good thing — never disruptive (other than to our egos and desire of being big fish in a small pond).

  5. uknowitassoonasivegotapermanentposition Says:

    It’s nice to see that some people are concerned by the problem of ‘comfortable mediocrity’. As an eternal postdoc that had to face the humiliation of ‘Sorry, can’t work with you’, I must say that reading this post made me feel less lonely.
    To help you make your point, here is some football (soccer) info.
    FC Barcelona, the best team in Europe for the last five years (at least) is owned by 155,000 end-users called socios. And they have had their Diego (Leo Messi). It seems to me that their policy is to take the best possible player whatever his ego might be. Sometimes it doesn’t work (Ibrahimovic) but most of the time it works very well.

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