Boredom Business

I’m teaching a really cool graduate level course.  I get to use a lot of my background and teach students things they definitely wouldn’t have learned in school otherwise.  It’s ‘applied’, as they say.  This post isn’t about that though.  It’s a difficult course, which means students are coming to my office more frequently, which means I end up doing small talk because that’s the person I am.  Four of the 12 students are from the same lab.  So they end up working together and correspondingly, coming to my office together.  This is where things get weird: they complain about their adviser.  A lot.  This is an older full professor with multiple big grants under his belt and kind of a dickhead attitude, so I’m not surprised there’s complaining.  And he seems to be able to recruit really good students even though word is out on how bad he is.  Now they have a few of the typical complaints: cheapness, work hours, output demands, demeaning attitude, selfishness, lack of direction, etc.  But the one interesting one I heard was his boredom business.

Apparently, when he gets bored he comes down to the lab and grad students offices and starts micromanaging them.  When it’s heavy grant season or he has something person taking up his time he is only seen periodically.  And when he’s micromanaging he gets them all turned around on their projects; wanting to try random things for no reason.  This is what I told them:

In my first ‘real’ job I had a manager like this.  Everyone could tell when he had less to do because he would ‘invent’ problems that needed to be solved.  We would all be doing our thing and he would come out and mess everything up.  So we all got really good at arguing against the bad ideas and managing our manager.  This is a great opportunity to learn how to set up boundaries without fear of being fired.  I mentioned that he ultimately gets the final say, but there are ways to argue into getting your way if your way is actually the correct way.  I mentioned to not take in all the orders and information, but treat these impromptu boredom visits into conversations starters.

It’s easy to complain and begrudgingly move in whatever direction leadership wants, but they’re not always right, and this is a great opportunity to learn how to handle the inevitably difficult people everyone has in their professional lives.  That being said, to bored people in leadership/advising/whatever: get a hobby.

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