Managing expectations is hard

Managing expectations is hard

For a long time I lived and worked in the tertiary education system.

Universities are peculiar places that gather certain types of personality to them. It sounds weird but academics are full on and wear their subject like a favourite pair of jeans; all the time. Whilst the student body represents the cultural diaspora, academics are a rather narrow minded and small slice of that diversity partly due to that single mindedness of living in the depths of their research. It results in many peculiarities including the left of politics having its last bastion in some of those ivory towers.

My own days of bad hair and dodgy wardrobe as a postgraduate student, post-doctoral fellow, and eventually an academic, were a delight. I loved it. What I did not fully recognise at the time was why I liked it so much. One of the big reasons was that I was surrounded by people who understood, more or less, the topic areas of interest to me.

There I was in a department of biologists and environmental scientists, with people who had basically the same core understanding of how nature works. They didn’t know much about the politics and the social structures of the world, about people in general, but they knew a lot about biology, ecology and the biophysics of the environment.

I often remember that if you didn’t know your basic biology that could cause an embarrassing moment or two amongst your colleagues. As I was trained in my undergraduate years as an environmental scientist not a biologist, a few basics of genetics, photosynthesis and respiration, for example, had passed me by and people noticed.

The point I’m making is that awareness of basic theory and foundational understanding of nature was very high amongst your colleagues. When you had a conversation you could deliver most of what you were thinking and expect it to be understood by the person you were speaking to.

In recent times, I’ve realized that that is by no means a given in the real world.

When you speak to sensible folk in everyday world, awareness of some or all of the foundational understanding that I could take for granted as a trained ecologist chatting in the coffee room of a university department, is missing. Understandably, the technical detail and the deeper theoretical concepts are not there if you have not been through the program. And not everybody has. But the basic common sense of it all was present and correct.

Photo by Elena Koycheva on Unsplash

Over the years I have learned to be a little less naive and to deliver potted versions of the concepts. Certainly not to dump all of the knowledge on an unsuspecting member of the public. However, even dialing down expectations of what people will understand to a fraction of what you know yourself may not be enough.

This statement lacks political correctness but stay with me.

At the moment many of the people I work with are educated in the environmental sciences and have decades of experience in rural landscapes. They advise landholders, their colleagues and ministers in matters of natural capital and agricultural production systems. I had made assumptions about what they would know — that soils underpin everything in production, that vegetation delivers livestock and that crops are aliens in most landscapes and need care and attention.

I also assumed an understanding of the policy frame and the politics of landscapes and the use of natural capital.

It seems reasonable to make such assumptions. These were professional people well educated, well-trained and you’d expect them to have some knowledge.

The reality is that my expectation reduction was nowhere near enough.

I had guessed that a reduction of the available knowledge by 80% of what I knew about a topic should be exceeded. That is what expectations should be, low enough to easily be exceeded; a version of the ‘under promise over deliver’ mantra of any good service company. This did not mean dumbing it down nor to assume ignorance just reducing the complexity to fundamentals so that the basics came across.

I had always expected that people would be okay with that and that they would recognize what I was trying to say. I expected responses with intelligence and from their perspective.

It turns out that delivering just 20% of what you know as an experienced academic is nowhere near enough reduction. You’ve got to cut much harder than that if you want your expectations to be met.

Now unmet expectations create a lot of stress for the person delivering information. I realize now that my big mistake was to overestimate the ability of people to understand nature and how humans use it.

I’m not talking about intelligence here, nor the ability to solve puzzles, to do math or the ability to find the tail end of a binomial distribution.

What I mean is a lack of basic understanding of phenomena that are happening in the world and their consequences for the rural landscape. Little things like knowing that we have eight billion people growing at eight thousand an hour. That almost all soil is under human management and at least 40% are in some sort of disarray as a result of that management.

Then there are some basic numbers that suggest future challenges for organizations involved with rural landscapes, even their own backyards. Some fundamentals that they really should know — average age of farmers in Australia is 58 with 50% of them working more than 49 hours per week, the debt to equity ratio of most farm businesses is very high where farmers have leveraged their properties in order to maintain their production systems and therefore giving themselves a very high debt load constraining any future innovation. Overall agriculture in Australia is under capitalised and there is a vast need for improvements to infrastructure particularly transport networks, but also in intensification of certain parts of the landscape and a desperate need to rest other parts.

Everyone should really understand that the challenge is how to get that investment. Where to get it from, what the financial instruments might be, who owns the risk, and who benefits from the risk?

These are the sorts of questions that should be simmering under the everydayness of any environmental role that is involved in any way with natural capital. And be talked about in tearooms and prior to meetings on Zoom. They should be the issues and questions that interest people. Unfortunately, they don’t.

At least not in recent experience. The generation that are currently in managerial and senior positions in environmental organizations, particularly in the bureaucracy, simply don’t have that frame of reference. Perhaps it’s a baby boomer story perhaps it’s a Gen X problem. Few seem to have the ability or the voice to put their organization into the broader context of what must happen in the world to stop humanity from major catastrophe.

People are parochial. I understand that. What’s going on in our backyard, what’s going on in the neighbor’s yard, and what’s going on overseas is increasingly distant to us. Such is normal human behavior ever since we started in tribes. But in the modern age when supply chains are universal — my wife ordered a parcel from the US which has gone via Los Angeles, Hawaii, Japan and still hasn’t arrived in Australia — these are global systems needing global solutions as well as local solutions.

The questions I have are these…

  • Do I lower my expectation from 20% to 10% or 5% and make things even more simple than I do at the moment?
  • Do I stop writing 20 page reports which have the detail in them and a one-page summary, which is the 20% that people might read and reduce that 20% to a headline?
  • Do I keep plugging away with the 20%, sometimes going to 60%+, and hope for the best?

It goes against the grain to capitulate and it’s not the smart play because detail is important in these matters. There is a lot of information and understanding needed to make good decisions around how we use the landscape, how carbon is managed, how nutrients are managed, how we appropriate net primary production.

So I suspect that I must kick on with the conflict still in my head. Just keep trying.

And we need more people to try. More people to be educated around these matters and be able to communicate that information to others who might not have had the opportunity to learn about it.

More importantly, I encourage you to not shy away from the information and the understanding even if you don’t work in the environment or deal with where our food comes from, you still consume food, you have a diet and what you choose to put into your body is important for not only your own health, but also how we manage resource product resources natural capital use and food production into the future.

I struggle with the stress of trying to be able to make this connection to people over topics that they do not readily understand. And one day I’ll retire and stop doing it.

But for the moment I still keep the fire burning and encourage people to understand more about the world around them, it is after all in their interests and the interests of their great grandchildren.


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