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Taboo on raising social safety issues must go because we really need to do better

Last year, 15.8% of all employees of Leiden University experienced undesirable behaviour. This is one of the findings of the 2021 Personnel Monitor. ‘That number is far too high. We have to get rid of the taboo on raising this issue and addressing offenders,‘ says Martijn Ridderbos, in an open and candid discussion with researcher Helen Pluut. Pluut was until very recently chair of the Young Academy Leiden (YAL).

In May, Leiden University circulated a condensed version of the Personnel Monitor to employees to assess specifically their experiences with social safety and pressure of work. Martijn Ridderbos, Vice-President of the Executive Board and responsible for Human Resources, believes the findings of the Monitor show clearly that action has to be taken: ‘I’m really concerned about these findings. If so many of our colleagues are having to deal with undesirable behaviour, we have to do something about it.’ 

Undesirable behaviour is not the only issue. Staff also have to cope with conflict (14.8%) and exclusion (7.6%). This lack of social safety (also referred to in the specialist literature as psychological insecurity) means that people do not feel comfortable at work, which can lead to underperformance and even dropout.  

A question of culture

‘Poor behaviour is a sign of a poor culture,’ says Pluut. A change of culture is needed in some parts of the organisation. When Pluut was chair of YAL she came across a lot of examples. ‘Many young researchers are in a precarious situation and daren’t speak out if something is wrong. We don’t have a culture of speaking to people directly about such issues. They often daren’t say “no” if they are given too much work. And there are times when “stardom” goes to peoples’ heads: a researcher gets his or her first prestigious subsidy and  starts to feel superior. I sometimes get the impression that the university thinks a valuable subsidy is more important than the way colleagues are treated. That has to change. The rules of good behaviour apply to everyone; there are no exceptions.’  And, Pluut continues, if a young researcher lets it be known that they have been treated badly – and it takes a lot of courage to speak out about it, Ridderbos stresses – they run the risk of being labelled as difficult and not wanting to adapt to the team. ‘And it often happens that people who do raise an issue never hear any more about it,’  Pluut says. ‘That can also happen if several people together report an incident to a higher authority than their own supervisor, even though the fact that several people are involved shows that it is not just an individual problem. They then start to think there’s some kind of cover up going on.’ But Pluut wants to make it clear that it’s certainly not all doom and gloom: quite the contrary. ‘There are many places where things are going well, and there are many warm and empathic supervisors who recognise and value the qualities and work of their staff. I’ve heard many examples of this, too. And you immediately see the positive effect that has on team spirit.’ Ridderbos agrees wholeheartedly with this.

Sociale onveiligheid moet uit de taboesfeer
Martijn Ridderbos: 'We moeten onze kernwaarden als kompas gebruiken.'

Dependent relationships in a competitive and hierarchical environment

Ridderbos stresses the extreme situation of dependence in which young researchers find themselves. ‘Dependent relations are always a risk for the party whose position is lower in the hierarchy. And in a university there’s also the difficult combination of both a competitive and a hierarchical working environment. In such a complex situation, raising behavioural issues and addressing people directly about them asks a lot, not only of staff, but also of supervisors. Many of them haven’t yet had proper training and been able to develop these skills.

And Ridderbos also knows that the atmosphere among professors themselves is by no means always brilliant. ‘Hierarchy and competition can have a harmful effect here too. At the same time, there always has to be an element of competition in a university. It’s what drives us to try to reach the absolute top of our capabilities. And that’s something we’re proud of, but at the same time it’s important to be clear about how you want to reach that top. You can do that by challenging one another to become better rather than putting one another down. You have to look for the competition in the task itself and not in the person.’

Transformation phase

Social safety – and the lack of it – has been on the agenda of the Executive Board for some time. As a result, a number of measures have been taken, such as a broader network of confidential advisers, the planned appointment of an ombudsperson for staff and introducing leadership programmes for supervisors at all levels. Ridderbos: ‘We’re currently in a transformation phase.’

Is there more that can be done to improve social safety? Ridderbos wants to focus more on prevention: making sure the core values get right to the heart of the university. ‘In developing the strategic plan, we have revisited our core values. I think we should apply them as our moral compass. What do they mean for us, translated into how we behave to one another on a daily basis? ‘That conversation has to be held throughout the university, according to Ridderbos, particularly at the level where the work is actually done: what norms are we aiming for, what kind of interpersonal attitudes do we want to have, what kind of behaviour do we want to encourage, and what behaviour will we simply not accept?  The agreements we make also have to be recorded, so that you can and may speak out about them if there are infringements and also hold each other to account for them. Ridderbos: ‘The basic premise in all this is, of course, that we all need to show an interest in the people around us and have an open attitude to one another. If someone does something upsetting, ask them why. That way you can try to avoid victimhood. If  there is something important you want to say about the work culture, you have to be able to voice your views, and you have to be heard. The taboo has to be ditched.’

Sociale onveiligheid moet uit de taboesfeer
Helen Pluut: ‘Het gaat bij leidinggeven om veel dingen, om aandacht geven, helpen, teamspirit en een veilige omgeving creëren, de verhouding werk en privé van je medewerkers bewaken… '

Pluut advocates a hotline - possibly anonymous – as well as structural reporting back when an individual informs a more senior supervisor of an incident. She also believes dual management positions offer good prospects. ‘It’s known as co-chairing in the specialist literature,’ she explains. ‘Two people give more balance and they can complement one another. I had good experiences with this at YAL, where we have a chair and vice-chair.’ Ridderbos: ‘It’s important to discuss the roles and tasks beforehand, and how to distribute them. You also need as a team to understand what you stand for together. At least, that’s how we do it in the Executive Board and  it seems to work well.’   

Leadership skills are key  
Pluut stresses that a member of the academic staff should not as a matter of course be given a supervisory position, purely on the basis of their scientific performance. There are other characteristics, empathy probably being the most important, that a manager needs to have. Pluut: ‘A supervisory role encompasses many different skills: paying attention to people and supporting them, team spirit and creating a safe working environment, monitoring your colleagues’ attitude to work and private life… I believe that these qualities are even more important for supervisors than their research or teaching achievements. And there has to be a firm basis for appointing someone to a leadership role. We can’t have a situation where a person becomes a supervisor simply because he or she happened to be noticed by a manager or director. And if someone proves not to be able to handle the job or to learn to handle it, you have to look for a solution together.’ Ridderbos agrees. He strongly emphases the importance of selection and personal skills development: a candidate’s leadership qualities carry a lot of weight in how the role is handled. If these prove inadequate, first we’ll invest in the candidate, but, if there’s no improvement, a different solution has to be found.

Pluut has the impression that the new generation of young people are open to developing  leadership qualities. A sound training in leadership skills can offer good prospects for the future: it’s better to learn the ropes early, then you’ll reap the benefits later.

Achieving the change we are aiming for will take time and needs commitment from all members of staff. Ridderbos endorses this: ‘From us, the Executive Board, but also from all our managers, academic staff and support staff. Discussing appropriate behaviour, creating a safe working environment and developing good leadership - these are changes that don’t just happen. They need investments in developing the skills, but also in following up on agreements we make together. You can make a small start in your own immediate area: get rid of that taboo.’ Pluut: ‘And if that’s difficult, get together with a colleague or colleagues and see if you can find a way of discussing the problem together.’ Ridderbos ended with the comment: ‘What’s most important is, of course, that we always need to show an interest in the other person, and be mindful of one another’s welfare.’   

Converting the plans into concrete actions

Find more information about the findings of the condensed  Personnel Monitor and the initiatives that should bring about the changes we want to see

The new strategic plan will be presented at the next Dies Natalis in February 2022. In the run up to this, attention will be paid to the development of the organisation culture. The following actions are on the agenda for the coming period:

  • Follow up the findings from the Personnel Monitor Light at faculty and department level.
  • Encouraging and facilitating open dialogue where social safety and work pressure can be discussed.  
  • Converting our core values into visible behaviour.
  • Setting out in concrete terms the expectations, competences and skills for good leadership at Leiden University.  
  • Setting up and making adequate guidance available for all teams in the interest of open communication and a safe working environment.

Tekst: Corine Hendriks/Marlies Aanhaanen
Beeld: Fien Leeflang

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