Sonja Rispens. Foto | Angeline Swinkels

In my opinion | Recognition and Rewards


When it comes to the value of the new way of appraising academic staff, the practical aspects of which will soon be designed under the banner ‘Recognition and Rewards’, opinions among academics differ. In this letter to the editor, Sonja Rispens, assistant professor at Human Performance Management (IE&IS), welcomes a new perspective on academic work.

It does not surprise me that people's views about the value of Recognition and Rewards differ widely. But what I find interesting is the fear (or expectation) expressed by some of those interviewed (in Cursor's background story, ed.) that Recognition and Rewards may cause the research conducted at our university to slide towards mediocrity.

Academics are by and large risk-averse yet problems await our students that are so complex that we cannot expect to find their solutions by working within a single discipline (Fortunato et al., 2018). One of the benefits of Recognition and Rewards is the scope it creates for team science; it enables academics (at least that's my expectation) to look beyond their own disciplinary boundaries and to venture into research that while admittedly high risk would have greater impact, provided it turns out well. As well as pursuing monodisciplinary research, it is important therefore that academics start collaborating across their own disciplinary boundaries and this is why it is so important that TU/e supports its people in pursuing high-risk activities of this nature.

Education is just as important as research and the new Recognition and Rewards offers the opportunity to give those people who (wish to) commit themselves fully to the goal of good education the appreciation they deserve and the chance to create a career whose central focus is education. In addition, it is admirable that TU/e wants to see attention paid to citizenship and leadership. Our university can grow only when it offers an environment for work and study in which talented staff and students can and wish to develop. This means that as employees we too bear responsibility for creating and maintaining this kind of climate.

Let me also touch briefly on the subject of work pressure. The idea that academics make headway only by working six or seven days a week is an unhealthy message. Meta-analytical research shows that long working hours correlate negatively with health indicators and are particularly destructive to mental health (Virtanen et al., 2018). Putting collaboration more at the center, relinquishing the idea of the academic as superstar, is the very thing that will enable us to continue to deliver top-flight research and top-flight education within paid working hours. This approach gives employees the chance to recover after their work and to develop in other roles (as a parent or municipal councillor, for example) or areas (such as sport or voluntary work). If in addition we make people jointly responsible for the work and study climate, TU/e's appeal to new employees and students will be boosted.

None of this alters the fact that careful thought must be given to how employees will be appraised for their work, self-development and performance. Although the rector indicated that everyone must excel in education and research, I wonder whether excellence in both fields is necessary. Perhaps it is better to set a lower limit of sorts: what do we feel is acceptable in terms of research quality if someone wants to focus their development in education, and vice versa? Professor Gómez Rivas said as much in the article: how do you establish that someone is excelling in education and/or research? Existing metrics (a journal's impact factor or student evaluations of a course) provide an incomplete and distorted picture, which a narrative résumé may to some extent rectify. But how will collaboration, citizenship, impact and leadership be appraised? Can starting a company of your own be compared with making academic knowledge accessible to the public at large? I think that it is more meaningful to look more closely at the individual, his/her career development and the context in which a person operates: starting a company of one's own may be a more obvious option at some departments than at others.

Where collaboration, citizenship and leadership are concerned, it is important that a person's work context is considered, perhaps in the form of feedback from collaborative partners, students, postdocs and doctoral candidates. In addition, it seems to me important that consideration be given to a person's reflection on their own actions. How did my conduct influence others in my group? What should or could I (or the group) have done differently? With its focus on the individual employee, the annual appraisal could be the place for this, but it could also be embedded in a team (for example, during lab meetings). The latter is particularly valuable in any new multidisciplinary research team as a means of promoting joint learning. Research shows that regular reflection improves both individual and team performance (Tannenbaum & Cerasoli, 2013), but it can also benefit individual well-being (Anseel, 2018).

In short, Recognition and Rewards offers, in my opinion, a welcome new perspective on academic work. With careful implementation, I expect to see an increase rather than a decline in the quality of research, education, impact, and also leadership. In the months to come, we will see how the various aspects of the initiative take shape at TU/e.

Our background story on Recognition and Rewards to which Sonja Rispens refers can be read here. Some of the TU/e interviewees also signed this letter to the editor in which criticism of the new system of appraisal was voiced. More information about the publications Rispens mentions can be found below.

Anseel, F. (2018). Agile learning strategies for sustainable careers: A review and integrated model of feedback-seeking behavior and reflection. Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability, 28, 5-17. DOI:10.1016/j.cosust.2017.07.001

Fortunato, S., et al. (2018). Science of science. Science 359, eaao0185. DOI: 10.1126/science.aao0185

Tannenbaum, I. S., & Cerasoli, C. P. (2013). Do team and individual debriefs enhance performance? A meta-analysis. Human Factors, 55(1), 231-245. DOI:10.1177/0018720812448394

Virtanen, M., et al. (2018). Long working hours and depressive symptoms: Systematic review and meta-analysis of published studies and unpublished individual participant data. Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment & Health, 3, 239-250. DOI:10.5271/sjweh.3712

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