‘We are social animals. We copy each other’

Marieke Adriaanse

When a culture changes, language develops along with it, and vice versa. Language contains the norms that define our behaviour. This means that you yourself can influence word choice in the workplace on a daily basis. Recognition & Rewards committee chair Marieke Adriaanse of Leiden University talks about the language she uses to ensure that culture change permeates the capillaries of the academic community.

Spurred on by the motto ‘practise what you preach’, Professor of Behavioural Interventions in Population Health Management Marieke Adriaanse incorporates the intrinsic urgency of recognition and rewards into her work in The Hague and Leiden. Her mission resonates in incisive sentences that invite dialogue. During the Recognition & Rewards Festival 2023, she spoke out about the term ‘excellence’, which, in her eyes, acquires meaning only when the context is clear and “leans excessively on individual scholarship, competition and old assessment indicators”. Using the terms openness, expertise, vocabulary, doing and collaboration, we asked Adriaanse for a personal reflection, we asked Adriaanse for a personal reflection.


“Transparency is very important to me. I aim for open science, encompassing not only open access publishing, but also the questions we ask and who we involve. To me, it also means being open in daily conversations about our working methods and why we use them.”

“For instance, asking questions such as: ‘Why am I involved in this as a professor? Shouldn’t the co-promotor have been granted ius promovendi a long time ago?’ Or: ‘Why do you think I should be co-author? I don’t think I have contributed significantly to this research project.’ And: ‘A position has become available – why are we talking about publications when we are actually looking for someone with an emphasis on teaching?’
I think that raising these kinds of questions in various contexts is even more effective than talking about recognition and rewards in a setting dedicated to the Recognition & Rewards programme”

“People often find it surprising when you question something that is taken for granted. Generally speaking, though, this produces refreshing conversations. That’s because those conversations are about topics that we do not reflect on in our day to day activities and sometimes also find difficult to openly discuss. We have often started doing things in a certain way, and do not pause to rethink why. Since becoming professor in 2021, I have new opportunities to initiate such conversations. I have a seat at tables that give me the opportunity to make impact. I see it as my responsibility to make good use of that.”

‘People talk about ‘teaching load’, as opposed to ‘excellent researchers’ and ‘publication machines’. You never hear people talk about a ‘research load’.’

“While we may prefer to pretend that hierarchy does not matter and avoid discussing power, it’s essential to recognise that we are part of a hierarchical system where people in leadership positions set the tone. Policy remains abstract and of limited relevance if your professor does not enact it. As someone in a senior position, it is important to translate policy into practice, to set examples by personally showing how you give meaning to what you read on the printed page. That way, you give people perspective on how to do things differently.”


“We attach too much importance to someone’s title to signal expertise. A personal example: since I was granted the title ‘Professor’ two years ago, I get many more invitations for collaborations or interviews. If I then put forward an assistant professor or postdoc with much more relevant expertise, I often hear nothing more about that invitation.”

“When I was working on my inaugural lecture, ‘Blinkers off! Behaviour change for a healthy science and society’, I thought a lot about the term ‘expert’. To what extent should the narrative be about my qualifications to demonstrate that I am worthy of being professor? Can I also reveal what I still want to learn and that I simply cannot be knowledgeable about everything? I have a learning assignment (a ‘leeropdracht’ in Dutch) after all! At the same time, people do need to take you seriously. The question is how to balance vulnerability and openness, without portraying yourself as unqualified. I found that quite a complicated exercise.”

“During writing, I also gave a lot of thought to how I could consistently convey that science is something you do together. I didn’t want my story to end with an obligatory list of names. In my case, my chair and corresponding assignment is interdisciplinary. It is literally about what we aspire to do collaboratively, and not about what I have already done personally. That is why I have woven the input and names of my colleagues throughout the story.”

“I study health behaviour change. In my field, we often talk about the socioecological model; you need to do something at every level. At the level of the individual, the organisation and beyond. You need to address all levels,  you need bottom-up as well as structural system change. But these also go hand in hand. By doing things differently yourself, you question the norm; ultimately, we are the ones who create that system.”

“People feel they have little control over ‘the system’. If you are brought up in a certain system, that is how you do things. You do not give it much further thought. There is quite a lot that can be done, though. It is just that, to change, you have to be reminded in daily practice that there are different ways of doing things.”


“Public administration expert Marij Swinkels describes it well in her article, Changing recognition and rewards requires a new vocabulary. Academics derive certain implicit and explicit appreciation from terminology. People talk about ‘teaching load’, as opposed to ‘excellent researchers’ and ‘publication machines’. You never hear people talk about ‘research load’. Words like this create an image of what constitutes a good scientist. When I first came to work in the medical environment, I was surprised by certain terms and the hierarchy attached to them. For instance, the ‘Anios’, or ‘doctor not in specialist training’. That’s a peculiar qualification for a highly trained junior doctor, isn’t it? Why give someone a title stating what they are not? At the time, I posted about it on LinkedIn and, to my surprise, the post went viral. It received a lot of support.”


“We tend to think we have to convince people by appealing to their rational side and that conveying a great deal of information is paramount. Research shows that this is often not the most effective route to behaviour change. Much of our behaviour is driven by norms and habits. Focusing on giving people information and repeating the message that something is important, may be less effective than setting an example through ‘just doing it’.”

“Social norms are essential when it comes to behaviour. What do we consider normal? What is the standard? We are social animals, and we copy what we see. We then raise the next generation, applying a certain standard. That is why I think practicing what you preach is very important. Doing things differently yourself, not just talking about it.”

“Doing’ can also mean asking different questions, paying different compliments or giving some thought to how you introduce someone. For instance, this could involve devoting more attention to teaching, instead of the usual research. I’m glad to say that I have noticed in practice that there is a great deal of energy and a desire to change among many people. Incidentally, I do not regard my formal position as in a Recognition and Rewards committee as a necessary vehicle to promote change. I am intrinsically motivated to make a change, and will convey the same message regardless of whether I have a formal role in the programme.”


“Working together – that’s what it’s all about. In an ideal situation, this leads to knowledge-sharing and making each other better at what we do. True interdisciplinary collaboration, for example, is also about exchanges between disciplines leading to new questions and ideas. That takes a lot more time, and it is super difficult, but I believe that is the essence of true collaboration.”

“Working together – that’s what it’s all about. In an ideal situation, this leads to knowledge-sharing and making each other better at what we do.”

Prof. Marieke Adriaanse, professor of Behavioural Interventions in Population Health Management at Leiden University

“In many cases where we aspire to work interdisciplinary there is still room for improvement. What often happens is that multiple parties work side by side on the same problem. We involve everyone, but then we cut the problem into pieces, and then everyone works separately on their own piece. In the end, we glue it together and tie a bow around it, supposedly having engaged in interdisciplinary cooperation. Meanwhile, we haven’t connected or exchanged knowledge with each other during the process; I have learned nothing from the other person that has led to improved knowledge and a better understanding, when in fact I should have.”

“I believe that true interdisciplinary cooperation is challenging to establish due to our current system of recognition and rewards. It takes a lot of time to understand and speak each other’s language. Time that we don’t have. Furthermore, an investment in that area is not reflected in the classic output indicators and frequently goes unrewarded. On top of that, we often do not  have much experience with interdisciplinary collaboration. We are used to having to specialise very specifically to further our careers, not to broaden our horizons along the way. However, successful collaboration requires a broader perspective. It’s important to be open to input from others, both from within and outside of science.”

“I think we need to have many and extensive conversations about things we have taken for granted for too long, involving all perspectives. There is no one-size-fits-all approach. We need to avoid creating a new checklist that people use to meet criteria. It’s about our attitude – about the way we want to work together and what we consider to be the purpose of our academic work.”

Prof. Marieke Adriaanse is professor of Behavioural Interventions in Population Health Management at Leiden University and Recognition & Rewards committee chair at the university.

Language: an expression of implicit expectations

Camiel Beukeboom
We humans use language as a means of expressing our culture. Hence, cultural change is directly tied to a search for new language. The way we categorise our stereotypes, norms and expectations are linked to it.

Shared cultural expectations are woven into language in many ways; for the most part, we express them unconsciously. “Our language often reflects our way of seeing things in an implicit way, which you usually don’t see at first glance,” explains Camiel Beukeboom, assistant professor of Communication Science at Vrije Universiteit (VU) Amsterdam. “As a result, we continue to express things in the old way. It would therefore certainly be useful to be aware of the language associated with the old way of thinking and the new language associated with the culture we aspire to.”

The ‘power’ of label

For starters, the labels we use for social categories play a role. In the academic context, ‘professor’, ‘lecturer’ and ‘researcher’ are strong category labels that immediately conjure up an image. We know what is expected of these groups, and we can identify ourselves with their role. What’s more, in language, the labels used give rise to our expectations because we describe individuals who deviate from the norm differently. As Beukeboom points out:
“If you refer to someone as a female professor, you are implicitly indicating that the norm for ‘professor is a man’.”
And we don’t have labels for new profiles yet, such as an impact profile, which means staff members cannot yet identify with it. We still do not know what exactly is expected of these people. Communication is essential if you want to create a shared category label and associated image.

The linguistic form of the label is also important. A noun such as ‘impact specialist’ forms a stronger category and causes us to immediately start looking for a stereotypical image. But with a descriptive label such as ‘researcher engaged in valorisation’, we don’t do that – it’s more of a trait or something you do on the side.

Highlighting expectations

Secondly, our expectations shine through in how we describe behaviour and performance – in assessment interviews, but also in informal settings such as in corridors. Again, what is expected is described in general terms or not at all, whereas we highlight the unexpected, for example by describing it in more specific terms, giving further explanation or expressing it in negative terms. As a result, the existing expectation is reaffirmed. For instance, if you are told, “You haven’t published that much, but we don’t look at that anymore,” that will leave you with the feeling that you have to publish a lot. Or: “We no longer look purely at CVs or the h-index.” As the person being told that, you then infer: “It is the norm to do this, and this is just an exception.”

As far as Beukeboom is concerned, this is an understandable pitfall that is part of the change process. “The danger, though, is that we stick to the old norms and expectations if they are repeatedly activated in a subtle way.” He recommends making sure that we use the language we really do want to use in instructions and training courses in the workplace and engaging in dialogue about what we want, so that a new language can emerge. The new norms will only work in practice if they are truly internalised and incorporated into everyday language.