Recognition & Rewards

“Just let people do what they are good at, what they want to develop in”

Assistant professor Femke Bekius of Radboud University Nijmegen took the initiative to find out how to implement team science within her own department. In her view, it helps to get rid of the ‘insular mentality’. As far as she is concerned, people should be given more time to work on Recognition & Rewards and the implementation is going much more slowly than necessary.

As a member of the Radboud Young Academy, you have already been initiated into the Recognition & Rewards domain. Completing the culture barometer was not an ordeal for you, was it?

“No, it was not. This was a major theme even before I joined the Young Academy a year and a half ago. We write about it quite a lot, for example in our blog series ‘Recognition & Rewards in limbo’. I am often aware of a certain overlap between Recognition & Rewards and other topics. The other day, for example, we were talking about interdisciplinary research and how to encourage it. Then someone mentioned Recognition & Rewards. People who conduct interdisciplinary research often get less credit and tend to take longer to get their research published.”

How can we improve that?

“At the central level, we have a voice in the career path working groups. We are involved in several faculties as they move from vision to implementation. Although some steps forward have been made here and there, things are currently stalling in every possible way. In our view, the lack of uniformity and speed of implementation at the faculties is a problem.”

Does the topic of Recognition & Rewards resonate in your Methods group of Business Administration at Radboud University’s Nijmegen School of Management?

“My views on Recognition & Rewards depend on whether I consider the issue as a member of the Radboud Young Academy or from within my own department. The issue means a lot to me, personally. Within my department, though, I see the exact opposite sometimes. The other day someone asked: ‘What is team science anyway? Why should we have it?’ For me, that was a clear reminder that there are a lot of people, including my immediate colleagues, who have hardly even heard of Recognition & Rewards.
“As far as I am concerned, we could have gone so much further.”
There has been very little change in our daily practice. For example, the annual appraisal still does not explicitly include leadership or impact, but only looks at our research output. You may get a casual comment about your teaching evaluation scores, like ‘they seem OK’. What I am trying to achieve remains a distant dream. As far as I am concerned, we could have gone so much further.”

How do you interpret organisational inertia from your own disciplinary perspective?

“I study complex decision-making processes involving stakeholders with a variety of interests. I look at how we can use mathematical, analytical system approaches to understand those kinds of processes in a wide variety of domains, ranging from mobility to health care. Last week, for example, I was talking to people in the dairy sector. The complexity I encounter in my research practice is clearly reflected in the university organisation. I recognise a lot of patterns – the wait-and-see attitude, for instance. If you are the first to make the move, you are also going to be the first to take the blows that come with change. This may put people off. People in established positions may feel that Recognition & Rewards is all very well, but they do not see any immediate benefits for themselves. Change involves a lot of work and it is not immediately clear what you will gain from it. In such a situation, the safest thing to do is to wait and see. The structure of the university does not help; everyone looks at this from their own department. It is not the case that an idea is developed at the central level and every faculty then adopts it. What happens is that the faculties pick up the idea and give it their own interpretation through a long series of consultations. Inevitably, this results in distortions and delays. To my mind, there is no reason why anyone should be against the programme. I expect everyone recognises that Recognition & Rewards is a good thing. The point is that the people who want to take real action are often not those in leadership positions.”

What is your professional advice?

“Among other things, my advice would be to show more leadership at the central level and to the faculties both the responsibilities and the time they need to implement Recognition & Rewards principles. And to acknowledge the link with HR and finance, because there are all sorts of details in that area where consequences arise.”

In what areas is Recognition & Rewards the most relevant, do you think?

“Within the academic community, there are no clear boundaries between what goes with your job and what does not. For example, it may be nice to have a chat in the evening after work, to promote your outreach. Many things happen outside working hours. It is very unclear to what extent you can make your own choices in this regard, or to what extent things are important for your career. If you do not know that, you simply do not make any choices and try to do everything. Since I have been involved in this so much, I must say that I am now able to make my own choices and follow my own path. At the moment, my main focus is on research. Perhaps, in a few years’ time, I will be told that my development in the teaching domain has been insufficient. I do everything I need to do in terms of teaching, but I cannot and do not want to make room for an extra development effort in that area right now. Unfortunately, however, there is no one telling me that this is fine, that they understand my choice. That is what makes you keep doing everything, just to prevent criticism later on. It is like trying to do the impossible.”

Do you ever talk about the programme with your colleagues at work?

“Yes, I talk about it with my immediate colleagues. Not on a daily basis, but my younger colleagues in particular are interested in it and have questions. Overall, the feeling is that the programme sounds great, but people wonder what it looks like in practice and what they have to do, for example, to get promoted to the next job grade. I took the initiative to use team science in a project in our department. That meant having to start thinking about what it entails and what it requires. For now, this remains a small-scale implementation, and not much depends on it.”

Is it an enjoyable or rewarding experience to try out the programme?

“It is healthy and it makes sense if we are able to share tasks.”
“Certainly! I think the hierarchical academic system would benefit a lot if we adopted a team science approach in our way of working. In my experience, people tend to be working on their own little islands. When there is a lack of funds, our first reflex is to retreat into our own environment. As an example, by adopting principles such as team science, you can absorb part of the work if someone drops out. In a work environment, it is healthy and it makes sense if we are able to share tasks and do not have to feel sorry towards colleagues for taking parental leave.”

Where does your sympathy for team science come from?

“Team science is less individualistic. I am all in favour of working together. I like crossing the boundaries of my field and those of the university. It is also much more fun to submit research applications as part of a cooperative process. I applied for a Veni grant once. Even if you seek input from colleagues, a grant application like that is an extremely lonely process. Then, if your application gets rejected, it feels like a personal failure and that is awful. Recently, I wrote another application with a team of researchers from various faculties. In that case, you get to consult with others, use each other’s work and submit as a collective. If you then get rejected, at least you feel the satisfaction and energy of the process.”

Do you feel that your talent is being recognised and that the academic world encourages you to develop it?

“Yes and no. I have shown that I take the initiative, that I come up with new things and develop within a group. During my most recent annual appraisal, I myself suggested that I might do a management development course. I received permission. It is just not common for a topic like this to come up during appraisals. There is little focus on opportunities and possibilities for people to develop their competences. The other day, someone in a managerial position told me that she makes sure people are able to “utilise all their strengths”. That is not what I experience in my department. I believe there is some movement on that front, but it has not reached my faculty yet.”

Many respondents to the culture barometer feel that the focus on research at the university is disproportionate and could be reduced a bit, in favour of teaching. Would you agree with that, despite your preference for research?

“Absolutely. My work is divided into 60% teaching and 40% research. Meanwhile, my annual appraisal is all about my publications and funding applications. When we discuss my teaching, it is mainly about hours, not about my teaching ambitions – or indeed if I have any such ambitions at all. Moreover, in many cases assessments are still based on student evaluations that are totally unrepresentative. Everyone knows that. Even so, line managers use those evaluations for their judgements. You do not get any recognition for teaching. You are considered to do well if you win an education grant or award, but there is no one who pays any attention when you have done your teaching duties for a year.”

Do you still enjoy teaching?

“Sometimes I do, sometimes I do not. At the beginning of the year, I had a very intensive teaching schedule. The faculty had less money to spend, so we had fewer people to do the teaching. It really was a very demanding period, but I grit my teeth in such situations. It is just that no-one is there to give me an uplifting pat on the back, or to take a moment to discuss the strain. Fortunately I revive as soon as I regain my focus on research, impact and cooperative projects. I am sure though that this can be done differently, for example by strengthening the connection between research and teaching.”

What does ‘culture change’ mean to you?

“I think it is primarily a systemic change. Perhaps the culture is already changing, at least in part. There is more talk about it, we are writing blogs, and someone has created a card game about the issue, mmmAcademia. There is also considerable grassroots support, but at the system level a lot remains to be done. Over time, the culture will change with the system.”

Critics fear that the new Recognition & Rewards philosophy will stifle people’s ambitions to excel. What is your take on this?

“Looking at myself, my performance is probably going to improve because I am going to make choices that do not require me to do everything at once. I think many academics get overloaded in the current system. Surely it would be nice if that did not happen. Incidentally, this does not mean that promotion criteria should become too lenient. The quality requirements must remain in place. Nor is it the case that your research proposals need not be as good. To bring in money, you still have to do your absolute best. The difference is that perhaps you do not submit ten proposals, but just two. Or you decide, as a group, to submit one proposal for a call instead of three different proposals. If a few people are good at writing research proposals, let them do it. That way, you can divide the tasks.”

Keep doing what you like doing – I hear that a lot in conversations.

“True. Unless you have that attitude, you will not last. For example, at one point I decided not to worry about publications anymore. The assessments are so subjective, and they are difficult for interdisciplinary research because many reviewers are still in their monodisciplinary silos. I do what I feel I need to do. One publication more or less is not going to keep me awake at night.”

As far as you are concerned, when can the Recognition & Rewards programme be considered successful?

“As soon as people no longer feel they have got to be good at everything at once. As soon as we have the flexibility we need to shape our own development and break free from a system that is all about ticking off criteria to move on to the next job. Just let people do what they are good at, what they want to develop in. Of course, you will still have to do things that are not quite up your alley sometimes, but as long as people are mostly doing what they are good at, they can take the less agreeable duties in their stride. It will require customisation and teamwork, but for me that would be a great end result.”

Femke Bekius is assistant professor in the Methods group of Business Administration at the Nijmegen School of Management, part of Radboud University. She received her PhD from Delft University of Technology in 2019 on research into understanding and supporting complex decision-making processes using gaming concepts. Her research focuses on the use of formal methods to understand and support complex decision-making processes in large organisations. Femke has been a member of the Radboud Young Academy since 2022 and is an active member of the Radboud Interfaculty Complexity Hub (RICH).

Striking results of the culture barometer for the assistant professor job category:

  • Assistant professors are overrepresented in the response.
  • 41% of assistant professors are largely or fully familiar with the Recognition & Rewards programme.
  • There is strong support among assistant professors for the five ambitions in the position paper, in particular for diversifying career paths and achieving a balance between the collective and the individual.
  • In the job category of assistant and associate professors, the Recognition & Rewards programme is talked about more than in other job categories.
  • Assistant professors experience less recognition and reward for the work they do than their colleagues in other job categories. In this context, it is noteworthy that assistant professors in the 40–55 age group feel less recognised and rewarded than both their younger and their older fellow assistant professors.
  • Assistant professors feel they have to be good at everything.
  • Many assistant professors are concerned about the effects of the Recognition & Rewards programme on their own careers.