Faculty Communication 101

Christopher J. Loving, who runs leadership workshops for academic leaders, shares reasons why faculty relationships go sour.
July 20, 2007

He refers to his workshops as "What They Didn't Teach You in Chair School."

Surrounded by an audience of academics, a faculty leader joins Christopher J. Loving in the middle of a room and tells the story of a troubling situation, typically involving a deteriorating relationship with a colleague. "Professor X is trashing me in private because I gave him a small lab space." "Professor Y ignores all the junior faculty when they speak up during department meetings."

Loving asks the audience to explore the issues raised, and practice new tactics under his guidance. For more than two decades, Loving has held these types of leadership and management coaching seminars for those in higher education -- trustees, presidents, provosts, deans, department chairs, faculty and students -- and others in the other non- and for-profit sectors.

As founder and president of Loving Leadership and the Leadership Institute for Tomorrow, (the origins of which Loving explains in this audio clip), he has developed programs to help those in academe better communicate with each other. Loving, a recent University of Washington ADVANCE visiting scholar and a former college administrator and faculty member, shared thoughts on why faculty relationships often turn sour. Lack of awareness, personal responsibility and interpersonal skills are key factors, Loving says. And the climate in graduate school training can be a major culprit.

Q: Can you start by explaining one reason why communication breaks down?

A: One of the things that is often very present when communication goes sour is that one or both people are operating out of dualistic thinking – that’s just simply right/wrong, good/bad, either/or thinking. With recruiting, for instance, when a department sees that it has a chance to replace a position, you can hear sides building up rather quickly (on the type of specialization that is needed in the department), and people can get locked into right/wrong set positions.

One of the ways dualism and resulting fear manifest themselves destructively is that, ironically, higher education can be an unsafe place for faculty to indicate that they don’t know something. There's a cultural context in higher education where sounding like you know what you're talking about and finding a hole in someone else's logic is rewarded. If that’s what dominates a graduate student’s experience, then this learned behavior can move forward into their years in the academy and it can become entrenched as a way of operating with others.

Many of today's senior people in universities have been in the academy for decades, so they are more likely to come from this tough culture of training that I’ve described. In their positions of influence they exhibit coercive interpersonal behavior. What we know from experience is that you can be a terrific human being and also be a rigorous researcher and academic.

Q: So what is involved in this transformation?

A: Often I hear grad students coming into graduate school very idealistic and innocent. What happens is that innocence turns into cynicism when they get disillusioned, when they see the politics, when they see who is rewarded for what. And then when they become a faculty member, they explain their cynicism as, 'Oh, I'm just being realistic.' They also enter with curiosity, which can turn into arrogance -- and which later is explained as "authoritative knowledge." People who ask questions can be perceived as ignorant. Grad students also enter with a sense of wanting to make a difference; this compassion can turn to callousness, which later is justified as "the thick skin of experience." This psychological evolution is such a part of the academic environment that it handicaps faculty's ability to communicate effectively.

When I talk to faculty who are in a "safe" place, I still hear their innocence, their curiosity, their compassion. If you’re in a department that isn’t as healthy as it could be, all these people who are cynical and arrogant create conversations that look realistic and authoritative, and they require thick skin. They flame each other in e-mail, insult each other in faculty meetings and tell and demand more than listen and invite.

Q: How do these interactions typically play out?

A: If it’s a healthy department, the compromises get worked out more easily whether they're public or private. In a less healthy department, there will be arguments and faculty name-calling at meetings. When it comes to working with people, if all you have is a strong view and no listening, it makes it difficult for elegant solutions to be made easily.

Q: What is an example of a chair or senior faculty mentoring new faculty regarding communication?

A: There’s a perception by new faculty that they don’t have much influence. This is where a chair can make a difference. For example, if there’s a difficult faculty meeting going on and it’s the usual voices doing the arguing, that’s when a new faculty member actually can have influence. They might say something – not about the people or about their style of conversing – but they’ll say, "Wouldn’t it be reasonable in this situation to take a look at this.” There are times in a department when people are relieved that someone said something that gets them off the stuck place – and that adds to the respect [new faculty get]. Encouraging new faculty to speak up in moments like this and to affirm them afterwards is important faculty development.

Q: What topics usually trigger arguments and often bring out the worst in faculty?

A: One is teaching load -- whether people are carrying their weight. Another is around recruiting new faculty. A third is space in research departments. It could be that there's been a good citizen who’s tenured and chosen a space that's not as attractive but is good for the department ... If that person’s goodwill gesture isn’t acknowledged, that can lead to hard feelings. There's also the argument, “I know he’s senior but he’s not productive anymore. Shouldn’t he be moved into a smaller space?"

Q: So in that case, where has the communication breakdown occurred?

A: The breakdown could have occurred years ago. As that person’s productivity started to fall off, the chair at that time never confronted the person about that. Down the road that can have implications. For the new chair, it’s important to be transparent -- not in a bullying way but in an honest kind of way. It’s more effective in many cases for chairs to talk about issues privately before meetings.

Q: But a chair might run the risk of being perceived as playing favorites. How do you avoid that trap?

A: That’s why I would meta-talk with people -- a skill used in "front loading" relationships (talking about content and process before a crisis.) A chair might say to all faculty: "Part of my leadership style is to talk with each of you individually." New chairs can help themselves and their departments, especially if they have these conversations with colleagues they already know. Share with them: “Our relationship is going to change a little. As chair, there will be times that I can’t take your side like I have before. There are decisions I’ll make that have to be best for the department."

Q: What else can a chair do to promote a civil environment in a department?

A: Often times departments tell me they want a greater sense of collegiality. One of the things [chairs] can do to reduce [tension] is to not micromanage. I tell them to develop relationships with each person in the department, which requires one on one time early on ... lots of talking before the faculty meeting, for example.

Q: That takes quite a time commitment. Is it realistic?

A: I often ask chairs: Do you want to be spending time that is performance based or rehab based? If they try to strong arm a proposal through they’ll spend at least as much time [backtracking] as they would developing relationships, and their time will be more stressful. They’ll be getting into arguments. They realize, 'If I can spend 10 hours building a relationship, I’d rather do that than spend 10 hours yelling and undoing things neither of us wish we would have said.'

Q: What if the chair is the problem -- the one who is a poor communicator, or is unwilling to listen?

A: Often times departments have someone who is not the chair but is respected and senior, and sometimes it works for that person to have a heart-to-heart [with the chair]. Here’s where it takes courage. When I first started two decades ago doing this coaching work, I was surprised how often someone hadn’t done one-on-one intervention. Part of the tenure landscape [deters faculty from] intervening. An example: A faculty colleague doesn't teach well, as evaluated by students and peers, and they are also doing poor research.

The chair finally says, “I won’t let you teach anymore, and your research is going nowhere.” The point is that he needs to leave. He hasn't done anything illegal or onerous, but [the chair] is keeping the heat on. That’s what a respected senior person can do with a difficult chair. "The department needs leadership and you're not providing that. What are you going to do about that?"

Q:Anything else you'd like to underscore?

A: Navigating relationships well in the academy can make all the difference between performance-based and rehab-based leadership.


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