Too often in the academy, we ignore the significance of internal politics. But people often change when their roles change -- and along with that, the politics can change, too.
For example, when people acquire administrative responsibility for the first time, they and their colleagues may respond in unexpected ways. I think I actually went into a state of shock when I moved from the faculty to the administration. I was not prepared for the way my academic colleagues reacted.
Instead of thinking they now had a friend in the administrative ranks, many behaved as if I had sold out. I even overheard a colleague whispering as much to a small group at a party my academic department chair gave for me. To make matters much worse, on my first day in my new position, I discovered my budget did not have nearly enough money to make any of the changes I had in mind. By the second day, I could see that a very steep and stressful learning curve lay ahead. I shudder to remember it all, including how I may have been perceived by others in the university.
Looking back on my experiences now with perspective, I can identify some of the kinds of personal and political problems you may encounter in others or even in yourself when roles change.
Paralysis, paranoia and personality problems. Many new administrators defer a lot of decisions. They want to be viewed as knowing what to do even when they don’t. They lack the confidence to admit they don’t know, or to ask others to advise them, or to appoint a team to review matters. So they say they will take care of certain issues but then don’t. The result is paralysis for themselves and the whole operation. Nothing gets done. No one else can act. Often people are even reluctant to push for a decision.
When leaders lack the confidence to ask for help, eventually they may also become paranoid. They begin to think people are talking about them behind their backs. They shift to autocratic decision making in an attempt to cover themselves. Or they may hope that somehow things will just work out on their own. Sometimes they can go on ignoring situations long enough to forget about them altogether. Of course, this means they’ve abdicated their responsibility.
In time, such administrators become isolated and ineffective. Sometimes the shock of new demands causes emotional damage that can actually change a person’s personality. People who previously preferred a democratic approach can become autocrats. Friendly people can become distant. Confident people can find themselves hiding behind their office doors. Open people close down. People who imagined themselves leading an exciting team to new victories suddenly can’t figure out what to do next. The challenge is far more daunting than they expected.
If you find yourself working for or with someone suffering from paralysis or personality problems, you generally have only two basic choices: use all the political strategy you can muster to figure out how to work around the situation or start looking for a new job. If you find yourself becoming this kind of new leader, you can do something about it. Recognize that you are reacting out of fear. Especially early on, don’t be too hard on yourself. You’re in a new situation and deserve time to get adjusted. In brief, you must learn about the types of decisions your new position requires and, perhaps even more important, ask for help when you need it. Listen, learn and then take the appropriate action.
Loss of friends. Sometimes new leaders adjust to their responsibilities with little trouble but are surprised to find that relations with their former colleagues are no longer the same. This is because people who have always seen the new leaders playing one role may not be able to relate to them in another. This is especially true if the new leaders now hold higher positions than their former colleagues -- or have become the old friends’ boss. Even treasured longtime relationships usually change to some degree.
When this happens, people on both sides of the situation need to be savvy and mature enough to work through it. There are times and circumstances when a friendly connection can continue. But it will feel different and require adjustment on both sides. Other times, friendships may have to be sacrificed because somehow the transition is too difficult. This can be still another unexpected and even shocking downside of assuming executive responsibility. Knowing about the possibility in advance and being prepared for it will help.
Perceived threats. Even experienced managers and leaders occasionally feel that another truly talented person is a threat to their future. And that may be true if such a person is indeed going after their job. But in most cases, it probably is not true. Rather than giving in to this particular kind of paranoia, leaders should remind themselves that hiring the best people, including ones who do some things better than they can, is a big feather in their cap. Assembling a first-class team is the leader’s job. Grooming future talent is an important part of building a solid reputation.
Organizations are living organisms. They differ from each other in many ways, and over time they take on varying values and ways of doing things. The same is true of people. They bring different experiences and values into leadership, and they evolve with different styles in different situations. And when it comes to getting everyone to go in the same direction, it’s always a matter of dealing effectively with politics.
Larry D. Lauer is a vice chancellor emeritus at Texas Christian University and the author of The Transition Academy: Seizing Opportunity in the Age of Disruption, published by CASE in August.
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