Dealing With Dysfunction

Dysfunctional departments don’t serve students, faculty members or the institution well, writes Ellen de Graffenreid, who gives some pointers on how to make sure yours isn’t one of them.

October 10, 2017
 
 

To loosely paraphrase Leo Tolstoy, all universities -- like unhappy families -- are dysfunctional in their own way. Often, academic organizations get this way because of the things we most value: collegial cultures (where it’s not “nice” to talk about someone’s nonperformance), academic freedom and tenure (which may provide protection for people who choose to be toxic), understaffed HR departments (because we put our dollars into instructional costs), and the tremendous amount of leeway that administrators often have in shaping the programs they oversee.

Richard T. Castallo’s Dealing With Dysfunction: A Book for University Leaders (Rowman & Littlefield) addresses many of these factors. While Castallo writes for the faculty member who has been promoted to chair in a dysfunctional department, keen observers of academic culture will recognize types and situations that he presents. One of the things he notes is that, in higher education, we tend to “kick the can down the road” in dealing with problem employees. Castallo writes mostly about faculty members, but this approach to staff management is also common.

If, as leaders, we should pick our battles, why pick the issue of holding staff members accountable for behavior and results when these same issues have been going on for years? After all, the organization seems to limp along just fine. The primary reason, among many others, is that dysfunctional departments don’t serve students, faculty members or the institution well. Even if there have been no complaints and your talented staff is doing award-winning work, doing so in a dysfunctional organization is a bigger lift than it needs to be.

Employees who are spending time and energy on interpersonal feuds, getting around unreasonable or burdensome processes, resenting their colleagues for not pulling their weight or (in the worst cases) deflecting borderline or clearly discriminatory behavior, harassment and hostility are not doing their best work. Ignoring accountability contributes to employee turnover, information hoarding, processes to get around staff who aren’t doing their jobs and time spent redoing things that should have been right the first time. Without accountability, problem employees can escalate behaviors until you have a hostile work environment on your hands.

I know you are thinking, “I do my evaluations like HR tells me to, and I have uncomfortable meetings about those evaluations with the employees who report to me. Isn’t that enough to hold people accountable?”

No, unfortunately, it’s not. Many institutions don’t provide any penalties for not doing performance management, so people just don’t. I have inherited teams where nobody had an evaluation in the last 10 years, probationary periods of employment weren’t observed and people’s job descriptions had no relationship to what they did every day. Because there wasn’t any money in 2008 and the subsequent tight years for many institutions, everyone got no raise or a minimal cost-of-living raise. So why bother?

Performance planning and management are part of accountability, but they’re not the whole universe. Creating a culture of accountability requires a lot more work.

On the official performance management side of the equation, that includes:

  • Ensuring that job descriptions match the employee’s duties and responsibilities. If the job description is so general that it doesn’t tell you what the person should be producing, it’s useless. If it reads like something from 1998 (one memorable example in my experience referred to faxing news releases), it needs to be updated. If the performance requirements are minimal, it needs to be updated.
  • Doing a work plan every year and then holding people accountable for that plan. For example, you might supervise an events coordinator who does a great job planning, executing and following up on special events. But this year you want them to evaluate and choose new, cost-effective events management software. You should put that in the plan. Staff members should receive credit for those strategic efforts and be held accountable for their results.
  • Using your institution’s progressive discipline process if someone is not performing or behaving professionally. I will often give the employee a free pass on the first verbal warning, but the second time I need to address an issue, I start to follow the process. It can be tempting to avoid doing this because you don’t like confrontation, it’s not “that big of a deal,” you’re not sure who is in the right in a situation, or “because that’s just how this person is and they generally do good work.” Those are all excuses. When leaders abrogate their duty to set formal expectations for performance and professionalism, they are just as responsible for dysfunction as the employee who was rude to a client, blew their last three deadlines, tries to get their colleagues to do their work or leaves the office several hours a week for parts unknown.

If you manage people, you know that the formal process is many times just the beginning. The things people don’t tell you about leadership and accountability can be as, or more, important than the records that go in someone’s HR file. Some of the things I have learned over the years that you, as a leader, might consider include:

  • Be the adult in the room. How you do this can vary based on the situation, but my general practice includes trying to run meetings that are focused and agenda based, being on time, keeping my commitments to the people who report to me or explaining why I have been delayed, and going to meet with people in their own space instead of making them come to me. It can also mean defusing conflict in meetings, keeping people on task, calling out passive-aggressive or aggressive behavior, mediating differences in communication styles, and setting expectations for behavior.
  • Avoid becoming a point of triangulation. I had a situation on my team where an administrative assistant and a supervisor could not get along. I counseled each of them separately, but the conflict continued. The third time they came to me to ask for mediation, I asked each of them which of my suggestions they had tried. I asked them what else they had tried. Then I told them that I was not going to get involved in any further mediation. I wanted to be kept apprised of anything that affected the performance of their office, but it was my expectation that their interpersonal difficulties would not affect their ability to serve students. In the end, budget cuts meant that one of the parties was laid off during a broader reduction in force and reorganization, but I have seen these situations go on for years when supervisors are too receptive to playing mediator.
  • Do the small things conscientiously and the big things will follow. That means giving your staff members access to you, conducting your one-on-one meetings, holding productive staff meetings, encouraging communication within your unit and empowering staff to make suggestions to improve cooperation, processes and collaboration. When you skip meetings, it can send the message that you don’t care about the team, the individual or their challenges. That can be difficult if your team is accustomed to micromanagement, because they want to run to you for answers to every small problem. Resist the temptation. I ran one graphic identity process where I outlined the problems with our standards that the team needed to solve and then didn’t hear them again until they had saved up questions about multiple aspects of the process. I met with them, explained how I thought about the issues they raised, then didn’t hear from them again until they had a solid draft. The team that executed the update did a fantastic job because they designed the process -- including the timeline for implementation -- and had a stake in the outcome.

Creating a culture of accountability is a process, not an event. You may want to give up, bang your head on your desk or roll your eyes so hard that you can see your own brain during many parts of the process. But be kind, be patient and keep at it.

If you have a question about a specific situation you have encountered or want to tell me and Inside Higher Ed’s readers how you managed an accountability challenge, I invite you to comment!

Bio

Ellen de Graffenreid is director of communications at Duke University’s Margolis Center for Health Policy.

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