Positive Relationships Matter and Morale Matters

Administrators should consider the “feelings balance” of faculty members as a way to help build a positive community on their campus, writes Thomas J. Pfaff.

October 1, 2020
(istock.com/maksimyremenko)

Education is primarily a human interaction business. The enterprise centers on relationships, with the most important relationship being between faculty members and students. As in any relationship, the outlook of the participants contributes to the quality and nature of interactions, and so the morale and feelings of faculty members matter. As Scott Cowen and Heide Winston note in "What It Takes to Be an Administrative Leader in the Academy," “Organizations can't be better than the people who work there.”

This is especially true in the academy, where our core mission is to serve people and have a positive impact on society. If faculty are unhappy, they are less likely to put the extra effort into their relationships with students. Because they have freedom in their work, unhappiness and lower morale can easily lead them to spend less time on campus, keep office hours short, be less available outside office hours, respond less promptly to student emails and engage less in other tasks that make a positive difference in students’ lives while coming at some cost to the faculty themselves. In a relationship-based enterprise that rests on trust, institutions need faculty members to want to spend additional time with students beyond the minimum of office hours and class.

The goal of this essay is to consider the “feelings balance” of faculty members as a means to understand what impacts faculty morale.

Consider a traditional balance scale. For this metaphor, let’s say the left side is negative and the right side is positive. Chits are placed on one side or the other of the scale based on whether certain campus events or interactions are a positive experience or a negative experience for the faculty. There are some basic axioms regarding how the model functions.

Negative chits are easily earned, stay on the scale longer and even stay on the scale well beyond faculty remembering why the chit was placed on the scale in the first place. That’s probably because people tend to talk more about negative events and interactions than positive ones, and so negative emotions permeate an institution more than positive emotions. For example, If we consider events or interactions between faculty members and administrators -- one of the key relationships on campuses -- such as committee work or ideas that are ignored, decisions that impact faculty made without any faculty involvement, and meetings with seemingly no purpose, these are ways the balance can easily tip toward negative.

A chit placed on the scale because of a negative interaction with an administrator, real or perceived, will very likely negatively influence multiple faculty members based on the gossip and rumor mill. In a sense, negative chits on the scale gain and hold weight more easily than those on the positive side.

In contrast, positive chits are hard to earn. Building a campus climate that is positive takes time and a conscious effort on the part of administrators and campus leaders. In part, that is because a positive climate must be built on strong interpersonal relationships, and positive relationships require trust. Whereas negative chits often accumulate in more clearly identified interactions, positive chits take time to accrue as positive relationships are fostered.

When there is turnover among administrators, a new president, provost or dean usually inherits the balance on the scale. They should not expect that the scale will be reset or that the negative chits that previous administrators earned will automatically be removed.

Why does the feelings balance of faculty members matter? In any institution, a negative climate has a negative impact on that organization. Higher education is not an environment where output is easily measured -- and may be resistant to any measurement as long as faculty have an enormous amount of freedom to choose how they spend their day. Institutions that primarily focus on educating undergraduates need faculty who willingly spend more than the required minimum time engaging with students. Those activities are hard to compartmentalize. If the balance tips too much in the negative direction, faculty will inevitably spend less time on the campus and less time with students, consciously or unconsciously. Over time, that can negatively impact the institution’s recruitment, retention, graduation rates, alumni engagement and philanthropic donations.

Beyond the potential direct impact on the faculty-student relationship, if the balance tips negatively enough, even more time is often lost in negative water cooler conversations. One of the opportunity costs in this scenario is that faculty aren't discussing positive ways to improve the institution but rather are focused on shortcomings and frustrations. Even more important, if faculty aren't engaged positively, then administrators aren't getting the information they need to make prudent decisions. The worst case is not faculty leaving for other positions but rather faculty remaining but disengaging as much as possible.

Understanding the Tilt

How does a senior administrator understand the tilt of the feelings balance? Surveying faculty members periodically is clearly one approach. But one can observe faculty morale and engagement various other ways. For instance:

  • What percentage of the faculty show up to events, president/provost meetings, socials and other optional opportunities to engage?
  • How hard is it to get faculty to volunteer for committee work?
  • What percentage of senior faculty (based on time served as much as rank) serve on committees?
  • Are faculty avoiding the campus? Do they work from home as much as possible?
  • Do they attend evening events in support of students?
  • In general, are they engaged?
  • And in all of these areas, how are their behaviors trending over time?

One key component of the feeling balance is whether administrators seek and receive honest feedback. The absence of negative feedback should not be confused with everyone being happy. A positive relationship allows for, and even encourages, critiques. For example, Cowen and Winston's "What It Takes to Be an Administrative Leader in the Academy" highlights the importance of high emotional intelligence among senior administrators and states: “By building a culture of open and civil discourse, they ensure that different voices are considered in decision making. In particular, the voice of contrarian view is important and sycophancy and group think should be discouraged.”

So, what should an administrator do to tilt and keep the feelings balance in the positive direction? As with any relationship, regular communication and honesty is vital. Freeman Hrabowksi describes in The Empowered University the importance of the “shared governance system, formal and informal” and the value of “trust, dignity and respect.” Ultimately it is about more than shared governance; it is about true collaboration, openness and valuing the perspective of the faculty.

This, in turn, means regularly and actively seeking the opinions of the faculty, in both formal meetings and surveys, and honestly discussing important issues that the institution is facing. Administrators and faculty members bring different perspectives to problems and issues, and both those perspectives must be valued -- especially in a time of financial challenges in higher education. In the end it is crucial that fostering the feelings balance is ongoing and strategic.

In The Best Place to Work, social psychologist Ron Friedman speaks broadly to ways to build a positive community in the workplace. Improving morale and being aware of the feelings balance is one way that college and university leaders can seek to strengthen the overall work of their institution. While each campus, both in time and place, will have to find its own path to a more positive balance, one thing is certain: a positive community doesn’t happen by accident but rather requires consistent attention and effort.

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Thomas J. Pfaff is a professor of mathematics at Ithaca College.

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