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We regularly do an exercise with higher education audiences in which we ask them to list three to five characteristics of vibrant academic units—ones they’d be proud to be a member of―and three to five characteristics of a troubled or dysfunctional unit, the kind where your stomach hurts when you think about going to work. Pretty quickly, it’s clear the participants are all on the same page.

Vibrant units are strong in their academic mission, feature a culture with an ethos of trust and respect, and have leaders who advance the institution’s mission by supporting the work of the unit and its members. In contrast, challenged units feature competition, silos, declining or very uneven academic performance among their members, troubled interpersonal relationships, social media or email battles, stagnant research or teaching programs, budget struggles, and/or generally low morale among students, staff and faculty.

In a series of essays in Inside Higher Ed, we at the National Center for Principled Leadership and Research Ethics have shared our experience and tools for supporting institutional integrity, including practical, principled approaches to academic leadership and stewarding environments that support cultures of excellence—ones that feature rigorous, reproducible work with a culture of meaningful inclusion and mutual support. At the center of all those efforts is the goal of fostering healthy, vibrant academic units for all those who work within them.

When an academic unit has become dysfunctional or even toxic, institutional leaders may recognize the problem and understand the need for action but be at a loss in knowing where to begin or what their role should be in unit transformation. We have identified approaches and steps that, applied consistently and with clear goals, can help.

With a group of institutional leaders we have known and worked with over many years, we formed the Principled Academic Leadership: Transforming Challenged Units Consortium, which hosts an annual conference to help working groups from struggling departments in institutions across the country to formulate individualized, actionable plans for addressing their challenges. This conference fosters an environment where people can discuss their specific issues, gain access to successful general strategies, discuss how to adapt those strategies to their situation and collaboratively develop concrete action plans to pursue positive change within their units. Each group meets sequentially in successive working groups with a member of our team who helps guide and facilitate the implementation of those plans.

We’ve also developed the Academic Unit Diagnostic Tool, the AUDiT, which evaluates a unit’s culture, starting with an assessment of its strengths and challenges and where its working environment can be improved. The AUDiT can be a useful tool for units in identifying goals and starting places for improvement or revitalization. Challenged units find that while their problems might feel unique to them, and irresolvable, many have the same fundamental issues in common, so they can apply interventions that others have found effective.

Four Categories of Dysfunction

When considering the characteristics of your own institution, you should think about how institutional and departmental leadership, norms and incentives affect it. Cultivating a culture of trust and respect within academic units is a delicate process that requires intentional effort and continuing commitment from people at multiple levels of leadership.

Clear, consistent and coordinated planning is essential. Open communication channels must be established, encouraging dialogue and the free exchange of ideas within an atmosphere where individuals feel heard and valued. Additionally, unit leaders play an important role in setting a tone and modeling certain ways of acting and treating people; by demonstrating integrity, empathy and fairness, leaders who walk their talk get better results. Recognizing and appreciating diverse perspectives and contributions to the unit’s success further reinforces a sense of belonging and respect among colleagues.

In helping leaders restore their units to vibrancy, we’ve found that dysfunctional units tend to fall into one or more of four categories, each with different manifestations of dysfunction.

Lost units. These units are those that have lost their academic or research way. In such cases, a combination of data analysis and meaningful discussions about mission can help realign such a unit with its core values and objectives. Consider a process for gathering and presenting data to members of the unit, including using information from similar peer and aspirational units to set realistic goals and milestones.

In some instances, basic data—for example, a multiple-year trend of declining student enrollments—focus attention in a way that perceptions and anecdotes don’t. You should also identify where the unit’s current status and mission align effectively; the more bright spots you can find to build upon, the better. Establishing an external advisory group of respected individuals can offer valuable benchmarks, guidance and achievable goals that can foster progress.

When the time is right, work with members of the unit to explore the data and start a candid discussion of ways forward. It can be illuminating to have them generate lists of three to five of the unit’s positive and negative characteristics, like the exercise we described at the beginning of this article. Once generated, pose a question: Which list does the current unit most resemble, and which list describes a unit they want to be part of? An open discussion based on data, benchmarks and aspirations can provide a strong foundation for a renewal process.

Here the immediate challenge isn’t to jump toward solutions but rather to focus on creating a shared sense of the challenges and the opportunities. Moving forward, incentives tied to benchmarks―such as the ability to conduct new hiring― can encourage a group to take charge of its own destiny and keep at it. Clarity about the options in the event the current trajectory isn’t changed can also crystallize and focus attention on priorities.

Gridlocked units. These units often have frequent meetings with no actionable outcomes, an inability to make decisions and difficulty in reaching consensus. Understanding the source of the problem is the first step: if it stems from weak leadership or poor habits of governance, a new approach to leadership may be in order. Take the example of a unit holding weekly meetings for one or two hours focused on low-priority issues or matters unsuited for group decision-making. (One of us once worked with a unit that placed on its faculty meeting agendas items including color combinations for the department’s hallways.)

Such habits may have developed because the unit has become rudderless, with an ambivalent or weak leader who is uncomfortable in their role and unwilling to make decisions, or who says one thing up the chain and another inside the unit. We fully support shared governance and collective problem-solving, but faculty members value their time, and every meeting needs to have a clear and important purpose as well as work toward a tangible, productive outcome.

Divided, factionalized or siloed units. Such units are often catalyzed by big personalities, identity group clusters or disciplinary or methodological differences. An external review can provide needed guidance to understand where the unit should be headed to maintain vibrancy. In some cases, physical or organizational realignment may help to start reducing the daily effects of the differences among members of the units. Often, placing the unit into receivership for a period of time under strong external leadership can also help refashion how the factions interact, reorganize internal interactions or revise existing counterproductive habits. If engaged constructively by a new or interim leader, unit members caught in the middle between the factions, or drawn into their disputes unwillingly, are often the key to forward progress.

Both gridlocked and divided units need strong leadership. Central to that leader’s tasks are revisiting the unit’s mission and restructuring reward systems to promote collaboration and a shared sense of purpose.

Injured units. These units have been negatively impacted by a crisis or critical incident they are struggling to move past. They are often, and perhaps surprisingly, among the easiest to fix because the problems are so visible; with the other presentations we have discussed, part of the difficulty can be collective denial or disputes over whether a problem needing attention even exists. Moreover, the source of injury is often an identifiable external event or crisis, not a self-inflicted problem that some unit members may benefit (or think they benefit) from perpetuating.

At the same time, as with other forms of unit dysfunction, people of goodwill in the unit very likely wish to be part of the solution, but they just don’t know how. A sense of hopelessness, fatalism or intimidation then becomes part of a cycle of dysfunction. In injured units as well as other types of dysfunctional ones, a key step is to identify those people, engage them and empower them. Facilitated or moderated retreats or discussions in which participants can openly review the problems and explore solutions can harness those positive actors within the group. Encouraging active participation and assigning specific roles, such as reviewing governance documents or refining the curriculum, allows those individuals to contribute meaningfully to the unit’s improvement efforts.

Of course, many troubled units might share more than one of these prototypical features. When working to reclaim unit mission and productivity, the specific manifestations of dysfunction will dictate the direction a revitalization plan should include.

No matter which manifestations of dysfunction your unit may face, a key step is to start the process of reform and problem-solving. Review the unit’s policies to ensure they are evenly applied—a number of problems begin with real or perceived inconsistencies and/or people or groups gaming the system. A related problem is to ensure that bad behavior is not rewarded; it is corrosive to morale when people see that bullies get away with their behavior or that circumventing the rules gets you what you want.

Then, start by tackling the low-hanging fruit and earning some small wins. Look for existing bright spots that can be expanded, and, if possible, seek some early successes: places where modest changes will produce visible positive effects.

In addition, recognize that sometimes unit leaders are unintentionally communicating messages that contribute to the problem. Sometimes, given all of their concerns, they fail to prioritize a problem as needing their direct involvement, and sometimes they become risk-averse and seek to avoid intervening where they need to. Well-intended ones need to think carefully about strategies for transforming the unit’s culture, gathering and sharing data that vividly document the issues, and sometimes even considering programs for their own leadership development.

In a previous article, we proposed a framework for developing these kinds of recovery plans that bears repeating here:

  • Build a team
  • Collect information systematically
  • Activate the people of goodwill
  • Develop your plan with specific steps
  • Be patient and adaptable—but not too patient and adaptable.

Reinforcing the importance of the unit’s mission and building an actionable plan that assigns roles, draws boundaries, sets realistic milestones and communicates a shared vision for the unit’s future can all be important steps. Ultimately, building a climate of mutual trust and respect within academic units requires a shared commitment to identified ethical standards, to embracing diverse viewpoints as a positive good, to valuing the distinct strengths and contributions of every member, and to creating a positive and inclusive environment where everyone can thrive—these are all foundations of a culture of excellence.

Jacob J. Ryder is the interim chief of staff at the National Center for Principled Leadership and Research Ethics. C. K. Gunsalus is the director of the center, professor emerita of business and research professor at the Grainger College of Engineering’s Coordinated Sciences Laboratory at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Elizabeth A. Luckman is a clinical assistant professor of business administration with an emphasis in organizational behavior and the NCPRE director of leadership programs. Nicholas C. Burbules is the Gutgsell Professor in the department of educational policy, organization and leadership at the university.

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