The 4% Principle

Building traditions and a sense of community -- even if they take a little time -- are crucial to the success of administrators, writes Ronald S. Byrnes.

July 13, 2009

An unexpected e-mail arrives. The newish dean has been relieved of his duties. Failed administrative tenures are too common. What tends to go wrong and what can administrators do to avoid flaming out?

No two flameouts are identical, but there are identifiable patterns and themes. More often than not, failed administrators are smart enough, and hard working enough, but don’t have the requisite interpersonal skills. In short, absent positive traditions and mechanisms that help foster mutual respect among faculty members, interpersonal conflicts increase in number and intensity until a tipping point is reached where faculty morale spirals downward and program quality is compromised to the point that a change in leadership is the only way forward.

Another way of approaching the problem is to ask, what do the best administrators get right? What distinguishes their leadership? Surely many things, but to highlight one, the most effective administrators create positive traditions and put in place mechanisms that foster mutual respect among those they lead.

My university’s president models this especially well. For example, last December, despite serious economic challenges, we had our traditional winter luncheon. Everyone enjoyed excellent food, exceptional music, and friendly conversation. Also, as always, every employee who had worked for five or more years (in five year increments) was recognized and received a gift certificate to the bookstore.

A cynic might argue that the luncheon celebration contributed to a reduced faculty salary pool, but that would miss the point altogether. It’s a relationship-building tradition that defies simple cost-benefit analysis. My president knows that the quality of our relationships will determine how well we collaborate on interdisciplinary programs, how thoughtfully we update general university requirements, and how effectively we set priorities in light of severe budget restrictions.

Some of the president’s community-building activities are subtler and less visible, like the personal notes he writes to people who get promoted or garner recognition for their teaching, service, or scholarship. He also takes care to distribute personal tributes about deceased members of the community, mostly emeritus professors. So far I haven’t known the former faculty members, but as I read the tributes and learn about their backgrounds and contributions, I get the sense that I’m part of an institution that’s much larger than myself, an institution that has a positive legacy in the Pacific Northwest.

Last year I was a Fulbright visiting lecturer at Hedmark University College, in Hamar, Norway. Like every faculty group, Hedmark faculty had to negotiate political, philosophical, and curricular differences. Monthly, they called “time out” from the hard work of resolving differences and enjoyed a simple, but beautiful lunch complete with cloth tablecloths, candles, desserts, cheese and crackers. Wine bottles were raffled off, a flutist and violinist played a few exquisite pieces, a couple of funny stories were told and people lingered before returning to their offices.

I’m a new lower case “a” administrator, hopefully improving as I go, coordinating a small master’s teacher certification program. My lesson learned from recent events is that the best administrators are intentional about building relationships and fostering mutual respect. They don’t assume people will naturally get along; instead, they create traditions and put in place mechanisms that foster dialogue, help people better understand one another, and build a reservoir of mutual respect.

I’m labeling this the “4 percent principle.” I wonder if things would have turned out differently for our former dean if he had set aside 2 of every 50 hours to think about new traditions, to write personal notes, and to think creatively about how to foster mutual respect? More personally, will I develop “4 percent principle” discipline?

Many administrators would probably argue they can’t afford to take even an hour to write personal notes and “think creatively about how to foster mutual respect.” Recent experience tells me I can’t afford not to.


Ronald S. Byrnes is associate professor of education and movement studies at Pacific Lutheran University


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