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Alienating the Inner Circle: When Academic Leaders Anger Their Stakeholders

Institutional Culture Leadership and Management

Alienating the Inner Circle: When Academic Leaders Anger Their Stakeholders

There are two principles that administrators in higher education commonly cite.

  1. Genuine academic leaders don’t choose a path because it’s easy. They choose it because it’s right.
  2. Academic leaders have to pay attention to three important groups: those they report to, those who report to them, and those who are their peers. You can alienate one of these groups and still succeed, although it’ll be much harder. You can alienate two of them and still survive, although it’ll be harder still. But if you alienate all three, your chances of either success or survival are minimal.

Those two principles are worth examining together since it’s so often the case that we need to think about Rule No. 2 because we’ve acted in light of Rule No. 1. In other words, the reason why we sometimes alienate members of our inner circle is because we feel duty-bound to do what’s right instead of what’s easy—what’s best for them in the long run rather than what’s popular with them in the short term.

Make no mistake about it: any job that requires you to say “No” to people from time to time will cause you to meet resistance. Our lives would be far easier if it were possible to grant every request, waive every rule, and fund every desire. But fiscal realities—not to mention the best interests of our programs—make that approach impossible. We sometimes end up angering individual stakeholders because we feel obliged to turn them down for a promotion, oppose them on an issue they care deeply about, or confer on someone else a benefit they strongly desire. In most of these cases, however, their anger is only temporary. The disappointment is expressed by only a single stakeholder, not an entire group of constituents. But what do you do when you, as chair, dean, or vice president, make a decision that’s bound to alienate not just one person, but the entire upper administration, every faculty member in your unit, or all your colleagues?

These challenges are among the most difficult we can face as academic leaders. They may occur when you have to dismiss a popular faculty member for reasons that, because of the law or personnel policies, you’re required to keep confidential. When something of this sort happens and you can’t tell your side of the story, it can feel as though you’re being opposed by every faculty member, student, parent, and alum in your program. Similar challenges may occur when you see your president and board engage in actions that, in your opinion, threaten academic freedom, sacrifice quality of instruction for success in athletics, or ignore the best interests of your faculty and students in an effort to raise additional revenue. It can be lonely when you raise your voice to object only to discover that those who claim to be with you in private remain silent when you are the subject of your supervisor’s very public wrath. And other problems of this sort occur when, despite your longstanding commitment to being a team player, you feel obliged to pursue an increase to your own budget that necessitates reductions elsewhere. The looks of betrayal from your peers can pierce even the thickest-skinned administrator, and you may find yourself isolated from the very people who should best understand how difficult your decision was.

Fortunately, these situations should occur very rarely, perhaps no more than once or twice in your entire administrative career. (If you find these problems arising more often than that, it may well be that it’s you, not them, who is making the issue more confrontational than it needs to be.) But the infrequency with which these situations occur doesn’t make them any less difficult to deal with. So how do you handle such problems when it’s not possible to avoid them?

Take the heat
Decisions aren’t always difficult because you don’t know what to do. They can also be difficult because, even though you know exactly what you need to do, you realize that living with the consequences won’t be pleasant. In these situations, rather than trying to postpone the inevitable or pass the buck, the best approach is usually to go ahead with what you know is right, acknowledge your responsibility as the one who made the decision, and take the heat as it occurs. Some people will come around to your side eventually, particularly if they see the long-term benefits that your strategy has produced. Unfortunately, some people may never come around. But only you can determine which choice would make you feel more uncomfortable: dealing with alienating members of your inner circle because you did something you knew was right, or compromising your values because you didn’t have the stomach for the criticism that an unpopular choice would produce. If you regularly practice transparent, consultative, positive academic leadership, you’ll have established the sort of trust that will eventually cause people to give you the benefit of the doubt. If you’ve been secretive, violated people’s confidences, and looked out more for yourself than for the stakeholders in your area, few are likely to trust you anyway; you may as well go ahead and do what you want, since your motives will be impugned no matter which direction you choose.

Turn to a confidant or mentor
When you feel that you may be alienating your inner circle, the time is usually right to discuss the issue with a confidant or mentor. Those two terms aren’t synonyms: a confidant is “a good ear,” someone who will listen to what you have to say nonjudgmentally and who won’t share privileged information with others; a mentor is an adviser, someone who will recommend a course of action he or she feels is best for you. All academic leaders need both, and it’s preferable not to expect one person to combine these roles. A mentor may not be able to tell when you’re just venting and thus proceed to give you advice you’re in no mood to hear. A confidant may not have the experience and perspective needed to understand how each decision fits into the larger picture. So, choose your confidants and mentors wisely. Confidants are invaluable when you’re dealing with a situation you just need to talk through, even though you already know what the response will be. Confidants will “be there” for you. On the other hand, if you’re truly wondering whether a problem is the “hill you want to die on,” see a mentor instead. He or she can help you see aspects of the situation you might otherwise have missed and would regret later.

Reflect on your core values
Your core values are those principles that define who you are as a person and as an academic leader. We all adhere to a wide range of values: some that we’re willing to bend every now and then for the sake of a greater good and some that we can’t compromise without betraying everything we believe. When you find yourself in a situation where you’ve alienated a major constituency, look at the issue carefully, reflect on which of your core values is involved, and use the resulting insight to guide you to your decision (or to feel more comfortable with it if you’ve already made your decision). For example, if the matter you’re dealing with involves a principle you don’t hold very dear or perhaps have repeatedly violated in the past, then it’s possible you are acting too rigidly if you don’t permit some flexibility this time too. But if the matter is one that involves one of your core beliefs, then your question has already been answered: you couldn’t live with yourself—and ultimately you wouldn’t be of much value to anyone else—if you didn’t hold fast to that belief and act accordingly, even if it alienates your inner circle.

Jeffrey L. Buller is dean of the Harriet L. Wilkes Honors College at Florida Atlantic University and senior partner of ATLAS: Academic Training, Leadership & Assessment Services. His latest book, Positive Academic Leadership: How to Stop Putting Out Fires and Start Making a Difference, is available from Jossey-Bass.

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