Managing Conflict: Please Don’t Leave
Spoiler alert: there will be no strategy on how to solve this dilemma . . . yet.
Research suggests that 80 percent of decisions made in institutions of higher education in the United States are made at the department level. Of the approximately 80,000 department chairs, a full 20 percent leave their positions each year. The number one reason chairs list for leaving their chairpersonship is because of noncollegial, uncivil faculty members. In an ongoing 11-year study of more than 2,100 chairs that I and my colleague Richard Riccardi have conducted, managing conflict has consistently been the second or third most important skill/competency that chairs have said they needed to be an effective chair. This is interesting in view of the fact that more than 96 percent of chairs have never been trained or educated in serving as a chair. In fact, in 2017 not one chair in 153 indicated that he or she had education and/or training in serving as chair.
Most people reading this article have probably experienced the toxicity and poisonousness behavior of a person in their department. Incivility in the workplace may be subtle, but its effects are not. The following are signs of incivility, and this is not an exhaustive list:
- Use of condescending tone
- Treating people as invisible
- Unprofessional terms of address
- Increased levels of stress
- Turnover intentions
- Counterproductive work behavior
- Decreased levels of job satisfaction, actual performance, and organizational commitment
- Refusal to collaborate with faculty and students
People who are treated poorly often disengage from any and all participation in department functions (e.g., refusing to serve on committees, not advising students, not caring about the department, speaking critically to professionals and students about the department, etc.). Note that people tend to overperform when they are happy and look forward to coming to work and underperform when they are not happy.
What would you do?
You are the chair of a department of 11 faculty members. Dr. Julia Appleby is your most outstanding professor. She is a tenured associate professor who has been in the department for seven years. She regularly publishes in the most prestigious journals in the field, is an outstanding teacher, and serves on five university-wide committees and four department committees. She is also the project director of a large five-year US Department of Education federal grant of $500,000, which is in the second year of the grant. This grant supports your department’s graduate program through scholarships for students. Julia e-mails you and says she must speak with you the next morning. The two of you meet in your office, and after the usual pleasantries, she indicates that she will be leaving the university the first chance she gets. She is a finalist at two universities that are your major competitors. Further, she has spoken with the project officer for the grant and she will be able to “take the grant” with her when she leaves. You are dumbstruck and bewildered. You desperately do not want to lose this valuable colleague. Julia states that she cannot take the abuse and noncollegial/uncivil behavior that Dr. Williams shows toward her. He refuses to collaborate, tells students she is incompetent, is downright nasty to her, and belittles her every chance he gets. You are grasping for a solution.
So, what do you do?
“It is that civil conversation—tough, open, principled—between and among all members and parts of the institution that must be preserved. If it is, a community is patiently built. If it is not, the place degenerates into a center of crisis management and competing special interests. What must be open and free is the conversation between young and young, young and old, scholar and scholar, present and past—the sound of voices straining out the truth.”
– A. Bartlett Giamatti, A Free and Ordered Space (1989, p. 45)
Robert E. Cipriano, EdD, is professor emeritus at Southern Connecticut State University, a senior partner at ATLAS (Academic Training Leadership & Assessment Services, an internationally recognized consulting firm), and an advisory board member of Academic Leader. His most recent book is titled A Toolkit for College Professors (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015). Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Dr. Cipriano will be presenting an interactive session on managing conflict at the Leadership in Higher Education Conference, October 19–21, 2017, in Baltimore, MD.