Deans’ Interpersonal/Negotiating Skills
The ever-present “revolving door” syndrome, where education deans leave their posts within four to five years, served as the impetus for our research. We wanted to understand what we were doing as veteran deans that enabled us to exhibit a certain degree of resiliency with our job responsibilities. We adapted Eisner’s connoisseurship model (1991, 1998) and served as both a connoisseur and critic of our patterns of behavior over a six-year period. Eisner’s model explains that a connoisseur is able to identify the different dimensions of situations and experiences as well as their relationships. A connoisseur not only appreciates a situation but also critiques the same situation to help others see its subtle and not-so-subtle aspects.
Two of us are part of the original group of four education deans who began this research by writing and analyzing 20 vignettes (five for each dean) about firsthand experiences that we’d had during our deanships. The vignettes focused on program development, special initiatives, personnel, accreditation, and external relations. Each vignette included the impetus for exploring the idea, ways in which they involved others, processes that they used to initiate and implement an idea, issues that emerged, and ways for sustaining their momentum. We found from our axial and selective coding (Strauss & Corbin, 1990) of the vignettes that we used our interpersonal/negotiating skills most frequently. We identified four key themes within interpersonal negotiating skills: (1) work closely with key people within the unit (school, college, or department) and outside the organization; (2) negotiate key players’ responsibilities to keep them appropriately involved, aware of and respectful of boundaries, and honest about their level of participation and contributions to the partnership; (3) be responsive to critical people in the overall organization; and (4) keep critical persons in the organization informed so that they are willing to support resource needs. In effect, we found that we spent most of our time and energy working closely with key persons inside and outside our units.
To further test this finding, our current group of four deans studied our daily interpersonal/negotiating behaviors and strategies more specifically during group and individual meetings, collaborations, and conversations in a follow-up study. We each spent two full weeks—the first week during a spring semester and the second week during the following fall semester—listing, describing, and reflecting on all scheduled and unscheduled meetings, events, discussions, and actions that took place in person or electronically. We recorded on a chart the most prevalent theme in which each meeting, event, discussion, and action fit. Our analysis of eight weeks (two weeks for each dean) revealed that, in order of frequency, we (1) worked closely with others, (2) were responsive to key persons, (3) negotiated key players’ roles, and (4) kept key persons in the organization informed. We found that we interacted with at least 35 different types of colleagues within our institutions (e.g., provosts, other deans, and registrars), within our own schools and colleges (e.g., faculty, associate and assistant deans, and department chairpersons), and outside our institutions (e.g., school district and organizational partners) during this two-week period. Collectively, we noted 32 different purposes for interacting with others, such as responding to faculty, student, and staff needs as well as working on project assignments, program revisions, strategic planning, accreditation, and summer school planning.
While we recognize that our combined eight-week recording and analysis of our daily patterns of interacting and negotiating with others represents a small sample of our job responsibilities, we at least captured a respectable snapshot of our various activities. We acknowledge that we have different personalities, serve as leaders in different contexts, and have different issues. We also acknowledge that we did not know how to classify our behaviors and activities in every single instance, and we did not necessarily have complete agreement because we interpreted some events differently.
Nevertheless, we clearly spent most of our time working closely with others inside and outside our institutions, and then being responsive to others, negotiating with others, and informing others. Even with a slightly different cohort of four deans and a different format for self-reporting, our ability to work closely with others stood out as a key interpersonal/negotiating skill.
We learned from each other that our respective jobs as deans vary day to day, week to week, semester to semester, and year to year because of our personnel, students, accreditation challenges, donor opportunities, partnerships, and budgetary constraints. We also realized that we have different kinds of deanships, because of our institutional cultures and sizes, administrative and department structures, student bodies, role expectations, and workloads.
Even with these differences, we found that our interpersonal/negotiation skills, especially the ability to work closely with others, are important on a daily basis. Our jobs are highly politicized and, as a result, require the ability to find common ground to move people and projects forward. Thus, we need to connect, cooperate, and collaborate with others so that we can accomplish what is expected of us within and outside our schools and colleges. This is especially critical for influencing faculty and administrative behavior, acquiring the necessary resources to help our units function effectively, positively impacting student achievement, and satisfying external mandates and accreditation standards.
Although we do not really know whether one’s interpersonal/negotiating skills can be developed, particularly the ability to work closely with others, we believe that it is important that practicing and prospective deans have access to opportunities for professional development. Such professional development should focus on the importance of being able to work effectively with others and provide strategies for working with different types of stakeholders. Ideally, deans would have opportunities to study different types of situations and different types of deans’ responses, both effective and not so effective, to be able to analyze ways in which deans were successful, or not, in accomplishing goals and objectives. Deans should also take opportunities to self-reflect about their own challenging situations to help determine ways in which their own patterns of behavior are contributing, or not contributing, to achievement of their own goals. While these provisions amount to a tall order that would require the help of experts to develop effective leaders, it would contribute to developing resiliency in the deanship, which would help with leadership stability in higher education. Because most deans have not received formal training for their positions, and usually assume these positions as a result of a self-identified interest or recognition by others of leadership potential, it is especially important to provide guidance and mentoring on critical leadership skills.
In addition to our ever-growing wish list for professional development, we continue to further investigate ways in which we work closely with others during individual, small-group (two to five individuals), and large-group (six or more individuals) interactions to provide specific information about the nature of the meetings, self-reflections on the ways in which the meetings accomplished their goals or not, and recommendations on ways that such meetings could have been organized and executed differently.
We hope that future research can determine if and how the interpersonal/negotiating skills characteristic can be developed in standing and aspiring deans, and the degree to which this characteristic is essential for survival.
Eisner, E. W. (1991). The enlightened eye: Qualitative inquiry and the enhancement of educational practice. New York: Macmillan.
Eisner, E. W. (1998). The enlightened eye: Qualitative inquiry and the enhancement of educational practice. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill.
Strauss, A., & Corbin, J. (1990). Basics of qualitative research: Grounded theory, procedures, and techniques. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications.
Shelley B. Wepner is dean of education at Manhattanville College. Virginia Clark Johnson is dean of the College of Human Development and Education (HDE) at North Dakota State University. William Henk is the dean of the School of Education at Marquette University. Sharon Lovell is the interim dean of the College of Health and Behavioral Studies at James Madison University.