Fostering Creativity in Departmental Faculty Meetings
Although students, faculty, and administrators are now back on campus at most higher education institutions, the effects of the pandemic loom. Research confirms what many have suspected to be the case: the social isolation caused by the pandemic has left people feeling lonely (Ernst et al., 2022) and disconnected from colleagues (Chaker et al., 2021). Loneliness combined with COVID-19 worry is an especially bad combination, predicting depression and anxiety (Mayorga et al., 2022). The increase in the sheer number of people experiencing mental health issues is an indicator of the magnitude of its effects. Most everyone in higher education knows a student, a coworker, or an administrator who is suffering with a mental health issue. Despite faculty and administration suffering with these issues, providing safe, high-quality, and engaging educational experiences to students and collegial, supportive, and nurturing work environments for faculty members remains the expected norm.
But it is not always clear how to cultivate such environments. From deciding the best communication method and frequency to ensure transparency to balancing faculty workloads in response to enrollment changes, the pandemic has only exacerbated administrative challenges. Experts cannot even reach consensus on how the pandemic will continue to affect our world (Grossman et al., 2021). Uncertainty makes it challenging for leaders to know the “right” course of action with many competing perspectives and needs to consider. In this polarizing environment, chairs and deans still need to meet with faculty, students, administrators, and community members to accomplish all the tasks necessary to have a department or school run smoothly. They often work in multiple teams simultaneously with competing demands to balance priorities. Since the pandemic began, many of these teams have met remotely or virtually rather than face-to-face, creating challenges that did not exist before.
In addition, the stakes couldn’t be higher with universities fighting for ever more dwindling resources. It is likely that only universities with innovative, creative, and flexible approaches will succeed. For universities to remain relevant, chairs and deans must prioritize the development of resilient departmental teams. Unfortunately, gathering a group of resilient individuals will not necessarily create a resilient team. Coordination breakdowns, miscommunication and misinterpretations, and technology disruptions are a few of the challenges that chairs and deans are currently facing. Using a model of team creativity (Paulus & Dzindolet, 2008; Dzindolet et al., 2012) and research on team and group performance, we offer the following suggestions to chairs and other administrators:
- Select and train faculty members. Select members to enhance diversity and be united in a common group goal. Remember that job-relevant diversity improves team creativity. A broader array of expertise and knowledge, skills, and abilities leads to divergent perspectives and approaches that stimulate creative cognitive processes. In addition, diversity allows for communication with members outside the team, which can increase access to unique ideas and a more comprehensive approach. But too little in common can make communication difficult and increase conflict, which, if not well managed, can decrease trust and harm creativity and innovation. Therefore, make attempts to create pride in the discipline, encourage positive relations among team members, and most important, keep the faculty and students committed. The goal is to get instructors to use their innate strengths to support the department’s, school’s, or university’s mission. Individual and small group listening sessions, team celebrations, and opportunities for faculty–faculty, faculty–student, and student–student connections are a few strategies to promote a strong team culture.
- Select the technology. Virtuality is on a continuum; it is not helpful to think of it as a dichotomous variable. Greater use of virtual technology increases the risk that team members will have trouble focusing on the task (because some attention is focused on technology), have issues reading team members’ social cues, and have problems getting in the “flow” due to delayed responses. All this can lead to increased misunderstandings and increased conflict. To make matters worse, it is also harder to repair relationships virtually. Therefore, be intentional in selecting how virtual you want your meetings to be. The specific decisions the team will make should determine both how media rich the technology should be and the extent to which the technology needs to allow for synchronous communication. When you choose to use virtual technology, ensure that team members have a common understanding of the technology for successful team coordination and performance.
- Set the stage. Create an environment in which faculty feel psychologically safe. No matter the technology used (or not), brainstormers should feel encouraged to freely express crazy, new, novel ideas, trusting that the other faculty members will not evaluate them negatively. There should be enough conflict to expose faculty to varying ideas but not so much as to distract faculty members from the task at hand. Members need to be able to express dissimilar or unusual views without fear of retaliation. Remember that the correlation between trust and performance is even higher among virtual teams than among face-to-face teams. Therefore, it is imperative that you, as the team’s leader, create an environment of trust within your group.
- Provide team training. Faculty members may need team training as well as opportunities to form connections among their peers. Much of what faculty members do is solitary; therefore, they may need to develop their team skills. Team emotional management intervention (Holtz et al., 2020) can improve team synergy and motivation through the development of trust, identity, and efficacy (think EQ at the team or group level). For training to be effective, consider what objectives need covering, think about training as a process rather than an event, and balance faculty perspectives with larger institutional needs and goals.
- Provide mental health training. For faculty to perform well in the current environment, they will need to have a basic understanding of common mental health issues. They must be able to notice symptoms of depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and trauma and have enough knowledge of the resources available on campus and in the community to refer students, faculty, and administrators appropriately. It is imperative that chairs and deans make certain that faculty in their departments and schools have access to this training. In addition, faculty should know that their role is only to refer people to mental health services, not to attempt to provide those services themselves.
- Create carrots and sticks. Provide enough individual and group rewards to encourage faculty to persist when the brainstorming becomes boring or difficult, being careful not to offer so many rewards as to undermine intrinsic motivation. What should you do if some faculty members seem to be sloughing? Remember that when some group members are allowed to work less hard, others will feel encouraged to do the same so as not to be taken advantage of. But when group members are given clear group goals and believe that low-performing members are trying their best, they often work even harder to ensure the group is successful. This is another reason that it is important that faculty have a basic understanding of common mental health issues. Group members who are committed to clear departmental goals and who attribute another faculty member’s poor performance to a mental health issue are likely to pick up the slack to be sure the goals are met.
- Mix it up. Alternate between working alone and working together. Divide tasks into smaller chunks. Be sure to take brief breaks. It might be counterintuitive, but groups that take brief breaks from the problems they are tackling are more creative than those that push through.
Following these steps will foster creativity in the groups you lead—whether they be faculty in a departmental meeting or a cross-disciplinary team convening community members and administrators for a particular project. Remember that psychological safety is necessary for creativity. Although creating a “safe” place for team members to be creative is especially challenging right now, it is essential that you do all you can to encourage trust. It can be in the most challenging of times that people and groups reach their highest levels of creativity. After all, necessity is the mother of invention.
Chaker, N., Nowlin, E., Walker, D., & Anaza, N. (2021). Alone on an island: A mixed-methods investigation of salesperson social isolation in general and in times of a pandemic. Industrial Marketing Management, 96, 268–286. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.indmarman.2021.05.009
Dzindolet, M. T., Paulus, P. B., & Glazer, C. (2012). Brainstorming in virtual teams. In C. N. Silva (Ed.), Online research methods in urban and planning studies: Design and outcomes (pp. 138–156). IGI-Global.
Ernst, M., Niederer, D., Werner, A. M., Czaja, S. J., Mikton, C., Ong, A. D., Rosen, T., Brähler, E., & Beutel, M. E. (2022). Loneliness before and during the COVID-19 pandemic: A systematic review with meta-analysis. American Psychologist, 77(5), 660–677. https://doi.org/10.1037/amp0001005
Grossman, I., Twardus, O., Varnum, M. E. W., Jayawickreme, E., & McLevey, J. (2021). Expert predictions of societal change: Insights from the world after COVID project. American Psychologist, 77(2), 276–290. https://doi.org/10.1037/amp0000903
Holtz, K., Orengo, C. V., Zornoza Abad, A., & González-Anta, B. (2020). Virtual team functioning: Modeling the affective and cognitive effects of an emotional management intervention. Group Dynamics: Theory, Research, and Practice, 24(3), 153–167. https://doi.org/10.1037/gdn0000141
Mayorga, N. A., Smith, T., Garey, L., Gold, A. K., Otto, M. W., & Zvolensky, M. J. (2022). Evaluating the interactive effect of COVID-19 worry and loneliness on mental health among young adults. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 46, 11–19. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10608-02110252-2
Paulus, P. B., & Dzindolet, M. T. (2008). Social influence, creativity and innovation. Social Influence, 3(4), 228–247. https://doi.org/10.1080/15534510802341082
Mary Dzindolet, PhD, served as chair of the Department of Psychology at Cameron University in Lawton, Oklahoma, for 10 years until 2020. She has published in the areas of group creativity and automation reliance. For the past five years, she has been dedicated to reducing the stigma toward those with mental health issues.
Krystal Brue, PhD, serves as the chair of the Department of Business at Cameron University. She has over 25 years of human resource, organizational behavior, and training/development experience and has presented and published numerous articles on work-life balance, women in leadership, and current HR employment trends.
Stephanie Boss, PhD, served for 10 years as chair of the Department of Sports and Exercise Science and for two years as interim chair of the Department of Education at Cameron University. She was awarded B. H. & Flora Brewer Endowed Professorship in Instructional Technology in 2018 and has also been recognized with OAHPERD’s Honor Award.
Shaun Calix, PhD, serves as chair of the Department of Psychology at Cameron University. He has published in the areas of adolescent substance abuse treatment, intergenerational relationships, and emerging adulthood and serves on the Mayor’s Commission on Youth and Families.
Jennifer Dennis, PhD, serves as the dean of the School of Graduate and Professional Studies and acting dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at Cameron University. She served as chair of the Department of Education for 10 years prior to becoming dean.