During my 11-year tenure as a department head, it became clear to me that most of us enter administration because we are optimistic individuals who want to help our academic units to grow and develop, change with the times, and thrive despite obstacles. We see our faculty and our budgets as valuable resources to help us achieve greater student success. We want to believe that everyone in our unit is tugging the rope in the same direction. We hope to spend minimal time with negativity and in conflict. And yet problematic exchanges occur—sometimes when we least expect them and sometimes when they are predictable.
It is normal to have divergent opinions as we seek to solve problems or create initiatives. It can feel uncomfortable as we generate ideas, sift through them, and eliminate some so we can commit to others. Not everyone can have their way every time. It takes skill to manage these discussions, and there may be some degree of conflict along the way. These challenges are all part of our role as leaders.
That is not what this article is about. This article provides approaches for responding to the harsh words and negative responses that may seem to come out of the blue and blindside you, the administrator and unit leader. It describes approaches to recognizing what may be motivating this behavior and provides strategies for dealing with negativity and energy vampires.
It can occur that a faculty member attacks you verbally. Words and tone may be outside the range of civil discourse. They may even seem personal. Such an attack might happen in a group or one-on-one meeting. You may want to jump to your own defense or defend your perspective just as vehemently as you were attacked.
When an outburst occurs, it is important to stop for a moment and try to discern the source of the negative behavior. The expression “I see . . .” buys you a little time to think. Consider the possibilities:
All these possibilities suggest that the apparent cause of the conflict may not be as it appears. Let us develop these possibilities a little further so you can put them to use. The person who has just spoken to you so angrily might attack anyone in your role. They may have attacked your predecessor in a similar way. You can choose to not take things personally. This may take practice. A helpful resource is The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz (1997). Ruiz discusses how deciding not to take anything personally can help you achieve greater peace.
If conflict seems to be escalating, you have a right to request that your attacker communicate in a civil tone. If the escalation continues, it may be a good idea to end discussion of the topic, end the meeting, or both, with the expressed intent of resuming the discussion another day.
If the comments directed at you begin with “You never . . .” or “You always . . . ,” it is a signal that rational discussion is no longer possible. Constructive discussion is characterized by a distinction between the person and the behavior. Constructive feedback is timely, specific, and generally private. It sounds more like “When you did this (example) or I observed this (example), it made me feel (how) or had this impact (what).” The pairing of problem and impact leads to a clearer understanding of cause and effect that focuses on behaviors, not people.
We can group bullet points two and three together because both suggest that the person who has attacked you may be speaking from a limiting belief of their own—meaning they have made that is outside of your awareness or out of anger about a past event. The topic at hand may have triggered their hurt, fear, or sense of limitation. You can try to draw discussion back to the concrete issue at hand. If this is not possible because the emotions are high, you may need to defer the discussion to another day.
The fourth bullet point has to do with assumptions. It is hard not to make assumptions, because they are part of how we try to understand the world. And yet if we make inaccurate assumptions, we can be profoundly unfair to others without intending to be. So if the communication coming from others appears unfounded and out of left field, it may be important to ask some key questions to get at their understanding of events. You will need to find the right venue for this. For Ruiz, “Don’t make assumptions” is the third of four agreements.
Another reason you may be experiencing a negative response: your communication and conflict styles may be different. If you can develop greater self-awareness of your styles, you can adapt to appreciate the strengths of others and mitigate conflict. Tools such as the Intercultural Development Inventory and the Intercultural Conflict Style Assessment can help you and your team members learn more about this. A greater self-awareness of conflict and communication styles can foster more mutual understanding and adaptivity. If you have not provided this kind of professional development for your unit, it may be time. Find out what resources may be available on your campus.
A few more tips for your toolbox:
Implementing these approaches can help you develop greater resilience, focus more of your energy on your priorities, and experience greater sustainability in your work as an administrator.
Gonzalez, J. (2013). Find your marigold: The one essential rule for new teachers. Cult of Pedagogy. https://www.cultofpedagogy.com/marigolds
Ruiz, D. M. (1997). The four agreements. Amber-Allen Publishing.
Laura G. McGee, PhD, is professor of German at Western Kentucky University and principal investigator for the Chinese Flagship Program at WKU. She served as head of the Department of Modern Languages from 2009 to 2020.