How to Respond to Low Faculty Morale
When you become department chair, you are likely to gain a new perspective on faculty morale in your unit. As a regular faculty member, you may not have known how deep the feelings ran or how pervasive the malaise was. The hard work of administration can seem even harder when faculty morale is low. Even normal operations seem burdensome to everyone. Creative thinking, investment in positive outcomes, and problem-solving may seem impossible in such a context. Your job as department chair is tough enough, so address faculty morale if you can. Do this early, before the new normal of your administration takes root.
Try to identify the cause
Engage in inquiry and deep listening to determine if there are causes you can address. For example, faculty may have been unhappy with the way your predecessor conducted faculty evaluations or awarded research funds. You may be able to implement a policy change that is more satisfactory. Low faculty morale may have its source in larger issues you can’t address, such as state level funding, recent program cuts, the lack of raises, or general dissatisfaction with the university administration. If this is the case, you may want to find other ways to address morale, making the department a more rewarding and personable place to work. Change what you can and let go of the rest.
Don’t take it personally
While you are addressing morale, try to refrain from taking the brunt of other people’s unhappiness. Be mindful of when you are absorbing the anxiety and anger of the group. If specific people make you a target when you don’t deserve it, call them out. Let them know that you are not the cause of the problem and don’t deserve to be treated as if you are. Use your judgment about when and how to do this. Model the civil behavior you expect to see from faculty.
Create the departmental culture in which you want to work
While there may be a lot of things you can’t control, there are some you can. Identify the type of departmental culture you want and implement it. Note that change may take years and may come by changing one mind at a time. It may require getting the wrong people off the bus and the right people on it. So be patient. What follow are some ideas to guide your efforts to set all eyes in your unit on community, mission, and outcomes.
Start the year with a common experience of learning or doing together
Create a tradition whereby the whole department learns something new together at the beginning of each academic year. Make it practical and social. What the unit learns together can vary each year depending on current needs. In a year when we had an especially large influx of new faculty and teaching assistants, I booked a day of low-ropes team-building and problem-solving exercises for our unit. Why this worked: all our faculty engaged with each other in small groups to apply creative thinking to solve physical and logistical problems. There was a bit of friendly competition. The most senior and the most junior faculty worked together to complete the tasks. I saw strengths emerge and observed communicative patterns that I would not have expected—all extremely helpful to know for everyday work. People learned each other’s names and helped each other as they pursued a common goal. We laughed together. In fall of another year, we completed DISC assessments together, and in yet another fall we brought in an outside consultant to help us review student learning outcomes from the previous spring. You can mix things up so faculty have a new experience of each other each time. You can solicit faculty input in collectively choosing a topic for the next fall learning experience.
Involve faculty in selecting departmental swag
You may have a budget line for purchasing smaller or larger items of swag to give prospective students at recruitment fairs or teachers at feeder schools. Offer faculty the opportunity to help select what the department purchases, and then also give each faculty member a swag gift. You can give the gift at the end of the departmental workshop each fall. One year we gave insulated lunch bags with the departmental logo; another year it was messenger bags (see below).
Take the time to visit classes briefly in a random way. Spend a few minutes telling students how special their professor is—in the professor’s presence. Tell them some of what you value professionally about their professor—things the students may not know through their regular coursework. Mention also to students that you want them to have a quality experience in the courses they take in the department. Stress that both you and the professor value that. Remind them that if their professor is doing things that are especially helpful to them (that truly contribute to their learning) they can and should let their professor know—and that you would love to hear from them as well.
Create a culture of valuing department health
To cultivate department health or program health means to be proactive in optimizing every aspect of operations rather than passively continuing to function as always. You want to have an environment in which every member of the unit has their eyes open for ways to do things better and their minds open to exchanging old approaches for new. It means faculty are doing what’s best for students and best for the enrollment numbers that help maintain staffing and budgets. It means that problems are noticed and addressed with creative solutions.
You can begin to create a culture of valuing department health by mentioning it in context so faculty get a sense of what it is. Bring it up in meetings when you describe what needs to happen or what someone did as contributing to the health of the department.
You can develop this understanding further by giving immediate positive feedback when you see people taking actions that support department or program health. Say something to that person, write a short memo or email recognizing them, or mention it at a meeting. Even faculty evaluations can reference this as a contribution.
Finally, everyone likes their moment in the spotlight. Hold a year-end recognition event where you recognize each faculty member for a particular action, talent, or attitude that contributed to the health of their program or the department. Doing this has several benefits beyond recognizing the recipient. It lets everyone see who is particularly good at a certain thing and could therefore be a resource for his or her colleagues, for example “Dr. Smith created a spectacular one-page curriculum path showing the one-year, two-year, and three-year routes to completion of his program.” Create for each faculty member a certificate that names their contribution. This should all happen in a spirit of kindness, generosity, and genuine appreciation of the talents each person brings to the success of the department.
Let people know you care
In an academic environment in which resources may be getting tighter and faculty feel like they are being asked to do more with less, there are ways you can help shift attention to the positive. Listen to concerns and take notes, then relay concerns appropriately. Let your faculty know you are serving as their advocate. Say it and do it. Even if the change faculty want to see is not possible, complete the communication, letting the faculty know why you are doing so.
Take the time to know your faculty a little beyond the purely professional. I kept a jumbo box of birthday cards in my desk and wrote a card to each faculty member on their birthday. Learn a little about their hobbies or their families so you can ask about their well-being and notice milestones in their lives.
Finally—and this sounds ridiculously simple and yet it is so important—slow down enough each day to truly say hello and to ask how folks are doing. Actually stop moving when you greet someone in the hallway. You may find this helps you stay on the pulse of morale so you can be more responsive.
Laura G. McGee, PhD, served most recently as head of the Department of Modern Languages at Western Kentucky University. Under her leadership, the department nearly doubled the number of its languages, programs, and majors. She now conducts program reviews and consults for LifeStories Matter LLC Intercultural Training and Coaching.