In a survey of America’s academic chairs almost 3,000 participants identified “dealing with problem faculty” as their greatest concern (Crookston, p. 13). The title of this article is not “seven easy steps for dealing with problem faculty.” The task was number one for a reason; rehabilitation is difficult and in rare cases may not be possible. Whether your problem person is a low achiever, a passive aggressive, a prima donna, a bully, or an exasperating jerk—you’ll probably spend far more time dealing with him or her than you want. One challenge is that problem faculty members are seldom self-made deviants; usually they are the product of ongoing department-wide neglect. From my experience as a department head and dean plus my research into the literature on leadership and chairing, I have identified seven steps that can help:
- Evaluate yourself and your perceptions.
- Operate from mission and values.
- Rely on policy.
- Build trust with colleagues.
- Clarify expectations and consequences.
- Take appropriate action.
Steps 1 and 2 are interactive and foundational; I believe little if any progress can be made if they are omitted. Step 7 should be implemented at the end of every step; yet it is a stand-alone and warrants careful separate attention. Here’s a brief overview:
1. Evaluate yourself and your perceptions.
Seriously considering whether I have a problem in regards to the difficult colleague, and that I may need to modify my thinking to deal with it, is going against nature. The people at the Arbinger Institute put it this way:
“The other guy’s a jerk! But remember… I actually need the other guy to keep being a jerk so that I’ll remain justified in blaming him for being a jerk.” (p. 153)
Listening effectively appears to be recommended more often than the next closest step for dealing with problem faculty. Empathic listening is not easy, especially when we believe the other guy is a jerk. And, oddly enough, when we most need to listen, our strongest impulse is to talk. That’s a pity as it is well documented that talking is one of the least effective ways of changing someone’s behavior. Patterson and colleagues (2008) observe:
“…whenever you use forceful and overt verbal persuasion to try to convince others to see things your way, they’re probably not listening to what you say. Instead, they’re looking for every error in your logic and mistake in your facts, all the while constructing counterarguments. Worse still, they don’t merely believe you’re wrong; they need you to be wrong in order to protect the status quo. And since the final judge exists in their own head, you lose every time.” (p. 50- 51)
3. Operate from mission and values.
When the department has a clearly stated mission, and has agreed to the mores and values which govern its behavior, it is easy for a chair to confront an individual’s aberrant conduct. Higgerson and Joyce write:
“[T]he existence of a shared mission makes it easier to discern a counter-productive personal agenda because that agenda really stands out as being motivated by personal interest.” (p. 177)
4. Rely on policy.
We’re all subject to regulations and procedures for dealing with disability, discipline, discrimination, evaluating personnel, hiring and firing, managing grants, research conduct, and sexual harassment. The chair literature strongly advises chairs to know and follow these policies; Gunsalus in fact says:
“To be constrained by policies, to have your hands tied can be a great advantage.” (p. 40)
Oddly, few campuses have policy on faculty civility. On several campuses this deficiency is currently being remedied.
5. Build trust with colleagues.
The chair that has developed a trusting relationship with the right people has little to fear when proceeding to solve a problem situation with any of the faculty. And, key among the “right” people is the problem person herself. Kouzes and Posner advise leaders to be the first to trust:
“If you want the higher levels of performance that come with trust and collaboration, demonstrate your trust in others before asking for trust from them.” (p. 227)
6. Clarify expectations and consequences
Covey and Merrill write:
“Disclose and reveal expectations. Discuss them. Validate them. Renegotiate them if needed. Don’t violate expectations. Don’t assume that expectations are clear or shared.” (p. 199)
Patterson and colleagues write:
“Motivation isn’t something you do to someone. People already want to do things. They’re motivated by the consequences they anticipate.” (p. 143-144)
7. Take appropriate action
Each of the six steps outlined above should prompt a chair to act. McMillan advises:
“After each conversation, move to action. Get a clear and specific commitment… about who will do what by when, and then follow-up on that commitment.”
Included among the appropriate actions I recommend are: build a great department climate, prepare a strong case to counter each problem, confront with confidence.
If you are a chair and struggle with a challenging faculty member, make alleviating the situation a priority for your term. You could greatly diminish the problem in your department on your watch. At least get things started or finish what is already underway. Not only the next chair, but everyone in your department, will thank you.
Arbinger Institute. (2000). Leadership and self-deception: getting out of the box. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler.
Covey, Stephen M. R., and Rebecca R. Merrill. (2006). The speed of trust: the one thing that changes everything. New York, NY: Free Press.
Crookston, R. Kent. (2010) Results from a national survey: the help chairs want most. The Department Chair, Summer, Vol. 21, No. 1: p. 13-15.
Gunsalus, C. K. (2006). The college administrator’s survival guide. Cambridge, MA: Harvard U.
Higgerson, Mary Lou, and Teddi A. Joyce. (2007). Effective leadership communication: a guide for department chairs and deans for managing difficult situations and people. Bolton, MA: Anker.
Kouzes, James M. and Posner, Barry Z. (2007). The Leadership Challenge. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
McMillan, Ron. (2009). Working with a difficult employee. Crucial Skills Newsletter. Vol. 7 issue 41. VitalSmarts, L. C., www.vitalsmarts.com. All rights reserved. Used with permission.
Patterson, K., Grenny, J., McMillan, R. & Switzler, A. (2005). Crucial confrontations: Tools for resolving broken promises, violated expectations, and bad behavior. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Patterson, K., Grenny, J., Maxfield, D., McMillan, R., & Switzler, A. (2008). Influencer: the power to change anything,New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.
Kent Crookston, PhD, is the associate director of the Academic Administrative Support Program at the Brigham Young University Faculty Center.