Make no mistake about it: any job that requires you to say “No” to people from time to time will cause you to meet resistance. We sometimes end up angering individual stakeholders because we feel obliged to turn them down for a promotion, oppose them on an issue they care deeply about, or confer on someone else a benefit they strongly desire. In most of these cases, however, their anger is only temporary. But what do you do when you, as chair, dean, or vice president, make a decision that’s bound to alienate not just one person, but the entire upper administration, every faculty member in your unit, or all your colleagues?
These challenges are among the most difficult we can face as academic leaders. They may occur when you have to dismiss a popular faculty member for reasons that, because of the law or personnel policies, you’re required to keep confidential. When something of this sort happens and you can’t tell your side of the story, it can feel as though you’re being opposed by every faculty member, student, parent, and alum in your program. Similar challenges may occur when you see your president and board engage in actions that, in your opinion, threaten academic freedom, sacrifice quality of instruction for success in athletics, or ignore the best interests of your faculty and students in an effort to raise additional revenue. It can be lonely when you raise your voice to object only to discover that those who claim to be with you in private remain silent when you are the subject of your supervisor’s very public wrath.
Fortunately, these situations should occur very rarely, perhaps no more than once or twice in your entire administrative career. (If you find these problems arising more often than that, it may well be that it’s you, not them, who is making the issue more confrontational than it needs to be.) But the infrequency with which these situations occur doesn’t make them any less difficult to deal with. So how do you handle such problems when it’s not possible to avoid them?
Take the heat
Decisions aren’t always difficult because you don’t know what to do. They can also be difficult because, even though you know exactly what you need to do, you realize that living with the consequences won’t be pleasant. In these situations, rather than trying to postpone the inevitable or pass the buck, the best approach is usually to go ahead with what you know is right, acknowledge your responsibility as the one who made the decision, and take the heat as it occurs. If you regularly practice transparent, consultative, positive academic leadership, you’ll have established the sort of trust that will eventually cause people to give you the benefit of the doubt.
Turn to a confidant or mentor
When you feel that you may be alienating your inner circle, the time is usually right to discuss the issue with a confidant or mentor. All academic leaders need both, and it’s preferable not to expect one person to combine these roles. A mentor may not be able to tell when you’re just venting and thus proceed to give you advice you’re in no mood to hear. A confidant may not have the experience and perspective needed to understand how each decision fits into the larger picture. So, choose your confidants and mentors wisely. Confidants are invaluable when you’re dealing with a situation you just need to talk through, even though you already know what the response will be. Confidants will “be there” for you. On the other hand, if you’re truly wondering whether a problem is the “hill you want to die on,” see a mentor instead. He or she can help you see aspects of the situation you might otherwise have missed and would regret later.
Reflect on your core values
Your core values are those principles that define who you are as a person and as an academic leader. When you find yourself in a situation where you’ve alienated a major constituency, look at the issue carefully, reflect on which of your core values is involved, and use the resulting insight to guide you to your. For example, if the matter you’re dealing with involves a principle you don’t hold very dear or perhaps have repeatedly violated in the past, then it’s possible you are acting too rigidly if you don’t permit some flexibility this time too. But if the matter is one that involves one of your core beliefs, then your question has already been answered: you couldn’t live with yourself—and ultimately you wouldn’t be of much value to anyone else—if you didn’t hold fast to that belief and act accordingly, even if it alienates your inner circle.
Jeffrey L. Buller is dean of the Harriet L. Wilkes Honors College at Florida Atlantic University and senior partner of ATLAS: Academic Training, Leadership & Assessment Services. His latest book, Positive Academic Leadership: How to Stop Putting Out Fires and Start Making a Difference, is available from Jossey-Bass.
Reprinted from “Alienating the Inner Circle: When Academic Leaders Anger Their Stakeholders” in Academic Leader 29.11(2013)1,2 © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.