(a near-transcript of episode 15 of The Uplift podcast.)
“Healthy work climates” is 100% not the topic I had originally planned for today, but…after the post from a few weeks ago about having the best first day ever, someone asked me how you take the energy of a great first day and carry it through the semester…especially when you hit November and early December and you’re battling exhaustion and an intense workload.
This got me thinking about all the actions you can take to sustain your energy, and your team’s, over the course of a semester, and all the things you can do you for yourself to make sure you’re nurturing the parts of your life that bring you joy . . .
. . .and I realized the question “how do I sustain myself and my team for the next four months” is not really a question about daily actions – I mean, daily actions matter, and you need to get those right (or at least as right as you can) – but that question of how you sustain yourself is fundamentally about sustaining a healthy climate and culture. I mean, you can’t exactly lifehack your way to happiness, right? And that lit the spark for today’s episode.
Coming out of 2021 and into 2022, we all knew that campus culture and climate . . . and people’s sense of joy and fulfillment and even personal safety . . . were going to be key problems to solve. Those of us who work on a traditional academic calendar felt this focus intensify this fall, with the start of this new academic year. And this problem isn’t specific to higher ed. The general understanding that employees are dissatisfied with their work environments is in the news everywhere – yes it’s in higher ed reporting, but it’s also in business and industry journals, and in the popular press. Employees everywhere, across sectors, want to feel welcomed and valued. We want equitable access to the workplace using a variety of meeting modalities. We want the abilities to live our lives and love our jobs and integrate the two in ways that bring us joy.
Nearly a year ago, in December of 2021, Glassdoor analyzed its user data to predict what would be important in 2022. They wrote,
“Looking ahead, we believe…[t]hose who succeed [in 2022] will be those companies who embrace the opportunities to rethink old ways of hiring, employee engagement and how business is done.”
In other words, Glassdoor believed that the employers who would thrive would do so by changing some key aspects of their organizational cultures: their daily operations, how they find and appeal to the most talented folks in the market, and how they retain top-notch employees by creating engagement, which includes helping employees feel genuine inclusion and belonging.
That’s a whole lotta change for organizations to implement in order to survive the Great Resignation.
Roughly six months later, Inside Higher Ed gave us a glimpse of what this problem looks like on college campuses. A piece called “Calling It Quits,” runs this lede: “It remains unclear just how many professors are leaving their jobs during the Great Resignation, but stories about who is leaving, and why, abound. Will institutions be forced to respond with real change?”
In the essay, professor Elisabeth Haswell is quoted as saying that tenure brings a kind of Stockholm syndrome. She says, “You have worked so hard and sacrificed so much to get it that then you cannot let yourself admit that it’s actually not worth it. And so you just keep telling yourself that there are these parts of the job that are great, which is of course true—there are parts of the job that are fantastic. And you just focus on those and downplay all the rest of it.” Then she offers this observation: “Maybe the pandemic just made it impossible to keep up that story anymore.”
The piece also points to “additional evidence that many faculty members are suffering from burnout, which tends to affect once highly engaged employees, and which is a leading driver of resignations across sectors.”
We see evidence of this burnout and suffering everywhere – at all kinds of institutions, for faculty and staff at all levels.
We see another pervasive experience too: Blaming this kind of malaise and despair on campus leadership. This isn’t anything new, and there’s a long history of animosity, sometimes earned and sometimes habitual, between faculty and upper administration. And so it’s not surprising that when folks on campus are unhappy, it’s campus leaders who take the brunt of the criticism and blame.
We see this happening right now at the University of Missouri at Columbia. The Faculty Council there released a report just a few days ago – on September 1 – sharing the results that “many faculty members at the University of Missouri view [the Chancellor,] Mun Choi as responsible for their low morale.” One commenter noted that Choi “has fostered a general culture of helplessness and submission across campus in which faculty fear for their individual and departmental security and risk retribution by speaking out.”
The survey about Choi was conducted at the same time as was a survey about Mizzou’s provost, Lahta Ramchand. One commenter noted it was difficult to know how the provost would work in a different context, saying: “It is hard to know what (Ramchand) is able to accomplish with limited possibilities and an overbearing boss.”
In a way, this is a classic story. It sounds one-sided, and like the top campus administrators aren’t supported by faculty. I’m confident there is a richer, fuller, more nuanced truth underneath this.
But whatever the situation at Mizzou is, this particular story illustrates something many of us experience – I’ve seen this probably at every institution where I’ve served for the last 25 years – that the quality of morale and people’s daily work lives is often closely linked to people’s feelings about the institution’s top leaders. As humans, we associate our daily experiences at work with our perceptions of the quality of our organization’s leadership.
So . . I was in this frame of mind when I came across a recent piece that grabbed my attention not for its catchy title, but for its closing paragraph. The essay is called “Soulless Opening Year Academic Speeches” – pretty pointed, right? – and in it, Kathleen Bowles Johnson writes: “For years now, decades even, college and university presidents have made predictable, and perhaps rote, speeches welcoming the academic year.” She observes that these speeches and their attendant power points follow the same basic, four-point recipe: “Previous Year Highlights, Current State of the College, the External Environment, and Goals.”
But what caught her attention this year was a change in her own president’s presentation. She tells this story:
“When I listened this year, I admit it was mostly the same speech I’ve heard every year for the past 15 years. But then, in the end, I heard something else from the president to whom I listened this year. It was a president thinking out loud, speculating about uncertainty, talking about what he personally contemplated as a scholar and a poet in this moment in time.
He conveyed what he thought, not what a cabinet member thought he should think or say to be safe. When he did, I realized I wanted more from a president’s annual speeches. I didn’t want a banal summary of easily manipulated data anyone could find online. I wanted to be hopeful, inspired or at least to feel like leaders knew that life had changed for everyone. I want leaders who can think deeply about today’s problems and inspire others to do the same.”
Reading this essay brought to mind the most compelling Strategic Plan I’ve ever read. (OK, I just have to pause here because there’s a sentence I never thought I’d write!) Anyway. This strategic plan is from Macalester College and was published in 2015. It’s literally an essay, and its title is simple: Thrive. It sets itself apart by claiming that is not, in fact, a plan; rather, it is a call to develop a planning culture. Thrive was written toward the end of then-president Brian Rosenberg’s 17-year tenure, and I have to believe that it bears the imprint of his influence as a scholar of literature.
Brian broke the mold of rote strategic plan. When you hear people say, as I often do, that strategic plans across the country look alike, remember that they don’t have to. But behaving differently requires courage to break out of rote predictability. Look at Freeman Hrabowski, recently retired president of University of Maryland Baltimore County. Or one of my favorite expectations-busting president, Carmen Twillie Ambar, the current president of Oberlin and also bodybuilding champion. If you are seeking some inspiration, check out her insta @fitprezcta.
All of this is to say that is human for us to notice when we’re inspired by our leaders. We notice when they share their values, when they infuse their leadership – their literal words and actions – with what they feel deeply and what they believe to be true. And as the Mizzou case exemplifies, we notice – and we hold them accountable – when they don’t.
So where does this all land us? It’s been a hard couple years. We knew this year would be hard on the workforce nationally, probably even globally. We knew it would be really hard on college campuses, where everyone – staff, faculty, and especially our students – are struggling with so many issues related to mental health, happiness, and balance.. And so we’ve worked really hard to kick off this school year with positivity and inclusive relationship-building. And above all, we are yearning for leaders who inspire us through authenticity, vulnerability, and honesty.
If that’s what we’re seeking, how can leaders answer the call?
The answer is both simple and complex: care for your climate by building trust.
First, let’s break down the idea of campus climate. If you’re a president or chancellor, you rightfully bear the responsibility for the climate of your full institution. But the truth is there isn’t a single, unified campus climate. You’ve likely experienced this – maybe your department is happily humming along while your close friend is miserable in her dysfunctional department. The larger campus climate is made up of all these smaller, separate and yet interconnected, ecosystems. So if you’re leading a unit – whether you’re a vice president, a dean, a director, a chair, a faculty or staff president, RA supervisor, whatever your role – you as a leader bear the responsibility for the climate of your team.
So now – unless you’re a president or chancellor – you’re relieved of worrying about the climate of the entire institution and have the much easier job of . improving the health of your immediate team or department.
And the best place to start with this is increasing the trust within your team.
If you already lead a healthy, functioning team, you’ll just be fine-tuning some of your practices. But if you lead a team where folks are feeling injured, under-appreciated and under-valued, and their disengagement shows on their faces, in the tone of their emails, and in their behaviors, then you’ve got some big work ahead of you.
But no matter the state of your climate, you do the same things. There are a few key ways to build and increase trust so let’s dive in. c
I’m going to give you four actions to take, and they are distilled from three different sources. I’ll link to them all in the shownotes.
The first is a book called Communication Skills for Department Chairs, and I draw in particular on chapter 2, which is called “Enhancing the Department Climate.” The author is Mary Lou Higgerson, who is both a scholar of Speech & Communication and an experienced administrator who made a career of faculty development for new department chairs. I have an early edition of the book; it’s since been updated and I’ll drop links to both in the shownotes.
The second is my long-time favorite source for developing trust at work: Stephen M. R. Covey’s The Speed of Trust. I’ll tell you honestly that I have a love-hate relationship with this book: it’s pretty cheesy and also? it really works. I have taught the principles in this book to supervisors, department chairs, program directors, and my own teams for more than 10 years. Its principles have always worked. That always counts for a lot in my book.
The third and final resource is an article published in the Harvard Business Review in June of this year, called “How to Protect Your Team From a Toxic Work Culture.” The article asks the question “Why is it that some leaders succeed in building cohesive, healthy […] cultures that outperform their peers while others build low-performing companies marred by toxic behaviors like back-stabbing, credit-taking, and burnout?” Their answer is based on three years of research “scouring a combined 40 years of data from [the authors’] work as coaches at hundreds of companies[. …They] found a consistent connection between the quality of business and cultural outcomes and the quality of the conversations successful managers regularly had with their teams.”
Each of these resources is *full* of strategies – actual things you can implement – that will build trust on your team. Some strategies are similar, some overlap, and I know you’re busy so I’m distilling those that I know work, based on my own experiences, and am sharing them with you.
Trust at work can seem elusive.
Higgerson says you’ll know you have a high degree of trust among departmental colleagues if you have “confidence in each other other’s professional performance.” You’ll know trust is missing if you see “widespread paranoia” and if your colleagues regularly second-guess each other.
For Covey, trust comes from your credibility as expressed through your character and your competence.
If you think about things like credibility, or confidence, or paranoia, then trust can seem amorphous and difficult to pin down. But credibility, confidence, and even paranoia are actually the end results of behaviors. The feelings we develop toward people or organizations are strongly influenced by the behaviors we observe. So if you’re on a path to build or increase trust, the most important thing for you to pay attention to is b. And it’s because trust is based in behaviors that there are actionable steps you can take – things you can do, ways you can behave – to build, sustain, increase, and even repair trust.
Both Covey and Higgerson say the same thing about character and competence: they are attributes bestowed on you by others. You are only competent, and you are only credible, when others say you are. You have to earn those attributes by virtue of your behavior, including your communication.
So let me say it again: if you’re here to build trust, pay close attention to how you behave.
Here are some things you can do – you can start doing them if you don’t already, or you can remind yourself to do them even more often if they’re already part of your leadership practice.
#1: Get curious.
I want you to be curious with your team all the time. Be curious enough to learn about them as human beings. Shift from meaningless chit-chat (like “did you have a good weekend?”) to questions that show you care (like, “hey, how was the visit you were planning with your aunt on Saturday?”).
It’s easy to be curious when the waters are smooth. It is much harder – and so much more important – to be curious when emotions are high. So notice when you’re feeling, um, strong feelings – like anger, frustration, or impatience. Pause and remind yourself to get curious, and ask the other person about what’s going on with them.
I once had a really difficult conversation with someone who was senior to me, although I didn’t report to him. He spent 20 minutes yelling at me on the phone. When he was done, I asked if I could share my perspective. He said no and hung up. The damage he did to our relationship in that moment was far more significant than the damage of the 20 minutes of yelling. We could have recovered from a one-sided yelling match. It’s much harder for people to recover a relationship when one of them tells the other that their words and ideas don’t matter. This is why curiosity is so important. Aside from what you’ll learn – which will be invaluable to helping you resolve the problem in front of you – it literally tells the other person that you care enough to see and hear them. This is essential for a trusting relationship.
#2: Be generous with your feedback.
We all know this from teaching: someone’s judgment of us is more valuable, and easier to take in and act on, when it’s accompanied by meaningful feedback. The student who gets an “A” on an essay doesn’t necessarily know how to earn an A next time. The student who gets a “C” without feedback is likely even more frustrated.
I once asked for feedback from my boss’s boss. I had completed a significant project that I thought would be ongoing, and it wasn’t – it stopped dead in the water. I asked my boss for feedback, and in turn my boss told their boss I wanted feedback. The answer I got? “Tell Carole to ask me for feedback.” It probably took about as much time for the three of us to have that circuitous, unproductive conversation as it would have taken for someone just to give me some feedback in the first place. To this day I still don’t know how I could have done better.
So give your team honest, open, and frequent feedback – whether you are praising them, redirecting them, correcting an error, or tackling a big problem. Create a culture where feedback is normal. If you don’t have a culture like this, start with small, easy wins. Give praise framed as feedback. Share your thoughts and musings framed as feedback. Let folks see that thinking about each other’s work and responding to it openly is a safe thing to do.
Gently ease into giving feedback in tougher moments. Maybe, while you’re establishing feedback as a habit, your team can coin a phrase that becomes easy to use, like: “Hey, do you mind if I give you some feedback?” or “I have some responses to what you just said. Can I share them?” That moment where you ask someone’s permission to share feedback helps them prepare to hear you.
If you all get used to sharing openly this way, you’ll reduce the chances for misunderstandings, you’ll reduce the likelihood that bad moods fester, you’ll decrease the amount of time you spend circling back and fixing things. Ongoing feedback is essential lubrication for a high-trust team.
#3. Correct your mistakes.
Most of us don’t like to be wrong. And yet all of us are wrong, in ways both big and small, on a pretty regular basis. If you want to build trust with and among your teams, you need a culture where people own their mistakes and correct them. What does this look like? Covey explains it this way:
“[Righting wrongs] is more than simply apologizing; it’s also making restitution. It’s making up and making whole. It’s taking action. It’s doing what you can to correct the mistake…and then a little more.”
So “correcting your mistakes” is actually a multi-step action. It involves an acknowledgement of your error and, if it’s appropriate, an apology. An error in a spreadsheet might not need an apology, but not standing up for a colleague when they needed an ally most certainly does.
After you acknowledge the error, take the next step of offering restitution. And that restitution needs to be timely. The spreadsheet error is probably easy to fix. The problem of not being an ally is harder.
If, for example, your colleague needed you to stand up for her six months ago, and you’re just now acknowledging and trying to fix the fact that you didn’t, odds are good that too much time has passed and the damage of not supporting her in the moment has been done.
But if she needs your support in a particular meeting and you don’t give it, but as you leave the meeting together you say to her “Hey, it took me a few minutes to collect my thoughts back there. Now I wish I had said “x.” Since I didn’t, I’m going to circle back with so-and-so and make sure they know ‘y’. Is that OK with you?” – Here you may have not have solved the problem of her needing your support, but you *have* gone a long way to solving the problem of her trust in you.
#4. Build Your Team’s Strengths
This is one of the ideas from the article in the Harvard Business Review, but you may also be familiar with it as the cornerstone of Gallup’s Strengthsfinders. People’s greatest opportunities for improvement are in the things they are naturally good at. Professional development focused on weakness – filling people’s so-called “gaps” by sending them to training, or giving them an assignment they won’t be good at and calling it a “learning opportunity” – can be demoralizing and dehumanizing.
Instead, get to know your team well enough that you know what they’re good at individually, what projects they can complete quickly and happily, and what they love doing. Help them get even better at those things.
You can use the first two strategies – getting curious and being generous with your feedback – to help build your team’s strengths. Take the time to learn what they’re good at. Ask them about what they’ve loved doing in the past, what they want to do more of, where on campus they want to contribute, and so on. Give them feedback as they grow and stretch and work on getting better. And do all this with the mindset of abundance: you’re creating more of what’s already there, rather than seeing deficits and trying to overcome them.
So those are four behaviors you can put into practice: Get curious, Be generous with your feedback, Admit your mistakes, and Build Your Team’s Strengths. These aren’t silver bullets – you’ll need to be consistent with these behaviors and use them to build trust over time – and also, obviously, they aren’t the only behaviors that will build trust. (If you want a longer list, I’ve dropped a link in the shownotes to Stephen Covey’s list of 13 Behaviors of High-Trust Leaders. You’ll see overlap with these four and those 13.) But these four are an excellent starting point. You can start this week. You can start today. You can start in the very next conversation you have with someone on your team.
You probably noticed a few common threads in these recommendations. First, they are concrete. They are not abstract concepts; they are behaviors you can implement. If you take nothing else away from this episode, please take this lesson: trust is built through actions. Everything you do as a leader either builds, sustains, or damages trust. Pay attention to how you behave.
The second common thread is that while all of these are behaviors you engage in as a leader, they are behaviors for your team. When you act these ways with your colleagues they will feel seen, valued, and recognized, because you actually will be seeing, valuing, and recognizing them. You are literally acting in ways that create the feelings that are foundational to trust.
A third, less obvious commonality is that as you intentionally behave these ways, you can encourage similar behaviors from your colleagues. This isn’t hard to imagine, right? If I see you acknowledge your mistakes with humility and kindness, and without retributive fallout, then when you ask me to admit my own stupid error I’m going to be more willing and less afraid to come clean. Lead the way with your own actions, and only once you’ve modeled the behavior, ask others to follow you. Clear the path so your team has an easier time joining you.
So back to where we started: If you want to build on the energy you brought to your opening days as a teacher and a leader, I encourage you to spend this semester – or better yet, this full academic year – increasing the health of your department’s climate by building and strengthening the trust on your team. Focus on behaviors that build your credibility and competence so that people decide that based on your actions, you are worthy of their trust. Create trust and psychological safety for your immediate colleagues so you’re all thriving in a healthy departmental climate. And treat your department, or program, or unit, or committee – whatever you’re leading – as a unique small ecosystem with its own climate, independent from and yet part of the larger campus climate.
If you and your colleagues create a microclimate that is rewarding, joy-filled, and fulfilling, where you all feel seen, valued, and heard, that is a powerful gift you as a leader can give not only to your team, but also to your entire campus.
So that’s it, my friends. This week’s thoughts on why trust is the one thing that can turn a work climate from toxic to vibrant. Go forth and build trust!
A note for the future: As I’m looking ahead this fall I have my eye on the November elections. I’m thinking I’ll dedicate several episodes in October to the interrelated topics of difficult conversations and democracy, and explore topics like a university’s role in educating citizens who can disagree and dissent; the role of disagreement and academic freedom for faculty and staff on a college campus; and a question I’ve been obsessed with since the 2016 election season: what do women leaders on college campuses believe their role is in educating for democracy? I’m still pulling together my ideas, so if there’s a question on your mind, or a topic you’d like to hear more about, or a guest you’d like to hear from, drop me a line and let me know!
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