Sunday, July 8, 2012

People Management Skills

Lately I've been thinking about people management skills and its importance for fostering teamwork. And how great managers and leaders foster trust in their teams to succeed in achieving their goals. I've also been thinking about how the university environment may need some nurturing when it comes to people management. Although this may seem too bold a statement, I'm speaking from personal observations and - don't get me wrong - I really enjoy working in the university environment. It's an inspiring workplace being in the midst of ever accumulating knowledge and diversity.

A university is also a unique workplace. I mean "unique" not just compared to other non-university workplaces I've experienced, but unique because there are three interacting employment spheres: 1. Faculty, 2. Administrators, and 3. Staff. These "spheres" can be viewed as general roles and so, respectively,  the people in these roles are: 1. faculty only, 2. both faculty & staff, 3. staff only.

What does this have to do with people management skills? To start, defining these roles sets the backdrop for those of us reading this who haven't worked at universities and to point out that the administrator role can be filled by both faculty and staff (typically: faculty administrators aligned with curricular administration, staff administrators are with business administration).  Therefore, because staff administrators may have private sector work experience (and related people management skills), this post aims mostly at faculty administrators who've only worked in university environments.

So, in this university environment I've observed a disconnect between administrators (faculty appointed to administrator roles) and teams they manage (faculty and/or staff.) It's a disconnect with the interpersonal relationships that allows teams to flourish. For example, a disconnect between a Dean and her faculty could be that the Dean follows an analytical and formulaic approach to faculty interaction; a "one size fits all" approach. However, this practice discounts faculty's individual styles and assumes two things about her team:  that everyone has identical attributes and everyone's attributes are the same as hers.  We can also apply this to a VP and his administrative staff. If ignored, this disconnect can manifest into the dysfunction of teams and low morale. So why this disconnect? I provide two possible causes:

  • Administrators lack people management experience
  • Administrators feel challenged

Administrators lack people management experience 


Ok, this may seem too obvious a reason but it can be argued that faculty administrators do have people management experience. To illustrate, let's suppose the following statement is true: at one time all faculty administrators had mentors (managers) as young faculty (staff) and worked in collaborative environments (teams) on their way to being tenured (results), i.e. faculty were managed like staff and worked in team environments to produce results. Given this important formative experience, I find it interesting this managing/teamwork/results dynamic typically doesn't translate to their new administrative role. To be fair, most faculty don't have the same management experiences those of us who've worked in the private sector have had. However, by the time in their careers faculty become administrators they've been a mentor (manager) and the mentored (managed) at least once. Wouldn't this be a useful experience most faculty could draw from and apply to their new role?

Administrators feel challenged


In what way do I mean they "feel challenged?"  Timothy F. Bednarz's posting When Building Trust, Avoid These Six Behaviors brings up an interesting point. He writes, "Lack of trust in the workplace stems from areas that managers are often challenged by."  I'm going to stretch the meaning of this phrase and replace "area" with "staff" so that it reads: "Lack of trust in the workplace stems from staff that managers are often challenged by." If this is true it begs the question: Why would they feel challenged by their staff? Or, in what way do they feel challenged?

Here's a possibility: I've observed and discovered at least one administrator who treats non-Ph.D. staff as inferiors rather than team players. Why is this? It could be that because faculty spend many years earning their Ph.D. they may feel superior to others who haven't. Perhaps they see this as a rite of passage they hold over their staff? And what happens when someone they manage offers successful solutions or different perspectives they themselves didn't come up with? Perhaps this is where the lack of trust stems from? And summarized as "I can't trust their input because they don't have a Ph.D.?"  To be fair, I'm interpreting "feel challenged" more like "feel threatened by."  And what I find interesting is that in the private sector not everyone in management has a Ph.D (let alone the same background as one another) yet they trust their teams. But, in the university, faculty nurture and mentor their students (who don't have a Ph.D.) yet fail to do the same for their staff.


Do administrators lack people management experience? Perhaps, but remember: administrators as young faculty were managed like staff and worked in team environments to produce results.

Do administrators feel challenged? Perhaps if they don't trust non-Ph.D. holding staff, but remember: At least one time in their careers faculty nurture and mentor a student who doesn't have a Ph.D.

These two possibilities are not mutually exclusive.  To feel challenged or threatened by those you administer is to lack people management skills. And when armed with these skills the challenging or threatening feelings can cease to be. My point was to illustrate an area where administrators may fall short and that administrators can apply past student mentoring experiences to their current administrative role; a kind of built-in solution they can tap into.

And finally, to help administrators nurture their people management skills here are a few more suggestions to make it possible:

Shift in Leadership Culture - University administrators may not realize they lack people management skills and the challenge lies in making them aware. Senior leadership with the help of HR can raise awareness to the importance of people management skills and the role these skills play in the success of the university; i.e. changing the belief that the people management/business part of the administrator role is less important than their greater role. 

Workshops, Readings, Discussions - For new administrators, an orientation making them aware of management duties and skills is a great place to start.  Refresher workshops for seasoned administrators would be helpful too. Senior leadership can recommend management skills readings and offer opportunities to discuss best practices and share their management experiences.

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