The posting below looks at several strategies for dealing with difficult personnel situations. It is by Juston C. Pate, who is chief academic officer at Maysville Community and Technical College. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. The article is from The Department Chair: A Resource for Academic Administrators, Winer 2013, Vol. 23, No. 3. For further information on how to subscribe, as well as pricing and discount information, please contact, Sandy Quade, Account Manager, John Wiley & Sons, Phone: (203) 643-8066 (email@example.com). or see: http://www.departmentchairs.org/journal.aspx.
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Having the Tough Discussions: Deal with Difficult Situations, Not Difficult People
No one likes to have an unpleasant conversation, but as leaders we will eventually find ourselves in a situation where we must confront some type of unacceptable behavior from a faculty or staff member. It could be something as minor as occasional tardiness or as major as poor performance in the classroom. In any case, the fact remains that if someone's behavior or performance is not conducive to the success of the department or the individual, leaders have a responsibility to confront those issues. If we don't, we become responsible for them.
Many problem department members are difficult because they either resent authority or have no trust for authority. These attitudes make confronting poor performance or bad behavior very difficult. In the minds of these individuals, the confrontation is personal, which places them on the defensive. Because of this, many leaders will also enter the meeting on the defensive. Just as you would find anywhere else in nature, when you have two defensive creatures confined to a small space, the outcome for one or both of them will most likely not be positive.
When this type of confrontation becomes necessary, your approach will determine the outcome of the meeting. Our first job as leaders in these situations is to remove the personal element from the conversation. This is not always easy, but we have to limit the emotion as much as we can. The best way to do this is to keep the focus of the meeting on the behaviors or the situations, not the employee. The following are several strategies to help us structure our meetings and our own behaviors when having difficult discussions.
Prepare, prepare, prepare.
First, you need to prepare yourself. You must have specific answers to the questions surrounding the situation. Why is the faculty member negatively impacting the department's success? Why are others uncomfortable? What disappoints you? Which policies have been
violated? Know the details. Second, prepare your dean. He or she should know what is going on and not be surprised by any backlash. In addition, if you need to take further disciplinary action, you will need your dean's support. Third, you should prepare the human resources office. Not only do they need to know that potential problems are brewing, but they will be able to provide advice and support for many aspects of the discussion as well as protection should things not go well. Finally, you should prepare the individual. He or she is still a member of the department, has rights, and is deserving of ethical treatment.
Understand the individual and the situation.
You must have a thorough understanding of which behaviors are problematic or which aspects of the job are not being met, but you
also must know something about the faculty member. How long has he or she been a part of the department? Has the individual had a history of problems or is this an isolated event? Is he or she in a role that will lead to success? What has led to this conversation? Does the faculty member contribute anything to the department? Are you completely sure the individual is in the wrong? Have you seen these behaviors, or do the complaints come from other department members or stakeholders? These types of questions will help you guide the conversation and organize plans for improvement.
Be respectful in your approach.
Setting a respectful tone for the meeting makes it easier to avoid negative emotions. The faculty member will more than likely be on edge about the meeting from the outset, and any form of disrespect could ignite a fire. Plus, he or she is still a department member and deserves professional courtesy. Your goal should be to improve or preserve the relationship as much as anything else. Isaac Newton advised, \"Tact is the art of making a point without
making an enemy.\"
Stay calm. Your attitude and behavior will be reflected. Set a tone that is calm, kind, and professional. Any emotion you show will be gasoline to a fire. If you want to limit emotion, you must remove any behavior that would make the conversation personal. Remember, this is a discussion, not an argument. Robert Quillen once wrote, \"Discussion is an exchange of knowledge; an argument an exchange of ignorance.\"
Set guidelines for the conversation.
There is most certainly the potential that this type of conversation can quickly turn sour. Establishing guidelines at the onset of the meeting gives a platform for acceptable behavior, the focus of the conversation, and the creation of goals. Set rules for behavior and a standard of conduct. Make it clear that the discussion will focus on the people in the room, not what others have done. If the conversation or conduct strays from these guidelines, it may be time to take a break or to take some other action.
Set objectives and stay focused on solutions.
If the goal is to rectify the poor behavior or performance, there must be a plan for improvement. Any meeting such as this should end with a clear pathway to improvement and success. Set specific goals for that improvement and set a timeline to review progress.
Also, always remember that excuses do not lead to solutions. Making excuses for performance or behavior does not solve the problems they have created.
Watch your phrasing.
It's not just what you say in these situations that can be volatile; it's how you say them. Instead of making \"You need to . . .\" or \"You have . . .\" statements, use phrasing such as \"These behaviors are detrimental to your performance and the department's growth . . .\" or \"This situation is not good for our success; therefore, we must . . .\" Any comment focused directly at the individual makes it personal again.
In matters such as these, confidence comes from preparation. If you have a clear understanding of the situation, the faculty member, and the outcome goals, you will be prepared for the conversation. If you don't have a clear understanding of these aspects,
it will be much harder to project confidence. Remember, this meeting is about the protection of the department and its interests. It is your job.
Be specific and honest.
If you want the performance to improve or the problem behavior to stop, you must make the faculty member aware of exactly what he or she is doing wrong. Honesty is most certainly the best policy, and sugarcoating bad behavior doesn't help anything. The more
specific the discussion, the greater the likelihood of success. If you can't be specific, you are most likely not prepared to have the conversation.
Allow the faculty member time to talk, but stay focused.
You absolutely need to listen to what the individual has to say and should be willing to hear any solutions he or she may have to offer-it is the faculty member's right. Many times the person who is in the wrong already knows what needs to be done to make things right, and it is better coming from the individual than coming from you. The only time you should interrupt is if the conversation drifts to someone else's performance or a completely different topic.
Don't say more than you need to say.
The more you say the more there is to refute. Know the specifics of the problems before your meeting and stay focused on those particular things. This is harder than it sounds. As leaders, it is almost innate that we have something to say. Remember that silence it not a bad thing.
Give them a reason to believe.
Finally, make it clear that there really is a way out of the current situation. To achieve success, all of us need to believe we can do what it is we set out to do. Four of the most powerful two and three-letter words in the English language are \"you can do it.\"
It is always a good idea to have someone with you for these meetings. This could be someone from your supervisory chain or someone
from the human resources office. As soon as the meeting is over you should work with this person to document what happened. This
documentation should be succinct and specific and should include an outline of any plans for improvement. The potential always exists for appeals, complaints, or lawsuits, so we must take the proper precautions in documentation. It may seem unnecessary at the time, but ask anyone who's been sued or had an appeal filed against them and they will tell you there is never a bad time to have documentation or a witness.
Our goal for these meetings should be to improve the faculty member's performance and/or standing with the department, but if the behaviors are habitual or the performance never improves, we will at some point have to discuss termination. Confronting problem behaviors, setting goals and maintaining performance plans, and preparing proper documentation are all steps toward improvement, but, if necessary, they are also steps toward dismissal. As Ronald Reagan once said, \"When you can't make them see the light, make them feel the heat.\"
Remember, be honest, be direct, be respectful, and keep the emotion out of the conversation as best you can. It won't be pleasant, but not every aspect of leadership is. Ultimately the success of our faculty, our students, and our department is our top priority, and we must be willing and able to handle the unpleasant aspects of the job to ensure that success.