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Teaching & Learning Resources at Camosun: Engaging with faculty and staff

Building team agreements

Particularly when you are new in the role of chair, consider establishing a common understanding about how people want to engage together as a team. These agreements should be revisited from time to time. You may want to invite in an external facilitator (such as someone from Human Resources, Organizational and People Development) so that you can more fully participate as a member of the team. Suggested questions for guided discussion:

  • What is the culture you want to co-create in this team? 
  • What will help us to excel and flourish?
  • What can you be counted on for? What are you willing to commit to?
  • How do you want to behave together when things get difficult? What ground rules would you like to create around conflict, decision-making, and other group behaviours?

Managing personal and sensitive information

Chairs frequently deal with private and confidential information, such as something personal about another employee. It is your professional responsibility to keep matters confidential and not to share sensitive information unless you have been given permission to do so, or on a need to know basis.  Familiarize yourself with Camosun’s Protection of Privacy Policy.

Sometimes as chair, you may learn about a change in policy or circumstance that will affect your department, but be asked by your dean or other senior administrator to keep the information confidential for a period of time.  Although having information you can’t share may feel awkward, the decision to release this information is not yours to make.  Keeping confidences makes you more trustworthy, not less. If you’re not sure about sharing a particular kind of information, consult your union or other chairs for advice.

Chairs are sometimes put in the position of bringing “bad news” to their departments. While some faculty might want to “shoot the messenger”, you don’t need to accept responsibility for decisions over which you have no authority.  If a decision has been made at the college executive, senior, or school leadership level that your department doesn’t agree with, consider inviting your dean to come and speak to the decision.

Tips for giving bad news

  • Get to the point, as an indirect approach can create tension.
  • Make your point and then stop, giving the listener(s) the opportunity to absorb the news and react. You probably heard the news earlier and have had time to absorb it. 
  • Be thorough. Explain the situation that has prompted the announcement and how this is affecting the department and you as chair.
  • Make sure you have your facts straight. It is embarrassing if you get the small things wrong when discussing big issues.
  • Agree to discuss any issues raised at a separate meeting if appropriate.
  • If the colleague or group gets angry, keep your cool and suspend the conversation until they have regained some composure.
  • To show you are hearing what they say, summarize and check back regularly with them on any points they make during the discussion.
  • When it is appropriate, meet to plan a response to the news.  Framing a response when the group is still absorbing the information is not a good strategy.
  • Remember, whatever you are announcing is probably not your fault – don’t take blame.  Be a conduit, not a target.

(Adapted from “Bearing Bad News” article by Sarah Silcox in Edge e-zine, Institute for Learning Management, year unknown)

Effective department meetings

  • Be clear and transparent about the purpose for the meeting. Everyone’s time is valuable!
  • Consider interspersing virtual meetings, especially for shorter agenda items and use face to face for meatier meetings.
  •  Book rooms for your department meetings well in advance and circulate a schedule.
  • Try to schedule meetings for a time when as few members as possible are teaching.
  • Ask the school admin office if they can provide support for your department meeting.
  • Make sure the agenda is circulated in advance of the meeting – ideally a few days ahead.
  • Value your faculty’s time - book no more than 90 minutes, and make sure that it begins and ends on time. Stay on agenda and on time by assigning a rotating timekeeper/focus keeper.
  • Devolve meeting chairing duties to others if you wish.  Having faculty take turns can increase shared responsibility for the quality of meetings, helps ensure everyone including you gets to participate fully in the conversation, and allows everyone to practice facilitation skills. 
  • Ensure that the note-taker makes a record of the main points in the meeting.  Develop a template for meeting notes, making sure to list action items with timelines and names of those responsible.  Post notes to your departmental SharePoint or Teams.
  • The meeting chair should keep order - recognize speakers one at a time – and keep a speakers’ list if there are many people waiting to speak.  The agenda sets time limits on discussion – if more time is needed, carry the item over to another meeting or ask your department to decide which items can be moved off the agenda to make room.
  • Whoever chairs the meeting should moderate and guide discussion by others – the meeting chair shouldn’t be the only one talking.
  • If an issue is controversial or not fully understood, you can always strike a committee to study it and report back. 
  • If you ever need to know Robert’s Rules of Order, explore

Criteria for an effective meeting

(Ideas from academic administrator’s guide to meetings, 2003, Fisher Chan J.)    

  • The meeting is necessary, has a clear purpose, and addresses relevant, important topics
  • The agenda can be covered in the time available
  • Roles and responsibilities are clear
  • The key people are present and everyone comes prepared
  • The meeting starts and ends on time
  • The meeting is held at a convenient time and in a comfortable, private place
  • Everyone participates, and people respect and are considerate of one another
  • The meeting stays on track
  • People are clear about the agenda items, action plans are developed and are followed up
  • Consider having snacks, and build in stretch breaks
  • Be intentional about opening and closing the meeting (such as introductions/check-in, summarizing/check-out)

Reasons to Meet

When a Meeting is NOT Needed

  • Share information
  • Share ideas, perspectives, experience
  • Identify and resolve problems
  • Do planning
  • Discuss issues and make decisions
  • Build community
  • Clear the air
  • Info can be relayed through other means
  • Key people cannot be present
  • You only want the group to rubberstamp a decision
  • People are distracted by other priorities

Meeting roles:

  • Convener: schedules meeting, develops agenda, determines and invites participants, provides information needed before meeting
  • Facilitator: (may or may not be the convener – consider rotating role within department), manages discussions, monitors time, opens and closes
  • Presenter(s): come on time, be prepared, encourage questions, stay on time
  • Recorder: (consider rotating role within department) Pay attention, listen closely, focus on what’s important, capture key points and decisions, ask questions to clarify, keep accurate notes, distribute notes after meeting
  • Participants: Come on time, be prepared, participate actively, share ideas, listen respectfully, ask for clarification, speak up if meeting going off track, avoid side discussions or distracting behaviour
  • Support staff: book and set up room, prepare and distribute agenda, send notifications

Giving good feedback

As chair, you may in a position to provide feedback to instructors in your department. This happens at more formal, regular appraisals, but also can be woven into your leadership style as something that occurs whenever the opportunity arises. Remember, you are not their manager, but as a supportive peer leader, instructors may solicit your feedback, or you may find other occasions for informal words of encouragement.  Whether formal or informal, clear and specific feedback can be a valuable tool for personal growth and development. Unfortunately, we often associate feedback with criticism. Feedback is most helpful when it occurs in an open and respectful environment where there is an atmosphere of trust and safety. Written feedback allows you time to organize your thoughts, and provides a useful record of the input. Verbal feedback is an opportunity for dialogue, asking curious questions, and ensuring immediate clarity. There may very well be different perspectives that are worth taking into account, and disagreement is possible.

Good feedback can:

  • identify what someone is doing well
  • build on strengths
  • increase confidence
  • identify areas for growth
  • provide opportunity to reflect on possible future action

Constructive feedback is:

  • Specific
  • Descriptive
  • based on observable behaviour (not inference)
  • balanced
  • manageable
  • practical
  • timely
  • solicited (rather than imposed)
  • includes checking to make sure the feedback was clearly understood

When giving verbal feedback:

  • Lead from a strengths perspective
  • Focus on what you observed or felt, not on what you think
  • Describe behaviour and its impact, while avoiding judgement
  • Think about the value of the feedback for the recipient
  • Make sure to give time for a response

Phone, email, virtual or in person communication?

It is very easy to be chained to your computer, and the nature of asynchronous communication means that you can be pushing out information even when no one is out there to receive it.  It just seems so efficient. Email, however breeds more email, more work, and frequently more trouble.  If you find an email trail goes beyond about six exchanges, it’s time for a meeting or a phone call.  Anytime folks in your department are discussing a controversial issue by pressing “REPLY ALL”, it’s time for a meeting. Consider using Microsoft Teams for virtual synchronous meetings, and asynchronous chats.

Give a call:

  • When you talk on the phone (or using Teams), you don’t have to wait for a reply, and your comments can’t be forwarded to others out of context.
  • The phone allows you to use vocal inflection and make sure you are understood clearly (and see each other if using Teams).  Email is easily misunderstood because it lacks emotional content.  Emoticons are no substitute.  L
  • Voice mail messages CAN be forwarded, so be careful about leaving sensitive information.

Meet in person:

  • To deal with confidential issues with more assurance of privacy.
  • For discussions of an emotional or private nature.
  • To nurture working relationships that enhance job satisfaction and knowledge of the College.
  • To get time away from your desk and help prevent burnout.
  • To go for a walk as you talk, getting valuable exercise while you work and relieving stress.

Call committee or department meetings regularly and as needed:

  • Allows you to give and receive information with a large group – saves time
  • Allows brainstorming and pooling of knowledge in problem-solving
  • Time limited – prevents discussion from going on ad-infinitum
  • Gets everyone on the same page and helps unify the department

Difficult conversations and conflict

Steps for success in difficult conversations (based on Judy Ringer’s model)

  1. Prepare for the conversation. Take the time and space to give it your full attention. Create a welcoming, environment that helps to eliminate any perceived barriers.
  2. Inquiry. The purpose is to understand the other person’s point of view. Cultivate an attitude of discovery and curiosity. Keep a wide-open mind, as if you don’t know anything yet. Listen, listen, listen.
  3. Acknowledgement. The purpose is to ensure the person feels heard, and understood.
  4. Advocacy. Share your perspective.
  5. Problem solving. Work together to generate solutions that you both can agree on.
  6. Follow through and follow up. Make sure to do what you say you will do. Check in later to see how things are going.

Processes for interpersonal conflict within the team

  • Faculty clashes can be very destructive for departmental morale.  Clashes between individuals can expand into clashes between factions as each builds support.  Sometimes chairs inherit departments with dysfunctional faculty relationships.
  • Occasionally, interpersonal conflicts are disguised as differences of opinion about educational philosophy, pedagogical approach, or even teaching qualifications. Sometimes people with strong positions feel justified in taking disagreements to extremes, and these conflicts can become particularly divisive and destructive, even leading to workplace harassment, or bullying.
  • If you find yourself involved in a conflict between faculty members that is stuck, involve your dean and your HR consultant. Remember, you are not their manager.