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The Role of Metacognition in Chairing a Department

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We have found that by paying close attention to how our brains work—thinking about our own thinking—we have developed a greater capacity to work across a variety of differences within the university.


The posting below looks at four characteristics of human cognition (thinking about your thinking) that can help improve the effectiveness of department chairs. It is by Wiley Davi and Duncan Spelman* and is from The Department Chair: A Resource for Academic Administrators, Summer, 2015, Vol. 26, No. 1. 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 (, or see:


Rick Reis
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The Role of Metacognition in Chairing a Department


There are any number of skills faculty members need to be successful at transitioning from department colleague to department manager. Effective chairs must be able to foster productivity and provide a vision for the department while simultaneously managing their time efficiently and managing conflict productively. In our experiences as chairs of large departments, we have found interpersonal competence — that is, one’s ability to interact effectively with others—to be a vital skill. Department chairs must be able to work with colleagues throughout the university: their own faculty members, the administration, student affairs, other chairs, students, and other constituents.

Intrapersonal competence is a necessary step toward interpersonal competence. The better able we are to engage with ourselves, the more effective we are when engaging with others. In particular, we seek to practice metacognition, deep reflection on our own cognitive processes. We have found that by paying close attention to how our brains work—thinking about our own thinking—we have developed a greater capacity to work across a variety of differences within the university.

In addition, we believe that thinking about one’s thinking must be a daily practice. By thinking about one’s thinking, we will be better positioned to handle the challenges—both great and small—that chairs face each day.

To engage in a daily practice of thinking about one’s thinking, we suggest paying attention to four aspects of cognition, a practice we refer to as the Mind Yourself Practice (MY Practice). We teach this same practice to students in our undergraduate and graduate courses that focus on leadership, diversity, and intercultural competence.

The better able we are to engage with ourselves, the more effective we are when engaging with others.

In the Mind Yourself Practice, chairs pay particular attention to four characteristics of human cognition:

1. Much of our cognition happens unconsciously, beyond our conscious awareness.

2. Emotions interact in powerful and complex ways with thoughts.

3. Our social identities (race, gender, religion, etc.) profoundly affect what we experience and how we see others.

4. Human brains crave certainty, despite the many uncertainties of living.

As with our students and ourselves, we encourage chairs to get into the habit, especially during difficult or unsatisfying exchanges with others, of reflecting on what transpired by asking themselves the following four questions.

What might be going on outside of my conscious awareness and control that affects how I’m making sense of and acting in this situation? It is estimated that our unconscious mind can process eleven million pieces of sensory information per second, but our conscious brain can process only somewhere between sixteen and fifty pieces per second (Mlodinow 2012). In fact, our stream of perceptions, our memory, our interpretations of others’ behavior, and many other fundamental cognitive functions occur mostly out of our awareness. Yet we cling to the notion that things do not happen in our minds without our explicit permission. It doesn’t feel like we have limited access to the workings of our minds.

It would paralyze us to even attempt to process on a conscious level all of the data our brains receive. However, we can slow down our thought processes and take steps to increase our awareness of what we do not know. To do this, we suggest two strategies. First, we encourage chairs to find someone, a colleague or friend, who can offer genuine support (Ely, Meyerson, and Davidson 2006). We give genuine support when we do not simply validate an individual’s point of view but instead push back, challenge, and provide a broader perspective. Giving and receiving genuine support is not always easy, but it can help us begin to see what is beyond our awareness. Second, we encourage leading with humility. If we accept that our perspectives, opinions, and even preferences are influenced and informed by the unconscious, then we must be willing to hold lightly all of our decisions. Like receiving genuine support, this leadership approach may feel unsettling; however, we have found that leading with humility fosters interpersonal competence.

How are my emotional responses in this situation related to my thoughts and actions? Beginning at least as far back as Plato, reasoning and emotion have been seen as separate aspects of human functioning with the affective realm viewed as primitive, animalistic, and dangerous. Only relatively recently has there been broader recognition that there is an indispensable collaboration between feeling and thinking and that emotions are an essential aspect of effective relationship building, decision making, and other key human processes. It is still common to hear implicit or explicit calls for emotions to be excluded, repressed, or controlled in order to allow logic and reason to achieve optimal results.

With this question, we encourage chairs to see their emotions as useful data points that should be considered when interacting with others. Our emotions provide important information about what we value, what we expect, and how we understand the world. While feelings are neither universally beneficial nor universally disruptive, we ignore or dismiss them at our peril. Accordingly, we believe that chairs should actively resist the cultural norm to “not get emotional.”

How are my social identities (gender, race, age, nationality, etc.) and those of other participants affecting the way I am responding to this situation? It has become somewhat of a truism that our social identities shape our understanding of our experiences. In fact, accompanying these identities are often unquestioned assumptions about our world. Our membership in particular groups influences our beliefs and values. These identities powerfully influence both how we see ourselves and how we interpret and evaluate those with whom we interact.

We all possess multiple selves. In addition, different selves become central in different social environments (Fine 2010). Social identities such as race, gender, nationality, and class are among the selves that become activated most frequently. Thus, we encourage chairs to pay particular attention to when a specific social identity has become active and how it may be influencing your experience of a situation and your judgments of others.

How might my desire for certainty be causing me to oversimplify the situation? Neuroscientists have identified pattern- seeking as one of the key functions of the automatic, unconscious operating of the brain. Our brains invisibly look for predictability and coherence in the environments around us. They seek simple cause-and-effect relationships, and we “believe” the stories that they develop, based on limited data, to explain the worlds in which we must operate. This pursuit of certainty is in service of efficiency, and occasional mistakes that result from oversimplification are acceptable (DiSalvo 2011).

Here, we recommend that chairs assess their comfort level with uncertainty and seek genuine support on whether that self- assessment is wholly accurate. In addition, it is helpful to recognize that we are always making decisions without having complete certainty: We never have all of the answers; we never have a complete picture. Thus, we recommend that chairs try to replace “I know I’m correct” with “I believe I’m correct.” We also encourage chairs to resist the tug of certainty and to try to hold competing ideas simultaneously. We cannot let uncertainty prevent us from acting, but we can hold lightly all of the information we do have and recognize that we are acting in the face of uncertainty.


As department chairs, we try to engage in MY Practice daily. In fact, we use it in our personal lives as well. We found that, by examining our own hidden biases, emotions, identities, and drive for certainty, we are better equipped to face the interpersonal challenges that this unique leadership position poses on a daily basis.

This article is based on a presentation at the 32nd Annual Academic Chairpersons Conference, February 4–6, 2015, Austin, Texas.

* Wiley Davi is chair of the English and media studies department and Duncan Spelman
is chair of the management department at Bentley University. Email:,


DiSalvo, David. 2011. What Makes Your Brain Happy and Why You Should Do the Opposite. Amherst, NY: Prometheus.

Ely, Robin, Debra Meyerson, and Martin N. Davidson. 2006. “Rethinking Political Correctness.” Harvard Business Review 84 (9): 78–87.

Fine, Cordelia. 2010. Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference. New York: W.W. Norton.

Mlodinow, Leonard. 2012. Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior. New York: Pantheon.