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Cultivating Civility Champions: Reducing Power Differentials to Mitigate Department Workplace Bullying

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The passive-aggressive and narcissistic behaviors often found in higher education can baffle those colleagues whose values rest on embracing civility and mutual respect.


The posting below looks at some creative approaches to reduce the power differentials that undergird workplace bullying. It is by Leah P. Hollis* and is from The Department Chair: A Resource for Academic Administrators, Summer 2020 Vol. 31, No. 1. Copyright © 2020 Wiley Periodicals, Inc. For further information on The Department Chair, call +1 800 835 6770. For further information on subscribing and pricing, please contact Wiley Customer Service at +1 800 835 6770 or learn more at




Rick Reis

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Cultivating Civility Champions: Reducing Power Differentials to Mitigate Department Workplace Bullying


Over the last eight years, I have visited with several campus leaders who

were trying to make sense of dysfunctional workplace bullying in their respective departments. These departments have not been particularly bad, but they were brave enough to start the conversation about how members of the campus community treat each other. The passive-aggressive and narcissistic behaviors often found in higher education can baffle those colleagues whose values rest on embracing civility and mutual respect. Nonetheless, such aggressive workplace behaviors are unsurprising, and everyone knows who the bullies are.


Leadership in academia typically comes from academic expertise, the ability to secure external funding, or a national or international profile that brings notoriety to an institution. In my twenty-five-plus years in higher education, I have seldom met a colleague who holds a certificate in conflict management or has a background as a hostage negotiator. The ability to stay calm in the face of aggression while convincing the aggressor to stand down is an expertise that is not woven into the volumes of science, literature, or theory that brought us to the academy. Typically, academic leaders lack the formal training to diffuse these hostilities. Instead, department chairs are not only potentially on the front line of addressing bullying in the department but also respectfully reporting to executives who also are not trained in conflict management.


However, chairs can implement some creative approaches to reduce the power differentials that undergird workplace bullying. Chairs can cultivate civility champions who become allies in the quest to end workplace bullying. Further, chairs can harness collective power and informational power to diminish workplace bullying in their respective departments.


Cultivating Civility Champions 


Department chairs are typically tuned into budgetary issues and resource allocations. Chairs also know that faculty are often looking for financial support in travel, research, and professional development. Such auxiliary funds can be distributed not only based on merit but also to civility champions. As with any work unit, the academic unit has colleagues who are comparatively more collaborative, supportive, and approachable. These colleagues also make themselves available for students outside of office hours; they may form interdisciplinary projects and are sought after by junior faculty applying for tenure and promotion.


Colleagues should be able to vote anonymously to name the civility champion, the person who is modeling the preferred collegial behavior. During department meetings at the beginning of an academic term, chairs can celebrate these civility champions and anoint them with a boost to their travel funds. This type of acknowledgment accomplishes two things: first, the civility champion knows that their collegial behavior is appreciated and they will continue the positive behavior, and second, the rest of the faculty will see that the department values and rewards civility.


Potentially, the civility champion will inspire other faculty. But if this program is used to play favorites, the faculty will not trust the process or the department chair. When the leader sets the tone and openly supports respectful behavior, department colleagues see firsthand that civility, not bullying, is treasured.


Collective Power


Workplace bullying typically emerges from a power dynamic where the bully has power over the target. With organizational power, for example, the provost may bully the deans, or an associate dean may bully junior faculty. At times, the power is based on expert power. This occurs when the principal investigator of a seven-figure grant abuses colleagues because they brought in outside money. When no one addresses bullies regardless of their position, the problem mushrooms.


In the workplace bullying literature, the term mobbing can refer to a group of colleagues who systematically terrorize a target. This collective power, dispatched by the bully’s henchmen against a target, can devastate the target’s career and lead to health issues, such as insomnia, anxiety, and depression (Hollis 2019). The collective power in mobbing that subjugates a target can be disrupted if collective power is instead used to quash bullying behaviors.


Subsequently, department chairs also can use collective power for good instead of evil. The strength-in-numbers approach to dealing with abuse and injustice has proven successful in higher education. For example, a group of faculty members at the University of Rochester filed a federal complaint regarding the inappropriate behavior of a professor who admitted to sexual contact. At the time of this article, the federal judge did not dismiss the case as the university had once hoped. However, since the consternation

started, the university has strengthened several of its sexual harassment policies. The collective power of the complaints resulted in policy changes to address major flaws in their work environment.


Collective power emanating from the Rutgers University AAUP chapter exacted work environment changes. For the first time in its history, Rutgers faced a strike from the faculty in the spring of 2019. With 88 percent of the faculty voting to authorize a strike, the AAUP was able to secure an agreement that committed Rutgers to more diversity in hiring, salary increases for the Camden and Newark campus faculty to match the New Brunswick faculty, and a commitment to equalpay (Hand 2019). Just as the voice of many highlighted and solved a problem that needed attention, department chairs can also use the voice of many to address workplace bullying problems.


These examples and others of collective organizational power are not simple fixes but are instead the collective power that forges a pathway to positive change. For the collective power I suggest in this article, chairs and deans can come together with faculty to craft positive policies that prohibit workplace bullying. Institutions typically present antibullying policies next to antidiscrimination and antiretaliation policies. An individual department chair fighting a well-entrenched curmudgeon faculty member faces a daunting task at best. However, with higher education reporting 58 to 62 percent of colleagues dealing with workplace bullying, it is a common problem that should lead to the cultivation of allies if such bullying is to be eliminated.


In all these examples, a group came forward to rally for justice; perhaps at times department chairs overlook collective power. I am not advocating for reverse mobbing but am instead suggesting a collective perspective that a group can set policy. The chair does not have to become a martyr; collective support can lead to positive intervention.


Knowledge Is Power


Many colleges and universities are crafting antibullying policies in light of

the necessity for creative, inclusive, and respectful collaboration that fortifies higher education. Functions such as team teaching and coauthorship require cooperation, a quality often written into college mission statements and strategic plans. If bullies spread their abhorrent behavior throughout the department or division, they likely are not connecting with students or other

faculty. Bullies who cannot forge such relationships but instead abuse students and fellow colleagues are not working within the parameters of the institutional mission. A tactful discussion about the organizational and institutional mission may serve as a wake-up call for emerging bullies.  


Workplace bullies who are willing to break the spirits of colleagues are often willing to break laws and policies. For example, bullies are known to take credit for academic products from other colleagues and graduate students. This type of workplace bullying is an academic integrity charge. If bullies ignore scholastic ethics, department chairs can fortify their intervention with knowledge of the institutional policies on academic ethics.


It is important to note that workplace bullying disproportionally affects women and people of color, as these populations typically reside in lower-ranked positions in the academy. If bullies exhibit a pattern of harassing those from protected classes, these bullies can quickly find themselves subjected to Title VII or Title XI violations. Department chairs who avail themselves of such knowledge, or seek advice from their equal employment opportunity office, can potentially coach bullies out of behavior that could otherwise rise to the level of discrimination and potential lawsuits. Such conversations with bullies should be private, documented, and informative in cautioning bullies about how their behavior can put them and the institution at risk.


Bridging the Power Differential


Too often, colleagues become exasperated when bullying behaviors strangle a department’s culture. Chairs can also feel isolated when the bully has the stronger organizational entrenchment or reputation. Sentiments such as “Things will never change” or “That’s just the way the person is” only serve to solidify bad behavior instead of addressing it. As with any organizational issue, there are no quick fixes. Nonetheless, civility champions, collective power, and informational power can help chairs to reshape a department plagued by a bully. 




Hand, Kelly. 2019. “Rutgers Full-Time Faculty and Grads Win Contract.” Academe. full-time-faculty-and-grads-win-contract#.XhqNeFNKhmA.


Hollis, Leah P. 2019. “The Abetting Bully: Vicarious Bullying and Unethical Leadership in Higher Education.” Journal for the Study of Postsecondary and Tertiary Education 3: 1–18.


*Leah P. Hollis is associate professor in the Department of Advanced Studies, Leadership, and Policy at Morgan State University. Email: