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Conflict Management and Problem Solving as Chair

Tomorrow's Academy

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We believe that basic conflict resolution and problem-solving tenets go hand in hand when dealing with the human condition. For example, let's look at some basic premises behind dealing with the eclectic members of academic departments. They may all be in the same discipline but higher education by its very nature promotes and encourages the individual. How best to live and work together as a group becomes the primary question. This is a huge challenge for department chairs, and for all administrators as well.


The posting below looks at the role of the department chair in conflict management and problem solving. It is by by Carmen L. Taylor, Karen F. Steckol, Patti White, Celia C. Lo, and Judith L. Bonner The article appeared in The Department Chair: A Resource for Academic Administrators, Spring 2008, Vol. 18, No. 4. 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: Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

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Conflict Management and Problem Solving as Chair

By Carmen L. Taylor, Karen F. Steckol, Patti White, Celia C. Lo, and Judith L. Bonner



This article is based on a presentation at the 24th annual Academic Chairpersons Conference,February 7-9,2007,Orlando, Florida.


Becoming a leader in a higher education setting is replete with conflicts and problems. We tend to believe that conflict resolution in higher education is different from other venues. It is true that terminology (e.g., faculty cuts vs. layoffs) and issues (e.g., low faculty productivity vs management performance) are different. However, solutions can be achieved in much the same manner in all venues. Therefore, we may find valuable insights about conflict resolution by looking at business, engineering, banking, and the like for inspiration.

We believe that basic conflict resolution and problem-solving tenets go hand in hand when dealing with the human condition. For example, let's look at some basic premises behind dealing with the eclectic members of academic departments. They may all be in the same discipline but higher education by its very nature promotes and encourages the individual. How best to live and work together as a group becomes the primary question. This is a huge challenge for department chairs, and for all administrators as well.

Department chairs are chosen for certain positions because they are knowledgeable, responsible, and able in their disciplines. These traits make them successful faculty members, but different attributes must be put into action when in a leadership position. Leaders are people with vision and enthusiasm who are responsible, tolerant, stable, flexible, and of good judgment. Any department chair or higher education leader must separate their leadership skills from the personalities they work and deal with and focus on a few basic leadership tenets. Focusing on these tenets should minimize conflict in the department.

* Decisions must be made for the group as a whole. Individual desires are important but must come second. Guard with care the individual's right to think, talk, and teach as he or she wishes but not at the expense of the group as a whole. Personal grievances should be re- served for one-on-one talks.

* Always listen respectfully. Listening helps us discover wisdom hidden in unlikely sources. Learning to listen respectfully to each other, especially those who oppose us or who we do not particularly like, helps us grow in tolerance.

* Leading by punishment or expulsion is not a management strategy to be employed.

* Group strength comes from articulated goals and actions that all can embrace. A unified purpose allows us to accept diverse backgrounds and builds trust. Therefore, department goals must be established and ground rules for discussion delineated.

* Leaders have the right to make decisions. What others in the group may say or do may or may not influence what you do, but they will have participated and they must have had an opportunity to express their opinions. Leaders then have the right to determine how to proceed.

* Harmony within a group is best achieved if all members participate, including the chair. Participation means commitment to department goals. A unified purpose fosters trust in participation; that is, we can accept honest disagreement with integrity and flexibility even when things do not go our way. Full participation leads to less opposition and alienation.

* Minority voices must be protected and assured of a venue. The message leaders must send to all constituent groups is that they can expect respectful consideration. This is often done through an open appeal and grievance process. This should not be feared. Sometimes the minority opinion can bring forth new information.

* Everyone in the group must have a service role no matter what the role. If some do not participate in service they lose credibility if they complain. Rotating service is just as important because it gives everyone an opportunity to serve and keeps people from feeling self-important.

* Once service is assigned with general guidelines, the person assigned the service must decide on the details. Constant oversight is not helpful. Trust builds competence and autonomy. Always link responsibility of a job with the authority to do the job.

* Leadership accepts responsibility and is willing to be held accountable and to be responsible enough to carry out needed action.

* Responsibility and authority without accountability is an invitation for dominance.

Even if you use leadership techniques such as these there will always be scenarios where a leader is confronted with an extreme situation that must be resolved. What if it's so complex that we can't work our way through the conflict? This is where active and systematic approaches to problem solving will serve you well.

Problem solving is a search for a solution that will bring about desired results. It begins with defining the problem. This does not mean the cause of the problem must be identified. What becomes relevant is developing a solution. We must stick to accomplishing this goal without trying to change the person because changing the person is too complex and most times will result in failure. Pointing to causes beyond one's control is not a reasonable response to a problem.

There are many approaches one could use to solve problems. One that we find particularly engaging is solution engineering (Nickols,2004).The premise is simple:" A problems exists when there is a requirement for action coupled with uncertainty regarding the action to take." Nickols states that finding the cause of the problem is irrelevant and will only distract you from finding a solution. Looking for what needs to be changed to the "desired result" will be much more satisfying and fruitful. He identifies five gaps that are discrepancies between "what is and what should be."

1. Something goes wrong. Example: Everything is going along fine, then an external force, say severe budget cuts, are announced. Faculty productivity decreases. The most practical and efficient way to deal with this problem is to "adjust to what is" rather than try to change the situation. Good leadership often requires being willing and able to make hard decisions. In the case of budget cuts, the chair should talk to all stakeholders and receive input as to the best places to make cuts. Suggestions will be highly varied and, as perhaps expected, include everything except their comfort zones. The chair collects all the information and makes the final decision. It is a lose-lose situation, but if the chair makes decisions in the best interests of the department, that is the best one can ask.

2. Old ways will not produce new expected results and therefore change is called for. Example: An institution's goal is to grow enrollment by 40% over a seven - year period to increase faculty salaries and hire new faculty/instructors. A department refuses to increase class size and hire adjuncts because it believes both will dilute the quality of the program. The leadership in this example will be held accountable for unmet goals. Forcing faculty to do something will only make them dig in deeper. Perhaps one strategy could be to ask one or two faculty who are willing to change-and have credibility in the department-to investigate how other departments/universities have addressed this issue. They could then present their findings at a faculty meeting. This provides for peer interaction and persuasion rather than leadership forcing a new way of

thinking. Also, incentives and a reward structure are often better ways to have department members choose to walk with the leadership than to pull them along kicking and screaming.

3. Double whammy. Example: A university decides to move up in the Carnegie classifications and puts pressure on faculty to secure grants. Those who "play ball" will get rewarded with higher salaries, extra graduate assistants, and the like, and those who don't will be asked to teach more .Faculty who are potential grant writers are seen to be getting it all while those who are master teachers get punished. The skills necessary to solve this problem are much more collaborative in nature. Group strength will need to be nurtured. Some faculty may never buy in to the new goals, but the real leaders will find creative ways to value and reward faculty strengths without compromising the success of the department as a whole as they try to meet the institution's goals. If the chair is responsible for perks or raises, or even has input into them, he or she can reward the master teacher who teaches four courses a semester with no research obligations for freeing up the researchers from

teaching and allowing their research strengths to grow and expand. Perhaps even some of the department overhead can be directed to the teachers as a "thank you" for the chair supporting the departmental goals in this way.

4. A system or way never did fit. Example: The faculty member hired in a leadership position does not fit into the academic strengths of the department. The faculty are reluctant to trust someone who doesn't "understand" them. In addition, if the department does not value the leader's disciplinary area of expertise, once that person rotates out of the leadership position he or she has no allies. Leaders are often caught between making a risky decision and spending much time and energy anticipating all potential outcomes of a decision so as to avoid any problems. Either way, there are always consequences to decisions and leaders must be willing to admit that decisions did not workout. In addition, leaders must be prepared to make decisions they know will not work or fit as long as they are willing to admit they achieved something from the decision they made.

5. A problem calls for a first-time solution. Example: The instructional growth from example #2 has created a large cohort of nontenure-track faculty who have no voice in departmental governance. For the unity of the group, a system must be developed to provide this voice. Again, this requires very specific and collaborative team-building skills. The development of such procedures to bring faculty into the governance process will be long and tedious but the payoff will be great once all constituencies agree on the best process.

If the department chair can take a conflict and determine in which of the five scenarios it fits, the solution may be easier to address. Let's look at example #2. How many times have you heard "We have always done it this way"? When approaching the faculty on this issue it is probably best to start with the fact that we must accommodate all students who want English 101 and 102. What is the best way to deliver these 625 students their classes? The status quo is not acceptable. Let's brainstorm.

You will notice that this scenario did not provide for complaints; it focused only on the solution. Of course, resourceful faculty will find ways to take the discussion to the "cause" but the chair must resist that temptation and keep faculty on track.

It may take many meetings with countless hours of discussion and debate. But, taking the issues within the department, applying Nickols's five tenets, along with the leadership tenets discussed earlier, the chair will be better able to lead the department and keep it as healthy and positive as possible


Carmen L. Taylor is associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, Karen F. Steckol is chair of the Department of Communicative Disorders, Patti White is chair of the Department of English, Celia C. Lo is chair of the Department of Criminal Justice, and Judith L. Bonner is provost and vice president for academic affairs, all at the University of Alabama. Email:


Nickols,F.(2004).Forget about causes, focus on solutions. Retrieved August 31, 2007, from ~OPSINC/forget_about_causes.pdf