To Promote a Collegial Workplace, Invest in People

When you attend a conference, particularly one geared toward academic leadership issues, you’ll find that the most heavily attended sessions are often the ones that focus on collegiality and conflict management. In the face of what seems to be an increasingly uncivil society, the call for collegiality has never been louder.

Robert Cipriano, Ed.D., professor and department chair at Southern Connecticut State University, has conducted research and written extensively on the topic of collegiality for more than 10 years and in his consulting work has heard the horror stories.

“When I got into higher education back in 1972, I had the expectation that collegiality and civility permeated the climate of institutions of higher education,” Cipriano said. “I’ve since come to realize that this is not, by any stretch of the imagination, what is reality.”

In the recent online seminar Fostering a Collegial Environment: Guidelines for the Department Chair, Cipriano outlined what collegiality is and what it is not, what the U.S. courts have said about “lack of collegiality” as a basis for personnel decisions (even the firing of a full-time, tenured faculty member), and proactive strategies for facilitating a collegial, civil and respectful environment.

According to Cipriano, the number one thing a department chair can do to promote a collegial workplace can be summed up in three words: “invest in people.” This can be operationalized, he said, by doing the following:

  • Help people achieve their goals.
  • Develop a genuine interest in every faculty member.
  • Treat people with respect and dignity—always.
  • Remember that relationships built on trust and fed by personal integrity are the foundation.
  • Recognize that poor behavior by others does not require you to respond in kind (but you do need to respond).
  • Model characteristics you wish the faculty and staff to exhibit.
  • Acknowledge that leadership is more a function of people’s relationships than the position.
  • Recognize people publicly for their achievements.

Yet even with all these efforts, department chairs can find themselves with a vitriolic faculty member. In the case of promotion and tenure decisions, Cipriano said the courts have consistently concluded that collegiality, even when not specified as a separate evaluation criterion, is a relevant consideration in assessing teaching, research, and service.

“The most valuable assets in a university are its people and the intellectual capital they possess and the culture they create,” Cipriano said. “There will be conflict. Conflict is normal and conflict can be positive, but it should not be personal and it should not be disrespectful.”