A dean acquaintance recalled a late-night call he received from one of his department chairs. A faculty meeting that afternoon had grown heated, and the chair, sounding harried, needed clarification: "Do you really want us to overhaul the entire curriculum this semester?"
The dean was puzzled. He had made no such demand. So what had he done or said to set off such a tumult?
Just a week earlier, he had met with the department for a town-hall-type discussion. It had gone well, he thought. Then he recalled a casual comment he had made at the end of the meeting: "Well, of course, we must always keep the curriculum as up to date as possible." Somehow, in just seven days, the rumor mill and the exaggeration engine had transformed what he thought was an inconsequential aside into an absolute demand for an immediate curricular overhaul.
The incident is a telling example of how an administrative title brings with it oracular status. What you say — or what people think you said — can affect everyone’s work and lives. All the more reason to carefully consider what you are going to say before you say what you think.
This month, the Admin 101 series — on how to become an academic administrator and succeed on the job — returns to the complex subject of how leaders communicate. We’ve already explored the extremes — four phrases you should never say as an academic leader and five remarks you will find yourself repeating frequently.
Now it’s time to survey the communication fundamentals: how to make sure people understand what you really mean.
Beware the incidental aside. The moment you get your "leadership badge," you surrender your ability to make throwaway statements that do not add anything to an interaction. Faculty members can speculate, send up trial balloons, make witty asides, and toss in non sequiturs to their hearts’ delight but you — whether you are a department chair, dean, provost, or president — have to be much more careful.
You may see an innocuous comment as self-evidently "just thinking aloud," but — as my dean acquaintance discovered — students, staff members, and professors can be justified in assuming that it was a thunderbolt from on high.
Instead, practice the power of deliberation. Instead of making a blanket comment without any qualifiers, here’s what the dean could have said: "It’s good to keep the curriculum up to date. I know you’re working on it, and I know that it cannot be done all at once."
Be as clear and precise as you can. A faculty member I know who has served many years at a small liberal-arts college described a past president as a "master of opacity," whether by intention or accident. He would call a meeting on a particular topic, but at the end of it, no one was quite sure of his actual wishes or opinions. He peppered his conversation with football-coach cliches. He always sounded supportive, but no one seemed to know quite what he supported.
Personnel and legal matters may require you to speak in general terms (or not at all), but otherwise, faculty and staff members do not appreciate vagueness in a leader. In fact, academics in many disciplines are accustomed to using extremely precise terms with exact definitions. When you are an administrator trying to communicate with a room full of very smart people, it is important to channel that impulse toward the specific.
In discussing budgets with your financial team, for instance, always take the time to define exactly which accounts you are talking about and the precise amounts under scrutiny. Likewise, in reviewing the steps for promotion and tenure with a faculty member or with a committee, you are not serving anyone — least of all the candidate — by being vague about the process and the requirements.
If you want people to understand your meaning, it’s on you to make sure there is no room for misunderstanding.
Summarize the key points you want people to remember. No matter how hard you try to be understood, your audience is full of human beings who, much research has shown, are terrible eyewitnesses, listeners, and recallers. You might offer a carefully laid out 45-minute PowerPoint on "the state of our federal grants efforts," of which people will retain just a few bits and phrases — and not necessarily the ones you felt were the most vital.
Here, too, you should borrow a simple step from your academic and pedagogical training to make sure people know what you mean. When I taught classes full time I found that it was helpful for students if I printed out the "five main takeaways" from a particular presentation. Moreover, most of us are well versed in providing an abstract (and keywords) for an academic article. Follow the same practices in your various talks and speeches as a senior administrator.
Finally, after meetings — especially ones at which something has been agreed upon — send out an email to all participants clarifying and confirming the details.
Put yourself in the mind of your audience. In political communication, a subject I have studied and taught for 30 years, a basic precept is to write and speak for your audience, not for yourself. Likewise, as you move up the administrative ranks, the constituencies you serve become more heterogeneous, and you should tailor how you speak with each one.
As chair of the chemistry department you may be communicating mostly with fellow chemistry professors and industry employers. But as a dean of arts and sciences, you must be able to write a risk-management report for the university auditors, articulate a "big ask" for a major donor to the English department, and converse at a town hall with the journalism faculty.
Bad leaders communicate in a solipsistic fashion. Good ones bone up on the expressions, ideas, and core issues of the target audience. So before you give a speech or lead a meeting, consult with thoughtful advisers who know the audience and can help you offer content and phrasing that will ring clear to your listeners.
Sure, it helps to be an eloquent and charismatic speaker, but you don’t have to be either in such moments. You just have to be understood.
Staying silent can be a good communication technique. Just because you are party to some discussion or exchange does not mean you have to jump in right away — or ever.
Take a typical situation: A course is not meeting its minimum enrollment, and a faculty member, worried about whether the class will be canceled, sends out a group email on the problem and cc’s you as the dean. Perhaps you should say nothing at this point, and let the chair and other faculty members weigh in. Maybe the only communication you need to offer at all in this case is congratulations if a positive solution is found.
In a face-to-face encounter, hesitating before you chime in or sound off may also make sense. Say you are chair of a department debating new shifts in the field that may affect the curriculum. As chair, your instinct may be to offer up talking points right away. But that may have the effect of shutting down discussion, not enriching it. Some faculty members (especially the untenured) might decline to weigh in because they do not want to be seen as opposing the chair. Conversely, others might delight in opposing the chair, regardless of their own views on the subject.
The point: Good governance allows for parliamentary interaction. As a senior leader, when you interject your opinions too early or too strongly, you interfere with that process.
Tone always matters. There is an old observation in the world of politics: Some people make friends by the way they say "no" and others make enemies by the way they say "yes." If you want to succeed in an administrative career — and do so without gaining a reputation as a callous jerk — you have to force yourself to think about how you communicate and not just what and when.
A good first step: Develop the habit of empathy. In today’s academic workplace that involves more than just putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. A contemporary academic leader must be culturally sensitive as well as cognizant of how something sounds to people of different ranks or roles.
In addition, I have found throughout my career that communication styles and preferences vary wildly from place to place: A tone or air that works well at a research university in the Northeast falls short at a small liberal-arts college in the South.
Wherever you are, listen to the locals. Make a conscious effort to study which style of communication works best in which place. Try to keep in mind that more administrators have failed because they did not "fit" a local campus culture than because they were inept at their daily labors.
No one type of personality constitutes a perfect campus communicator. I have met sphinxlike department chairs and chatty provosts and every variation of loquaciousness in between. All personalities are welcome. But what every current and future administrator must realize is that communication is hard work — a combination of innate, learned, and practiced skills and acuities. If you are convinced that you are a naturally great communicator, you probably are not. If you feel that you constantly need to improve and develop new ways to communicate to different audiences, you are probably on the right track.