Management Bad Mouthing Management

Question:

I work for a University and we recently got a new Campus Dean (Dean X). Our previous Dean received a promotion and left. Dean X has only been at his position for two months. Being a campus Dean takes a lot of training and hands-on experience to really know the ins and outs of procedures. There are three managers (Well, will call them A, B, C) that constantly badmouth Dean X. They complain that he doesn’t know anything and they don’t know why he is here.

Manager C went as far as discussing how much she dislikes Dean X to a faculty member. The faculty member in turn complained to the associate Dean about how unprofessional Manager C was. Managers A and B frequently make remarks about Dean X and his lack of managing skills to staff and students. Mangers A, B, and C try to avoid Dean X at all costs. When new students apply to the University, A, B, and C simply point to Dean X’s office and say, “The Dean’s Office is in there.” They do little to inform students about campus life. When students’ GPAs are low, counseling is required from the Dean. Mangers A, B, and C will bypass Dean X and try to catch an Associate Dean to assist them.

I am the Dean’s assistant and I constantly hear Managers A and B complain or say distasteful remarks about Dean X. The campus Dean is a position with big shoes to fill, and I feel they are not giving him a chance and the respect he deserves. Managers A and B keep tabs on what happens in this department. If a phone is unanswered or the library is not staffed, Manager B will call Dean X’s boss to complain instead of asking him what happened. In every case that Manger B has complained, the issue was blown out of proportion. No students were denied service. An employee had simply stepped away from his desk.

I want to tell Dean X what about all of this; however, I hesitate to because I don’t know how to approach this situation. I just want to state the facts and have a healthy work environment again.

Signed,

Want A Healthy Work Environment


Answer:

Dear Want A Healthy Work Environment:

Your question boils down to: Should I talk to the Dean about the badmouthing of his subordinate managers, and if so, what should I say? It is natural for you to want to protect your boss, the Dean. And it would be good if you could. But you can’t. Those who badmouth may do so for good reasons or for the common reason that most of us can some fault of those in positions of authority or some other reason, but you can’t stop that. Even if you told your boss that Managers A, B, and C were talking behind his back, he probably could not stop them. So don’t carry that burden of worrying about the Dean. Probably he was hired after extensive investigation of his qualifications and he was the one chosen. No doubt he is a big boy who knows that criticism goes with the job. He is now part of an administration team and will learn how to fit in. Does that mean that you can do nothing? In the case of complaints, such as those by Manager B about phones not being answered, or other things, you do have a reason to keep the Dean informed and to do your best to correct and prevent reasons for such complaints to be made again. What else might you do? You could speak directly to the managers who complain, when and if you hear them. You can urge them to voice their concern and to make suggestions directly to the Dean so that the problem they see might be addressed. You can frankly say, “The Dean needs your ideas and support. Why not give him the benefit of your concerns?” If they reject your “talk to the Dean” suggestion, you can thank A, B, or C for their concern and ask for the what, when, where and who of it so that you might understand the problem. As an assistant, you then can do what you can to deal with the matters of complaint yourself and/or take the complaint to the Dean if it directly concerns him. I have served under several deans. Sometimes I have wondered if they earn their pay, and I initiated a reverse evaluation process. I felt that if the Dean is to evaluate those beneath him, those below should have an equal responsibility to evaluate the Dean. Wise Deans would institute such a feed-upward process, and if they regularly did that their college would run more smoothly. Deans are fixtures in the university system, and therefore, those within the system, either bite must their tongues, gossip, or voice their suggestions that might make the university run effectively and efficiently.

Perhaps as an assistant, you have already or can prepare a list of the tasks that you know need attention and the dates that they must be handled. You can think as though you were in the dean’s shoes and can make suggestions to the dean that might help him avoid the criticisms you have heard. You can have a time-out session with him to clarify your own duties and ask how you might make his job more effective.

Most deans are responsible for approving new hires, promotions, pay increases, and, as you mention, advising students with academic lapses. If managers A, B, C are avoiding the dean, there might be ways to involve them and or others in matters that affect them. This might be in weekly or bimonthly “Where Are We Now and Where Should We Be” sessions. A new dean probably has brought with him some notions of where he wants his college to be. To get support for that entails the dean’s informal individual schmoozing and focus-group brainstorming. A new dean also must meet with his superiors and get support for what he wants and what they want for the college. One of the most neglected tasks of departments and deans is a failure to nurture continuing contact with alumni. That is something you might one day have an opportunity to suggest; a college newsletter and interactive e-mail contact with alums.

As an assistant, you should think of your self as a member of a team, not just as an assistant working solo for the dean. Obviously, you are not one to tell the dean how to manage or carry out his duties, but you have a special role to play. Can you do that? Can you put your self in the Dean’s shoes and be a can-do team player? Team players encourage the coach to have skull sessions after and before each game. They cheer on each other. Is it possible for you to not only cheer on the Dean, but also cheer on those things that deserve cheers for Managers A, B, and C?

You are to be commended for wanting to have a healthy working environment. Most certainly a university should be that. So I wish you well. Please do feel free to keep us posted on what you see that works and fails in your little circle of the world. Working together with hands, head, and heart takes and makes big WEGOS.

William Gorden