Department Chairs

     This is the third in the series of six essays about academic departments.  This essay focuses on the department chair and some needed perceptual shifts around their new position, how misunderstandings can occur because these shifts do not take place, an attempt to try and categorize some types of department chairs, and some tips for how faculty may better work with the various types.  One of the major needed perceptual shifts for the chair is to focus on the group just as a group leader can find it helpful to focus on the group as a whole, to build safety and trust, and to promote cohesion by helping to resolve conflicts.

Perceptual Shifts and Changes

     Many if not all department chairs are from department faculty who have been in the department a number of years and are known to faculty as colleagues.  Some faculty may have worked with them on grants/contracts, professional presentations at conferences and collaborative writing projects.  Faculty may also have served on committees and attended social events involving the chair either university sponsored and/or personal, had lunch/coffee breaks regularly together and may even have had facility gatherings together.  These professional and/or persona interactions and relationships are altered when a department faculty member becomes the chair of the department although the changes are not openly acknowledged.

     All too often, the now department chair and the faculty do not make some perceptual shifts and this failure can cause confusion, uncertainty and even distress.  The chair is an authority position and makes evaluation judgments about other faculty’s teaching expertise, scholarship and research productivity, and professional services competencies so that the continual role shifts, such as from colleague to chair, may occur which keeps the relationship between them ambiguous.  Major perceptual shirts include but are not limited to the following.

Equal  Hierarchy /director
Focus on studentsFocus on faculty

When the department chair does not make these perceptual shifts relationships with the faculty can become complicated because the faculty member is never quite sure which role is assumed by the chair in their interactions.  The chair will usually try to remain friends where it would be clearer if they were to be friendly as that is not as intimate or close as it is to be friends.  Also, I’ve heard numerous chairs say that they are just faculty when is reality having an evaluative role puts them on a different level.  Yes, they may be classified as faculty but their role and expectations for their performance differs vastly from that for a faculty member. As an authority figure, the chair is also classified as a level above that of a faculty member where they are paid more, can discipline faculty, award raises, and many other professional duties that are not available to the regular faculty member.

     On the other hand, the department chair will find that they now have much less time for their research and scholarship because they are now trying to manage a department including students, faculty and staff.  Chairs now have to manage curriculum matters, dissentions and conflict, work assignments, performance evaluations, resource allocations, as well as the numerous reports and papers that they have to produce for upper administration.  In addition, as a faculty member they could attend to students and their learning, while now as chair, they have to also be focused on students’ complaints.  Most importantly I think, is that the chair needs to make a perceptual shift to focus more on groups rather than solely on individuals.  When chairs are not clearly functioning as a department chair with some faculty overlay, this is when they fail to adequately address the needs and concerns for faculty. 

Types of Department Chairs

     Conceptualizing the department chair as a group leader has descriptors that include the chair as being authentic, tolerant, caring, ability to establish trust and safety, attentive in interactions, fostering some group therapeutic factors, and impartial in dissention and conflict situations.  The chair would have clear goals and expectations for faculty (group members), respond empathically, encourage member to member interactions, be inclusive, provide equal treatment, and the other group leader facilitative skills. This may be idealistic but is possible.  However, numerous chairs do not act as would group leaders but are more likely to illustrate one or more of the following types.     

    Following are some descriptions for types of department chairs. 

These descriptions focus on personality characteristics, attitudes, and behaviors and are categorized here as dependent/anxious, calculator, competitive, seducer/charmer, bully and micromanager.

Dependent/Anxious: Insecure, pleasing, avoids decisions, off-loads blame, appears as disorganized, indecisive, and afraid of making mistakes.

Calculator: Ambitious, manages well, mor concerned and responsive to those perceived as influential and as being in an authority position seldom takes a stand and is more inclined to wait to see what the winning side will be, want to move “up”, and admiration seeking.

Competitive: Has a deep desire to win sometimes at all costs to win, want to be perceived by others at the “best” and most competent, nothing is too minor for them to perceive as a contest, has to have the last word, knows what is best, and is admiration seeking.

Seducer/Charmer: Has good interpersonal skills, can make the immediate person they interact with feel important and valued by them, tends to be insincere, keeps the real self hidden, uses coercion and manipulation, plays favorites, is indifferent to others’ feelings.

Micromanager: Is highly anxious, insecure, lacks trust in others’ competence or work ethic, dependent, needs constant reassurance, seeks approval and admiration, constantly checking and re-checking on others.

Tips for Working With Types

Dependent/Anxious: Volunteer for tasks to ensure that something is accomplished, be reassuring to them.

Calculator: Do not get our in front of the, set clear and firm personal boundaries, get their directions, assignments and the like in writing.

Competitive: Compliment their achievements, and monitor your competition needs so that you do not get drawn into contests that you cannot win.

Seducer/Charmer: Monitor your needs for attention, admiration, and reassurance, set clear and firm boundaries.

Bully: Avoid interactions and engagement, when possible, document abusive behavior and incidents, if you need to complain do so with a friend or mentor who is not in the department, consult university policies for reporting and redressing bullying behaviors.

Micromanager: Try to report on your progress for tasks before they check on you, give them a written plan and timetable for completing tasks.

Some General Tips for Constructively Working With Department Chairs

Request a written professional development plan for promotion or tenure or improvement or productivity expectations.

Consult and know university policies for faculty.

Keep records of your tasks, progress, and achievements.

Keep brief records of formal and informal meetings with the chair.

Balance your need to be liked with protective strategies to prevent exploitation, manipulation, abuse.