Faculty Focus


Leading During Difficult Times: Improving Morale and Enhancing Communication

One of the goals of any academic leader is the ability to improve morale. But how do you do that in difficult times? How do you make members of the faculty and staff feel appreciated and optimistic about the future when raises are minimal or nonexistent and operating budgets are reduced?

Invest in people
Challenges to faculty and staff morale tend to increase when people feel unappreciated or sense that their contributions do not matter. Difficult times at an institution mean that academic leaders often need to redouble their efforts at recognizing groups and individuals. Take time at meetings to single out those who have gone the extra mile. Place an expression of thanks on the group Listserv. Keep a box of thank-you notes in your desk and spend half an hour each day writing five or six notes to the people you’ve been depending on.

But don’t be superficial in thanking someone. Whenever you express gratitude to a person, be as specific as you can. A simple “thanks for everything you do” has far less impact than a message in which it is clear you have noticed exactly what that person has contributed and the impact it has had.

Explore alternative rewards
Although financial challenges frequently make it impossible to reward employees through raises or bonuses, it sometimes becomes possible to find other ways to acknowledge the high quality of an employee’s work.

One-year, expendable money may be easier to identify than the ongoing funding that would be required for a raise. For instance, salary savings resulting from a sabbatical or leave of absence may give you the opportunity to shift funds temporarily from personnel to supplies, equipment, and travel.
Upgrading an employee’s computer or purchasing a new type of equipment or software can often make their work easier, more enjoyable, and more productive. Funding a workshop or conference can allow the person to enjoy a brief respite from daily responsibilities on campus.

In the case of support staff, even small gifts that you purchase on your own can be very welcome. Don’t wait for Administrative Assistants Day to arrive; instead, thank the person with a gift certificate to his or her favorite restaurant, a massage or spa day, flowers with a thank-you card, or anything else that is both professionally appropriate and meaningful to the recipient.

Finally, if no other alternative is possible, consider whether you can relieve someone of a duty that the person finds particularly unpleasant. Excusing a faculty member from a committee or reassigning a task from full-time support staff to student workers can make an immediate difference in the experience people have on the job.

Communicate frequently and openly
It can be tempting for academic leaders to immerse themselves in addressing problems during difficult times, spending every minute of every day working on the challenges rather than devoting time to public meetings and informational sessions. But members of the faculty and staff need more information during a crisis, not less. When people do not have access to clear and accurate information about what is going on around them, they yield to fears that are almost always worse than reality. Rumors become mistaken as facts, and the administrator’s desire to focus exclusively on the problem becomes misinterpreted as a “bunker mentality.”

Those who “barricade themselves in their offices” are perceived as shutting out those who could help them or, even worse, preparing job applications for other, more prosperous institutions.

During difficult times, therefore, it may be necessary for monthly faculty and staff meetings to be held weekly, weekly email announcements to be sent daily, and additional efforts to be made so that all communication is open and transparent. At times, simply knowing that something is being done can cause people to feel that challenging problems can be solved.

Jeffrey L. Buller is dean of the Harriet L. Wilkes Honors College at Florida Atlantic University. He is the author of The Essential Department Chair: A Practical Guide to College Administration (2006), The Essential Academic Dean: A Practical Guide to College Leadership (2007), and The Essential College Professor: A Practical Guide to an Academic Career (forthcoming). All are published by Jossey-Bass.

Excerpted from Improving Morale during Difficult Times, March 2009, Academic Leader.