Trying to avoid politics in higher education is like trying to avoid weekend work obligations in September; it’s inevitable and it’s something that you have to face one way or another. Every institution has it and it’s actually something that can work to it’s own advantage, despite the messiness of it. But it can be pretty tricky to navigate, particularly if you are a new professional and/or just started in a new position. No matter the instance, here are few reminders/tips that can help you navigate the political waters a bit:
Get to know your constituents.
It may be obvious that you know your supervisor, but to whom does your supervisor report to? Whom are your colleagues, within and across departments? You want to find folks you can trust and who understand your work. Developing solid, trusting relationships is one of the first things you can do on the job. Identify your confidantes and those whom you most likely should avoid. Also, what is the preferred methods of communication in your department? E-mail? In-person? Get to know and understand the strategies that people use for communicating to senior leadership. You want to make sure that when you communicate, that whomever is receiving the message you want to relay is focused on the issue, not focused on how you chose to relay it.
Know the campus ethos, or “culture”.
It’s important to develop an understanding of the campus’s needs and the environment in which the community works, lives and plays. The traditions, the songs, the history. All of these are important to shaping and making a campus – no matter how it has changed through the years. The knowing how and why it changed is what’s important. How does your role fit within this environment? Has it typically been an ally to students or one that is polarizing? You will want to do some detective work in how students have responded to those who came before you. Be patient with the process. We all know that no one really appreciates someone that comes in and changes things around the first week – heck, the first year – without fully understanding what the campus culture is all about.
Know your organizational charts.
Organizational charts should be one of the first pieces of information that you hunt down on your first day on the job. They help you to determine not only whom reports to whom, but also who manages a specific unit or department. Organizational charts lay out the decision-making pattern or flow of the division. For example, who is responsible for all things that have to do with students at the university? That is most likely the most senior leadership person in your division, and in all probability, that is the person that is driving the ship – establishing strategic vision and the goals.
Determine the issues.
Once you get settled into the work, issues will undoubtedly arise and you will need to know how to navigate the problem-solving path. What is the issue you need to resolve? Is it complex or simple? Is it an emergency? Is it something that you can sleep on before making a decision? I’ve learned too many times to count the hard way of reactive decision-making and/or communication. If it’s not an emergency, you have time to think through the stakeholders and whom you need to involve when it comes to solving the problem and/or whom to communicate the problem to. Trust me, it’s worth the time. The “do first, apologize later” doesn’t always work the way you wish it did.
Some “Do’s and Don’t’s” that work no matter the institution you are at:
DO ask for help when faced with a situation.
Do understand whom your decision will effect – even if it’s the smallest of decisions.
DO determine who, what, where, why.
DO collect all the facts before moving forward.
DO talk to stakeholders.
DO get to know you can trust and talk to.
DO find a mentor at your work that you can confide in.
DO be respectful of those who are trying help you or educate you on an issue.
DON’T introduce yourself via an e-mail to colleagues or senior leadership by “hey”, particularly if it’s a serious issue.
DON’T assume that you know everything – or that whatever you heard 2nd or 3rd hand is the truth.
DON’T send an e-mail when you are angry or frustrated; think on it before you send, better yet, ask to meet in person.
DON’T go above your supervisor’s head if you are not getting the answer you want right away. Talk it out with someone first.
Every institution has them, and not one culture is the same. Politics are everywhere and no matter how many days you wished you worked at Pottery Barn rather than where you are, I can guarantee you that Pottery Barn has their share of politics, too. If you develop positive working relationships from the start and ask a lot of good questions, you’ll have calmer waters ahead.
> BONUS <
Podcast With Clare Cady on Access to Higher Education