Surviving Political Game-Playing in Student Affairs

November 5, 2014

Political Game-Playing in Student Affairs

The culture of working in higher education is fraught with conflict, varied personalities, and institution-wide politics. Navigating the political waters of a college or university can be a daunting and, oftentimes, frustrating process. While working in Student Affairs can be a very rewarding experience, it can also be very challenging. Although we’re all in the business of educating students, there are always competing priorities, limited resources, and personal agendas, which creates a chessboard of politics throughout each of our institutions.

When I use the term “game-playing,” I mean it in the negative sense in which individuals use the political landscape of the institution (most times unethically) to further their own agenda to the detriment of others. This is much different than being politically savvy and knowing how to develop relationships and collaborate with others in order to accomplish the goals of your department.

Here are a few examples to better illustrate political game-playing:

  • Unnecessarily carbon copying someone’s supervisor on an email to stir the waters to potentially get them in hot water
  • Planting student “spies” to dig up dirt and  tattletale back
  • Purposely befriending someone’s supervisor on a personal level in order to “conveniently” drop criticisms about that person
  • Sending anonymous communications to the president’s office with untrue allegations about a staffer’s conduct

Despite these type of dynamics, there are many strategies you can use to stay above negative political game-playing, particularly within Student Affairs.

Surround Yourself with Positive Allies - Misery loves company. Negativity and naysayers will certainly bring you down so spend your time with as many positive colleagues as possible. Befriend and partner with those who further the mission and vision of the institution rather than those who attempt to control, demotivate, and sabotage.

Concentrate on Your Students & the Work – Political game-playing takes a lot of time and energy so keep your efforts focused on the primary reason for your being there: the students. Concentrate on developing and educating the students you serve rather than getting involved with needless drama. While doing well can definitely attract undue criticism from jealous colleagues, you can always be confident that you are doing your job and contributing to solutions and not problems.

Don’t Fight Battles That Aren’t Yours to Fight - One of the easiest ways to avoid political game-playing is by only concerning yourself with those projects and tasks that are directly under your purview. Getting involved in issues that simply do not pertain to you opens up the door for undue criticism and potentially making yourself into a political target. The majority of us in Student Affairs do not have tenure so we cannot do and say as we please without potential political consequences. Please understand that I am not dismissing your need to become involved in those issues related to social justice, particularly in regards to the health, safety, and well-being of our students.

Stay Away from Troublemakers - Similar to surrounding yourself with positive allies, keep clear of those individuals who are known to cause trouble and do not seem to have many positive allies of their own. These folks are easy to spot: arguing simply for argument’s sake, lying, pawning work onto others, spreading rumors, and sabotaging projects. As they say, you are the company you keep so spending time with troublemakers can mark you as one yourself.

Don’t Squabble for Kudos – Over the years I have seen many colleagues become nasty people and attempt to stab each other in the back in order to get a pat on the back from the higher up’s. Clambering for kudos always seems to lead to trouble. There’s nothing wrong with being humble and enjoying your accomplishments privately; nobody likes the “teacher’s pet.” Granted, we all want to be recognized for our hard work, but don’t let personal pride become a source of unneeded conflict.

Don’t Compromise Your Values – Most importantly, don’t EVER compromise your values. A majority of the time, political game-playing is going to be unethical, offensive, disgraceful, and in some cases, simply illegal. If you find yourself in a position in which you are often finding yourself having to question directives because of  unethical or illegal practices, seek advice from your human resource department or even an attorney. In a worse case scenario, find another place to work. Yes, I know this is easier said than done, but you want to position yourself at a place that upholds its own mission, vision, values, and fosters your professional integrity.


Being a Servant Leader within Student Affairs

March 31, 2014

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Last night I had the opportunity to spend time at the ACPA awards reception with a former student who is now an accomplished colleague and a close friend. Opportunities like this inspire me and make me further appreciate the joys of being a Student Affairs professional.

At the convention we heard from both Kohl Crecelius and Erik Qualman about making a positive impact upon others and leaving a legacy. That is the heart of what it means to be a Student Affairs professional and a servant leader. We all have the opportunity to impact people in many life-changing ways. I, like most of you, want to serve others by enabling them to be stronger, more prepared, and to be able to thrive both personally and professionally. Furthermore, I want to influence others to be servant leaders.

Use the time at the convention to connect with others and found how they serve their employees, their institution, their students, and their communities. What are new and innovative ways they are serving others? In kind, share your own successes and even your frustrations and gain some feedback on how you can do better (and more!)

As you explore your own journey as a Student Affairs professional and servant leader, please let me know how I can help you. I am always willing to listen, lend advice, and collaborate.


ACPA Convention Professional Development Scavenger Hunt

March 23, 2014

ACPA Professional Development

The upcoming ACPA Convention allows each of us to connect and learn from one another in very impactful ways. Each of us can create our own customized convention experience, but sometimes this can be haphazard and without little or any thought behind how we determine what to do while there. I would like to suggest that you follow a professional development “scavenger hunt” to get the most out of your convention experience. By following this scavenger hunt, you will be able have some concrete goals going into the convention that can further develop your career rather than simply catching up with old friends and attending interesting sessions.

1. Attend a technology-related session and jot down ideas of how you can incorporate session lessons into your department.

2. Meet a new colleague from a different region of the country and make plans to check in on each other throughout the year via phone, email, or social media.

3. Attend a session in an area or topic unrelated to your department and attempt to collaborate with colleagues from that area when you return to campus related to the information you learned.

4. Lend some help by signing up to volunteer for one of various functional areas throughout the convention.

5. Go to a Commission meeting and plan to participate regularly in their activities and discussions throughout the year.

6. Purchase a book from the available publisher on the convention floor and share its content when returning to campus.

7. Meet a younger colleague and offer to mentor them with your experience.

8. Tweet from a session to share its content with your followers and those who are not at the convention.

9. Talk to at least one of the session presenters and offer to collaborate on a project together.

10. Take random brainstorming notes to prepare for presenting a session for next year’s convention.

Good luck with the professional development scavenger hunt. Enjoy your convention experience!


5 Career Mistakes to Avoid in Student Affairs

November 18, 2013

Mistakes in Student Affairs

1. Job Hopping – While switching jobs is endemic in higher education, job hopping is typically not a good idea. Chasing money, position titles, or trying to find the perfect institution that emulates your alma mater can unintentionally make for a sketchy-looking resume to prospective employers down the road. A resume that illustrates a job for every one or two years can communicate that you are hard to get along with, never happy, or “too big for your britches.” No one goes from being a resident director to a vice president of student affairs overnight. Promotions, responsibility, and a higher salary come from experience and patience. “Paying your dues” is very true in our field.

Friendly Advice:

  • Do your best with where you are at. While your current work situation may not be the best, use it as an opportunity to further develop your skills and your experience. If it is a negative experience, do your best to turn it into a positive for you (no matter how difficult that may seem!)
  • If you are excelling in your current role, ask for more responsibility without the expectation of increased income, which typically should not be expected anyway given the current financial climate of higher education in the U.S. This can only help you in the next step in your career path. Create the experience you want to showcase on your resume and portfolio.

2. Getting Involved in Negative Politics - Colleges and universities are rife with politics in both academic and student affairs. Unfortunately, negative politics can consume your time and energy and get you away from your department’s mission and vision. While it’s easier said than done to avoid the politics of your institution, ultimately you are in control of how to interact with your colleagues and contribute to the success of your students. That’s why we do what we do, right?

Friendly Advice:  

  • Simply put, stay away from those who exhibit negative energy. There’s enough challenges and complications within the institution outside of negative attitudes and drama. Contribute your time and energy in creating solutions and not more problems.

3. Negative Social Media Presence - Social media is now ubiquitous and entwines both our personal and professional lives. Gone are the days when all that a prospective employer knew about you was from what you listed on a paper resume. Many employers screen your online presence, and in some cases, will expect that you will have a positive and impactful presence online related to your department and the field in general. We should be role models for our students after all, right?

Friendly Advice:

  • Understand that it is extremely difficult to have a completely separate personal and professional life online. Given this, the best practice is to keep your online presence as positive, professional, welcoming, and “restrained” as possible.
  • Social media outlets are not the place for uninhibited opinion and “diarrhea of the mind,” particularly if you are looking to land the next best position in student affairs.

4. Failing to Seize Opportunities – There will be the proverbial “two roads diverged” at some point in your career in which you will be faced with a choice to participate in various opportunities. This could be anything from committees, travel, presentations, grant writing, and other institutional initiatives. It pains me when I hear colleagues complain about such opportunities and whine about extra work or not getting compensated for projects outside of their normal workload. By failing to seize these types of opportunities, you limit your exposure to meet new colleagues across the institution, share resources, and impact students on a larger (or simply different) level.

Friendly Advice:   

  • Don’t be the person who said, “Man…I wish I would have been a part of that!” Hindsight is always 20/20 so take on the prospective of keeping your eye open for opportunities as they arise. Even better, create opportunities rather than waiting for them.
  • Keep in mind that NOT every opportunity is a good one nor has to be pursued. Keep your options open and take advantage of those that will fulfill your department’s mission while also appealing to your own interests and expanding your student affairs experience.

5. Failing to Make a Difference – You are what you do; And if you’re not doing much, you’re not making a difference. I will share the same message with you that I try to impress upon student leaders: what are you creating, what are you changing, and what are you influencing? If you don’t have much to show during your next job interview other than a bland job description, others who have made an appreciable impact upon their institution will clearly win out.

        Friendly Advice:

  • Like Stephen Covey stated, start with the end in mind. What difference do you want to make? Figure that out and work toward that end. Develop goals, write them down, and display them so you can see them daily. Also, create initiatives that you can assess. This way you can qualitatively and quantitatively illustrate the difference your work has made.
  • Don’t spin your wheels to impress colleagues. You’re there to impact student learning and retention (among other goals) and not create a club of cronies. As was the case with #2 above, stay clear of drama and concentrate on your work.

* Photo courtesy of Zsuzsanna Kilian


The Leader’s Pocket Guide (book review)

December 5, 2012

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The road to leadership begins with self-understanding and so does John Baldoni’s leadership book, The Leader’s Pocket Guide.  “Leadership has often been defined as a journey. The journey begins with a starting point, and that starting point is the self.” He immediately catches the reader’s attention as he describes leadership as a journey of understanding, learning, growth, and humility. The first of three sections (“SELF”) provides the reader with 20 suggestions for improving their self-leadership skills and helps the reader understand how they interact with others as a leader. At the end of the section, there is an assessment that evaluates how well a reader leads and understands who they are as a leader. Baldoni outlines tips for growth and learning as a self-leader.

In the second of three sections (“COLLEAGUES”), Baldoni declares that one of the most challenging aspects of being a leader is leading your peers. He captures the essence behind interacting with peers and improving the relationship with them in the 33 different suggestions. He encourages the reader to understand how they are influencing their peers and gives them knowledge on how to do it in a positive manner.  The book also gives the reader an opportunity to evaluate how they interact with their colleagues and tips for improving those relationships.

In the final section, (“ORGANIZATION”), Baldoni coaches the reader on what it takes to lead an organization. He addresses everything from authentically interacting with your people and instilling a purpose in them to making time for yourself outside of the organization. Like the other sections, he provides the reader an opportunity to evaluate how they lead their team. To lead a team successfully you must execute positive change so that your team is learning and growing together. Baldoni understands what it takes to be a leader and passes on his knowledge so they are developing into positive and productive leaders.

The Leader’s Pocket Guide is an excellent tool and resources for all leaders because it provides well-rounded and diverse suggestions for improving leadership skills that can be applied to any field and any leader. It would be an excellent resource for new supervisors because it would help them evaluate how they lead themselves, interact with their peers, and supervise their workers.  It is a book that can be used over and over again to improve how a leader learns and grows.

The first 25 people to tweet this post on Twitter, like or share on Facebook, or pin on Pinterest will be entered into a raffle to win a copy of  the book. Two books will be raffled.


Surviving an Organization that Stifles Innovation

November 5, 2012

I have worked at institutions that both encouraged and stifled innovation. While working in these environments creates various challenges, you should not have to ask for permission to succeed. Organizations that stifle creativity and innovation work to preserve the status quo. This can be especially frustrating for those of you who like to try new approaches to solving problems. Without resorting to giving up or finding another place to work, there are some strategies you can use for surviving an organization that stifles innovation:

Don’t Create More Work for People – Many times new ideas can be quickly shut down because there is the perception that it will create more work. This can be especially true if you suggest an idea that you expect someone else to implement. If you bring something to the table, offer a plan that illustrates that you will take the lead and offer the resources needed to make the idea a success. Let them know that you simply need their support in principle, but not necessarily in resources or time.

Align Yourself with Decision-Makers – Without being perceived as a “kiss up,” take the time to develop relationships with those who will have a direct influence over whether new ideas are utlimately implemented or not. Not only will you better understand how these individuals make decisions, but you put yourself in a better position in which your ideas will at least be permitted to be presented.  

Provide Data and Evidence - People normally support ideas that have more of a possibility of being successful than a failure and a waste of time and resources. Do some background research on your idea and have data and evidence to support it. Sharing specific examples and case studies will lend credence to your idea. If necessary, pilot test your plan before presenting your larger vision to the group. By doing this you can demonstrate that you have had success and are able to support a larger initiative. If the pilot test does not work, you can either refine the initiative and try again, or simply scrap the idea and forget about presenting it to the group.

Create “Wins” – Find out what motivates your colleagues and superiors, and attempt to develop plans that create “wins” for them. Wins can be anything from increased program attendance, time and resource savings, increased exposure / publicity, and even prestige. These wins, of course, should align with the values, goals, mission, and vision of your organization. You will have a more difficult time gaining support for your own ideas if they do not in some shape of form create wins for others.

Spawn Your Own Projects – Stated simply, blaze your own trail. Use the amount of freedom that you do have to create your own projects. As long as you are following within the parameters of the mission and vision of your organization, you do not have to apologize for trying to create progress through new ideas. If you wait around for approval or acknowledgement from others, you may never bring a new idea to fruition. As I stated in the opening paragraph, you should not have to ask for permission to succeed.

Become a “Thought Leader” – Innovation breeds innovation. Those who are seen as experts in a particular area and strive to create new knowledge or innovative ideas will attract others who want to be a part of those exciting new developments. Tap into an area you are most passionate about, and do your best to make connections with others within your organization who share the same passions. You can even expand your circle of influence to include others you interact with online and via professional development networking opportunities (i.e., national and regional organizations, webinars, conferences, social media, tweet up’s, etc.) Blog, tweet, and publish your innovative ideas in order to gain a level of respect about your area of expertise. The more you are seen as a thought leader, the more likely you will be able to influence change within your own organization.

What are some other strategies that you have used to implement a new idea within your organization? Please share your thoughts below.

* Photo Courtesy of Pop Catalin


Combating Staff Fatigue

September 3, 2012

Work can be satisfying, gratifying, and challenging, but it can also be demanding and tiring. Have ever felt exhausted, had your creativity stifled, or found yourself irritable with your coworkers?  If so, you are not alone as this is a common theme among overworked employees called “staff fatigue.” If you are unsure whether you or your team is suffering from staff fatigue, there are a few behavioral warning signs and questions you can ask yourself:

  • Have you noticed a significant change in attitude?  (Those who were once easy going are now on edge.)
  • Do you or your staff members perceive most things in a negative way?
  • Is there are breakdown in communication? Are staff members having trouble communicating with one another?
  • Have you noticed significant changes in performance or production?
  • Are you staff members complaining more than usual?

If you find that you are answering yes to the majority of these questions, then you or your staff could be suffering from staff fatigue. It can affect anyone at any time, regardless of the type of work they are performing. Staff fatigue can be caused by overwork, dissatisfaction, poor balance between work and personal life, and lack of control over the work environment. It typically occurs during the busiest work times because staff members are working extra hours and spending more time together than usual. We can notice it in our student staff member because it can be particularly difficult for them to separate their work from their personal lives due to them living around one another and having constant interaction.

So if you feel that there is an issue amoung your staffers, how do you go about devising a solution and returning your team to its fully functioning and creative zenith? As a supervisor or team member you should:

  • Relax and take a deep breath before acting.
  • Extend your hand in appreciation.
  • Toss in some time off to give everyone some breathing room.
  • Understand the issues from each staff members’ perspective.
  • Recognize the work and effort of your staff.
  • Create open dialogue and the need to maintain open communication.

When team members spend more than eight hours a day with one another sometimes personal quirks can work their way under each others’ skin; after multiple days of the same routine it can become too much. As a supervisor, you must remain aware of your staff members’ feelings towards the work they are doing and realize when they are at their breaking point. As a team member, you need to be open with how you feel and communicate your feelings with those who are directly involved. Whether you are a supervisor or a team member, communicating with one another is one of the most basic and essential functions, and also it is what is needed to help return the team to a positive, productive, and creative dynamo.

For additional information, click HERE for a 30 second video (“30 Second MBA”) from Fast Company titled How do you re-inspire exhausted team members? by Dr. Joseph Folkman, Ph.D.

Have you ever encountered a situation where you or your staff has been overwhelmed by fatigue? If so, how did you work through it? What techniques did you use? We welcome your stories, thoughts, and ideas on this topic.


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