3 Strategies for Newer Chairs

Decorative: The words "helpful" and "tips" crossed at the "p" as in a crossword puzzle


"From Surviving to Thriving: Top Strategies for Newer Chairs" (post) outlines three strategies (including 15 specific tips) that "will help you move from surviving to thriving as a chair" -- "concrete strategies you can put directly into practice."

The specific advice covers three topics (each is elaborated within the post):

  • Managing email (8 tips)
  • Responding to complaints (3 tips)
  • Maintaining harmony (4 tips)

A. Managing Email 

"Without a deliberate strategy for managing email, the newer chair can quickly become buried in the daily deluge [of email]."  

1. "Turn of email alerts".

  • "[Y]ou don’t need an alert to tell you when an email comes in."
  • "[Y]ou can safely assume that email is always coming in."

2. "Check email only at the start and end of the day and work for set amounts of time, from thirty minutes to one hour." 

  • "Otherwise, entire days can get eaten up with email."

3. "Limit your replies to five lines or less." 

  • "If you find yourself writing more than five lines, ... the issue is too complicated for an email."
  • "You can’t solve big problems over email."
  • "Whenever an email starts to get too long, switch to a different kind of response: phone call, face-to-face meeting, referral to a committee, and so on."

4. "Create email templates for commonly sent messages."

  • "[P]aste in the relevant reply rather than rewriting the same information over and over."
  • "As soon as you find yourself writing the same basic email twice, ... file it away as a template." 

5. "Don’t use your email inbox as a to-do list." 

  • "The volume of emails chairs receive is simply too huge to make your inbox work as a to-do list."
  • "Pull tasks out and list them somewhere else so that you can remember them." 

6. "Use a simple filing system for your email." 

  • "[Y]ou do not have the time to file it inside folders inside other folders inside other folders." 
  • "[T]ry to use ten folders or fewer to store everything." 
  • "Label your folders by year, such as '2018 Chair.'" 
  • "Whenever you are debating whether to file an email, see step seven." 

7. "Delete! Delete! Delete!" 

  • "You simply don’t need nearly as many old emails as you might imagine."
  • "No one is likely to ever ask for them. Just let them go." 

8. "When you aren’t deleting emails, deal with the rest by using one of the following":

  • reply if you can do it in five lines or less"
  • "forward if you can send it to someone else to worry about"
  • "wait on it because, surprisingly, some chair problems solve themselves without your interference"
  • "list as a to-do item and delete the email"
  • "when in doubt, delete!" 

B. Responding to Complaints 

"[H]andling complaints is a regular feature of the job ... have a concrete strategy for responding."

1. "[T]ake and keep on file notes about any complaints that you receive."

"[A] surprisingly high number of the people who ..  complain are mostly looking for an opportunity to vent."

  • "[T]aking notes ... convey[s] both your attentiveness to the complaint and your personal investment in seeking a solution." 
  • "When the person making the complaint sees you writing, they know they are being heard." 
  • "[W]riting longhand conveys ... that [you] are investing carefully in the details of the issue." 

2. "[R]esist the urge to take on the emotional baggage that the person making the complaint is carrying." 

  • "[O]nce the person has finished describing the situation, ... respond with tested phrases like, 'What I hear you saying is . . .' and 'The reason you are upset is that . . .'"
  • "[F]ollow these statements with a careful recounting from [y]our notes."
  • "Very often, this action resolves the complaint entirely because it meets the person’s fundamental need to feel heard."
  • "[B]eing heard [may be] even more important to people than having you actually solve the problem, especially if the problem can’t be solved very easily." 

3. "[A]sk for whatever they need in order to respond to the complaint."

a. "[Y]ou might need more time, continued patience, other peoples’ input, or the like, so ask for what you need."

  • Do "not view all complaints as matters that must be solved on the spot ... take your time."
  • "[P]eople often come with a complaint that has been brewing for a long time, so you really can’t solve it immediately, and it can be a mistake if you try to go too fast." 

b. Be "selective in taking on the problems that inevitably show up at [y]our doors."

  • "[H]elp the complainer think through ways they can resolve the issue."
  • "Talk things over with the person directly. Say, 'What do you think you can do to help reach some closure on this issue?'"
  • "Chairs can help with many problems, but [they] can’t solve most problems alone." 

C. Maintaining Harmony 

"Newer chairs can make a difference in overall department harmony by adopting the four following actions": 

1. "Apologize for situations that lead to difficulty for others." 

  • "This is not the same as owning responsibility for all difficulties."
  • "[T]ake steps toward maintaining or re-instilling harmony with remarks like, 'I’m sorry that this situation isn’t better right now,' or 'As chair, I want to apologize for this institutional difficulty arising.'"
  • "[S]uch an apology requires ... an appropriate, trustworthy tone."
  • "A surprising number of situations are mollified with a sincere apology." 

2. "Thank people." 

  • "[S]end out ... thank-you notes to people within and beyond the department ... simple notes recognizing a contribution to department or university life ...  [and/or] more personal acknowledgments of the way an individual handled a difficult situation."
  • "[T]hese quick, handwritten notes go a long way toward encouraging the sort of good behavior that allows chairs and their colleagues to thrive."
  • "[T]hank people in department-wide emails and list people you are thanking on department agendas."

3. "Recognize colleagues’ achievements publicly." 

  • "The start of department meetings is a good time to do this."
  • "[M]ost people feel good when their hard work garners attention from their colleagues. "

4. "Get out of the office." 

  • "Spend a small part of each day walking through your department talking to people."
  • "A simple walk around the halls lets you connect briefly with colleagues and listen to what is going on ... let[s] people see [you] being present to help ... [and] create[s] an opening for learning about a small problem before it could grow into a big one."
  • "[T]his brief chance to interact informally with faculty of all levels [is also] an invaluable part of the relationship building that is at the heart of all productive departments."
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