Help me before I slap someone.
August 8, 2009 8:38 PM   Subscribe

New faculty department chair needs help.

I am a department chair for a small college library consisting of four faculty (librarians) and three civil service. I have worked at this library for 20 years and never wanted to be chair. I became chair after a major "Storming of the Bastilles" event. So, now I am chair of a completely dysfunctional department. Our direct supervisor is a lovely 84 year-old assistant dean who just wants everyone to work hard and get a long. It ain't happening.

Our staff is all female. I don't think that is necessarily the problem, we had males in the past and were still a mess.

On staff we have:
A passive/aggressive tenured 65 year old, who will literally stop talking to people she works with for years. But will talk behind everyone's back. She gets upset if you rub your eye or look away for a second while talking to her, she considered it an insult.

A 75 year-old tenured mother-type, who people will run away from and hide in their office or a bathroom stall. She is clingy, needy and drives people crazy. She is the former head librarian (department chair).

A 41 year-old non-tenured bomb shell (absolutely stunning) who uses her physical beauty and flirty personality to get around male faculty and administrators, and to my chagrin, gets away with it. She also has decided that she does not need to do any work or come to work more than 4 hours per week.

A screamer, this woman will start screaming and ranting without warning. And not occasionally, but frequently. She is so busy fuming and complaining that she gets little work done. But at the same time she can be lovely, charming, and sweet. She is frequently sick.

A lovely cute woman (28) who keeps her head down and works like a dog.

A lovely bossy woman (52) who works like a dog and is a joy to be around. But expects way to much of me.

And me, a tenured 51 year-old woman who is not great manager, but whom everyone but the old head librarian wanted to be chair. I am not suited to this. My strong suit is computer systems and technical work. I prefer to be left alone and let people figure out their problems. I can make suggestions, but I really don't have the personality to deal with personnel problems. People wanted me to be the chair because I am considered easy to get along with and nice. I am actually not that nice, since most of the time I am resisting the urge to slap the people I work with.

The head librarian is faculty. I have no supervisory authority over other faculty and very little over civil service.

I have talked to my vice chancellor and assistant dean, and both told me that as head librarian I have to make the department work. So how do I do this?

As department chair I do not get a reduction of my other work, so I am still doing my systems and computer work and I am performing the department chair duties. The previous head librarian only did head librarian duties. I don't have the time or personality to cultivate or mentor people. I am not empathetic and quite honestly, don't give a damn about people's problems. I believe when you come to work, you work, not expect therapy.

Any suggestions on what I should do? I cannot resign the department chair position, since it would revert back to the old department chair, which is unacceptable to me. What should I do personally to ameliorate the situation? How should I act? What steps do you suggest?
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (16 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Can you fire people? I suggest firing the 41 year old since she sounds like the most active shit disturber. If you are able to bring in one more hard worker, you will have critical mass over the two old bats.
posted by crazycanuck at 8:48 PM on August 8, 2009

I work in a library (but not YOUR library) so I understand the dynamics you are facing, as well as the fact that you are expected to get things done without actually having any power to make staff do assigned tasks. You also have to cultivate a lot of the "accept the things you cannot change, etc "

You can't do change the personalities you are working with but you can change how you deal with them. Whatever you have done in the past that didn't work, stop that and try something new. Look at everyone's tasks, make sure they understand what their tasks are and what the deadline is for each task and bring up their failings with the supervisor. But with no threat of job loss or cut in pay you don't really have a stick to beat them with. And I doubt you have money for carrots either.

Don't start slapping people but you can firmly tell your bossy staff member that you expect her to solve her own personal problems with other staff and you are working with extreme limitations on your power to change things in the department.
posted by saucysault at 9:00 PM on August 8, 2009

Hi Anon - what are your responsibilities as chair, and what are your own objectives? Define "make the department work".

Every workplace has drama, keep in mind that you don't need to solve everything.
posted by txvtchick at 9:04 PM on August 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

Sounds like the 28- and 52-year-old and you are doing all the actual work, and it sounds like you'd be more productive if the others weren't there. So if you can't fire or demote them, just let them "work" from home, or take sabbaticals.
posted by nicwolff at 9:05 PM on August 8, 2009

I feel your pain. Price for all 3: $100.55
posted by lalochezia at 9:06 PM on August 8, 2009

It sounds like the piece of this situation that you can most easily address is your own strength or weakness as a manager. That's also fortunately a huge piece of any dysfunctional work environment. I have seen good managers handle very difficult employees skillfully and I have seen bad managers allow moderately problematic behaviors blow up into misery for all involved.
posted by Meg_Murry at 9:43 PM on August 8, 2009

Did you get any increase in pay with the new title? It sure sounds like you didn't get any new powers or respect. If this was a disguised demotion, and management is not the career path you care about, start looking for a new job. What incentive do you have to stay?
posted by benzenedream at 9:52 PM on August 8, 2009

The one thing I wondered about is what if any conversations you've had with F41, if there's been what people in Texas used to call a Come to Jesus meeting--one person relating how things will be and the other person listening. Essentially, though not so bluntly, "You have a better chance of eating every book here than you do of getting tenure."

Operationally, the two with tenure sound like lost causes based on their ages, tenure status, though it seems like at this point there's nothing to lose from a colleague-to-colleague, this-isn't-healthy conversation (?).

Not clear to me if the supervisory food chain is such that you can tell the bossy one to throttle back the bossiness. Realistically, though, in the broader scheme, that imperfection sounds relatively minor.
posted by ambient2 at 10:04 PM on August 8, 2009

I find the following line very troubling: "I have no supervisory authority over other faculty and very little over civil service." When someone adds new responsibility to your job, you need three things out of it in exchange: compensation, authority, and respect.

You're doing more, so either you get more money, or a better title, or something — otherwise you can heap the weight of the world on someone who makes minimum wage.

The people who hand you the responsibility must, until you truly screw up, respect you. They must respect your decisions and your competence.

Finally, to truly have responsibility, you must have the authority to do your job. It could be requisitioning supplies or the ability to pass along work orders to others.

Remove any one of these things and you've got a problem. Without compensation, you're getting screwed. Without respect, you're just a conduit for some else's decisions. And someone with responsibility but without authority to see that responsibility through is a scapegoat.

It sounds like you have not been granted additional authority, and I am not hearing anything about compensation. I am thinking that the vice chancellor and assistant dean have put you in a pretty bad position. They may have done so consciously, or it may be simple thoughtlessness ("let's get something more competent in there and stop worrying about it"). I suggest the following:

First, dust off your resume. (This is the first step in any job situation) Do a quick looksee on the job front and see how your budget looks.

Second, clearly write down what deliverables are not making it. Save the finger-pointing for later. If the department isn't working, describe how it isn't working.

Third, delineate what is missing out of compensation, authority, and/or respect. For example, you've been handed additional duties without being relieved of your regular workload, but you aren't seeing any more money. Or that you find yourself unable to issue writeups. And so forth.

Fourth is the meeting you have with the vice chancellor and assistant dean, where you say, "These are the patron needs we are not meeting. Here are the tools I lack to meet these needs. Where do we go from here?" You can call it "empowerment" or whatever buzzword is in vogue these days, but, ultimately, you have not been given the proper tools to do your job.

After you have been given the appropriate tools, then you can focus on the people themselves. Before that, you're stuck trying to manage without much to back it up, and that's usually a losing battle when you have a dysfunctional department. Yes, it's good that you've identified F41 as not generating much work and instead only putting out drama, but if you cannot do anything about it in a practical sense, it's just a nice little daydream about what you could do if you had some actual power.

It sounds like you don't want the job, but you also don't want someone else to do the job. You can resign the chair, it's just that you feel you could do a better job than the previous chair. You'll have to decide which one is less worse, or wash your hands of the matter entirely by either leaving or just not caring so much. The latter can be harder to pull off than just bailing.
posted by adipocere at 12:34 AM on August 9, 2009 [5 favorites]

These sort of situations develop when there has been a clear lack of leadership for a long time. What you need to do is put a rocket up them. Don't (necessarily) yell and scream, but be firm on your expectations of them. You need to have a presence in group, so that if anyone acts up they will know they have you to deal with.

This will do two things - they will take a look at themselves and think more about how they conduct themselves. But they will also start working together. Think of some of the dick bosses you have worked for in the past. The more boorish they are, the more united the people under them are. The people who you have indicated are the 'good' workers will respect the hell out of you. And the psychopaths might just be convinced to move elsewhere.

Of course, I am not suggesting you become a 'dick'. But a boss who throws his weight around occasionally (and follows through on their 'threats') will always get more out of his subordinates.

I actually envy you, these are management situations I relish.
posted by TheOtherGuy at 2:05 AM on August 9, 2009 [2 favorites]

Document their bad behavior (and timesheets for F41!) and set up a yearly/biannual review process with the dean. Get the dean on your side so you have the tools you need to make real change (a la adipocere's suggestion) Also, I agree with theotherguy, and call them out when they act inappropriately.
posted by fermezporte at 5:21 AM on August 9, 2009

This is a good book. I'd also try to focus on your mission, which I presume is to serve students and faculty, and constantly be asking your people how they can do that better. Also recognize good behavior publicly and regularly.

Perhaps you can use external motivators. If the staff aren't doing a great job then students and faculty will be aware of it. Is there a patron survey that you can use to ask your staff how to improve things? Your patron expectations must be met (and exceeded). Data is your friend.

Had a boss who knew things he wanted to change and would ask the auditors to audit that specific thing, so he could blame them.
posted by idb at 6:59 AM on August 9, 2009

Responsibility without authority! Fun!

OK. So you're a computer systems type. Your strengths are logic, organization, and systems. You put things together so that they work. Period.

The others recognize this, consciously or unconsciously, and they want things to work, so they have turned to you. They know you're smart, and -- THEY SEE YOU AS THE RATIONAL ADULT IN THE GROUP. This is the dynamic you have to work. It is your strength. They expect it. And as management styles go, it's a relatively easy one.

[Inspirational story] It's like you're teaching a junior high school class. The most effective jr high teacher I had was effective because he didn't have a teacher vibe. At all. No, he was a Normal Serious Adult. Consequently, there were few, very few discipline problems. (And guess what, he taught computer programming.)

You know What needs to get done. Figure out How, to the extent that is needed. Externals: is the library accomplishing its objective? (Is it dysfunctional in that sense? Or is the dysfunction purely internal?) Internals: "You're a great ___ , but ____. Don't ______. It makes people unhappy. I realize that _____, but seriously, tone it down. Enough said, go back to work." There's more to it, but start with the Work. Is it getting done? Pure Rationality. It's the missing ingredient. You have it. It may be the only way you'll not mind doing this.


Something that you may not be good at (yet), but which might be helpful, is delegating. E.g., assign 52 to do scheduling. If 41 doesn't show up, now you have backup for the inevitable meeting with the hiring/firing authorities. (If they don't do anything, take it to the next level, or get 41 transferred.)

41 does need the aforementioned come-to-Jesus speech. If you want to be nice: You: "41, you haven't been showing up more than 4 hours a week. What's going on, is there a problem?" 41: "Blah blah blah" You: "You are still employed here. You have a responsibility to _____. And now I have a responsibility to _____. [Show up and do your work or else.]"


Eh, either that, or bring a paint ball gun to work. (That's what you get in an all male department.)
posted by coffeefilter at 11:37 AM on August 9, 2009


Does anyone need cultivation or mentoring? Maybe they don't.

A 41 year-old non-tenured bomb shell (absolutely stunning) who uses her physical beauty and flirty personality to get around male faculty and administrators, and to my chagrin, gets away with it. She also has decided that she does not need to do any work or come to work more than 4 hours per week.

If this is a problem and you document it and leave a paper trail, perhaps you can have action taken. Read the rules very carefully, they are your friend, stick to the letter of the rules, and document problems. So if you take this to male administrators with the intention of either getting rid of her, or at least ensuring she does work, there's no way to let personality styles affect anything. It's just a professional issue. Her looks aren't relevant.

She is clingy, needy and drives people crazy. She is the former head librarian (department chair). [..] I prefer to be left alone and let people figure out their problems.

Maybe you could do just that and everybody would be happy, or at least, not make a stink about things?

I have talked to my vice chancellor and assistant dean, and both told me that as head librarian I have to make the department work.

Is there something that's *not* working, aside from the previous chair driving everyone crazy, which is no longer the case? If nobody is going to the vice chancellor/assistant dean saying there are problems in the library, as far as they're concerned, it works, doesn't it? My sense of academic administration is, most people in roles like yours and theirs just don't want to be bothered. That's the point. So maybe all you really need to do is make sure your department comes to you with any issues, but generally give the impression you don't want to be bothered, and do what you must to not let any issues escalate to the vice chancellor/assistant dean level, because they don't want to be bothered.
posted by citron at 3:41 PM on August 9, 2009

More of my opinion: I assume F41 is up for review at some point. If you document her missing work and not meeting expectations, and first meet with her only to diplomatically communicate that she is not meeting expectations, and keep documenting any more problems.. that may work. I figure you should probably make it clear what's wrong and give her a chance to shape up.

And if there are still problems, that's when you communicate in writing that her requirements were X, you communicated to her on Y day that she wasn't meeting X, and copy the higher ups. Maybe this has to happen a few times. Copying them on correspondence to keep them in the loop, which they might appreciate (?), but also not expecting them to do anything, because they don't want to be bothered. So finally if/when this person is up for review, you'll let them know that you are extremelly disappointed in her performance, and you cannot recommend her for tenure. Maybe? I don't know who votes on tenure in this case.

I see how others' behavior is problematic, but I guess if they're tenured you can't do anything, and it's the one who doesn't have tenure, is on track for it (I assume), and doesn't get that she's not doing her job - that's unacceptable. Someone on tenure-track should really be aware that they're not justified in turning on the crazy, in fact they should be carefully working hard and offending NO ONE, until they've got tenure and are untouchable.

And ultimately if you're tenured, what can they do to you if you don't make the department work any better than your predecessor? Not much of anything, I assume, if what you really want is to just keep doing your present job, not advance, and not be bothered.
posted by citron at 3:55 PM on August 9, 2009

And me, a tenured 51 year-old woman who is not great manager, but whom everyone but the old head librarian wanted to be chair....

I cannot resign the department chair position, since it would revert back to the old department chair, which is unacceptable to me.

Ah, but it's also unacceptable to everyone else (besides the old head librarian), right? You could threaten to resign the department chair position, putting the old head librarian back in charge, if people don't shape up. Not that bluntly, of course, but in individual meetings with the others (except the former head librarian) phrase it more like "None of us were comfortable with the old head librarian in charge, so I reluctantly agreed to take on the role, but I need your help if that's going to work out..."
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 10:11 AM on August 10, 2009

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