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Overwhelmed by complaints on campus?

What 75+ cabinet leaders learned about responding to grievances on campus at EAB's Compassionate Leadership Seminar

June 21, 2023, By Megan Adams, Managing Director, Research

Over the past few months, over 75 college and university cabinet leaders have gone through EAB’s Compassionate Leadership Seminar. I sat down with EAB Research Advisory Services Director and Subject Matter Expert Melanie Overton to learn what has made this seminar so popular and what leadership takeaways partners bring back to their campus teams.

Megan Adams: First of all, who has been attending this seminar? When we first offered it, we thought it would be popular mostly with VPs of student affairs—compassion is such a central element to what they do.

Melanie Overton: That’s true, compassion is central to their work and we’re definitely working with the VPs of student affairs in this seminar. What’s been interesting, though, is that we actually have had more chief business officers and chief financial officers participate in the seminar than the student affairs leaders. Provosts, too.

MA: Really? What do you think accounts for the broader-than-expected appeal?

MO: I think leaders realize that building and rebuilding trust has become more important than ever in the pandemic recovery period. The crisis experience tested relationships between leaders and teams, the faculty and staff, and the institution itself. Leaders across every function, including finance and operations, can see that.

MA: How would you describe the energy of the participants? What kinds of issues and challenges do they bring with them into the seminar?

MO: Leaders feel compassion-fatigued themselves, and rightly so, I should add. It’s like there’s not always a lot left in the tank.

But at the same time, they’re tremendously dedicated to leading their teams through this recovery period. If anything, they’re more inclined to act to respond to issues and complaints than they were before the crisis. Two years of “pandemic mode” has primed leaders to jump into action and respond to issues as they arise. They’re springloaded in a sense. On one hand, this responsiveness is a good thing, but it’s wearing people out and they’re missing opportunities to get beyond surface-level issues that get raised by members of their teams.

MA: When we talk to college and university cabinet leaders about how they’re trying to build trust or respond to faculty and staff grievances, it does sound like they’re doing all the right things. They’re actively soliciting feedback, they’re holding town halls, they’re listening. Why does it seem like it’s never enough?

MO: The lesson of compassionate leadership is that building trust and addressing people’s concerns at the institution is not about doing more. It’s about taking a step back and ensuring we’re doing the right things. For example, listening is a central discipline of compassionate leadership. You’re listening to understand, not to compile a list of to-dos. That’s hard when complaints seem never-ending.

MA: It’s a rare day when we’re advising cabinet leaders to slow things down. Usually, we’re advising leadership teams to move faster to keep up with changing market conditions or out-of-sector competitors.

MO: I know! But in this instance, what we’re finding with the partners attending the seminar is that they’re so focused on action that they can skip an important diagnostic step: what’s the underlying trouble for someone or a group? So, the quality of our listening affects the quality of our ultimate solutions. But it also affects the quality of our relationships. We know that empathetic listening communicates that we care about people.

MA: Could you describe the EAB Complaint Translator for people?

MO: Well, the Complaint Translator starts with the basic premise that some complaints aren’t really complaints. They are a search for meaning. That can be kind of difficult to wrap our heads around because some complaints can be minor or even seem ridiculous to leaders. But the Complaint Translator can help reveal the deeper meaning.

MA: Can you give me an example of how it works?

MO: Sure, one example that comes up a lot is complaints about different hybrid work policies for different groups. Someone might say about another group of staff, “They have two remote days per week, but we only have one.” It’s a common complaint that comes up and on the surface, it looks like it’s about a hybrid work policy.

But the Complaint Translator would reframe that as a deeper concern about some groups being favored over others on campus. The next-level, deeper question is whether we have staff who feel treated like second-class citizens. Where do we have cultural divides between groups? Faculty vs. staff describes so many campuses, but we also know there are groups within each that can feel undervalued or pitted against each other. That’s not solvable by adding another remote work day.

MA: Is the suggestion, then, that leaders stop taking action to address more minor complaints? Is listening for the meaning where it stops?

MO: Not at all. Leaders should absolutely keep responding to more minor complaints, but listening to the search for meaning embedded in most complaints helps them figure out which to prioritize.

And we think there are overlooked opportunities to build trust just in the way leaders address seemingly minor concerns. We teach an example of a virtual suggestion box that is so much more than that. Really it’s a detailed communication mechanism between administration, faculty, and staff. The whole point of it is closing the loop with people on their complaints in a timely and thoughtful way. Sounds simple, but it does take a lot of effort. If people know the loop is going to be closed with them, they think “You can trust this organization.”

MA: There’s a lot happening in this seminar and some challenging topics. Would you change anything about the seminar experience for our partners?

MO: It’s not often that I advocate for a Zoom meeting to go longer, but we are always left wanting more. We have so much rich discussion, there’s never enough time.

MA: Once a cabinet leader goes through the seminar, what should they do next?

MO: Maybe that’s a benefit of only having the hour. We want them to find opportunities to extend the conversation and bring the ideas back to their cabinet leadership team or the teams that report to them.

And hopefully, cabinet leaders have a new lens on the complaints they’re constantly fielding. Once leaders stop feeling so much pressure to respond immediately and to everything, then they can start really listening.

Megan Adams

Managing Director, Research

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