No confidence is no good: How you lead matters

The five warning signs and potential solutions for when credibility, trust and confidence are questioned.
Laurie Cure
Gail Gumminger

There is nothing worse than a contentious relationship that hits a boiling point. In 2021, faculty and staff from more than 20 institutions saw votes of no confidence from leadership. When a leader receives a no-confidence message, there is something serious at stake and leadership needs to take the necessary steps to remedy the situation immediately.

A formal vote of no confidence is a mechanism for faculty to express displeasure and opinions about the performance of individuals in leadership roles (often deans and presidents). It is a last-ditch effort to demand change and the one final push to be heard in an environment riddled with frustration and dissatisfaction.

However, what is even more detrimental to organizations are informal votes of no-confidence. This is the product of team members feeling like leadership is worthless, punitive, authoritarian and/or non-communicative. Informally, team members express no confidence in a variety of smaller, more subtle ways, which tell leaders they have lost credibility, trust and confidence in their ability to lead.

Here are 5 warning signs:

1. Faculty and staff stop coming to you to discuss needs and issues

This may seem desirable, but individuals that lose trust and confidence in your leadership will withhold information and often resort to more passive aggressive methods of getting their needs met.

2. Blaming and finger-pointing

When confidence drops, fear rises. As a result, faculty and staff begin to cover their tail and the environment begins feeling punitive and accusatory. Accountability decreases and no one is willing to own problems or solutions.

3. Increased levels of turnover

Strong employees are often the first to leave. When organizations see high levels of turnover, it is a warning sign that the environment is not supportive of engagement.

4. The Use of “us” vs. “them” language

When faculty and staff take sides and use language that is divisive, trust falters. Phrases such as, “They never listen,” or “We always get the short end of the stick,” indicate disengagement. The formation of sub-groups and cliques are another warning sign of internal disconnection and conflict.

5. Team discussions and interactions quickly turn sour

In disengaged environments, team celebrations and positive feedback are rare or fleeting. Discussions quickly develop into problems no one is willing to solve, and complaints and negativity dominate meetings.

Building and sustaining trust, credibility and effectiveness among teams requires collaborative leaders that are intentional about the alignment across all faculty members, regardless of seniority.

Leaders should focus on the following strategies to avoid votes of no confidence:

1. Recognize how money, influence, and power impact your faculty

Let’s be honest, the higher education sector has strong political influences. Managing these pressures requires skills and savvy. To successfully manage power dynamics, establish clear boundaries and expectations first. Initiate consistent decision-making processes, and welcome opposing opinions to strengthen instead of divide teams.

Ensure that all the right stakeholders have a seat at the table, Be intentional with major decisions. The right stakeholders will help you expand discussions around important decisions that could have an impact on the entire organization. Everyone has a personal agenda, but part of this element is to not cater to individual agendas.

2. Shift your mindset and welcome the open-ended conversation

As leaders, we have the power to shape the dialogue in positive or negative ways.

“Change the questions you ask your faculty. Instead of, ‘What resources do you need, ask, ‘What are you wanting to do’,” says Dr. Tim Hackett, Department Chair, Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine. “It shifts the discussion and allows you, as the leader, to better understand what excites them about the work they do for you.”

Our mindset changes when we shift away from leading with needs-based discussions and embrace open-ended conversations. This also sets the standard and encourages positive engagement across faculty.

3. Leadership is a balance of decisiveness and collaboration

Being a leader is challenging on a good day. It requires making tough calls and choices not everyone agrees with or likes. Good leadership requires individuals that rock the boat but do so in a way that brings people together to drive change.

“Leaders must gain trust to find the sweet spot between open collaboration and decisiveness. Transparency around decision making is needed,” says Dr. Hackett.

4. Be a team player and get faculty involved

It can be tempting as a leader to make decisions in small groups or independently, but faculty and staff want to be involved in decisions, especially those that impact their work. Creating forums, strategy sessions and discussions allow everyone a voice at the various stages of decision-making. There are several facilitation methods that allow large groups (up to 500 or more people) the space to provide both input and solutions.

5. Communicate clearly and regularly to maintain trust

In the absence of good communication, people make up stories and those stories become reality. “You can never communicate enough” still rings true. On average, people need to hear a message (especially difficult messages) 7-9 times before they integrate it into their understanding.

Bolstering confidence in leadership is about creating collaborative environments that allow people to express their passion and have a voice.

Dr. Laurie Cure is the CEO of Innovative Connections, a consulting firm focused on enhancing organizational effectiveness by supporting leaders and teams to improve organizational performance. Laurie holds a doctorate in industrial and organizational psychology, a master’s degree in business administration and is published author of Leading Without Fear.

Gail Gumminger is the Executive Director of Innovative Connections. Throughout her career, Gail has mentored numerous leaders and provided learning opportunities in leadership development, mentoring and coaching organizational leaders to determine strategic fit and direction Gail holds a bachelor’s degree in liberal arts, a master’s degree in public administration, and is a Fellow of the American College of Healthcare Executives.


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