Building Effective Relationships with Faculty, Administrators and Staff

by Andy Howard and Kristina Kauffman

It has been suggested that everything you really need to know you learned in kindergarten. One valuable lesson was the importance of getting along well with others. During your career in the community colleges, you will find that working effectively with others can be key to a successful career. Perhaps more importantly, it can be key to a happier career, richer with opportunities to serve and create lifelong friendships. Often, however, building effective relationships with colleagues can seem particularly challenging. Academics are often skeptics who love to analyze information and behavior, and can be quick to offer a detailed critique. Those who fail to recognize this common aspect of academic culture can find themselves personally offended and professionally limited.

Before we explore just how one might maneuver effectively through the system, let's step back for a moment and explore the notion of culture and climate and how they impact life on a campus. William Bergquist, writing in The Four Cultures of the Academy (1991), defined culture as "a phenomenon so elusive that it can often be seen only when a college or university is struggling with a particularly complicated or intractable problem." Culture and climate can be viewed as deeply held values that are difficult, if not impossible to change.

The Corporate Culture Survival Guide (1999) defines it in part as, "The way we do things around here." Watch for this phrase. It is used commonly in academia, as in the corporate world, and is often a reflection of perceived norms, rather than fully defined and articulated policies or procedures. A skeptical new faculty member can quickly get into trouble by questioning those using the phrase in an effort to close discussion or block change. Of course, sometimes the challenge is worth it, but it's important to recognize which battles are worth fighting.

Culture is distinguished from climate. Climate is a mood or attitude held by most people on a campus, or in a department at a particular moment. As a result, it is far more easily changed. The skeptic who questions the vision of climate at the moment, may not be so heavily resisted and may support improved relationships.

Let's imagine for a moment that you are new to a college or new to involvement in a particular aspect of college life. How can you locate the minefields of culture? First, and we imagine this is abundantly obvious to all our readers, think consciously about culture and climate cues. Watch, listen, and appear to really care about how people are currently doing things. Pretend, if necessary, that this is an assignment for an anthropology class and for a few days or weeks, avoid judgments and simply gather data. Find out who is concerned with the welfare of others (particularly our students) and who is interested in their own personal agenda. Discover what the pressures are on staff, administrators and other faculty members. Seek out some history.

Particularly helpful to beginning any analysis of culture and climate can be the gathering of data about various entities' areas of responsibility, challenges and successes. The table below may be helpful as you begin to study your college. The perspectives of individuals from these groups are found in the dig deeper sections. While their voices are clearly their own, the editors believe that their perspectives are commonly found in community colleges.


Areas of Responsibility


Favorable Outcomes


Dig Deeper Coming Soon

  • Class work
  • Feedback to Faculty
  • Student Government
  • Life obstacles
  • Limited financial resources
  • Work Schedules
  • Career and educational goals met

Adjunct Faculty

Dig Deeper


  • Course preparation
  • Course presentation
  • Student interaction
  • Grading
  • Feedback to students
  • Multiple teaching sites, commute time
  • Minimal voice in decisions
  • Lack of physical resources for support (i.e., office, phone, email etc.)
  • Lack of connection with colleagues
  • Full-time faculty who do not appreciate their role
  • Awareness of college systems
  • Student success
  • Stronger sense of community

Full-Time Faculty

Dig Deeper Coming Soon

  • Course preparation
  • Student interaction
  • Grading
  • Feedback to students
  • Committee assignments
  • Curriculum development
  • Program development
  • Overload of committee work
  • Other work outside classroom
  • Research in discipline
  • Attending 4-5 day conferences
  • Time required for hiring other faculty
  • Student success
  • Program implementation
  • Enrichment of curriculum
  • Up to date curriculum information
  • Quality new hires / colleagues

Senate Leadership

Dig Deeper Coming Soon

  • Academic and professional matters 
  • Considerable time required
  • Collegial decision-making environment

Bargaining Unit Leadership

Dig Deeper Coming Soon

  • Contract negotiation
  • Grievances
  • Keeping Senate-bargaining issues separate
  • Potential adversarial relationship may spill over into other areas
  • Faculty rights are upheld
  • Faculty receive a fair contract

Curriculum Committee

Dig Deeper Coming Soon

  • Curriculum Integrity
  • Dealing with reading, printing and electronic authorization process
  • Satisfies Chancellorís requirements
  • Smaller committees, faster approvals
  • Automated database

Classified Staff


  • Supporting instructional program and student services
  • Working under time pressures
  • Surges in work volume, e.g. registration periods
  • Smooth running institution


Dig Deeper Coming Soon

  • Resource management
  • Fiscal responsibility
  • State advocacy
  • Ed Code compliance
  • Accreditation of program/college
  • Statewide budget constraints
  • Shifting priorities
  • Balancing institutional faculty vs. student needs
  • Institutional viability / relevance
  • Responsiveness to community needs

Once you have completed your investigation, a bit of analysis may prove helpful. Bergquist suggests that four cultures or frames are commonly found in academia. It is important to point out that many colleges have differing cultures depending upon the department or entity:

  1. Bureaucracy (structural frame)
  2. Colleguim (human resource frame)
  3. Political system (political frame)
  4. Organized anarchy (symbolic frame)

In a college dominated by bureaucracy, one commonly finds a rational structure for decision making, with rational processes clearly in place. The leadership makes decisions, resolves conflicts, solves problems, evaluates performance and output, distributes rewards and penalties, collects and analyses data, follows organizational processes and systems, anticipates orders from those above, and delegates authority. The college hierarchy typically looks like a pyramid. Those who are successful as leaders in this system (faculty, staff or administrative leaders) take the administration's position on issues, direct work toward the accomplishment of college goals, objectives and outcomes, and advocate on behalf of their group with the administration. Life in the bureaucracy is, in short, generally stable and predictable. Important change may not occur quickly, but arbitrary decisions are also avoided.

Where collegium is the dominant culture, power and values are shared in a community of equals with a consensus as the result. The leader, as a facilitator rather than as the person at the top of a pyramid, helps the group reach consensus. Other leaders (staff, faculty or administrators) live up to the norms of the group; use established channels of communication; do not give orders that will not be obeyed; listen; reduce status differences and encourage member's self control. Change occurs via consensus, and this consensus can be reached quickly or very slowly depending upon the issue.

In the political system, people compete for power and resources. Usually the objective of the college's system of behavior appears to be the maintenance of peace, with the leaders in the role as mediator of peace or progress. Effective leaders (administrators, faculty or staff) pay attention to constituents rather than data. They rely on intuition, experience, sense of the situation, persuasion, and diplomacy. They compromise on means rather than ends. They accept conflict and disagreement, mediate progress, practice the "art of the possible," clarify group values, reduce the cost of participation, analyze differences, design alternatives, and persuade the conflicting parties that their own interests are furthered by accepting the proposed compromise. In short, the political system looks like a tug of war. The powerful are coalition builders. Change occurs when the powerful perceive it to be advantageous to their career or entity.

Organized anarchy requires the finding of meaning in a community of autonomous actors. The objective of the college's system is the self-actualization of individuals. The leader responds symbolically, not instrumentally. To function effectively in this system, effective leaders (staff, administrators or faculty) spend time on the issues that matter to them. They persist in advancing ideas, exchange status for substance, facilitate participation of the opposition, overload the system, manage unobtrusively, interpret history, and act like buffers that absorb problems, solutions, and participants so that they are prevented from sloshing around and disturbing arenas in which people wish to act. Belief is often substituted for action. The leader is an interpreter, elaborator, and re-enforcer of the team's culture. Change occurs inconsistently.

Pause for a moment and reflect on the culture you observe in your college or department. More importantly perhaps, think about its influence on you. Does your personal style or world view work compatibly with the culture of your college or department? If it does not, can you adapt or outlive the current administration? If you can work comfortably within it or adapt, what might this mean for your career?

So how do you get what you want and continue to be as effective with your students as possible?

This is not a trivial issue. Some faculty spend their careers frustrated because they can't seem to get chalk. Others get chalk and much, much more. For those focused on service to students, these skills can mean the difference between providing your students with an adequate education or an excellent one. No one teaches in a vacuum. Colleges are made up of teams, and moving the team (or going with it) in the right direction can mean better access, better education and better student success.

If you work in a bureaucratic culture:

  • Get support from top administration
  • Use rational planning: assume passive consumers (young students), and controllable, predictable forces when preparing your arguments.

If yours is predominately a collegial culture:

  • Get support from powerful leaders
  • Use the social interaction model of change - seek change through social networks beginning with innovators, then early adopters, early majority, late majority and finally laggards.

In a predominantly political culture:

  • Get support of top administration or union leaders
  • Use rational planning and/or political models of change - gain change through negotiating, distribution and use of power, attention to the needs of constituents, the finding of "issue" sponsors, and the use of intuition.

In organized anarchy:

  • Become an excellent interpersonal communicator and group facilitator
  • Use social interaction and/or resolution of human problems models of change (human problem models achieve change through improving interpersonal relationships, emotions, group dynamics).

Still can't figure out your way around the system? Seek out a mentor who can. Find those who are positive, optimistic, and creative. Avoid running into the same wall twice. Figure out how to go around, under, over, or change direction. Seek a grant. Build a coalition. Attend a conference and network with people from other colleges to see if others have found a solution that may work for you. And, if all else fails, reflect on whether or not the culture of the institution in which you are working suits your personal style and worldview. If it does not, you might be best served to seek work at a college that does.