Rarely, if ever, are we as student affairs professionals formally taught how to navigate the politics behind working in the field. As is the case in working with people in any career, learning how NOT to burn bridges is a important skill that we all can benefit from. Below are “10 Ways to Burn Bridges in Student Affairs” and how to adequately navigate yourself away from being called a trouble-maker:
1. Refuse to understand and embrace the culture of your department and institution.
We all become indoctrinated with the culture of the schools we grow up in, particularly our undergraduate institutions. Yet as we move onto different institutions for our graduate degrees and new professional positions, we can face completely different types of environments. Being able to adapt to new environments and people who have already established careers there can be challenging. It is important to take it slow and learn the culture of your new department and the institution as a whole. You can be perceived as threatening and making negative judgments about their program, particularly if you try to implement ideas from your previous institution too quickly. Create allies and collaborators before attempting to create programmatic changes. This is not to say that you cannot do your best and bring positive change to the department you work for, but take the time to understand the lay of the land before trying to make sweeping changes. Pushing too hard too quick will cause problems.
2. Speak negatively of colleagues at regional and / or national conferences and meetings.
The student affairs profession is a “small world,” and you will certainly have lifelong connections with individuals in the profession. This means that there is a good chance that you will have interactions with people you currently work with after you leave the institution and also have interactions with folks you have yet to work with. With that being said, you must remember that you are a student life staffer wherever you go. Keep in mind that there are ears everywhere when you go to national and regional conferences and meetings. Someone that overhears your negative comments can potentially be an important colleague or employer in your future.
3. Speak negatively about your colleagues and / or supervisor.
If you have something to say, say it directly to the individual in question in a private setting. People do not know how to change their behavior(s) unless you tell them. No one really wants to hear your complaints (unless of course your colleague or supervisor is doing something illegal, but there are proper forums for that on campus to file a complaint). Not to mention that there is a good chance that your criticisms will get back to your colleague(s) or supervisor at some point anyway in some shape or form. As was the case with #2 above, it is better to bite your tongue rather than have your tongue bite someone else (particularly your supervisor!) You may not necessarily get the result(s) that you want if you do have a private discussion, but at least your loyalty and professionalism cannot be questioned.
4. Attempt to outshine your colleagues in all that you do.
While this may come to a surprise to those of us who are “achievers” as defined by Strengths Finder, being competitive can actually be seen as a threat in many cases. This is particularly true if it is known that you are trying to make a point that you are more capable than your colleagues. Rather, bring your colleagues on board for some “competitive collaboration,” and raise the bar while including them in the process. This way you are not perceived as being “you-against-the-world” in your endeavors. As was stated in #1 above, create allies and collaborators to help you. In this regard you will most likely be seen as a leader in the department rather then a trouble-maker or know-it-all.
5. Use students to further your own personal agenda.
In many cases, students will emulate the causes and passions of their mentors and supervisors. This can be a positive learning experience for students, particularly when the cause is related to strategically-created student learning outcome efforts. However, this can be a dangerous proposition when the cause is solely for personal gain or vindictive reasons. Students should not be caught up in the personal conflicts and politics between full-time staff members that can often occur. Those outside of the drama looking in will quickly judge you for involving students in affairs they do not belong. This is not good for you, nor the department you work for.
6. Never admit that you are wrong.
We all have something to learn from our mistakes. While it can extremely difficult to admit that we are wrong or that we have made a mistake, acknowledging our shortcomings will go a long way with our colleagues. Remaining steadfast to a notion that everyone else does not agree with will not earn the hearts and minds of others. It takes courage to step back for a second and consider a new perspective that you do not necessarily agree with. Likewise, there is something to be said for someone who can admit that a decision or choice they made did not work.
7. Jump the chain of command.
Not only is this one of the quickest ways to burn a bridge, but it is also one of the quickest way to lose your job. Your superiors are you superiors for a reason, and you must respect that (whether you like them or not). Jumping over your supervisor’s head to speak to their supervisor (or even higher in the chain of command) will seriously call your loyalty into question. (This should go without saying, but you may have to do this in the case of illegal activity). If you are not getting the results that you want related to a decision or project, you must find another way in which to readdress the issue. (See #3 above). If you do not like what is going on, you can either change yourself, change your boss, or change your job!
8. Fail to follow “the lines of loyalty.”
This goes along with #1, #2, #3, and #7 in a global sense on campus because you may not know whom is connected to whom. Many individuals can be connected to one another outside of those divisional and departmental lines as defined by the institution. Just because someone on the other end of campus has nothing to do with your supervisor from a departmental standpoint does not mean that they do not already have a relationship in some shape or form with them (or anyone else in your department for that matter). Understanding the behind-the-scenes “lines of loyalty” is crucial as you can create allies or know whom to avoid (particularly if they are trouble-makers). Associating yourself with a known enemy of the department will invite problems. When in doubt, keep your mouth shut and stick to trusted allies.
9. Fail to practice humility.
A little bit of humility never hurt anyone. People want to be around others that are fun to be around, are good listeners, demonstrate integrity, and are inclusive with others. Additionally, change the things you have direct control over and leave the rest alone (See Stephen Covey’s “Circle of Influence – Circle of Concern” in the The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People). “The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One that Isn’t” by Bob Sutton is a great book on this subject that I highly recommend, particularly if you find yourself in this scenario at your workplace.
10. Leave an institution / position on a sour note.
Colleagues and co-workers will remember more about your exit from the job than when you first started. While you may not be leaving under the best of circumstances, leaving gracefully is always the best practice. On the other hand, burning every bridge on your way out the door with negative comments and / or actions will really cause you yourself more emotional distress than your intended audience.
What is a “bridge” you’ve seen burned during the course of your student affairs career, and what was the lesson learned?