Can Your Head of Department Ever Be Your Friend?

I hope the answer to this question is “yes” because I am a Head of Department. For my part, I can say definitively that, as a Head of Department, I am indeed friends with many faculty members whose work I oversee. But there are several unique challenges to be overcome if these friendships are to be sustainable and two-way.

The hardest part, by far, of serving as a university leader is accepting the fact that you cannot please everyone. Perhaps more accurately stated, you cannot please anyone all the time, meaning, by extension, that everyone will be displeased with you at one point or another. It’s the nature of the job. Because resources are finite, Heads of Department cannot meet everyone’s career expectations. Similarly, everyone cannot meet “our” expectations when it comes to performance.

I say “our” expectations because they’re not really ours. A Head of Department is a middle manager charged with cascading performance benchmarks that come from the top. This reality is often a huge obstacle to the formation of friendships with some faculty members. It is our job to enforce and communicate performance standards. For those falling short of those standards, the backlash is usually, first and foremost, against the Head of Department, as though we were the ones plotting to make your lives difficult and miserable.

The relationship between a Head of Department and a high performer is usually smooth sailing, but not always. A Head of Department may have to reject a vacation request for operational reasons, or to assign you a course to teach because no one else is available to teach it. But, on the whole, most high performers see the Head of Department as a friend because, looking at the “big picture,” their careers are well supported overall.

The real difficulties present themselves when a Head of Department must take corrective action against individuals. These conversations can be extremely difficult for faculty, but many would be surprised to find that they are extremely difficult for Heads of Department as well. In fact, they are so difficult for so many Heads of Department that oftentimes the desire to be “liked” by faculty prevents those conversations from ever taking place. This might be expedient for both parties in the short-term, but in the longer term, a Head’s failure to act will be damaging for all, and especially for the individual in need of corrective action.

But the fact that an individual is placed on a performance improvement plan or is called out for incivility doesn’t suggest that your Head of Department is not your friend. On the contrary, a real friend is someone who tries to help you walk the right path, for yourself and for your career. You may see us as an enemy when we are, in fact, offering friendship.

“A real friend is someone who tries to help you walk the right path, for yourself and for your career. You may see us as an enemy when we are, in fact, offering friendship.”

We Heads of Department want to be your friend. It may not seem like it to you. But vertical friendships in the workplace are indeed possible if everyone enters into them with the right mindset and expectations.

Professor Andrew R. Timming

This article is published under a Creative Commons 4.0 License.

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