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The Unspoken: What’s in Your Leadership Closet?

We don’t talk about this, here.

As much as I like hearing people make new resolutions and set new goals, I wish more leaders would start by addressing the elephant in the room. The problem that I see in every institutional or departmental culture is the unspoken. It looks different from one campus to another, and has various types of repercussions, but it’s pervasive.

It’s not what we face but what we avoid that holds us back. Unspoken problems and feelings tend to spread and fester. Think about it for a moment. What issues make you feel frustrated, or discouraged, or even angry? What do you wish you could say, but you keep to yourself because you don’t feel safe speaking up?

“The true underlying obstacle to brave leadership is how we respond to our fears. The real barrier to daring leadership is our armor – the thoughts, emotions, and behaviors that we use to protect ourselves when we aren’t willing and able to rumble with vulnerability.” – Brené Brown


If nothing came to mind, you either work in an exceptionally healthy environment, or you have developed an amazing mindset that helps you focus on the positive, but you could have some blind spots. Let’s look at some common examples of subjects people tip-toe around or avoid completely.

1. Honest feedback

If only people could receive honest feedback, they would be able to solve many problems and improve situations. Instead, they are kept in the dark by coworkers or supervisors who are unwilling to have potentially uncomfortable conversations, or are afraid to express their opinion, or choose to think they are too busy to make the time for it... It’s a often a problem for administrators who want to be liked by everyone or who are afraid to hurt people’s feelings. But effective interpersonal communication is not criticism and is not hurtful, and anyone can learn it.

2. Expert opinions

Higher ed. leaders are asked to participate in meetings because of what they know and what they can contribute to the conversation. When their subjects of expertise are brought up, they have valuable information to share but may not be encouraged to do so. Politics, power play, or large egos around the table can make the room hostile. People fear retaliation and often keep their mouth shut when sensitive topics are discussed. When administrators don’t feel valued, they are even more likely to stay quiet. They may even assume that people who appear more accomplished already know what they know, or may know better. They are too afraid to say something obvious or something wrong, so they keep their thoughts to themselves.

3. Employee issues

In higher ed., addressing employee issues such as unsatisfactory performance, poor attitude, or unprofessional behavior can be a long, stressful, and tedious process without positive outcomes. The manager may have to counsel the employee numerous times, do a performance improvement plan, and document all of the issues for months or even years before dismissal can be considered. For that reason, it’s common for supervisors who have not been able to make someone correct their behavior, to give up on them and ignore them. Everyone knows to expect less of that problem employee and other staff members have to pick up the slack. When the most problematic employee behaviors are tolerated, the team’s morale is negatively affected.

4. Chronic problems

Some administrators are notorious for missing deadlines, being late to meetings, forgetting to follow-through on action items, and creating bottlenecks when their staff need a decision made or even a simple signature on a document. Cultures that value being busy as badge of honor will often condone being unreliable, as if it were inevitable. Busy people make excuses and those who suffer can’t call them out because they are supposedly doing their best. But no, I promise you, no matter how impressive someone’s job title is, there is always a way to prioritize, get organized, and follow-through.

5. Resisting change

Countless innovative ideas are not communicated because too many people cling to tradition or simply to old habits. Leading change in higher ed. can be a grueling process, especially when it requires buy-in from all constituencies to succeed. There can also be a sense of entitlement for people who have worked on the same campus for a very long time and have an excessive sense of ownership. For example, some hiring committee members may be biased when they want “their” candidate to be chosen for a leadership position and are opposed to hiring an external candidate.


Facing reality with courage

Leaders in higher ed. have the duty to shake things up, reduce dysfunction and denial, and bring improvements to the workplace. Will it be easy? Probably not but choosing what is easy is not compatible with being a leader.

To start having meaningful conversations around issues that have been avoided for a long time, you need to create a safe environment. Make sure people feel valued, understood, and safe when sharing ideas. Establish some ground rules regarding respect, open-mindedness, and fairness. Offer professional training and coaching to your team members on emotional intelligence, interpersonal communication, leading change, and motivating employees.

You can’t expect people to know how to change the way they think, speak, and act overnight. For example, if your department’s culture normalized avoidance in order to “be nice”, or on the opposite, ego-driven hostility and blame, you will have to start by communicating a clear vision and providing structure for people to be able to grow. And of course, you must lead by example. Demonstrate what courageous and considerate communication looks like, and make sure to encourage others to follow your lead.

So, what will you do? Don’t try to improve too much all at once but please select two or three cultural issues you will transform this year. If you would like me on your team, send me a message or schedule a complimentary call with me and we’ll discuss how we can work together to make the process successful. Talk to you soon!


About the author: Dr. Audrey Reille has empowered thousands of professionals through one-on-one coaching, group coaching, speaking engagements, online courses, and interviews on international telesummits. Audrey is the go-to coach for leaders in higher education administration. She empowers them to thrive by reducing stress, optimizing strategies, improving professional relationships, and developing a strong and empowered mindset. For more information, visit

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