Incivility is on the rise in university culture. If you are an academic you’ve likely seen or experienced instances of bullying, incivility or mobbing in department meetings, in hallways and in seminars.
For our research on the emotional labour of leadership in higher education we interviewed 20 faculty deans from eight universities in four Australian states. What they called “smart bullies” routinely targeted 80% of them, they reported.
Of course, academics have been socialised to be contentious, to ask critical questions and engage in intellectual sparring. But sometimes these exchanges can become an intellectual battlefield characterised by vitriolic attacks, sarcastic innuendo and intellectual one-upmanship. Ideological convictions spill over into personal attacks, creating a fractured and toxic work environment.
Challenging times for university leaders
Public universities in Australia are challenged to develop strategies to lessen the impacts of reductions in government funding and international student fee revenue and unforeseen events such as the COVID-19 pandemic. University leaders face tough decisions about restructuring, program rationalisation and staff redundancies to ensure the long-term viability of their institution. It is their responsibility to engage stakeholders in forming strategies and ensure faculty, staff and students understand the intended outcomes.
These changes and platforms for consultation have fuelled ideological clashes among academic staff and administration. Combative attacks on administrators by tenured academics aiming to reveal the shortcomings in their plans and undermine their credibility as leaders are increasingly common. Untenured faculty are less likely to contribute in these forums, particularly if their views don’t align with dominant group perspectives.
Of course, there should always be space for debate in universities. The concern is when it escalates to the point of aggression and uncivilised conduct. It’s then an obstacle to achieving clarity and understanding of the issue and engaging staff in solutions.
These exchanges can have lingering impacts on workplace culture and well-being of staff, students and administration. We see this in low morale, absenteeism, increased health issues and faculty disengagement.
What sort of behaviour are we talking about?
Typically, the aggressive behaviour isn’t overt bullying. As one dean said:
“Bullying, the aggression, or yelling, it doesn’t happen much because this is a university.”
Bullying is defined as repeated patterns of negative behaviour, by a single person or group, that results in pressure, provocation or intimidation of the victim causing psychological harm. Smart bullies are adept at working around workplace policies. Instead, they draw upon a full arsenal of uncivilised behaviours such as acts of rudeness, demeaning comments and creating or spreading gossip and rumours.
Smart bullies use micro politics to create allies. They infiltrate committee structures and decisions to camouflage and insulate themselves as the real bully or instigator. Their behaviour is tolerated and often chalked up to expressions of academic freedom.
Incivility can stand alongside bullying, but is more insidious because it occurs in day-to-day interactions. Because these types of behaviours are part of most workplaces it makes incivility difficult to categorise and create policies to prevent and combat.
What are the impacts of incivility?
Victims of incivility seldom seek organisational assistance. The usual reason is they lack confidence in the process and outcome.
Human resources departments and their policies are rarely adequate to combat the unpatterned behaviours of incivility. The onus is on the victim to document these behaviours and actions. There is also little incentive for other academics to get involved in calling out bullying.
The stress of repeated exposure to intentional acts of micro-aggression can harm mental and physical health. When left unchecked it becomes part of the accepted norm of an increasingly hostile and toxic work environment.
In our study, deans described the emotional labour of maintaining composure and professional demeanour in dealing with micro-aggressions from smart bullies and their allies. These behaviours put them on edge, mindful of their words and actions. They became alert to the possibility of being blindsided at any time.
While part of being a dean is dealing with management and performance issues that involve difficult conversations, deans felt ill-prepared for the intensity and impacts on their mental and emotional well-being. They mostly suffered in silence, unable to discipline subordinates for behaviour that did not technically breach codes of conduct.
Deans who confront perpetrators risk sparking grievance complaints or rows over academic freedom. The alternative of appealing to provosts can appear weak and incompetent.
It’s near-impossible under current policies to stop or prevent incivility, but incivility is happening, the consequences are real and can have serious health and personal implications for the victims. For a sector that claims to be increasingly aware of the well-being and mental health of staff, incivility is quickly coming to the forefront of issues confronting HR researchers and departments.
Images used courtesy of Pexels/cottonbro