Always an Option: Do Nothing

As UMKC’s Faculty Ombudsperson, I am a neutral party who assists faculty visitors decide how they might best resolve their workplace issues. One of my main tasks is to help generate options that might resolve a visitor’s situation. Then I encourage visitors to evaluate all options in terms of their risks and benefits. Visitors decide for themselves which is best.

Often visitors come with their own ideas for action, such as appealing to someone in the campus hierarchy, filing a grievance, or even looking for a new position in another institution. I am usually able to add other options to their list, such as referencing a policy or practice, suggesting another person who might be able to help, or coaching them to confront the situation directly in safety and civility.

I also usually offer an option that makes some visitors raise their eyebrows: To “do nothing.” By this, I mean simply accepting things as they are.

Like all options, the risks and benefits of doing nothing have to be considered. A risk is that a highly charged situation may continue to take too much of an emotional toll. A benefit is that doing nothing may be – in some ways – the easiest course of action. If the situation is embedded within a structure or culture, it might be difficult or impossible to change. It could be that as the organization evolves, the situation will resolve itself. Thus there may be value in coming to an acceptance that “what is, is.”

Deciding to accept a bad situation sometimes means reorienting oneself towards other things, such as spending more time with family and friends, focusing on hobbies or outside activities, or doubling-down on stress reduction exercises to create emotional distance from the problem.

Some visitors actually decide doing nothing is the best course of action. In most cases, they choose other, more defined options. But just the consideration of doing nothing provides perspective on the amount of time, emotional upheaval, or even career risk other options represent.

The bottom line: Our bad workplace situations are rarely easy to resolve. Considering all the options, including to “do nothing,” is the first step in moving forward.

Nancy Day is UMKC’s Faculty Ombudsperson. She is available for faculty consultation and can be reached at

What I’ve Learned in Eight Years as UMKC Ombuds

I’ve been reflecting on my nearly eight years as UMKC’s Faculty Ombudsperson. In total, I’ve talked to nearly 100 people across all of our schools, college, and several institutes.

Given the number and scope of ombuds visitors with whom I’ve worked, I want to share some general observations about our faculty and the work we do here at UMKC. These are all generalizations, so of course there are always exceptions, but I’ve found these observations dominant and compelling. My hope is you find them both affirming and informative.

First, faculty really care about their work and they are passionate about doing good work. Sometimes they shed tears and sob when believe the work they love may be threatened by resource reallocation, reassignment of responsibilities, or what they see as whim or caprice.

Second, faculty really care about their students: the ones they teach, those in their programs, and those in their schools. They are passionate about treating students fairly, giving them the resources to achieve, enhancing their enthusiasm for their profession, and ensuring they can succeed professionally.

Third, faculty sincerely enjoy working at UMKC. That’s often the reason they’re in my office: They want to improve their faculty-university relationship and are looking for a constructive path forward.

Fourth, they value their relationships with people with whom they work and seek a reputation as a contributor and a colleague. They are sometimes flummoxed by conflicts or misunderstandings, but nearly always have a goal of creating, repairing, or enhancing a good working relationship. They express a deep desire to meaningfully contribute and feel part of the team.

Fifth, they are fed up with what they interpret as political maneuvering on the part of colleagues or administrators. They resent unhealthy alliances and perceive them as obstructing excellence and productivity. They are sensitive to what they see as power-grabbing or manipulative supervisory actions, particularly if they seem aimed toward personal gain rather than productive scholarship or excellent teaching.

Sixth, and finally, while faculty often perceive supervisors and administrators as key partners in faculty achievement and accomplishment, they may also experience them as unreasonable, uncommunicative, and detrimental to success. Based on visitor observations as well as my own third-party knowledge, I reluctantly concur. While faculty supervisors typically work very hard and have tremendously difficult jobs (having been a department chair, program director, and interim associate dean, I get it!), they sometimes seem to lose the ability to work with faculty as colleagues and professionals, sometimes treating them callously, indifferently, or with deep disrespect.

In conclusion, these observations suggest that UMKC faculty and administrators work with passion and purpose, are committed to excellence, and devoted to student achievement. However, like most universities, and indeed, most organizations, we face critical challenges that must be addressed if we are to fully achieve reach our strategy and mission.

Let’s Get Real: The Dark Side of Difficult Conversations

I’d like to reveal two unpleasant facts from the underbelly of conflict management. First: it won’t always work. Second: it won’t always feel great.

Let’s begin with the first. We in the ombuds field like to wax ecstatically about all the bright and cheerful things conflict management can bring: understanding, listening, self-awareness, compassion – we are flowing fonts of optimism. For the cynic, however, these ideas may induce eye-rolling, snorting, or guffawing. Really, they think, can the world ever be that rosy?

As someone in the conflict management field, let me answer that question: Of course not. Principles and techniques about how to get along, presented by a ruthlessly cheerful conflict management expert, sound crazily Utopian. That’s because sometimes they are.

Discerning people respond skeptically to us because they know they will be dealing with actual human beings. Idealist humanism aside, people can be unreasonable, unethical, angry, and frustrating. You can read a great example here – the author describes his generous, compassionate treatment of a notoriously nasty neighbor, and his altruistic efforts are met with – escalating nastiness.

So not everyone will cooperate, be reasonable, appreciate your profound wisdom, or even pay any attention to you at all. Simply speaking, conflict management doesn’t always work.

As for the second fact: You will feel awkward. Remember going to the school dance and realizing your hair was ALL WRONG? Remember when the first three minutes of Q&A in a research presentation illustrated the obvious flaws in your hypotheses? It’s kinda like that. Conflict management means insisting on safe and constructive dialogue, which will identify you as an anomaly. As this blog posts suggests, civilly standing up for yourself means you must “expect weirdness.” People aren’t used to rational relational problem-solving. You will be the “odd-person-out,” the maverick, the misfit.

Does this means we should just forget about managing conflict constructively? Of course not. If you’re serious about the philosophy, strategies, and goals of conflict management you will improve your relationships, your productivity, maybe even your health and well-being. It does mean, however, you have to cut yourself some realistic slack. One person may be able to do a lot, but one person can’t do everything. Making a commitment to respond to conflict in ways that promote safety, encourage cooperation, and create workable solutions is an extremely sound policy, even if it doesn’t work all the time.

The Foundations of Managing Conflict

I recently did a short presentation to a class of graduate students on conflict management. Of course, no one is going to become a conflict-management expert after a 75-minute class, and having a short period of time to cover a broad and important topic “concentrated my mind,” to paraphrase Samuel Johnson. So I tried to drill down to the basics.

Many models of practical conflict management exist, and they all share some commonalities. I came up with four. Without these, no effort at mending fences will be successful.

The first is self-awareness. Probably 80 percent of an effective conflict management effort is self-work. Figuring out what we really want: our goal in the relationship – why we want it, and what our motivation is. Among other things, this requires an understanding of how our emotions may be derailing us from seeing the situation clearly. Unless we can focus on the objective facts as we see them, and not just the chips on our shoulders or the bridges burned, our conflict management effort is doomed. We must understand ourselves, our needs, and our motivations to successfully manage conflict.

The second is curiosity. Truly understanding where the other person is coming from requires a keen curiosity about what might be motivating him or her, as well as what’s really going on inside ourselves. This means we have to put the emotional baggage of anger, frustration, fear, etc., on the back burner and focus on the facts. People are interesting – why is this other person saying/acting in this way, and why are we? Humans are an intriguing species, and it’s fascinating to try to figure out all our motives.

The third foundation of good conflict management is an awareness of the other person’s humanity. We may seem fundamentally and irretrievably different, but at our roots our similarities vastly outnumber our differences. Nearly all of us want love, acceptance, success, to be treated with respect, to live in a safe environment, to be understood. Everyone has a backstory that’s rich and meaningful. Keeping this in the front of our minds as we’re addressing conflict makes it easier for us to create a bigger shared data pool, feel empathy, and perhaps ultimately solve our issues.

The fourth foundation of conflict management is based on this shared humanity – it’s love. Compassion for others, love for ourselves, a wish for the well-being for those with whom we work and interact, a passion for what we do, the knowledge we generate, the students we help develop. Without this foundation of positive regard – love – for our lives and those of others, we will struggle with managing conflict and moving forward productively.

Managing conflict is hard, and we don’t have good role models for it. But by understanding the basics, we can start looking at ourselves and others in ways that may help us mend fences and rebuild bridges.

Need Help to Resolve A Workplace Conflict or Problem?

During the first couple of weeks of class, most of us faculty are working hard getting back into the classroom routine, figuring out how to get our research projects done, and juggling around meetings and service responsibilities. As the semester progresses, issues may arise with which you may not know how to deal effectively.

Don’t forget that UMKC’s Faculty Ombudsperson is available to help you find ways to resolve your workplace issues. The mission of my office is to “contribute to a fair and respectful work environment by providing independent, neutral, confidential, and informal consultation.

I won’t solve your problems for you, but I’ll listen to your story, help you clarify your goals, assist you in generating options for action, and help you strategize next steps. I’m a faculty member myself, so I will probably understand your issue.

So if you need someone to listen, are uncertain about available solutions, or would like some coaching about how to handle a difficult conversation, the Faculty Ombudsperson is here to help. Please don’t hesitate to visit the Faculty Ombuds website and contact me if I can be of service.

Working Smarter to Better Enjoy Life

The first week of the semester is an exciting time. However, despite a once-in-a-lifetime eclipse on our first day of class, I imagine many of us faculty may be feeling some stress and apprehension. We may have had a less structured, easier-going summer and now welcome a bit of focus. But back in the saddle we are remembering the demands that teaching, research, and service make on our time, energy, and stress. Additionally, we have the pressure and uncertainty coming from unprecedented budget cuts – what will this bring for us and our colleagues?

In such an environment, it’s important to keep a perspective on what’s most important: Balancing work and personal life is critical in times of stress. One way of keeping time for personal interests when your workload may be growing exponentially is to work “smarter.” Working smarter means using your time as productively as possible. Vital Smarts, the consulting firm who originated the “crucial conversations” framework suggests the following ideas for smarter work:

  • Communicate. Smarter workers ask for help and ensure they understand expectations. They do this up-front and proactively, anticipating what they may need from others and communicating it early and clearly.
  • Organize. Smarter workers record and track what needs to be done and what’s already been accomplished. They stick to timelines. They pay attention to the details that are important for success and ignore the others.

The folks who work smarter report being more likely to finish projects, enjoy their personal time more fully, and are less likely to feel overwhelmed or stressed.

Some specific tips:

  • Keep track of all your ideas. You can use a note-taking app on a smart phone, or simply a stack of notecards in your back pocket or purse. That way you don’t have to worry about forgetting creative ideas and important tasks.
  • Plow through your inboxes (the paper one, the e-inbox, your notes) every day or two. Emptying your email inbox once a day ensures you respond quickly to the critical messages. Discard stuff that’s sitting there uselessly but stressing you out. (It goes without saying to unsubscribe from those annoying emails you never read.)
  • Once a week, take an hour and set priorities for the week, keeping your semester- or year-long goals in focus. I have a colleague who blocks out work time on her Outlook calendar for every project, ensuring she’s got time for the most important things.

If you’re interested in more productivity/stress reduction/time management tips, a good start is the Vital Smarts website, which can direct you to a number of resources. I hope these “working smarter” tips help you have a great semester!

Researching Together – Productively

In my role as Ombuds for the Academy of Management, a 19,000-member association for academics in the management field, I often work with researchers having disputes with research collaborators. Perhaps they believe someone plagiarized their work. Or the author order on their manuscript isn’t right. Or they are afraid a coauthor’s bad behavior will affect how editors perceive their own (non-plagiarized) work. These are emotional, high-stakes situations that may have been prevented. How? By ensuring that the research team starts off on a sound footing.

A great resource for finding out more is Bennett, Gadlin, and Levine-Finley’s “Collaboration & Team Science: A Field Guide,” published by the National Institutes of Health (2010). This guide presents a deep dive into what it takes to lead an effective research team. It focuses on thoughtful preparation, how to choose qualified researchers with team skills, and managing the team so success is optimized. Here’s a brief list of their recommendations:

  • Prepare. First, look at yourself. What’s your personality? Introvert? Extravert? Do you procrastinate? Is it hard for you to hear criticism as constructive? How do you resolve conflict – do you compete to make sure your side wins, or do you collaborate to achieve the best solution? Answering these questions gives you information about what you may need to work on to be an effective research leader.
  • Build your team deliberatively. Consider “interviewing” potential research partners to identify those who will be productive and constructive team players. Make each person’s roles and responsibilities clear and set expectations. Ensure everyone understands the end goal and timetable. Be prepared for disagreements and conflicts – have a plan so team members will communicate openly if they see issues with the research or the process. Agree on how you’ll share the data, establish author order now and update it as needed as the project evolves
  • Lead the team and help it succeed. Understand that group processes develop over time. It may take a couple of meetings for new people to work easily together. Remember conflict is normal and the right kind and amount is actually good – it encourages creativity and optimum decision-making.
  • Develop trust and a shared vision. Ask team members to describe how this project fits into their overall research strategies. Consider if a written agreement about work roles, authorship, etc. would minimize stress and enhance trust. Encourage team members to take responsibility and give them credit when credit is due.
  • Establish rules about communication. Set ground rules for proper interactions and urge everyone to contribute to conversations. Hold periodic meetings so communication is regular and predictable.
  • Hone your conflict-management skills. If everyone seems to be agreeing too much, consider coaxing positive conflict by taking a “devil’s advocate” position to introduce new ideas. If there’s negative conflict, establish methods by which the team can effectively manage it.

My personal solution to effective research collaborations is to work only with people I trust. However, sometimes that’s not possible, if the skills you need don’t exist in your close network. In that case, it’s essential to have some tools in your belt to ensure success in collaboration.

If you need help with a research collaboration or with any work-related problem, UMKC’s Faculty Ombudsperson is available to help you. Please don’t hesitate to contact me.

Informality: The Fourth Ombuds Principle

Imagine this: You’ve just received your performance review and you believe your department chair has treated you unfairly. Your subsequent discussions with her have not helped. You’re new to the university and department so don’t really know the ropes – you’d hate to create a stir so early in your career. But it seems unfair, and you want to do something.

One option is to consult the Faculty Ombudsperson. Because my role is informal, I may able to help you figure out some ways to approach this situation effectively. Let me explain what this means.

If you’ve visited an ombuds, you probably remember that s/he spent a lot of time listening, reframing issues, helping you identify possible options, and strategizing the pro’s and con’s of these actions. With your permission, I will sometimes consult others regarding policies and/or their interpretation on your behalf – anonymously, so you don’t have to reveal yourself. All of these are informal actions. Being an informal resource means I can help you think about your problem in different ways that may help address it without going through the complications of a formal process such as a grievance. Working with me is off-the-record, and no one will know you’ve been to see me unless you tell them.

Being informal means I don’t make binding decisions and I don’t conduct investigations. No one can require you to visit my office – I’m not part of any disciplinary process. Visiting me may help clarify if you want to take formal action, and it in no way precludes you from doing so.  If, after you consult me, you decide to file a grievance or take some other formal action, I step out of the process.

The Ombuds Standards of Practice, informality, confidentiality, neutrality/impartiality, and independence, make up a foundation for providing assistance in effective problem resolution outside of formal processes. If you’d like to contact me, you’ll find contact information on the UMKC Faculty Ombuds website.

Ombuds Core Principle: Neutrality & Impartiality

Faculty who come to me for help are often disappointed I won’t resolve their problems for them. Sometimes I wish I could – but  resolving your issue isn’t my responsibility; helping you resolve it is my role. Why?

As UMKC’s Faculty Ombudsperson, I serve as an “organizational ombuds.” Organizational ombuds are not the same as “classical ombudspersons” – those often found in government agencies or working in Europe or Canada. The major difference is that organizational ombuds maintain neutrality throughout our work. We don’t do in-depth investigations to determine “fault” or responsibility. We don’t issue findings that make recommendations for action. Classical ombuds will do these things.

Why? It’s because of our commitment to neutrality and impartiality. Our goal is to provide you with tools to use your voice and skills to resolve problems. This way, you may learn new methods or ideas to resolve future issues before they become insurmountable.

What good is an ombuds who doesn’t resolve issues? Actually, we can do a lot. Here’s a list summarized from the International Ombudsman Association:

  • We listen and understand issues while remaining neutral with respect to the facts. We don’t judge or decide who is right or wrong. We listen to understand the issue from your perspective.
  • We assist in reframing issues and helping individuals evaluate options. This helps you identify the interests of various parties and helps focus efforts on potential options that may satisfy those involved.
  • We guide or coach individuals to deal directly with others, including through using formal resolution resources.
  • We refer individuals to appropriate resolution resources.
  • We assist in surfacing issues to formal resolution channels. If you are unable or unwilling to voice a concern directly, we can voice your concern, while maintaining your confidentiality, among the organization’s appropriate decision-makers.
  • We facilitate informal resolution processes. We may attempt to resolve issues between parties through various types of informal mediation.
  • We identify new opportunities for systemic organizational change.  While maintaining appropriate confidentiality, we can be a source of detection and early warning of new issues and suggest ideas for systemic change to improve existing processes.

In my experience in my ombuds work, neutrality and impartiality is the hardest principle to explain – understandably, many faculty who visit my office want me to be their advocate. And sometimes administrators expect me to take their side. But as an organizational ombuds, my responsibility is to remain neutral and impartial. The better we can resolve our own issues, the more our university will be a place we can be productive and do our best work.


Ombuds Core Principle: Independence

Putting together a tenure portfolio is stressful enough. Then your colleagues review it. Also a nail-biter. Next your department chair will weigh in. Worrying on its own, but you’ve heard your chair is going to slam you when he writes his review of your portfolio. This is bad enough, but he’s best buds with an influential person in the Provost’s office. Understandably, you are frazzled! Who can you talk to who’s independent, or as one of my colleagues colorfully puts it, “has no dog in the hunt”?

Last fall I wrote a blog piece about one of the four pillars of ombuds work: confidentiality. This time I’d like to cover another: independence. Being independent is what allows me, in my ombuds role, to respond as I see best to your particular needs without input, oversight, or control from any other person or function.

According to the International Ombudsman Association’s Standards of Practice (SoP), independence constitutes several dimensions:

Ombuds are independent from “other organizational entities.” This means that although the position was created by the UMKC Faculty Senate and the Provost’s office, and my budget is funded by the Provost, my work is in accordance with IOA standards, outside of the Faculty Senate or Provost’s approval or permission. The IOA SoPs emphasize this: Ombuds “exercise sole discretion” about whether or how they respond to an individual’s concerns.

The IOA SoPs also state that “ombuds hold no position within the organization that might compromise standards of practice.” That means I frequently turn down committee appointments concerning any type of faculty decision, such as search, P&T, and awards committees. This means I have “no dog in the hunt.”

What does this mean for you as a faculty member considering visiting your Ombuds? If you’re that nail-biting assistant professor awaiting P&T results, I can help you create a strategy to address your concerns to better manage your stress and enhance the clarity of the process. I can help you find policies and procedures that would protect you from any inappropriate department chair influence on the Provosts’ office. At the very least, I can talk through your concerns with you, clarify your goals, help you generate options for moving forward, and assist you in building your strategy.

If you believe this kind of assistance would help you, whether regarding P&T issues or other matters, please contact me. My contact information can be found on the Faculty Ombuds website (