Enticing academics to contribute

It’s a challenging time to be an academic leader. Whether you are head a school or department, leading curriculum teams or research groups, or coordinating a course, your critical challenge is to entice your academic colleagues to contribute to the many activities that need to be completed.

Academics are not necessarily a biddable bunch.  Raised to be independent thinkers, they are often inquisitive people who are more interested in the new and exciting than the regulated and mundane.  In an ideal world, they would remain removed from all tawdry administrivia and continue with their single-minded pursuit of knowledge.  But that is no longer an option. The modern academic has to contribute and will be expected to sit on committees, contribute to university activities  and hopefully, move into leadership at some point.

Your challenge as a leader of academics is to engage your members so that they feel the time they spend working with you on administration is worthwhile.  They are busy people with immense demands on their time.  Your desire to progress your leadership agendas may seem to be barriers to achieving their personal goals.  So how can you entice your academics to participate?  Some useful hints are offered below and may increase your success.

  1. Set an expectation that everyone contributes.  Universities are moving more strongly on this front, arguing that university service is part of being an academic citizen. It is best to share this perspective and build the understanding BEFORE you want to recruit people!  The more it is seen as part of the culture, the less resistance you will encounter.
  2. Outline why the tasks are important and what the individual will need to commit. (If you can’t explain why they matter – perhaps you need to think about whether they really do?)
  3. Make sure the processes are smooth and easy to follow. Plan them carefully so that they don’t require a lot of reworking or explanation.  People are more willing to assist if they feel the system is logical and smooth.
  4. Match the demands to the individual’s capacity.  Don’t ask enormous contributions from people who are already overwhelmed.
  5. Don’t kill the workhorses.  Reliance on people who don’t know how to say no is unfair.  They may, in fact, need protection from themselves, so that they can create a more viable balance across their contributions  and academic outcomes.
  6. Acknowledge your contributors. Recognition and valuing means a lot to people.  It signals that you have understood that helping required time that could have been spent in other ways.
  7. Make sure the contribution matters: successful outcomes show that the time was well spent.  If your projects don’t get finished or have no impact, you will quickly lose your willing pool of contributors.
  8. Think about how the role / contribution might assist the individual.  Do they need to have more experience in leadership, or more profile across the university?  Will they develop new skills that will be seen as beneficial in their future roles? Think about creating win-win scenarios, where the opportunity becomes a career enhancing experience.

The academic world has changed and so too, has our notion of academic citizen.  You can entice academics to contribute, but be strategic about what you are asking for , and by whom.