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Human Relations Coaching: Under the Radar

Leadership Abstract

June 2014, Volume 27, Number 6

By Bettie Tully

El Centro College was one of the first community colleges to establish the office of Ombudsman as a dispute resolution and problem solving service for students. The position of College Ombudsman was established by Dr. Wright Lassiter, who became President of El Centro College at a time when student issues were numerous and volatile.

The Ombudsman position was crafted and defined in collaboration with Dr. Bettie Tully, an experienced and well-respected Counseling Faculty member, who also agreed to be the first person to serve as the College Ombudsman.

The Ombudsman service was designed primarily for the purpose of providing students with access to an expeditious, informal, confidential, mode of problem solving and conflict resolution. It was based on the assumption that all members of the college community, if given the tools and the opportunity, would prefer to settle differences peacefully through the use of civilized dialogue and facilitated no-fault negotiation. To maintain necessary objectivity, it was decided that the Ombudsman would report to the College President rather than a specific department. This arrangement allowed for prudent discussion of general problems and trends, but did not permit discussion of confidential information. For obvious reasons, the Ombudsman was also given the license to cross all organizational lines when seeking solutions.

After several years of success with students, the Ombudsman service was made available to college faculty, staff, and administrators. The goal was to provide a human relations teaching/learning experience that could help members of the college community master better strategies for resolving issues that appeared to be intractable.

In 2007, when Dr. Lassiter became Chancellor of the Dallas County Community College District, he expanded the College Ombudsman role to include serving as the Chancellor’s Office Ombudsman. The charge remained the same except access was extended to all DCCCD College Presidents and other members of the Chancellor’s staff. At the same time, the Ombudsman was assigned to be the Chancellor’s problem solving agent for random complaints received in his office.

In an attempt to have a small part of the Ombudsman human relations learning experience become more accessible to all employees within DCCCD, it was decided to explore other means of making new connections.

A subtle effort was begun to engage the entire college community in a common reading experience that consists of a series of human relations memos based on Ombudsman responses to anonymous but real life, real time issues. The memos generally were in coaching mode, offering suggestions related to self-awareness, organizational dynamics, and relationship skills. They are spontaneous, non-threatening, very informal, and very relevant to the academic workplace. In essence, this continuing series of memos has become an under-the-radar human relations primer for all who wish to participate.

The memo formats may vary, depending on the content. A few are lists of principles or behaviors that seem to work for improved collegiality and collaboration. Others are specific recommendations for dealing with the stresses and ambiguities of organizational life. Some are simply suggestions that might make work life a little brighter.

The memos are composed and transmitted in a personal and relational style. Since they are based on true and timely organizational issues, the readers appear to enjoy and learn from them. Some readers apply them personally while others report more subliminal positive effects in the midst of daily activity. Unsolicited email and personal responses from readers indicate that the memos are often useful reminders as well as vehicles for providing new insights for improving work relationships.

The writer is presenting some of her favorite human relations memos sent from the Ombudsman Office by email to hundreds of DCCCD faculty, staff, and administrators over the past few years. Based on responses received, they also appear to be the favorites of readers.

Please and Thank You

Based on my experiences this week, there are about 25 topics I could choose to address. I have learned, however, that when issues and problems are too complex or overwhelming, the best move is to retreat into simplicity. So, today, I offer this paraphrase of a quote by Maya Angelou: The most underused words in our vocabularies are ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ and our humanity suffers from such negligence. What a difference it makes in the quality of our requests to others, and the conclusions to our many transactions/interactions with students, co-workers, supervisors, even family members. Whether I am giving or receiving the sentiments, both of these civilized words brighten up the moment, and add some warmth to my environment. Try it, you’ll like it!

Self-Righteousness: The Ultimate Communication Barrier

As human beings, we are very clever when it comes to creating communication barriers. We do this out of self-defense and against our better judgment…but fear of losing often manages to trump our common sense. The ultimate communication barrier arises from self-righteous decision making and related behaviors. If I am right, then you must be wrong, and I will not be open to considering your constructive feedback. Sadly, a self-righteous person does not have authentic, trusting relationships; she can only have relationships with those who agree fully with her perspectives and positions on debatable issues. As members of a learning organization, it would seem that we might want to abandon our self-righteous attitudes and instead, respectfully learn from the different opinions/observations of our many colleagues. Our work lives would immediately become more interesting, to say the least.

Choosing My Behavior

In a large, bureaucratic organization such as the DCCCD, there are many opportunities for things to go wrong. If I am feeling empowered, valued, and appreciated, I can probably have some positive influence on helping the best path to emerge, rather than forcing my version of the best path…causing resentment and resistance in the process.

Empowerment is not the result of a gift from a supervisor or a colleague. It is a state of mind that I assume when my confidence, relationships, and recent experiences combine to help me feel competent and assertive.

If I don’t feel empowered, it is so tempting to blame fate or circumstances or another person for whatever causes me to be unhappy or uncomfortable with my workplace life. This attitude allows me to be a victim with no accountability for making things better. It also helps to maintain the mistaken belief that I can somehow cause other people to behave differently and more in line with how I think they should be doing their jobs, providing leadership, relating to me, or whatever. This kind of magical thinking almost always leads to disappointment, wasted energy, and offended colleagues.

Attempting to change another person’s behavior through criticism and cynicism is a sure way to alienate co-workers, and certainly does not inspire or engage. Likewise, the aggressive action of challenging someone with hostile questions does not contribute to problem solving; nor does it change his/her behavior. It only diminishes the aggressor in the eyes of all present.

The bottom line is that I am the only person who has control over my behavior, and I have absolutely no control over anyone else’s behavior. Hopefully, I will use my time and energy wisely in the pursuit of my empowerment, and try to help others do the same for themselves. The result could be solidarity and community.


A trustworthy person is one who makes and keeps commitments. I can’t remember where this definition originated, but I really find it meaningful. It says it all, in terms of reliability, dependability, and honesty, the attributes we usually assign to someone we trust. If I want my friends, colleagues, and classmates to trust me, then I must be able to generously but prudently make commitments of time, energy, and attention to their needs. I must be able to see outside of myself and to think about the greater good of the person, work group, learning group, or other community. If I don’t keep commitments once I make them, then my reputation for trustworthiness quickly diminishes. Most of us will make mistakes occasionally, and have to renege on a commitment, but if that becomes a habit, no one will rely on us for anything of significance. That brings us to the other side of the trustworthiness coin. We must be able to forgive and to give second or third chances to anyone who appears to have violated our trust. We are, after all, the same frail human beings who typically misjudge, misinterpret, misperceive, and overestimate about 50 percent of the time. It is also very likely that organizational or bureaucratic dictums might intrude to cause unanticipated changes in personal commitments. Knowing this, our generosity must also come into play when assessing another person’s trustworthiness. In the end, if we freely share information, respond honestly to questions, and acknowledge the imperfections of ourselves and of our organization, then we should be able to build and maintain trusting relationships in our workplaces.

Affirmative Civility

Several years ago, Studs Terkel wrote a brief essay about his concept of affirmative civility. I don’t have a copy of the actual essay, but I remember the essence. To paraphrase from memory, Studs said that the main thing a person wants from other people is acknowledgement of his/her existence. If we do that in a positive way for one another, it sets the stage for a civil relationship. On the other hand, if our first encounter with a person leaves one of us feeling isolated, demeaned, insulted, or chastised, then the likelihood of a good or productive relationship is diminished.

There is a very simple but elegant way to begin creating an environment where our DCCCD students and staff could feel less alone and more open to positive relationships. We could all try to take the initiative in extending friendly overtures to those who pass us in the halls, ride with us in the elevators, stand with us in lines, sit beside us in meetings/classes, and confront us with problems at our counters, in our offices, in our classrooms. We can smile, nod, shake hands, ask a friendly question, high-five, or offer a verbal greeting of some kind.

The key to affirmative civility is that each of us is willing to assume responsibility for making the first move—not waiting for someone else to speak first or smile first. Another important step is to overcome the shyness or fear associated with extending ourselves to people who look angry, won’t make eye contact, or who are totally immersed in their iPods or cell phones. It is such a nice surprise to see a person who looks unfriendly or even surly, suddenly come to life when we insist on acknowledging his/her presence.

The most difficult part of being affirmatively civil is that we must choose to behave this way without expecting anything in return. This is the only way it will work. Imagine how our commitment to affirmative civility could impact the behavior of students and colleagues who share our learning environment.

Simple but elegant. Try it, you’ll like it.

Good Service

What are we to do when a client, student, or coworker comes in with an arrogant, supercilious attitude, and demanding immediate and sometimes unreasonable service? First, I would want to resist my initial impulse, which would be to tell the rude person that he/she should go home to mama, learn some manners, and come back later with a new attitude. Then, I would remind myself that everyone who enters this office is deserving of my attention and assistance, in spite of his/her personality or negativity. Short-term transactional relationships do not require the same kind of balance, equity, and power-sharing that, hopefully, characterize our long-term, healthy relationships. In fact, the objective should probably be to serve the client/student/coworker with aplomb and patience, modeling for everyone our high levels of interpersonal competence. Never allow yourself to sink to the level of the offending person, or you will have become one of them. Personal dignity goes a long way toward blunting bully behavior. One last point about facing a supercritic is to see the merit of adhering to the principle, in every criticism received, there is usually at least a grain of truth. If our egos allow us to look at these grains, we can often improve our service, without sacrificing any self-esteem.

Being Fully Present

At DCCCD, we like to claim that all of us are leaders within our spheres of influence, and that most of us know a lot about leadership principles and practice. The problem is that knowing about leadership means little or nothing unless those whom we hope to lead have confidence in our integrity. Being labeled as charismatic means nothing unless the people we are trying to lead can see our own real commitments to good and meaningful work. Giving a pep talk about teamwork, collegiality, and mutual support is a futile exercise unless our colleagues and students can see that we are genuinely concerned about their welfare above our own. One simple way to show our genuine concern about and interest in colleagues and students is to be fully present when talking and interacting with them. In our multitasking, impersonal society, it is becoming increasingly more difficult to allow ourselves and others this luxury.

Being fully present is a very real, very pragmatic, essential condition for developing and maintaining quality relationships in the workplace and in the classroom. If we don’t “get” this concept and practice the behavior, then we might as well forget about making any public commitment to building trust and community.

Being fully present is more than paying attention, more than listening, more than responding. It is an intentional, observable behavior that trumps environmental distractions, preoccupations, lack of focus, and lack of interest. It requires total concentration on the person(s) with whom we are interacting at that time. It requires that we forget about our personal apprehensions and refrain from thinking about how this person’s behavior might be affecting each of us.

Being fully present is the only way to truly empathize with another person’s experience.

Being fully present is a powerful statement about the worth we assign to the person(s) with whom we are interacting and to the value of the relationship itself.

Quiet: An Essential Condition for Repairing Relationships

Whether we are faculty members, administrators, or professional support staff persons, we will occasionally experience undue stress or tension in our work relationships. The fast pace, high standards, and ambiguous expectations of our workplaces can pile on to our natural personal differences, creating the perfect storm for escalation of arguments or accumulation of resentments. Most of these storms are minor, and by using common sense and forgiveness, we manage to work things out in a way that ultimately not only repair, but even improve relationships. Some, however, spiral downward to a point of no return.

To avoid this unhealthy outcome, I am suggesting today that we consider allowing “quiet” to become our first line response to any perceived slight, insult, neglect, or inequity. By no means am I suggesting a lack of assertiveness on anyone’s part; to the contrary, I am suggesting quiet as a way to remember the tenets of assertiveness. Quiet time can be a temporary holding cell for our fight or flight impulses. A brief period of quiet gives our common sense time to emerge. A few seconds of quiet will give us the opportunity to be totally curious about our antagonists, perhaps seeing causes or reasons for their behavior. A moment of quiet will help us recall and act on our relaxation mantras, if we have them. Most importantly, quiet, when applied to voice tone—or, in the case of email, word tone—enables us to confront differences in very civil, respectful ways. If we cannot do this as we go along in our daily interactions, there is little hope of rebuilding and maintaining damaged work relationships.

So, why not experiment with a pause, some quiet, and a realistic hope for reconciliation?

Expectations and Norms

We are very fortunate to be working for an organization that has allowed and continues to encourage the evolution of a culture that is both egalitarian and relationship-intensive. As students and staff, we all have the right to be treated respectfully, and we are all expected to treat others with respect. The quality relationships that we develop in our classrooms and workplaces provide the foundation for trust and collaboration, and certainly add to the pleasure of our vocations.

  • Our egalitarian culture invites all of us to speak honestly, listen from the heart, and respectfully use our influence to achieve personal, workgroup, college, and district goals.
  • Our culture invites us to clearly define and negotiate expectations that we have for one another.
  • Our culture expects us to seriously consider suggestions from students and workgroup members, knowing that in the end, the teacher/leader/supervisor is accountable for classroom or workgroup success.
  • Our culture expects us to support and be willing to try a leader’s way of getting things done, even if I’m sure that my way is better.
  • Our culture invites us to practice fairness, equity, kindness, and helpfulness with all of our colleagues and students.

I am really proud of our culture and our people at DCCCD, so I probably have neglected important discussions about the shadow side of egalitarianism. I recently talked with a couple of young people, however, who had been disappointed by what they saw as unilateral or arbitrary decision-making in their workplaces. Here are reminders about some erroneous assumptions that could emerge from our culture.

An egalitarian and relationship-intensive culture is sometimes misperceived as being a democracy, wherein every decision is voted on by all stakeholders, and the majority rules. This is not a realistic expectation, and will never be the case in our organization. When defining expectations, there are always a few non-negotiable items.

An example of a non-negotiable expectation is the fact that DCCCD leaders and supervisors have the prerogative, and indeed, the obligation to set parameters and create ground rules. Successful leaders with common sense will surely consult with everyone involved, but if consensus does not occur, then final authority rests with the teacher/leader.

Another common misperception in a relationship-intensive organization is that if a colleague or supervisor really listens to my idea or suggestion, then surely it will be implemented. Listening fully does not translate into agreement or commitment. It simply means that you were heard by the listener.

We really have a good thing going with our DCCCD culture, so let’s enjoy it fully, and try not to set ourselves up for disappointment by having unrealistic expectations.

Bettie Tully is a member of the Counseling Faculty at El Centro College, and the DCCCD Chancellor’s Staff Ombudsman.

Opinions expressed in Leadership Abstracts are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the League for Innovation in the Community College.

Posted by The League for Innovation in the Community College on 05/27/2014 at 8:22 AM | Categories: Leadership Abstracts -