The Higher Ed Workplace Blog

HR, It’s Time to Start Listening

“You’re short on ears and long on mouth.” ― John Wayne

As HR professionals, we’re experts at listening, right? In my experience (and I’m also pointing my finger at myself), sometimes yes, and sometimes, not so much.

Galen Emanuele, one of the keynote speakers at CUPA-HR’s spring conference in Seattle, encouraged us to apply the improv concept of “Yes, and …” to improve our communications and the performance of our teams and to more fully engage the members of our work groups. His guidance to us centered around five key concepts:

  • We Say Yes — we accept ideas, remain open, are mindful of our words and body language.
  • We Are Present and Listen — we don’t just hear what is being said, we listen for what is meant.
  • We Make Each Other Look Good — we are generous with praise and quick to help others.
  • We Embrace Change and Failure — we do our best in any situation, we understand that setbacks will happen, and we learn and grow from our experiences.
  • We Choose Positivity — we focus on overcoming challenges and never include or foster the inclusion of negativity.

These concepts seem pretty straightforward, but I find again and again that we need to be reminded. Emanuele’s words encouraged me to up my listening and engagement game, and I hope you use these concepts as part of your own self-reflection.

I also had the opportunity to facilitate some great panel discussions at our spring conferences. Each panel included a provost, a student affairs vice president, a general counsel and a chief HR officer. We often discuss our higher ed HR challenges, but we are much more impactful leaders if we take the time to listen to (and for what is meant by) other campus leaders. Our challenges are their challenges, and if we fail to make that connect, we are relegated to the paper-pushing “personnel” clerks who are called in after decisions are made instead of being asked to be one of the decision makers.

Some of the challenges we discussed during the panel discussions included:

  • campus climate and the impact it has on campus culture,
  • the changing faculty as many institutions utilize more adjunct and non-tenure track positions,
  • the increasing diversity of our students and our challenges to diversify and create an inclusive environment for our faculty and staff,
  • the mental health and well-being challenges of our students,
  • the approaching enrollment cliff and what impact this will have on higher education,
  • the highly regulated environment of higher education, and
  • the increasing willingness of employees and students to quickly move issues to the courts and/or social media.

Few jobs are as difficult as that of provost. What would you say are the three biggest challenges for your institution’s provost? How does your work in HR help your provost address the numerous, often very complex challenges of your institution?

We know that the mental health and well-being of our students is a critical challenge for our campuses, but did you also know that many of our student-life colleagues are burning out as the complexities of creating and sustaining a welcoming environment for our students becomes increasingly difficult? When was the last time you asked your student affairs leaders how they are doing?

The partnership between HR and the office of general counsel must be strong and collaborative. If this is not true for your campus, what steps can you take to strengthen this critically important relationship?

As HR professionals, we need to listen. We need to really listen. Don’t start thinking about what your response will be. Just listen. The conversation is not about you, it’s about the person talking to you. So just listen.

This content originally appeared in the Spring 2019 issue of CUPA-HR’s Higher Ed HR Magazine (formerly The Higher Education Workplace magazine). Look for your hard copy in your mailbox this week, or read the issue online in our NEW digital space!


The CUPA-HR national office will be closed July 4 in observance of Independence Day.