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UZH News

Leadership at UZH

“Communicate clearly”

Good leadership is vital to ensure UZH thrives, today and in the future. The leadership aspects in the 2022 employee survey have therefore been analyzed in closer detail.
Text: Brigitte Blöchlinger, Translation: Karen Oettli-Geddes


UZH employees appreciate constructive, clear communication from their line manager(s). (image: iStock)

Around 4,000 UZH members filled out the extensive employee survey questionnaire at the beginning of last summer. Overall, the results showed that staff find their work meaningful, have a sense of responsibility for their allotted tasks, and feel very high levels of commitment. Team members feel appreciated, trusted and respected. A strong sense of community cohesion was expressed, along with a deep feeling of connection to UZH. The results in the areas of work organization, equal opportunities and work-life balance were also good.

Because good leadership is a particularly important part of an organization’s working culture, the Executive Board wanted the 2022 employee survey to be examined more closely with regard to this aspect. Eight questions in the questionnaire related to the leadership style of employees’ direct line manager(s). The average satisfaction score was 69 out of a possible 100 points.

Klaus Jonas chaired the six-member working group tasked with analyzing the staff survey results. He is professor emeritus of psychology and head of the recently founded Leadership and Governance Academy at UZH.

Klaus Jonas

Good leadership is an essential requirement at UZH for everyone to be able to perform at their best.

Klaus Jonas
Head of UZH Leadership and Governance Academy

Klaus Jonas, 69 points out of 100. Is that a good result?

Klaus Jonas: The scale is difficult to interpret because it doesn’t correspond to any standard rating scale. The results have more impact when we look at them on the basis of individual institutes/departments, clinics, faculties or Central Services offices. They reveal that many organizational units are well managed, and their staff enjoy working there. In some units, however, clear criticism of the leadership was also expressed.

Which were the most common management deficiencies highlighted by UZH staff?  

When a line manager is criticized, the issue relates to a lack of clearly formulated instructions of what is expected of staff, a lack of concrete targets for what is to be achieved by when, and a lack of feedback after aims have been fulfilled. In some units, staff also criticized the fact that work areas were not clearly organized, and responsibilities not clearly defined. In these cases, employees sense a laissez-faire attitude on the part of their managers. Leadership research shows that a laissez-faire managerial style leads to dissatisfaction.

What about the administrative and technical staff?

On average, the administrative and technical staff are more satisfied with the leadership style of their line managers. But even here criticism was voiced in some organizational units.

In the survey, staff were also given the opportunity to write open comments. What stood out?

Complaints included: my manager never has time, is always under stress, or absent. Or: other team members get away with unbelievable things, but our boss does nothing about it. In some cases, employees also said that they didn’t dare to report problematic behavior for fear of their line manager reacting unfairly, or that line managers didn’t intervene to stop bullying in the team. A line manager with a laissez-faire attitude in such cases exacerbates the problems.

Which groups at UZH reported the most leadership deficits in the survey?

Junior researchers in the early stages of their career – i.e. doctoral students and postdocs. This I can well understand: they’re young and ambitious yet still without a permanent role. In their efforts to rise above the competition and achieve an interesting position, they need empowerment and support, not indifference.

Up to now, junior researchers have hardly had any opportunity to explicitly demonstrate their own leadership skills. This is now changing: the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, for example, has stipulated that senior teaching and research assistants can spend 10 per cent of their working hours on leadership tasks.

Adjunct professors are also less satisfied than other respondent groups. This probably lies in the fact that, compared to full professors, they have fewer resources like equipment funds or assistants. Also, they’re often less well integrated into the information channels of their organizational units.

What leadership responsibilities do professors have towards junior researchers?

Professors have the duty to create the conditions for junior researchers to work well. This means first and foremost that they must establish the framework and communicate clearly. Doctoral students need a lot of different types of information, such as: Which research questions in my field are relevant and yield the most results? Which congresses are the most important? What options do I have to develop personally and professionally? But also: What supervision can I expect? How much freedom do I have? Without such information, junior researchers cannot make efficient progress.

What happens when management deficiencies are identified in individual units?

The deans and the heads of UZH Central Services offices are informed of the areas in which objections to a leadership style have been made. They’re urged to raise the points with the manager concerned and find ways to improve the situation. This has already been done in many places.

Which group at UZH is most satisfied with their leaders?

The professors. This comes as no surprise. They have the most resources, the greatest freedom of action, and no direct line managers.

How do deans exercise their leadership function vis-à-vis professors?

Deans are primus or prima inter pares, i.e. they lead their peers. They practice what’s known as lateral leadership, a leadership style in which sound arguments, good knowledge of UZH and its regulations, the ability to motivate others, and the powers of persuasion earned from experience all count. I find all the current deans to be very motivated, and they also have the expertise required.

Looking ahead, in which direction does the leadership culture at UZH aim to develop?

UZH as a whole benefits when autonomous professors feel incentivized to look beyond their immediate field and share responsibility in exploring how UZH could develop further and enter into interdisciplinary and international networks. Fostering this awareness of the big picture is important for the future viability of UZH. The Executive Board itself wants to be an approachable body for UZH leaders and to support them in their endeavors to lead their teams well and tackle problems professionally themselves. We’re convinced that good leadership is an essential requirement at UZH for everyone to be able to perform at their best.