How To Pick Up The Pace of Change in Higher Ed.


Higher ed – the slow-moving giant

Since I tend to attract clients who are high-achievers in higher education and who identify as servant leaders, one subject that comes up daily is change management. These leaders are often hired because of their vision and their commitment to improvement and excellence. They are driven by a strong sense of purpose and filled with enthusiasm. But… not everyone around them feels the same way.

Higher education is a very unique world. Unlike businesses, colleges’ top goals are not to generate revenue, optimize profits, and innovate to stay ahead of the competition. They do not have to reinvent themselves or even adapt to external changes quickly. Colleges tend to value tradition and keep doing what they have always done. When they choose change, they create committees to plan new initiatives and do so very carefully, and dare I say, slowly. Participatory governance ensures that everyone’s point of view is taken into consideration. Committees meet regularly for years, because they wish to be thorough in their analysis and planning efforts, but it can be paralyzing.

If you have ever been in a meeting with people resisting change and focusing on obstacles rather than solutions, then you know what I am talking about. Well-meaning professionals who think they are contributing to a group are often the reason the group can’t get anything done. Why is that?

Risk avoidance in higher ed.

Forgive me for generalizing; I know there are many exceptions, but I want to share with you what I observe time and time again.

Higher education tends to attract people who have a low tolerance for risk or may even be risk-averse. They like the predictability of the work environment, the structure of the academic year, the steady income, and the retirement benefits. Academia is not where adrenaline junkies gather!

There is tremendous comfort in implementing true and tested systems. People in higher ed. are not reckless. They want to see the data before they consider change. How has this idea been implemented elsewhere? How did things work out? What does the research say on this topic?

I must confess that I like to think things through too, so I relate to the need to do our homework before making decisions. But it’s essential to also know how to move through the discomfort of the unknown.

Cultural reasons for resisting change

Sorry, I am going to generalize here again… More than elsewhere, people in higher education are not comfortable making mistakes, having regret, or having to acknowledge failure. In fact, anything that resemble failure or even setbacks is not accepted. In contrast, successful business owners don’t hesitate to speak publicly about ideas that didn’t work out, products that didn’t sell, and even ventures that led to bankruptcy. They attribute their success to their resilience and creativity. They learn through trial and error and that’s the best path to greatness. Academia is the opposite; months or years of preparation and analysis are invested to ensure success. As a result, colleges are very slow to implement change.

The two greatest obstacles to change are not responsibility to students or commitment to excellence, but ego and comfort. In academia, people often have an excessive sense of ownership over their departments or programs. With longevity often comes a sense of entitlement. I see “turf wars” every day and people who refuse to listen to others because they believe they know best. It is difficult to open people’s minds when being right is more important to them than doing what’s right.

Furthermore, introducing change means disrupting people’s comfort. When people are used to predictability and stability, the idea of change can be terrifying. Even when there is nothing specific to fear, they fear the unknown. They are scared of what might happen, how they might be affected, what they might have to do, and fear that they may not be successful.

What to do about it

If people on your campus are resistant to change you’re attempting to implement, I invite you to speak with me about creating a winning strategy. You will need a comprehensive approach that includes managing their personal preferences, their emotional states, as well as the pragmatic aspects of the situation. In the meantime, here are some tips to remember.

  • Help people see what they will gain (rather than letting them focus on what they may lose).

  • Set realistic goals. If you are too ambitious, too fast, you will cause even more fear and resistance.

  • Listen to what people have to say, make them feel heard and validated, but don’t let negativity take over.

  • Redirect the conversations away from problems and toward solutions.

  • Acknowledge legitimate fears and offer reassurance.

  • Encourage creativity and innovation.

  • Show you value improvement over perfection.

  • Reward employee engagement.

  • Identify people with the right attitude and give them responsibilities and leadership opportunities.

  • Create a safe environment where people are not afraid to say something stupid or to make a mistake.

  • Never make things personal.

  • Keep focusing on the work and outcomes you seek, not the personalities around the table.

  • Make expectations clear and keep people accountable to meet goals.

  • Become skilled at overcoming objections and redirecting conversations.

  • As you make progress, make it visible to everyone involved.

  • Celebrate milestones, lessons, and anything that helps you keep moving forward.

  • Become more self-aware. When you find yourself frustrated, you need to transform your mindset and emotions before you speak to anyone (or call me!).

I know it’s a lot to do on your own but you don’t have to face it alone. If you would like us to be a team and talk weekly to plan each step and each aspect of change management, click here to book a time to speak with me. I am here for you. Let’s do this!

 About the author: Dr. Audrey Reille has empowered thousands of professionals through one-on-one coaching, group coaching, speaking engagements, and online courses. Audrey is the go-to coach for leaders in higher education administration. She empowers them to thrive by reducing stress, optimizing strategies, improving professional relationships, and developing a strong and empowered mindset.

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