January 24th, 2018

The Challenge of Leading Change: Some Remedies for Resistance (Part 1)

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Leading academic change

This is Part 1 in a 2-part series.

 

The faculty in our colleges and universities are frequently portrayed as being the focal point of resistance to change within the academy. When one spends many years in the academy, one will realize that resistance to doing things differently is a trait that exists in administrative ranks as well. In fact, change is difficult for everyone, although the range of tolerance for change is a wide one. Any change, no matter how small or inconsequential, leads to a level of resistance from some quarter. Higher education attracts a wide range of personalities who can express their opinions without fearing many sanctions due to tenure protection and generally more tolerant management.

Before initiating an agenda calling for change, the leader should take time to frame the project in all its dimensions. Most do this to some degree, but rarely is it done as thoroughly as it could be. Framing allows the leader to evaluate the proposed changes from as many viewpoints as possible. It considers the potential impact on all those affected by the change, including present and potential students, faculty, staff, upper administrators, supporters, detractors, external constituents, and competitors.

The change should also consider the policies and procedures of the institution, the local politics of getting things done, and the traditional ceremonies and symbolic values of the institution (where relevant). Doing this well and ahead of time can help the leader identify sticking points, sources and reasons for resistance, potential allies, needed background information, and other parameters that may impact success. Having responses ready for the anticipated tough questions is preferential to being caught off guard and lends luster to the leader’s personal credibility.

The change leaders should open the conversation about the initiative by stating its importance or seriousness. The proposal may be made to correct a negative situation (e.g., diminished school or department enrollments) or to take advantage of a new opportunity (e.g., campus funding for interdisciplinary degrees). The announcement should be accompanied by data showing trends, budget impact, policies on new faculty lines and replacements, new external funding available, and scholarship potential. This initial foray into change should elicit comments and questions, some of which may lead to resistance.

Resistance results from a variety of personal attributes and situations. Two common forms of resistance are self-interest and lack of confidence.They are mentioned together because they sometimes overlap in cases of resistance. Self-interest is seen on a routine basis in our colleagues, but in many cases they do not realize how transparent their positions are. These are the people who negatively frame the suggested change with pronouns like I, me, and my. While it is not necessarily a terrible thing to protect the resources that make an individual successful, it is disconcerting to see colleagues who have no vision for what is best beyond their personal interests.

Self-interest is sometimes found alone, but can also be present linked with the lack-of-confidence form of resistance. This takes place when the change initiative not only threatens the status quo but also requires that the individual do something that is beyond his or her comfort zone. Here is an example:

A chemistry department, after many years at 12 in number, is considering seeking permission to make a hire in analytical chemistry, a subdiscipline in which there has been a single faculty member for the past 20 years. The impetus for this hire emanates from student demand and from the fact that this area of chemistry forms the bases for forensic sciences and other emerging applications related to national security. The hire seems to have great promise for improving the student experience, garnering external grants and contracts, and enhancing institutional visibility.

The resisting faculty member might question whether his teaching assignment would change (more work), predict that he would now have to share graduate students (competition), and share the support or revenue that comes from consulting for performing analyses for local external constituents. Because he has been in the academy for two decades, he may also feel inadequate (lack of confidence) in comparison to a recently minted PhD who is trained in modern techniques and has experience on instruments that he has only read about. Clearly the existing faculty member does not want additional work in teaching, does not want to compete for students, and certainly does not want to diminish his inside track on grants, contacts, or consulting.

 

This article will conclude in Part 2

N. Douglas Lees, PhD, is associate dean for planning and finance, professor, and former chair of biology at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis.

Reprinted from “The Challenge of Leading Change: Some Remedies for Resistance” in Academic Leader 32.3(2016)6,7 © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.