January 26th, 2018

The Challenge of Leading Change: Some Remedies for Resistance (Part 2)

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Leading academic change

This is Part 2 in a 2-part series. Part 1 can be found here.

Other examples might be a decline in department majors, using instructional technology, adding research expectations, and initiating graduate programming. In each case, there is either a problem to solve or a new venture to consider. All will bring change and all will likely generate resistors. Again, some will be the result of self-interest while others will be because of self-perceptions of inadequacy.

So how would a change agent (chair or dean) deal with these forms of resistance? Self-interest is best dealt with at a faculty meeting where the initiative is presented along with hard evidence mandating change. This means that the chair must expend considerable effort in gathering data. For example, for declining majors, head counts over the past five to 10 years along with similar data from other area institutions in the discipline showing growth might be sufficient to get past the first hurdle of establishing credibility for the notion that the decline is institution-specific. As the reasons for enrollment loss are revealed, the formative skills and personal sensitivity of the chair will come into play, because root causes are now individually attributed in some cases. Straightforward hard evidence presented quantitatively is usually effective against resistance that is self-serving.

Dealing with resistance due to a lack of confidence can be a delicate undertaking. Faculty members are proud people and would not admit to this, so the chair has to approach them in a formative way. Emphasizing research/scholarship, moving to graduate programming, and using instructional technology may pose challenges for some senior faculty who have been exclusively undergraduate teaching- and service-focused. Having had no research agenda for two decades and never having mentored a student to an advanced degree, these new expectations could rightfully be daunting tasks for senior members of the faculty. In a similar way, some experienced faculty members struggle to effectively use technology in their teaching. However, their public opposition to the change will rarely reveal inadequacy or fear as the reason for their position. Instead one might hear “detract from our traditional focus on undergraduates,” “time diverted from teaching,” and “I am certain we can find more compelling things on which to spend our limited resources” as justifications for opposition.

Through a combination of knowing each faculty member or having trusted colleagues who have this knowledge and insight gained from past instances where there was an agenda for change, the change agent should able to see through the public justifications for opposition and identify where lack of confidence or fear of devaluation may exist. Armed with the “real” reasons, the chair can approach the resistors with concrete assurances, alternative interpretations, new scenarios, and innovative structures that can reduce resistance and the personal threats that some faculty may feel. The increased emphasis on research/scholarship can be made palatable by emphasizing that all forms of scholarship are welcome and expected, by supporting a seed grant program to allow faculty to rejuvenate their disciplinary research programs, and by establishing mentoring programs where faculty can work with bona fide experts in the use of instructional technology or in basic or applied research.

Change agents should have a compelling case along with the hard data supporting the proposed initiative. Doing the homework before a subject is broached ensures that no foothold for self-interest resistance can emerge and lends credibility to the project and the change agent. Overcoming resistance due to lack of confidence will call on a different set of skills from the change agent. These skills are formative in nature and require varying degrees of sensitivity and creative ways of making certain that everyone has a meaningful place in the new world.

 

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.