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The Challenge of Leading Change: Some Remedies for Resistance

Leadership and Management

The Challenge of Leading Change: Some Remedies for Resistance

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.

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.


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