Author: Poppy Fitch and Brian Van Brunt, EdD
For the first time in contemporary history, four generations of employees work side by side, bringing to the workplace their own unique set of talents, needs, and expectations (Toossi, 2012). A natural extension of this phenomenon is the changing workplace itself, as each generation brings its own set of values, priorities, and work styles.
A new way of thinking
Leadership within higher education takes a divergent path from traditional business leadership. We are, after all, educators at heart. We hold a belief in the transformational power of education. We lead our students by being. However, when the lens turns from our students to our staff, we see a shift. The technical skills of management begin to matter more than ever before and, while we may be educators at heart, the business of education is an arena where we may find ourselves unprepared.
The exploration of leadership across generations comes amid a changing paradigm in higher education. The current model is one of increased focus on outcomes. And, while the pursuit of results and metrics measuring factors of effectiveness for a successful college or university is laudable, an over-reliance on contemporary cognitive, solution-driven management approaches in a higher education setting can be seen as a case of square peg/round hole.
Four-letter words go to work: love, care, and hope
In his book, Love is the Killer App: How to Win Business and Influence Friends (2002), Tim Sanders, Chief Solutions Officer for Yahoo, explores the application of love in business; he calls this approach being a “lovecat,” and he is convinced that this is the way to be a success in business and to make friends. Sanders isn’t alone; Princeton Business Professor Robert Sutton explores the concepts of care and civility in his book, The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t (2007). Most recently, in his book, Making Hope Happen: Create the Future You Want for Yourself and Others (2014), Shane Lopez explores hope as a human emotion and helps the reader understand the power of hope to effect change.
Why are so many thought leaders writing about love, care, and hope? And, what does this mean to higher education leaders and their staff who are responsible for stewarding young people into adulthood and who must adapt to the changing tide of each new generation? In order to stay relevant and effective, higher education leadership must evolve to meet the conditions in which it exists. While we might have always cared for, and even loved our staff, the time to begin authentic leadership relationships with these particular four letter words squarely at its foundation, is now.
Barriers to change
As leaders, we hold a particular privilege, and as with any position of privilege, it is a foundational task to recognize and acknowledge this privilege so that we can think, act, and (most importantly) feel differently (Malcolm, 2005). However, to care is to make one’s self vulnerable, and this may be a primary barrier to shifting ways of looking at and “conducting” leadership. It isn’t that we propose an obligation to behave a certain way; rather, that this approach with employees accomplishes two things: First, it suggests that supervisors adopt a stance of reflection and humility that allows for deeper insight and creates opportunities to build connection and trust with their employees—people tend to follow and seek guidance from those that they trust, and can sense a quality of genuineness and congruence in word and in deed. Second, by acknowledging the privilege of leadership and carrying it softly and with grace, leaders provide employees with a model of behavior to emulate with customers.
Relationships and communication should become the lingua franca of the office, providing opportunities to better understand the motivations of employees to improve efficiency and effectiveness on tasks. In a world dominated by 360-degree evaluations and annual performance appraisals, there is the real potential of losing track of the individual humanity of our staff and the needs of those struggling to find a larger sense of meaning and purpose in the workplace. By attending to these underlying needs, managers and supervisors can better motivate and inspire staff to focus on work-related tasks. Ignoring these underlying needs leads to a disengaged workforce resulting in excessive use of sick days, lack of productivity, and employees who are working—in the words of Peter Gibbons from the movie Office Space—“just hard enough to not get fired.” (Sound like anyone you know?)
It is this authentic, genuine, personal caring that becomes the gasoline in the tank that helps improve productivity and effectiveness of the employee. People work harder for a supervisor that cares about them as a person. By connecting to this deeper well of personhood, the manager unlocks the potential of the employee and becomes the standard by which future opportunities and challenges are addressed.
Reprinted by permission of Brian Van Brunt.