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Creating Positive Cultural Change in Record Time

Institutional Culture

Creating Positive Cultural Change in Record Time

This article first appeared in The Best of the 2020 Leadership in Higher Education Virtual Conference (Magna Publications, 2021).

Institutions in higher education have been hit hard by the pandemic. Events over the past year have exposed weaknesses, deficiencies, and vulnerabilities that threaten their potential to be successful and compete effectively.

Students have been hit hard as well. Numerous studies show the mental health impact on college students, who are now experiencing depression, anxiety, and loneliness (see, e.g., Boston University, 2021). People are stressed, exhausted, and craving connection.

But there is tremendous opportunity for educational institutions that can act quickly to learn from the challenges they’ve experienced and inspire positive change. Creating a culture of engagement and collaboration to help people thrive in the new paradigm is key. Now is the time to commit to new ways of working together and moving forward.

The idea of driving cultural change may sound daunting, but it can happen more easily and quickly with effective leadership and stakeholder engagement. As you prepare to jump-start your change initiative, it’s important to note a few factors that often work against institutions that want to quickly make cultural shifts:

  • Analysis paralysis. Academics typically enjoy conducting thorough research. It’s their nature to investigate and debate ideas. But too much analysis can hinder the process or divert focus to less important issues.
  • Slow decision making. Decisions are often made by committees, but not all of them should be. Committee decision-making takes time. The virtual work environment has contributed to slow decision-making as well during a time when many decisions often need to be made more quickly given the speed of change.
  • Ego, status, and hierarchy. Just one egotistical leader can create a negative impact. Hierarchy-driven organizations inhibit upward communication, preventing the flow of good ideas and useful feedback.
  • Layers of bureaucracy and politics. Some people are afraid to speak up and express their own views. Internal politics are an invisible threat to progress.
  • Lack of leadership skills, knowledge, or experience. Educators and researchers are experts in their subject matter, but many simply haven’t had the exposure they need to even basic best leadership practices. They have strong intelligence quotient (IQ) but lack emotional intelligence (EQ).
  • Aversion to risk. Educational institutions tend to reward longevity, attracting people who seek a “safe” career path. Entrepreneurs thrive on new ideas and risk-taking. They enjoy challenging the status quo, knowing that failure is part of the process. Playing it too safe can hinder growth.

Although these forces seem to be working against institutions that want to quickly create positive cultural change, there is one advantage to leverage: people’s desire to make a positive difference.

Higher education attracts people who are driven to make a positive impact—in the lives of students, in their communities, and in the world. By harnessing this desire to make a positive difference, you can begin creating the cultural shift you want to see.

Start by envisioning your desired future as an organization at its very best—asking questions about what’s possible. This is not a vision statement exercise. Instead, consider it an invitation to explore in detail what the new future state could look like. It is a co-creative process that, by design, engages multiple stakeholders in conversations that are focused on the future.

The inclusive process itself models effective engagement and collaboration. It introduces faculty, staff, administrators, students, and others to a new way of thinking and interacting. Instead of orienting around problems to solve, you deliberately look at new possibilities to explore or create. You begin to experience the new kind of culture that people want to sustain going forward.

In my consulting work with organizations, I see an eagerness to “figure out what’s next.” But slowing down initially to think about how you’re thinking is a good starting point. In your leadership role, you’ll need to build your entrepreneurial mindset. Be willing to experiment, take more risks, make bold moves, and embody the culture you want to create.

I integrate variations of an approach known as appreciative inquiry (AI). As Stavros et al. (2015) describe it,

AI is about the search for the best in people, their organizations, and the strengths-filled opportunity-rich world around them. AI is . . . a fundamental shift in the overall perspective taken throughout the entire change process to “see” the wholeness of the human system and to “inquire” into that system’s strengths, possibilities, and successes. (p. 97)

The approach differs from traditional problem-solving approaches in the following ways (Figure 1):

Table titled "Comparison to Problem-Focused Approaches." It includes two bulleted lists titled "Problem Solving" and "Appreciative Inquiry."  Under Problem Solving: 
—What to fix
—Underlying grammar - problem, symptoms, causes, solutions, action plan, intervention)
—Breaks things into pieces & specialties, guaranteeing fragmented responses
—Slow! Takes a lot of positive emotion to make real change
—Assumes organizations are constellations of problems to be solved. 

Under Appreciative Inquiry: 
—What to grow
—New grammar of the true, good, better, possible
—"Problem focus" implies that there is an ideal. AI starts by focusing on that ideal and its roots in what is already good
—Expands vision of preferred future: creates new energy fast
—Assumes organizations are sources of infinite  capacity and imagination
Figure 1. Adapted from Appreciative Inquiry Handbook by D. Cooperrider, D. Whitney, and J. M. Stavros. Copyright 2003 by Lakeshore Publishers.

As you leverage people’s desire to make a positive difference and ultimately create cultural change, here are a few keys to success:

Be radically inclusive in your approach. Engage a wide range of diverse stakeholders in the process: educators, researchers, students, parents, administrators, alumni, and business executives.

Communicate frequently in the process. Creating cultural change is an organic process. Not a “one and done” event. Share observations, learnings, next steps as you go along.

Prepare for resistance. Although many people talk about wanting to move forward in new ways, some will want to hold on to “the way we’ve always done things.” They will look for reasons to complain or criticize.

Rally your advocates. Find people in the organization who want to be engaged and are open to new ideas. They can be positive influencers and prompt needed action.

As a change-agent leader, your role is to be a catalyst in a process, not a heavy driver.

When it’s done well, you’ll find the experience to be both energizing and rewarding for yourself, those you lead, and the institution you serve.


Boston University. (2021, February 19). Depression, anxiety, loneliness are peaking in college students. Science Daily. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2021/02/210219190939.htm

Cooperrider, D., Whitney, D., & Stavros, J. M. (2003). Appreciative inquiry handbook. Lakeshore Publishers.

Stavros, J. M., Godwin, L. N., & Cooperrider, D. L. (2015). Appreciative inquiry: Organization development and the strengths revolution. In W. J. Rothwell, J. M. Stavros, & R. L. Sullivan (Eds.), Practicing organization development: A guide to leading change and transformation (4th ed., pp. 96–116). Wiley.

Gayle Lantz is founder and CEO of WorkMatters Inc., a leadership consulting firm specializing in organizational transformation. She is podcast host of CEO on the Go and author of Take the Bull by the Horns. Visit https://workmatters.com.

To learn more about appreciative inquiry, see Champlain University’s AI Commons.


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