Change is everywhere in higher education (Ceschi et al., 2017; Warr Pedersen et al., 2017). Numerous articles discuss the rate of change, impending changes, and reflection of the changes made in higher education institutions (Bouckenooghe, 2010). But comparatively little is written on how higher education professionals support faculty and staff in coping with such change. Additionally, higher education leaders are rarely prepared to cope with the rate of change or to support their faculty and staff through the change process (Cunningham, 2006). Professional development and mentoring opportunities for higher education leaders rarely focus on such topics (Cunningham, 2006). Conversely, coping and management of change is usually learned through practice and application. Yet, many leaders struggle to adapt to the newness that changes bring to a team, workplace culture, or to themselves as individuals (Hao & Yazdanifard, 2015; Mosquera et al., 2014).
Change influences human perceptions (Ceschi et al., 2017). Many individuals perceive change as a negative process with negative outcomes. This perception can destabilize a person’s ability to complete a job task (Mosquera et al., 2014). Faculty and staff lose confidence in their skill sets and question their purpose within the organization. Additionally, change threatens a person’s happiness or contentment. Such perceptions greatly depend on the purpose and presentation of the change occurring in the workplace. Unforeseen change absent of meaningful reason can significantly affect workplace climate and increase workplace stress, resulting in negative outcomes (Bouckenooghe, 2010).
Consistent changes can increase stress levels among faculty and staff. Increased stress levels lead to fights (increased conflicts), flights (staff loss), or freezes (little or no productivity) (Webster et al., 2016). Personal experiences associated with prior changes cause resistance even if a benefit for an individual or a team is present. Such resistance breeds unhealthy and maladaptive behaviors (Sartori et al., 2018). In most instances, individuals rely on their previous experiences to cope with present change, which can lead to undesired outcomes in the workplace.
But positive outcomes are also associated with change (Cameron, 2008). They depend on the leadership’s ability to support faculty and staff. Understanding change and how it affects a work environment requires significant amounts of introspection and intentionality. Investing in faculty and staff will facilitate collaboration, support, and a sense of community developing team members’ coping skills in a meaningful way (Smollan, 2017). Ideally, this occurs during the beginning of new leadership and continues through maintenance as the leadership develops. Investments in these concepts foster a sense of security prior to change taking place. So how can leaders prepare themselves and their teams for change in higher education environments? The following questions are meant to assist leaders in identifying how they can implement change at their institutions.
Building on those above, the following questions explore individuals’ understanding of how they lead when changes are occurring.
So often, leaders do not explore how teams have previously dealt with change, how leadership presented change, and how they provided support through the change. For those reasons, some other questions leaders can ask themselves are as follows:
Change is embedded in the culture of higher education. The presence of change affects the quality of workplace climate and behavior. Leaders have an opportunity to engage and support their teams through thoughtful and meaningful consideration. Leaders should express care for the individuals under their leadership regarding the rate of change in higher education. Helping leaders and their teams cope with the fast pace of change is crucial to healthy workplaces in higher education.
Bouckenooghe, D. (2010). Positioning change recipients’ attitudes toward change in the organization change literature. The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 46(4), 500–531. https://doi.org/10.1177/0021886310367944
Cameron, K. S. (2008). Paradox in positive organizational change. The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 44(1), 7–24. https://doi.org/10.1177/0021886308314703
Ceschi A., Fraccaroli F., Costantini A., & Sartori R. (2017). Turning bad into good: How resilience resources protect organizations from demanding work environments. Journal of Workplace Behavioral Health, 32(4), 267–289. https://doi.org/10.1080/15555240.2017.1398659
Cunningham, G. B. (2006). The relationships among commitment to change, coping with change, and turnover intentions. European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, 15, 29–45. https://doi.org/10.1080/13594320500418766
Hao, M. J., & Yazdanifard, R. (2015). How effective leadership can facilitate change in organization through improvement and innovation. Global Journal of Management and Business Research: (A) Administration and Management 15(9), 1–5. Retrieved from https://journalofbusiness.org/index.php/GJMBR/article/view/1737/1639
Mosquera, P., Werbel, J., & Henriques, P. L. (2014). Dealing with organizational change: Predictors and outcomes. Paper presented at the International Academy of Management and Business Conference, São Paulo, Brazil. Retrieved from http://iamb.org/Proceedings/2014/sao-paulo/MS/35%20Mosquera_MS.pdf
Sartori, R., Costantini, A., Ceschi, A., & Tommasi, F. (2018, March). How do you manage change in organizations? Training, development, innovation, and their relationships. Frontiers in Psychology, 9. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00313
Smollan, R. K. (2017). Learning to cope with stressful organisational change. International Journal of Work Organization and Emotion, 8(2), 148–167. https://doi.org/10.1504/IJWOE.2017.086461
Warr Pedersen, K., Pharo, E., Peterson, C., & Clark, G. A. (2017). Wheels of change in higher education. International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, 18(2), 171–184. https://doi.org/10.1108/IJSHE-10-2015-0172
Webster, V., Brough, P., & Daly, K. (2016). Fight, flight, or freeze: Common responses for follower coping with toxic leadership. Stress and Health, 32(4), 346–354. https://doi.org/10.1002/smi.2626
Courtney Plotts, PhD, is the national chair of the Council for At Risk Student Education and Professional Standards, the only organization in the United States that provides standards for working with marginalized and nontraditional students from kindergarten through college.