The economic crisis has jump-started a long-standing conversation among senior leaders in Higher Education. How can we best deliver services to our core stakeholders while finding ways to positively impact our financial condition? Since the economy tumbled in September 2008, actions taken by universities run the spectrum of “wait and see” to rethinking how to deliver services and programs, all while keeping the academic and administrative trains running. Like its corporate partners, colleges and universities are now publicly embracing the “bottom-line” as the core enabler of its mission.
For institutions that have embarked on broad organizational change, one thing’s for sure. Staff and faculty are anxious. While the most prevalent anxiety spoken is “Will I still have a job on the other side of this crisis?”, it's not always about losing one’s job. The underlying fear is uncertainty.
It's not so much that we're afraid of change or so in love with the old ways, but it's that place in between… It's like being between trapezes. It's Linus when his blanket is in the dryer. There's nothing to hold on to.
Author and Public Speaker
In this period of change, institution leaders have two primary concerns: What if our planned restructuring to address the financial crisis evoke a sufficient negative reaction that cause it to fail? Even worse, what if the changes put in place are not enough?
On the other hand, if you ask staff doing the work what they fear, it's the uncertainty of how they're jobs may change or worse, go away. The power of uncertainty can have great control over our lives.
The Power Of Uncertainty
Take this example from a study conducted at Emory University:
A team at Emory University examined what happened when people waited for an impending electric shock. Some people dreaded the shock so deeply that they chose to receive a more powerful shock earlier rather than waiting for a lesser shock to arrive at a later, random time.
NY times Op-Ed, December 3, 2009
Why would someone choose this counter-intuitive behavior? Simple. It's more stressful to wait for something negative to happen than get it over with now. Knowing what's coming has tremendous influence over our ability to focus. When changes like possible layoffs or organizational restructuring are anticipated, people's anxiety levels are raised and strong emotions are evoked - from anger and fear for some to enthusiasm and excitement for the lucky few. The majority react to anticipated change assuming it will be bad for them. This, in itself is an irrational reaction.
Shifting One's Focus
If we’re serious about transforming Higher Education, we need leaders to make tough decisions that position our institutions in a fiscally sound direction. These changes will not come all at once and require thoughtful analysis before implementing. There is no getting around that in this period of analysis, anxiety will be heightened because not all the answers will be clear. Institutional leaders need to help their most important assets, people, get through this period of accelerating change.
But it's ultimately up to the individual to decide whether the coming changes are something to avoid or an opportunity to take advantage of.
Those who maintain a positive attitude through these challenging times are not free of fear or anxiety; they just choose to put their energy elsewhere. How can I improve my value or get more involved? What opportunities may come out of these changes that I can take advantage of? Are there things I can be learning that will help me get through this better? These questions are at the heart of shifting one's point of view from "Why is this happening to me?" to "How can I best get through this?"
The key to getting through this economic crisis is to build a business culture that helps people learn to make positive choices in the face of uncertainty. It's a partnership between management needing to focus on the big picture and the individual choosing to be part of the solution. This is true change management, transforming fear that breeds inaction to optimism that promotes opportunity and personal growth.