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One of my favorite sayings is “No one likes change except a wet baby—and even they don’t like the process!” It’s hard enough when we are directing the change, but most often, we have to cope with the ever-increasing rate of change at our colleges and universities when we aren’t sailing the change ship. Sometimes I feel like I’m not even a passenger, but rather the person who swabs the deck after everyone else departs.
When my son was little, my husband and I moved to take a new job. We explained the move to our 2-year-old in the simplest terms: we were going to his new house. On moving day, I doubt I gave his mental condition much thought, but I did notice that he was wandering around the house patting things. Chairs, books, toys, clothes … everything would get a couple of pats with his tiny hand. It didn’t occur to me until later that he was telling everything familiar to “stay put.” How strange it must have seemed to exit a fully furnished room to return just minutes later and find it empty of everything that made up his known world.
I find myself in a similar situation at my current institution. More so than at any time in my rather lengthy career in higher education, there seems to be a constant turnover of the familiar—faces, programs, priorities. Everything is changing so rapidly that I can’t catch my breath. I greet co-workers with a mental pat that is telling them to stay put. I struggle to invest time and energy into long-term initiatives when I don’t have a clue about what the future I’m working toward will look like or who will be in it. I’m sure I’m not the only one struggling to cope with the accelerating pace of change in higher education today.
The challenge is to make our work each day effective, even when we aren’t sure how the end of that day will shift our journey from where we started. My personal theory of change is to focus consistent energy within my sphere of influence and try to let go of those things out of my control. In my experience, turning to crisis management mode for every new change is exhausting and seldom productive. Over several decades of changes, I’ve learned some lessons that have helped me stay on an even keel.
- Recognize the emotional toll of change. After the recent announcement of yet another major administrative change, a friend shared, “Today is going to be a day of high emotion and uncertainty. Take time to recognize and accept the emotional toll of change. If possible, put off major decisions and action until you can move past the initial sense of upheaval.” I can’t agree more. Recognize and acknowledge your emotions, and if you need to grieve, give yourself time to do it.
- Find my center. When I watch ballet or ice skating, I am fascinated by how performers and competitors can spin at top speed without losing their balance. The secret, I’ve learned, is to find a spot on the wall that centers their focus on the same place on every spin. This trick has become a metaphor for keeping my balance inside the change whirlwind. Keep in mind the most important things to focus on, such as centering students, supporting faculty or maintaining positive messaging to the public. Feeling off balance? Consider and make decisions in ways that focus on the essentials and allow you to maintain your center.
- Stay the course. When it seems like the whole world is flipping upside down, I stop and ask myself how my day-to-day life has stayed the same. Just like my son patted familiar furniture, I can focus on what is still familiar and will stay in place even after an administrative upheaval. My office is in the same place, my work hours haven’t shifted, and neither have most of my job duties. Up-line reporting structures shift all the time without making an immediate impact on the daily work of midlevel administrators. Sticking to what I know, what needs to be done and whom I need to communicate with today provides a sense of continuity and place. I know I’m good at what I do, and that consistency is needed more than ever during the turmoil of change.
- Engage with change. It never seems to fail—just when I’ve mastered new software, they announce the new next best thing and implementation starts all over again. My strategy for coping with new tech—and other mega-changes—is to get in on the beta test. When our grants-management system was revamped, I volunteered my office for the initial training cohort and was given the chance to provide feedback into how the conversion rolled out. Instead of wringing my hands and worrying about the impact, I was able to work the problem and provide meaningful insights that shaped off-the-shelf tech to better meet my team’s long-term needs. Instead of the change being something happening to me, I was able to participate in the happening itself.
- Be part of the solution. I am a self-confessed control freak and have been since I was a teenager. When my mom caught me whining about a change that was out of my control, her first response was “Are you part of the problem or part of the solution?” I hated it then but appreciate it now, because it is so true. I can make change harder for myself and everyone around me by dragging my feet and sabotaging the new direction, or I can be part of the broader solution by being a team player and encouraging teammates to get on board.
About 95 percent of change is attitude, and a bad one can spread and become toxic in a hurry, especially if you are a supervisor. Your employees are looking to you for cues on how to handle times of uncertainty. If you act positive (emphasis on “act”), you, and they in turn, will cope better and be more productive throughout the transition period.
Change is inevitable, especially in today’s world of higher education. Forces out of our control, such as Supreme Court decisions, accreditation visits and market or demographic shifts, cause turbulent tides when all we want are calm seas. Having navigated many patches of rough water, my best advice is to build a strong boat and hang on.
In fact, experiencing the workplace as a dynamic, exciting seascape where no day is quite like the next is one of the things I like about working on a university campus. If I can recognize the emotion, find my center, stay on course, engage the change and be part of the solution, I can keep my balance when everything else is shifting under my feet. That little child inside my head may be in denial and want to have a meltdown, but my adult self can handle whatever storms blow my way.