Allison M. Vaillancourt

Vice President, Organizational Effectiveness at Segal

The Management Corner: Stop Silencing the Skeptics

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As a senior leader in higher education, you may be inspired — or expected — to transform the place in some way. Before you reveal a bold change, however, internal advisers or outside consultants will very likely suggest that you prepare for the potential resistance.

The experts may guide you through the completion of a "change-resistance management plan," designed to identify potential opponents to your Big New Change so they can be "neutralized." The planning also may include anticipating possible questions or concerns and crafting responses that will shift the conversation to the dangers of maintaining the status quo. For example:

  • A claim of "We can’t afford this given our other needs" might be neutralized by replying, "We can’t afford not to make strategic investments in our future."
  • A potential counterpoint to "This would limit our flexibility" could be, "Lack of consistency has created the very problems we are trying to address."
  • And an assertion that "This new degree program is too narrow to attract a critical mass of students" may prompt a response of "Current degree programs are declining in popularity."

Taking time to anticipate the objections is wise. Discounting such concerns is not. That’s why I am often uncomfortable with management-assessment tools that seem designed to identify resisters. Too often, leaders use "change resistance" plans to rebut the skeptics rather than to actually hear them.

And that is a problem. Big ideas that lead to real change benefit from careful scrutiny and due diligence. People who challenge ideas aren’t necessarily opposed to change. They are opposed to making decisions without sufficient evidence or rigorous analysis — something especially true in higher education.

There is a certain irony in attempting to sideline skeptics in academe, given that we so openly court people known for thinking deeply. We hire scholars and others for their acute critical-thinking skills, their comfort in challenging assumptions, their ability to ask hard questions. And then — when they apply those very talents to our Big New Change — we accuse them of blocking progress, nitpicking, resisting change.

To be sure, some of the people who fight new ideas are protecting their own turf and are not truly interested in the good of the larger organization. By listening to the objections, you generally will be able to tell if the critics are (a) naysayers in self-preservation mode, or (b) good organizational citizens truly worried about the impact or unintended consequences of your proposed change.

Listening is one of the most important elements of managing a major change. Listen hard enough and you will recognize that people in general — and those in higher education in particular — do not fundamentally resist or dislike change. They resist loss. They resist unemployment. They resist uncertainty. They resist investing in possibilities that seem uninformed, unethical, or implausible. They especially resist reorganizations or new initiatives that seem designed solely to build a transient leader’s résumé. But most of all, they resist change when they are excluded from the decision-making.

Certain consultants and "change experts" will advise you to identify the likely skeptics of your Big New Change so they can be isolated and ultimately silenced. Other advisers will caution that involving too many actors in the planning and decision-making will "just slow things down." It is better, they will argue, to build a tight guiding coalition and ignore the naysayers.

In fact, such a strategy doesn’t work all that well in most types of organizations. But it is especially disastrous in an academic setting, where informal power tends to be more enduring than formal authority.

A better approach in higher education is to apply the power of skeptical thinkers. Put it to good use in improving both the substance of your Big New Change and the odds that it will succeed. Here are three strategies:

  • Engage skeptics early with questions, not answers. Rather than selling the doubters on ready-made solutions, partner with them before your change becomes final, to clarify the challenges. Once there is agreement on the problems to be solved or opportunities to be explored, debates can focus on how — rather than whether — to move forward. Sure, it may seem more pleasant or productive to populate project teams with optimistic cheerleaders. However, there is research to suggest that harnessing the power and intellect of the chronically frustrated might yield better results.
  • Create structures for dissent and criticism. Invite the various stakeholders to come together to dissect and destroy proposals. The goals: to assess the plans’ fundamental merits and make them stronger. Ask the assembled: "What are all of the reasons this is a bad idea?" and "How could we ensure that this idea would fail if we were to implement it?" Do not rely solely on subject-matter experts to offer criticism of your Big New Change. Instead, populate review teams with smart people who are unfamiliar with the content under consideration. This will ensure that fresh perspectives are considered, expose review-team members to new ways of thinking, and encourage cross-pollination of people and ideas.
  • Create feedback loops. The time will come when you have to process everything you’ve heard from the skeptics and make some choices. Not all ideas and suggestions will survive. Rather than rolling out your Big New Change in final form, first explain how you reached various decisions. This will honor those who provided guidance and will increase their ability to make better recommendations the next time they are asked to do so.

On many campuses where major change is underway, the skeptics are often likened to dinosaurs stuck in the past. But I think they are often the folks most worried about the future. They ask hard questions not because they want to block progress or encourage decline, but because they want to ensure the long-term survival of an institution that is important to them. Often the skeptics are more familiar with the relevant history and context than are those leading the change, so sidelining them is not just disrespectful but can prove to be quite dangerous.

As many an ousted president, provost, or dean can attest, it is often wiser to embrace the skeptics than attempt to discredit or silence them.

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