Monday, November 30, 2009

Ask the Administrator: How to Change a Culture?

A regular correspondent writes:

I'm hoping your wise and worldly readers can shed some light on my
anonymous, and of course (despite its curiously detailed nature),
purely hypothetical problem.

I'm a grad student in a Prestigious Atlantic College where our
department is being a little bit roiled by the efforts of some faculty
and students to change the department culture. The specifics don't
matter, except to say that this isn't a case of one methodology or
approach being hailed as superior but rather of commitment to
academics instead of policy relevance as the departmental norm. The
shift is well underway, but the current push is, essentially, to
consolidate the academic side's gains.

My question, however, deals with broader questions of cultural change
in academia. I'd been in the "real world" for a few years before
coming to academia, and so I think that I'm a little bit more tolerant
of blunter, bottom-line assessments of situations and of direct forms
of communications than some of my colleagues. More to the point, I'm
also a little bit less interested in questions of personal style in my
interlocutors than I am in effectiveness and usefulness. That, however,
does not seem to be the case with others. And although I'm aware that
I may be incorrectly perceiving as "acceptable" what others see as
"unprofessional," the broader issue of how to broach cultural change
initiatives is what really preoccupies me.

How, in other words, do you change a culture without appearing to
blame people for what went before? Is there any way to do that? And
what are the best ways of coping with the problem and mitigating the
conflicts these processes seem to generate?

Nope, nothing tricky here!

I read once that philosophers never really settle a question; over time, they change the subject. That's how I see conscious cultural change working. (Unconscious cultural change is another matter altogether. That's the kind that sneaks up on you as a result of changed circumstances. It takes longer, but it tends to have staying power.)

Changing the subject will come across as rude, impertinent, and arrogant, at first. The people who have prospered under the old culture will often defend it beyond reason. Though dogmatic, they won't see the dogmatism in themselves; they'll think of themselves as open to any reasonable answer to the questions they consider important. Cultural change means considering different questions important.

Anyone who has switched workplaces has seen this. Issues that one workplace considered worthy of mortal combat, another won't notice, and vice versa. Since academics tend to stay rooted for extended periods, that comparative perspective is relatively rare. That's unfortunate, since getting some distance on local issues can bring helpful clarity. To give a concrete example, in statewide discussions of outcomes assessment, I've heard from some campuses that standardized measures are of the devil, and from others that they're the greatest thing since sliced bread. I was struck at how far apart the two were, and at the relative shallowness of the arguments presented for both positions. It seemed that each campus chose a side and developed arguments later.

Back to your question. I'd be surprised to see meaningful cultural change occur without either internal conflict or a really massive exogenous shock. The perceived stakes -- whether rightly or wrongly perceived isn't entirely relevant -- are too high. The real questions are about how to manage the conflict, and how to calculate how much conflict is worth it. I'll address the first, and just suggest that the second is entirely too context-dependent to generalize.

If you want to try to push the culture without entirely upending it, I'd recommend starting with a serious inquiry into the perceived needs that the status quo serves. What, exactly, are the partisans of the status quo anxious about? What anxieties does the dominant culture address? (Alternately, what anxieties does it generate?) Some opposition will simply be fear of the unknown, or of change generally; that's annoying, but there it is. But if you can skip past the particular manifestations and get at the anxieties underlying them, you might actually be able to get somewhere.

You can also try to tie old rules to past circumstances. "That rule was developed when the program was struggling to survive, and it made sense. It served its function well. Now the program has outgrown the rule, and needs to change it to continue to move forward." If you can make some version of that argument honestly, you can simultaneously honor what came before and make a case for change. I've had good luck with that when I could use it truthfully. The more you can make the change look like a response to larger circumstances, rather than someone's pet idea, the better your chances. (Some people are good at a close variation on this: the "make them think it was their idea" model. If you can pull it off, more power to you.)

If the issue is subtler -- a longstanding practice, say, rather than an explicit rule -- then simply cultivating an alternative and letting its success speak for itself can work. It's hard to beat something with nothing, so it's better to have something to show.

In the best of all possible worlds, you'd be able to have long, connect-the-dots conversations in which both sides spell out exactly what their concerns actually are. Once in a blue moon, that actually works. It's rare, though, since it's risky, and since people aren't always aware of their own motivations. In my early days of deaning, I had several occasions in which people who expressed that they were fine with something at the proposal stage take great offense at the implementation stage. At first, I wrote it off to misunderstanding, then, later, to failings of character. Now I'm inclined to think that it's limited self-awareness. I don't always know how I'll react to something once it becomes real, so why should anybody else?

The books I've read about 'difficult conversations' and the like usually advise something like "make it safe." That's great when it works, but in this setting, it's a tad idealistic.

Good luck!

I've had my turn, so let me turn to my wise and worldly readers. Have you found ways to change a culture without provoking open warfare?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.