Reflections on Change Leadership

by Jill Crawley-Low
Leslie and Irene Dubé Health Sciences Library and Veterinary Medicine Library, University of Saskatchewan

There have been opportunities to reflect on leadership, organizational culture and change management during the past months at the University of Saskatchewan. The campus community has been involved in the impacts from TransformUS, a project that has been described by President Barnhart as “… too big, moving too fast”. “We have been part of a crisis…” (the President’s description of events) with activities unfolding in fast paced succession and resulting in the departure of several members of the senior leadership team. This astonishing progression was followed by a lull over the summer months as a modified leadership team met to determine a way forward.

During that time, although leaders were busy gathering information and consulting with stakeholders, there was little communication which deepened the feeling of suspension on campus. On September 9th, the President and senior team held a town hall meeting for the campus community and outlined their priorities for action this year. The majority of employees, I think, began to breathe again. Those who had resisted this change felt vindicated.

Although in normal times we take organizational culture for granted, in a crisis, which is usually characterized by accelerated change and often unpredictable outcomes, we long for familiar touchstones. Culture once established is difficult to change because it encompasses our overt beliefs and behaviours as well as those that are unspoken. When fundamental or transformative change is the goal then a shift in culture must occur if the change is to stick. This is why there have to be compelling reasons to initiate complex change. The cost of maintaining the status quo has to be higher than the cost of the proposed change to justify going ahead. Often, the change process involving a large scale change takes longer than predicted, and encounters more hurdles than anticipated.

There is a vast literature on managing change with lots of advice on doing it well and cautionary tales for failing. Daryl Conner and John P. Kotter are two researchers who have written widely and their theories and advice are quite accessible. Conner, author of Managing at the Speed of Change, addresses roles in change management. He examines peoples’ psychological reactions to change, namely that we fear disruption of our expectations and seek control in our lives. Since employees have to “come along” for change to succeed, the most effective employees are those who are resilient, that is, they are adaptable in an ambiguous environment. Resilient employees look for some degree of direct or indirect control they can exert in the change process; they can assimilate the pace of change around them; they accept that there will be micro levels of change (will my desk move?) as well as macro changes at the organizational level. We all perceive things around us in our own way, so different frames of reference have to be taken into account when asking employees to participate in the change process.

Kotter developed 8 steps to transforming your organization in a 1996 article called Leading Change: Why Transformation Efforts Fail in HBR that is still cited. Firstly, Kotter advises creating a sense of urgency around the change process otherwise it’s business as usual. Other steps include forming a powerful guiding coalition, creating a vision to direct the change, communicating that vision, and empowering others to act on it.

Returning to the impacts of TransformUS on the campus community, in my opinion, senior leadership could have been more effective in communicating the vision surrounding TransformUS. As well, they failed to modify the change process to take into account feedback from stakeholders who wanted their leaders to slow the process and be more forthcoming about the financial reasons for the initiative. On the part of employees, we didn’t model resilient behaviour that would have positioned us to view the proposed changes through a more neutral lens acting for the benefit of the institution. In the fall of 2014, calmer times prevail, to be sure; I have to ask – have we settled for the comfort of the status quo and will we pay a bigger price sometime in the future?

This article gives the views of the author(s) and not necessarily the views of the Centre for Evidence Based Library and Information Practice or the University Library, University of Saskatchewan.