The Fear of the Unknown

Eva Andrijcic

I’d like to challenge you to a little gamble. Imagine that I show you a large jar that is filled with 90 marbles. You cannot see inside of the jar, but I tell you that the jar contains exactly 90 marbles, and of those exactly 30 are yellow, and the other sixty are a combination of black and red marbles, but the actual ratio of them is unknown. Each marble is as likely to be drawn out of the jar as any other.

Gamble A: You’ll get $100 if you draw a yellow marble

Gamble B: You’ll get $100 if you draw a black marble

If you picked A, you’re not alone! In fact, economist Daniel Ellsberg showed that in situations like this, individuals overwhelmingly tend to pick wagers for which they know the expected outcomes versus wagers for which the expected outcome is unknown. In the example above, you know that you have a 1 in 3 chance of drawing a yellow marble, but you don’t know what the proportion of black marbles is;  there could be anywhere from 1 – 59 black marbles in the jar. So, despite the fact that the likelihood of picking a black marble could be much higher than that of picking a yellow one, in general, when confronted with incomplete information, individuals select the value for which they know the outcome. This is called the Ellsberg paradox.

The marble example is relevant to any discussion of change.  For many of us, changing strategy is hard because the outcomes are ambiguous. Why change the strategy which has for so long resulted in predictable results, if we cannot guarantee with some level of certainty that the change will result in anything better? Why settle for the evil we don’t know, when we can choose the evil we do? Ellsberg and other behavioral economists have proven that people in general dislike and fear ambiguity in business and personal situations. We are wired to resist ambiguity, and recent research shows that even our close primate relatives dislike ambiguity [1].  In practice we often choose suboptimal strategies to avoid the fear of the unknown: from choosing a good old restaurant we always go to instead of trying a new one that might be better, to preferring bonds and deposits over stocks in our portfolios because of the volatility of stock prices.

So, what does this have to do with change? Very often when we ask people to join our change efforts, or when we seek support and buy-in, we might ignore the fact that we are asking people to suspend their fear of the unknown. We don’t always have all of the answers ready; the outcomes caused by our change might be ambiguous, as might be our communication with those impacted. Yet we ask people to trust us and our experience. Sometimes they might not be able to do so immediately, not because they don’t believe in us or our change initiatives, but because they are afraid of the unknown. That is completely natural, and we should anticipate that response!

So, what can we do? First of all, we can accept resistance to ambiguity as a natural gut reaction, and proactively seek areas where people we talk to might want more clarity. We can reduce ambiguity of communication by truthfully acknowledging the existence of ambiguity in the process, goals or outcomes of our change initiative. We can try to reduce those ambiguities as much as possible by drawing parallels to similar examples or experiences at our or other institutions. We can try to implement our change initiatives in increments to give individuals time to assess and adjust to the unknown. We can also point out to individuals the presence of the Ellsberg paradox – bring the unconscious to the forefront so that people think more deeply about the factors that are guiding their decision making. Continue reading “The Fear of the Unknown”

Art of Listening

Sriram Mohan

Seek first to understand, then to be Understoodblur-business-close-up-597327

As a change agent, you may encounter people who have strong objections to your change idea. Some of the critiques you hear are substantive, while others are not. The strategies that have to be employed to counter these critiques are radically different. John Kotter’s book Buy-In [1] is a great read and can help you determine the right strategy for the situation. But the focus of Kotter’s book is helping you create responses when you engage in arguments.    What is less obvious is using a strategy of silence, focusing instead on listening rather than talking. This is something I struggle with often and I have gone down the rabbit hole of engaging with a non-substantive argument, when the right strategy would have been to stop talking and start listening.

I recently attended a workshop on academic leadership and a module on listening struck a chord with me. A good change agent is often a skilled negotiator and a master at conflict resolution. A vital tool in the negotiator’s arsenal is the ability to understand the other perspective. The change agent can achieve this by using the strategy of deep listening.   According to Dr. William Ury, deep listening builds rapport, creates a sense of empathy, and increases the feeling of being heard. This increases the chances of your own perspective being heard and thereby has the potential to create buy-in [2].

So, how do you become a good listener? Much like every other tool that a change agent deploys, this is one that requires practice. A good listener has to actively stop thinking and pay attention. It is natural for you to start strategizing your response to the speaker. The focus of your thinking has to shift from your response to the speakers’ perspective. Put yourself firmly in their shoes and try to figure out what they are saying, what they are not saying, and the emotions behind their thoughts.  One way to achieve this is to ask the right questions. Asking powerful questions is valuable; however, sometimes asking questions in general is seen as a sign of weakness and ignorance and thus is not valued. Don’t worry about looking weak.  Asking the right questions can go a long way in improving as a listener.

The key phrase that I took away from the book was “humble inquiry.”  “Humble inquiry is the skill and art of drawing someone out, of asking questions to which you do not already know the answer, of building a relationship based on curiosity and interest in the other person” [3]. This type of inquiry is not characterized by a specific set of questions. It is, however, based on minimizing our own preconceptions, assuming positive intent and clearing our minds at the beginning of a conversation. Asking the right type of questions to diagnose the situation at hand can be very helpful. Some good questions to consider include: Continue reading “Art of Listening”

Always go sleeveless

Steve Chenoweth, RHIT

At some point in promoting change, we epiphanize that all the commitment, energy, processes, logic, and artifices put into our effort don’t guarantee success.  Change is not, after all, a sure thing.  Highly compromised ideas, other priorities, and inertia could still win the day.  What to do now?  Time to back off, get away, and reflect.

At Synectics,[1] where I once sought frequent idea help, we would stop thinking about our conundrum on purpose.  They call it an “excursion.”  After a long ordeal of trying to make the important thing happen, you Excurt by getting involved in something completely different:  Go for a bike ride, getting lost in Boston traffic.  Learn to play “London Bridge” on the accordion.  Switching your mindset eventually brings you back with fresh focus on the problem.

As a result, you may realize, perhaps, that everyone else at your institution possesses a mindset when it comes to your desired change, a mindset many won’t spontaneously leave behind just because you advocate for your change.  They may even relish engaging you in dear old academic disputation about it, winning points for their perspective by poking at yours.  Remember, these are your co-workers.  You respect one another.  Yet, for them, “new” equals “threatening,” in the Kurt Lewin[2] sense.  Their perspective is grounded in weak assumptions and anxieties more than by broad critical thinking, at least from your point of view.  So, wouldn’t it be helpful to inspire them to take an excursion too?

Continue reading “Always go sleeveless”

We’re Gonna Need a Bigger Lever

Julia M. Williams,
Interim Dean of Cross-Cutting Programs and Emerging Opportunities & Professor of English, Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology

leversOn May 7 and 8, I joined a group of STEM educators for the inaugural “Levers for Change” meeting, sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).  The goals for the meeting were clear:

  • To capture a snapshot of the current state of research-based reform in undergraduate STEM instruction within six clusters of STEM disciplines: biological sciences, chemistry & biochemistry, engineering & computer science, geosciences, mathematical sciences, physics & astronomy.
  • To identify key levers of change that are seen to have been effective in reaching this state, and to identify additional levers—less-tapped or untapped—that may be useful for fostering further change in the next decade.
  • To convene a group of leaders with experience in research and practice on STEM instructional change in higher education, to learn from, inspire and connect with each other.

In advance of the meeting, certain individuals were asked to write a white paper in each of the six cluster areas, a paper that attempted to demonstrate the current use of research-based reforms, particularly the use of RBIs, or Research-Based Instruction practices, in STEM classrooms.  As the meeting commenced, “Faculty Focus” published a report on the work of one of the Levers attendees [3].  Dr. Marilyne Stains (University of Nebraska) and colleagues had just published the most comprehensive study of the use of RBIs in STEM education, in the journal Science (March 29, 2018).  In that study, “the largest-ever observational study of undergraduate STEM education,” researchers monitored “nearly 550 faculty as they taught more than 700 courses at 25 institutions across the United States and Canada.”  The results of the study were not promising:

55 percent of STEM classroom interactions consisted mostly of conventional lecturing, a style that prior research has identified as among the least effective at teaching and engaging students.  Another 27 percent featured interactive lectures that had students participating in some group activities or answering multiple-choice questions with handheld clickers. Just 18 percent emphasized a student-centered style heavy on group work and discussions. The predominance of lecturing observed in the study persists despite many years of federal and state educational agencies advocating for more student-centered learning, the researchers said. [3]

Continue reading “We’re Gonna Need a Bigger Lever”

Navigating Rough Weather: Emotion Regulation Techniques for Change Agents

Navigating Rough Weather: Emotion Regulation Techniques for Change Agents

Kay. C. Dee

Recently, I wrote a post about a change agent colleague who was working on reframing negative feelings into more positive, action-oriented points of view.  This isn’t an easy process.  Although I’d call myself a fairly experienced change agent, I still sometimes wrestle with impatience and frustration when faced with resistance to a change I believe in and am working to implement.  Today I’d like to share some strategies for handling those (perfectly normal) negative emotional reactions, and balancing those emotions with logic – which then allows deliberate reframing of situations, as discussed in the previous post.

The first suggestion is to practice coping ahead of time.  For example, you may know that you will need to have a difficult conversation about your change effort with someone who is highly resistant to change.  Drawing from dialectical behavior therapy skills[1], you might:

  1. In writing or verbally, describe the situation in which the conversation will likely take place. Be as specific as possible, and name the emotions you are likely to feel during that conversation.
  2. Decide what coping or problem-solving skills to use during the conversation. Plan ahead, and describe your coping strategy[2] in detail.
  3. Imagine the situation as vividly as possible, placing yourself in the situation as an active participant.
  4. Rehearse the conversation. Imagine your actions, your thoughts, and the possible responses of your conversational partner.  Practice (out loud) what you will say and how you will say it.  What is the worst, most catastrophic way that your conversational partner might react?  How would you calmly respond to and cope with that scenario?
  5. Relax after you’ve rehearsed, and let any residual negativity evaporate away.

The second strategy will be useful if you find yourself having a hard time coping with or relaxing after the practice outlined above.  It will also be useful if you find yourself experiencing strong negative emotions in anticipation of a meeting, presentation, or conversation.  This strategy is directly quoted from Linehan’s DBT® Skills Training Handouts and Worksheets[3] – “Examining our thoughts and checking the facts can help us change our emotions”.  How to check the facts: Continue reading “Navigating Rough Weather: Emotion Regulation Techniques for Change Agents”

That’s Perfectly Normal

That’s Perfectly Normal

Kay. C. Dee

I once announced to a psychologist that during that day’s session, we were going to play a game called “That’s Perfectly Normal.”  I would tell him something that I was thinking or feeling, and he would respond with “That’s Perfectly Normal!” and then describe why.  It was a reassuring (and entertaining) game, and I recently found myself playing the other side of this game with a colleague who has been leading a major curricular change effort.

In this short blog venue, I can’t fully describe the amount of energy, effort, collaboration, communication, and social/political capital that my colleague has invested in this change effort over the past two years.  As I am writing this post, their institution’s faculty assembly is preparing to vote on whether or not the change will be implemented.  As a change agent navigating their way through a great deal of peer judgement about their project, my colleague has been thinking and feeling a lot of Perfectly Normal things right now.  For example:

  • My change project is being held to standards that are far higher than are expected of any existing project.  I resent that.  Some of the people calling for additional assessments, information, and review processes sound hypocritical to me.
  • Others are using my change project as political leverage or a bargaining tool to try to achieve their own goals.  I am bewildered by this.  My project has nothing to do with Program X’s ability to hire an administrative assistant, or whether Program Y’s proposal for a second major is likely to be approved.  Why is my project being dragged into these discussions?
  • People with no expertise in the subject matter of my change are challenging my experiences in and mastery of that subject matter.  This makes me feel resentful and disrespected.
  • I’m being told that people who I thought supported me and the broad goals of my project are saying negative (and untrue!) things about me and my motivations for undertaking this project.  This is disappointing and painful.  I don’t want to get involved in gossip, but at the same time, I want people to think well of me and to understand my actual motives for this change.
  • People who aren’t aware of all the constraints I have been working under, and who have never championed a similar magnitude of change, are telling me that I should have handled things differently – and that if I had done so, I would not be experiencing the current level of consternation over the proposed change.  This frustrates me.  I think it’s meant to be helpful constructive criticism, but I guarantee that I did the best I could with what I had to work with.  At this point, I kind of just want these people to shut up!

Continue reading “That’s Perfectly Normal”

Ask Powerful Questions

Ask Powerful Questions

Ella Ingram

“A prudent question is one-half of wisdom” Francis Bacon, English philosopher and scientist

I recently attended a workshop focused on training academic leaders as coaches. During the workshop, I realized that a key skill of coaches is one that change agents also should have: how to ask powerful questions. Powerful questions are questions that go beyond. They go beyond trivialities and superficialities. They go beyond examining the current state and the current answers. They go beyond an immediate response. They go beyond our current thinking to imagine what could be. So, what are some powerful questions that change agents can ask of themselves and others? Try these on for size.

Identifying Obstacles

What are the barriers that are easy to see in this situation?

What are the barriers that are under the surface in this situation?

What is desirable about the current state of affairs?

Why hasn’t a change already occurred in this situation?

What’s one change that would open a path forward with respect to this problem?

Describing the Greater Good Continue reading “Ask Powerful Questions”

What could go wrong with my plan?

Steve Chenoweth

When you are asking an organization to deviate from “standard operating procedure” (SOP), plenty of prickly weeds await.  Anticipating these is crucial to success: hoping for the best while planning for the worst.

Picture1.pngThe stickiness surrounding SOP is a wonder to behold.  I used to work for “the phone company,” and we thought we were highly creative.  We researched new ideas in giant buildings that looked like what’s shown.  This one was designed by Eero Saarinen — wasn’t that a perfect setting?  Well, maybe. When asked why he made it so gray, Saarinen quipped, “Have you seen the people who work here?” We were part of a machine, and earth-shattering change would mess with that machine.

One creativity guru we hired brought along a large tub of hats, so we could role-play at will.  He observed that our organization was the only place he had been, where participants could go all day with nobody ever trying on a new hat!  You get the picture:  the sense that we were open to new ideas didn’t fit with our actual actions. If you stuck out your elbow, you would hit something important.

The people who work where you do will feel issues with your new idea which you never anticipated.  As much as you are in a mindset that your plan will work, they are in a mindset that what they do now works.  Their current process is how they solve problems.  You would like to open their eyes.  But perhaps it also helps if they open your eyes.  Here’s how:

  1. Invite people to meet with you who are happy as they are, asking them to brainstorm your possible plan for change.
  2. Open them up by playing “Edsel.” What’s that?  It’s a brainstorming game we play in MACH.  More about it, below.
  3. Enlist them in working on the most challenging problems they brought up. Surprisingly, people who can think of roadblocks often will help move them.

Continue reading “What could go wrong with my plan?”

Laying the Foundation for Change

Laying the Foundation for Change

By Julia Williams

For many of us, the term “graduate school” provokes specific, vivid associations.  Quoting the English novelist Charles Dickens—“ It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”—graduate school can seem like wish fulfillment (“I finally get to work on the stuff that really interests me!”) and death wish (“When will I finally be done working on the stuff that used to interest me!”) rolled into one.  What graduate school may not seem like is the perfect place to begin your development as a change agent.  In fact, I would argue graduate school is the right place to begin readying yourself for your eventual role as a change agent in whatever academic or professional context you find yourself in after your pick up your sheepskin and hood.[1]

On March 21, I joined three other Rose-Hulman colleagues for the Making Academic Change Happen (MACH) Professional Development Workshop at Purdue University.  Sponsored by the Purdue Graduate Student Government, the graduate student chapter of the American Society of Engineering Education, the Electrical and Computer Engineering Graduate Student Association, and the Material Science Engineering Graduate Student Association, the one day workshop was designed to introduce emerging STEM educators to the principles of change agency and to help them lay the foundation for their eventual role as change agents.  It may seem odd to view graduate school as the place to learn to make change.  The traditional focus for graduate education is on disciplinary expertise, delving deeply into one’s research area and preparing oneself for joining the ranks of professionals.  In many cases, however, your very presence as a newly minted PhD in an academic context signals that change is occurring.

As a member of the MACH facilitation team, I have designed and participated in several full MACH workshops and customized “mini-MACHs” meant to target individuals who are about to start new academic positions, e.g., hired to be the developer for a new curriculum, a new teaching center, a new STEM major.  At the moment these new hires arrive on their campuses, they embody the change they have been hired to create.  By readying themselves with the skills that can help them achieve the change they seek—by acquiring a change maker’s toolkit—they can increase the likelihood that they will succeed with their change initiative.

During the one-day MACH workshop at Purdue, attendees were introduced to several key foundational concepts regarding change, such as academic structures and cultures, emerging opportunities for change, and effective communication practices for change agents.  The atmosphere at the workshop was intense and supportive, and facilitators and attendees alike brought their formidable talents to this endeavor.  Because I am nearer to the end than the beginning of my academic career, I was heartened by the potential I saw in these colleagues.  The future of STEM education is in very good hands.

If you would like to learn more about the opportunities we have developed at Rose-Hulman for emerging STEM educators to lay a foundation for change, check out our previous on-campus workshops for graduate students.  We are in the process of planning for an emerging STEM educators MACH in the near future.

[1] Yes, some universities still place an actual sheepskin upon the shoulders of the graduating doctor, but then I digress.

How “Buy-In” Gets It Wrong

How “Buy-In” Gets It Wrong

By Ella Ingram & Kerice Doten-Snitker

Change leaders know that the agreement, support, and participation of others is necessary for successful change. They may hear about the need to gain “buy-in” (often focusing on surly faculty members or those all-important department heads). They may be admonished by others who say, “You have to get buy-in or this project will never go.” They spend a lot of time thinking about how to make buy-in happen. In the noble work of change, change agents spend considerable mental energy and social capital on buy-in.

The problem is that buy-in represents only one engagement goal. A change agent with a focus on buy-in invites varied problems. Buy-in is an incomplete approach to engaging with stakeholders because:

  • it is hierarchical and one-way, instead of collaborative;
  • it appears to be a first step that can be checked off a list, when the reality is that issues that block change require ongoing engagement; and
  • its perspectives match dysfunctional aspects of academic units (e.g., buy-in is oppositional) rather than fitting the approach of highly functional units.

We recommend a different strategy for change agents–one that is more holistic, on-going, and empowering to stakeholders. This strategy amplifies project success, provides new and exciting insight to problems, envisions new solutions and teams, and builds bridges instead of hierarchies between change leaders and their colleagues. The strategy? Creating shared vision. We contend that shared vision supersedes buy-in. Shared vision by its nature helps change be more sustainable and more institutionalized than change based solely on buy-in.

Continue reading “How “Buy-In” Gets It Wrong”