The Power of Motivation: Transformational Leadership in Higher Education

By Dr. LeKesha Campbell

Academic institutions are arguably one of the longest standing organizations. With histories dating as far back as the 15th century, institutions of higher learning are rooted in a strong sense of tradition and historical values that continue to shape its operations and the collegiate experience. Advancements in technology, pedagogy, globalization, and the need to differentiate amongst competitors have placed academic institutions under increased pressure to operate with agility and innovate beyond the status quo. While leading through change is challenging for leaders across industries, higher education leaders face the unique challenge of driving change in an environment where there is a strong desire to preserve history and culture.

To successfully drive change, leaders in academic institutions must be fully equipped with both business and people-oriented change strategies. It is important for leaders to be of the mindset that resistance and ambivalence are a normal part of the change process. Given so, success will require a specific skill set that will lower resistance, increase motivation and bring others along. Motivational Interviewing (MI), a process typically used in clinical settings to modify deeply entrenched behaviors, has increasingly found its way into the business world. MI asserts that leaders can effectively facilitate change at the individual and group level by recognizing:

A. Human beings are hardwired to prefer their own ideas over ideas generated by others.
B. Eliciting ideas from the individual/group reduces ambivalence and increases the likelihood of successfully engaging in personal or system change.

The use of MI can be particularly helpful when leaders are faced with the challenge of inspiring groups and teams to modify longstanding behaviors and ways of thinking. Rather than commanding and directing change, MI creates a shared sense of ownership over the change process thereby increasing buy-in and engagement. Below are a few MI techniques and strategies higher education leaders can leverage to effectively lead through change.

1. Establish Trust: Change is inherently hard as the human brain is naturally wired to embrace familiarity. However, others are likely to have confidence in their own and the organization’s ability to successfully navigate change when trust has been established. Leaders can foster a greater sense of trust by seeking to understand how others think and feel about change. Demonstrating empathy will lower defenses and prepare others to engage in the change conversation.

2. Consider Readiness: Apart from critical issues demanding immediate attention, manage the urge to act too quickly. Rushing to action is likely to heighten organizational resistance, create disruption, and/or result in short-term, but non-sustainable, gains. Before moving to implementation, take careful stock of the organization’s readiness for change. Ask questions to understand how important the change is to the organization and the organization’s confidence in its ability to make the desired changes. When assessing readiness, aim to understand the culture and history of change in the organization. Gather information on past change efforts, successes, and derailers; and organizational current capacity to facilitate change.

3. Foster Commitment Instead of Compliance: While articulating the vision and communicating "why" plays a critical role in change management, true change occurs when others feel an inherent sense of motivation and ownership over the change process. Rather than relying on messaging that is commanding or directing, executives can increase their effectiveness by asking open-ended questions that will inevitably allow others to self-discover the benefits of change and feel empowered to overcome barriers. Questions leaders may pose include, “If you [your team] decide to… would it benefit you [your team]?” “What would prevent you [your team] from…..?” “On a scale of 1-10, how confident are you [your team] that we can…..?” “What would need to happen to get you [your team] from a 4 to an 8.”

4. Translate the Vision to Execution: Organizations often find themselves reverting to the status quo or struggling to make head way on the leader’s vision. These regressions are often a result of lack of clarity and uncertainty. Once you have established sufficient commitment and buy-in, ensure that your vision has been effectively translated from an abstract concept to actionable and measurable goals. Developing a communication plan; establishing priorities; outlining goals, objectives, and accountabilities; creating metrics to monitor progress, and identifying a reward-incentive system are all important considerations.

5. Create a Feedback Loop and Recalibrate When Needed: Change is constant, and it is common for organizations to vacillate between ambivalence and commitment as barriers and challenges emerge over time. To maintain momentum and get ahead of potential derailers, look for opportunities to gather feedback on the progress of transformational efforts. Informal and formal feedback mechanisms (i.e., surveys, adding check-ins to meeting agendas, skip levels) will help to keep you informed of when and where you might need to recalibrate your efforts to maintain organizational motivation and commitment to change.

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