I was recently in a meeting with my department where we were discussing our new assessment cycle for the year and solidifying our strategic goals. We had been socializing assessment concepts throughout the year and had been engaging in a change process to make assessment an integral part of our work in student involvement. When I entered the room, people were on edge, tapping pens and looking nervous while shifting in seats. I took a beat, and decided to start with a temperature check and gauge what we could accomplish together.
The question, “How are we feeling right now about piloting assessment projects for the fall?” got responses I was not anticipating. The majority of the team was nervous about balancing the creation of new programs to use in an assessment cycle with their existing programs and job duties. Huh, who said anything about starting at square zero and creating new programs?
This situation got me thinking about how we talk about change processes. I’ve been a part of a variety of conversations regarding change: how to foster change as a new professional, tips and tricks for handling adversity in the change process, elements of successful cultural change, motivating others to engage in a change process. Despite these opportunities to converse and reflect, I had not yet specifically thought about the words we use when communicating about change. I did a brainstorming exercise, writing down all the words that came to mind when thinking about change. I also went back to e-mails and previous agendas to see what words I had been using with my colleagues. Here is the brief list I came up with:
At the conclusion of this exercise, it was apparent where my colleagues’ trepidation about creating new programs was stemming – how I was framing our change process! Cultivating change can be about creating new outputs, however, we were focusing on adapting our current practices in order to integrate assessment. I had been pulling from my go-to mental schema of “Change = New” and not thinking critically about my communication, believing everyone knew my intended meanings.
I made a new list of additional words associated with change that better fit the actions I was aiming towards for my department:
I used these words in follow-up meetings with individual staff members. Tension visibly eased as we discussed identifying existing programs where we could easily integrate assessment and what assessment tools we already had on hand and could adapt to use in this process. Apprehension dissipated, and a task that was originally conceived as laborious became approachable and doable.
My goal in the future to avoid this pitfall is to challenge my change schema and think about the words I am using in my communication with others. Questions I will reflect on include:
- What are the desired outcomes of the change process?
- What actions are needed in order to accomplish these outcomes?
- Overall, will the change require creation or amendment?
- What words best demonstrate the change outcomes and required actions?
There will always be missteps, but hopefully this practice will help me find the words to foster the best change.