14 November 2012

Leading change in higher education

By Voon Mung Ling

Worldwide, organisations continue to be confronted with challenges that demand they change and adapt in order to survive. However, implementing change often forces employees out of their comfort zone and into unfamiliar jobs and responsibilities. Faced with the uncertainty of today’s job environment, it is not surprising that many employees resist change.

Hence, organisations need to manage not only the changes to their business strategies but also the way they deal with their employees during the change process in order to sustain competitiveness. However, managing change is not an easy task. Problems can arise due to differences in the nature of the organisation, its leadership style and the behaviours and attitudes of employees.

Higher education institutions, like any other organisations, also go through the change process. Academic staff play an important role in successful change initiatives at these institutions. In Malaysia universities are facing new challenges as they attempt to meet the human resources demands from increasingly complex industries. Furthermore, those heading the universities are expected to not only increase the quality of education but must also consider issues such as the performance of their university vis-à-vis institutions in other countries, funding for research activities, and graduate employability.

The challenge then is gaining the commitment of academic staff to the changes in workload or increases but yet continue to produce positive work outcomes. While many factors contribute to employee commitment levels, the behaviours and attitudes of both top management and academics have a significant impact. Some may welcome change while others perceive it in a negative light. It is not uncommon then for some to resist change and sabotage initiatives that assist in coping with change.

These negative behaviours not only lower job performance but also undermines the performance of the university as a whole. There is, therefore, a compelling need for universities to develop better strategies that reduce any negative perceptions its staff may harbour, and increase the commitment to the change process.

On top of the list is the ability of the leadership to inspire and motivate academics. To achieve this, they not only need the skills to clearly explain the need for, and benefits of, change in a manner that wins the staff over but also empathy to understand their needs. Leaders must also establish a high level of trust; the availability of adequate resources for supporting change and nurturing a caring workplace will demonstrate this.

Although leaders have a predominant “style”, their ability to adopt a different approach could have a significant impact on subordinates’ commitment to change. As academics vary in personality as well as the stage of their career (early-career, mid-career or senior), they have different expectations of their leaders. Those leaders who are able to apply the appropriate leadership style to match individual or group expectations are more likely to find that staff will engage proactively in the change process.

In addition, the nature of the relationship between top management and their staff also plays a significant role in sustaining long-term commitment to the change process. In particular, friendly interactions between management and staff, the level of mutual respect and loyalty, and effort each contribute into the relationship, has an impact.

Leaders who project strong competency in their areas of expertise and leadership find it easier to earn respect and loyalty. Academics view interactions as opportunities to acquire new skills and knowledge, and this process becomes an important source of self-motivation and positive reinforcement. During the change process, senior management tend to provide more support to loyal and trusting staff who reciprocate with positive behaviours towards the change initiatives. These staff also offer more opportunities to be involved in the change process. When a comfortable and friendly relationship, built on mutual respect, exists academics are more likely to commit to the change initiatives.

In order to sustain organisational improvement and staff commitment, a successful leader must understand the behaviours of subordinates, and skilled in applying the appropriate leadership styles in various work settings. In addition, it is important that top management initiate and maintain open and sincere interactions with their staff, founded on mutual respect, to foster commitment to change initiatives.

Voon Mung Ling is a lecturer with Faculty of Business and Design at Swinburne University of Technology Sarawak Campus. She is contactable at mvoon@swinburne.edu.my