Monthly Archives: October 2015

Why respect matters

respect effectAs you read this I’ll be at the Academic and Student Affairs leadership conference. One of the breakout sessions that Todd and I are leading is loosely based on The Respect Effect by Paul Meshanko.

Respect and its opposites, bullying and incivility, have been a hot topic in higher education for the past 10 years or so. What is it about respect that’s so important to shaping organizational culture?

First, as we pointed out in the breakout session, a culture of respect is more inclusive and allows people with different backgrounds and viewpoints to bring their best.

Second, students and staff who feel respected are more engaged. They are more likely to share their ideas, contribute their thoughts, and work collaboratively.

In addition, Meshanko’s research has shown that people have different cognitive responses to respect and to incivility. Those who show respect are viewed as potential collaborative partners, while those who display incivility or bullying are viewed, naturally enough, as threats.

Meshanko provides 12 rules for demonstrating respect.  Those that are especially important for academic leaders include:

  • Develop a curiosity about the perspective of others
  • Assume everyone is smart about something
  • Look for opportunities to connect with and support others
  • When you disagree, explain why
  • Balance the time you spend talking and the time you spend listening

These actions seem common-sense, but I have found that they can be improved with time and attention.  What other ways have you developed to show respect?

Dee Anne Bonebright




Inspiration and culture

By guest blogger John Kearns

Leaders in higher education lead by fiat at their own peril. So when they want to shape the culture of an organization such as a college or university or system, they need to do a lot of persuading. There’s an art to persuasion in the western tradition that goes back to Aristotle, who said there were three things you have to do if you want to persuade people to follow you. You have to prove you’re worthy of being followed. You have to convince people that your way is the right way. And you have to make people feel something.

I’ve written a lot of speeches over the past decade – for myself when I was a dean and provost, and more recently for higher education chief executives – at a time when we don’t have the luxury of ignoring the need to change. Leading today in an academic setting is all about shaping a new organizational culture. But our leaders – especially those who come from the academic ranks – tend to be more comfortable proving their worth (i.e., the verbal résumé) and stating the facts that prove they’re right (i.e., the verbal graph). That’s because bona fides and facts are the main things valued in academic research. Making people feel all the feels? Don’t be ridiculous!

I’m not saying proving your worth and establishing your facts aren’t important. They’re extremely important and a leader’s communication must include them. But organizational culture is ultimately something that’s experienced, that’s felt. Simon Sinek’s book Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action is all about reminding us that leaders are much more likely to succeed in shaping an organization culture when they can explain WHY. For Minnesota State Colleges and Universities, WHY means Why we do what we do and Why we care about providing access to all Minnesotans.

But WHY also explains WHAT we do. We prioritize access: That’s why we have 54 campuses in 47 communities across the state where students from every walk of life come to learn. We protect affordibility: That’s why we don’t set tuition according to what the market will bear. We’re growing the pipeline of future college students: That’s why we work with public schools to redesign the transition from high school to higher education. And we want Minnesota communities to prosper: That’s why we graduate people in every profession, from nurses to mechanics to teachers and more.

Once an audience understands why, they’re ready to hear about what needs to happen.

John Kearns is the Senior Writer, Executive & Strategic Communication for Minnesota State Colleges and Universities.

Todd Thorsgaard

Conflict or collegiality?

conflict signWhere would you prefer to work? A workplace rife with conflict or an institution that reeks of collegiality? Easy answer, right? Yet we seem to have built cultures, particularly in higher education, that encourage conflict!

Robert Cipriano, Ed.D., professor and department chair at Southern Connecticut State University, has been researching, writing and consulting on collegiality for over a decade.  He reminds us that higher education is founded on bringing together people with divergent and conflicting ideas. No wonder there is dissent!

However, to succeed and tackle the challenges facing higher education today, Anita highlighted the importance of collaboration in her recent post. Or as Cipriano puts it, “we all can agree to disagree without being disagreeable” -what he calls “positive dissent.”

In his recent book, Facilitating a Collegial Department in Higher Education: Strategies for Success, Cipriano lists a set of key activities that leaders can take to build a collegial culture:

  • Help people achieve their goals
  • Develop a genuine interest in each team member
  • Treat people with respect and dignity – always
  • Remember that relationships built on trust and fed by personal integrity are the foundation
  • Recognize that poor behavior by others does not require you to respond in kind (but you do need to respond)
  • Model characteristics you wish to see in your team members
  • Acknowledge that leadership is more a function of people’s relationships than the position
  • Recognize people publicly for their achievements

When I read this list it all makes sense, yet as an old saying goes, common sense is not always common practice! Where do you have an opportunity to practice building a culture of collegiality?

Todd Thorsgaard

Promoting a culture of collaboration

collaborate promote“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” – African proverb

Leaders in public higher education face numerous challenges today. Just yesterday the headline in the Pioneer Press announced “MnSCU’s $12.7 million shortfall deeper than expected.” With declines in student enrollment and increases in negotiated compensation for several employee groups, Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU) leaders commented that colleges and universities will need to bolster their enrollment strategies and they will be looking to trim costs. This is a common scenario for many institutions across the nation.

Other challenges in public higher education today include, but are not limited to: new technologies, changing student and employee demographics, demand for innovation, competition from for-profit institutions. Not surprisingly, each of these challenges are complex and not easily solved. They require the collaboration of faculty, staff, and administrators working together to manage them effectively.

In a major effort dubbed “Charting the Future,” MnSCU has been encouraging increased collaboration in the last few years to ensure that our colleges and universities can deliver on its commitments to grow Minnesota’s economy and open the doors of educational opportunity to all Minnesotans. Teams of people worked together diligently to produce recommendations that could be implemented at the institutional level and system level.  And now, many of those recommendations are moving forward. Still, implementing those recommendations will take additional collaboration because most of the solutions are not simple and require creating something that did not exist before or generating ideas for new service delivery or know-how.

Given the need for increased need collaboration in all our workplaces, it begs the question, what can leaders do to promote a culture of collaboration? In an earlier blog, I cited Dan Sanker and his ideas for fostering collaboration. Additionally, in his book, Collaborate: The Art of We, Sanker gives sage advice on how to assemble a collaborative team. He advises looking for people who have the following key traits and characteristics:

  • A positive attitude, open-mindedness, curiosity, and enthusiasm
  • Good communication skills
  • Flexibility and the ability to tolerate ambiguity
  • A willingness to take risks
  • Critical thinking and problem-solving skills
  • The ability to be self reflective
  • Good interpersonal skills
  • The ability to see the big picture

I recall when I was a graduate student in the 1980s and was hired for my first job in higher education administration. My boss at the time told me that the most important attribute needed for anyone to be successful in higher education was the ability to tolerate ambiguity. I’ve reflected on that conversation many times over the years and have found truth in it. Cultivating my ability to tolerate ambiguity sure has helped me to be a better collaborator.

What traits and characteristics do you look for in people as you assemble collaborative teams?

Anita Rios

When cultural fit goes too far

whisperingCan you believe what he did? What was she thinking? Where did he get the idea to do that?

How do you react when you hear people on your team making statements like these? How important is a “smooth operating” team to you?

While a team that embraces the culture of the organization and holds a set of shared values, beliefs and unstated assumptions can be a competitive advantage, there is also a dark side of culture that leaders need to recognize.

There has been a spate of stories and articles recently describing the downside of an over reliance on cultural fit in the workplace. Inadvertently, in the quest to hire and develop aligned work teams, organizations have created road blocks to diversity and have reinforced conformity and exclusion. Organizational cultural fit has morphed into “personal” fit which can lead to exclusion.

To leverage organizational culture and not personal similarity, Lauren A. Rivera, associate professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, encourages leaders to use data and focus on the traits, behaviors, values and past experience that are directly related to job performance and the overall success of the organization.

In the end leaders need to manage the tension between personal fit and diversity within the organization.

Todd Thorsgaard



Modeling civility

Civility 3“Civil discourse is a cornerstone of democracy and a central tenet of academic freedom. Building on this tradition, we must set the stage for ‘civil behavior’ in all its forms.”

-Kevin Reilly, President, University of Wisconsin (UW) System and UW system institution chancellors (November 2010 joint letter to faculty, staff, and students)

Following various incidents of bullying, harassment, intimidation, intolerance, and even violence at college and university campuses across the nation, leaders have been calling for an increased focus on civility in higher education. While some in higher education fear that a focus on civility might curtail their academic freedom or freedom of speech, UW Oshkosh Chancellor Richard Wells asserts that it is quite the opposite. In an address to his campus community he said, Academic freedom and free speech require open, safe, civil, and collegial campus environments grounded in reasoned inquiry, intellectual honesty, scholarly competence, and the pursuit of new knowledge.”  He also added that, “Uncivil behavior is not well understood in part because we do not have enough opportunity to develop shared agreements as to what constitutes civil behavior.”

Today you can google “civility and higher education” and find a multitude of campus communities that are working on efforts to gain agreement about what constitutes civil or respectful behavior. Some are developing ground rules to encourage civil discourse in the classroom and meetings, others are creating policies or civility training, and still others are involving faculty, staff, and students in ongoing dialogue to increase civility.

These are all laudable efforts. But some leaders may wonder where do you start? If that’s the case with you, I think it helps to start where you have the most control. Start with yourself… and begin modeling civility. In his book Choosing Civility: The Twenty-Five Rules of Considerate Conduct, P.M. Forni, professor and co-founder of the Civility Project at Johns Hopkins University,  identifies 25 things each of us can do on an individual basis to model civility. They include:

  1. Pay attention
  2. Acknowledge others
  3. Think the best
  4. Listen
  5. Be inclusive
  6. Speak kindly
  7. Don’t speak ill
  8. Accept and give praise
  9. Respect even a subtle “no”
  10. Respect others’ opinions
  11. Mind your body
  12. Be agreeable
  13. Keep it down (and rediscover silence)
  14. Respect other people’s time
  15. Respect other people’s space
  16. Apologize earnestly and thoughtfully
  17. Assert yourself
  18. Avoid personal questions
  19. Care for your guests
  20. Be a considerate guest
  21. Think twice before asking for favors
  22. Refrain from idle complaints
  23. Give constructive criticism
  24. Respect the environment and be gentle to animals
  25. Don’t shift responsibility and blame

While it’s a long list and seems somewhat like common sense, I challenge you to rate yourself on a scale of 1-10 for each of the 25 rules. How did you do?

I know that some of them come very easily for me, but that I need to work on others. For instance, it comes very naturally for me to give praise and credit to others; however, in a time where we are all multi-tasking with instant access to texts and email on our phones, it can be challenging to just focus and pay attention.

Anita Rios


A culture of respect

Organizational culture in colleges and universities has been in the news a lot recently, especially as it relates to respect. There are many reasons for this, ranging from increased awareness of sexual violence prevention to discussions of academic bullying.

What does it mean for academic leaders to create and nurture a culture of respect?  I like this definition from Hobart and William Smith Colleges:

A Culture of Respect is one in which empathy, diversity and truth are valued and practiced. A culture of respect is one that encourages us to see the world from multiple perspectives; to participate in dialogue that lifts understanding and that cultivates a practice of listening; to understand marginalization and isolation as the byproduct of prejudice and hate; to show leadership and intervene even when it is inconvenient and especially when it is difficult; and to fight oppression while we also guard against intolerance in our own thoughts and actions.

Clearly that’s easier said than done. An Australian blogger called the Thesis Whisperer used much less flowery language when he reflected on the question: Do you get further in academia if you are a jerk? Unfortunately, he concluded that sometimes the answer is yes.

As leaders, we can shape culture by the actions we reward. Are people secretly admired for displaying clever sarcasm when ripping apart a colleague’s research? Are training programs on sexual violence prevention or cultural inclusivity treated as “fluff” rather than business needs? Are academic leaders evaluated on their scholarly output, without regard to their supervisory skills? There are still pockets of disrespectful behavior in higher ed. Finding and eliminating them would significantly change an institution’s culture.

MnSCU is taking many steps to promote and enhance our culture of respect for all of our students, faculty and staff.  What activities are occurring on your campus, and how can you support them?

Dee Anne Bonebright


Connecting the culture

Stillwater bridgePolicies, procedures, rules, hierarchies and roles are the pylons or framework of organizational culture but you, the leader, provide the human element connecting your people to the structure. Like the incomplete Stillwater bridge, until you connect the individual pylons with your day to day actions, the culture won’t help them get to where they need to be.

Curt Coffman and Kathie Sorensen, authors of Culture Eats Strategy for Lunch, state it this way; “it is the human interaction within these structures – our emotional connections – that determines its (culture) effectiveness.”

I experienced a powerful example of this last week at the MnSCU annual orientation program for our new senior leaders. Chancellor Rosenstone was describing the challenges our system faces and our strategic framework and Charting the Future next steps. What made it real for me was when he added the human element. He reminded us of the difference each one of us can make in the lives of our students. He highlighted a core belief that all Minnesotans deserve an opportunity to improve their lives and he challenged each of us to take on the responsibility to bring that value to life in our day to day work! It sent chills down my back.

Coffman and Sorensen encourage leaders to serve as the translators, connectors and catalysts of culture. Adding the human element can make your culture inspiring!





Todd Thorsgaard

Changing culture the hard way

Today is Columbus Day in the U.S.  A quick check of the internet will yield a multitude of opinions about the wisdom of that selection. While Columbus certainly impacted the culture of the places he visited, there are many arguments about the impact of the change, for good or ill.

This got me thinking about what impact we, as leaders, leave on the organizations we are involved with. What does it look like to take a risk in the name of changing a culture?  We have many well-known examples, such as Martin Luther King, Jr.  Here are a couple you may not have heard of:

casasBartolomé de las Casas – Also an explorer of the New World around the time of Columbus, his life took a very different turn. After initially profiting from exploitation of Native Americans, he had a change of heart, became a priest, and spent the rest of his life fighting exploitation and advocating on their behalf.

San JosePeter Norman – This Australian athlete won second place in the 200 meters event during the 1968 Olympics. That put him on the podium as the “third man” in the historic protest that was part of the Olympic Project for Human Rights. By deliberately choosing to side with the two African-American runners, he took a stand for culture change that eventually resulted in losing the opportunity to compete in future Olympic games. He died in 2006, and his Olympic podium mates served as pallbearers. In 2012 the Australian government formally apologized for denying him future opportunities to compete at the Olympic level.

Bartolomé de las Casas gave up a life of wealth and luxury. Peter Norman never learned how far his competitive career might have gone – and he made his choices out of the limelight, not receiving recognition such as being on the commemorative statue at San Jose State University. They both made personal sacrifices, and left a legacy of changing culture for the better.

As a leader, your behavior will change the cultures you are part of. What kind of legacy do you want to leave, and what choices might you need to make to do it?

— Dee Anne Bonebright

Painting the roses

paint the rosesAnita pointed out in her last post that influencing organizational culture is a challenge for many leaders. Changing an organization’s culture is even more challenging. As Alice in Wonderland found out, it’s easy to paint the roses, but it’s much harder to make it stick.

Steve Denning from Forbes observed that single-strategy approaches such as adding a new processes or implementing quality improvement rarely result in lasting change. He provided a useful model describing three kinds of tools leaders can use to change culture:  power tools that rely on intimidation, management tools that provide structure and information, and leadership tools that inspire.

Denning recommends beginning culture change with leadership tools such as vision setting and story telling.  This should be supported by strategic management tools to solidify the change. Power tools, including widespread staffing changes and top-down reorganizations, should be used later in the process, if at all.

The Wall Street Journal provided additional tips for leading organizational change:

  1. Identify and start with people who have strong influence on the current culture
  2. Help people personally experience the realities that make the change necessary
  3. Focus on activities that require few resources and will make a big difference
  4. Engage employees by finding new ways to use their strengths and providing new options for collaboration

How have you seen leaders create culture change that went beyond painting the roses to result in lasting difference?

Dee Anne Bonebright