Category Archives: organizational culture

Common good doesn’t mean we all agree

conflictLeading for the common good isn’t peaceful. Agreement isn’t the goal. Paraphrasing writer Walter Lippmann, “when we all think alike, no one thinks very much.” To work together for the common good a leader needs to be prepared for conflict and embrace conflict.

Liane Davey, author of You First: Inspire Your Team to Grow Up, Get Along, and get Stuff Done, reminds us that for teams to be effective and work together they need to experience tension and disagreement, wrestle with it, push back, open up, share, listen and only then move forward. It’s not a quiet process and not what we often think of as good leadership. But think about the best teams you have worked on. Was it acceptable to have a different opinion? To raise a concern? Or to even get a little worked up about the problem you were addressing? I bet it was!

If you are willing to dive into the messiness of collaboration and conflict as a necessary element of moving towards a common good, Davey recently shared three ideas that leaders can use to help their teams embrace “productive conflict.”

  1. Define, discuss and understand the different roles and agendas of each person on the team. Take the time to ensure that everyone understands that each person has an  agenda based on their role and that each agenda is different. Not better or worse but different. And that it is normal for the different agendas to lead to conflict that is not personal but necessary to reach the best solution in the end. Make it OK to disagree based on their unique roles and responsibilities.
  2. Pay attention to style differences between team members. Use a tool or a facilitated discussion to clarify the different approaches team members use to learn, take in information, communicate, make decisions, or do tasks. Ensure that each style is described in a positive way and highlight the value that each style brings to the team. Finally, highlight how it is natural for conflict to arise due to style differences and that you expect people to leverage their styles to facilitate collaboration, even if it gets uncomfortable.
  3. Set ground rules on acceptable dissension. Have an open conversation and identify what behaviors lead to conflict that improves how the team functions and what behaviors actually destroy trust and teamwork. Describe what is acceptable and what is not acceptable and the process the team will use to hold each other accountable.

As nice as peace and calm can be, leadership is a lot messier and noisier – and that’s OK!

Todd Thorsgaard


Find the sweet spot!

diagram_sweet-spot_clear-background-3-1024x804Author Dan Pontefract has released a new book that I found energizing and I encourage you to check it out. In The Purpose Effect (2016) he suggests that leaders can help their people recognize the “sweet spot” where the organizational mission overlaps with their role purpose and their own personal vision. You can read a summary of the book here – getAbstract

The sweet spot is the space where people feel engaged in their work, energized by how they can make a contribution and clearly understand the contributions their organization makes to their stakeholders. As leaders we rarely have the opportunity to be involved in the crafting of the organizational mission and vision but we can connect it to the day to day work being done and the unique aspirations of each person on your team.

Pontefract suggests that leaders focus on understanding and facilitating two-way dialogue in these three areas:

  1. Individual and personal goals or purpose and how they relate to the day to day work.
    • what motivates the people on your team?
    • how do they want to develop themselves?
    • what most interests them in their job?
    • how can you and the organization support their success?
  2. The organizational purpose, mission and vision.
    • what are your organization’s values?
    • how does the organization live out it’s purpose?
    • what are examples of the organizational purpose?
  3. Role-based purpose.
    • how do individual roles contribute to the success of the organization?
    • where do individual roles make a difference to stakeholders?
    • how can a leader recognize individual role contributions to the success of the department or organization?

Taking the time to understand each of these three areas is the first step. Then taking the time to consistently help your team members find their own personal sweet spot at work will help you bring your mission and vision to life.

Todd Thorsgaard

The power of affirmation

Best of 2015, first published on June 15, 2015
Thinking over the last year and some of the most powerful talks I’ve heard, I kept coming back to Sugata Mitra and his “Hole in the Wall” research. His work reinforces over and over again how important affirmation is in supporting the success of others. When you show appreciation for your team members and other colleagues, it lays the groundwork for a productive work environment and let’s face it, it just feels good. What can you do to affirm others?  –Anita Rios

sugataLast month, I was reminded of the incredible power of affirmation to turbo-charge performance by Sugata Mitra, who was speaking at the ATD International Conference. You may have heard of Mitra as the “Hole in the Wall” professor from India. While Mitra’s research focuses on children and how they learn, I think his findings have relevance for how adults learn and perform in the workplace.

If you haven’t heard of Dr. Mitra, I’d encourage you to listen to his TED talk. Through his research, he has discovered that groups of unsupervised children can learn just about anything if they have access to the internet. After winning the million dollar TED Prize in 2013, Mitra was able to fund and create five self organized learning environments (SOLE)  in England and India to further test his theories about education and literacy.

He wanted to see if affirmation would further children’s learning in the SOLEs, so Mitra recruited retired teachers and other interested adults to volunteer their time one hour a week to beam into the classrooms via Skype. He dubbed these volunteers the “Granny Cloud.” Their sole job was to demonstrate interest in what the children are learning and doing, ask good questions, and provide positive affirmation. What Mitra learned was that:

  • Children react well to encouragement
  • Children exceed targets if encouraged
  • Children like to show off to a friendly adult

In my experience, I’ve found that adults behave similarly in the workplace. We react well to encouragement and often exceed performance targets when encouraged.  While I know I am an internally motivated person, I have often worked harder for a boss who is appreciative and encouraging.  And I can honestly say that the teams I’ve led do better when I am actively engaged, interested in their work, and providing positive affirmation.

Does this ring true for you? What has been your experience with positive affirmation and performance?

Anita Rios

What can I do?

cortana-what-can-i-do-now-100261361-primary.idgeTragedy in Paris and Beirut. What can I do? Refugees with no where to go. What can I do? Homeless in America. What can I do? Climate change. What can I do?

Events worldwide seem overwhelming. Events closer to home also seem overwhelming. Jobs eliminated, programs closed, leadership decisions, health concerns and family disruption all tear at us and our hearts. What can one person do?

That question came up several times during a leadership program I was facilitating recently, what can I do as a leader when I work in a culture that doesn’t support change? What can I do if my manager disagrees with me? What can I do if the budget gets cut?

What can I do?

Steven Covey first answered that question with Habit 1 of the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People –  Be Proactive and choose to respond to the realities of the world by focusing our energy and attention on what we can influence. He created an image of our circle of concerns and our circle of influence.

circle of influenceOur circle of concern contains all the realities of the world that we care about. The important parts of our lives and the world that we pay attention to and react to. Our circle of influence includes all the elements of our lives that we can actually affect through our actions. What Covey reminds us is that if we take action on the elements within our circle of influence, instead of only worrying about our concerns, we will actually be able to make a difference and our circle of influence will grow larger.

Within our circle of influence are:

  • the people we work with
  • the work we do
  • how we vote
  • where we donate our time and money
  • the actions we take at work
  • how we communicate and who we communicate with
  • the decisions we make
  • where we spend our time

A co-worker and I were sharing our concern over the Syrian refugee crisis and she mentioned that she had contacted a neighborhood group that was working on sponsoring a refugee family. A small action but one that will make a difference!

In higher education we are quite concerned over how prepared new students are for post-secondary courses and on the decreasing economic support for public higher education. Recently Chancellor Steven Rosenstone challenged us to focus on our circle of influence and consider volunteering to be a tutor in a public K-12 school or to donate one hour of our salary to a scholarship fund at a foundation. Those are examples of taking action within our circle of influence!

As a leader, what is in your circle of concern and how can you take action within your circle of influence to make a difference?

Todd Thorsgaard


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