Kindness & Transformational Change


One enduring skill I learned three decades ago in the military is how to make my shoes shine, as the little orphan Annie would say, “like the top of the Chrysler building,” through a skill called “spit shining.” The process involves rubbing a pair of shoes in a small circular motion with a soft cloth, shoe polish, and a touch of water (I don't actually use spit). The shoe shining motion helps to clear my mind as I think of nothing else (no worries, concerns, anxiety, etc.), but to make my shoes look beautiful and last longer because of the care I’m putting into them. I don’t take short cuts such as applying “instant shine” Kiwi-brand bottles. We can often tell the difference between something that was neglected and/or done quickly and something that took time to nurture. Metaphorically, we can think about “spit shining” in the way we care for our co-workers, subordinates, colleagues, peers, and even those above us in the organizational chart. A prevalent issue as institutions of higher education embark on transformational change is how people treat one another. To put in bluntly, bullying exists at campuses and many personnel feel powerless because they're often (but not exclusively) experiencing the bullying from the highest levels of the institution.

In my facilitation, training, and coaching work with institutions of higher education, I’ve seen my good share of people struggle mightily with the role they were assigned or decided to take on. To pour salt on the wound, I’ve also seen those in the upper echelons of the organizational chart nod their heads with disappointment as they tell the story of an employee who failed to execute.

Employing external attributions (looking outside oneself) tends to be easy. It’s those internal attributions (focusing on our own behavior) that leaders need to reflect on. Some employees fail because, among other issues, they are unwilling to continually improve. However, people in positions of leadership don't often do enough to turn on their internal attributions “button” in order to self-reflect on whether they sufficiently helped a team member to succeed. Did the team members who partially or completely failed to execute receive the appropriate amount of time, attention, and nurturing needed to make them successful (i.e., shine)? A leader may have the ends in mind (e.g., a vision for success), but if the support needed to ensure the means are well executed are absent, leaders shouldn't be surprised when the vision is unsuccessful. For a pair of shoes to shine brilliantly, there is a process that involves quality care, patience, and persistence.

With a focus on external attributions, it’s rather easy (and commonplace) for people in positions of leadership to point fingers. Instead, let’s consider focusing on internal attributions in order to be honest with ourselves when things go wrong. Did the team members receive the quality mentoring and coaching support needed to help ensure that they were successful? Note that mentoring and coaching should not be equated with micromanaging. The former can allow people to make mistakes along the way but it’s also supposed to prevent team members from failing fantastically. Micromanaging is typically the result of a bad hire and in some cases (unfortunately) someone’s approach to management (which more often than not results in low employee morale).

Institutions of higher education are embarking on redesigning the way they serve students. Will leaders from across the institution provide planning and implementation support and treat team members with kindness or take a bullying approach (demeaning, yelling, slamming things, and threats) when things go wrong? The culture of the organization and its ability to improve practices and student success is at stake. With a toxic culture of external attributions--that often leads to bullying--improving student equity and success is almost impossible.

Let's treat people with kindness.

Semper Fi.
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