Dealing with Dissenters

Change is good, right? Then why is it that new ideas and fresh approaches are met with disapproval?

We’ve had opportunity to observe hundreds of campus communities in our work. Our site visits allow us deep familiarity with many campuses enabling us to note with confidence that no campus is without its share of dissidents, the people on campus who resist change or dismiss great new ideas. We’ve observed various degrees of disgruntlement about curriculum changes, marketing campaigns, logos, taglines, signage, videos, viewbooks, staffing reductions, tuition increases, benefits packages, parking spots and the names of buildings. Some of the disagreement has rationale. By observation, however, we’d say most of the resistance comes with the higher ed territory of silo-ism. Campuses are hotbeds for angst; because each member of the campus community has a voice to be respected, even uninformed (or under-informed) and unreasonable dissent is given attention.

Granted, current headlines suggest dissidence is more prevalent than ever generally. In this post, I’m referring to the people on your campus who are simply resistant to change of almost any ilk, but particularly when it comes to new marketing and design strategies. From my perspective, these individuals fall into at least one of the following categories.

  1. Those who are threatened. Change indeed can be difficult for some, and primarily those for whom the proposed and implemented change poses a challenge to their comfort. Perhaps change is perceived as requiring more effort or real work that is unwelcomed. Change can require a shift in scheduling one’s day or might in fact deprive one of certain advantages. People tend to lash out when they feel backed into a corner. Examine the change you’re intending to make to determine who might be threatened by your ideas.
  2. Those who are stuck. “We’ve always done it this way,” might be the theme song for many campuses. On many campuses, partly due to the constant turnover of students, a tradition can be born from repeating a practice. Hosting a similar event on campus for two years in a row often turns the event into “tradition.” And for those who appreciate routine and are looking for rules to follow, the propensity to be locked into certain ways of doing things is de rigeur. Change challenges those who love the tried and true. Ask whether your opposition can find any value in the change you are proposing.
  3. Those who are afraid. Some psychologists suggest that humans are driven by but two emotions: love or fear. Related to the first group, those who are threatened, another possible response to change is fear. What might this change mean for me? I know you find this hard to believe, but we notice a fairly high note of internal politics at play on most campuses (I know; not yours, right?). We often observe the fear of letting another campus silo’s agenda be prioritized.
  4. Those who are trained. Are people trained to raise a ruckus? Surely not, you say. In fact, campuses are robust teachers of how to be critical in the best and worst ways. We’ve been blessed to have former faculty members on the RHB team who tell stories of class dialog during the pursuit of PhDs with instruction of how to elevate criticism about everything, especially for those choosing the path of college professorships. That skill is built into the curriculum. But dissension is also taught informally in our everyday practice on campus. As folks on campuses hear the power of the squeaky wheel, the pull to mimic is compelling.
  5. Those who are grumps. Some people are just ornery. And higher ed seems to be a magnet for them. We see them on every campus we visit. They’re unpleasant and they can disrupt progress on any good idea.

My guess is that you’ve pictured someone on your campus who fits each of those descriptions. To build consensus for the change you are proposing, you will need to know who you are dealing with. In addition to the categories of dissenters described above, assess the source of the complaints, obstacles to progress or downright bullying.

Who’s griping?

How many are dissenting? Do they share similar special interests? Sometimes a group on campus—faculty, students, alumni, staff (of a handful to an entire association)—voice disagreement with the direction you’re proposing. Examine how widespread the concern is and what’s behind the resistance.

  • Is it one loud voice? Sometimes one really squeaky wheel is so loud it drowns out all the favorable responses. I’ve been around conference tables where one dissenting perspective taints the entire discussion and thwarts real progress. Be sure to gain perspective about the validity of one voice or vote (but don’t “vote”, which is another post altogether). Don’t dismiss a lone voice, but don’t let the noise outweigh your sensibility.
  • Is it a repeat offender? Is the dissenter or group of antagonists always disgruntled and resistant? Watch for patterns among the people who are opposing your new direction or change. Are you seeing familiar faces and hearing familiar voices?
  • Is it a clique of dissenters? On every campus, we can identify a group bound by a common cause; they may be protecting turf or they may be motivated by one of the characteristics described above. It’s also common on campuses to identify a group of colleagues simply joined by general naysaying as if it’s a responsibility to resist. In fact, you may observe them enjoying the tussle.

What to do

Call them out. If you have consistent objections to your plans, consider approaching your opposition with “I’ve noticed that the last five opportunities and ideas we’ve presented have not met with your approval. Do these ideas have a common theme that disturbs you? Can you help me see what I’m missing? What do you find compelling in these ideas? What recommendations do you have for improvement?”

Engage early and often. Bring your community into your plans for change as early as you can. Try using this model for public speaking to equip your community for change: tell them what you’re going to tell them. Tell them. Tell them what you told them.

Encourage anticipated dissenters to participate. You know the people on your campus who may resist your ideas and plans. Don’t wait for them to react. Instead, invite them to your conversations about change. Encourage them to contribute their ideas. Find common ground early, if possible. The challenges that places like University of California and University of Wyoming have had with introducing new logos—and the expense that accompanies them—could likely have been different with greater participation early in the process.

Be certain that everyone understands the problem you’re solving. Because you have institution-wide perspective, you may find certain problems more pressing than those with a more limited point of view. They may find little association, say, with your proposal for a new athletic mascot to their needs for lab equipment, additional staffing or scholarship funds. Make the change you are proposing relevant to their needs.

Be transparent about your process. Tell your opposers the alternatives you considered. Provide as much data as possible to support your recommendations. Explain your strategy and the steps (tactics) you’re taking to solve a problem (see above). Be out in the open. Concealing even political agendas will catch up with you on campus. Build trust with your transparency.

Yes, change is a good thing. Still, change is difficult. Whether you’re introducing a new program, proposing a new tagline, selecting an official color palette or right-sizing staff, others will be affected by your ideas. Plan on dissention, even embrace it as a part of your process. That’s part of higher ed’s culture; we’re encouraged to challenge ideas. Plan to manage dissention as well. Expect it, but think ahead sufficiently to reduce its power to defeat your great ideas.

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Rick Bailey

Rick is the Principal and founding partner at RHB.