Change is everywhere in higher education (Ceschi et al., 2017; Warr Pedersen et al., 2017). Numerous articles discuss the rate of change, impending changes, and reflection of the changes made in higher education institutions (Bouckenooghe, 2010). But comparatively little is written on how higher education professionals support faculty and staff in coping with such change. Additionally, higher education leaders are rarely prepared to cope with the rate of change or to support their faculty and staff through the change process (Cunningham, 2006). Professional development and mentoring opportunities for higher education leaders rarely focus on such topics (Cunningham, 2006). Conversely, coping and management of change is usually learned through practice and application. Yet, many leaders struggle to adapt to the newness that changes bring to a team, workplace culture, or to themselves as individuals (Hao & Yazdanifard, 2015; Mosquera et al., 2014).

Change influences human perceptions (Ceschi et al., 2017). Many individuals perceive change as a negative process with negative outcomes. This perception can destabilize a person’s ability to complete a job task (Mosquera et al., 2014). Faculty and staff lose confidence in their skill sets and question their purpose within the organization. Additionally, change threatens a person’s happiness or contentment. Such perceptions greatly depend on the purpose and presentation of the change occurring in the workplace. Unforeseen change absent of meaningful reason can significantly affect workplace climate and increase workplace stress, resulting in negative outcomes (Bouckenooghe, 2010).

Consistent changes can increase stress levels among faculty and staff. Increased stress levels lead to fights (increased conflicts), flights (staff loss), or freezes (little or no productivity) (Webster et al., 2016). Personal experiences associated with prior changes cause resistance even if a benefit for an individual or a team is present. Such resistance breeds unhealthy and maladaptive behaviors (Sartori et al., 2018). In most instances, individuals rely on their previous experiences to cope with present change, which can lead to undesired outcomes in the workplace.

But positive outcomes are also associated with change (Cameron, 2008). They depend on the leadership’s ability to support faculty and staff. Understanding change and how it affects a work environment requires significant amounts of introspection and intentionality. Investing in faculty and staff will facilitate collaboration, support, and a sense of community developing team members’ coping skills in a meaningful way (Smollan, 2017). Ideally, this occurs during the beginning of new leadership and continues through maintenance as the leadership develops. Investments in these concepts foster a sense of security prior to change taking place. So how can leaders prepare themselves and their teams for change in higher education environments? The following questions are meant to assist leaders in identifying how they can implement change at their institutions.

Personal introspection

  • When was a time in my personal life that change was unpleasant?
  • How did I cope with that change?
  • What helped me understand my new reality after the change?
  • How did people help me transition through that change?
  • How do I cope with both infrequent and frequent change?

Building on those above, the following questions explore individuals’ understanding of how they lead when changes are occurring.

Leadership introspection

  • Have I collaborated with my faculty and staff in understanding how they view change?
  • What supports have I provided for them prior to, during, and after the last change?
  • How often do I make the time to invest in my staff (weekly? monthly?) with general check-ins?
  • Have I taught my faculty and staff how I cope with change?
  • How have my faculty and staff coped with change in the past? Is this how I want them to cope with the change?

So often, leaders do not explore how teams have previously dealt with change, how leadership presented change, and how they provided support through the change. For those reasons, some other questions leaders can ask themselves are as follows:

  • How do I want to prepare my faculty and staff to weather change in the future?
  • How have I dealt with individuals who are extremely resistant to change?
  • Have I ever considered that the individuals who are extremely resistant have not been adequately prepared for the change they are experiencing?
  • How do I want to help my team and myself experience change in a way that results in the highest probability of desired outcomes?

Questions for faculty and staff

  • What are your thoughts about how change has occurred in the last six months?
  • How has leadership assisted you during this change or these changes?
  • In what areas could leadership have been more present and supportive in the change process?
  • What are three pieces of advice you would like to give leadership about how change has been implemented?
  • What is something that leadership can change in the next 72 hours that has no cost and would help support the team via change?

Change is embedded in the culture of higher education. The presence of change affects the quality of workplace climate and behavior. Leaders have an opportunity to engage and support their teams through thoughtful and meaningful consideration. Leaders should express care for the individuals under their leadership regarding the rate of change in higher education. Helping leaders and their teams cope with the fast pace of change is crucial to healthy workplaces in higher education.

This article first appeared in Academic Leader on December 2, 2019. © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.


Courtney Plotts, PhD, is the national chair of the Council for At Risk Student Education and Professional Standards, the only organization in the United States that provides standards for working with marginalized and nontraditional students from kindergarten through college.


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Warr Pedersen, K., Pharo, E., Peterson, C., & Clark, G. A. (2017). Wheels of change in higher education. International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, 18(2), 171–184.

Webster, V., Brough, P., & Daly, K. (2016). Fight, flight, or freeze: Common responses for follower coping with toxic leadership. Stress and Health, 32(4), 346–354.

This article first appeared in Academic Leader on December 2, 2019. © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.