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Behavioral Alchemy: The Higher Education Workplace Culture and Resulting Student Experiences

The EvoLLLution | Behavioral Alchemy: The Higher Education Workplace Culture and Resulting Student Experiences
Focusing on workplace culture and shifting the institutional ethos requires conscious focus and measurement of interventions and impacts, but the benefit is driving institutional effectiveness and improving the student experience.

Show me how you engage with your faculty and staff and I’ll paint a fairly accurate picture of your students’ experiences. Without a doubt, there is a symbiotic interplay between postsecondary workplace culture and how that reality informs and impacts the student experience.

Many administrators may not think this is an issue at all as they call to mind high student satisfaction data or their annual HR department’s employee engagement survey results. I urge you to look deeper, more systematically, and with a different lens.

In the end, I hope your institution is indeed a highly functioning workplace for your staff and students! However, I assert that it’s worth a second look.

Where Do We Start?

We start where all institutions themselves begin: their mission. Leaning on the mission to inspire, retool, and enlighten one another from a shared learning perspective (not top down) will empower your team to move mountains for their students. But it cannot end there.

Next, we must ensure that organizational culture and its student impact become an inseparable part of the processes that drive an institution forward. To do this, the workplace culture and resulting student experiences should be a systematic part of the comprehensive institutional effectiveness (IE) process. Every aspect of the organization from program offerings, organizational structure, metrics, and employee engagement should be aligned tightly with the mission and be part of the IE cycle of assessment. Often times, we have tight closed loops of academic assessment, but there is little data about the non-course related parts of the student experience and staff they experience it with.

Let’s review retention theory, institutional effectiveness, and organizational behavior, and see how we can create behavioral alchemy through their intentionally woven existence.

Retention Theories

There are multiple potential obstacles to college access and completion, and one of those is called institutional barriers. This refers to policies, processes, attitudes, or dispositions at the institution that cause friction and ultimately attrition of the 21st century consumer-minded student.

Experts in areas such as workforce development and student retention recommend that institutions constantly reassess programs and services such as recruitment processes, orientation programs, timing and content of advising, library services, or registration services to determine if any of these are posing barriers that would prevent students from accessing courses, thriving in the college environment, or simply feeling welcomed and unafraid. College is a transition and so though we live in the postsecondary world and its lexicon daily, we need to treat people with the sensitivity they need to understand how to move through a system that is foreign to them.

Additionally, each institution and its learner demographic are unique. One-size retention programs do not fit all. This is why focused attention to employee culture and cultivation in these areas must be an integral part of the organization’s assessment and evidence-based culture with predetermined direct and indirect measures of effectiveness.

Organizational Performance and Behavior

No matter which behavioral, psychological, or psychosocial framework one subscribes to, every single one will ultimately point to the fact that happier employees are more productive and have higher workplace retention rates, and employees exude outwardly with customers how they feel internally (whether knowingly or inadvertently). How to structure this productive environment for your specific institution, mission, and size will differ. A great way to start might be to read Dr. Shawn Achor’s Happiness Advantage. He speaks to Fortune 500 companies about the power of positive psychology in the individual and workplace and how that positivity enhances performance.

Institutional Effectiveness: You Manage What You Measure. What You Measure Produces Results

We are all accountable to rigorous student outcomes and each person plays a part in that multi-faceted passage to graduation. The college journey is not solely an academic one. A student’s life is touched by their interaction with every single department on campus and (more painfully) their life is left untouched by departments that don’t exist or are absent of the right outreach when the student needed them. Not accounting for how we organizationally contribute to how an employee feels or if they’re tooled with the right resources impacts student lives as well as the staff base.

Providing professional development and customer service refresher sessions are often the go-to solutions. However, we need more. Where we often miss the mark is in not valuing the first-hand and unique insightfulness these staff and faculty have because of their constant interaction with students at various points in the student lifecycle. Encouraging non-managerial staff to facilitate inter- and intradepartmental lunch and learns or coffee chats where staff are empowered to share ideas is a way to promote engagement and innovation across all departments for the students’ benefit is one way to discover opportunities for change. Frequently scheduled discussions about the mission and core values of the institution and how they relate to current issues facing all of higher education will keep departments ready and eager to do their parts in the student’s path towards graduation. You’ve now changed their jobs into a call to action and framed it with a unique purpose.

Most importantly, you must then create the change intervention and measure its results. This is the cycle of assessment and only if that cycle is a closed loop does it end in incrementally improving the effectiveness of individual departments, the students’ overall experience, and the institution as a whole. A key facet of IE is measurement. Indirect measures like surveys are good indicators, but adding direct measures in conjunction with indirect gives a more solid data picture. Successful course completions, length of time it takes to register, average time students spend on hold per department, average response time to emails, faculty responsiveness, etcetera, all can and should be measured. Find out what your students’ and staff pain points are. Measure them. Plan an intervention. Re-measure.

What You Nurture Grows. What You Leave Alone Withers

Every living organism requires physical, emotional, psychological, and cognitive care. Employees, students, and the organization itself are all living things. They change as do their needs. As leaders, it is our responsibility to develop the institution to have an adaptive capacity to change with their needs. Doing so is what will provide organizational sustainability. But, we can’t proactively sustain if we aren’t using a predetermined cycle of measurement, intervention, and re-measurement to calibrate our efforts within our institutional effectiveness cycles. Check if your IE department is measuring this. Every department should be represented in some way in IE. If not, you are not fully measuring how effective the institution can be. If you do not close the loop on the IE process and re-measure after intervention, you are not evolving. You are merely spinning endlessly, and employees and students will exit that dizzy wheel. Taking care to listen to the data of every part of the living organization. Your students, faculty, and staff and their interrelationship are critical for all of those elements to nurture and grow.

Behavioral Alchemy: The VIPApproach

Transforming the student experience and impacting institutional effectiveness begins with a unified, systematic, and measurable cycle of respected commitment to workplace culture. Shifting behavior can be very complex, but it also can be as simple as a university-wide effort to try. Have you ever felt like the VIP in the room, a time when you were genuinely treated like you were such a very valued and important person? What did that feeling do to you and for you inside and out? Did it build your confidence, efficiency, make you smile outwardly? Incite you to pass on or talk to others about how nice that person made you feel? Did you want to go out and do good things in the world? The VIP leadership approach which dovetails the VIP retention theory keeps students on track to graduation through valuing staff culture. In the end, it doesn’t matter which approach your institution uses. It only matters that you take a deeper look, begin with the mission, and measure the institution’s effectiveness systematically. The student and staff experience matter that much. Everyone should be a VIP because when they are, everyone they come in contact with feels like one too.

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