Transformational change – Leadership … and reframing ambiguity as curiosity!

When an organisation  accepts that sticking to what has worked in the past is no longer an option,  it  will seek to re-organise, to adopt new strategies, systems and working practices and/or to radically change its culture. It is seeking “transformational change”. 

Yet such change will produce substantial “ambiguity”  – causing uncertainty – as there may well be many interpretations as to what the future will look like.  It is this “ambiguity” that causes employees to feel anxious about jobs, roles, organisation and hierarchy;  and it disempowers them as they foresee changes that will wash way the processes in which they  have invested  or that will eliminate the need for the skills that they have mastered.

 This negativity can undermine the whole project.  A recent study by IBM suggests that 41% of such change programmes are subsequently described as “unsuccessful”!

 So how should leaders prepare… and how should they behave through such a transformational change – if they are to  ensure that the programme is successful and that the business gains the advantages sought?

 Here’s a great 2017 paper by  Professor Julie Chesley and Avonlie Wilson of Pepperdine University – “Ambiguity: the emerging impact of mindfulness for change leaders”. [NB There is an excellent free summary of the key content here .]

This study of organisations undergoing “radical organisational change” has looked at the level of mindfulness of the leaders involved and to understand the ways in which the leaders built resilience within staff in order that they embrace such change.

The study shows that in successful programmes:

·         The leaders themselves took time out to be mindful and to reflect; and to be engaged in their own therapy and coaching

·         The leaders were prepared to reach out to coaches, mentors and colleagues for advice or support in the face of challenges

The “less successful leaders” were more likely to seek support from family and friends and to seek wisdom from educational books (– I wonder if this reflects an unwillingness to be open about the issues that they are troubled by; and a reticence to admit that there are things they don’t know…  IMO: it may come from a lack of self-confidence or an fixed self-image, I suppose?).

 Yet, an absolutely key trait was the leaders’ attitude to “ambiguity”.  The effective leaders used methods to “reframe ambiguity” – removing bad connotations and reframing it as “a challenge” for staff; or by introducing it as an opportunity to “be curious” – to investigate and imagine – with a flexible and open mind; thereby encouraging staff to be objective and non-judgemental – and to ask questions.  In this way the leaders were building resilience within their staff.  This was accompanied by a willingness to involve employees in the change process and, more importantly, in the discussions around the search for the right approaches to the areas of ambiguity. At minimum, this creates “buy-in” and ownership; yet the culture of openness and curiosity seems to reduce apprehension and anxiety also.

 So it is clear that processing an  understanding the strategies to effectively manage ambiguity is important – given that ambiguity commonly arises during organizational change; and building reliance though mindfulness – and through “mindful leadership traits” – is a key to preparing for any transformational change programme. 

 Then, going forward, it is clear that “managing ambiguity and being more able to adapt” is essential for an organisation’s survival; and will avoid the possibility of being surpassed by a competitor that really can deal with ambiguity.

Student mental health must be top priority – Universities Minister Sam Gyimah says issue requires serious leadership from vice-chancellors

Many newspapers covered the recent comments by Sam Gyimah the UK’s Universities Minister.  The guardian (30th June 2017  see here) wrote:

With as many as one in four students seeking help from counselling services at some institutions, the universities minister, Sam Gyimah, is calling on vice-chancellors to prioritise student mental health and take a personal lead on the issue.

It seems Gyimah is unconvinced that the Universities are talking this issue seriously… and he is right!

 With around half of all young adults now going to university it is peverse that we are packing our kids off to face the stresses and challenges of university life… making new firiends, worrying about their ability to cope…. to face these challenges alone – without the support of their families … and without any proper support from the universities.

 Indeed– it does appear that Universities are not up to pace in relation to dealing with these problems – more worrying is that the Minster suggests that the Universities seem to see mental health challenges as some sort of  “character building service subsid”:

Gyimah says “There are some vice-chancellors who think that university is about training the mind and all of these things are extra ….that they don’t have to deal with. They can’t do that, they’ve got to get behind this programme. It can’t be something that belongs to the wellbeing department of the university. This requires sustained and serious leadership from the top.We want mental health support for students to be a top priority for the leadership of all our universitie. Progress can only be achieved with their support – I expect them to get behind this important agenda as we otherwise risk failing an entire generation of students.”

Wow… it does sound like he thinks the Universities are failing to engage with this issue and are failing to provide the leadership required to put the right support in place.  Yet on this occasion, all Gyimah is asking is that the universities back a proposal to enable colleges to contact the parents of any students experiencing difficulties – while this is  good idea… it doesn’t get close to the sort of prevention initiatives and support initiatives that our children deserve.  If this small step is a such a struggle then making real progress will be a very long battle.

 So is Gyimah  right to be concerned about the leadership from the universities?   Well, the Guardian article also quotes Prof Steve West, the vice-chancellor of UWE and chair of the Universities UK mental health in higher education advisory group, who said:

“Universities cannot address these complex challenges alone. Partnership working with students, staff, government, schools, colleges and employers, the NHS, local authorities and third sector organisations is vital if we are to help students and staff to thrive.”

 IMO Professor West’s leadership on this issue  is very worrying – he seems to be saying that the responsibility to solve the problem lies all over the place.  He seems to suggest that many others should be addressing this issue. Reading between the lines he seems to be ducking the responsibility.

 It is high time for Prof West and his colleagues to step up to the plate.  This is his moment to say – “Each  university must take up this responsibility and we will be relentless in drafting in the appropriate agencies to ensure we have the right support and healthcare interventions that students deserve”. Now that would be leadership!

As you may be aware , at Carina sciences,  we are shortly to release our REZL app which employs mindfulness based CBT to build resilience… and declaring an interest… we are focusing on both corporate citizens and also upon young adults in higher education …who really do need to build up their resilience to help them to face the academic and personal challenges of moving to college. (NB: in fact we are seeking socially  responsible organisations who may be will in sponsor the deployment of REZL with FE colleges).   

So let’s look at the issues faced by young people in further education. Here are some finding from a yougov poll in 2017:

·         Over 1 in 4 (27%) of students report a Common Mental Disorder (CMD) higher than in whole pop – 19% male v 34% female

·         Of these 77% have symptoms of depression and 75% have symptoms on anxiety (– about 50% have both)

·         6 in 10 students (63%) say they experience stress interfering with their daily life and  performance

·         Causes of stress: 77% “fear of failure; 71% course work; 39% employment prospects; 35% family, 23% relationships and 23% friends

·         31% of students say they are lonely


·         At 16 years:  70% are regularly sad or anxious; 22% everyday (Barnardos)

·         16 years  stress factors: school (83%); future (80%) (then home, bullying, weight) (Barnardos)

·         FE Students: only 9% confident about their exams (PushOn/Ryman)

·         FE Student stress factors: themselves (70%); teachers (68%); parents (39%) (PushOn/Ryman)

 So, we can see that coming to college can be a difficult time:  perhaps moving away from supportive structures; feeling stressed by course work and feeling like they are struggling in comparison with others who look to be doing fine (whatever they are feeling inside); finding new friendships; and dealing with their own expectations and the expectation of others… it looks like these are all draining the pools of resilience within even the most self-confident and positive students.

 These figures  suggest that many will be struggling to learn (or continue) throughout their course  and to  perform well in exams.

 In his letter to The Times (Saturday 30th June 2018) Nick Forsyth, Head of Wellbeing at Kingston Grammar School,  points out that “Recent research into brain development suggests that our brains only fully mature at the age of 25”.  Forsyth goes on to say “In recent years, schools have made great strides in their provision of pastoral care and, in particular,  supporting children and young people suffering from poor mental health.  For may students this support has evaporated overnight on entering higher education.  If we are serious about tackling poor mental health in adolescence, universities must begin to catch up”.

 All this adds up to a real need for solutions that will reduce the possibility of common mental health problems and also to support those experiencing such difficulties.

 However, if the Universities are going to take up their responsibility to seek out such solutions and to provide the support necessary then they must to stop regarding stress as some kind of “tempering or character building” and start to engage with the problem… and they must demonstrate ownership of the issue…. and they must show some  leadership.