The University I work for is only 25 years old, but the last six years have been especially interesting. With an aging founder and new partnerships in Dallas-Fort Worth, the main campus relocated from California to Texas, which led to high staff turnover. Enrollment has increased and decreased…retention has decreased and increased. New programs have been approved and branch campuses have been closed. We have a new president, and a fairly new Cabinet (total turnover in the last 3 years). I joined the team recently, and everything has been on the table for a refresh.
During this time of high-change, we are doing our best to lead out of the weeds and reimagine our organizational culture. As would be expected, this season has resulted in change fatigue and many questions about the new landscape of our university and what lies ahead. With all of the organizational change and perpetually increasing governmental regulations, our university culture went largely unattended. In the past few months, we have readily admitted that the lack of attention has resulted in a compliance-oriented culture rather than a growth-oriented one. There is a high level of fear in the ranks. We want to change this, but where to start?
As I read Elliott’s Contemporary Social Theory, I have to admit that the complexities of understanding society had my mind spinning. I am having enough difficulty understanding my own organization, much less society at large. If anything, the diversity of reactions in my Texas community the day after midterm elections revealed just how conflicted our society really is. However, the more I read of Elliott, the more it was confirmed that I am not alone in my confusion.
“After all, many people’s experience of the world, especially today, is that of increasing social complexity, cultural diversity and political conflict. Accordingly, sensitivity to the diversity of society and the subtleties of culture is necessary to ensure that social theory does not over-simplify the mixed, ambiguous experience individuals have of their own identities and of the wider social world.”
Social behavior is confusing in many pockets of society, not just my change-weary organization. However, this university is where I have been provided the opportunity to make a positive impact so I will start here.
It seems we need a meaningful common language.
The last six years have been full of so much rapid change, it is no wonder we lost the language that defines who we are. We have been asking our teams to navigate rocky terrain without the proper tools to keep them steady on their feet. Our culture has been shaped by fear because we provided no language to the contrary. In order to move forward in our ‘reimagining,’ according to Saussure, it is imperative that we bring meaning to our cultural language by describing our organization with words that differentiate it from other organizations. For us, and many like us, these words become descriptions of values. These values become non-negotiable boundaries for our organizational behavior. This new behavior should lead to the realization of a reimagined culture…one full of curiosity rather than fear, hope instead of cynicism.
Elliot was a tough read. I may not yet fully comprehend all the aspects of social theory presented in the text, but I am thankful for this one bit of affirmation that my pocket of society just might be on the right track to becoming what we want to be.
 Elliott, Anthony. Contemporary Social Theory: An Introduction. Routledge: New York, NY, 2014. (Kindle ed.), 13.
 Ibid, 61