Autumn is here

Development Monthly | #1 September 2021 | Autumn is here

Sara Corcoran

AUA Trustee and Lead Consultant

Sara is self-employed coach and facilitator with a passion for helping people realise their potential and making the experience of work as good as it can be. Increasingly, her practice is based outside drawing on the natural environment to inspire.

For the education sector September/October is the start of the new year, with all the hopes, aspirations and positive commitments that new beginnings bring. In the calendar year, this period of late summer and early autumn is the time when we gather in the fruits of our efforts, a time of harvest.

For those of us currently with the privilege of steering the AUA at the time of its Diamond Jubilee, these two different perspectives are very much to the fore as we reflect on how the Association has contributed over the past 60 years to the professional and career development of so many people in our sector; and also as we seek to ensure it continues to evolve and serve our members best. Beyond the AUA, as we continue to adapt to the Covid-19 world, both these perspectives can also be helpful.

  • How do current choices serve our long terms goals?
  • What needs our appreciation and generosity right now?
  • How can we look after the tender shoots of new thinking?

At the root of these kinds of questions, I see three themes: the first being about change and learning; the second being about trust and hope; and the third being about value and values.

Change and learning.

What have we each learned about how we, individually and collectively, work best? What have we learned about how we cope with change? What has the organisation learned about the interdependencies within the system; about the feedback loops that help different parts of the system understand how they are contributing; about how changes in one part of the system will ripple and impact other parts? We need to make sure there is time to explore and share this learning – at both the personal and organisational level. And we need to keep the mindset that we are, at all levels of the organisation, continuing to learn – there is still so much ambiguity to navigate.

The pandemic is still with us. Alongside it will sit economic, social and climate challenges, all of which will continue to drive change in the services we provide and the ways in we work. It’s time for some double loop learning (Argyris and Schon, 1978): what have we learned about the way we (and our organisations) learn? For me, this highlights the importance of dialogue. Time and again in change processes, communication is emphasised, but we really must understand this to mean an exchange and an exploration between parties, not just a sequence of broadcasts from one to another. We need to be able to constructively challenge assumptions and support each other as we develop new working practices.

Hope and trust.

The Kubler-Ross change model (see figure 1) has its flaws in terms of helping us look at change. However, there is something interesting about that point at the bottom of the dip, where people begin to engage positively. It suggests hope and trust, which can be very fragile at that point, where people are feeling very vulnerable.

Image of the Kubler-Ross Change Curve
Figure 1 – Kubler-Ross Change Curve

My experience of change in organisations has shown that it’s often easy to find some people stuck, almost as in a malfunctioning washing machine, at the bottom of the loop, where every time they begin to move forward, something thwarts or overwhelms their efforts and they tumble back down the curve. The trustworthiness of leaders is of real importance here in helping to keep moving forward. The drivers of trustworthiness are ability, benevolence, integrity and predictability (Dietz and Den Hartog, 2006). A recent study by the Forward Institute (Hope Hailey and Turner, 2020) showed that across all sectors, employees believed their organisations have good motives and behave with integrity, giving top leaders high scores for sincerity. However, they did not believe their organisations to be open and upfront and gave low scores for the consistency with which top team behaviours matched their words. To me this underlines the importance of predictability. Whilst we need to be flexible and allow space for evolution, we need to reconcile this with consistency. Our language and our behaviour signal our values: if leadership teams are swiftly back on campus five days a week, don’t be surprised if messages about embracing change, valuing hybrid workers (and the importance of these to new staffing and service models) are mistrusted.

Value and values.

The behaviour that I’ve advocated so far is dialogue and constructive challenge. In my experience these are present in relationships based on respect. It’s not news to state that, prior to the pandemic, some parts of the university workforce have not felt sufficiently valued or respected. One example, would be facilities staff, many of whom have felt invisible and felt, whether rightly or wrongly, that they had no voice. The last 18 months or so have shown how crucial they are to keeping our campuses functioning. The value of some other staff groups has also become more visible – learning technologists, mental health advisers, junior managers and many others. We need ensure that they continue to feel valued as we move forward. It is clear that the future of learning is blended. Students are demanding a mix of online and in person delivery, maximising the benefits and flexibility of technology whilst also recognising the added value of a social dimension to their learning experience. Across most sectors of the economy, similar dialogues are playing out for staff in relation to their work experience. As the sector re-envisions the ways in which it will deliver its services, we need to make sure the student experience and staff experience aren’t set up as polarities in a zero sum game. They are two sides of the same coin, needing to be explored and developed together. Afterall, every HEI’s strategy document tells us that its most precious resource, therefore one assumes the thing it values most highly, is its people.

Higher education remains a fantastic sector to be part of. There is so much good work being done within institutions to find the best ways forward through the challenges of the times for staff and students. Our networks, such as AUA, provide a supportive environment for us to explore the issues and share the learning. The challenges – and opportunities – are significant, but I believe we can harvest the skills, experience and determination to tackle them and I hope that AUA continues to play a strong role in nurturing these for the future.


Argyris, C., & Schön, D. (1978) Organizational learning: A theory of action perspective, Reading, Mass: Addison Wesley.

Dietz, G. and Den Hartog, D.N. (2006) Measuring trust inside organisations. Personnel Review. Vol 35(5): 57–588.

Hope Hailey V and Turner R (2020) Trustworthiness: A necessity for Resilience?, Forward Institute and University of Bath

Kübler-Ross E (1969). On Death and Dying. Routledge

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