COVID-19 Coverage : See how the pandemic is impacting the world of higher education.
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Rich With Learning

June 3rd, 2020

By Lisa Whittington

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Organizational leadership expert Christina Lacerenza recommends higher education leaders build trust and resilience by empathizing with staff and students and encouraging a growth mindset.

As Colorado begins to slowly reopen its economy, Christina Lacerenza, assistant professor of organizational leadership at Leeds School of Business, University of Colorado Boulder, is trying to stay hopeful and foster a sense of resilience in her students. She wants them to value the learning process itself—including what can be learned from their failures—instead of caring more about performing well on their first try. She believes that all educators should help develop this growth mindset in their students.

“I think it’s an even more critical time to help nudge that process along and to help them view this experience as one that is rich with learning rather than one that is rich with setbacks or challenges,” Lacerenza says.

Like many professors nationwide, Lacerenza is concerned for her students, many of whom are seniors. She makes an effort to provide them with the support and resources they need to tackle the anxiety of graduating into a bleak job market. “I can’t even imagine having to go through what my students are going through right now. I just want them to know that I’m here for them.”

Lacerenza’s research focuses on teamwork and leadership development for the future, specifically researching effective team processing for highly diverse teams. “The workforce is only going to get more diverse over time, which is what we need because diversity breeds innovation and differences in thought and perspective,” she says. That variety of perspectives will help generate new, essential outside-the-box ideas for building the future of higher education in a post-pandemic world.

Lacerenza believes that future includes an increase in virtual teaming, as supported by her research on the differences between communication styles of virtual teams and traditional face-to-face teams. “This pandemic has only increased the nudge in the direction of virtual teaming, whether we like it or not. But I think it’s a good thing in that it’s forcing us to learn and understand what our work looks like within a remote setting, and now businesses are less afraid of working virtually.”

Business Officer reached out to Lacerenza to discuss how higher education faculty and staff are adjusting to teaching and working at home during the pandemic.

For colleges and universities, which traditionally have not had extensive teleworking experience, what has the transition been like?

I think the difference between the transition to remote work during the pandemic versus your typical transition is that we didn’t have time to plan for this change. Since the pandemic didn’t allow for that planning process, it looks a little bit different and is a unique challenge in and of itself, in addition to the challenge of transitioning to remote work.

What we’re seeing is that we’re using more of an iterative approach—we’re engaging in a reflection process and making small changes along the way to improve our response to working remotely and virtual teaming. And it’s actually a good thing that we’re forced to engage in this reflection process, because when we look at the data specifically within teams, teams are [up to] 25 percent more effective on average when you engage in this debriefing process.

How can team leaders in education communicate more effectively as they’re debriefing in a remote work setting?

Aligning what you’re communicating to your team members with the method that you’re using is really important because you don’t have the ability to engage in face-to-face communication all the time. There are two big buckets as far as computer-mediated communication methods go: asynchronous methods and synchronous methods.

Asynchronous methods have a time lag between when you send a message and when you receive the message back. You’ll likely want to use asynchronous methods for conveying critical information since you can reference back to a record of the communication, such as an email, if you want to clarify something or make sure that you interpreted a due date in the right way.

On the other hand, synchronous communication methods don’t have that lag in feedback, but rather you send your message and then immediately the recipient can respond, like with instant messaging. These methods work better for quick questions or little bits of information and less calculated discussions that would actually be slowed down by lengthy email chains.

There are also hybrid methods, such as video conferencing, which let you process nonverbal communication in addition to verbal communication. If you’re communicating something that is sensitive in nature—if you might be misinterpreted or would benefit from reading nonverbal cues—then you’ll want to leverage video chats because you can include that nonverbal language expression.

What are some of the biggest challenges faced by virtual teams, and what are some of the benefits?

Based on the data, one of the big challenges with virtual teams is the trust component. It can be more of a challenge to develop trust within virtual teams because we lack that face-to-face contact, and as humans we tend to be overly reliant on face-to-face communication in order to develop trust. But when you look at the two pieces that comprise team trust, there’s a task-based element and there’s a more relational or affective component.

When we look at team performance, there is a slightly bigger effect size, or relationship, between task-based trust and team performance as compared to affective trust and team performance. And the interesting thing is that virtual teams are actually better equipped to develop task-based trust than face-to-face teams. In virtual teams, you tend to look at the work deliverables of your team members—whether or not they’re consistent in providing you with their assignments, keeping you up to date on their progress, and so on—rather than relying on feelings of trust solely based on emotionally driven face-to-face interactions, so you’re able to build high levels of task-based trust.

Another benefit to working in a virtual team is that we do see an uptick in productivity when it’s done effectively, specifically when you’re able to get more focused time doing what you’re supposed to be doing. You’re less likely to have interruptions from other people stopping by your office or from running into someone on your way to get some coffee and having a 30-minute conversation, which would disrupt your workflow.

What happens when a team doesn’t have that trust component?

That’s where we tend to see issues come about, especially with the increase in lower quality communication. When you don’t have that trust component as a manager and you aren’t able to physically see what your team members are working on you, you start to create assumptions about whether or not they are engaging in their work. Sometimes people have this assumption that if they’re not hearing from somebody, that means the person is not working. And without that level of trust, you can go down this negative spiral where you create an assumption that your employees are engaging in things that aren’t related to their work. But in all actuality, they’re doing exactly what you want, which is why they’re not emailing you. Instead they’re super focused on their individual work or their work for the team.

It’s really interesting when we see that spiral happen, since we see an uptick in less quality or lower quality communication when you’re simply trying to figure out if this person is actually working or not.

Given the stresses and long hours that many in higher ed and other fields are familiar with right now, do you have any advice for how leaders can motivate their teams virtually?

I think an important thing, especially for leaders right now, is that you’re always trying to balance leading with empathy and compassion versus expecting high-quality results. And during this time, it’s even more important to make sure that you’re leading with compassion.

Your team isn’t going to be able to perform well if they’re experiencing heightened anxiety or if they have fears due to this uncertain environment. And they’re certainly not going to be able to thrive. It’s important to focus on first developing a sense of empathy and compassion for your team members. Support your team members as human beings first, and then make sure that you clarify their productivity expectations and provide them with guidance and feedback along the way.

How do you facilitate student engagement with your courses?

I have been using the online platform through which I deliver course content to help my students engage with the course material. You can collect data about how much time is spent on your course material, what material is looked at, and whether or not your course videos are watched.

I like to look not just at the class level but at the students themselves, their levels of engagement and how they’re interacting with the course. I like to use that data as an indicator of who isn’t engaging as much as I would like in my course material. Then I send them a one-on-one email and ask if they’d like to come to my office hours or schedule a virtual meeting.

Have you seen any results with these engagement practices?

Yes, I have heard positive responses from my students. It’s not that I’m telling my students that I’m looking at their activity online, I just want to make sure they’re OK. I want to lead with compassion and understand what they’re going through in these challenging times. And I want to alleviate some of their anxiety, fear, or uncertainty, and help them get back into participating in a normal way.

The pandemic has forced learning modalities and tools to change, and students are having to use technology that they aren’t as familiar with, such as video conferencing platforms. We’re seeing a lot of people who aren’t accustomed to video conferencing, so their initial reaction is to put themselves on mute, but what we want is the opposite. We want them to be fully engaged and present. And I think it’s the professor’s or leader’s responsibility to change that default from being muted versus unmuted.

Do you have any specific interpersonal strategies that you employ when you reach out to students to help them feel supported?

When I meet with my students, typically those meetings begin as very task-oriented in nature, which is great. They want some feedback on their report, for example, or they have questions to clarify content that they’re learning.

But I always make a point to ask them: “How are things going with you? How are your other classes?” I don’t like to just cut off the meeting after only focusing on the task-related information. And specifically, I like to probe them about their career development since I teach advanced courses at Boulder, so the large majority of my students are seniors. It’s a stressful time for all students, but especially for seniors, with so much uncertainty about the future of the workforce. When I am talking to them in my office hours, I always make a point to ask if they’re experiencing any hardship and if there’s anything I can do or any tools or resources that I can provide to help them with their career development.

Any last stories, advice, or tidbits that you’d like to share?

I really believe that we can come out of this experience stronger as educators and scientists in the future. I believe we’re following the Japanese philosophy of “kintsukuroi,” or “golden repair,” which is the ancient art of repairing broken pieces of pottery with gold, with the understanding that the piece is now more beautiful for having been broken. And I believe that our recovery is going to follow the same process.

LISA WHITTINGTON is associate editor, Business Officer.

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