People may hear your words, but they’ll feel your attitude. ~ John C Maxwell
Every campus has a unique culture and as someone who has worked on seven college campuses it’s something you learn to figure out in a hurry. Of course like anything these days, even culture can be weaponized. So you learn quickly what the key words are in your campus culture. While not a complicated concept, it’s best elucidated with an example.
When I worked at a northern California community college about a decade ago I learned very quickly what the core culture was at this campus, because honestly, you would hear this phrase at least once a day, ” we have a collaborative culture here.” Honestly it seemed like the answer to far more questions than you might think was, “you know, we have a collaborative culture here.” So as you can obviously guess, the power word on that campus was collaboration. At any point if someone was in disagreement with you they would respond, “I don’t think you’re being very collaborative.” Then of course because no one wanted to risk not being collaborative, they would typically fold and give into whatever demand was being put forward. This was a particularly effective word when faculty were in disagreement with a decision made by the administration. Because of course, the administration could never be collaborative enough.
There are a number of power words you’ll find on a lot of campuses, two that are particularly popular these days are equity and transparency. I have been in far too many conversations where because someone isn’t getting their way, suddenly what’s being proposed isn’t equitable. Now the beautiful thing about power words is that they engender so much fear, that people will often not even challenge the statement, no matter how unclear the connection is to the word. There have been times when it has seemed fairly obvious that not only was there not disagreement between equity and the proposal, but I wasn’t even sure the person actually understood the definition of equity. But they understood how to weaponize the word.
That’s why people use power words, because there’s very little chance that once they use the word they will get challenged. And that’s exactly what needs to change on our campuses. We need to change our campus cultures to empower people with the ability to challenge power words. Not rudely or aggressively, but by simply allowing the question, “how does the power word you just used connect to this discussion.”
This is important in two ways, first, it takes away the abuse of the power word and stops people from using it as a weapon. Secondly, ideas like collaboration, equity and transparency are important and worthwhile ideas. A campus that is collaborative, equitable and transparent is a great place to work. So if there is a legitimate way that those concepts are not being honored, it’s important that we make a decision that will honor those important concepts to improve our campuses, their cultures and allow us to act in the best interest of creating an environment where students can succeed and thrive.