Transformational Change in the Higher Education Sector: an inquiry into leadership practice

Christopher Mowles, Jana Filosof, Kevin Flinn, Phillip Mason, Nigel Culkin, Rachelle Andrews, Dawn James

Research output: Book/ReportCommissioned report


This is a report which inquires into the practice of the members of leadership teams in six UK universities undertaking projects of transformation in their institutions. The researchers interviewed senior managers bilaterally and in groups to ask them how they had been working, what they thought were the difficulties of bringing about change, and how they understood ‘transformation’.

The research team brings more than 20 years of experience in developing a complexity perspective on stability and change in organisations, which pays particular attention to everyday interactions and the way people talk and think about change. Our perspective assumes that all social change is probabilistic because it arises as a result of the interweaving of everyone’s intentions in the game of organizational life. Senior managers may be particularly influential players of the organizational game, but they too are as much played as playing. What was it like, then, to play their particular institutional game, and how did they now understand that experience?

Senior managers were generous with their time and observations and led us to believe that they were fully aware of the demands on the sector arising from increased marketisation, and were realistic in their acceptance of the need to adapt to survive, whether they agreed with the changes or not. Nonetheless, rapid change often provoked deep anxiety in them as to whether they were changing fast enough, and whether they were calling it right. The fast pace of change often brought about a good deal of turnover amongst their senior colleagues, which brought the impact of change close to home. It also led them to be sympathetic towards their colleagues in the kinds of demands that were being placed on them, which was often, as Churchill noted, one damned thing after another.

Senior managers had found a variety of creative ways of conveying the need for change, and for coping with the intended and unintended consequences. This involved enhancing their own managerial skills and professionalizing project management approaches, developing a critical distance from some of the jargon and taken-for-granted assumptions about how change happens, prioritising relationships and communication (both formal and informal), and developing better judgement about how and when to intervene. Senior managers differed in the degree to which they felt they were in control of, and could shape ‘organisational culture’, and were aware that over-optimistic claims of ‘positive transformational change for the good’ could alienate as much as motivate. Nonetheless, their experience had left almost everyone who contributed to the research with examples of how they and their colleagues had brought themselves into a different relation with each other where new things were possible.

The report identifies seven qualities and capabilities of senior managers which might be underrepresented in most accounts of transformational change in organisations. These are:

1 The ability to live with contradictions, ambivalence and doubt, and the ability to cope longer with uncertainty.
2 The development of practical judgment about when to intervene and when not to, when to express doubt, how to ‘read’ a group, and how to get alongside people.
3 The ability of leaders/managers to take themselves seriously as managers and seek different ways of developing their capacities technically, as well as developing greater reflective abilities and critical self-awareness.
4. Leading involves developing enhanced political judgement about how to work productively with power, when to encourage, when to direct, and gaining deeper insights into interdependencies.
5. Developing better political judgement implies an ability to work more skillfully in groups and to accept that conflicting over who ‘we’ think we are and what ‘we’ think we are doing together is immanent in all groups trying to achieve things together.
6. A greater capacity to work in groups implies an enhanced ability to endure the negative emotions that inevitably result from profound processes of change, such as feelings of loss and lack of recognition, and the feelings of vulnerability which may arise when confronted with colleagues’ strong emotions.
7. Senior managers are story-tellers in chief, sensemakers-in-chief, recognisers-in-chief. They may be in charge, but they are not always in control.
The report calls for more research into everyday examples of conceiving, developing and implementing change projects from the ground up as an antidote to more inflated and idealized accounts which are usually more readily available.
Original languageEnglish
PublisherLeadership Foundation for Higher Education
Publication statusPublished - 15 May 2019


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