229342_10150177350162231_1004645_n The man to the left of this photo, getting roughly three feet of air, is my father- one of the smartest and most hilarious men I know. My sister and I are both unashamed daddy’s girls, and pics like this one surely cement that fact. But another thing I respect about both of my parents is their dedication to make sure that the country they left when they moved to America, Ghana, is well taken care of. They go back a few times a year, and try to send money and other odds and ends to their families there to ensure that their prosperity and hard work benefits as many people as possible. I like to think that some element of my care for people comes from what they’ve shown me.

One of my dad’s favorite things to do when he has friends over is what he calls “legislating by proxy.” Inevitably, talk at dinner parties turns to the Ghanaian government, and the troubles that the country is experiencing. Conversation turns ever livelier as they speculate on possible solutions for the issues, problems that current government officials don’t seem to see, and what needs to get done to make Ghana’s troubles go away. “Legislation by proxy”, or “armchair legislating” as he has also termed it, is so called because it’s a group of people who aren’t in the position to make change discussing with great fervor and assurance that change can happen, even if they’re not sure how to go about it.

This weekend, I had the opportunity to watch and chime in on a pair of great Twitter discussions about the future of student affairs, sparked by some Tweets by the reluctant “devil’s advocate” Jeff Lail, about Paul Bloland’s “Reform in Student Affairs: A Critique of Student Affairs Theory”. Both discussions were a great opportunity to see how various professionals- some with whom I’m familiar, and some with whom I interacted for the first time- about where they see our work going in the next several years, and what role we’ll take as the landscape of higher education shifts. I love these sorts of discussions, because I really appreciate seeing what everyone thinks, and what ideas surface as we challenge each other to think critically. And yet, I’m always a little uneasy (I blame my anxiety) when they end, because there’s no action step. No prescribed way to act, no guidelines for subsequent behavior. I left yesterday’s discussion reluctantly (it was moving day, or I would have chatted for hours!), but with the following nudge to my fellow dreamers:

chatting ripples

I meant what I said, I don’t disagree with Jeff. Few of us are in the position to say “this is going to be different, and here’s why!”, and spur change with such an utterance. No amount of information on our parts will change the fact that we’re part of systems, and many of us have to play our role in those systems. But I do also agree with Grandmother Willow. The quote I was trying to remember, about ripples in water, goes something like this: “So small at first, then look how they grow…but someone has to start them.”

Yesterday morning, Brainzooming posted an article, 16 Employee Idea Killers Your Management Could Be Committing, that highlighted many of the ways in which we get discouraged when trying to bring up fixes for problems that we see in our offices, the “orange power cords“, if you will. These same obstacles could be hindering creative or palliative thinking in your department, and even in the industry in which we work:

  • Not explaining the impact employees can have on the organization with their participation. If you are in the business of creating change within an organization, and you want employee input, let them know the value of contributing to the organization. Particularly if their participation is integral to the success of your brand, that information should be shared. Similarly, if you’re not sure if the information or suggestions given will be impactful, don’t be afraid to say so. That may seem demoralizing, but it doesn’t have to be! Just because an idea may not be immediately utilized, doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be heard. Maybe it’s an idea before its time that could become relevant later. But encourage those around you to speak up, and let them know it matters when they do.
  • Not demonstrating appreciation when team members participate. I may come across as a broken record about recognition, but I truly believe in its power to encourage good work. That said, I’m not a fan of participation trophies or awarding cookies for doing one’s job. If you contribute an idea that allows excellence beyond what is expected, that ability to go above and beyond is worthy of congratulations, a thank you, or even just a “good job”…followed by what the good job was! Would you jump through hoops to do something that seemingly didn’t matter? No- so if what someone contributes matters, they should know.
  • Rewarding participating employees with additional unwanted work to document ideas. A major obstacle to voicing new ideas is the dreaded “Sounds good, why don’t you [insert list of tasks associated with your newly voiced initiative]”. Combat this by making a departmental change as collaborative of a process as necessary. If it truly is an organization-changing idea coming into being, why should it fall to one person to execute? Further, buy-in can be created when one has the chance to take part in the creation of something. Therefore, if you’d like this new idea to gain traction, all should have a part in bringing it to fruition.

Do you engage in armchair governance? What other obstacles do you see in your role to transforming words and ideas into action?

2 thoughts on “Legislation By Proxy

  1. I think the “armchair legislation” is definitely a real phenomenon and there are times where we are not able to be in a position to create the change we want to create. But, I also think we can easily get frustrated by our role or place in the pecking order and throw up our hands rather than either looking at the small changes that might be able to contribute to some impactful change or by playing the “long game” and putting yourself in a position where you might be able to impact broader change in the future. Earlier in my career, I tended more toward the frustrated, throw my hands in the air and limited myself to the armchairing. Now, I try to keep an eye on the bigger picture. I see myself at my current institution for the long-term. I have bit my tongue at times (difficult for me) so that I’m not seen as the person who chirps about everything and where, I think, more people listen when I speak. I put my time in….volunteer for committees and roles, so that I’m seen as someone with an investment in the institution. Now I get to be places like our Strategic Planning Council and our Computing Council where I have a voice, where I can publicly raise my questions and provide examples of what I see at other institutions.

    I think the same holds true for our profession. I think change starts on the couch, or the table, or the armchair. It starts when people sit around and share ideas and frustrations. Some of those people need to get in with the “small wins” and others need to play the long game. Folks who are talking about the change that needs to happen, need to position themselves to get seats at the bigger tables – volunteer for committees and tasks, be seen at things, make the connections, so that they can eventually be in positions where, even if they aren’t the ones able to directly create the change, they at least have eyes and ears of those who can. We get frustrated when change isn’t a speedboat but a cruise ship. You can decide to jump ship when its moving too slow, or use the time it takes to turn the boat to your advantage and be on it when it gets to port.

  2. I love the analogy of a cruise over a speedboat. It’s a nice change up from the more common “marathon, not a sprint” comparison 🙂

    And yes, I absolutely agree that it pays to do what it takes to get to a position where you can be heard. Concerns and frustrations can be carried up through supervisors or student reps, but the passion that comes from one’s own voice can only be conveyed if we position ourselves in the decision making roles. Sometimes that’s easier at smaller schools, other times it takes digging in our heels and doing the legwork to move into those roles that have an influential voice.

    The discussion that came up post-NACA about several people moving into board positions is a great example. Identify the problems, as Gretchen Rubin says, but then identify where you need to be to address those problems. I look forward to many of us getting up from our chairs and crashing some “ivory towers” to shake things up 🙂

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