This time of year in my office is one naturally inclined toward reflection. Performance is being reviewed, superlatives awarded, certificates printed and plaques engraved. We look at who has succeeded and who will continue to grow- both the people that we work with, and the processes that guide what we do.

Those who know me well know that systems and processes fascinate me. And part of my evaluation of my own work includes a deep and intentional look at how processes and systems I’ve designed perform in real time. But admittedly, I’m not always the very best at thinking about the human implications of these systems. Yes, I do think about it. But after a recent talk, Malcolm Gladwell brought another facet of those decisions, to my attention.

On the tour to promote the paperback release of his latest book David and Goliath, he talked primarily about the idea of compliance to the law and why we do it. Well, most of us, anyway. For so many years (and society, in turn) believed that deterrence, or a high enough penalty that violation isn’t attractive, was the key to keeping bad behavior at bay. More recently, an alternative to this reasoning has emerged: that of legitimacy. People comply with rules and systems that they deem legitimate. His components of legitimacy:

  1. Fairness
  2. Consistency/Trustworthiness
  3. Respect

To me, the idea of setting guidelines grounded in legitimacy is one that I stumbled into last year, when examining penalties levied against our student groups last year. Some were disproportionate, some truly didn’t apply to some of our groups, and there was little nuance that reflected a desire to understand the students behind the positional titles. Thus, the deterrence strategy did little to correct behavior for many; the alternative, while not perfect, showed greater consideration for the relationship that the organization wanted to have with its members. And that imperfection? Well, it tends to be tolerated and understood better when a relationship emphasizes humanity over compliance.

So what will I be looking at as I seek to tweak some of our tools, guidelines, and systems this summer?

Fairness. Are the systems that you work within fair to all the groups or individuals involved? If you treat all groups equally, you may believe that the answer is “yes.” But as we learned during and after the ages of legal discrimination and segregation, equal treatment is not always fair. Equality means that all people will be treated the same, while fairness is more concerned with everyone having what they need to be successful. My goal in re-examining the projects I oversee will be to make as many pieces as I can, fair. This may mean providing versions of guidelines in a few different formats for ease of understanding, and sharing key information with all board members and not just presidents (a notorious practice that I’ve been seeking to expand for years now).

Consistency and Trustworthiness. This can be a tough one, because we regrettably work in a culture that holds things tightly. This may mean that first impressions of students stick with them far longer than is developmentally appropriate, or memories of past executive boards may color the gaze with which we look upon a longer-tenured group. But to treat students consistently by enforcing deadlines and guidelines appropriately helps to build trust. This trust is essential for when they come to you with the bigger stuff, the real life stuff, the stuff that transcends their roles as a leader or student.

A remark a student came to me with last week made me reconsider my consistency. One of our student staff members mentioned that a friend of her “had never seen me laugh before.” Even with folks who are always in trouble, I had a hard time figuring out who that could be. When she told me, it quickly made sense. This particular group of students relates to me in a more transactional fashion, and I tend to mirror that when they come in. But that mirroring comes at the expense of them seeing who I am. That sort of consistency matters too, and part of my efforts for the year ahead will include being a more consistent version of myself.

Respect. In the best case, this last piece is a byproduct of the first two being in place. People trust those who seek to be fair, and who appreciate consistent behavior and engender trust. I’d like to think that my students respect me, and i’m sure there are probably a few that don’t, but I could also probably predict why they feel that way. As i seek to move into another year in this role while navigating the inevitable politics and bureaucracy that challenge us all behind the scenes, we should always treat those around us, especially students, with respect. For me, this will mean:

  • Challenging myself to focus on meeting needs and expectations, even when I am personally challenged to do so;
  • Challenging students to reconsider or resize expectations that are truly outsized (and not just inconvenient);
  • Articulating the “why” behind situations or changes that affect students- why shouldn’t I? What is there to hide?
  • Expressing gratitude when i’m appreciative0 we all like to hear it, and we’re more inclined to continue good and positive behavior when its noted; and
  • Apologize when I screw up. This is something else we don’t hear enough, and i am making it a point to improve in this area. We’re not superheroes, any of us (unless you are, and then…awesome.), and things will fall through the cracks. But it’s how we respond to those situations that either earns or loses us respect. Which will you do?

Gladwell closed his talk with a pretty powerful statement about legitimacy:

Legitimacy of an institution is a rare and precious thing; if you squander it, it takes generations to get it back.

I don’t know about you, but I’d rather just keep it. Here’s what I plan to do to make sure that’s the case for me- what about you?

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