The apparent reason for the ouster was that President Teresa Sullivan and the board disagreed on the speed and process with which the college should be responding to “financial and technological pressures,” according to the New York Times. The Times states that Sullivan prefers “a collaborative, incremental” approach while the board wants “more aggressive, top-down” rapid change.
But after much protest from faculty and students—primarily over the perceived secrecy surrounding the decision—Sullivan got her job back.
Who knows if the stated differences are the whole story. Even as partial truth, though, they point out a classic human habit: Seeing the world in “either/or” terms.
We may never learn how much discussion the two sides had (or didn’t have) about their distinct frames of reference. It does appear they dug in their heels and weren’t willing to integrate their perspectives—then.
But now they’ve got a second chance.
Put aside any alleged secrecy issues. That’s for another discussion. I’m more interested in the opportunity the board and the president have to think about their differences, well, differently.
Instead of polarizing their ideas, they could use a “both/and” approach.
First, they could take time to be curious about each other’s points of view. For example, the board could ask Sullivan to clarify what she means by “incremental” and Sullivan could confirm what the board means by “rapid.” They might discover that they’re not as far apart as they assumed.
Then they could look for the positives in each other’s ideas—like how incremental bottom-up change might generate broader support and buy-in from people who must implement and live with it. And sometimes, faster top-down change can sidestep the indecision that stems from the fear people can feel about doing things differently.
Once they’ve used their energy to investigate and compare ideas instead of going to battle, they can work on integrating their positions—being collaborative, incremental, and bottom-up AND to transform aggressively and rapidly.
I’m not talking about compromise. When you compromise, you often end up with a weakened outcome. Would you want to work in a “compromised” building? I’m talking about searching for the commonalities and positives, and the completely new ideas to which such thinking can lead.
It may sound funny to suggest that you can be incremental and rapid. Or aggressive and collaborative. Or bottom-up and top-down. That’s because our brains aren’t used to combining ideas that appear mutually exclusive.
This is where I would typically finish giving an example of how you can be both of the above-mentioned “opposites.” But I’d rather hear from you. Put your brain to the test—leave us your thoughts about how you can be aggressive and collaborative, bottom-up and top-down, etc. We’d love to get into a dialogue with you!