The Care and Feeding of ASU Employees

A Remedial Primer for ASU Administrators
(with reading assignments)


Kip Tindell of The Container Store calls it an “employee-first culture”:


Richard Branson of Virgin says to “Put your staff first, your customers second, and your shareholders third”:


These and other successful leaders clearly know something that Richardson Hall does not.

The principle that drives their success is neither a new concept nor a complex one. It’s no secret sauce. It’s the simplest principle in the world, and it applies equally to all organizations, be they large or small, profit or nonprofit (not advocating the corporate model for higher education here!):

As an administrator, you don’t interface with customers (or students) on a daily basis; your employees do. Focus on treating your people well, and your people will achieve amazing things in support of your organizational mission. Your people are not an expense; they are your greatest asset, an asset to be invested in. This is a lesson well understood and successfully leveraged by many organizations.

An even more direct translation for higher education, in case it’s needed for ASU administrators: Faculty and staff engage every day with students; you do not. And research has repeatedly confirmed that student retention is directly supported by meaningful, individual student relationships with university personnel. Focus your energy on taking care of your faculty and staff, and they’ll then be able to focus on taking care of our students. Simple!

Unfortunately, Richardson Hall has instead been locked into a decades-long practice of holding its people down in a permanent state of economic and motivational deprivation while continually ordering them to just somehow do “more better with less”. This is no minor problem. This is the very reason why Adams State is failing as an institution. This is the very reason why Adams State is failing its students.

As ASU employees, we have all at one time or another been urged to keep our focus on the students, to focus on recruitment, retention, and engagement. In a recent campus-wide email entitled “Budget Update”, we were all told that “we should all be thinking about ways we can help, as enrollment is a part of all our jobs.” These exhortations from Richardson Hall may be well-intended but are profoundly misguided and reveal a leadership with little to no understanding of what actually drives successful organizations.

Successful organizations have vibrant organizational cultures with happy, engaged employees. There is a direct and strong correlation between employee satisfaction and customer satisfaction. Vibrant organizational cultures cannot come about when the people who make up that culture are not valued, appreciated, or cared for. And it is an organization’s leaders who either create or hinder organizational culture.

Make no mistake: There are pockets of great cultures at Adams State, but they exist in spite of Richardson Hall, not because of it. And many of these flowering subcultures, intentionally or otherwise, are under direct assault by Richardson Hall.

This commentary is intended as a primer for ASU administration, and includes some recommended reading. Remedial homework, if you will.

Recommended Reading #1 for Richardson Hall: McGregor, L., and Doshi, N. (November 25, 2015). How company culture shapes employee motivation. Harvard Business Review.

Summary: Research shows that there are six primary reasons why people work. Three of these motivating factors increase employee performance, while three of them hinder it. The three positive motives are directly connected to one’s work and directly contribute to an individual’s sense of identity:

Play – When you work because you enjoy it
Purpose – When you derive value and identity from your work
Potential – When your work contributes to your self-actualization

Negative motives are only indirectly connected to one’s work and do not contribute to one’s self-actualization:

Emotional pressure – When you only work because of fear, peer pressure, shame or other negative emotions.
Economic pressure – When you only work to obtain monetary rewards separate from the work itself
Inertia – When you don’t even know why you’re working; it’s just what you do everyday.

As noted by McGregor and Doshi, a “high-performing culture maximizes the play, purpose, and potential felt by its people, and minimizes the emotional pressure, economic pressure, and inertia.” Such workplace cultures are directly linked to higher customer satisfaction. The culture is “the operating system of an organization”.

How does this apply to Adams State? Are most of our employees engaged all day with a sense of play, purpose, and potential? Or are they coming in for the meager paycheck, staying silent out of fear, and just punching the clock? If the latter, is it their own fault for not being properly motivated, or does the responsibility lie with ASU’s leadership?

Recommended Reading #2 for Richardson Hall: Seppalla, E. (January 4, 2016). To motivate employees, do three things well. Harvard Business Review.

Summary: Great organizational cultures don’t happen by accident; they are developed intentionally (this, by the way, was the central goal of the now defunct Campus Advocacy Group – more on that in the next edition of Watching Adams). So how can ASU slough off its entrenched dysfunctional culture and begin to move towards greatness? Seppalla suggests that Adams State’s administration should focus on three things:

1. Inspiration – Instead of ordering us to focus on students, inspire us by focusing instead on our larger organizational meaning and purpose. Serve as a leading example: “Leaders, too, can be great sources of inspiration to employees. Studies show that when they act selflessly, proving they care more about the group than themselves, workers are more trusting, cooperative, dedicated, loyal, collegial, and committed. Bosses who show they are fair also inspire greater dedication, citizenship, and productivity…”

2. Kindness – “Research confirms that positive and warm relationships are one of the most important predictors of psychological well-being, so leaders must be mindful about the culture they are creating and the sentiments they express at work. The basics of a kind culture involve consideration and respect, which increase creative output at both the individual and team level.”

3. Self-Care – Care for your employees, and encourage them to care for themselves. We cannot help our students unless we ourselves are in a state of well being. “The best leaders are able to take a step back and maintain a human touch in the workplace by inspiring employees, being kind to them, and encouraging them to take care of themselves.”

Play, purpose, and potential.

Inspiration, kindness, and self-care.

It’s not a secret sauce, right? The question is, does ASU’s current administration possess the requisite interpersonal skills to put these simple principles into effect? Some technocrats are hopeless causes and just need to go. Now. Not six months from now. A few, with outside leadership training, large doses of listening to employees, and lengthy self-reflection, might just be able to execute a major course correction. Ultimately, though, I submit that we need a massive infusion of fresh thinkers at the top, leaders who truly embrace the simple yet powerful principles outlined herein.