Turning on the Thrive Channel to Accelerate Change in Higher Education

published Mar 7, 2018 10:13am
Conversations about "institutional change" in higher education have become pervasive. This is probably because colleges and universities are under tremendous pressure - to graduate more students, to improve success of underrepresented minority students, to reduce costs, and to expand the benefits they provide to our society. Many state systems are engaged in developing performance-based funding metrics that are intended to promote achievement of specified goals. Others are engaged in major reorganizations that are merging or possibly eliminating campuses in service of larger goals that are important to the state, such as enhanced transfer, graduation or fiscal efficiency. This seems scary, but at the heart of all of this is a sound idea - since our society has a long history of improvement and undoubtedly there are still more improvements to make. And to do that, organizations must be adaptable; they must make changes for the better. Why then, is this so concerning for so many?

A key challenge is that achieving change in any organization is hard. It is complicated. It involves many levels of the organization. It is motivated by a variety of purposes. It is challenged by competing agendas. It is frequently stalled by a variety of obstacles.

Further, positive change requires a vision, strategy, and tactics. But most importantly, it requires effective change leadership. What does that actually entail?

We believe that John Kotter's recent framing of a human dimension of change provides a very valuable insight. His recent work:
takes a brain/body approach to describing how people react to organizational situations and environments, and how those reactions influence their contributions to change processes. Kotter identifies two reaction "channels" that are often quiescent, but that can be activated by certain stimuli. He calls them the "Survive Channel" and the "Thrive Channel".

The Survive Channel features the "fight or flight" reaction. It is activated when someone finds something threatening, which triggers strong protective reactions (the "fight" response), or strong escape reactions (the "flight" response). Kotter illustrates this with an organizational example: working an 18-hour day to fix a breakdown on a production line to get it back up again. The situation often triggers negative emotions such as fear, anxiety, anger and even shame. Individuals in this situation often narrow their focus on the problem right in front of them. They may not see other aspects of their environment. While this type of response may be effective at dealing with immediate threats and short-term survival, it may not be helpful in promoting creative solutions or innovations that result in longer term organizational development. There must be a better approach.

Kotter offers up the Thrive Channel to help explain how individuals within an organization can contribute to change, innovation and organizational advancement. He describes how this channel activates in response to perceived opportunities instead of threats. He characterizes it as an "opportunity-seeking radar" system. When activated, individuals respond with enthusiasm and other positive emotions such as excitement, passion, pride and joy. Think about a time when you encountered a great new opportunity! You were likely motivated to accelerate actions that you thought might make it come to fruition. When there is no perceived immediate threat, individuals can think more broadly, finding better ways to reach longer term goals. Along the way, short-term wins toward this outcome may keep the energy high and positive emotions flowing. Kotter notes that people gravitate toward situations that create positive emotions more than those that create negative ones. Of course this is not a new idea and substantiated in many other areas, such as the well-known approaches of appreciative enquiry. However, we find Kotter's two-channel framing simple, compelling, evocative, and easy to share.

Kotter describes how harnessing the "thrive channel" can help sustain a focus on achieving longer term success. In addition, he poignantly asserts: "Some people, for whatever reason, seem to have much stronger Thrive Channels. Or, they are much more capable of activating their Thrive channels. These individuals see opportunities the rest of us do not. They may also mobilize others to capitalize on those opportunities. Some of these people not only think of an idea like humans flying, but then mobilize others to build airplanes, build airplane factories, build commercial airline companies, and thus change life on Earth in important ways." These opportunity-seekers are well known in our society for important society-changing impact: Some, such as Steve Jobs, become famous, and just as importantly, many neither seek or achieve fame as they make great things happen. By the thousands, they strengthen community organizations, small businesses, schools, universities, factories, police forces, day care centers, quietly helping us all build a better world.

Importantly, not only are Kotter's two channels very different - they are actually competitive - each counters the other and unfortunately all too often it is the Survive Channel that dominates. If an environment contains a constant stream of threats, the Survive Channel gains strength and the Thrive Channel withers. We've all seen this. In higher education, we face many pressures and increasingly higher stakes - declining enrollments, budget cuts, legislative pressure. How can the Thrive Channel be nurtured in an environment where threats are numerous and growing?

Kotter makes two suggestions. First, management (often called "the administration" in higher education) needs to be sure it isn't needlessly stimulating the Survive Channel by creating avoidable internal challenges that waste time, money, and effort while getting little done. Are procedures overly complex and time-consuming? How many levels are required to sign off on a purchase? Are there simply too many learning objectives or performance metrics? Are there redundant programs in different parts of the organization? Is the administration constantly calling meetings to deal with every short-term problem? Think about your college or university for a minute and we are sure you will be able to identify one or more aspects that fit this description. A continual focus on short-term threats may lead to other actions such as hasty budget cuts, retrenchment of fiscal resources, reorganizations and other actions that only amplify this channel.

Kotter suggests that if leaders can recognize an overactive Survive Channel culture, they may be able to take steps to reign it in. This requires an ability to identify the most important threats and focus efforts (requests for information, follow up meetings) on the most essential ones, not all of them. Many campuses are implementing programs to improve the efficiency of a variety of processes and services to reduce complexity, avoid redundancy and save money. If successful, these efforts will reduce activation of the Survive Channel and make more room for Thrive.

However, reducing threats isn't enough - the Thrive Channel needs specific encouragement as well. Leaders need to learn to deliberately and proactively engage the Thrive Channel within their teams. In Kotter's words, leaders need to "aggressively activate" Thrive. This means shifting the focus from the threats to opportunities, assets, strengths and positive achievements. In the "appreciative inquiry" approach, initiatives and improvements are built on what is working well, not on what is broken (Cooperrider and Srivastva, 1987). Focus on rewarding positive behavior, recognizing contributions (even small ones), and creating enjoyable environments where there is laughter and joy. It is hard to do that in the face of adversity, which is why leaders need to intently focus on reducing threats and filling the environment with positive emotions and a sense of opportunity. A key tactic, Kotter asserts, "is for senior executives to engage as many others as possible to help with this task." Engagement is a key part of solid leadership.

What might this look like in higher education? Here is one example: Several years ago, at Fresno State, a large, comprehensive, minority-serving institution serving the Central Valley of California and where one of us was dean of the college of science and mathematics (Elrod), there was increasing focus on improving student retention. Enrollments were strong so there were no immediate threats but still, improving retention was a constant topic of conversation. A new budget allocation model included a bonus for improved retention but there were no coordinated strategies to achieve change. The university had implemented a major gateway course redesign effort but it operated in different courses and departments across the university. A group of biology faculty had joined this effort and had been successful in the course sections that were taught with the new student-centered design. Instead of calling out courses with high failure rates or departments with low year-to-year retention, the dean recognized the biology faculty success and called a meeting of faculty leaders in the college to talk about their approach and their willingness to join a larger effort to implement similar reforms in other classes.

This led to the conceptualization of the FLOCK (Faculty Learning for OutComes and Knowledge) project that built faculty-led learning communities in four departments with the goal of redesigning eight introductory courses across the college. The dean identified an opportunity to apply for funding from the National Science Foundation and shouldered the responsibility of writing the proposal with the faculty serving as advisors and reviewers. We were successful at obtaining the $1.5 million grant! Obtaining a highly competitive NSF grant generates all kinds of positive emotions - joy, pride, enthusiasm - and helps generate momentum as well as credibility. Our success also opened the door to participate in another project that would help us expand the FLOCK project into another discipline in the college, thus widening the circle of faculty leaders who were engaged. Twenty or more faculty were involved and, despite turnover in the dean position and shifts in faculty leadership, they persisted and have been successful. Their redesigns and program improvements have closed the retention gap for first year underrepresented minority students. It was, of course, more complicated than this short summary. But the point is that through focusing on opportunity, leveraging success and creating an environment where positive emotions were generated, we believe this is an example of success through activation of the Thrive Channel.

In another example, at the University of British Columbia, one of us was in the role of provost (Whitehead) and sought to advance a culture of continual improvement of teaching and learning. There was an opportunity to recruit a highly respected leader in this field (Nobel Laureate Carl Wieman) who had an exciting plan for peer-based leadership of improvement in focused departmental efforts. To those already convinced, this was a wonderful opportunity - but without careful communication and great care, this could be perceived as an unwarranted intrusion by the administration on internal departmental affairs. It was therefore critical to communicate that there would simply be no imposition at all. Rather, an opportunity was being offered to departments who wished to participate. Communicating this subtle distinction required a good deal of honest, respectful, interactive communication at multiple levels. It was essential to ensure that almost everyone felt respected and supported, and that all the motivations were clear, understood, sensible, and appropriate. The net result was a highly generative program for departmental improvement, one that is now being widely replicated at other universities.

In both of these examples, a critical element of success was a belief by leaders that opportunity was the key to forward movement and, in turn, a solid belief in the good intentions of leaders to help the organization improve. Opportunity is the difference between what we are, and what we can become. When leaders focus on opportunity and people trust that their leaders understand and believe in opportunity, everyone can come together to turn opportunity into action. The air clears, the sun shines, and people get good things done. Of course bolstering the thrive channel is not the only thing leaders must do well, but it certainly is one of the most important requirements for any group of people to achieve their worthwhile objectives.


Cooperrider, D.L. & Srivastva, S. (1987). "Appreciative inquiry in organizational life". In Woodman, R.W. & Pasmore, W.A. Research in Organizational Change And Development. Vol. 1. Stamford, CT: JAI Press. Pp.129-169.

Suggested Citation:

Elrod, S. & Whitehead, L. (2018, March 7). Turning on the Thrive Channel to Accelerate Change in Higher Education. Retrieved from https://ascnhighered.org/ASCN/posts/201117.html

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