Thursday, June 16, 2005

Psychological Climate in Online Learning Organizations

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“We had started calling our online course production department “The Revolving Door,” because things had gotten so bad. We couldn’t keep student support staff if our lives depended on it. They used to stay with us until they graduated. Now, some would bolt as soon as the semester was up. In the meantime, they would call in and leave long, detailed voice messages about the various maladies that afflicted them. It was horrible. I just hope that this semester will be better.” Kelsen, the manager of support staff for the department’s online programs was describing the situation in the office. The tension in her voice was notable, and she twisted a piece of paper in her hands.

“It didn’t make sense. Enrollments were at an all-time high, we were getting all sorts of positive publicity, and we had been approved for an increased budget. We had money for professional development, new equipment, even travel for professional development. Yet, all I heard was bickering.”

Why is morale so bad when business is so good? Many institutions experiencing a boom in their online course enrollments are confronting this issue. Because of the rapid growth and rate of change that characterize most online learning programs, morale within the support staff, faculty, and administrative personnel tasked with developing, delivering, and maintaining the courses and the infrastructure may be very low. Vroom’s expectancy theory helps explain it, as does the concept of “psychological climate.” This article explores the theory and applies it to the online learning program.

For many years, V.H. Vroom’s 1964 classic, Work and Motivation, has been pointed to as a model for how the expectations that individuals have of their workplace, their coworkers, and their employer, can deeply influence motivation. In the second edition of Work and Motivation, Vroom writes that “the choices made by person among alternative courses of action are lawfully related to psychological events occurring contemporaneously within the behavior” (Vroom 1982: 14-15). In other words, there are psychological “laws” that govern the way a person feels and acts.

Kelsen’s experience supported what Vroom found. “It starts with absenteeism, but then we see bad communication, turf wars, divisive and destructive talk, and finally, they simply leave. Then, we spend the next first half of the semester training the replacements. Once they’ve gotten trained and have spent a month or so being fairly productive, they’re out the door. I’m going crazy.” She looked down at her backpack. “I even bought a pack of cigarettes and contemplated taking up smoking.”

Vroom goes on to articulate his “expectancy theory”: “The force motivating a person to exert effort or to perform an act in a job situation depends on the interaction between what the individual wants from a job (valence) and the degree to which he/she believes that the company will reward effort exerted (expectancy) on that job with the things he/she wants. Individuals believe that if they behave in a certain way (instrumentality), they will receive certain job features (Vroom 1982).” This definitely helps explain why it is so important to not arouse expectations unnecessarily, and that if managed well, expectations can be huge motivators, and can connect to one’s behavior and/or performance.

Recent studies have expanded Vroom’s expectancy theory, and have pointed out that expectations have a great deal to do with how the “psychological climate” is formed in the workplace. The psychological climate, which can be positive or negative, is made up of various aspects which contain expectations. Lawler and Suttle (1973) developed various categories of expectations, and many researchers, such as Darden, Hampton and Howell (1989) and Sims, Szilagyi, and McKerney (1976), further connected them to leadership qualities. According to Litwin and Stringer (1966), leadership style is critical in managing expectations and one of the most important determinants of psychological climate.

In 1988, researchers Good and Sisler conducted a study of individuals in retailing to determine the components of psychological climate. Here are the resulting categories:

Role clarity

Role harmony

Job autonomy

Job variety and challenge

Job importance

Role assignment

When Kelsen heard the description of psychological climate, she gave a wry smile. “Yes, that’s precisely it. We have a very toxic psychological climate. I’m not proud of it, but that’s what it is. I’d like to know what to do.”

She also related to later studies. For example, Woodard, Casill, and Herr (1994) completed a study which required employees to rank the components of psychological climate and to assign relative importance to each one. The results are strikingly applicable to the management of an online program team which includes support staff, administrative personnel, faculty, and administration. Here they are, with comments that make connections between the original results and apply them to the online learning organization:

#1---Role Assignment: Team members are given sufficient time, training, and resources are provided to perform an assigned task so that it is clear what outcome is expected of them.

#2---Role Harmony: Employee receives information about what is expected of him or her in the execution of the job, and it is compatible with job expectations; and later, when detailing the behaviors involved in the performance of the job, expected behaviors are consistent with the employee’s understanding of the job. The job expectations, requirements, and desired outcomes are clearly spelled out and updated regularly. Models of successful behaviors and outcomes are provided.

#3---Role Clarity: Expected role behaviors have been clearly defined to the employee, and everyone involved has the same expectation. When cross-training occurs and teams blur turf and responsibility areas, the opportunity for all team members to discuss roles and responsibilities is provided and leadership focuses on continuity and stability.

#4---Organizational Identification: In reviewing his or her role in the organization, employee believes his/her organization performs an important function, and in doing so, offers unique opportunities for growth and reward, resulting in the fact that the employee takes pride in the organization. Risk-taking is encouraged, and if an idea does not work, team members are encouraged to explore how their expectations were different than the outcome, and how lessons learned can help salvage or repurpose the results.

#5---Leader Goal Emphasis and Work Facilitation: The supervisor encourages and stimulates individuals to become personally involved in meeting group goals by stressing high performance standards, creating an atmosphere that rewards high performance, and then participating in the work himself or herself, therefore setting an example. The leaders does not co-opt or deliberately outperform the individuals.

#6---Job Challenge and Variety: Individuals are encouraged to use their skills and abilities on the job, and their initiative is rewarded as they engage in a wide range of behaviors on the job in order to meet objectives. Individuals are encouraged to share their unique approaches, and to heighten a sense of affiliation and accomplishment through sharing their experiences.

#7---Leader Trust and Support: The supervisor takes the time to become aware of the needs of the subordinates, does not co-opt or distort what the employee I s saying to him or her by misinterpreting, ignoring, or punishing open communication. The supervisor is both aware of and responsive to the needs of his/her subordinates.

#8---Workgroup Cooperation, Friendliness, and Warmth: The working atmosphere is open, and relationships are characterized by cooperation, sincere friendliness, and warmth.

#9---Management Concern and Awareness: The organization attempts to assess and respond to the employees’ needs and problems. This is done frequently, and response times are quick.

In conclusion, the idea of psychological climate can be a breakthrough strategy for online learning organizations suffering from low morale, high turnover, loss of coordination, communication and teamwork problems, despite experiencing huge growth and financial success.

Kelsen said that her next step was to try to develop a strategy for cleaning up a bad psychological climate. “I’m afraid it’s not going to be easy. I’m going to do some research and give it a shot, though,” she said.

References

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“Self-determination theory posits that there are innate psychological needs for competence, autonomy and relatedness, which implies that satisfaction of these three needs would promote motivation and well-being in all cultures” (Deci et al 2001)

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