Many years ago, I became the new dean of a business school. I was enthusiastic and saw possibilities everywhere. At a faculty meeting early in my tenure and in many one-on-one conversations, I challenged teachers and staff to dream big.

I recall many eye rolls during these conversations. It was almost like I could read their thoughts, which probably went something like, “Yeah, right. Like you’re going to support anything we come up with. Hmmpphh.”

But I consistently stayed on message. I know people are smart and creative and that they need to hear they have good ideas that should be heard. I asked big questions.

What did they want our business school to look like in five years? What did we need to make sure we kept doing, but what else could we do to ensure our students were well prepared as they left us for the workplace? We were only limited, to some degree, by our imaginations! Yes, resources might have to be found to implement big ideas, but we should pursue what we thought would be in our students’ best interests.

Then one day, one of the senior faculty members came to see me. I vividly remember his words. “Lynne, you need to be patient with us,” he said.

“What do you mean?” I replied.

He paused a minute and then spoke. “We’ve been told ‘no’ for so long, we’ve forgotten how to dream.” Then he went on to describe the culture that led to his comment.

Do you work in a culture that doesn’t allow you to dream? Are you told “no” every time you have a great idea?

To some degree, the reason I became an administrator is because that happened to me as a faculty member.

I was a young faculty member with many ideas. I wanted to add events, start new programs, and do more engagement with the local business community. I could execute some of those ideas myself, but many were more college-level ideas. As I took what I thought were fabulous ideas to my manager and his manager, I was fairly consistently told some derivative of “it’s a good idea, Lynne, but we’re not going to do it.”

Fortunately for me, I didn’t give up my dreams, but I did have to become the manager to say “yes” to my own, and other people’s, dreams.

Here’s what I learned when I was the dean. Changing a culture takes time. It takes one or two people bringing ideas forward that make sense to say “yes.” It takes pursuing those ideas, realizing some success, and then making sure those in the unit hear about the success. Once the folks in the college realized we were serious about saying “yes” to dreams, more people began to dream. And as more ideas were supported, more came forward. By the time I left that position, we had seen a sea change for the culture.

Was everyone on board? Hardly. But enough people had gotten excited about what could be that amazing things were happening.

Do you work in an environment where new ways of doing things are received as unenthusiastically as my ideas as a faculty member? If so, and you’re the manager, you have to change. If you’re the employee who is told this, can you talk with your supervisor about how “no” tends to squelch creativity and dreaming? If you’ve done that and continue to be frustrated, why are you still working there? It is not healthy, nor is it a progressive workplace. Find an employer who appreciates your abilities!

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Lynne Richardson is the dean of the College of Business at the University of Mary Washington.

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