Do you remember FISH! Philosophy? It was big in the early 2000s. I was in my second job out of grad school working in the Center for Student Involvement and Leadership (CSIL) at the University of Arizona when the management group of the student union decided to adopt FISH! Philosophy and implement it across the departments. There were trainings, reward structures, certificates, and FISH! activities. In short, FISH! was everywhere.

The philosophy, which really has nothing to do with actual fish at all (other than the fact that the philosophy was “inspired by a business that is world famous for its incredible energy and commitment to service, the Pike Place Fish Market” in Seattle, WA) is an simple easy-to-remember customer service approach. FISH! is rooted in four simple tenets, which, quoted directly from the FISH! website, are:

  • Be There: When people need you, they need all of you. Setting aside distractions and judgments to be fully present is a sign of respect. 
  • Play: You can be serious about your work without taking yourself so seriously. Play is a mindset more than a specific activity. 
  • Make Their Day: Simple gestures of thoughtfulness, thanks and recognition make people feel appreciated and valued. When you make someone else feel good, you feel good too.
  • Choose Your Attitude: To actually choose how you respond to life, not just react, you must be intentional. When you get up, decide who you want to “be” today. 

Having come to student affairs with undergraduate degree in business, I admit being skeptical about applying the latest “business fad” to our work in student affairs. However, after sitting through a few sessions and then facilitating several discussions with my colleagues in CSIL, I came around and became a FISH! convert. Here are the ways in which FISH! works for our work:

Be There: Our work demands focus. When meeting with students or colleagues, give them your undivided attention and be present. Easy access to email on iPads and cell phones during meetings divides our attention and focus on the present is lost… and people notice. Being there for students also means having an open door and welcoming them into your space when they need to process a difficult decision or seek help in midst of a crisis. Mindful conversations help others feel that they matter to you and that you are there for them. Being there is also about staying in the present and not daydreaming about our future job prospects… we can lose site of current priorities when we spend too much time pondering the next steps in our career or lives.

Play: We deal with serious situations in student affairs and we undoubtedly take our work very seriously. But, there are definitely times when we need to “bring the fun” into the work place and lighten up a bit. Play might look different depending on the office environment/culture, but it can be as simple has having accessible mind-teaser puzzles, posable Yoda figurines, or crayons and coloring pages. Celebrate birthdays. Choose a “theme song” at the start of each day. Have an dress-up day (everyone wears superhero costumes or crazy socks). Plan social gatherings after hours. These little morale boosters help keep the mood light and help build a united team.

Make Their Day: Similar to “be there” — I see this as being responsive to the present needs and following through on promises. Simply put, do what you say you are going to do. Recognize other people’s hard work and contributions to group successes. Tell people you appreciate them in the way that matters to them. Some like public recognition others appreciate private gestures of thanks. In all cases, write thank you notes (real ones, on paper). “Make their day” can also be interpreted as the business maxim that “the customer is always right.” In student affairs, college students are often considered our “customers” and frankly, this philosophy causes some dissonance for many of us. We can’t always give students the answers they want to hear. Helping students experience learning opportunities and the consequences of their choices defines our role in student development. Holding students (and our staff members) accountable and the difficult lessons that result from hard conversations are cornerstones of our work.

Choose Your Attitude: While all four components are useful and applicable, the one that’s stuck with me over the past decade and continues to impact my day-to-day thinking and approach in student affairs is “Choose Your Attitude.” I can choose how I respond, what person I want to “be”, and my approach can impact my effectiveness in any given situation. I can choose to approach my role with negativity or positivity. I can choose my battles and not respond. I can choose to approach my work from a place of perfectionism resulting in me becoming burned out and resentful. Or, I can let the perfectionism go, retaining my energy, dedication, and resiliency. Finally, I can choose to let someone else’s actions/behavior/attitude impact me or I can take control of my response and choose to not let it bother me: I can recognize my sphere of control and influence.

Clearly, early in my career, FISH! made an impression on me and has impacted how I approach my work in student affairs. Some will critique it las too simplistic, that it lacks sophistication or theoretical foundation. After all, our “business” in higher education may be far different from that of fish mongers in Seattle. Or is it? Regardless, I think it’s a fun tool that is applicable and useful. And, if anything… once you learn it, it’s not complicated. FISH! is not easily forgotten.

Let’s continue the conversation. How have you utilized FISH! in your practice? What other business “fads” have applicability in student affairs? How have you implemented them as a leader in your department or division?