by Steve Saville and Rebecca Thomas
“We do not see things as they are, we see things as WE are.’
- Anai Nin
It can be a vulnerable place for a leader to be in when they ask the community for their voices. It is possible that the data might show an imbalance between perceptions. What if you find that the things you thought were good and going well are in fact a major concern? What if you find out there is conflict in the ranks? What if the voices that come back are deficit? It is a possibility this may happen to you, as after all, Rhinesmith, S.H reminds us:
“We all have our own predispositions in how we see the world.’’
Daunting data that may be hard to swallow can be challenging to face, but what you have actually done is taken one very important step in the right direction. You have lowered your status as a leader and given your colleagues and community agency and voice to be heard. The real question that follows is ‘how are you going to respond to the voice?’ Openness alone will not drive change.
Below are 3 top tips to help guide you in preparation for such occasions.
#1 Be accepting of cognitive dissonance:
Society is wired to reduce dissonance and the emotions dissonance can bring. Although the invitation to challenge an existing idea sounds like conflict, this conflict has the potential to be the source of brilliant professional learning.
From a narrative landscape perspective we wish to use the analogy of an Oyster. When faced with an irritant, be it food particle or grain of sand, the Oyster begins coating the object with a layer of aragonite and conchiolin, the same two materials used to create its shell. The layering of these membranes creates nacre (mother of pearl). Therefore the natural condition of wanting to reduce dissonance to regain comfort creates a gem; without friction and discomfort there would be no pearls of wisdom.
Mental discomfort from holding two conflicting beliefs is essential to any deep transformation or change. But how do you welcome the irritation? First, find a thinking partner that isn't an echo chamber of yourself. Finding a thinking partner whose job it is to prove us wrong is a valuable asset on any team. Seek out people who are different in background, experience, and those who have different disciplines, then find ways to engage with them. This will require patience and energy, but it also means we are open to change our minds. Don’t be afraid of conflict, instead be afraid of the silence, as conflict is thinking together. We need to be able to get comfortable with thinking together, allowing everyone around the table to be creative, innovative problem solvers, forging an opening for changing our cognition.
#2 Have a shared language:
Language can build us up, or bring us down. Common language, common understanding, common codes of practice (pedagogies) can help to communicate commitment. Showing your communities that you are an institution committed to teaching and learning - a true ‘learning institution’ - will lift people up. An institution that values education as a collaborative practice will ensure that the voices (no matter how unappealing) can bring us all together.
#3 Agentic Positioning:
Instead of seeing the voices and data as resistant, think critically about what you see. Maybe the voices just lack self-efficacy? Perhaps there is a simple disparity in perspectives? e.g. You think, as a leader, you are allowing staff to be innovative, but in fact the person in question doesn’t think they are being supported to be innovative. Ask yourself if you have defined 'support' as a team. Have you got a shared understanding of what actions feel like genuine support, or have you got a discrepancy between your context beliefs? Remember, if you remove your status as a leader, everyone who contributed to the voice collection is a learner too - the giver and the receiver. That is a true learning community.
Recently we worked with a large school who were undertaking extensive voice gathering to gain a picture of how the school was perceived by all members of the school community [students, community, teachers etc.] to inform the future direction that they were going to take.
The school gathered a huge amount of information and whilst most of it was very positive and encouraging it would have been easy to focus on the minority of negative voices (the dissonance). Two important points to make here though, most of the negative feedback was very specific and incident related and referred to concerns that every school wrestles with (vaping for example), the positives were often about the unique context of the school. The second point was that when all the voices were collated a couple of themes emerged that ran across all groups, loosely speaking this referred to consistency and personalisation.
These insights gave the school two very large drivers that they will use to inform future planning. First, they will persevere with the day to day concerns that emerged, and continue to celebrate the huge amount of positive feedback but what they also have, by carefully analysing and considering all of the feedback from all of the community, is a clear awareness of what are the most important areas to focus on, and this is ultimately empowering . The fact that external consultants were involved helped to depersonalise (remove status) and take the emotion out of the process, whilst assisting in identifying the big themes.
The surveys the school put out and the focus groups that were run asked some daily direct questions and sent a clear message that the school wanted genuine voice and not a superficial whitewash. As a result many of the written responses were detailed and considered. There was a tone of respect in the responses both oral and written partly due to the fact that the community were being asked for their opinion in a direct way and not merely being asked to endorse the school. Overall most were pleased to have been asked to share their stories. Finally, what was also lovely was just how many of the stories were positive and joyful, many were forward looking in their advice rather than moaning about the events of the past. There was trust in the process.
Teaching people to be open to cognitive dissonance, sharing a common language and positioning themselves agentically is a key skill for adults, or students, if we wish to have learning organisations that can think together.
Openness is the beginning, not the end.
(Want a tool to help build leadership efficacy like this? Check out our new Growing Leaders Tool inspired by the work of Peter DeWitt)