A new school year is starting – well, it has already started at my school. We’re ending week three! What an exciting time it is – new opportunities, new ideas, new people all get to tangle together in another new beginning. It’s a time when leaders get to set the tone. An important aspect of that tone is welcoming different perspectives.
As we ‘tangle’ together, things can sometimes become messy. That’s not surprising. We have over 800 people in our school who spend more hours together during weekdays when they are awake than with their families. It would be naïve to think we’ll be sailing smoothly out of the harbor on most days. Conflicts are bound to arise and people will get miffed. Sometimes I want to just say, “People, get used to it… conflicts are OK.”
In a time when we worry so much about being politically correct at work, simply sharing a different opinion may feel like a challenge. If you think I am exaggerating, picture a meeting in your head. Someone says something and you realize that you have a different way of looking at the situation. In an atmosphere where people feel that everyone’s opinions must be validated, how are you going to air your difference of opinion? Is there a possibility that the person making the first comment might feel shut down when you present an opposing viewpoint? That others around the table might suddenly look uncomfortable? I do believe we have reached a point where airing disagreements is often seen as being disagreeable. And, if you’re in a leadership role while the person making the original comment is a member of your team, it may give the impression that the boss has spoken – so the employee must have said something wrong and now gears must shift. Ouch! How do you set the tone?
“It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”
–Aristotle, Greek philosopher
If professionals would consistently consider ideas, weigh them, reflect objectively and thoughtfully, then form opinions and make decisions there would be room to play with different ideas. It is not practical or honest sometimes to validate everything that is said. On the other hand, we are stretched when we consider perspectives different from our own and ultimately the organization benefits. So how do we foster a culture that honors this level of engagement?
As someone who has tried and failed, and tried and failed, and tried and… succeeded a little, I can share that it’s an idea worth believing in, yet is also one that is tough to put into practice. It’s what I’ve wanted for the past decade as a principal, yet the road has been bumpy and messy. It sounded like a good idea (after all who would ever disagree if I said all voices were welcome and valued) and I hoped it would work. I was wrong – it was not a ‘build it and they will come’ kind of scenario.
Here are some lessons I learned along the way:
Relationships are important. We have the power to influence each other with what we say, when we are thoughtful about how we say it. However, even this is insufficient in itself. If our team members have relationships that foster trust and a collaborative spirit, this push and pull of influence will stretch perspectives in a healthy way. When conflicts are aired without the ties of relationships then there is no foundation upon which we can test the strength of ideas. A push and pull of ideas can potentially weaken the cohesiveness of a group. So, yes, having talented people is important but fostering relationships is critical to allow differing perspectives to stretch our thinking without hurting teams or our organizations.
Building trust is not easy, but it is a great first step. Sometimes we rush into things – projects, plans, activities – without stopping to see if we have strong ties to the people partnering with us. These ties come only when we trust each other. The knowledge that we can air our thoughts and do our work believing that the people around us are there for us, come rain or shine, is something that is fostered in an atmosphere of trust. Leaders have the opportunity to nurture this by giving trust to those who are on their team and modeling what they want to see in their team members. In other words, when the going gets tough, people want to know if the leader will be standing beside them. This step cannot be rushed. It takes time to earn the trust of others. And consistency in one’s tone helps to nurture it. When we are inconsistent in how we react to others on our team, we get ensnared in the game of moving one step forward and two steps back.
Encouraging and inviting voices is essential. However, just because you put out the invitation it doesn’t mean that voices will be shared. It will take time. When people realize that they will not be shut out because they have something different to say, they will be more likely to speak up. Initially it might only be a couple of people and then some more might join in. Do I feel confident that everyone on my team speaks up? No! But, do I believe that a good chunk of my team members air their opinions? Yes! It’s taken time, and it’s still not without bumpy potholes, but for the most part we try to work things out. We might miff each other at intervals, but we are typically able to straighten out such situations. I have to admit that for an impatient person like me, this is tough because I believe in the idea and I want it to happen ‘yesterday’ but it does take a long time. It is worthwhile, though, because it builds a culture that can be sustained even when you hit rough spots. When we are in the middle of one of those ‘spots’ – the kind where we might be in the middle of change with people feeling stressed out – things might seem frustrating or overwhelming. Yet, I feel we can work through these challenges if we share our thoughts with each other. It’s better for me to know than not know. Whether or not I can help them, I can at least try to understand what they’re dealing with. With more awareness, we can problem-solve together or for each other. Just as families hit rough patches and struggle to stay afloat, our teams (our families at work) have to face similar challenges and find a way to stick together to make things work. Hiding our thoughts from each other is not healthy!
Put issues on the table – air them out. One of my primary reasons for maintaining a consistent level of response to issues at work is because I need my team to alert me to issues (problems, mistakes) without hesitation. If they think I will bite (not literally, of course), they will likely hold back. If I am not aware of issues, I cannot lead my organization effectively. So I speak quite openly of my stance on how I will treat them (it’s written in stone for me). Every situation that is potentially negative (with a student, staff member, parent or visitor) is an opportunity for me to demonstrate whether or not my response pattern is really written in stone. Over time, as members of my team recognize that this is an important belief and that I will stick to it unconditionally, they become more willing to speak their minds. The more they do it with me, the more they may start doing it with each other. In my role, I need to know where the chips lie. It’s better for our organization if I know what’s really on their minds. It may not be pretty and I may not like it, but it’s a reality that my crew and I will need to engage with. If a storm is heading our way and we don’t have a way around it, we have to find a way through it. At my school, I wouldn’t say we have a perfect situation but we’ve made great gains. We’re in a good place now, and it took us a while to get here.
“A mind stretched to a new idea, never goes back to its original dimensions.” – Oliver Wendell Holmes
In this case, I’m not sure that the word ‘never’ holds true. People who learn to value the sharing of multiple viewpoints and work through conflicts may turn tail if trust is broken, or if beliefs and actions are not in sync. This leadership business is a little like walking on eggshells or sometimes in a minefield. You make quick decisions numerous times a day on big and little issues, yet you must always be able to instinctively reflect on the ramifications of your actions. You may need to live with the consequences for a long time. So is this a ‘make people happy’ bandwagon? I doubt it. I learned a long time ago that my wanting people to be happy would not translate into their being happy! But, I do hope this is a bandwagon about engaging with people honestly.
Picture members of a team standing on different stripes of a beach ball (the departments of an organization). When they speak up honestly about what is happening on their stripe of the beach ball, they share with us perspectives from their slice of the organization. When I speak up about what is on my mind, I give them insights from my stripe of the beach ball. If we don’t do this, I might never know what’s happening on their blue stripe which is on the other side of the ball because I’m stuck on the red stripe and can only see part of the beach ball. I’m learning to share more about the view from my stripe too. I’ve shared this analogy with my team, and when things get tough, I remind them to let me know about what’s happening on their stripe.
If there is an inherent belief in an idea shared that goes against the grain of what the organization values, how should we challenge it? In public – to all? In private – with an individual or group? It depends on the circumstance and a leader may need to figure out when either or both are appropriate. However, if it is something that affects our core principles and requires us to take a stance, then it’s important to just step out and say what we believe. People need to know where someone in a leadership role stands on important issues. Setting the tone is not synonymous with creating ‘warm and fuzzy’ feelings. It’s about reflecting on the vision and mission and taking a stance on what is important to the organization. It is always better to be clear and transparent with the tough yet important statements and not create a fuzzy guessing game about what the leader thinks. These might be the moments when the leader is the one who is not ‘thinking alike’ but wants to reset the compass for the organization. How the leader communicates this will make a big difference as to whether the stance will influence people or not.
While we may not be able to resolve issues fully, leaders must work purposefully to create an environment where people are encouraged to share their thinking without being afraid of conflict, or getting mired in it. Organizations cannot be stretched if everybody is thinking alike. People cannot grow if organizations don’t invite honest and open communication. On the flip side, we do need to challenge opinions and perspectives when necessary, and do this with honesty. A leader always has the power to step out and speak his/her mind. The true test is whether others in the organization have the same opportunity.
Undoubtedly, a leader can foster a culture where thinking differently is valued or simply shut down. The former takes time, effort and tons of patience. An organization builder will value that and work towards it.