Empathy is generally described as the ability to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. It’s having the the capacity to recognise and understand the emotions of another person and then act accordingly. Leading human organisations, where feelings and emotions impact on views, thoughts and attitudes, we are faced with multiple perspectives and using this soft skill can have tangible results. When we take time to reflect on the perspective of others we cast away assumptions and avoid jumping to conclusions providing a clarity to our decision making. For this reason being able to empathise could potentially be one of the most important leadership skills of the 21st Century.
As an empathetic leader, you are aware of the feelings of others and are able to appreciate what another person is going through. This does not mean that you necessarily agree with them. There are times when those we lead feel a range of emotions as a result of a looming deadline, the introduction of a new initiative or a decision that has been made. We all feel pressure at various stages of our careers and question the expectations placed upon us. Empathy though, is not about lowering expectations it is about knowing when to reinforce them. There are times when a compassionate ear is all that is needed, but there may also be times when it is coupled with a supportive scaffold to assist with the task at hand. When you use empathy to identify why someone is behaving the way they are the person feels valued and heard and therefore, is better positioned to accept responsibility for their actions, understand the decision being made or the expectations being placed upon them.
Empathetic leaders are non-judgemental. The nature of our positions often find us time poor, looking to expedite decisions and conversations so we can complete our busy schedules. This presents us with a challenge where it can be habitual to listen to a colleague whilst running a parallel internal dialogue making judgements about the nature of their feelings, perceptions or reactions in order to efficiently identify a solution. Truly empathetic leaders are free of this, they know that if you are running a diagnostic internal process you’ve already cast judgement, meaning you can’t accurately perceive another’s emotional state. I’ve always been of the view that we feel the way we feel, no-one can tell us how or why we should feel a particular way, it’s the way we deal with it that makes the difference. An empathetic leader is able to reserve judgement, listen and then meet people where they are. A successful leader will then use this as the platform to build on for future success.
In times of heightened emotion people’s ability to make rational decisions can be significantly impaired. When meeting with a person whose emotions are overflowing it’s time to be a good listener. As leaders we are often good problem solvers, listening to our colleagues to find solutions or alternative pathways is important. As an empathetic leader we must put our complete focus on the person standing in front of us showing that we are fully present. This can be very difficult at times and can require a great deal of concentration, especially with a full agenda and a queue building at the door. Being a good listener and showing we are present in the conversation allows a better chance to have our colleagues open up and share the underlying reason behind the emotion. If we shift our attention too quickly and try to solve the issue we run the risk of stemming the flow. We must finely tune our understanding of body language and speech patterns to know the right time to intervene. The best way to do this is to remain open during conversations and place your complete focus on the person in front of you.
Empathetic leaders display enormous amounts of self-control. When dealing with a highly emotional person who may be expressing their concerns in a way that can be confronting, empathy can be the first thing that gets discarded. When hurtful comments get made we often feel the need to defend and can become impatient. The empathetic leader is able to park that rising emotion before speaking. You can feel the emotion rising in your body, some call it the red mist, the true leader will recognise it and allow time for a moment of reflection before speaking. It can also be useful to take a break in the conversation to clear enough space to communicate effectively. By creating space we provide time to reflect and see the issue through another’s perspective allowing us an opportunity to make sense of the emotion behind the response. You will never be able to be reactive and empathetic at the same time, displaying empathy for others means we must utilise self-control before we speak.
So much of our self is tied up in what we do. When we meet people at a social gatherings we introduce ourselves and follow up with I am a (insert Occupation). We don’t say I am a husband, a father, a brother, we say I am a (insert Occupation) what do you do? We are so heavily invested in our chosen career paths that it can be very easy to become emotionally charged when we don’t understand or agree with a decision or when we feel that it has a negative impact on our wellbeing. As leaders we must understand that the bottom line is our success comes through our people. Our people are the most powerful indicators of our ability to meet our organisations goals. People have emotions and feelings, they go through moods and at times attitudes vary. They have lives outside of the work place that impact on their ability to function at their optimum. Being aware of this, remaining open to understand the feelings and emotions of others is critical in our human centric environment.
Whether you walk a mile in someone else’s shoes or place the shoe on the other foot, remember everyone has a story that has led them to this point. Your job is to tune in to what the person standing in front of you is going through and respond in a way that shows that you acknowledge their feelings and understand the issue from their perspective. I’m not suggesting that you should always agree and I would never expect you to lower your standards. Just know that empathy is the fuel that powers effective relationships. It shows that we support our people and when we do that anything is possible.
What is a default option and why would you use it to lead? The default option is what is left when no active choice has been made between a set of possibilities. Well-designed defaults can be quite powerful in nature as they essentially simplify decision making effectively guiding desirable behaviour. Leading by default may seem like it lacks strategy and is potentially an ineffective route, but what if your default is a culture of high expectations built around collaborative professional learning communities that focus on cycles of continues improvement. Sounds more appealing doesn’t it? A well designed learning culture across your school lays the platform for an effective default. The question remains then, why would you want a default if you had such an effective learning culture prominent across the school? The answer I believe is that it allows your staff the freedom to experiment, to trial and to explore knowing that there is a high level fall-back position if they are not successful. A default position carefully designed to be the mainstay of your school’s operation is a safety net for successful student outcomes.
The challenge is to establish the default, which can be a complex and time consuming journey. An initial default is continuing the way things have always been, raising the bar can be difficult especially when many schools are doing an exceptional job to begin with. But the very notion of continuous improvement is based on the ideology that we can always get better. I often talk to my staff about what makes a champion. The champion never strives to be number one, they strive to beat number one to continue to do better by refining, refocusing and evaluating their performance. In the words of Dylan Wiliam “Every teacher needs to improve, not because they are not good enough, but because they can be even better”. We are fortunate to be in a period of education when we are supported by The Australian Professional Standards that identify the benchmarks for performance. In NSW Public Education we have the support of a system that encourages individual responsibility for self-improvement through performance and development plans. These tools provide a perfect springboard for raising the bar and establishing a high quality default position.
In the book Nudge, Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein outlined the idea of choice architecture. They suggest that we have the ability to design our environments in order to influence behaviour. Just as an architect will design a building to meet a specific purpose, we too can design our default model to meet the specific requirements of our context. The default will be comprised of a variety of components which individually will have a significant impact on the overall operation of a school. As leaders we need to identify these components and understand their role in establishing the default setting we are seeking. Through a combination of high quality professional learning, collegiality, mentoring, coaching and knowing our students the default model can be framed within the context of our individual settings.
In an era where we are swamped by research articles and social media feeds us professional learning opportunities 24/7 we have the ability to source and develop high quality professional learning that can be adapted to our individual contexts. An effective professional learning model to develop a default position must have sound procedures in place that have a single schoolwide focus. This focus needs to be supported by evidence, what is the data telling us, and be classroom based with an emphasis on improving teaching strategies. The model is not about improving the teacher it’s about ensuring that high quality strategies form the basis of practice across the school. Be it instructional rounds, lesson study or PDP observations it has to have time for reflection, feedback and discussion of next steps. It must be based on the premise that teachers have a commitment to improve and an openness to be critiqued by their colleagues. I have found the use of technology has been invaluable in enabling staff to capture lessons, strategies and student responses and reflect on them in collaborative debriefing sessions at the conclusion of the lesson. This timely immediate feedback is extremely powerful in developing the default position acting as a social contagion spreading its influence. Just like athletes reviewing game day footage and identifying strengths and areas for development so to this technology affords our staff the same opportunity.
In business the default option is carefully designed to ensure that there is a benefit to the designer for not choosing another option. The default in most instances is carefully orchestrated to favour the design architect leading to increased profits. As leaders in schools wouldn’t it make sense that we design our default to ensure that it makes students the beneficiaries? Establishing norms, which shape expectations about how we learn together as professionals forms the foundation of the learning culture and can become the default. Social psychology research clearly demonstrates that when faced with any change processes people tend to resist until they feel comfortable. As change happens and it will, as you try to establish teacher buy in to a new strategy having a high quality default position to fall back on will place your students in a win win situation. So whilst leading by default may sound like a lack of strategy becoming the design architect of the new normal certainly has its benefits.
Have you ever had to make a decision and it just didn’t feel right? As leaders we make decisions all day that have a direct impact on those we lead. We aim to get them right and use all evidence at our disposal to ensure that we give ourselves the best chance of doing so. Occasionally, we’ll be faced with a decision that has us feeling uneasy and a little voice in our heads starts nagging that something is not right. You know that feeling that makes you go back and check that you’ve turned off the iron or makes you hesitate just that fraction before you cross the road in front of a car. We all have those stories when we ‘just knew’, when we had a ‘gut feeling’. Using our instincts has long been a mechanism used for survival. Our ancestors used instinct to recognise that big prehistoric monsters coming over the horizon were dangerous and needed to be avoided. In the modern world our instincts protect us from the metaphorical monster and if used correctly can assist us to navigate the complex nature of leadership.
There is a theory that trusting your gut instincts may be the result of years of experience playing on your subconscious guiding you away from a path you have been down before. Some call it instinct, some intuition, some relying on their gut. Research out of John Hopkins and Harvard Medical has supported a growing body of evidence linking the connection between the gut and the brain. They have identified that within the walls of our digestive system is the enteric nervous system (ENS) which acts as the brain of the gut. The ENS links directly to the brain via the central nervous system on what is known as the gut-brain axis. This axis allows for two way communication between the brain and the gut sending and receiving impulses, and responding to experiences and emotions. Any time you get a physical reaction when faced with decision the axis is at work. If you get a light feeling in the stomach when excited by an idea it’s a pretty good sign that this is an opportunity worth pursuing. On the other hand if you have a sinking feeling in the pit of the stomach and there is a sense of apprehension it’s pretty clear that this is a definite no. This system acts like an internal moral compass.
There are many great stories of exceptional leaders who are said to have great instincts; they have the capacity to read situations and react to them with a clarity that defies logic. They are able to pick up on subtle clues, patterns and changes to behaviour and automatically make a judgement without a thorough analysis. Is it a skill they are born with or is it something that can be developed? I believe it is something that can be developed, if you take time to identity the signs. Intuitive leaders subconsciously tune into these signs. The gut- brain axis connects to the limbic system of the brain where all of our habits, emotions, experiences and feelings are stored. This section of the brain is actually where all decision making happens and plays a vital role in action selection allowing us to decide between several possible behaviours to execute at any given time. Intuitive leaders can tap into this subconsciously drawing on previous successes and failures using this stored data to guide their instincts. You know when you just can’t put your finger on it, you can’t explain why you know you just know, that’s a culmination of your previous experiences reacting to the situation and letting you know to think deeper about the decision you’re about to make. That’s why we ‘sleep on it’ or ‘mull it over’ our gut instincts are telling us that our first reaction needs further consideration.
So what does this mean for us on a day to day basis? For me, if it doesn’t feel right then it probably isn’t. In a system where rigorous analysis of data sets, increasing levels of accountability, compliance and fiscal responsibility challenge decision making it can be a brave decision to say no in the face of mounting evidence. Whilst all indications might be overwhelmingly in favour of a pathway, if it doesn’t sit right then take some time to think it through before making the final call. I’ve started to keep track of situations when I’ve had to make a decision and I’ve had an initial ‘gut reaction’. I am hoping that over time I can actually build up a profile of when my instincts where right and when they were off track. I’m not allowing my gut reactions to override all decisions making, that would be foolish, I’m just monitoring. What I’ve noticed is that my gut instincts have the ability to subconsciously read a situation, they pick up on ‘the vibe’ whilst my conscious mind is running the analytics. As my brain rationalises my gut will instinctively guide, the pair working in unison to survey the environment within which I am working. I’d have to say that so far my instincts have been pretty accurate and have aligned nicely to the supporting evidence behind the decision making process. In general, I’ve found when I’ve had to trust my gut; I have felt good about the decision believing that what I was doing was right. Obviously not all decisions will have a gut reaction, most made on a daily basis are founded in logic and reason, but tuning in when the odd situation arises may be useful.
We all have looming deadlines; we all feel pressure to make decisions but as leaders we need to take time to consider the implications prior to making them. When the situation arises when the gut says wait but the mind says go, I believe there are a few things you can do.
- Firstly determine if there actually is a choice, sometimes despite your instincts there is no choice, the decision can only go one way. If there is a choice, does it have to be a yes or no answer? Are there other possibilities that are a mixture of both?
- Take time to think of the pros and cons. Look at the decision from an alternate point of view and see if you’d make the same decision.
- Has your intuition clouded your judgment? Remember it’s influenced by past experiences.
- Does it feel right? Are you able to rest comfortably knowing that you made the decision?
- Finally, allow yourself time to make the decision.
I know there have been times when I’ve had to make a judgment call and for no particular reason it just didn’t feel like the right decision. Despite the logic, the reason and the mounting evidence I just had a gut feeling that this was not the right option so I chose not to do it. The next time you get that feeling in the pit of your stomach when making a decision and you just can’t seem to figure out why, I’d ask that you consider your instincts, they may be better than you thought.
In our modern world of celebrity, product placement and competition there seems to be a degree of humility missing in some of our leaders. We have rock star CEOs and celebrity politicians consumed by self-importance and self-promotion pushing their own agendas with a confidence that borders on arrogance. Elements of our society seem so obsessed with personal success that humility can be seen as a sign of weakness. In a global environment that discredits someone for changing their mind or doubts someone’s motives if credit is given to a rival, it’s hard to be humble. Am I implying that humble leaders are not strong enough to make an impact in our organisations? Not at all. I believe those who act with humility have the confidence and emotional intelligence to know that it’s a collective effort that has enabled their leadership journey. These leaders are secure in their capabilities without being over confident, they have the courage to voice their opinions without overstating and they never forget where they have come from. Humble leaders understand that it is better to have someone else identify their talents than personally singing them from the rooftops.
For many humility can be seen as a sign of weakness. It doesn’t come easy to most people, especially when there are times that you need to ‘promote yourself’ to get that next job. We all have an ego and there are times when some calculated self-promotion will assist you, but it’s when this is driving you that it crosses the line. Humility is actually a really powerful tool; it allows you the ability to compromise by providing a sense of perspective and reason and an ability to accept alternate viewpoints. It also allows you to adjust, reflect and grow, attributes that are actually desirable and are worthy of self-promotion if needed. To be able to admit a mistake and demonstrate how you have overcome and learnt from it is a process that “sells’ you far more than a win on every occasion. It shows determination, reflection and strategic thinking. It demonstrates to those around you that you are capable of having robust debate and have the flexibility to change tact when needed.
Working for large organisations with various degrees of complexity we must understand that no one person can have full coverage of every aspect, issue or solution. A humble leader is comfortable admitting that they don’t know the answer; in fact they’re comfortable admitting that they may not know anything about a particular topic and deferring responsibility to someone who does. This is not admitting weakness, it’s actually utilising strength. Knowing that there are people who may be smarter or have a greater knowledge base is a critical element of leadership. Admitting that you need additional advice actually creates an opportunity for someone else to grow by providing them with space to showcase their expertise. Strong leaders are able to coordinate all resources available to them to make informed decisions. They are able to use this strategy to either secure some form of action from those around them or as a catalyst to initiate their own work. The ability to draw upon all resources openly admitting that you don’t have all the answers is a courageous leadership move that not everyone is comfortable with. Humble leaders won’t let ego get in the way of positive outcomes.
Humble leaders don’t micromanage. They understand that this level of scrutiny placed on those they work with can be harmful to productive working relationships. They pay attention to detail, they plan and have high expectations but they’re prepared to take less causalities on the journey. Micromanagement not only shows a lack of trust in your colleagues it also shows a highly controlling personality. This not only demoralises those you work with but leads you to become less effective trying to have tight coverage and reign over all. This level of effort can only be sustained for so long. Humble leaders are able to get the same result, with a level of detail that delivers impact by asking questions not dictating terms.
Humble leaders know that they can learn from the collective intelligence in the room. Being able to look across the table at colleagues and opening your mind to new learning is a productive way of increasing your ability, knowledge base and strategic thinking. It also allows you to not become too fixated on one method of operation. Being comfortable enough to engage in debate and accept differing viewpoints, whilst not always agreeing demonstrates a clear level of leadership. Inexperienced leaders often get caught up in the power struggle trying to ensure that their idea is adopted as the final product. Whilst this allows them to come out on top in the argument it does little to the confidence of the team who may feel like there was a predetermined agenda. Successful leaders have a flexibility that focuses on the impact they want to have and the agility to change course when new evidence arises. Being humble in this situation and adopting the ideas of others not only builds a sense of team and collegiality but keeps everyone focused on the end goal. You are more likely to get successful outcomes when those you work with know that you accept and understand that there are different ways to achieve a goal. Humble leaders will acknowledge that the end point can be arrived at from many paths.
It takes a sense of humility to recognise your own areas for development and set about a plan of action to develop them. Humility allows us to seek the help of others by openly admitting that we have something to learn from those around us. History is littered with powerful leaders who lacked the humility to accept advice only to see what they had worked so hard to achieve crumble around them. Truly humble leaders understand that we are but a single part of a much larger picture. They are willing to step right outside their comfort zone even if it means that they appear not to be on top of their game. They will use these opportunities to grow accepting contributions of others to assist them. They’ll prepare and do their homework to try and ensure they succeed, but they are willing to take the opportunity and are prepared to fail and live with the consequences. They have the humility to accept that they may not have succeeded and are willing to accept constructive advice from those around them knowing that it will strengthen their capabilities in the long run.
Working in large organisations we are often working in teams. We must recognise that we are supported by the efforts of others and give recognition when deserved. Watch a humble leader at work and there is no boasting, there is no grandstanding, they’ll happily give away credit and use a healthy sense of self-deprecating humour to deflect any kudos coming their way. It’s not to say they don’t have an ego, we all do but they are genuinely uncomfortable with praise in a public forum, they’d happily settle for a quiet ‘well done’ away from the spotlight knowing that the right decision has been made and that there is impact in the work of their team. They often display a modesty about their work truly believing that what they are doing is just a fraction of the great work being conducted around them.
Am I a humble leader? I guess by actually asking the question and writing about it then possibly not. Claiming to be certainly negates the act itself. But I am trying to learn the lessons and apply them to my leadership journey. My challenge and possibly yours is to reflect on your behaviour each day and see if there is a degree of humility guiding it. Here are 6 things you can do to work on developing humility in your leadership.
- Admit your mistakes.
- Give credit to the work of others
- Accept others opinions (accepting is not the same as agreeing)
- Understand that you don’t have all the answers
- Let others lead
In a results driven society it’s hard to be humble. If you can build humility into your leadership repertoire those around you will thank you for it.
Always the bridesmaid. You know that feeling like it’s never going to happen for you. The roller coaster of emotions that is merit selection. You left the interview feeling confident, all your referees were strong, it’s only a matter of time, you’ve got this one, you can feel the positive energy. Then you get the call, you can hear it in the voice straight away, that familiar tone that always seems to deliver bad news. It was a high quality field they say, you did exceptionally well they tell you. It’s a process that is both mentally and physically draining and at times makes you question whether you can go through it again. This is the point when your courage, grit and sheer tenacity have to kick in. You must push through and not let that downward spiral of emotion turn into a force that derails your ambition.
It can be extremely frustrating getting so close on so many occasions. The power of not being the chosen candidate can leave you feeling incredibly flat physically and emotionally. Scientists from the University from Michigan conducted a study using MRI images that demonstrated the physical and emotional power of rejection. Their study was able to make direct comparison between rejection and physical pain. They concluded that not only were both rejection and physical pain distressing but that they actually share a common neurological response. They were able to provide evidence that the region of the brain that became active in response to physical pain also became active when exposed to rejection. This supports the thoughts of unsuccessful candidates who often express that not getting that last job ‘really hurt’. For many of us we spend a great deal of time trying to balance our emotional response to rejection by adding illogical thought processes to our perceived failure. We must be careful not to overgeneralise by thinking that we will never get that job we are seeking.
Whilst it is natural to feel disappointment I firmly believe that we must turn the negative into a positive and use it as an opportunity to grow. Try not to take the decision personally. Just because there was a better candidate on this occasion does not mean that you are not highly skilled and if given the opportunity would do a magnificent job. I’ve heard too many unsuccessful candidates dwell on negative self-talk by over analysing their own skills looking for points of failure rather than using it as an opportunity to sharpen their focus. You know the spiel “I just can’t do interviews”, “I can’t talk in that educational jargon”, “If they could just watch me work”. Whilst merit selection may not be the best system, it is the one within which we operate. You must look for the positives, your CV was strong enough for your referees to be called and your referees were strong enough for you to be invited to interview. It’s a process of which you have successfully covered a majority of the moving parts. Try to think of it not as a deficit but as preparation for the next challenge, for some it will be a short sharp sprint for others it’s a marathon, it can be a difficult task but in the end the reward will be worth it.
Over my 25 years in NSW Public Education I have had the opportunity to work with many high quality educators. For some, the road leading to the next opportunity has been long and sometimes arduous. I have tried to provide some proactive advice to assist in their journey. I believe the following few steps may be useful if you’re always the bridesmaid.
Highlight Your Strengths
Most people don’t like the idea of identifying their strengths and highlighting them. At interview this is exactly what you must do and it can be an incredibly difficult task. Prior to you interview you should take time to prepare examples that show your strengths and demonstrate how they can add value to the organisation you are joining. Doing your homework and identifying your role in an organisation is crucial to a successful interview. The panel wants to know how you are going to use your strengths to enhance their operation.
Get the Question Again
Don’t be afraid to ask for the question to be repeated. Sometimes we stray from the intent of our response and start to provide a series of unrelated examples. If you feel you are off track it can be difficult to realign mid answer. My advice is to stop, admit you have gone off course and ask for the question again. The panel would much prefer to hear an answer that relates to the question than a broad generalised response with no relevance to the question.
Review Your Questions
When leaving an interview it is always good practice to try to write the questions down and consider your responses. In the event that you are unsuccessful you can use these to assist you with preparation for prospective interviews to come. It provides you an opportunity to work on any questions that you may have had difficulty with during the interview. It can also be useful to talk through the questions with your referees as they sometimes can see elements in a question that you may have missed.
Always Seek Feedback
I am surprised at the number of candidates who do not seek feedback. This is the one way you can put your mind at ease with actual answers as to why this job was not for you at this time. As an employer I firmly believe it is our responsibility to give good quality feedback to each candidate to assist them with their profession al growth. Try to find out what the successful candidate did that gave them that edge.
Like most experiences interviewing well requires a certain skillset. As with most skills it requires practice. There are not many of us who are naturally talented at walking into a room full of strangers and performing on cue. Working with a coach or mentor to structure your interview answers and practice potential scenarios will allow you to provide true and accurate responses in the pressure cooker environment of the interview. How many times have you walked out of the room and thought ‘Why didn’t I say this?’ Practice interviews allow you to structure your responses and become adaptable when that curve ball gets thrown in.
Not getting the job doesn’t feel good, but it’s not the end of the world. If you have prepared well and performed your best then maybe the job just wasn’t the right fit for you. You have gotten to this point by working hard in a highly competitive environment. You may feel like it is never going to happen and those inner thoughts and feelings of self-doubt are natural. Recognising that this negative thought process is taking up energy and being proactive in channeling it into a productive plan for your next challenge will serve you well. No matter how many interviews you have, don’t let not being the chosen candidate keep you down. Keep your head up, keep looking for the right opportunities they will come along. Every bridesmaid has their day in the spotlight and when it comes you’ll be ready.
Is this the hill to die on? Have you ever considered that question when faced with a big decision? In leadership positions we can find ourselves in situations where some degree of compromise of our values may be necessary. Working for large organisations we often confront situations where we must match our localised needs to those of a system and this can cause moral conflict. You know those decisions when you have the voices on either side of your shoulder pulling you in opposite directions? There is a choice to be made. You know you have to stand up for what is right and sometimes this can be extremely difficult. You’re at a morale crossroads. Having the courage to do what is right at this moment can have a significant impact on your reputation, it demonstrates very clearly your strength of character and the integrity that you possess.
What is integrity? Personal integrity is thought to be having a consistent set of principles or values that when faced with a challenge or temptation you uphold them regardless of the consequences. Social theorist Larry May, suggests that personal integrity may not be as rigid as this. He is of the view that integrity is not necessarily a core set of beliefs that are unshakable, but more a web of commitments that are interwoven and open to outside influences. In essence integrity is a moral balancing act where we are forced to make judgements. It is this space, that allows us to work successfully as leaders within systems.
We are not born with or without integrity, it’s a behavioural trait that is shaped by our experiences and as such evolves. With this in mind, it is reasonable that when exposed to more information we can become less certain about steadfast rules or moral judgments that we once made, whilst our integrity per se is not compromised the ground on which our judgments are made may shift. For this reason it is important to take time with big decisions and not to react with gut instinct. We must carefully consider all avenues before opening our mouths. Sometimes silence really can be your friend.
Recently I was on a tour of far Western NSW Public Schools. A 1200km road trip with a group of Principal colleagues. We spent 4 days together visiting high performing schools in rural and remote locations. As is the case with educators the conversation never strayed far from the workplace. We spoke about the strength of what we were seeing, the implications for our own schools, we discussed the challenges and successes of our own school communities and the allocation of a finite bucket of resources across an enormous system. What became evident very clearly, was that when push came to shove the personal integrity of each and every one of these leaders could not be compromised. They understood fully that working for a large system sometimes requires a moral compromise. They acknowledged that given the context of each situation they must balance their own moral judgements against the legitimate moral judgements of others. That sometimes the greater good can be a difficult but necessary position to take. They had a clear morale purpose that aligned with their values and beliefs and they would do what was right for students regardless of the fallout. When faced with a choice they would choose students, regardless of context, community, advantage or challenge every day of the week.
There are some simple reasons why living and acting with integrity are so important. When you act with integrity you don’t have to question yourself. You’re doing what at your core you believe is right, you’re weighing up all the information you have and following your moral compass. As a leader the work is often difficult enough without creating a minefield to navigate by cutting corners, making deals and selfishly gathering resources at the detriment of the system. Those we lead will take their cues from us, for this reason it is critical that we set the standard. We must demonstrate that we are dependable and accountable for our actions.
As leaders integrity sets the foundation from which our organisation can flourish. When we act with integrity those we lead feel safe. They know that when the difficult decisions come along their leader will act fairly and that their integrity will not be compromised. These leaders build an environment where people have the opportunity to be open and honest and know that their ideas whilst not always agreed with will be treated with respect and dignity. When we work with integrity we don’t undermine colleagues, we admit to making mistakes, we don’t cast blame and we share credit when it’s due. We are open and honest in our words and actions with no misalignment. In the words of Dr Seuss, “ We say what we mean and we mean what we say”.
In the end your career will not be remembered by the title you hold, the salary you earn or the office you leave. Your career will be remembered by the way you have or have not lead with integrity. In a nutshell you’ll be remembered because you did the right thing even when no-one was watching. In the age of Local Schools, Local Decisions, integrity really is a non-negotiable. In the end those you led will know that when you picked the hill to die on you did it with the utmost integrity.
Trust is a powerful 5 letter word that allows the human race to work effectively. It allows us to predict potential outcomes and make sense of what can be an unpredictable world. We trust that the sun will come up; we trust that our bank is securely storing our money; we trust that the lights at the intersection are working correctly as we pass through; we trust that the pilot has the correct qualifications to fly the plane. Trust is the cornerstone from which we make our decisions. It stands to reason then, that the most important part of a high functioning team is trust. It’s the foundation on which all other elements are built. As we enter a new year, some of us with new team members, some with new leadership, it’s the perfect time to start reflecting on the concept of trust.
Ask your team members if they trust the team. I’d be prepared to say that you will generally get a positive answer. If you probe a little deeper, I guarantee that you find the level of trust is conditional. You see there are certain parameters around which trust is generally given. Your team would trust that there are levels of acceptable behaviour that people abide by in the workplace. They may even go so far as to express that they trust that members of the team are working together placing individual interests aside. This though is just surface level, it’s your garden variety socially acceptable trust. High performing teams need a deeper level of credence that takes an investment of time and energy.
I believe that in the workplace trust falls into two categories. The first is that we trust our colleagues to follow the rules and the general social norms of the workplace. How we greet each other, the manner in which we interact, the sharing of resources and the general collegiality of the profession. The second is at a deeper level. This type of trust allows us to take risks, to expose our vulnerabilities, to ask for help and to remove silos. This is the level that we need across our workplaces. As a leader you need to engineer a protective environment for trust to be established. The question is ‘how do you develop this environment?’
Developing trust can be a timely process as past experiences can play a significant role in allowing it to develop. Trust is not a tick a box procedure, you can’t put in on your to do list and order someone to trust you. It’s a human emotion that can be multi-faceted. It’s a feeling we get when we share similar experiences. I’ve heard Simon Sinek say that just by doing what you say you are going to do doesn’t make you trustworthy, it just makes you reliable. I couldn’t agree more. I know some very reliable people but I’d don’t know that I’d trust them with my credit card details. However, I also know some unreliable people whom I trust implicitly. As a leader it’s a fine balance, trust is generally given from the very beginning a team is established. The difficulty is that you can only assess your decision once it has been given.
There is a great deal of research that supports the fact that shared experiences create trust. You’ll often hear that a meeting was good but the dinner afterwards was where the real learning occurred. This is because this networking time allows us to share common experiences. It provides an opportunity to share information voluntarily, building connections based on similar events. This level of informal exchange actually has an impact on our physiology by releasing the hormone oxytocin. This hormone is responsible for the positive ‘warm fuzzy’ feeling we get when we find something that strikes us emotionally. It supports the building of relationships which in turn builds trust. The more information we share and connect in a nonjudgmental way the more hormone is releasedand the stronger the bond. A study conducted by Amsterdam scientists Shalvia S. & De Dreub C. (2014) found that oxytocin actually boosted group serving behaviour, causing members of a group to act in way that would ensure the group achieves its goal. Now I’m not suggesting that we all engage in week long bonding sessions, we’ve seen how this has worked for some of sporting teams. What I am recommending however is that you spend time getting to know your team , taking time each day to touch base and build relationships.
Building trust takes time. I’m not sure there is any secret formula to building it as it’s an individual decision that is made based on a number of factors. It is my firm belief however that there are a few fundamental principles that can accelerate it.
- Share common experiences, taking time to get to know your people and taking an interest in them both professionally and personally will assist.
- Develop a shared vision; this builds trust as people understand what you are working towards together.
- Work collaboratively and do things that support your colleagues to show that you are prepared to put the needs of others before your own.
- Be consistent in your words and actions. This reduces uncertainty and brings a certain level of predictability to the workplace.
- Simply repeated the words you hear is not listening. Try to understand the message and possibly the reason behind it.
- Don’t be afraid to admit that you don’t know the answers. Asking for assistance when you don’t know the answer can create an environment where others will do the same. Clarifying ensures the job is done the right way.
- Be flexible, it shows you’re human.
- Follow through. If you make a decision and set a plan in place follow it through.
- Always be open and honest in communication. Nothing erodes trust like hushed tones and secrets.
In a world that is increasing in speed and complexity with ever increasing demands on our time, building a strong trusting environment is crucial. If we create an environment where we can completely rely on the person next to us, then anything is possible. High performing teams are not built on grudging compliance they thrive on trust. You can have the finest structures, procedures and routines in place but without trust your progress will be limited. Remember building trust really is the work before the work. It’s undeniably the glue that binds.