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Culture and strategy are two of the most powerful tools that a leader has available to them. They shape the lived experience of every member of a school community. Culture is like your school’s personality, it can be welcoming, supportive and encouraging, it can also be the very opposite. The culture of your school is evident as soon as you enter the front office, it’s there when you walk through the playground, when you go into a classroom or sit in a staffroom. With a sharp focus on meeting a range of performance measures, this critical element of school performance can often be overlooked. It can be a strong multiplier in overall school performance when all members of the school community contribute to a positive school culture.
Unlike a strategy that can be copied and shared across schools contexts, culture is comprised of a wide variety of elements that all need to combine in just the right dosages. Culture is embedded and takes a great deal of effort to shift and get right. It’s a moving target that grows over time in response to how we interact with the varying elements that make it up. It sets the expectation and unifies a school under the one umbrella. A strong successful culture is based on a shared set of beliefs that is supported by structures and strategic decisions that help it flourish. Culture helps guide behaviours and decision making. You often hear “this is the way we do things around here”, that’s your culture outlining the expectations.
In understanding how culture is formed you must recognise that people come into an organisation with certain beliefs and assumptions formed through previous experiences. Recognising these beliefs and assumptions, whether they are true or false is crucial as they form the basis of values and can impact on your culture. Our job is to clearly articulate what it is we stand for. Carefully challenging underlying assumptions to assist in shaping values is critical in developing culture. Our values turn into norms which if guided in a skillful way can develop a shared and acceptable way of behaving. This in turn will become our social norms. The power of social norms can never be understated as people generally conform to the norm. If treating people respectfully and approaching life and learning in a positive manner become our norm, imagine what we can achieve.
With this in mind we need to consider how we induct new people into our schools. How are we socialising them into the setting? What are they seeing as the norms? What are they observing that will shape their beliefs and assumptions? Obvious things like how do people interact with each other? How are conflicts resolved? How do leaders interact with other staff? How do we interact with students and community? These are all clearly observable interactions and send a very clear message on the way the school is developing an environment which is conducive to teaching and learning.
Whilst there is usually a dominant culture within a school there can be subcultures that can be quite powerful and if not monitored can work against your overarching direction. This is where the skilled leader needs to ensure that they consistently support all members of the school community in building a positive culture. It is not enough to have systems, routines and structures in play. The strategic leader takes the opportunity to respectfully challenge negative subcultures outlining why the environment they are working towards is achieving the vision of the school and draws upon positive examples that are assisting in creating it. In many cases where sub cultures have differing views on how things can be achieved, looking at our moral purpose can assist in finding common ground. It’s difficult to argue when decisions are based on positive outcomes for the students we serve.
One of the most important elements and perhaps the one that either reinforces or pulls apart a school culture is relationships. The basis of any solid relationship is trust. Where there is a strong sense of trust across the school and we know we can completely rely on the person next to us, then anything is possible. There is a proven connection between positive relationships and student achievement. A school culture that is focused on and celebrates positive strong relationships where people feel valued, respected and supported will generate whole school success across all domains.
As a leader I firmly believe we need to work on getting the culture right. The ideas below may assist you with your work.
Model a mindset – A positive mindset can go a long way to assisting in maintaining and developing a positive school culture. As a leader modelling a ‘can do’ attitude and demonstrating how hurdles are not barriers but opportunities for growth can set a very powerful example.
First impressions – From the time you walk into the front office there is a feeling associated with a school. Make yours a positive one. First impressions are lasting and set the tone for future interactions.
Challenge opposing forces – Establish sound protocols for challenging ideas respectfully. Negativity can be contagious and can gradually seep into a culture. It’s ok to not agree and for things not to always work out. What’s not ok is to constantly complain about them. Use the energy towards refining, reworking and improving. An environment of continuous improvement is much better to work and learn in than one of ‘I told you so’.
Communicate your message – Think of your message as your brand. It needs to be publicised and communicated. In the world of business advertising sells, why, because smart operators get people to believe in their brand. Build your brand with your school community with positive news stories.
Invest heavily in your staff – A strong focus on professional learning that is focused on classroom practice with a balance of support and accountability empowers staff with skills and knowledge but also sets clear expectations. Supporting this to be transferred into the classroom is pivotal in improving student outcomes. When people feel that there is a real investment in their growth, they are more willing to buy into the culture.
Students first – They have to be the top priority in any decision making across the school community. If we are to truly putting students first they will know. They will be able to see, feel and hear that we are placing them at the centre.
Culture over technical skill – It can be far easier to develop technical skills than adjust to a new culture. Our work is relational, technical skill alone will not develop the supportive trust and bonds that underpin a positive school culture. A culture of continuous improvement will allow technical skill to develop in the right environment. As Dylan Wiliam says “If we create a culture where every teacher believes they need to improve, not because they are not good enough but because they can be even better, there is no limit to what we can achieve.”
There are many elements that make up the culture of a school and every interaction you have as a leader will have an impact. As a leader you need to live your culture every day. It needs to be more than just a poster on a wall or a well worded address at a staff meeting or assembly. As the leader you need to live it, breathe it, model it, inconsistencies in this area create doubt and uncertainty. It’s one thing to say you want a great culture; it’s another task altogether to strategically build and maintain it.
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.