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We were in the middle of our year-end staff meeting. The smell of “new” was everywhere – chairs, walls, tables – we had moved into the new school in May.

I was talking about the upcoming year – but no one was listening.

Just outside the large windows in our new conference room, the old school was being demolished.

Everyone was watching what was taking place just beyond the window.

I stopped the meeting.

We all went outside and watched.

It was intensely emotional. Some of the people had worked at the school for nearly 30 years. Some had gone to the school as students.

There were tears. People hugged and held each other.

When we went inside we didn’t restart the meeting.

We took a break.

For the rest of the morning.

Some wandered back to watch. Some went to the staff room and told stories.
Some wanted to be on their own.

I listened.

In the hallway. In the staffroom.

In their new classrooms.

Change Requires an Emotional Transition

People have different emotional reactions to change. As a school administrator, one of my main duties each time I was moving to a new school was to be a change agent. This isn’t always an easy task.

When I first began, I didn’t understand the emotional transition that was needed. I dealt solely with the facts/intellect. People could always “see” that some sort of change was necessary and they usually understood that it was necessary.

That’s not enough.

Because I didn’t understand the emotional impact of change, I experienced Emotional Push-back despite the work I did to present the ‘facts’.

In the first couple of settings, I failed miserably. So bad I ended up moving to a new position. I didn’t set out to fail but I did.

I was able to get the change train started but only just barely before the resistance was so great I had to move on.

In my third and following attempts, I was much more successful.

A change event is physical – it can be drawn on a chart, listed on a timeline or shown on a process map. A transition is something entirely different; it is the emotional reaction to change that happens as people move from their current situation to some future state. Like everything else, this transition is a time-based process. Bryan Cobb

In my experience as an administrator tasked with transitioning change, I learned that the transition was as important that the changes. If I didn’t allow for people to transition, things just wouldn’t change despite all the cajoling, threatening, pleading, or whatever that was tried.

Often, when listening to presenters or people hired to come in to ‘facilitate’ change, they articulate the reason for the change very well. There is no doubt they believe the change is important for students, families, schools, and the future. They are able to describe the reasons and usually have a powerful message about the need for change. Yet, it isn’t quite enough.

Recently someone asked what made change in education so difficult. Why couldn’t people see how important it was to change?

In my experience, if asking this question, I wonder if they haven’t worked through the emotionally difficult process of change with a staff. Maybe they hadn’t seen a change process through from the inside – watching those teachers shed tears as the school walls fell. Teachers understand the need for change but they need time to emotionally transition. That is what makes change so difficult.

Change doesn’t fail because of lack of effort, or good ideas, flawed leadership or that people don’t understand the need. Change fails because people are not allowed to emotionally transition.

Being an adult doesn’t make it any easier or less stressful despite “knowing” it’s better.

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3 Keys to Transitioning

1. Listen to what people say.

During this journey, they must pass through an intermediate emotional “neutral zone,” where some of the accepted methods and relationships are changed. Depending on the size and scope of the change for each individual, this step can present itself as a minor blip or it can manifest as an apparent crisis of large magnitude. In effect, the person living through change is going through a grieving process, in which they give up the old and eventually embrace the new. Bryan Cobb

The first thing I learned was you needed to present that change and then step back and listen and support. Communication is so important at this stage. Listening to what people are saying gives you insight into how they are feeling and people may be experiencing a wide array of emotions. Listen in group feedback sessions, one-to-one meetings, or via surveys. Often people have timelines for change – the 2-year plan, 3-year plan or 5-year plan – which requires certain events to take place.
“The train has started and if you aren’t ready to board maybe you need to look for a different train.”
I’ve heard this a number of times and although I understand the reasons it might be said, in my experience it isn’t an effective way to support people going through this transition. If the change is necessary and will result in changes that are essential for students, supporting people through the transition is often more successful than the “on/off” option.

2. Provide the “why”.

Leadership requires two things: a vision of the world that does not yet exist and the ability to communicate it. Simon Sinek, Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action

This works in conjunction with number 1. Listen to what others are saying is so important. So is providing the “Why” to what you are doing, but not while you are listening. Continue to present the why at different opportunities. When we were shifting our reporting system for K-8 away from percentage grades, instead of just giving one parent meeting and then rolling it out, we went through different stages and provided information to students, parents and the community. In our school, the message was delivered all year long – through monthly newsletters, parent nights, discussions with parents outside of school but there was also parent meetings just for asking questions, for listening to what they had to say.
It meant that we expected people to need time to transition. Some parents needed very little time while other people were still having difficulty with the transition 2 years later.

3. Communicate Progress/Nurture Change

What you can do is create the conditions where change is more likely to happen. George Couros, The Innovator’s Mindset: Empower Learning, Unleash Talent, and Lead a Culture of Creativity.

When we announced a change to a different format for conferencing with students, parents were resistant. They didn’t like the new format. Some indicated they wouldn’t take part. But parents are so important for the overall well-being of the school so it was necessary to reach out, listen to what they had to say, and continue to communicate the change. We used a variety of methods such as a frequently-asked-questions document to anticipate questions and provide information. After the first time we used the format, we sought out feedback and then updated people in our newsletter. And we didn’t just use all the positives. There are issues that needed to be addressed. To nurture change, it’s extremely important to acknowledge both the positive and the areas of weaknesses. For three years we continued to update parents. Eventually, this allowed us to go beyond just Student-Led-Conferences to try other ways of communicating student progress. As George Couros’ quote captures, create the conditions for change and continue to invest in those conditions continually.

Change can be an event. It can be a series of events. It can be a shift in the way in doing things. Whatever the ‘change’ happens to be, supporting the change requires helping people to transition. Over and over again the mantra of “Relationships, relationships, relationships” is repeated. But what does that mean? How is that lived out each day within the school?

I Wonder ….

1. How do you view change? What is your experience through the change process?

2. What are the conditions for successful change? Are they the same for everyone?

3. How have you lived change with others? What is your experience at being a change leader who has lived, day-to-day through the change process?

As always I’d love to hear your thoughts and comments on this. You can connect with me at @kwhobbes on Twitter.

Until next Tuesday, keep the wonder alive!

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