I think most of us can agree that the average school is filled with faculty and staff who are doing their best to succeed. Sure, their definitions of “success” may be worlds apart from ours, but let’s be honest here: Few of our faculty and staff members deliberately wish to self-sabotage or publically demonstrate their weaknesses.
Assuming this is true, assuming that teachers and staff want the school to succeed, why then is it so difficult for principals to make reforms to behaviors that obviously aren’t working?
If you asked Gregory Shea and Cassie Solomon—authors of Leading Successful Change—this question, they would say it has much to do with the fact that leaders often seek change by making “sweeping organizational reforms…but in doing so, they completely ignore the patterns in behavior they want to change.”
How, then, do principals facilitate change?
They change the environment
Psychologists, motivational experts, and change gurus may disagree on the finer points of human behavior, but most would agree that humans, in general, all try to impact their environment and make it work for them. We are wired to adapt and overcome. And according to Shea and Solomon, “Therein lies the key to change: alter the environment, and people will adapt to it.”
In other words, changing individual behavior ultimately requires leaders to do two things:
- Design a work environment that requires different behavior
- Help people do what they do so well: adapt
They realize that change requires multiple influences
To illustrate this point, let’s use a simple analogy that I think we can all relate to.
Most of us have, at one time or another, made vows to exercise more and eat healthier. We know that both will bring us significant benefits like lower blood pressure, more energy, and sustained health. We also know that reaping these benefits requires us to change our behavior: If we want to lower our blood pressure or feel better, we have to get on the treadmill three times a week for thirty minutes, throw away the donuts and red meat, and start making healthier food choices. This is obvious to all of us!
The challenge, then, has nothing to do with achieving clarity about the behavior or its benefits. The challenge, Shea and Solomon argue, is in changing the world we’ve built around us. In short, adopting an exercise regimen and eating better have little to do with willpower and everything to do with influencing our behavior, our relationships, our schedules, our lifestyle, and our support systems.
They identify the key behaviors they want and those they don’t
Too often, leaders resort to abstract policies, mystic fads, or pep talks that sound good, but ultimately fail to alter behavior. I like the way Shea and Solomon articulate this point: “Change requires less magical imagery and Herculean effort and more careful consideration of just what a leader seeks to create with change…”
So what are the key behaviors that need to change for your school to be successful? Identify them and then envision a direction.
They envision a direction
As you think about the behavior you would like to change, ask yourself the following questions I’m borrowing from Robyn Jackson’s book, How to Motivate Reluctant Learners:
- Is the behavior specific?
Very often, what looks like resistance is actually the result of our vague requests and our failure to communicate. Consider the difference between the following statements:
o “Our faculty and staff should work hard to build meaningful relationships with students.”
o “Facilitating a positive learning environment starts with how we interact with students not only in the classrooms, but outside of them as well. I expect all faculty and staff to attend at least one school function—a play, a band concert, a sporting event—per month.”
You’ll notice how the former not only lacks specific instructions, but does not give faculty and staff a clear picture of what you expect from them.
Is the behavior observable?
We all want our faculty and staff to care, to want to “build meaningful relationships with students,” but stop right there and consider what these two things have in common. They are emotional, which means that they are intangible—you can’t touch them!
If you want faculty and staff to build meaningful relationships with students, you must be able to show them what “building meaningful relationships” looks like. Otherwise, you have no tangible way of knowing whether or not this is happening.