Sunday, October 27, 2013

Promoting Critical Conversations #SVAMP

Conversation (Photo credit: Search Engine People Blog)
Recently, George posed the following questions as part of the SAVMP.
How do you create a culture where  “pushback” is encouraged?
How do you create a team that will give you honest feedback?

These questions shape much of the work that I do as principal. There are so many factors to consider when trying to encourage these critical conversations. What was the culture in the past? How did the previous principals do things? Where are the centers of influence amoung the staff? Who will be honest and forthcoming with the principal?

I believe that things take 2-4 years to become clear to a new principal. During the first few months, there is so much to learn that a principal can only go shallow into the issues. Over time, personalities emerge and things start to become clear. Some staff really do seem to put the needs of the kids above all else - sometimes to their own detriment. The scale slides from there all the way down to those rare staff members who seem to have lost most interest in doing right by kids (I am lucky to have no one like that at my current school).

Much like good teaching, good leadership requires a firm set of principles and a fair amount of differentiation. For example, there are some staff who need little encouragement to come tell me what they think. For others, I may schedule a regular meeting just get them to tell me anything at all. Knowing which strategy to use for which staff member is the key. For some a scheduled meeting is just a setup to miss things; they might need me to come find them on an unscheduled basis if we are going to talk. Again, like a good teacher, I have to solicit and accept feedback in different ways from different people.

A second key factor to promoting critical feedback is being clear about when it is welcome. For years, I have tried to get good at using a decision making matrix like this one that I got from a consultant years ago. There are many variations out there, but the idea is the same. Be explicit about what you want from staff when making decisions. I get better feedback, when I tell people what kind of feedback I am looking for. This even works with editing. I usually tell folks that I am looking for proofreading or content editing or both. Seems to me that most school staff want to know what the principal is looking for.

Decision making styles from the chart are as follows:
Type 1:  Leader announces decision to the team and seeks support but does not ask for any input.
Type 2:  Leader has formulated an opinion about the best alternative for the decision s/he is making, but is testing it with the team to see if s/he is persuaded to rethink it before implementation.
Type 3:   Leader has a decision to make, but does not have an opinion about the best alternative.  S/he is asking the team to provide input and directions to guide decision-making.
Type 4:   This will be the team’s decision.  Leader’s participation and input will be considered along with others, but will not override others’ input.
Type 5:   Leader believes that others are better able to make this decision.  Leader will be a resource and will guide the process, but let the team make the decision without his/her involvement (unless asked) and support their decision.  Leader will ensure that decisions are aligned with policies, strategic direction, legal issues, etc.
Type 6:  Leader acts as if s/he is an outside facilitator. The decision is the team’s.  Leader believes others are better suited to make the decision, but will lead and structure the team’s decision-making process.  Leader will defer to the team’s decision.

It takes time and practice to encourage a school staff to give honest feedback. It is worth it.

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