High Trust Environments

I’ve written a few times recently about the critical role and importance of trust within all kinds of environments. I have suggested that fear of change has been causing many people to put leaders in positions of power (or allowed them to take power might be the better explanation), especially in leading countries.

These are leaders who adopt far more confrontational and manipulative positions, often rallying their supporters with beliefs that they need to be defended from ‘hated and feared others’.

Thus, it was very timely that Zenger Folkman just ran this great webinar over the last week on the subject of trust. Obviously, they particularly focused on trust within companies and similar organisations. It highlights that trust is, most certainly, a big issue and there’s ample evidence that low trust is a big problem in organisations. To my mind, weak trust in any one part of people’s lives tends to provoke and lead to weaker trust in all other areas of life. Fear and a sense of threat tests many people’s willingness to stick to high trust actions and behaviours.

The webinar highlights that personal relationships are such an important part of creating and maintaining trust. If there’s a sense of threat, weakness and challenge this tests relationships. Firstly, many get tempted to become more task oriented – if there are challenges achieving business outcomes people double down on tasks they hope can bring quicker results. However, this leaves less time to work on relationships. Also, as the threat quotient rises, people become more suspicious of others and their motives. This in turn leads them to de-emphasise personal relations and increase their distance from others.

As I’ve suggested in other blog posts, societal unease and the struggle to take full responsibility may be providing an encouraging environment for leaders in the political environment who operate from low trust, instead promising unreal outcomes in return for freedom from responsibility.. My hope is that this doesn’t necessarily have to lead to the same effect in companies and other organisations. However, I believe this places greater responsibility on leaders to address these issues, to be sensitive to actions or words that can undermine the levels of trust in the organisation. Further, i continue to believe (as highlighted by Tom Peters, Stephen MR Covey and others – high trust leadership can offer a significant competitive advantage. It creates environments where people are more flexible about their contribution, more resolute to work through challenges and more willing to try things creatively. This is especially critical for the educational domain, whether K-12 schools or colleges because trust doesn’t just help the organisation to work effectively, but also as exhibited forms a part of the learning of the students.

And for people who find themselves working in low trust environments? My advice is, don’t hang around – move on. There are always other alternatives and high turnover may be one of the biggest weapons to reign in less trustworthy leaders.

Toxic Staffrooms and The Courage To Lead

Great educators are by their nature reflective. They take time to ‘look inwards’, to reflect on their actions, their words and their impact on others. At times this can lead them to be quite ‘confessional’. However, such occasions do sometimes provide opportunities for introspection for their fellow educators.

Here’s an article from an American teacher that is almost confessional in nature, but that touches on something that too many teachers and leaders in schools all over the world have experienced – the potential toxicity of staffrooms. She also makes the valid point that it’s not limited or confined to a particular place or room, but manifests anywhere in a school where talk is overly negative, cynical or crosses the line to become gossip-laden.

Edweek – Why I Avoid The Teachers’ Lounge, And You Should Too

There are many factors that go in to making up the culture of a school. Among the most influential aspects that are all encompassed under ‘leadership’, I believe are;

a) Vision, Mission and values (V-M-V) that are clearly articulated, inspiring, exciting and it’s made clear that they are for every stakeholder in the organisation. It can be all too easy to see the articulation of V-M-V as a ‘one-off exercise’ – a quick inspiring talk to the staff at the beginning of the year and job done. V-M-V have to be made a living, dynamic part of every activity, every significant discussion and it has to be clear that they’re not a five minute wonder, but a fundamental part of the school for the longer term. It must also be very clear that they apply in all respects to all stakeholders; pupils, teachers, non-academic staff, parents and even outside vendors who support the school’s activities. They are not a menu to pick and choose from on a whim and, as adults, we have to be very clear that we are to model the values as consistently as we can for the children, holding ourselves accountable to the highest professional standards. We must walk our talk.

b) Accountability – In short, a leader can’t lack the courage or sense to lead and cannot be denied their right/ duty to do so. There can be times and occasions which are hard to deal with. Informal leaders can emerge who consciously or unconsciously espouse values and beliefs different to the organisation or who have bad habits (e.g. toxic gossiping) that are highly detrimental to the good of the institution. When the individual is a ‘good teacher’ in the classroom this can be especially tough. It is the leaders’ duty to guide and counsel the person, coach them, hold them accountable for the actions which are harming the organisation. Ultimately, despite the fact that they can deliver good work themselves, in the worst case scenario where they won’t or can’t change it can be right for the leaders to decide to part ways with the individual. Ultimately, permitting someone to exist in the organisation espousing or practicing incongruent values can be a worse failure of leadership than allowing someone who lacks skills or competence in their role.

When the leadership has given the individual every chance to change, there is no failure in taking ultimate responsibility. However, we need to be aware – toxic staffroom people can be popular people at a personal level, especially if they satisfy a personal need of staff members to have an outlet for negative feelings!

c) MBWA – this was a wonderful acronym I learned from the business writer, Tom Peters, many years ago. It stands for Management By Walking About. In essence, it’s simple and clear – as leaders we’ve got to put ourselves out there, even if that requires some very rigid and forceful diary management and the strength to say ‘No’ at the right times. In my view, this is probably a more critical factor in schools than in any other kind of organisation. Schools are all about people. As a leader, if we choose to allow it, there will always be more than enough people who can create situations that seem to justify us spending our entire work day in our offices. However, we must never forget that sitting in our offices we receive only the information from the outside environment that others choose to send us/ bring us or lead us towards. When it comes to ‘Teachers’ lounge’ tendencies, this can actually risk leaders becoming part of the very issue that threatens the culture of their school or department. Then, we become reliant on only the perspectives of others about people, mood and ground realities – instead of going out and really feeling things for ourselves, hearing what everyone has to say (not just those who choose to bring us information). School leaders must ensure they carve out time to see things for themselves, to hear people and genuinely listen to all stakeholders and to get their own feel for what is happening in all areas of their school.

I once joined an organisation where I discovered that there was an accepted norm/ practice that required the Principal to knock and virtually ask for permission to enter the staff room! To me this was symptomatic of some past MBWA breakdown. What could staff possibly be doing, in the staffroom, in school, that the Principal didn’t have the right to know? After a few weeks we learned a great example of what was going on in that staffroom. New teachers would get cornered by ‘old’ established teachers and mocked for their hard work, attempts to innovate and compliance with requests/ directions from the school leadership. There was a kind of mafia of cynicism in that room that plainly was not in the best interests of the school and certainly not in the interests of children and their learning. New staff were stressed and hurt by the conflicts they were experiencing between the positive and inspiring words of the school leadership and this localised negativity. Situations like this are tricky to deal with. If you confront those concerned directly they may turn against those who they believe have ‘grassed on them’. It could have left a new teacher very vulnerable. Ultimately, we were able to find out from loyal committed longer term staff that this had happened multiple times. As a result, when the individuals concerned were confronted they had no one person they could target. Some immediately distanced themselves from the problem by staying in their classrooms during free periods. Ultimately, two who might have been considered ringleaders left and went elsewhere (where word reached us that at least one was doing the same thing!)

When we step up to be leaders it shouldn’t be for money, or for status or personal prestige. It really has to be because we want to make a positive difference in the education field. Our best opportunities to do that flow out of the extent to which the ‘butterflies fly in formation’ and that comes out of both words and practice aligned to common understanding of V-M-V.

A final word for teachers – in this time of school break and the opportunity to reflect on our practice – if you think that maybe, like the writer of the article, you’ve been inadvertently sucked in to being part of staffroom issues, now is the time to commit and pledge yourself to rise above them, to strengthen your commitment to the V-M-V of your school (and I stress, I’m talking here to all teachers everywhere). We can decide to be part of the solution, instead of being part of the problem.

Inspiring Leaders

Want to take in a few new ideas on leadership? Looking for inspiration or ways to raise your game to the next level?

Here’s a pretty good list of the 30 leadership writers who are currently considered to be most inspiring and having the biggest impact in the world:

Global Gurus – World’s Top 30 Leadership Professionals for 2016

I’m not sure I wholly agree with the list. For example, I think Robin Sharma a bit too ‘light weight’ to be taken seriously in this company whilst Dr Stephen Covey is still having a massive impact, even after his death, as is Peter Drucker. I also don’t agree with the suggestion that Tom Peters and Jim Collins are mainly only known about in America.

Nevertheless, a good starting point list for anyone looking for ideas.

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