Kathy Howard (former superintendent of Soquel District) recommended this you-tube video to me: Edgar Schein on Helping: How to Offer, Give, and Receive Help. I found it a very interesting way to summarize, in business language, what I observed in my years working in schools. Schein’s big point is that bosses needs to create a climate to make it safe to receive bad news from subordinates. He acknowledges that this can be difficult because the usual social rule is, “If I ask for help I am in a less powerful position.” We need to overcome that because the world is so complex and no one knows it all. Both bosses and subordinates need to be able to ask for help because we need each others’ information.
Ok, we need to learn from one another, but how can a boss overcome the obstacles to communication created by power dynamics? Schein suggests that to cross the status difference or a cultural difference, you can temporarily suspend the usual hierarchy by going off-site and engaging in an activity where you are both equally inept (ropes course, golf, dinner…) Another technique to open up communication, is to set up a situation where you are not looking right at each other. Any parent who’s found their usually surly teenager opens up when driving in the car is familiar with this tactic. Work retreats can reproduce this with an “around the campfire” activity where each person tells what they see to be true without interruption or demands for clarity. Another way to get to know your staff better is to ask each person, “In your culture, what would you do, if you saw the boss making a mistake?” The answers will be revealing and then you’ll know how to proceed to encourage input from your subordinates.
Basically, leaders are dependent upon subordinates and so need to be good at encouraging honest communication in both directions.
Reflecting on Schein’s points I thought of ways I’ve seen this flow of information work in schools. When I worked for Principal Carl Pearson (now of Applied Leadership), he used to tell teachers, “If you see trouble brewing with a parent that might reach me as a complaint, tell me now so I am not blindsided.” Of course, as a teacher, the last thing I wanted to do was tell my boss about a problem he might never find out about (and that I probably had at least some part in creating). But Carl reassured us that he’d back us up in public and coach us on how to improve in private.
He was true to his word, and I quickly learned that I could trust him not to hold these problems against me. When I’d drop by his office to say, “I don’t know if this will ever even get to you, but just so you know…..” he’d thank me for the heads up and ask me if I needed any help. That opened the door for a coaching relationship. If I expressed some confusion or concern about how the situation came to be difficult, he’d invite me to talk more about it and suggest ways I might diffuse it. Thus I became better at solving (and eventually preventing) problems.
This worked the other way too. If a parent came to him with a complaint, he’d ask the parent if they’d spoken to the teacher about this. If the answer was no, then he’d tell them to talk to the teacher first and see if it could be resolved there. Then he’d quickly approach me and fill me on the problem (of which I was sometimes totally unaware.) He’d help me think through how to handle the issue so I was prepared when the parent came to me the next day.
Similarly, when Alicia Escobar was my principal (now CELDT coordinator for SUESD), she often solicited input from the whole staff to develop solutions to school problems. Just the act of opening up the conversation to everyone and allowing time for us to propose possible solutions made us feel valued and elicited more potential solutions than any one of us could have thought of alone. We then rose to the challenge with an increased willingness to roll up our sleeves and do the work to improve our school. She knew she didn’t have all the answers and invited each of us to help craft solutions. In this environment teachers felt empowered to help.
I think both of these principals exemplified what Edgar Schein says about good leaders needing to be able to manage helping relationships. Working with them certainly allowed me to grow as a professional who became skilled at facilitating inclusive decision making processes.