Good evening, I hope you’re doing well and that the weather is treating you kindly, wherever you are.

A couple of colleagues asked me for some resources on a variety of topics, including supporting others through change.  I have read a lot of articles on this topic, but I don’t like many of them, so I decided to gather my thinking, based on a lot of reading and a lot of experience. Plus I know that it’s a good time of year to be talking about this, as we embark on new iterations of school and district improvement plans.   I know this CL is a bit longer than most—sorry.

I hear all the time that “change is hard” and “change is scary.”  I don’t know if it really is or not (I can confidently say that I have made more big changes in my life than most people I know, and I know I have never been frightened) but I do know that talking about change in those terms is more likely to inhibit change than promote it.  “Wow, you really think that doing this new thing is going to cause me anxiety?  Great, sign me up!”

How, then, do you go about supporting people to do things differently, whatever that thing may be?

  1. Understand that whatever the change is, you are likely to have had much more time to think and process than the folks you are talking to.  Bridges’ transition model is very helpful in understanding that there are stages to managing change, and the more removed you are from the change, and the longer you’ve had to think about it, the further you are through these stages.  This does not necessarily mean that you have empathy for the people who don’t have these advantages, so please think about that.  Remember that, as a leader or a coach, you are likely to be asking others to change more than you have to.
  2. Clarify the target—see Switch.  Anyone who’s ever tried to write good learning objectives knows that this is much harder than it appears.  You have to do a lot of planning, working with a thought partner, and rehearsing; I know I am not the only person to start talking about something only to realize that I am not as clear as I thought I was about the intended outcome/the process/the look-fors/all of the above.  Please make the assumption that people are doing the best they know how to do, and if they are not doing what you want them to do, your first assumption should be that they don’t know what that is.
  3. Lower barriers to participation.  And how do you do that?
    1. Stop creating stress around the issue.  Stop talking about your sense of urgency—it raises tension.  Stop saying that change is scary—you make people think that maybe it really is.  Don’t be patronizing or condescending—telling people that change is scary when it affects them more than you is both.
    2. Set learning goals and not performance goals—see Coaching Letter #21, which I’m attaching again because I think the ideas in it are really important.
    3. Don’t make it evaluative.  Once people feel they are being judged, you’re sunk.  People cycle into defensive routines when they sense threat or embarrassment.  People are highly motivated to feel competent, and if they get the impression that you are asking them to give that up—i.e. stop doing something that they think they’re good at to start doing something which they are novice at—then of course they are wary, and the taint of evaluation compounds that.
    4. Avoid deadlines, especially those that are unrealistic and arbitrary.  I am amazed at the leaders who will say that something is going to be accomplished by the end of the school year, not because they believe that it will, but because they think they have to in order to comply with their improvement plan template.  The work is ongoing and continuous and adaptive, and always takes longer than you think.
    5. Avoid big launches.  Think of the work less as the display of your beautiful creation on the catwalk and more like all the discarded drawings, gaping seams and bloody fingers that went into the design of the dress.  Sometimes I think that people get endings and beginnings mixed up.
  4. To repeat some points from Coaching Letter #41: take Dylan Wiliam’s advice and stop thinking of motivation as an input and start thinking of it as a result.  And here’s what I said about motivation: If you want people to be motivated to do something, then they (not you!) must:
    1. Understand what it is they are being asked to do (clarity is your friend);
    2. Believe that they are capable of doing it, and that doing it will have the desired result (perceived self-efficacy);
    3. Believe that there will be enough time to master this new aspect of their craft before some other urgent request supplants it;
    4. Believe that making the change will be worth it, as every change costs something.
  5. Make it safe to express concern.  You shut down legitimate discussion if you give the impression that you will interpret such discussion as resistance, plus you isolate yourself from feedback that may actually be helpful to you.  And in the meantime, you don’t make yourself any friends by indulging in what is perceived as unrealistic expectations or naive optimism.  “Trust me, it’s going to be great!” works only in limited circumstances with limited audiences for a limited time.

Resources that you can use for this work:

Argyris, C. (1990). Overcoming organizational defenses: Facilitating organizational learning. Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon

Bridges, W. (2011). Managing transitions: Making the most of change. Da Capo Press.

Heath, C., & Heath, D. (2010). Switch: How to change when change is hard. New York, NY: Crown.

Please let me know if there is anything else you need from me, or any other feedback—I’m grateful to those of you who already responded to my request for feedback earlier in the summer.  Best, Isobel

Excerpt from Seijts et al 2004 perf v learning goals

Coaching Letter #21

Isobel Stevenson PhD PCC
Program Coordinator
Connecticut Center for School Change
151 New Park Avenue
Hartford, CT 06106
Office: 860.586.2340

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