Middle Leadership Master Expansion Pack 2: Managing Change

This blog is the second of a series of blogs that looks to expand an idea discussed in Middle Leadership Mastery. It works best if you have read the book but it is not entirely necessary.

The first one about assessment can be found here.

One of the most important roles a leader has is to manage change. This basically breaks down into two kinds: 

  • Decisions you make and implement
  • Decisions made by others that you have to implement 

Change and staff morale

As I wrote in MLM, “morale is the currency of change”. At the time I thought this was a really nifty and fresh take on the idea, but no one has ever noticed it. So now I think maybe that’s because it’s obvious. No change comes in a vacuum, each time you implement a change you are also adding to your team’s culture. There are a lot of books written about building culture and recently about building culture within a school. I like to think of the role a leader plays in their teams culture as follows:

A theory of culture construction.

Our actions and words can cancel each other out if they’re not coherent. More importantly, people are very perceptive of how others react to what we say and do. They will take cues as to the relative value of said words and actions by those around you. This has an aggregative effect and contributes to the overall culture as time passes. 

As each cycle of change management goes to establish the culture they have a knock-on effect for the next change you wish to implement, either positively or negatively.  

How the quality of idea and change management impact the team is summarised in the table below:

Quality of ideaHow the change is managedTeam performanceTeam morale
HighWellIncreases Increases
HighPoorlyDips then increasesDecreases but grows over time
LowWellIncreases then dropsIncreases initially then decreases

As leaders we face two challenges:

  1. Making the right strategic decision
  2. Implementing the change as well as possible

Both of these challenges interact with our team’s culture. One of the most important things leaders need is honest feedback. If we have established a culture of trust and transparency then before, during and after the decision making process we can gain feedback to help forge and adapt the strategy to ensure the best outcome.

On the other hand, if we have established a blame culture then our team will be motivated to keep the reality of the decision’s impact from us, choosing instead to evaluate it between themselves. 

If you are interested in this aspect of how cultures pivot towards blame by accident and how to fix it there is a great blog here

Poorly managed change can erode morale and shift a team’s culture. Leaders will begin to become unaware of this, with issues being hidden under a surface of compliance. If the idea is good enough the leader will be tolerated and given credit where it is due. The erosion of morale will plateaux. To me the best example is the old sports adage “winning cures everything”. You see this often with sports coaches, there are many that have frustrating or even abusive ways of dealing with people who are tolerated because ‘they are winners’. That is until they don’t win and then very quickly they are shown the door.

Why is change managed poorly and what can we do about it?

When people have ideas they are often eager to get the idea moving straight away. This is even more important in schools where time is of the essence. This rushed eagerness can lead to poorly thought out strategy and frustrating implementation for the whole team. 

If we want to avoid this we need to devote time to think of how the actions planned will affect our team and the possible consequences on other moving parts of the system.

A decent place to start is the EEF implementation guide. It’s pretty generic so is applicable to many different sized teams and has a sound rationale behind it. 

I still stand firmly behind Haidt’s ‘elephant and rider’ and won’t recap how I think change is best communicated, which is in the book #capitalism.

I will list a few common reasons I think middle leaders manage change badly. If these ring any bells then it might be a good idea to take a step back and think about the way you introduce the next big change. I know over my 8 years leading a large science department I made all of them at least once! 

  1. Impatient. So all plans must happen NOW!
  2. Misunderstand the culture in your team. You think they will just follow you blindly, because you are an amazing leader. So you don’t bother communicating the change or selling the idea.
  3. Disregard for your team’s abilities or motivators. This always seeps out. Classically this happens in education when people use money as a motivator. Most school employees are not in it for the cash!
  4. Curse of knowledge. You are so aware of the details of the change and new process that you find it hard to identify them to your team. This leads to poorly explained and implemented procedures.
  5. Making a splash. Sometimes in education we look to make changes in search of the illusive silver bullet that will solve our problems. This is not always the right thing to do after all; “You’ve got to know when to hold ’em, Know when to fold ’em, Know when to walk away” K.Rogers (1978)

Change is hard and managing change in the frenetic world of middle leadership is even harder. I hope you find some of these ideas helpful. 

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