Empathy is the Secret Sauce to Cultural Change

I recently spent an entire work day meeting with a group of about 20 employees. Represented in the group were teachers, support staff, school leaders, and district department leaders from every reach of the district. Collectively we were engaged in a process designed to systematically create value for everyone involved. Our intention was to spend time up-front exchanging ideas and exploring mutually beneficial options with the goal of improving workplace culture and working conditions. It’s a phenomenal opportunity to spend time with a group such as this, as we have ample opportunity to discuss topics that are relevant across our district, and the individuals involved share insights that are important for me to consider as I rethink our District’s strategy related to meeting the demands of our changing workforce.

The goal in better serving our employees is to create a strong and sustainable workforce of dedicated employees that are able to thrive for our students and families. In essence, it takes me back to the old adage, if you don’t feed the teachers, they’ll eat the students; but extends it beyond the teacher group to all groups of employees across the district as each one is vital to the success of the whole. This opportunity reminds me how important it is to take good care of our district employees and consider their well-being as a priority as we consider changes that may affect every aspect of how our district operates — from the services we offer to the structures and policies that are in place.

When I take the time to listen to employees, to think through how folks are feeling in the here-and-now and also consider how they might feel about the perceived changes ahead, I come to remember the critical role of the leader in ensuring positive two-way communication.  Experiences like this help me recall that I’ve observed the same thing time and time again: how information is communicated to employees during a time of change (and let’s face it, we’re constantly in a state of change) is more important than what information is communicated. I’ve found the key to be in empathy.

Empathy is Key

Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person. It’s an important skill that most of us use in our daily lives as we navigate our relationship to the world and people around us. Empathy is also a critical disposition of successful leaders. The ability to understand the emotions that employees are feeling allows leaders not only to become a more effective communicator and problem solver, but to also build the rapport, trust, and sense of connection necessary for success.

Communicating authentically and empathetically is important for leaders wanting to lead a successful transformation of workplace culture. But the truth is that most leaders don’t fully consider their team’s sentiment about change prior to initiating or communicating about the changes ahead. What’s worse, I’ve seen many change initiatives flop because leaders approach changes without systematically helping employees navigate the change process. Communicating about the changes and helping folks navigate the change process are both necessary to successful and sustainable change, and as leaders, we have to keep this in mind as every opportune moment presents itself.

Building Investment in and Ownership of the Cultural Change

In the school district I lead, we are working to move from a culture heavily reliant on compliance-driven practices toward a culture where employees are empowered with knowledge and expertise to make just-in-time decisions about their work based on a set of standards. We want our employees to be creative problem-solvers; strategizing to reach students in conventional and unconventional ways through strong relationships and a sense of collective efficacy. The change in and of itself seems idealistic, but to many of our employees, it is causing stress and tension. Some are unsure if they really have the professional decision-making power we’ve indicated, and others are reluctant to do things they haven’t been given explicit permission to do. For many, the frustration lies in mixed messages.

It boils down to the way the change has been communicated. What I’ve noted through the process of listening empathetically, is that I haven’t ensured that all school principals are fully on board and motivated to offer the same level of empowerment to our teachers and support staff as others. I am hearing that for some principals, letting go and allowing educators autonomy to create and innovate comes in pockets, on designated days if you will; whereas for others, it comes more naturally and the level of professionalism educators are feeling differs from school to school. In some cases, there’s an overarching belief that creativity and joy spark a desire to engage in ways that are superior to rigid routines, and employees are given more flexibility and autonomy. But in others, our leaders operate in a constant state of fear related to our state’s accountability system, and employees are given less freedom to exercise professional judgment as a result.

I’ve been thinking about all this quite a bit, and can truly appreciate the complexity of the dilemma. But what I really wish is that all of our educators could get the same message about change and about how much respect I have for them in their profession. As a district, we are working hard to help build our capacity to use strategies steeped in evidence, and we find great value in exploring authentic opportunities to observe, coach, and collaborate as we work toward the growth and interdependence we would like to see. I want them to know the other shoe is not going to drop, so they shouldn’t have to wait reluctantly for it. I also want them to know that if they work collaboratively and creatively to reach students, we’ll all have their backs because we do what’s good and right for kids as a priority. However, as superintendent of the district, I am not in the trenches each day with folks, and I don’t get to communicate (in word or by deed) my intentions directly or routinely. So I have to rely on school principals and others to lead this change. I have to depend on them to communicate the value and respect that is shared by our leadership team on a daily basis. And because I don’t get to control the day-in and day-out messages, my better thinking has led me to reflect upon using the following strategies in order to better understand their perspectives to help bring them along:

Listen to Employees (Including School Leaders)

I need to remember that the wants and needs of team members evolve throughout the process of change so I should be reevaluating these changes during every phase of the cultural change journey. It’s been a year in earnest since I articulated a desire to break from being a compliance-driven district to a district driven by empowerment. So I have to ask myself: To what extent have I really listened to school leaders about how they are feeling? What questions have I asked to uncover beliefs, feelings, questions, and concerns about moving more toward empowerment? What are their best hopes? Worst fears?  I need to ensure I have a plan that includes adequate time to listen – and truly hear – the enthusiasm and the concerns folks have as we move forward in order to sustainably plan for change that goes beyond the surface level to create deep cultural shifts in action.

A constantly changing bar is change in and of itself.

The other thing I need to remember is that in moving the district forward, I am constantly raising the bar – in other words, it never stays in place – and that in and of itself is change. I came to be the superintendent just under two years ago, and since then, there have been radical shifts in practice. Coupled with those major shifts, I’ve also continued to ratchet up expectations for professionalism, communication, strategic thinking, and leadership. I see every iteration as an opportunity for continuous improvement. There’s no time in our changing and competitive landscape to rest on our laurels. School leaders may be feeling tension due to this constant nature of change, and as a result, they may be reverting back to old habits. In continuing to move the district forward, I need to identify school leaders who are confident with and embracing changes related to empowering employees. I need to acknowledge their enthusiasm in order to encourage more of it to flourish, and in doing so I need to make a point of specifically recognizing the times when I see or hear about our school leaders doing something intentionally to support the type of capacity building for empowerment we want to see.

Be Strategic About Communication

Another thing I value is up-front and open communication. I believe the more informed folks are, the better prepared they are to deal with the discomforts of change. And there are always discomforts associated with change. I think it’s a good idea to bring out models of the change process and remind people about the stages that occur during times of change. An easy model to explain is the Kubler-Ross Model, which compares very closely to the stages of grief. Because most individuals understand the stages of grief, they can relate them well to the stages folks are going through related to the given change. I find it especially important to identify and label the stages of change as various individuals are experiencing them. This is especially helpful when folks hit the rocky part during the implementation dip. By labeling and showing them where they are on the graphic, they can see that what they are feeling is normal, and that there is a better outcome in sight.

This is just one of many change models a leader can use to help employees label and understand the emotions that go along with cultural transformation.

Ialso think it’s important to talk about the fears that surface in thedistrict-wide climate and culture survey. Sometimes employees are concernedthat changes are going to cause talented employees to leave, which leaves agreater burden on remaining employees. As leaders, we can take theopportunity to acknowledge the worries of our employees when we go out to thesites and meet with them, or we can write about it in our communications tothem; but validating their feelings and reassuring folks how the plan isdesigned to help is the key here. There’s a real opportunity to buildcredibility and trust by addressing the fears of employees head-on.

Finally, I believe there’s also value in simply expressing, “I see you, and I hear what you’re saying”. Sometimes just being in the moment and offering time goes well beyond any retort or response a leader may be considering.

Involve Individuals at All Levels

Cultural transformation doesn’t happen without broad involvement across all levels of the district. It’s important for every impacted individual to understand their part. In this day-long process, I had the opportunity to spend time with folks from every school and department across our district, and I was able to engage meaningfully with them because the group was small, intimate, and there was a great deal of trust established.

But I can’t help thinking about how valuable it would be if I had that kind of time with every employee, and how powerful the sentiment could be if the act of listening and responding was given more of a priority.

It brings to mind these budget meetings I’ve been having at each of the schools and departments. We’ve got big challenges ahead with regard to our district’s financial stability due to declining enrollment, so I’ve been going out with others to talk about the challenges and to enlist others in thinking creatively and strategically about some ways we might do business differently in the future. The meetings have presented a great opportunity to communicate a positive message about our situation, and reinforce the notion that the strength of our district lies in the intelligence of the group – and that group includes each and every one of us – as we work together to tackle tough issues.

My next step needs to be to head back out and just listen. In the end, I am hoping that frontline employees bring about a practical, useful change across the district — one that imparts feelings of empowerment for all parties, and one that drives the culture we are working toward building and sustaining over time.

Change is a constant for school employees, and leaders have to keep the feelings of employees in mind in order to effectively motivate and lead. I’ve found empathy to be the key to communication. Develop and show empathy for all members involved in your cultural transformation, and we’ll lead a team that feels valued, included, and empowered to go the distance for all our students.

I am interested in knowing how other leaders use empathy to foster cultural change.

How have you worked on honing your empathy skills?

What are the strategies you use to pay attention to those things that go beyond the words people are saying (i.e., nonverbal cues, body language, tone, and mannerisms)?

How do you go about forging important, personal bonds with your employees? 

How often are you putting yourself into the shoes of different employees to see things from their perspective? What are the strategies you use to truly get a sense for how folks are feeling?

Author: leadershipsoup

I am a learning leader, educator, and equity advocate. I am also the proud Superintendent of the Casa Grande Elementary School District located in Central Arizona. I believe we need to empower students and families by dismantling deficit ideologies and embracing practices that are truly inclusive in nature. I look forward to learning with others as we embark on this journey together.

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