One Decision, Two Narratives

best practice communication decision making prioritization Jan 02, 2023

 It is often easier to sit on the sidelines rather than confronting an issue head on.  When you make a decision as a leader, it matters. One decision can create many narratives that must be explored and deeply understood in order to lead others well.

Last week, we met “John,” a school principal whose school is one of the top performing in one of the largest public school systems in the United States. (Get some background on his story here). The team has recently adopted a new curriculum for students, but due to budget cuts, he can no longer pay his department leaders to meet after school and plan for next school year.  At the last meeting, approximately 20% of the leadership team’s members stayed.  He even provided dinner out of his own pocket.

The Washington Post reports, “It is becoming increasingly evident that conflict over reform in itself has been impeding educational progress—quantifiable progress that has been achieved in settings where educators have managed to move beyond unproductive battles,”(Anrig, 2013).  Conflict.  In our scenario, one conflict has created three distinct “groups” (with barriers – whether spoken or unspoken):

  1. The school leader who asked the team to stay – without pay.
  2. The teachers who stayed for the meeting.
  3. The teachers who did not stay for the meeting.

Primarily, we have identified this conflict is, on the surface, about payment. But if we dig deeper into motivations, maybe we will find how John can engage with both “sides.”  See, conflicts instantly create at least two broad narratives. Within those narratives, each individual has their own deeply embedded thoughts, emotions and beliefs.  Here are some possible motivations:

Narrative 1: Will work without pay.

  • They believe in what they are doing. 
  • They felt bad if they didn’t stay. 
  • They like collaborating and don’t feel a part of a team when working solo. 

Narrative 2: Will not work without pay.

  • They value their time and work and believe it deserves compensation.
  • They prefer to collaborate on their own or work solo.
  • They felt hurt they were even asked to stay without pay. 

It is safe to say that there are now two distinct cultures, or groups who have certain beliefs, if you will. Because there is a division (demonstrated through the decision to stay or not stay for the meeting), there are likely many unspoken prejudices that are brewing.  One group is beginning to attach behavior they disagree with to the other group.  In turn, they are subconsciously making judgements about the “other” group.

“If we allow our prejudices to control our thinking and our behavior, we will never engage with people in an open and transparent way,” says Ricardo González, author of The 6 Stages of Cultural Mastery.

The only way we can truly know the motivations of those we lead and work alongside is to engage.  This sounds too simple, right?  “…it doesn’t come naturally to all people. In fact, many people find it easier to operate in a disengaged mode; it is less risky and doesn’t require the mental, emotional, and sometimes physical stretch that true engagement requires,” notes González.

Now, it is important to note that there are quite possibly MANY more motivations in this scenario; I highlighted just a few that are potential motivations.  But that’s the point!  John and many members of his team are likely hurt, fearful or now prejudiced in very individually motivated ways.  The point is, if we as leaders are not willing to break down barriers, initiate courageous conversations and engage deeply to understand others – we can only lead them so far.  Because I know John and he is an incredible leader, I know this will be his approach.  But if he was not willing to simply ask his teachers questions, it could greatly impact the direction of his school.

Part of the reason I highlighted this scenario was because we often see news stories highlighting disdain over school budget cuts, and rightfully so.  Sometimes, decisions that seem very simple, (like not paying teachers for one meeting) in the ocean of school budget woes, are often deeply complex.  Remember that the nature of just one decision (and our actions following the decision) can truly impact an entire school.



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