How to Solve Morale Problems


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You're listening to School Leadership Reimagined, episode number 197.

Welcome to the School Leadership Reimagined podcast...

where we rethink what's possible to transform your school. If you're tired of settling for small wins and incremental improvement, then stay tuned to discover powerful and practical strategies for getting every teacher in your school moving towards excellence. Now, here's your host, Robyn Jackson.

Hey, builders, welcome to another episode of the school leadership reimagined podcast. I'm your host, Robyn Jackson. And today we're going to talk about something that's plaguing a lot of administrators right now.

We're in the middle of the year, we're in that slump between winter break and spring break. And everybody's just feeling a little tired, a little worn out. And so a lot of administrators are looking for quick answers, things that they can do to increase their staff morale. In fact, the other day, I was online and I saw inside of one of the principal groups that I'm a part of, I saw someone put a request that says Does anyone have a video or an activity or something I can do to increase my staff morale and heal my culture. And I was tempted to respond, but it's kind of hard to give the nuanced answer in a Facebook post. And so I thought I would talk about that today.

In case you're like that principle you're looking for just anything you can find to to improve staff morale. 

I've got good news. And I've got bad news. The good news is that you can fix it. The bad news is an activity, a speech a video, a gift is not going to do it. And so today we're going to talk about how do you really improve staff morale.

Now, before I do that, I want to invite you to join builder ship university now, of course builds up universities close we're going to do fewer intakes this year. So instead of intakes, like we were doing every month last year, we're only going to be doing intakes a few times during the year. And that gives us time to really serve people inside of eldership. University and make sure that people get acclimated and they're seeing success before we start bringing in more people. We never want builders ship University to feel crowded, you never want to feel like you're just one of a million other people inside of the group, everybody gets that individual attention and support. So buildership University is closed right now.

But there are times when we have a spot that opens up. And when a spot opens up, we don't announce it publicly, we go to the waitlist. So if you know you want to join builder ship University, and you just are bummed because it's closed right now, then what I want you to do is go to builder ship and click on the waitlist button and join the waitlist because odds are that if you join the waitlist, once your name gets to the top of the waitlist, the next spot that opens up and build a ship University is yours. So builder ship to join the waitlist. And that also will help you to be one of the first to know when we open up the cohort next time. We're very careful about cohorts. So we're not just letting everybody in, we're keeping the cohorts very small, so that people get the support that they need.

So if you want to make sure that you grab your spot on the cohort, why not join the waitlist and you'll be the first to be notified when the cohort opens again. And that way you can secure your spot before we go public with a cohort opening and that way you get the first seat you are you are guaranteed a seat if you join then. So buildership Just join the waitlist. Okay, let's talk about this issue of staff morale because it is a nuanced issue.

And the mistake I see that a lot of leaders make is that they treat staff morale as if it's a it's a quick fix. 

So they're looking for you know, let's do pancakes in the in the in the cafeteria one day, when we have a delayed opening or let's give everybody Valentine's Day gifts or let's create the door my staff meeting. Let me show an inspirational video. And we think those things are going to improve staff morale. But unfortunately those things don't in fact, they can become quite annoying, right if I'm already annoyed with my administration, and then I get a Valentine's Day card that I know is some attempt to quote unquote improve my morale. Well, as a teacher, I'm going to be worse, I'm going to be so cranky and cynical based on that gift because that gift is not really interested in addressing the issues that have that have given me low morale in the first place, that gift is a manipulation. At least, that's the way that I would say it as a as a teacher, it's a manipulation to make me behave in a way that makes the administrator more comfortable. And, unfortunately, a lot of efforts to improve staff morale come down to that, we're not really interested in the people, or the issues that they're bringing to the table, what we want to do is shut all that down, get people acting better, so that it feels better so that we can achieve our goals for our school. And although that sounds very harsh, if we're being honest, a lot of times, that's what's really behind our staff morale efforts. And so I promised you I was going to try to be honest with you and give you the hard truths.

And so the first step towards improving staff morale is to examine our own motives for why we want to improve staff morale, are we trying to improve staff morale, because we can't stand the feeling that we get when we come into school every day? And so that makes us uncomfortable. So let's get them happy. So they stop complaining? Are we trying to improve staff morale, because we believe that will make us look better as leaders? And we're trying to improve staff morale, because we don't feel like dealing with the issues where we don't want the complaints anymore? We don't we don't want to have people coming to us raising issues, we just want those things to go away. Are we trying to improve staff morale, because we want everybody to like us, and and we're feeling bad because people don't like us? We have to be honest about our motives. And if any of those are our motives, then we really need to dig deep and examine them. Because if we don't, those motives are going to leak all over our staff morale improvement efforts, and they're going to taint them and people will smell that on us. That's the thing you can you can pretend that it's all about the staff all you want, people can see the truth. And if it's really not about helping people be happier at work, creating an environment where where people are doing the right work the right way, because they want to and not because you want to. If you really want to create that environment, then you've got to get your motives right first.

So why do builders want to improve staff morale? 

While it's very simple, builders want to improve staff morale, because they believe honestly, that what they are building is so important that it can't be derailed by by Vice by people who are unhappy. And if people are unhappy, it means that something is broken in the system. And builders want to create a better system because it creates better outcomes for the teachers and the students. It's never an either or we're never going to ask adults to sacrifice their mental health or their happiness, so that we can achieve student success goals. We can't get there unless the staff is happy, and unless the students are happy. So when we were trying to improve staff morale, we're doing it because we are committed to a bigger vision, we're committed to something bigger than what we've created. Right now we are building a place where the adults are happily doing the work on behalf of children. And the children are benefiting so that 100% of our students, and our teachers are successful. If you're doing if you're trying to improve staff morale, for any other reason that your commitment to that vision, and the people who are involved in your vision, it's the wrong reason. And so you need to get your motive straight first.

All right, that's a straight talk, I have to give it to you. Because this next part is not going to work unless your motives are right after MIT that there are times when I've worked to increase and improve staff morale, because of the motives that I just talked about you they're all motors, the motives that that are really about me and my ego, more than they are about the people involved. I have tried in the past to improve staff morale, because I was stressed out and people were stressed out and I didn't want to be seen as a poor leader with low morale staff and so I work to try to improve staff morale, so that I will look better. I I'm going to be honest with you, I I did it for very selfish reasons. And what I can tell you is that that fear of looking bad, got in the way of my ability to serve the teachers and the students that fear of of looking bad in front of other people tainted my efforts. And so, we have to let that go. We have to look over the fear and I still struggle with it even now. You know, the the idea that if I do this, well, you know, it might look bad and then will people still trust Meanwhile, people still listen to the podcasts, well, people still read my books, if I look bad. And I have to tell you every time that I let go of that fear, and do what I believe is right, do what is in service to my bigger vision, mission and core values. Whatever, I stopped focusing on me and start focusing on the thing that's bigger than I am, the thing that I'm trying to build, not only does it freed me of that fear, but it helps me to really connect with people, it helps me to reach the right people, it helps me to build something where everybody can be successful. So examine your motives, and make sure that you are doing it for the right reasons. Make sure that you're not looking at the people or yourself, and you're looking at your vision, you're looking at your mission, you're looking at your core values.

You know, a lot of people talk to me about how do I improve my culture. And there are tons of books about that. There are gurus on culture, and they all tell you to do things, the tactics, the strategies that engineer a healthy school culture. And so when people come in to build a ship, university, or they come into the world and build a ship, and they want to improve culture, they're looking for that strategy, that tactic, because I'm so stressed out, because my culture is so toxic, and I hate to disappoint them. But I do every time because there is no quick fix strategy, there is no bandaid, there is no magical solution or elixir that you can pour all over your culture to make your culture work. The real work of deliberately engineering, a healthy culture is much more complicated than that. Because you have to deal with the real issues. And a lot of times the, the people don't want to deal with the real issues. And so what they try to do is paper over those issues, so that they can make everybody happy, happy joy, joy, and they end up making their culture worse.

So same thing is true here. 

If you've got a staff morale issue, there, you can't, you can't paper over it with a quick fix, you first have to examine your motives and sometimes that look in the mirror, it's tough, but you got to do it if you want to really fix the problem for good. Okay, so first thing, look in the mirror, make sure that you have the right motives. And if you don't shift your attention not towards eliminating the pain of of poor staff morale, or worrying about the fear of looking back and shift your motives to what is it that we're building. That's why having a vision and mission core values are so important, because that's what you anchor in, right? If you feel yourself slipping into yourself, and, and starting to be afraid, you feel your ego taking over and you feel yourself slipping back into leadership. And leadership is a lot about ego. I don't care what people say about being a servant leader. Usually, when people say I'm a servant leader, the badge servant leader is an ego boost, it's just another identity that makes you look good in front of other people. When you're a builder, it's not about you, it's about the vision, it's about the mission, it's about the core values. So anytime your ego gets involved, it's going to taint the work.

So when you find that happening, and I said when not if because it will, right, we all have to fight it. But when you find that happening, if you can just tear your eyes from away from the mirror, and, and focus on the vision mission and core values, that opens things up that frees you to do the work that you really need to do and to confront the issues you really need to confront without fear, because it's in service to a bigger vision, mission and core values. Okay. Second thing, once you've dealt with your own ego, and you've got your your your focus on the right thing, now you can really start to deal with the issues. And what I suggest is that when you have staff morale issues, before you try to fix anything, the first thing you need to do is understand where the heart of those issues are. And I promise you, it's not what you think. I promise you, it's not what you think I've been doing this work for a long time, and people come to me and they say, my staff is upset because, you know, we're putting, they're overwhelmed with the amount of work we have to do. My staff is upset because we're changing too fast. My staff is upset because the kinds of kids we're serving is different now. And they don't know how to deal with it. They long for the past. Everybody has a reason in the theory about why their staff morale is the way it is. And in my experience when people come to me and then I go in and start investigating. It's always wrong. I'll give you two examples. I went to one district and they were talking about it's overwhelmed, can't talk to them. They're working harder than the kids. And when I got there, I found out that it wasn't that people were overwhelmed. It wasn't that they were working harder than the kids. They were resentful because the district changed the curriculum. They shifted from a curriculum that the teachers loved and had invested in to a curriculum that the teachers felt had very little educational value. That was a problem. So the teachers were overworked but they were ever worked because they were trying to sneak and teach the curriculum they loved while serving the curriculum the district was pushing, which was really more about test scores than it was about helping students really learn it. So the district had it all wrong. And so the solutions the district was trying to create to address the quote, unquote, problem, were doomed to fail, because they were looking at the wrong problem. Second example, I was working in a school, and they were telling me that the staff was, you know, resistant to change. And, and, and they, you know, they were they, they they did, they were holding on to the old ways and weren't willing to move. And when I cut to the school, it wasn't at all about that, you know, what the staff was really resentful of, they were resentful, because the distribution of duties, things like lunch duty and recess duty, where they felt in a in, they were not being distributed equitably, that some people were working harder than other people. And some people weren't doing their jobs. And there was never any consequence for that. That was the problem. Not that they were resistant to change.

The staff just said, we're not doing anything for you, because you're not hearing us. 

So the second step is you need to really understand what is the root cause of people's overwhelm? You can't just assume, and you can't just take people's first word for it, because people complain about things. But the root cause is often so much more nuanced. And so how do you get to the root cause? A couple of ways. One is, I suggest you do a focus group with the teachers. And you sit and listen. Now, if you haven't listened to our focus group episode, we'll link to it in the show notes. But you want to make sure I break down in that episode of how to do a focus group. But you want to make sure that you sit down and listen to people and focus groups are one of the best ways to do it. Now people say, Well, can I just do a survey?

No, because a survey doesn't give you the same nuance that a focus group will the survey is based on the questions you ask. And a lot of those questions are closed into questions. It even when they're open ended, you might get a couple of people who will take the time to write out, you know, a paragraph or two explaining their their their grievances. But often the people who are at the heart of those grievances won't bother. In a focus group, you are sitting down with people face to face, you're asking questions, you're listening, you're watching body language. And what's really powerful about a focus group is that people don't talk to you, they end up talking to each other, and you get to eavesdrop on that conversation. And that's going to tell you things that a survey won't tell you. So no, put in the work, do the focus group. Don't just try to get off with a survey because you want a quick fix, right? That's what leaders do builders put in the work, they invest, they use focus groups.

The second thing you need to do is you need to possibly bring in somebody from the outside. Now, that doesn't mean a consultant. It just means somebody different, somebody who isn't so immersed in your culture that they can't see. So that might be inviting a colleague from another building, to come and spend a couple of you know, there's been a couple of minutes in your building, walking the halls, watching people at dismissal time watching people when they come into work, just observing in the main office, they can give you another eye on what's happening in your school. And they can give you some some insight possibly about what they see that you may not be able to see because you're just too immersed in it. So first thing, get over yourself, get over your ego and focus on your vision, mission and core values. Second thing, try to understand what is the root cause for the morale issues.

The third thing is that once you've gotten some information, try to kind of get to that root cause try to dig down and figure out what is the thing that's really bothering people? What's the thing that that if I were to address it and change it would make the biggest difference for staff. Right? I was in one school, and there was a huge morale issue. They were doing a million different initiatives. And so the administration guessed that teachers were feeling initiative fatigue. In fact, that's where teachers were complaining about this, so many initiatives were just overwhelmed. We can't, you know, figure out what to do in one instance, because we're already moved on to the next thing. And that sounds like a legitimate complaint, right. But when we dug in and we started observing, what we realized is that it was more than just the number of initiatives, the number of initiatives that they were doing weren't working. They just so teachers were not just it wasn't the amount of initiative so let's take an initiative off of teachers plates, teachers were just tired of trying something and failing and trying something and failing and trying something and failing.

That's what was really at the heart of it. 

And so we started taking a look at all the initiatives that they had. And we said, Okay, if we stopped this initiative, but everything else stayed the same. Would that make a difference to teachers morale? Would that help teachers feel more successful? And we kept asking that question over and over and over again. And we realized that almost everything we were asking teachers that that schools asking teachers to do wasn't working. And so you really had to take all the initiatives off the table in order to make a big difference? Well, the school wasn't willing to do that. And so what we did instead was we said, Okay, where can we give teachers some success? Which one of these initiatives can we focus on right now, so that teachers feel a win. And it wasn't a win for teachers, it was really a win for kids. I'm asking teachers to do things that aren't making a difference for kids. So instead of trying to focus on all these initiatives, and we can't take them all off teachers plates, okay, you're not willing to do that. What's the one initiative that we can just put all our energy in for the next month, really focus on it and give teachers success, we need a win. That's what we need.

So that's what the school did. They they took every year, they didn't take everything off the teachers plates, right, they didn't make that announcement, we're gonna take this off your plates, they just, instead of doing that, they let the initiatives go. But they said, This month, we're gonna focus on this one thing, we're going to do everything we can to set you up to be successful. And then they started tracking the winds. And at first, it was just one or two teachers who were already doing that thing very well, that were experiencing the winds. But those teachers start talking about why those were winds, other teachers got inspired. So a teacher here, a teacher there began to really focus and get those wins. And then the the administration really focused on supporting teachers in that one thing, and making sure that they can guarantee a win. They kept asking every single week, what do we need to do to guarantee a win this week. And so teachers started experiencing wins. And when they started to experience in wins, many for the first time that school year, the tide in the school began to shift, people started feeling hopeful. Again, people started feeling excited, they did not take a single other thing off teacher's plates, all they did was focus teachers on how to get a win, and they solved the root problem.

So if you've got a morale issue, first, get your ego out of the way. Second, try to understand what's really at play. And third, dig down deep, so that your solution actually solves the root problem. And don't don't waste time on things that aren't going to solve the problem. Right? I love pancakes as much as the next person. But my pancakes at home are going to be infinitely better than anything that you and the main office secretaries cook for me in the morning, right? I love getting a card in my box, and a Starbucks gift card more than anything. But if you give me a Starbucks gift card, and I never have a chance to use it, because I'm at work late, overwhelmed by the amount of work I have to do, or I go get that coffee, but I'm so demoralized, at the end of the day that even that coffee or that tea that I buy doesn't do a thing except for just water, the misery of my soul, then your Starbucks gift card isn't doing anything. Hey, I love an inspirational video more than anything. But when you show me an inspirational video of a principal or educator who's making this big speech about what is possible for kids, but you have not helped me in my job, be successful with kids. All that video does is agitate what I feel in my heart already that I am failing kids, it doesn't inspire me it's more depressing. Because this person is telling me this is what I need to be doing this is what's going to make a difference for kids. And yet I can't figure out how to do it in this environment in this school. You can you can celebrate me all you want in front of the entire staff. Right? You can give me an award or certificate, you can do all those things. But if you don't address my root problem, it feels hollow and it feels false. So let's stop focusing on the quick the quick stuff, you know when that stuff works when everybody's already happy, if I'm already happy, and then you you put ice machine and cupcakes and and sodas and drinks in the staff lounge. It just enhances my happiness. If if I'm already successful in school, you roll around with a cart and bring me lunch one day. I look at Thank you. I'm excited. You just you just added to my happiness, but if I'm miserable, those things don't work.

So you got to spend some time really addressing the issues. 

You know, one of the things that I see is the most common issues is that teachers complain that they never have enough time. And you know what happens? You're like, alright, we'll give you the afternoon, we'll, we'll release you from faculty meeting. And then what do people do? They don't do work that they say that every time and maybe some do, some do I used to. But that extra time doesn't change anything. Because the complaint about I need more time is really, there's something else at work. It's never about I need more time. There's all I feel overwhelmed, I need more time to I need more time to understand this. I feel like I don't, I'm not focused on the right things. Usually a complaint about not having enough time is really a complaint. That's about focus, I don't have time to do the things I want to do. And so if you just hear the complaint, we don't have enough time. And then you're like, Alright, here's two extra hours, you're not solving the problem. People are no happier. Alright? Well, maybe I'll do two extra hours started by an inspirational speech and ended by cookies, maybe that'll do. Nope, you've not solved the problem. Until you understand why people feel they need more time why people feel like they don't have enough time, until you really understand that you are not ready to solve the problem. And as much as I love cupcakes, cupcakes, is not going to solve your culture issue.

So here's your here's your assignment this week, if you're seeing a dip in morale, if you're if you're seeing your culture start to slide towards toxicity, if you see your teachers starting to, to be weary and worn out, and you want to find a way to to inspire them to get them reignite it, not going to happen with a cupcake. But here's what you can do. First thing is you need to make sure that you are trying to solve the problem for the right reason I can't stress enough how important this is, get your ego out of the way focus on your vision, mission and core values. And by the way, if you don't have a vision, or mission or core values, nothing else I say is going to work, you need that first.

So if you don't have that, that's your first thing. Because I've seen it over and over again, people who have culture issues, who bring people together around the vision, mission and core values, most of those culture issues evaporate. So if you don't have that, that may be your problem. That may be your quick fix vision mission core values, done the way we teach you how to do it and build a ship University. Don't just go announce it one day and think that's going to fix it. There's a process but that process is what starts to heal culture. Let me just say this, as an aside, I know I've gotten on a tangent. But the something really interesting happened to me last week, two weeks ago, something like that. I was working with a group and there's some culture issues. It's it's complicated, right. And we're creating a vision, mission and core values. And we've been going through the process. And here's what's happening. Those culture issues that have been a pain for years, are starting to come to the surface and be resolved. The people on the team who have been really difficult and obstructionist are hugely and supportive this, the skirmishing and the fighting and the backbiting that has characterized the way this team has worked together, gone, just by creating vision, mission and core values. So if you don't have those in place, that could be your solution right there. Now, that's not a kid, it's not going to fix it on a weekend, you'll start to see change almost immediately. But that process takes a couple of months to do and do it right. But it's an investment, that's well worth it. Because it will create the foundation that your whole culture can anchor in it, it helps you get back to center when you start drifting off and your ego starts coming up. So you need that. Alright, commercial over step one.

First of all, you got to make sure you are focused on the right thing, because you're not going to solve this if you're focused on the wrong thing. Second, once you get focused on the right thing, then you need to understand what's really going on, not what you think you may have a theory, but you need to test that by talking to people don't assume, talk to people find out what's really going on, get another set of eyes in there if you need to, so that they can give you some insight that you might be too immersed in your culture to be able to see, understand the problem. And then third, as you're looking for the solution, make sure you are solving the problem. 

Don't give a blanket solution. 

Be very surgical about that solution so that you are addressing the root cause that's causing the low morale that's causing the toxicity in the first place. Make sure that you are focused on solving the root problem and not paper Bring over the problem. And then the third thing is, make sure that everything you're doing stays anchored in your vision, mission and core values. Because when your morale dips, and when your culture starts to slip, it's usually because your work has gotten a drift. It's drifting away from your vision, mission and core values, you're focused on pleasing the district or pleasing parents or, or doing something else. And you're not anchored in your vision, mission and core values. So when you see signs that your culture is slipping, you need to sit back and say, Where have we gotten away from our vision, mission and core values? And what can I do that will help us get back to focus in and build us up University, we have something called the alignment architecture. And it's a way to help sift every decision through your vision, mission and core values to make sure that everything you do stays in alignment. And so if you're a member of BU, this is your chance, if you're feeling this, to go back to that alignment architecture, and take a look at everything you're doing and see where it is you've gotten a job.

The other tool that we haven't built to ship University is we have something called the accountability architecture. And accountability architecture looks at the key systems in your school, and looks to see how you can get them more in alignment with your vision, mission and core values. But also how you can ensure that the systems not only serve the kids, but they also serve the adults. You see a lot of people think, Oh, it's just about the kids. And I don't care about the adults. But if you know, there's an old saying, if you don't feed the teachers, they'll eat the children, you got to do both, right. It's not enough that it just serves kids. It's not a binary either or situation. It serves kids, and it also serves the adults. And when you come with that lens, you find ways to make sure that you are serving the adults in your building in a way that empowers them to better serve the kids. So take a look at your school and see where you've gone off course. And find a way to get back into your vision, mission and core values. And do it in a way that serves the adults and the kids. Because you're a builder. And as a builder, you have to serve everybody, you're building a place where everybody can be successful.

So that's your task this week. Take a look. Make sure your egos in line and check. Make sure you understand the problem. Make sure your solution is addressing the root cause and make sure that you are looking at your school and closing those leaks close figuring out where you're adrift and getting your school back to center back focused on your vision, mission and core values. Because that's how you solve morale problems for good, like a builder.

I'll talk to you next time.

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