Is your school stuck in the “comfort zone?”


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You're listening to School Leadership Reimagined, episode number 206.

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 the difference between making people comfortable and making people feel safe. And that difference is important because it can change not only your school culture, but your school's ability to achieve your 100% vision, it is a critical difference. And not enough of us know about this difference. And so we fall into the trap of keeping people comfortable and trying to make people comfortable when what we really should be doing is making them safe. So we're going to talk about not only what that difference is, but if you are in the trap of just trying to make people comfortable, we're going to show you how to get out of that and how to transition to something more powerful, which is safety. But before we do that, a couple of things. First of all, we just on boarded a brand new cohort inside of builder ship University. And I love this, we only do it a few times a year now. And I love when when new people join builder ship university and get involved and start working on their visions, their missions, their core values, and starting to make change in your school. It's so much fun. Now build a ship University is closed and we're not going to open up another cohort until July. However, if you are sorry that you missed out on this last cohort, the best thing I can tell you to do is join the waitlist, the waitlist not only gives you advance notice of when the next cohort is opening so you can get in early and make sure you grab your spot. But occasionally, we will have an opening inside of builder ship university during that waitlist period in between cohort openings and we don't publicize it, we just go down the waitlist. And then we bring the next person on the waitlist up. And so if you join the waitlist, odds are that we might be contacting you sometime in between and saying hey, listen, there's a spot open and available Do you want it, so join the waitlist. In order to do that just go to build your ship and join the waitlist there.

Alright, let's talk about the difference between making people comfortable and making people safe. 

This is a trap that most leaders that I work with fall into, right it it's a natural human tendency as the building administrator, a lot of times you're the person who's in the middle. And so you spend a lot of time protecting your teachers from you know, district office mandates and from parents. And you also spend time trying to get teachers to do the work and we all need our permission, right. So if you lead by permission, and if you see yourself at all, as a servant leader, then you naturally fall into the camp of trying to get people comfortable. But here's the problem with making people comfortable with making sure that everybody feels like they are you know that they're heard and they're listened to that they feel good about working in your school, you can't control people's feelings and feelings are fleeting. And so the more you try to make people comfortable, the more you try to address their feelings, the more you become a slave to the whims of the people on your staff. And maybe you're feeling this already, you know, people are burned out right now people are tired. If this is the slog between now and the end of the school year, people are feeling a lot of pressure. And if you're worried about making people comfortable, then you're probably thinking right now okay, how do what kind of Teacher Appreciation gift can I give that will kind of let off a little pressure and steam for teachers so that they are happy to work here. So I don't lose teachers at the end of the year. You're probably thinking about, you know, I've got to move teachers into different positions. Oh, but I can't move that teacher because if I move that teacher she's gonna get mad and so I have to keep that teacher here. And so you you're you're doing a lot to work around people's feel Links. Maybe you're doing final evaluations right now and you're worried about having to give teachers feedback that's tough for them to hear. And you want to you're trying to you're you're up late at night, and your stomach is all in knots. Because you're trying to figure out how do you do that. And a lot of times, you end up backing off with the feedback, you really want to share, because you're worried about hurting teachers feelings. That's what happens when your focus is on comfort, you become a slave to people's comfort. The other thing that happens when you're focused on people's comfort, is that you hamstring your ability as a school to achieve your vision. Think about it, think about when you're most comfortable. 

Now for me, it's in the morning, when my alarm goes off my beds nice and warm, it's cozy. A lot of times because I keep the bedroom cold at night, the room is freezing cold. And I like to sleep in the cold underneath the quilts and the comforters. But the first thing that happens when you get out of bed in the morning is you have to go leave the warmth of your bed and the comfort of your bed to go into the cold, harsh, cruel world. At least that's how I feel I'm not a morning person. Think about how hard it is to change your position. When you're comfortable. Right? I remember, you know, as a kid, back in the days before even remote controls, you know, you your your your mom, or your dad might call you into the other room because they're on the couch, and they're comfortable. And they want you to get up and change the channel. Right? We when we're comfortable, don't like to be moved. And so when you work on making your staff comfortable, the unintended consequence is you put them in a position where they don't want to move. And that's why you hear things like we've always done it this way, this change is too much too fast. All these things happen, because we have been focused on making people comfortable. And then when we try to do some sort of change, it's like asking them to leave their warm, cozy, comfortable bed to try something new to step out into the cold, harsh, cruel world of that chilly bedroom. And so we got to stop focusing on trying to make people comfortable. About unfortunately, the leadership paradigm that's out there doesn't really give us another option, right? It's, it's, you know, you're working, because as a leader, you can't move unless everybody else moves with you. And so as a leader, you have to work hard to make people comfortable in hopes that they will choose to go where you want them to go. Because you can't move, you can't do anything. You can't accomplish anything until people who are comfortable decide to try something else. And why would they? I mean, why would I leave what I'm doing? If it's comfortable? If if there's no other incentive for doing so, why would I leave. And so you may find yourself in this trap where you really want to move your school towards that 100% vision, but you have a culture that's comfortable. Maybe you have a culture that's toxic, and the way that you're trying to get them out of that toxicity is trying to make them comfortable. And what usually happens in that situation is you spend all of your time appeasing the loud voices in order to see if those voices will die down. But you know, there's a saying we say this all the time around the mindsets office, give a mouse a cookie, and a one a glass of milk. 

That is the comfort mantra, right? 

You say, Oh, I want to make people comfortable. Let me give them a cookie. And maybe if they have the cookie, they'll move but no, what normally happens is you give them a cookie. And they're like, this is delicious, gotten the milk. And they stay where they are and they end up not moving. And you spent all this time and energy trying to get them to move by making them comfortable. And they get so comfortable that they don't want to move. So it's this never ending cycle. So instead of trying to make people comfortable, what builders do is we worry about making people feel safe. We know that comfort is often subjective. Comfort is a trap. We don't want people to be comfortable with anything less than 100%. Why would I try to make teachers comfortable when kids are still failing? And it's not about going in, you know, because a lot of times what people do say yeah, you're absolutely right. And then they go in and they say we're at comfort is over and they snatch away the blankets and they toss people out into the cold from oral and they say now thrive, go and do the thing and people get mad and push back and they fight you. Nobody wants the covers ripped off of them either. Right? So people feel like in a leadership paradigm they only have two options either cajole and comfort people, or turn into somebody they don't even recognize and to say I don't care about Got your comfort, this is about the kids and go hard and, and push. And what happens is you get a lot of resistance. So your options are either make people comfortable or become a horrible person and a mean person and rip the covers off and face a lot of resistance.

Builders say I don't want to give you those options. Those options don't serve our teachers, they don't serve our students. They're not in alignment with who we want to be as a school, because you can't maintain them, it's unsustainable. When builder says we want a third option. And the third option is that we're not going to try to make them comfortable, or we're not going to try to stop making them comfortable and rip the band aid off. The third option is we're going to go for something higher than comfort. And that's safety. When people feel safe, you're not focused on their comfort, you're focused on creating conditions that make people brave enough and empowered enough to do something bigger than themselves. And it allows people to do it when they're scared when they're uncomfortable. Trying something new is uncomfortable. But if I feel safe, it means that I can get comfortable with my discomfort and try anyway. And so you want safety, you want people to feel safe to take risk. You want people to feel safe and empowered to go and stretch beyond where they're currently comfortable. Because it's right for our kids. And it's right for them. You want people to feel safe, that that 100% vision doesn't mean that I'm going to crack the whip on you. It means and together as a school as a community, we are working towards our goal. You want people to feel safe to make mistakes, and learn from their mistakes. So they're they're not hiding their mistakes. You want people to feel safe to be vulnerable in the feedback conversation so that they can be reflective about their practice. That doesn't happen with comfort, it only happens with safety. So how do you begin to build safety, there are four things. And this comes from our summer reading pick last year, this was such a good book for me because it helped me realize and understand what true safety is and how to build it. And it's been such a great paradigm for thinking about how to create not only create safety, but how to analyze a culture to understand where the safety leaks are so that we can close those leaks, and make that culture safe. Because when people feel safe, that's when they're innovative. That's when they take risks. That's when they are more receptive to feedback, that's when they take more accountability and stop blaming other people, that's when they take more ownership, they have to feel safe. 

So there are four things that you need to create safety. 

The first thing is that people need to feel like they are included in the process. Now, when you first hear that, you might think of a touchy feely, everybody belongs. And let's give everybody a big hug. That's not what we're talking about here. being included. It's really about having a voice having a say in the process. And the builder should process is very intentional about inclusion. You see, the mistake that most people make about inclusion is they believe that inclusion means that you have to have everybody at every table all the time. That is not inclusion. That's chaos, right. And so we're not talking about making sure that every teacher has a say in every decision. We have in build a ship University, we have something called the decision making pyramid. And it talks about what decisions get made by whom. And it's based on not only your area of expertise, but your area of influence and accountability. So there are certain decisions that only teachers can make. There are certain decisions that only administrators can make, there are certain decisions that only district officials can make. And there are certain decisions that only kids and their families can make. When you understand what decision needs to be made by home, then everybody can be included. And everybody has a legitimate voice because they're speaking from their area of expertise, their area of of influence and experience. And so now when you bring people around the table, the collaboration is really true collaboration because everybody brings a piece that is uniquely theirs. When you create that kind of culture, then you have true voice not not just everybody participating, right? We often think that true inclusion is means that everybody participates, but participation and inclusion are two totally different things. And so what you want is you want inclusion. You want everyone to feel like they have a voice and a say about the areas that matter most to them. And that only happens when you truly understand what decisions are in the purview of everybody. And you help everybody understand that. So when you bring them to the table, now I can ask, okay, this is a decision that really rests with you. And this is a decision that's mine. And I'm not fighting for for control at the table, because everybody understands the role that everyone else plays. And that means everybody has to be included in the process, because we can't do the process without all the pieces. 

Do you see the difference? 

You know, we've got to stop participation trophies happening at the EPA school governance level, right, we have a lot of people sitting at the table and and adding to the conversation in ways that they're ill equipped to do so. And then people get upset because then later on, we do another, you know, we, we go in a different direction, and now they're mad. But the reason they're mad is because we weren't really clear about the role that everybody should be playing around the table. So we have a lot of people who are functioning outside of their roles, and that creates chaos. But true inclusion means that I am a valued member of this community, and I have something to contribute to this community. And by contract contributions are valued. That's the first step to creating safety. So not only do we have that, that decision making pyramid and build a ship University, we also are very clear about who owns what part, right, so the first thing you do and build a ship University. And as a builder, this is the first thing any builder should do. Whether or not you're in builder ship University, is you need a vision, mission and core values. And you've heard me talk about this before. In the past, we have created camels instead of vision statements, you know what a camel is a horse built by committee. And so we create a vision statement where we get everybody around the table, and everybody adds to that vision statement. But what happens is, as they're adding to that vision statement, the vision statement gets bloated, and less and less meaningful. The Vision belongs to the administrator and building the principal, or the superintendent, or the department head at the central office level, whoever is the person who has that position in the organization, that they're responsible for the vision, that's part of being a builder. Now the mission is CO created, and it's directly related to the vision and the core values belongs to your staff. So the core values belong to the people who are actually going to have to make them non negotiable. It makes total sense. And so now we are having those conversations, people can see where they how they are included in the process, and where they have ownership and also where they have accountability. And that creates a sense of safety. Okay, so the first thing is that people need to be they need to feel included and be legitimately included in the conversation. In order for that to work. Right. 

The next thing that you need is that people need to feel safe to learn. 

Okay, so this is really about creating opportunities for people to make mistakes without blame, shame and judgment. And that almost never happens in schools. It doesn't happen for the kids. And it certainly doesn't happen for the adults, we do a curriculum rollout. And then we do that we do a one day training, maybe if we're lucky, we shove a whole bunch of materials down people's throats. And then two days later, we're in with a checklist talking about are you implementing the curriculum with fidelity, I just got the thing, I don't understand it yet. I'm still trying to make it make sense. And there's no room for me to be able to do that be. And so what happens is, the moment you show up with your checklist, and you start throwing around words like implementation with fidelity, what you get is compliance, but you don't get true implementation. And the reason why you don't get that is because you didn't make it safe for people to learn. So in the builder ship model, we have what we call the six ease of execution, right? So there are six things there's the change process goes through an evolution, right, you don't really have instantaneous change. What happens is that as you bring in new things that you want to do in your school, you have to help people evolve their practice, to include those new things. 

And so there are six C's that are involved in that, you know, you get people excited first, and then you get them you give them a chance to explore push back, you give them a chance to, to really, you know, to understand and digest the ideas and the thinking around it and to raise questions. And you do that and allow people to do that without judgment without eye rolling and size and saying oh, see these people never want to do anything. Instead, you give people the opportunity to really explore Law, the idea so that the idea starts being this idea outside of them, and it really becomes a part of their thinking. And then the next step is you get them engaged. And during the engaged stage, it's just about people trying. And being able to do that in a non evaluative environment, what we do is we're saying, okay, you've got the training, now go do it, people need the opportunity to experiment, people need an opportunity to try different things. But at the engaged stage, the only thing I'm looking for, as everybody is making an attempt, and they're getting non evaluative feedback, to build on their attempts, so that they can get good at it before I show up with my checklist talking about fidelity. And what a lot of initiatives don't do is they don't give people that opportunity to practice to try to, to fail in a safe environment and a non evaluative environment, so that they can learn so that they can get better, so that you can get the fidelity you're looking for. So you need to make it safe for people to do that. And what that often means is that when people are learning something, you put the checklist away, and you build in a period of time, where you allow people the opportunity to try and fail, and put scaffolds and supports in place in the same way that we expect teachers to do for students, you stop villainizing failure, and you celebrate the attempt and give them feedbacks and some feedback and support around where they failed so that they can get better. 

When you do that, you'll begin to create safety. 

The third thing that people need is that they need an opportunity to make a contribution they need to, they need to be able to feel like the work that they're doing matters. And unfortunately, many schools treat teachers like cogs in a bigger machine. I mean, little things like we don't take and we pile things on teachers plate, so we don't take into account how this new thing impacts everything else they're doing. And when teachers give us feedback around that, we don't listen, we we ignore it, we say they're whining, or we say okay, well, well, you know, take something else off your plate. And we selectively pull things off their plate, and they you leave them feeling powerless, rather than giving people true opportunities to make a contribution is your school set up so that teachers have an opportunity to bring their ideas to the table their ideas get, get get considered in a way that treats their ideas as legitimate? When teachers give you feedback? Even if those that feedback comes in the form? It sounds like a complaint? Do we take it seriously? Or do we just kind of brush it to the side and make a judgment about them? Because they are complaining? Do we hear and see the person behind the complaint? Or do we just react to the complaint in a way that's defensive? Do we have opportunities for teachers to to bring ideas that they have about how schools should work how we achieve our vision to the table, you know, one of the things we always say and builders should be University is we say that you are stubborn on the vision, but flexible around the details. And so have you created a space where the vision, it's unchangeable, we are going to go for 100%. But how we get there is not just you figuring it out for teachers, but that you're bringing teachers together. And you're you're asking their opinions, you're asking them to start coming up with ideas about how we get there. And then you have a way to vet those ideas. That's not personal. Now, one of the first things you do in level one to build a ship University is you do something called the alignment architecture. And we built this, this, this process to help you be able to vet your ideas and the ideas of others in a way that's not personal. 

So when you bring when people bring ideas to the table, we don't just say no, we're not doing it, we take every idea, and we sift it through your vision, mission and core values. But we also sift it through the impact that you want to have the integrity that you want to maintain maintaining your program, and the ultimate identity of your school. And you the process gives every idea a score. Now the score does two things. One, if the score is a certain level, then you're saying this idea works. It works. It's an alignment with what we're trying to do, let's go ahead and pursue it. But if the idea doesn't make the right score, it's not personal. And the person can look at why it didn't make the score the cutoff score. And so for instance, it might not make the cutoff score because it's out of alignment with our core values. Okay, great. How do we adjust the idea so that it gets an align with our core values and then resubmit it? So the alignment architecture gives you a way to help people make meaning For contributions to the work without those contributions, or anybody who makes those contributions, doesn't it keeps them from feeling like they're being targeted, or it's personal or nobody ever listens to me, if the idea doesn't work, in fact, it shows them what part of the idea is not working, and give someone opportunity to revise that idea to make it work for your school. There's nothing more empowering than being able to have not only, you know, the, the opportunity to submit an idea to contribute, but getting feedback that makes my contribution better. And the more familiar people get with that alignment architecture, the better their contributions become. And so that creates a sense of safety, that I can take a risk, and then I can offer ideas. And it also creates, quite frankly, a sense of ownership. Because we're all in this together, we are trying to all achieve that 100% vision, and the better your you are at getting everybody involved everybody feeling like they're contributing to the work, the more you not only create safety, but the more you spark innovation, the more that you create a sense of ownership and community around the work. So to make people feel safe, you have to make them feel included, you have to make them feel like they have safety around learning that they're safe to learn that they are safe to contribute.

And here's the last one.

And I have to warn you, this is the one that's going to be the hardest for many of you, people have to feel safe to challenge the status quo, when they believe that things need to change. A lot of times, we get so you know, kind of invested in maintaining control, that we really don't make it safe for people to speak out. We don't make it safe for people to challenge what is existing. And when you do that, you do that to your own detriment, because you can quickly get into caught up into group think you you you get so enmeshed in your own concepts and ideas that you're not. You're not inviting dissent. And without that dissent, you don't you don't you don't think through and think deeply about what you believe is important. You just assume that everybody believes the same thing. And so how do you create a place where people feel safe to challenge the status quo? But also, how do you keep bad actors, people who don't have the best intentions, from just constantly challenging the status quo, just to create chaos and confusion, and derail the work that you're doing? Well, build as a builder, you have several different tools. The first most powerful tool is you have the vision, mission and core values. Once you get agreement, especially around those core values, then those core values govern how people challenge the status quo.

I'll give an example. I'll just use the mindsets core value of drama free work environment, right. So people can challenge the status quo. But if they do that in a way that brings drama, then they are out of alignment with our core values. So then they there's an opportunity for them to get back into alignment. And soon you will see whether they're truly legitimately raising an issue or whether they're creating drama. And if they're creating drama, the core values, say that's not welcome here, we don't do that here. That's a non negotiable, that has to stop and it nipped it in the bud it like we have another core value, which is that we have to figure it out that we don't just make excuses, that we don't just kind of go with the status quo. If there's a challenge somewhere, we have to figure it out. So that means that we have to come to the table and work on trying to find a solution. So if people are challenging the status quo at our company, and they're not bringing that forward as a way to figure something out a way to figure out how to better get at our vision that 100% of the people we serve, achieve their visions for their schools, then you're not trying to figure it out, you're just trying to cause chaos, go away from here, that's non negotiable. Now, if you're bringing an issue to the table, and you're challenging the status quo, in the spirit of figuring out how to better serve our clients, let's talk about it and we all have to be receptive to it. So do you see how the core values takes away a lot of the fear around people's motives for challenging the status quo, you expose that? So you keep people from creating chaos, but you still create an environment where people are raising issues.

What we do is we want to we get defensive and we let our defensiveness govern our response to people and so people don't feel safe to raise issues that are real issues. As hard as those issues are Hear those issues, win raise in the right spirit, make your school better. Now the second tool, we have to help people raise issues that kind of challenge the status quo is we have focus groups, I love focus groups. And every single time that I tell somebody, okay, well, that sounds like you need to focus group, there are issues that come up that have been under the surface that no one was even aware was an issue, but the focus group brings it out. And so focus groups are a safe place for people to challenge the status quo. Because it's not just them, they're having a conversation around the table, the raising issues, and it doesn't feel like you know, they don't have to, you know, generate the bravery to be able to come to your office and sit down with you one on one and raise these issues, it comes out in a safe environment of the focus groups. And so if you're not regularly having focus groups, with your teachers, if you're not regularly having focus groups, with your students and your families, you are missing a powerful opportunity to, to hear things that you wouldn't otherwise hear, but also a powerful opportunity to give voice to people who may not be you know, feel safe enough yet to be able to come to you and raise an issue. And the more you do that, and especially how you respond to that also sends a message that it's welcome done in the right way. And that creates that safety so that people will feel more and more empowered to do that, you know, without having to go to a focus group, they do feel like they can come to you and, and raise these issues and, and challenge the status quo when something isn't right, because we all get better from it. 

So just to recap, if you want to move from comfort to safety, there are four things you have to work on. 

The first thing is you have to work on making sure that everyone feels included. And that goes with helping everybody understand the role that they play in the organization, the contributions that they can make in the organization, and then bringing people to the table for true inclusion rather than just participation. 

The second thing is that people have to feel safe to learn, which means intentionally creating opportunities for people to make mistakes, to fail without being judged, creating opportunities for non evaluative feedback, so that people can get better and better and better in preparation for that evaluative feedback. 

The third thing is that we want to make it safe for people to contribute. So finding ways to help people make a contribution, being intentional, and then having a very depersonalized way to vet contributions and help people make better contributions, so that you're all moving towards your vision, mission and core values. And then the fourth thing is that you want them to feel safe to challenge the status quo. So giving people forums and encouraging people in those forums to challenge the status quo, I just thought of another thing that build another tool that builds a tab, that explore stage is a great opportunity to give people opportunities to challenge the status quo. In fact, during the Explorer stage, you intentionally surface pushback, that is the whole point of the Explorer stage. So the more you normalize that and the more you give a forum for the push back, where so that people can push back in a way that's appropriate, the more you encourage that challenging of the status quo. And the more you're able to leverage those challenges to make the work that you do better. 

If you do those four things, and you're intentional about doing those four things, your culture begins to shift, and it becomes less about worrying about people's individual comfort. And it's more about creating a place where people feel safe, to be innovative, where people feel safe to take risks, where people feel safe and empowered to take ownership of responsibility without fear of punishment, where people feel safe to speak up. But ultimately, where people feel safe to be their best selves. And when you do that, the entire culture begins to to to create you create this cohesion in your culture, where people start working together, you create the atmosphere that's greater than a family atmosphere, because now your community on a mission, and you are working towards a common goal and towards the common good. You create a place where you stop having so much drama, and everybody is just doing their best work every single day. But it won't happen. If you focus on comfort. It only happens when you create a place where people feel safe. So my challenge to you this week, is I want you to think about those four elements. We're what's missing in your school, are you intentional about creating the safety to be included to learn, to contribute and to challenge the status quo. And if you're not doing that, then my challenge for you this week is to start putting these elements of safety in place so that your teachers feel empowered. And you build a culture where everybody is focused on that 100% vision, like a belter. 

I'll talk to you next time.

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