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School employees have been battered by change in recent years – high turnover, new metrics, funding shortages and on the receiving end of too many complaints and not enough compliments.

For a principal trying to create a better environment for employees and students – it’s an uphill climb over an unpleasant pile of perceptions from the past.  This is draining capacity – which is simply the ability to get things done. 

How do we engage our people in a collective effort for positive change?

Principals Can’t Fly Solo

At some point in their career, every leader gets the lecture of trying to take on too much. It’s true that leadership traits do lean entrepreneurial. School leaders are no different – but the environment we work in doesn’t lend itself to implementing change.

Even the most accomplished leaders can find themselves swimming against the current. There’s so much to be done, teachers and staff are wary and tired. They’re not sure who they should trust.

Maybe the solution is for you to trust them first.

Show Confidence in Your People

Schools are full of smart people with great ideas. How many of them get heard, much less implemented? Decision-making is often rendered by edict – sometimes from outside the school itself. Morale suffers, and the field has difficulty retaining experienced teachers or attracting new ones.

People feel undervalued with little or no control over their work environment.

A principal can offer the chance for people to truly participate.  To share ideas, solve problems. A good leader wants to rejuvenate the staff, get people excited about what they do.

Sounds great on paper. But if you don’t have enough capacity to execute it – your credibility is toast.

How do you build capacity? You delegate.

And Handing Out More Work Helps How…?

Delegation doesn’t mean dumping more work on people – it means trusting good people to do good work. It might sound hokey, but if you want your people to believe in you, you have to believe in them first.

A strong leader attracts people, creating a connection to a common good. People become engaged and energized.  They want to be involved. But if their role in the grand plan is to simply to sit on the sidelines while you do the work – you’ll lose them.  Lose their talent, their enthusiasm, their belief in you. Because being part of something means actively taking part in it.

By excluding their participation, you sent a message that none of them could be trusted to help you. Not exactly a good way to build confidence. If your boss doesn’t see you as capable, it doesn’t exactly inspire you to go the extra mile.

It’s a loss of capacity. It’s one less person who’s on board to back your vision. It’s one less person who’s willing to help. Which of course is exactly what you’re trying to avoid. When you cultivate trust, you improve people’s confidence in themselves and you.

Evidently not such a grand plan after all.

Delegate Successfully

The more people who participate in executing your agenda, the stronger your school becomes. There is a huge difference between giving lip service to the boss’ ideas and having a dog in the hunt.

You can set up multiple small teams to cover more ground quickly. Make sure you publicly affirm their efforts and express your confidence in them. Keep an open sign up form for people who might want to engage in the next round of projects.

Here are some ways to turbo-charge your team, build their trust and increase your capacity.

Start with a To-Do List

Organize your thoughts before you approach your people. Put together a list of things you’d like to see done – include some short-term and long-term projects. The short-term projects typically make for a faster win, but be careful to make the work meaningful.

You could offer a survey on your priorities to get feedback. Keep it optionally anonymous but give people the option to express interest in helping with a specific project on the list.

Also, consider creating teams to find solutions for specific problems or obstacles as opposed to a more concrete task. For example, find solutions to teacher isolation. That might feel less like “more work” – instead it’s a chance to act in their own best interest.

Make sure the tasks and outcomes are within your authority. If you put people to work on projects that require outside approval, make sure team is aware of that fact. It must be clarified that the working group’s output is a proposal that will be submitted to the decision-making authority. No guarantees.

If that’s not clear, the trust relationship is off to a rocky start.

Choose Your Teams

Different tasks involve different skills, but try not to put people in a box. Look for enthusiasm as well as skills. People who like to learn are often motivated by tasks that aren’t quite in their sweet spot.

Every assignment you make should come with clear instruction on what outcomes are expected – not necessarily minute directions on how to get them. Part of this venture is to model an open, trusting relationship that makes it okay to ask for help if needed.

That said, it only makes sense to play to people’s strengths. Assigning a detailed, analytical project to someone who tends toward creative work may not be helpful for the person or the project.

Clarify Expectations

Each assignment should have clear timelines and priorities. You may even want to set a date for the various projects to report out, say at a small assembly on a designated teacher work day.

Ask each group to hold a kickoff meeting to decide on a schedule and assignments. Encourage the use of collaboration tools like Google Docs and Google Calendars. Your role is to make sure they know what you expect and that you are available to help if needed.

Set up a structured update schedule so the group can keep you in the loop. This can be done via email or a shared report on Google drive.

Step Back & Let Them Go

The birds are ready to leave the nest – can you let go?  Of course, you know that intellectually, but you might need to do self-check periodically.  

One of the reasons that you provide clear direction on timeframes, deliverables, and structured updates is so that you can step back. That’s part of the trust you’re trying to build. Your actions demonstrate your confidence in them.

Also, understand they may make mistakes. Will you still trust them then? You should. Mistakes happen all the time, and a good leader doesn’t automatically invalidate a person who makes one.

Just as importantly, get used to the idea that the team may not approach their assignment the same way you would. One of the biggest challenges in giving up control is remembering there’s more than one route to any destination.

Monitor, Don’t Meddle

You do need to stay aware of your teams’ progress without trying to micromanage them. Pay attention to their updates. Does anything seem off kilter? How should you respond if you’re not sure they’re staying on track?

The obvious answer is to find out why. But before you step in, do a quick self-assessment. Make sure this is really about a problem in the team versus any difficulty with letting go of control.

Sometimes unhealthy dynamics can occur in working groups – where one personality dominates the discussion. Other team members may feel they’re being shut down or their ideas aren’t getting heard. Other times, the group can get off on a tangent and lose focus on its original priority. The off-shoot may be close enough to the original that they don’t realize they’re off track.

The tone of your response is the critical factor in a successful adjustment. Talk to the team either individually or as a group to get a better understanding of what’s involved. Practice active listening and listen for undercurrents.

Resolve personality issues privately. Reset direction in a group setting, diplomatically explaining the need for the adjustment.

Consider too that problems can be the result of a skill gap. Sometimes as the group moves forward, they hit a snag because of a missing core competency. Depending on the group and the complexity of the missing skill, you can offer training or simply add another person to the team.

Compliment Effort

Whenever people volunteer to contribute beyond what their job description requires – they deserve a big round of applause. No matter what the outcome, the effort alone has to have value.

Being trustworthy is about the willingness to try. People who give of their time but are unable to reach the desired outcome need support. Not every venture will succeed, even with a concerted effort.

So, acknowledge your teams. Use language that affirms your confidence in them, that clearly states your trust in their work, your appreciation for their effort.

Delegation isn’t a one-off. The trust you build today will be needed tomorrow.