Saturday, May 11, 2013

How to Demotivate Your Staff

It’s surprising how often and how quickly thoughtful and well-meaning educational leaders can lose their way.  It begins with an Idea.  (I have suffered from Ideas often enough myself to know their dangers.)  Next, there is a flurry of meetings and planning sessions to organize the Implementation. (I have sat through, and even led, enough of them to know how exciting they can be, how sensible, inspirational, and certain-to-solve-everything a plan looks on charts and mind-maps.)

Then there is the Stumbling Block.  “They” (the front-line workers who must implement this Idea; in the case of education, the target for Change is most often teachers) must “buy in.”  Unfortunately, “they” are inevitably “resistant to change” or “unwilling to learn” or “unenthusiastic” about joining committees, attending after-school sessions, going to the book-club.  Still, a hardy handful always go along and, given their own faith in their own Idea, leaders invest the resources.  The school or district or province Changes.  And gets lost down some obscure path while everything else stays exactly as it was before the Change – or worse – since time, energy and resources have been siphoned off for the Change (that changes nothing).  Ironically, the more such failures occur, the more insistent leaders are that Change is what is needed.  School districts are now hiring principals of “Innovation and Change.”  You can’t sit through a meeting, read a school plan or discuss education without the words “innovation,” “change” and “21st century initiatives” topping the agenda.

But the plans will never work, no matter how many resources are squandered in “implementation,” and it isn’t because change isn’t necessary or that resistance stands in the way.  Margaret Wheatley, in Leadership and the New Science, explains: "Change doesn't happen from a leader announcing a plan.  Change begins from deep inside a system, when a few people notice something they will no longer tolerate, or respond to a dream of what's possible….We don't have to start with power, only with passion."

Having spent years working to implement Plans, I have finally, over the past few years, begun to understand what Wheatley means.  Plans continually stall and fizzle, despite careful tending; passionate change from within blossoms, even when no one is watching.  Here’s an example.  Like most districts, we have a resource centre.  For many years it was led by a district librarian, a director of instruction, a number of resource teachers, several clerks and two couriers a week to carry resources to and from schools.  Then, over years there were reductions.  By last year, only one clerk, a few resource teachers, none with specific leadership over collection, and a weekly courier remained.  However, a group of people said – this is an important resource that, with some effort on our part, can be improved to meaningfully support teachers and their students.  Keeping in mind limited budgets and very limited clerical support, the group of mostly teacher-librarians set to work to solve the problem.  The plan grew organically as the group worked together and with others.
  • Use a portion of the budget to bring in teacher-librarian teams to weed and rethink the aging collection for more effective, equitable and efficient use.
  • Create digital “rooms” with lesson plans, online resources and teacher-mentor contacts to supplement the resources and support effective use.
  • Build a “learning commons” at the District Resource Centre – a virtual and physical space for educators to learn, think, share, and grow.
  • Develop a social media presence to showcase the resources, as well as to provide a way for educators to engage in co-creating a space that meets their needs.
  • Connect with and leverage the many passionate groups of educators to co-develop the resources.
Getting started took courage, commitment and enormous swaths of time.  The group had to learn about social media, digital collections, and learning commons.  They consulted with provincial colleagues, their staffs, and the various learning groups in our district (educators passionately working together are commonplace, but leaders rarely notice them if their interest doesn't dovetail with the Plan).  The work spilled over, of course, to after-school and weekends.  Within months, phase one of what at first seemed impossible had been completed.  Needless to say, a good deal was left to do, but the team that included passionate clerks and technicians, the teacher-librarians, and a growing number of others excited by the excitement and the invitation to participate were looking forward to restarting in September.

But in September, under new leadership, the district reorganized; the limited leadership at the DRC was removed and the project ground to a halt.  A retired superintendent from a different jurisdiction was brought in to tour the DRC and pronounced it inadequate.  The decision was made to close the facility and disperse the resources.

There is now a Plan for Change.  All the difficulties our district currently faces will be fixed.  If only teachers weren't “resistant.” If only they would take the time to learn, to go to the book club, to join the committees, attend the workshops.

The problem isn't that it is a bad Plan.  It is simply that when leaders announce a plan rather than growing it,  they blindly, blithely, overlook the passion in their midst:  years of committed work is dismantled, careful building over time is kicked over, passionate commitment is bled dry as each new leader – at a school, at the district, in the province – announces their new Plan for Change.

It’s surprisingly easy to demotivate a staff.  All you have to do is to create a Plan and then push, prod, and pigeon-hole people to fit it.  You must simply demolish, devalue, omit and overlook passionate work. You need to spend resources trying to “motivate” people to do what you want them to do, rather than engaging their intelligence, their creative energy, and their passionate commitment.  You must merely forget that the answer isn't in a plan, but in the people.


  1. Hi Shelly
    I certainly think that when leaders do not listen to their best resource, the people who work under them, resistance is created. Although growing a plan from the ground up is such a simplistic concept, it can easily be overlooked when the leaders can only see things through rose coloured glasses.

  2. Yes, I like your point about rose coloured glasses. Everything seems simple - rosy - when we map it out in our plans, but on the ground, there are obstacles AND strengths that are not taken into account.

  3. Great words Shelley,

    It is also interesting when people bring in programs from elsewhere. In programs that teach about managing change, they always talk about assessing what is working and what is not working in the current system. It seems like some new management will step in and implement broad sweeping change without really considering the local context. Local context is important, because even if a program is absolutely perfect in other places, local issues could interfere with the success of any plan or program. :)

    Thanks for the great read Shelley!

  4. Agreed. Local context is so critical. I love Ernesto Sirolli's talk about how leaders need to "shut up and listen":