Baylor Campus in the Fall

Maximizing Commitment in a Season of Change

By Anna H. Surratt

A Season for Change

There is a season for every activity under the heavens (Ecclesiastes 3:1) and we are in the throes of one of the most crucial seasons of our school year –  the beginning of the year. As school leaders, we are setting the course for the year with purpose-driven goals, high expectations for faculty and staff, and deep hopes for positive student outcomes. If there is a time for change to occur, it’s now. We design professional learning experiences to introduce new teaching practices, reorganize the master schedule to maximize student access to rigorous instruction, and reimagine the structures and outcomes for impactful teacher collaboration. Simply stated, we are asking people to change. 

Ronald Heifetz, one of the world’s foremost authorities on leadership, calls changes of this nature adaptive challenges. These change initiatives often feel risky to those involved because they involve value systems, attitudes, competencies, beliefs, identities, and require the coordinated efforts of multiple people. Recognizing the complex nature of these change initiatives requires that we also recognize the need to pair our aim accordingly while tending to the hearts and minds of those involved. Convincing people to change will never be enough. We need something more. We need people who feel safe enough to take dedicated actions on a journey of change, and own all of the resulting implications. 

Moving from Buy-in to Ownership

As I’ve supported schools through change management over the last decade, I often ask, “What deep hope are you striving for through this change?” More often than not, responses boil down to a singular hope (buy-in) and various beautiful versions of hoped-for outcomes for students. But, this is where we get off track. Buy-in cannot be our aim. Asking teachers to “buy-in” is synonymous with the age-old metaphor of leading a horse to water and attempting to force the horse to drink. 

What is the difference? At a recent Just Schools Academy hosted by the Baylor Center for School Leadership, Jon Eckert, Ed.D., professor of educational leadership, offered some clear and distinguishing characteristics of both buy-in and ownership: 

  • Buy-in communicates compliance and often feels more like a response to a sales pitch.
    Ownership indicates a self-actualized response to change that communicates a personal and collective decision to take action toward a shared goal. 
  • Buy-in feels like it is “done to” you.
    Ownership feels like an invitation to “do something with” you. 
  • Buy-in says, “Here’s the decision, now do it.”
    Ownership says, “Here’s an invitation into a decision-making process that will have results that matter to you.” 
  • Buy-in is about the mind.
    Ownership is about the mind and the heart. 
  • Buy-in is just the starting point.
    Ownership is a journey to lasting change. 

The bottom line – ownership is an invitation into committed action over time. 

Invitation to Commitment

Any time we deal with decisions that involve both the mind and heart of people, we risk rubbing against deeply ingrained values, attitudes, identities, and relationships – all of which serve as barriers to the desired change. However, if attention and intention are given to how we create the conditions for the collective and individual values, identities, and relationships to flourish, these barriers become catalysts that will bring to life lasting and impactful change. I offer four encouragements as you go about the work of change leadership this school year.

1. Communicate What is Not Changing

    Ronald Heifetz once said, “People don’t fear change, they fear loss.” We are attached to what we perceive we own. This includes tangible things like teaching tools and intangible things like time. When we lose what we perceive to own, uncertainty becomes the predominant emotion and people wonder what else will be lost. Therefore, we must be as clear about what is not changing as what is changing. With your teams, spend time mapping out what is and is not changing. Ask:

    • What worries people about this change? Why are they worried?
    • What impact will these changes have on individuals and our school?
    • Are there unmet expectations that are impeding change?

    Getting clear on these things helps us better empathize, communicate, and support our teams through the disequilibrium change produces. 

    2. Make Space for People to Process Personally 

    In a Harvard Business Review article by Jeannie Daniel Duck, she describes change as “intensely personal.” When a request for change is presented, people will first process it personally before thinking about the collective implications. Take for example a seemingly simple change to the meeting time for after-school faculty meetings. Staff with children will automatically begin processing the implications for their personal childcare coverage before they will appreciate and honor the benefits of the change in time to the organization as a whole. 

    When presenting a request for change, anticipate implications at the personal level and ask, “In what ways can we create systems of support for our individuals that make this change easier personally?” Be patient – once the personal level is tended to, the trajectory of the team becomes more collective in nature as the individuals have more time and space to consider the overall benefits to the group. 

    3. Appeal to Common Values

    As teams process the implications of change, one of my favorite questions to ask is, “What generous assumptions can you make about the values we are communicating as we go about this effort?” Creating space for teams to process this question individually and then collectively is an important part of moving from buy-in to ownership. Look for overlap between the organizational core values, those of the individuals involved, and the values embodied in the change initiative. Then, repetitively and explicitly elevate the places where those values intersect. In doing so, alignment between those involved and goals of the organization will communicate a unified purpose.  

    4. Elevate Voices at All Levels

    Identify the key players involved in the change initiative. “Who else needs to be at the table?” is a great starting point. Invitations to dissension on the front side of a decision are always more productive than uninvited dissent down the road, and dissension often occurs when there is a rub between those with power to make decisions and those impacted by decisions. To determine who else needs to be at the table, consider the following:

    • Who has the most power in this decision making process?
    • Who has the most ownership in this decision (who will be most impacted)?
    • In what ways might we elevate the decision-making power of those with the most ownership in the decision? 
    • In what ways might we shed light on the experience of those impacted by the decision? How does their experience inform the decisions we are making?

    This Ranking Map derived from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching provides a tangible map on which you can physically diagram the relationships among the individuals involved in decision-making as you aim to determine who else needs to be at the table. 

    To Whom are you Committed

    As we invite others to commit to the work of change initiatives, we must first and foremost set our eyes on Christ – remembering to whom we are ultimately committed as we engage in this work. You see, commitment to Christ is a commitment to transformative change that begins personally and results in Kingdom flourishing (2 Corinthians 5:17). He is the ultimate model for how to navigate the disequilibrium of change. He is clear on impactful loss and gain as we are transformed into his likeness (Matthew 16:25). He cares deeply for each individual and celebrates collectively as transformative change occurs (Matthew 18:12-14). He appeals to our deepest-seated values as he calls us into a life of justice, love, and relationship. He humbled himself (Philippians 2:5-8), coming in the likeness of man, so that we might have an advocate who sympathizes with us, making way for transformative, life-giving change to occur. 

    As the school season begins, let’s aim to maximize the commitment of each individual in our school with the end goals of a unified purpose and transformative, lasting change. 

    Anna H. Surratt is a Fellow with the Baylor Center for School Leadership and director of a private Christian school in Virginia Beach, Virginia. Prior to her recent positions, Anna served as a middle school math and science teacher in both public and charter schools, as well as a math specialist and later assistant principal and coordinator for professional learning for Virginia Beach City Public Schools. She developed a background in collective leadership, design thinking, and improvement science. Using that expertise, Anna supports work with 24 Improvement Community schools while helping to design improved change processes.

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