Political & Organizational Savvy – It’s Not Just About The Kids

August 2, 2018

If you want to make systems change, it’s critical to be organizationally savvy.

Some educators tell me they “aren’t political.” They don’t want to get involved in the “drama” of the organization. They went into teaching to avoid all that organizational “stuff.”

Yet as Steve Maraboli, behavioral science academic, once tweeted, “Your fear of the truth does not hide or dilute it.” We all have come to terms with the reality that we are working within a system and we need to know how to communicate well within that system.

Dr. Robert Marshak. author of Covert Processes at Work: Managing the Five Hidden Dimensions of Organizational Change, opened my eyes to seeing through the organizational lens. He has a set of questions to think about in terms of organizational change and being more organizationally savvy. I mentioned these questions in my book, Hard Conversations Unpacked, and will reiterate them here.

Ask yourself the following questions as you look toward the success of your organizational conversations and your implementation of new initiatives at your site.

Who are the stakeholders with interests related to this change and, based on their needs, how might they perceive this change? There is always someone affected by the conversation even though they aren’t directly involved. Team members, secretaries, colleagues, family members—everyone will be impacted to some degree. Be prepared to consider shifts in these people’s lives as well. For example, will a secretary be given additional work if there is a re-org and her boss is promoted and how will she react to that news? How will that impact the relationship she currently has with her supervisor?

What sources of power or influence do these stakeholders have to impact the change? Do they have greater pull than you? For example, if you change something within the realm of educational services, how does that change impact human resources? Might you need to go rally support if you are new to the work and the person in this other department is of the old guard and might want things to stay status quo?

How will you deal with each critical stakeholder to ensure support for the change? How can you anticipate what these individuals will think and speak to it during your conversations—perhaps by addressing their concerns from the start? Going to informal power players and getting their take on a change so they are in the know from the beginning might help you to not be steamrolled during a major meeting and have your initiative put on hold or dismissed.

Will you need to modify your proposal to gain enough support by those who could block your plan? Are you willing to modify what you want if someone outside the conversation holds more sway than you, and if so, how? Figure out your negotiables and non-negotiables before the conversation. I watched a block schedule rollout go through many iterations so that it was not opposed or revolted against.

How will you continue to monitor the shifting needs, interests, and political processes as the change unfolds? Remember, these conversations are not one-time talks; they are ongoing processes that will take several discussions and most likely several months or years. It is a marathon, not a sprint. Every hello in the hallway counts. Every exchange is another opportunity to see what the needs are at this time.

How will you work with the covert processes at play during this change? I have seen a dynamic of the good child and the bad child play out between superintendents and principals but no one acknowledged it. I have witnessed “conflict archeology” come to the surface in conversations when the discussion shifted suddenly to someone who worked for the district in the 1990s(!) and took away someone else’s job 30 years ago.

We bring our histories with us to the present. I call this bringing historical and personal baggage with you to the professional present. Make overhead bin space available because no one comes alone. It is key to have enough emotional or psychological intelligence to be able to deal with the unconscious defenses that will come into play.

If you want to make systems change, it’s critical to be organizationally savvy. There are organizational biases and processes at work even if we don’t want to see them. It isn’t all about the kids. All of us need to understand what isn’t being said as much as what is, because it impacts our ability to be influential and make the changes we want to see.

This post was originally published as the twelfth in a new column Jennifer writes for eSchool News. In her column on ‘Personal Development’, Jennifer focuses on tangible takeaways, tools and teachings that all those working in schools can use to develop their leadership. Read more about the column and browse past and future content here.

About Jennifer Abrams

Jennifer Abrams

Jennifer Abrams considers herself a "voice coach," helping others learn how to best use their voices – be it collaborating on a team, presenting in front of an audience, coaching a colleague and supervising an employee. Jennifer holds a Master's degree in Education from Stanford University and a Bachelor's degree in English from Tufts University. She lives in Palo Alto, California. Jennifer's publications include Having Hard Conversations, The Multigenerational Workplace: Communicating, Collaborating & Creating Community and Hard Conversations Unpacked – the Whos, the Whens and the What Ifs. She has also created a Corwin Press e-course by the same name.

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