Creating a safe learning community

“What does respect mean to you?” by retrokatz is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

I am teaching a leadership class at Temple for the first time. Since I agreed to teach the class, I have been vacillating between anxiety and excitement. It is definitely outside of my comfort zone and I have been worried about whether I am good enough. Since overcoming feelings of inadequacy and stretching has been at the heart of my leadership journey, I realize that I am not only the teacher, but this is an incredible opportunity for me to learn how to be a better leader.

The first class was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. After a quick summary of the structure of the class, I asked the entire class how we could create a safe learning community. Using the 1-2-4-All Liberating Structures, we established as a group how we would act and support each other on our growth journey. The list that the class created together was more comprehensive and better than the list that I would have created. They wanted to be able to be open and vulnerable and know that others would listen without judgment, as we practiced living the leadership principles that we would be learning.

Then we spent the rest of the class getting to know each other by telling our core stories. We arranged our chairs in a circle and each of us shared three core stories from our life and what we had learned from those experiences. 

Several people in the group got emotional, including me. We were sharing deeply about our struggles and our ability to overcome those struggles. We talked about health challenges, close relationships, death of loved ones, physical injuries and having to give up our identities of who we thought we were when unexpected challenges arrived. 

It was one of the most powerful experiences that I have ever had. There was so much wisdom and leadership in that room that had already been developed. I was reminded again that leadership is not about telling others what to do, but about creating an environment where the best ideas can surface and be shared.

At the end of the exercise, we talked about how differently we felt about the people in the room and the implications for leadership and life. As I was leaving the room, I realized that I don’t necessarily know the core stories of the people that I work with on a daily basis, and I am not sure how to do that in a safe and non-invasive way. 

I would love to hear about how you have created safe learning communities.

 

Playing together builds teams


Annual Temple Tech Olympics – Photograph by Michele Schinzel

We just held our second annual Olympics for Temple Tech. It is a time for our team to step away from normal work and play with each other in a relaxed setting. The day is organized by volunteers and is funded by my office. What a great investment in building our team. It was such a fun day!

This year we had better weather and more people came out to spend time playing games, eating, and socializing. Last year was our first time holding the event and many people did not attend because they said they did not have time. The fact that more people came was an indicator to me that it was more acceptable to attend this kind of event and step away from our normal work.

I spent the entire day at the event signally how important I believe playing together is in building relationships and teams. It was wonderful! I personally participated in the cornhole tournament and played volleyball, scrabble, and bananagrams. I was able to catch up with team members from across the organization and heard about family vacations and adventures outside of work.

The relaxed setting allowed several people to personally thank me for the impact that my style has had on the group, which I appreciated.

My favorite encounter was with Jay Holt, who shared his incredible experience skydiving, which he credited to the Wiser Way training that we did as a group last year. He talked about wanting to make stepping outside of his comfort zone a regular habit and that skydiving was his first big step toward doing that.

Our jobs in IT are stressful much of the time because we help people who are experiencing technical problems, have an inexhaustible demand for our services, and run the systems for the entire university that need to be available all of the time. We work in teams solving problems and getting projects done all of the time, so we are used to working together and enjoy solving problems and building solutions that serve our students, faculty and staff.

Playing together is such a delightful break from the normal interactions that will strengthen our ability to work together under stressful situations. It builds connections and stronger relationships, gives everyone a needed break, and promotes having fun at work. As we wrapped up the day, the planning group was already talking about what they will do next year to make it better and my leadership team was talking about how to encourage more team members to take a break and join us.

 

Powerful Insights from Walking the Gemba (Squats are optional)

Morning Squats at the Help Desk

There is no substitute for doing front-line work to understand what is going on in your organization. In lean manufacturing, this is called “Walking the Gemba” and it is powerful.

One of my favorite times each week is the hours I spend working on the front line of our computer help desk, which is the nerve center for our group. As the CIO of a large university, it is very difficult to understand what it is like for our students, staff, and faculty to use our systems. Working on the help desk has been invaluable in understanding, strengthening my relationship with the team, and improving the services we provide.

The beginning of each semester is crazy and I want to be able to help during these busy times. So I started spending two hours each week getting trained and working on the help desk a month ago to be ready when school starts in the fall. Because we need to cover large surges of demand, the Client Services team is launching the  “Ambassador” program this summer and asking staff from across Computer Services to volunteer to help during busy times. I am the first Ambassador in the program. The training materials that have been gathered to train me will be used for the other ambassadors. The entire network engineering group has signed up! It has been wonderful to watch the willingness of people to pitch in and help.

I have seen first-hand the pain of some of our processes and convoluted systems. I ask a lot of questions about why we are doing things a certain way. As a result, we have been able to have conversations across campus that have improved processes and systems.

As an example, we currently ask prospective students to login to our portal to see their decision about whether they have been accepted to the university or not. Many of these prospective students don’t remember their credentials and can’t get into their account, which is frustrating and time consuming. It is especially frustrating if the student is not accepted to the university and may have to spend 30 minutes logging in only to be disappointed. When we brought this up with the Admissions office, they agreed to change the process to notify the students in email rather than requiring them to login. My experience on the front line reinforces how critical it is to listen to staff at all levels for suggestions.

Another thing about working on the help desk is that it is very rewarding. When you help to solve a technical problem, most people are grateful and happy. Whether it is assisting  an employee print their tax documents on tax-day or helping a student get into their account and hearing the relief in their voice, it feels great knowing that you made someone’s day better.

The best part is the help desk team. They are amazing! They have been so welcoming and patient with me. When I wake up and see on my calendar that I have my help desk time, it makes me happy. I know I have become officially part of the team because I was invited to join the team squat session. I was quite impressed to find that there are several team members who do 100 squats each morning and afternoon. Ken Ward, the self-appointed squat leader, let me off easy my first time. We only did thirty. And I was sore for the rest of the week even though I exercise every day!

My challenge for you this week is to “Walk the Gemba” to get to know the people in your organization and understand how things really work.

 

Stopping the Negative Downward Spiral

CC BY 2.0 - Spiral Stairway by aotaro on Flickr
CC BY 2.0 – Spiral Stairway by aotaro on Flickr

As we are opening up different ways of communicating and working together across campus, it is exposing gaps in expectations, lots of fears, and many stories. Sometimes very talented and committed people escalate their frustration, pick lines in battles between groups, and reinforce negative perceptions about individuals, creating a negative downward spiral. For many reasons, this is a common and understandable pattern that I’ve observed on several occasions.

I am sure everyone one of us can relate to being indignant over the actions of others. I certainly can. I have felt disrespected. I have felt that there is no way to satisfy someone’s expectation. I have felt criticized and unappreciated. I have felt fearful that I am not going to be able to get my work done successfully. These situations make us feel uncomfortable and they are not easy to work through.

The good news is that we are talking about our concerns and frustrations openly and with each other. That is a first step. Now we have the opportunity to work together to change these negative patterns..

We each have the ability to stop the spiral.

As we start talking directly to each other about our concerns in an open way, we are not going to do it perfectly or, even very well. When you receive negative feedback, you may want to withdraw and communicate less. This is the time to communicate more, not less. Try to have empathy and patience with yourself and each other. We are all practicing a new way of communicating and working together. The information that we get, even if it is not delivered perfectly is so valuable. Feedback can help us know where we have not been clear enough and what isn’t working.

We also need to try and assume good intentions from others. This is foundational because it helps regulate our response and keeps us open to listening. I have found it important to also check my own intentions to see what I really want. When my intentions are based in fear and are not positive and supportive, it is difficult to imagine that others are acting more altruistically than I am.

Most importantly, we need to acknowledge our part in creating the negative downward spiral and environment. I had a situation at work where I was constantly frustrated with a smart and negative colleague who was very critical of me and my team. I avoided him and minimized his feedback. This had been going on for years.  At the urging of my coach, I deliberately practiced withholding personal judgment, spent time talking with him personally, and looked for opportunities to acknowledge his contributions publicly. He became a friend and advocate. That was such a powerful lesson for me because I couldn’t see my own part in creating the negative pattern. I thought it was all his fault.

As I have shared these principles with several individuals, I have been appreciative about how open they were to change and willing to partner to create a more positive, effective, and collaborative team environment across all of the groups at Temple.

My invitation to you this week is to commit to doing your personal part to stop any negative downward spirals in your world.

Collaboration, more than just a checklist item

collaboration-puzzle
By lumaxart (Working Together Teamwork Puzzle Concept) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

 

 

Collaboration is an overused term, especially in higher education. I have used it myself, often and broadly. Despite its general overuse, I added it to my top five characteristics that are required to create empowered and engaged employees. So this is my attempt to describe how collaboration looks and feels and how I have sharpened my definition as I work on being a positive leader.

Collaboration is not just a checklist item on a project plan
As a project manager over major systems implementation, I have added collaboration checkpoints to make sure we were actively engaging with the many constituents who wanted input into decisions. This is a vital part of a project when people really contribute to the decision making process so their participation shapes the outcome.

In the past, I often knew what I wanted the outcome to be and treated input and collaboration as necessary and time-consuming checklist items on my project plan. I’ve learned that when this happens for me, I know that I am not really collaborating, but just going through the motions of collaboration. I have certainly been on the other end of this, when I am called into a meeting or put on a committee where the outcome is already determined. When collaboration becomes just a checklist item on a project plan, it feels like a waste of time for everyone involved because it is. When this happens, it increases cynicism and disengagement.

Collaboration is different than consensus
I have often confused collaboration with consensus. They are not the same. Consensus focuses on coming to agreement on a decision while collaboration encourages the sharing of creative and innovative ideas. When I have been in a full consensus environment, it did not feel like an open space of risk and change where ideas could percolate and lead to richer outcomes. Consensus is often rooted in politics and in trying to please everyone, which is not possible when you are a leader. In a full consensus environment, anyone could veto an idea, which I have seen paralyze an organization.

Collaboration is deeper than sharing ideas and experiences
One of the great things about being in higher education is the willingness of colleagues from other institutions to share their experiences. I am at Educause this week, where the entire event revolves around peers sharing what they have learned with others. Yesterday, I was fortunate enough to participate in a workshop at the conference that moved from sharing to true collaboration, as I worked with a peer from Temple to analyze the root causes of barriers in promoting student success across campus.  Collaboration goes beyond the sharing of ideas. It involves working together to create something or to solve a problem.

Collaboration is giving away the power of controlling an outcome
Giving away my desire to control an outcome is the hardest thing for me to do and something that I am continually trying to improve upon. However, my experience is that when I have given away the control and actively partnered with others, things go so much better than when I try to control outcomes. Exerting control is based completely in fear, naturally causes resistance, and makes it harder to get things done. I used to think that it was my job to sell ideas and solutions. I have learned that selling is not collaboration, it is trying to get others to buy into your idea or solution.

Collaboration is actively engaging with willing partners to co-create solutions
I love Eric Dube’s reframing of collaboration as co-creation. The key to full employee engagement is for our processes and systems to be co-created by the people who will be using them. The overwhelming openness to work together across the entire campus on our strategic web project is a recent example of how having open conversations and extending the invitation to help solve long-standing problems is welcomed and appreciated.

Collaboration is creating a safe place to share ideas and openly challenge each other’s ideas
Creating a safe environment for sharing and challenging ideas is perhaps the most critical part being a leader. Actions speak much louder than words. When I am being humble and vulnerable, it creates a safe place for others to do the same.

One of the most powerful ideas that I have embraced as a leader is that it is not my job to come up with all of the ideas or solutions, but to ask good questions to expose ideas that will help the team create solutions. We then can have the conversations that will remove barriers and move us forward.

Collaboration is amazingly fun
True collaboration feels good and is an amazingly fun way to work. It is delightful to create innovative and interesting solutions with others in a supportive environment. I have found that engaging a skilled facilitator or using liberating structures are both helpful in promoting collaboration.

If you are collaborating and it is extremely painful, I would suggest that you or your collaboration partner might be trying to control rather than collaborate. Something to think about this week.