This suggestion is not for your “run of the mill” administrative meeting where you’re explaining policies or implementing new directives. This would be for those meetings where everyone’s input is important to generate new ideas, and to break down the silos between teachers, administration, and technology (which, interestingly, has gained a new importance in the role of education, and will be the topic of next week’s article).
On the surface, this article may sound as if it’s written with a tongue-in-cheek attitude. It probably would be if you only did one or two of the suggestions at your next meeting. However, when you employ all these suggestions simultaneously, each one will facilitate the other three, and some great things may very well happen.
Off-site. No great staff meetings happen on site. There are too many interruptions – phone calls, a parent shows up at the office, the FedEx guy comes to the door, etc. This is especially true when it comes to brainstorming sessions when everyone needs to have input. Consultant Patrick Lencioni has advocated that everyone needs to feel as if they’ve been heard in order to have buy-in to a new concept. While there are always early adopters in every group to fuel transformation, those that typically grind the process to a halt are those at the bottom of the totem pole who don’t want to change, are comfortable doing what they are doing, and, perhaps most importantly, are simply told what to do and believe their ideas are worthless. Why? They may actually have ideas that would be extremely beneficial to the organization because they’re usually the ones working directly with customers (and, those would be your parents. Interestingly, for schools that have realized they’re actually non-profit organizations, your donors could also be considered your customers). In a school, as in any business, the folks are your front-line people are probably those with the lowest compensation package. The typical view of management is that they’re easily replaceable because of their skillset. However, there’s usually a deep and meaningful reason that they’re engaged with your school. Look at their “complaints” as suggestions – valuable ideas based on their day-to-day experience. They need to think and feel they are able to express them in a forum based on the trust that they won’t be reprimanded for expressing these observations or ideas. If they are indeed chided in some verbal or non-verbal way, you’ve just lost an employee – perhaps not physically, but certainly mentally, who will then just do their job…until they find another one and leave you stuck.
Food. Have food at the meeting. Something easy. Pizza is always an easy choice, but consider heavy hors d’oeuvres. Why is that appropriate? Hors d’oeuvres translated means “outside the work,” and see how that combines perfectly with off-site! It’s also part of the systemic nature of our bodies. The action of digestion actually stimulates the body, while the physical action of chewing further contributes to it. That’s why conversation around the dinner table is engaging (and why we’re now so disconnected as a society since no one eats together anymore). Note that the person in the family that doesn’t want to talk is usually the one that doesn’t want to eat, or vice versa. For your meeting, this timing is of utmost importance, so eat while meeting. The absolute worst thing you can do is eat and then meet. That’s when the chewing stops, the action of the esophagus has been completed, and everything associated with digestion is happening in the lower digestive tract. The phenomenon of getting tired right after lunch is well-known because this is when the real work of the body starts. It’s exacerbated when an individual overeats, and then doesn’t feel well. Not only is that person’s attention focused on feeling better, but so is everyone else’s attention at the meeting, since they’re concerned about their colleague’s well-being and not on developing new ideas.
Wine. One glass. That’s it. It’s off-site, there’s food, and there should be drink. It’s a meeting, so professional decorum is expected. Of course have lots of bottled water, and perhaps some soft drinks, but, quoting Patrick Lencioni again, “Wine is the elixir of truth.” People need to feel that they’re able to express their thoughts and ideas, but may need to let their guard down a bit to do that. If people don’t need wine to express their thoughts and ideas, that’s great. However, many of the best ideas, discussions, thoughts, and projects have had their germination at some type of event where they were not encumbered by the walls and masks they utilize to protect their thoughts, feelings and actions. Of course, responsibility is an expectation, and making sure the situation remains controlled is extremely important.
Language permission. If you thought the last suggestion was radical, this one is even more off-the-chain. Allow vulgarity. For some folks, polite and correct conversation doesn’t convey the complete frustration people are feeling in terms of what they’re experiencing. In public, of course, this isn’t permissible. But, in a private setting, people need to be able to feel they can “get it all out” in a safe environment where there are people who care deeply about the organization with which they’re engaged. Talk about it. Shout about it. Swear about it. Everyone in the room is human, and every person in the room is dealing with other matters that, like it or not, really should take precedence over their job – a hospitalized child, a parent with a failing mind, a spouse’s addiction, or even hunger. Just to be able to express these things and not be viewed in a negative light is wonderfully empowering not only to the employee, but to the organization. To refer to Patrick Lencioni again, the first step to correcting a dysfunctional team is to allow “vulnerability-based trust” to enter the room. That means what an employee says will not be held against them in an evaluation or when pay increase discussions come along. Of course, someone who’s completely negative all. the. time. may need to be coached off the team, but a “valued employee” needs to “feel” (even more than “know”) that they’re valued.
While these four elements create a system whose “overarching principle” is a safe environment for productive ideation and discussion, there is always a fifth element that completes the system. That fifth element would be a facilitator. Usually, it’s the principal who has responsibility for planning the agenda for the meeting, and an administrative assistant sets everything up and makes sure everything is in place. However, consider that the principal and the administrative assistant, as well as teachers, administration and staff, are all around the table in this type of meeting environment. Someone else needs to be able to facilitate the discussions and the logistics so that all can effectively participate, rather than the leader continuing to fill the role of the leader, even at an off-site meeting.
After seeing that a facilitator at an offsite with food and beverages may be a great idea, then the question is asked about money – how much does this cost? Could it be beyond the scope of your school’s budget? Sure. But is it important? It could very well be. If an administrator looks at what it would cost, there are usually one of two thoughts that develop in response: “We can’t afford this” and “How can we afford this?” The quality of your meetings, and perhaps your organization’s future, will depend on which thought the school administrator has, and their subsequent actions in response to it.