This fall, we opened a new school building. It’s a beautiful facility and designed for 21st century education, so there are a lot of positives to focus on, which my faculty and staff have been very consciously doing throughout the stress of acclimating to a new building while orienting students to it and to the demands of middle school. At the same time, there are numerous open construction projects, delayed work, and daily frustrations, and with each passing week, we’re having to recalibrate our focus to remain optimistic but realistic, positive but not delusional. I find myself treading the tightrope between cynicism–refreshing in its own way, but rarely constructive–and toxic positivity.
In my building, I am lucky to have a building representative for the Education Association who is willing to take me up on my “open door” policy, often asking me the questions that others won’t because they don’t want to cross a line or because they fear administrative or reputational blowback. By contrast, he will ask questions, respectfully but often pointedly, and hold me accountable for redressing issues of concern. He will call me out for decisions while remaining open to listening to other perspectives on a matter, and also thankfully understands when things are out of my control. (Also thankfully, he has put pressure on me to take more assertive positions with matters that may be technically out of my control, but nevertheless need more vociferous representation with the other authorities impacting our operation and culture. But, those are stories for another day!)
When he walked into my office on Friday, I made a quick guess about which of the numerous issues was casting long shadows across his face: Don’t tell me: printing! (Upgrades to the system over the summer resulted in issues across the network once school opened back up, causing printing to be unreliable. Combine that with the long walk to the new copier rooms, only to find out that what you sent to the printer never came out, and you’ve got a headache that has moved beyond frustration to straight-up rage and, in some cases, outright despair.) As it turns out, that was only one of several mounting frustrations, which by the end of the long week, were in danger of boiling over due to the lack of any evident progress.
The new building has a cutting-edge HVAC system, which far outshines the old system of “heat, or open windows.” Air conditioning, filtration, radiant heat; it’s the promised land. Except, that promise isn’t panning out. It was too cold in the summer when teachers came in to set up classrooms. Ever since opening, there have been areas that are too cold one day and too warm the next. The building overall feels humid. Stairways often have the heaters blowing while classrooms are trying to turn down the A/C. It’s mind-boggling and deeply disheartening.
The new building received LEED Silver certification thanks to a number of environmentally-conscious design measures ranging from green appliances and materials to passive cooling design to eco-conscious use of electricity. One of these last measures has caused endless frustration: most of the classroom outlets are on a schedule to shut off when unoccupied, preventing “ghost trickle” in the wiring. The timer programming hasn’t been done yet because about half of the lightswitches were back-ordered and we are still awaiting delivery. Outlets weren’t operational when teachers needed them, so the solution was to turn on the circuits full-time. This overrode the occupancy sensors, which means the HVAC system has no way of knowing when it should or shouldn’t be running. The programmer has no intention of coming back to the site until the light switches are installed, so they can do it all at once.
So, I explained all of this to the building rep, and reminded him I had talked about all of this at the Faculty Meeting last month. Did I anticipate it still being a problem at this point? No. Is it anything I have any control over? No. Have I been screaming and yelling about it to the contractors for the past month? Yes. But, we can all see how far that’s gotten us. He acknowledged all this and ended up recommending an update at the next Faculty Meeting. I agreed and was appreciative of hearing the full list of staff concerns, so I am less likely to overlook significant issues in my updates.
But, to be honest, I was thinking about it as I headed into the weekend: Do people think I’m not still hammering these issues with the contractors? Do people think nothing’s being done? I try not to be self-centered in this way because I understand that it’s usually not that personal; people just want things to be fixed and don’t waste much time thinking about how it’s making me feel–rightly so! I wanted to spend some time thinking about ways I could have avoided the frustration as well as where it came from.
This weekend, I happened to pick up a back issue of The Atlantic and came across an article by Jerry Useem in which he described “a deepening recession in… trust” impacting the economy. He identifies the reliance upon trust and integrity in greasing the wheels of capitalist investment, pointing to the research of Paul Zak and Stephen Knack among others, who surveyed people on others’ trustworthiness and found positive correlations between faith in others and economic growth. It never ceases to amaze me how something often seems to cross my path serendipitously in moments like these, with the exact information I need to illuminate my thinking, or with something obliquely related–as in the case of this economic article–which shines an informative light to widen my perspective or loosen up my thinking to a new lens.
Writing in December 2021, Useem was interested in the decreasing faith between bosses and remote workers, showing how trust plummeted as the pandemic months wore on. Management wanted to reassert control over workers by returning them to office spaces or increasing surveillance of their remote work with digital tools. Importantly for my weekend reflections, this was a two-way street. Workers at the same time had less faith in management, the mission, and even their colleagues. Useem points to evolutionary biology to remind us of the animal nature of physical proximity acting as a social lubricant: supporting collaboration for innovation, enrichment and enhancement of practices, and collegiality itself, the sense that we’re all headed in the same direction.
This is a useful mindset for me in my leadership role. I often take a “set it and forget it” approach: if I’ve told people we’re working on something, I expect them to just trust that and wait for it to be resolved. I’ve learned through the years that I need to be more conscious about sharing updates, reporting progress and hiccups, and creating space for additional input or feedback. For example, I’ve always had an “open door” policy as noted above. I have learned that if I don’t reiterate that often and tie it to specific situations that illustrate the sincerity of this policy (Your union rep came to me last week. As you know, I have an open door policy and am happy to speak with any of you as concerns come up. I really appreciate your rep taking advantage of that open door to come talk through with me some of the concerns that folks have been sharing with him. For what it’s worth, a lot of what we discussed are things I’ve been working on for weeks, even though I know it probably doesn’t look that way since progress has been minimal!), folks either don’t think to open up or develop a belief that “it’s just something managers are supposed to say.” Such policies do act to bring managers down into collegial relations with their direct reports. If I don’t reinforce that I’m comfortable with this, some folks will have trouble crossing the hierarchical lines, whether out of a sense of duty, a fear of retaliation, or some other concern.
I do not feel strongly about maintaining a rigid hierarchy and I never have–much to the frustration of many authority figures throughout my life! I have always felt that ideas can and should speak for themselves. I don’t need to rely on hierarchy to defend my decision-making; if I’ve done my job properly, I’ve gathered and analyzed any existing data, gathered relevant opinions from as wide a constituency as possible, looked into research from other sources, and, after all, established clear thinking on the matter and developed a plan. That work will do a perfectly sufficient job of defending itself, I feel, and if a zealous interlocuter can readily poke holes in it, then we’re better off if they do, without standing on the ramparts of hierarchy and protocol to hold good ideas at bay.
If I truly intend to lead in this way, it’s important for me to bear in mind the findings of Heidi Gardner and Mark Mortensen that Useem summarizes from the Harvard Business Review: “‘To trust colleagues… people need clear and discernible signals about them.’… Unconsciously, they conclude, we ‘interpret a lack of physical contact as a signal of untrustworthiness.’ This leaves us prone to what social scientists call ‘fundamental attribution error.’… In the absence of fact… elaborate narratives assemble.” If I’m going to peel away the scaffolding of hierarchy to insist that people should just trust my managerial and administrative decisions, then I have a greater responsibility to increase transparency and connectedness to avoid attribution error filling in the blanks with suspicion, doubt, or despair.
Crucially, Gardner and Mortensen assert, “Trust is about two things: competence (is this person going to deliver quality work?) and character (is this a person of integrity?)” in Useem’s summation. Nothing could be more important to me in my professional reputation, so this serves as a clarion call to incorporate trust as a focus in my work. Useem mentions Francis Fukuyama’s 1995 book Trust and, though the last thing I need is another book in the “To Be Read” pile… it’s on the list!