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Building a culture that honors productive conflict

April 25, 2017

On the heals of working with some school leaders on conflict, I read and listened to these interesting pieces that connect to our work as educational leaders.  First, a piece appeared on Brain Pickings, David Foster Wallace on Leadership.  In the article and podcast, Debbie Millman reads about leadership from the writings of David Foster Wallace, a writer and professor who received the MacArthur Fellowship but died at an early age from suicide.  The second article was in Tools for Learning Schools on Building a Culture that Nurtures Productive Conflict.   In this piece, Anthony Armstrong looks at how to address conflict in school communities.  Finally, Krista Tippett’s (@kristatippett) On Being interview with Padraig O Tuama entitled, Belonging Creates and Undoes Us Both,  inspires a spiritual and holistic approach to think about conflict, relationships, and resolution.

While each of these articles covered different aspects of culture and conflict they all addressed the importance of facing conflict in open and honest ways, a fundamental quality of strong leaders.  As educators, we know that conflict is often at the surface begging for our attention.  Conflict can result from challenging relationships between different community members or differences in philosophy, goals, and desired outcomes.  As leaders, we receive little training in how to build a strong, inclusive culture that nurtures productive conflict.  For example, orchestrating productive and difficult conversations is a skill we tend to learn on the job rather than receive professional training from knowledgeable experts.  While trial-by-fire experience is unavoidable and necessary, we need high-quality training and feedback to improve, so that we can effectively lead or participate in our communities of learning.

David Foster Wallace describes a leader as someone whose

real “authority” is a power you voluntarily give him, and you grant him this authority not with resentment or resignation but happily; it feels right. Deep down, you almost always like how a real leader makes you feel, the way you find yourself working harder and pushing yourself and thinking in ways you couldn’t ever get to on your own.

He goes on to say that real leaders make it possible for us to reach beyond our “limitations, selfishness, and laziness.”  From his description, I see real leaders as people who understand and value the “other.”  In that way, when situations arise that present with conflict, they are committed to resolution with everyone’s best interest at heart.  They work on behalf of honoring personal integrity, boundaries, and feelings.  When in the presence of effective “real leaders” I have experienced profound confidence that conflict resolution is a high priority.

I liked all three of these pieces because they focused on embracing conflict as a form of energy that can move a community into a better place.  In learning how to embrace conflict, the author of Building a Culture that Nurtures Productive Conflict, Anthony Armstrong, discussed the importance of three ingredients illustrated in the graphic below.  These three ingredients come from the work of Williams and Hierck (Authentic alignment in a PLC: Moving from compliance to commitment, in press).


The three ingredients are: (1) having a shared purpose; (2) adopting norms that guide work towards a purpose; and (3) using protocols for when norms are not followed successfully.

In my own work, I have seen leadership teams struggle moving through conflict because they have not adopted a shared purpose or norms that guide their work.  Too often, the team is caught unprepared to navigate through conflict towards a resolution or outcome that works to everyone’s advantage.  A leadership question might be: how can we turn a conflict into a learning experience for everyone?  Assuming norms have been established, a group can sometimes find itself bogged down in their work because a norm has been violated.  If the group fails to use protocols for addressing behaviors that violate norms, it might be difficult to get back on track.  Respectfully naming behaviors that derail a process can be a powerful way for groups to address conflict and transform themselves into a high-functioning team (see the work of Patrick Lencioni on the five dysfunctions of a team).

In the article, Armstrong also writes about the importance of good communication and leadership to build a culture “that facilitates productive conflicts.” (p. 3)  To be successful at this work, the authors propose that all stakeholders need to feel invested in designing solutions to resolve conflict.  To invest in this work, the leader has to value establishing a collaborative, high-functioning team in which members trust one another.   While Armstrong provides technical solutions to the challenge of engaging in healthy, productive conflict on teams, it is more likely that the challenge is an adaptive one requiring an astute leader.

Padraig O Tuama, the leader of Corrymeela, a community of people devoted to working for peace and reconciliation, shares his keen insights into how differences can be resolved and people live and work in harmony.  In the interview he says:

And I think that is one of the things that, for me, spirituality as well as conflict resolution is about. There’s — so much of things are saying, “I wish things were different.” “I wish I were somewhere else.” “I wish this were not happening.” And what David Wagoner says is, “The place where you are is called Here, / And you must treat it as a powerful stranger.”

He refers to the poem by David Wagoner, Lost.   The words and ideas in Wagoner’s poem challenge the reader to understand the power of being present.

Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree of a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest know
Where you are. You must let it find you.

– by David Wagoner

In the interview, Mr. Tuama goes on to explain the meaning of the powerful stranger and being in the present.

And powerful strangers might be benevolent, but only might. Powerful strangers can also be unsettling and troubling. And powerful strangers can have their own hostilities, and have their own way within which they cause you to question who you are and where you’re from. And that is a way within which, for me, the notion of saying hello to “here” requires a fairly robust capacity to tell the truth about what is really going on. And that can be very difficult.

Speaking the truth is such an important part of healthy, productive conflict that focuses on resolving the tensions between polar opposites.

Mr. Tuama has some penetrating things to say about the tension between understanding the other and agreeing with the other.  He says:

And I suppose one of the things that being closeted for many years helped, actually — not that this is good advice, but it is wisdom, retrospectively — it helped me to understand some of the dynamics that were happening underneath the kind of public things people said in order to then think, when it comes to having conversations about anything that divides us, that understanding itself is a really wise thing. Understanding doesn’t mean agreeing.

When things divide us, the situation in many moments of conflict, we need to listen deeply and try to understand the other person without projecting our own inner feelings on the person.  We need to remember that understanding does not mean agreeing.  How can we best express our understanding, especially if we don’t agree?  Mr. Tuama suggests that asking good questions, like “can you help me understand this,” can be one way to explore the level of understanding we have for the other.

And often, our public discourse, whatever the issue that’s dividing us, it needs a wise framing. It needs careful questioning. And it needs a way within which we can speak about these things, recognizing that words have impact. And often, if people use unwise words, they return to their intention. “Well, I didn’t mean that. I didn’t mean that.” Without paying attention to impact.

While each of these three pieces is unique in its approach to suggesting how leaders address conflict, my attempt was to knit them together to tell a powerful story about the value of creating teams that can see their way through healthy, productive conversations about difficult situations.

I would strongly recommend these pieces if you lead an organization that struggles with productive conflict.  It might open up some windows for understanding how to do this important work.

Learning little-by-little to love our only world on #earthday2017

April 24, 2017


I am not big into resolutions, although I have a goal to challenge myself to get out of my “comfort zone.”
As I move into summer 2017, I want to promise myself this: appreciate the Earth’s grandeur as Mary Oliver expresses in her poem, Starfish.
while I lay on the rocks, reaching into the darkness, learning little by little to love our only world.
We live on a precious planet that while resilient in some respects is constantly being assaulted by our reckless habits.   If you want to see the implications of our uncontrolled growth and demand for more and more things, read this piece in yesterday’s New York Times, Pollution Rising, Chinese Fear for Soil and Food.  If we continue to show little respect or love for our planet, where will we be in the near future?  A world without starfish?
Here is Mary Oliver’s wonderful poem for inspiration to love our planet.  It comes from her book of poetry, Dream Work.
In the sea rocks,
in the stone pockets
under the tide’s lip,
in water dense as blindness
they slid
like sponges,
like too many thumbs.
I knew this, and what I wanted
was to draw my hands back
from the water – what I wanted
was to be willing
to be afraid.
But I stayed there,
I crouched on the stone wall
while the sea poured its harsh song
through the sluices,
while I waited for the gritty lightning
of their touch, while I stared
down through the tide’s leaving
where sometimes I could see them –
their stubborn flesh
lounging on my knuckles.
What good does it do
to lie all day in the sun
loving what is easy?
It never grew easy,
but at last I grew peaceful:
all summer
my fear diminished
as they bloomed through the water
like flowers, like flecks
of an uncertain dream,
while I lay on the rocks, reaching
into the darkness, learning
little by little to love
our only world.
~ by Mary Oliver ~
Hope you have a wonderful day!
Bob Ryshke

Blue Ocean or Red Ocean strategy, which leads to lasting innovation?

April 20, 2017

Watch this short video from Harvard Business Review to see an answer to this question!  It reveals a way to think about strategy within the context of sustainable innovation in an organization.  How is this relevant to schools given that most of us “look the same” or do the same thing?  Thoughts?

Learning to #apologize, the art of healing!

April 4, 2017

In K-12 schools, communities composed of intricate webs of student-student, adult-student, and adult-adult social interactions, we tend to expend minimal energy designing or adopting programs that help students and adults navigate complex social interactions.  When relationship problems do arise, we handle them in the moment usually with more reactive rather than proactive focus.  Of course, some schools bring in social-emotional curriculum to help students learn to thrive in their school community.  This is certainly an important first step.

But in the end, do we hold ourselves accountable for defining the indicators and outcomes we want to achieve through our efforts?  Do we place as much value on a student’s social-emotional growth as we do on their academic growth?  Consider this, we eagerly assess a student on a scale of A-F or 100-0, hopefully not zero, with regard to their academic growth.  Academic achievement or grading conversations consume considerable time and energy in a teacher’s, student’s or parent’s school experience.  However, we spend little quality time discussing a student’s social-emotional growth, and we certainly don’t “grade it.”  You’ve heard the saying, “what we assess is what we value!”

In this post, I’m suggesting schools spend time thinking about, designing, and implementing programs, structures, and conversations centered on the social-emotional growth of students, and make use of research in neuroscience which confirms that social-emotional learning supports overall cognitive growth.

Healthy social-emotional development in young children correlates with healthy cognitive development and therefore creates a strong foundation for future school achievement. (1)

Neuroscientists are conducting research on different aspects of how a person navigates interpersonal relationships.  The research is providing a window into how the decisions we make in relationships impact our overall emotional health and happiness.  For example, Sabrina Strang and colleagues published a 2014 study, Neural Correlates of Receiving an Apology and Active Forgiveness, which illustrated that the act of apologizing and forgiving activate neural pathways that lead to the development of a stronger empathy response.  The authors write:

Activation in a network of frontal, temporal and parietal regions is often found in empathy processes. Empathy includes emotional as well as cognitive processes. By simulating the emotional experience of others we can intuitively understand what the other person feels.

In schools, do we model for students the power of an apology?  Do we design learning environments where students are taught how to work through complex interpersonal relationships?  Do we encourage them to process their feelings, apologize when they hurt others, and forgive those who violate boundaries?  As adults, do we model these healing behaviors for students as we navigate public adult-adult relationships?  My experiences in a variety of schools has been that these programs or experiences are hit-and-miss, and generally only happen when a situation becomes a crisis.

On March 30, 2017, Krista Tippett published her On Being interview with Layli Long Soldier, “a writer, a mother, a citizen of the U.S. and of the Oglala Lakota Nation.”  She is the author of the book of poetry, Whereas.  You can read an excerpt on the Poetry Foundation website (click here).  In the interview, Long Soldier reflects on the impact of personal and national apologies on her psyche or our national psyche.  She tells a power story about her father’s apology to her about not being there in her formative years.

And when I was in my 20s, he came to visit one time and unexpectedly, he was sitting at breakfast with me and apologized for not being there. And I think there was something in the way he said it. He cried when he said it. And I could feel it, I could physically feel that he meant it. And really — and I can say this to this day — in that moment, all of it was gone. Like, all that stuff I’d been carrying around — it was gone. It was lifted. And I feel, in many ways, we started new from that point on. I really have not had the need to go back and rehash things with him and so on. We started from that place forward. We’ve known each other in a different way.

She goes on to comment that:

I think there has to be a kind of trust building in order for any kind of apology to be effective, whether it’s interpersonal or at a national level.

In her interview, she references the United States congressional resolution of apology to Native Americans in 2009, which was enacted as part of the 2010 Defense Appropriations Act.  The apology was not public, and was buried deep in the document (click here).  Layli Long Soldier heard about the apology months after it was official, but never through any public forum.  I had not heard of the apology because it was never part of our national dialogue.  Former President Obama’s failed to understand how making this public was instrumental to the healing process.  Here is a quote from the apology (click here for more details):

To acknowledge a long history of official depredations and ill-conceived policies by the federal government regarding Indian tribes and offer an apology to all Native Peoples on behalf of the United States.

An apology is only meaningful if it comes from the heart.  The words, expressions, and sentiments have to resonate with those who are on the receiving end of the apology.  If you listen to Layli Long Soldier’s interview, then it’s clear the US apology to Native Americans did not come from the collective heart of the American people.  It was a legally crafted set of words, buried deep within another document, that we were afraid to share.  I would conclude that our national psyche, our social-emotional health, was still unapologetic for all the hurt we caused Native Americans.  A public apology by then President Obama, in the form of a ceremony at a sacred Native American site, would have been a more meaningful resolution to the long history of pain we caused.

In our schools, we need to teach students how to give and accept apologies as a way to heal.  Healing is a process and an art.  It requires a strong inner voice and a moral grounding that allows for an expression of vulnerability.  Being vulnerable is a quality that leads to establishing trusting relationships.

(1) Ready 4 K, The Importance of Social and  Emotional Development in Young Children, Megan Waltz (click here)

Adopt five simple strategies to improve your #leadership skills

April 2, 2017
Feedback loop.Tjan_Page_2

Alignment: Adapted from Tjan’s model


Finished reading a piece by Anthony Tjan (@anthonytjan) in Harvard Business Review, 5 Ways to Become More Self-Aware, written in February 2015.  He begins the article with the line:

You can’t be a good leader without self-awareness.
While he doesn’t actually reference the work of Richard Boyatzis, Resonant Leadership, or the work of Daniel Goldman on the importance of emotional intelligence in leadership, his five ways of becoming more self-aware align well with these authors’ ideas that effective leadership links directly to one’s emotional and psychological health.
Tjan’s five ways for becoming more self-aware are:
  • Meditate
  • Write down your plans and priorities
  • Take psychometric tests
  • Ask trusted friends
  • Get regular feedback at work


His explanation for each of the five ways is short, interesting, and compelling.  Seems simple enough to design a way to function at work that includes each of Tjan’s suggestions.

I love his four questions that he asks himself when he meditates:
  • What am I trying to achieve?
  • What am I doing that is working?
  • What am I doing that is slowing me down?
  • What can I do to change?


Of course, asking the questions is one thing, being honest with myself as I reflect on each question is the hard task, but the important one to get right.  The learning or insight comes from being open and honest about each question.

In my own work, I too meditate at different times throughout the day, using only a few minutes to quiet myself, focus on my breathing, and sit in silence as a way to re-center. I find it extremely helpful to take these mindful pauses.
Under the suggestion of writing down plans and priorities, I thought he idea of mimicking Ben Franklin’s idea of the balance sheet was quite clever.  Being conscious of the things we do well or our perceived weakness and assessing progress in both areas strikes me to be an important self-reflective exercise.
Tjan writes:
We have to rely on the feedback of our peers, friends, and mentors.
How often do we talk about feedback, but rarely do we get this conversation right?  If we are honest with ourselves, feedback can be challenging to hear, process, and make useful.  It requires work.  As Tjan suggests, there is no more important work to be done if you want to be an effective leader.  Leaders are learners, who learn best when they engage others in sharing information about how things are going.  His simple two-step protocol is: (1) have a process for collecting feedback; and (2) effectively manage it.  I think this implies that as the receiver of feedback, I need to take it seriously and it should be ongoing work.
Tjan concludes with the statement:
Building self-awareness is a life-long effort.
So it is.  Let’s begin now if we want to get the most out of our leadership potential.

Build #trust to manage resistance

March 19, 2017

One of the salient needs of all human beings is to be in the company of other people.  But it’s more than merely being in the presence of others.  We crave to be in trusting relationships in which our needs and desires are recognized and appreciated.  I think we crave this almost as much as we crave food and shelter.  So when we are faced with resistance at work, in our families or with our friends, we should consider whether we have put enough energy into nurturing trusting relationships. Each of us carries that responsibility.  It’s a two-way street.   Here are some thoughts about what we can do to promote trust with others:

  1. Lead by example
  2. Open communication
  3. Empathize with others and get to know them
  4. Try not to place blame
  5. Be willing to confront trust issues
  6. Be willing to grant the benefit of the doubt
  7. Practice deep listening
  8. Suspend judgment and quiet the critical mind

There are probably other things you could add to this list.  Nevertheless, the most important one would be to lead by example.  If we believe that building trust in a community diminishes resistance, then it is our responsibility to model the characteristics of a trusting person.  As a leader, if we want to build trust on our team then we have to model all the qualities of someone who is trustworthy.  The time has come to look in the mirror and learn.

Importance of Trust in Building Community

March 2, 2017

Evie Blad wrote a article in this week’s Education Week entitled, When School doesn’t seem fair, Students may suffer lasting effects.  Her opening sentence…

When students believe schools are unfair places, their loss of trust can lead to a lack of engagement that affects them for years, researchers say.

…explains the challenge we face and the reason why schools, administrators and faculty, have to work diligently to build and maintain a trusting environment for their students.  How does a trusting school culture get built?  I would suggest it first starts with building trusting relationships among  with the faculty.  My experience has led me to believe that when faculty feel supported and respected by the administration that serves them, then it is very likely that classrooms will exhibit those same qualities.  When faculty believe their administration has their best interests at heart and adult actions align to the beliefs and values, there is likely to be a trusting school culture and healthy classroom cultures.

In her book, Trust Matters, Megan Tschannen-Moran writes,

Trust binds leaders to followers.  Without that bond, a manager can enforce minimum compliance with contract specfications and job descriptions, but that will not lead a team of teachers to greatness.  As “lubricant,” trust greases the machinery of an organization. (Page 16)

For me, those word sum up the importance of establishing a trust adult culture in schools, which then creates an atmosphere for trust and fairness in the classroom.  Trust is not something that happens without a great deal of thought and effort.  Tschannen-Moran shares this definition of trust.

Trust is one’s willingness to be vulnerable to another based on the confidence that the other is benevolent, honest, open, reliable, and competent.

That definition sets a very high bar for all of us in schools, especially teachers in their relationships to each of their students.

Evie Blad writes about the “trust gap” in schools.  She reports on studies that show students from different racial and ethnic groups have different levels of trust as a result of their school’s response to their issues.  With regard to disciplinary issues and how they are treated, Black and Hispanic students’ trust is more likely to erode over the course of their middle school years as a result of how they are treated in schools by administrators and teachers.  The data would suggest that there is a structural bias in place as a result of how students are treated.  The lack of fairness in the students’ minds definitely erodes the trust they have.  Blad points out that the perception is reality.  She writes:

And it wasn’t just a perception; there was real evidence of bias at the school, the study says, noting that only black students received discipline for broad, subjectively interpreted infractions like “defiance.”

It shouldn’t be a surprise to us that many underrepresented students in the US feel disenfranchised from their schools because they feel they are treated unfairly.  While it may not be the intended reality, it is the perceived reality.

In her interesting opinion piece on the Hechinger Report entitled, How can we show disenfranchised, black students that they matter when everything else is telling them otherwise?, Dena Simmons (@denasimmons), Director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, writes:

In the end, we, all of us, must be compassionate. We must be open to other experiences, and we must learn to accept others and ourselves for everything we are —and everything we are not. We must fight for ourselves and for each other. And, we must begin to shift the violent course of history to one of peace, love, and mutual understanding. I have faith in us. My task is simple: it is for Black lives to be seen, to be human, to be treated with dignity. Our shared humanity depends on it.

Her words are powerful and indicate that we have to work extra hard to be sure we are building strong bonds of trust with all students in schools.  Checking ourselves at the door as to whether we are treating all students equitably and fairly.  If so, then we will be able to design learning environments that are safe, caring and engaging for all students.  When teachers believe they are respected, valued and trusted, they will consciously and unconsciously create respectful, meaningful, and trusting learning environments for students.

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