Creating a Culture of Candor

Why is a culture of candor important for creating learner-centered schools?

Creating new schools or transforming existing traditional schools into learner-centered schools is hard work. It requires us to question our past experiences and assumptions about learning and  to be open to the possibilities of creating new environments and experiences for our children. If we truly want learners to thrive, we must create a culture of learning, which requires candor.

We make better decisions when we have all the information and consider different perspectives. These candid conversations also give us insight into how others might react to changes, which enables us to proactively design experiences to help them accommodate a shift or change in practice.

Having candid conversations creates opportunities to reframe failures into learning opportunities, an essential step when creating a culture of learning. School leaders need to model this for lead learners(teachers) and learners (students); lead learners, in turn, need to model this for learners. We want learning through failure to permeate our culture of learning. This, too, builds trust and makes people more comfortable to have candid conversations.

How can leaders move toward creating a culture of candor?

The Team

We need to develop a team of thinkers who becomes united by a compelling learner-centered mission, vision and beliefs. Each member of the team must have a deep desire and laser focus on creating a learner-centered environment. If the team does not have a shared understanding of what learner-centered is and why it is important, you must build capacity for this first.

It is crucial to establish a flat hierarchy within this team. In other words, titles do not matter and everyone who is focused on the mission contributes to the conversation. The focus should be on getting it right, not being right.

Know Your “Who”

As a leader, spend quality time with each member of the team and really get to know each person – – how s/he sees the world and what is important to him/her. Creating a culture of candor is easier when we have meaningful relationships with our colleagues and they know how much we care about them.

Be Sensitive to Others

Trust is key when developing a culture of candor. To do this, leaders must be sensitive to the feelings of others. It is essential to make team members feel valued and to know their contributions are important. This can be challenging in a traditional school setting. Until trust is established, tread lightly. The team may need to discuss longstanding practices, which may not have been questioned in the past or may be closely associated with specific staff members. This can invoke intense emotions because educators take pride in their work and have ownership over programs and practices.

Frame conversations around the notion these programs may have been effective in the past; however, the focus is now on creating a learner-centered environment/school/district. As the level of trust becomes the norm over time, the level of candor will increase.

Never Make or Take it Personal

As individuals and as a team, develop the capacity to discuss situations without making or taking the exchange of ideas personal. More specifically, those expressing their point of view should never make it personal and those getting feedback on their ideas or practices should not take it personal. Saying things just to tear down or destroy is not productive; it is destructive. Members of the team should discuss the issues or circumstances and always keep the focus on fostering a learner-centered culture.

Ask Questions

Once trusting relationships have been established, start asking questions to cause others to think about what could be. As leaders, it is important to initially restrain from sharing our perceived solutions. Listen more and sincerely show you value the perspectives of others.

Share Information

Sharing information is essential for creating a culture of candor. People feel respected when information, especially when it is complex in nature, is shared with them; they, in turn, contribute their best thinking and ideas to the conversation because they feel valued and have ownership.

Be a Model 

As a leader, model your genuine desire to create a culture of candor by being a learner. Share how the discussion has changed or influenced your thinking. Affirm people who disagree with you, especially when they are holding you accountable to the beliefs, mission and vision. Admit mistakes and thus show humility when you stumble, which will make others more apt to do the same.

Never Embarrass

If a leader embarrasses someone on the team, it can cause a setback for the entire team. Members on the team may withdraw because they see the possibility for them to be embarrassed or ostracized. If you make this mistake as a leader, claim it in the presence of your team and sincerely apologize. Call it what it is and use it as an opportunity for you to grow in front of your team. Be humble and be real with your team. They will respect you more in the end.

Affirm and Celebrate

Sincerely thank and celebrate others who question, express openness, share their thinking, give honest feedback, and help formulate next steps. Value and celebrate decisions made by the collective wisdom of the team, especially when ideas or potential decisions have been thoroughly vetted by the team. Use this as an example to foster more candor.

Provide Support

Support team members who are having difficulty participating in candid conversations. Follow up one-on-one with individuals who seem uncomfortable with this approach or take things personal. Assure them they are valued and these discussions are not personal. Share examples about how you changed your thinking or learned something as a result of a candid conversation. If they have ownership of a specific program or practice, ask them questions one-on-one (after you have developed a strong and trusting relationship with them). If they begin to see new possibilities, encourage them to take the lead of bringing this to the group to discuss. Then, celebrate their leadership for questioning something of which they had previous ownership.

Final Thoughts . . .

The goal is for everyone on the team to be willing to question and be questioned, listen to others, be open to other points of view and be willing to learn, while keeping the focus on creating or furthering a learner-centered culture. Once team members see the results of candor, they feel empowered and it becomes common practice. As a result of developing a culture a candor, our children benefit from our collective creativity and wisdom. There will best struggles, but the momentum of accomplishing what is right for our children will propel you forward. 

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9 thoughts on “Creating a Culture of Candor”

  1. Excellent advice on a challenging element of leading in innovative schools where educators have autonomy and voice! Do you have any specific resources (books, tools, etc) that can help education leaders develop this culture?

    1. Hey Dylan,

      Thanks for posting a comment on my blog. There are some great resources out there. Some of my favorite books that relate to this topic are as follows:
      • Good to Great by Jim Collins (older, but a classic in my opinion). The chapter in which he talks about “Confronting the Brutal Facts” is very helpful on this topic.
      • Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don’t by Simon Sinek is another good book that emphasizes building a safe and trusting culture based on his concept of the “Circle of Safety”.
      • Another book that I have just stated, but not finished yet is Radical Candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity by Kim Scott. She draws from her experience at Google, Apple and working with start-ups.
      I also think using protocols are good for getting team members to share their ideas, especially if they are not comfortable with sharing their perspective. It gives structure to the conversations and gets people comfortable with giving feedback. Here is an example of a protocol I created several years ago for sharing project work with the team. This could be adapted for other situations or maybe not include steps 8 and 9 if not pertinent.

  2. I agree with all the above statements. It is a big challenge to acquire the trust of team members and bigger task to maintain it as the smallest incident can create conflict for some members.
    Sharing information goes along with this. how can I feel free to share my work with you if I do not trust you? Furthermore, can your opinion be objective and helpful to create a better group dynamic. Everyone needs to feel valued. no person or group is perfect because of imperfect people, therefore we should strive to lift each other up in all circumstances. we should all have the same goals with may be attained by somewhat different measures, but the goal is to create a cohesive team effort to assist the learner. Lastly, the who is so important. A doctor can not provide an effective diagnosis if he /she does not have specifics. the same can be said of team members and the learner. Can you know everything about all members? Of course not. If you can fine something to latch on to then that can help be productive.

    1. Bob,
      You always have such insightful comments! Thanks for posting a response so others can benefit from your wisdom.

  3. Feeling like you are a part of a team is what allows the mission and vision of any organization to move forward! As a former athlete and coach, I can tell you that a team that TRUSTS each other will always outplay a team who doesn’t. It doesn’t matter how many talented “players” you have, if they don’t trust each other then they become silos in a team sport. Likewise for educators, the more teachers trust the “flat hierarchy” of their leadership, the better they will perform for the sake of their teammates and mission! I had the honor and privledge of working WITH you for a short time and can say that “creating a culture of candor” is one of the MANY talents you have as a leader. Not only were you always honest with us, but you were there to support us through it all (tears included)! ? Thank you for taking the time to write about such an important part of education (and life) in a way that explains it perfectly. Even though we don’t work together on the same “team” anymore, I am so glad you are sharing your knowledge and experiences through this blog so that other leaders can see what SHOULD be happening!

    1. Britney,
      Thanks for your affirming comments and for taking the time to post on my blog. It was all my pleasure to work with talented and committed teachers like you and many others. For all of us, it was a labor of love.

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