It’s time to get emotional!

Academy leaders are champions at handling the practical side of major change. After all, they have been at the vanguard of major changes in the education system in recent years.

Their response to significant changes such as a conversion to academy status and all its implications is often to focus on the technical and operational tasks associated with that change. This might be setting up a new governance structure, recruiting new staff, organising a new uniform and consulting parents.

That’s all vital and school leaders do this very well. However, feelings such as anxiety, loss of identity and uncertainty experienced during major change need to be recognised by schools and the wider system. The risk of not dealing with these powerful feelings is that change will be resisted and harder to embed and this might have serious implications for the morale and effectiveness of staff. Ultimately this may have a negative impact on teaching and learning.

So it is really important that we properly address this aspect of change. A starting point is to build strategies for coping with the emotional side of change into professional development programmes for aspiring and established school leaders.

Programmes such as NPQH, NPQML and NPQSL, which we deliver with our teaching school alliance partners around the country, are very good at helping leaders devise strategies and coping methods to manage change on that tangible, operational level. Leaders who have been on our programmes will already have an understanding of the issues surrounding major change and the strategies they can adopt to manage them. We signpost leaders to emotional aspects of change but recognise that leaders now need more support to focus more deeply on the psychological aspects of leadership, because they are so important to success.

School leaders have told us that they need this support. One - an academy director - suggested that helping people to handle change was about communicating the direction and destination and reason for the journey and allowing people to be part of a conversation around that.

The academy director added that it was also about how leaders managed the internal turmoil and confusion and concern sometimes caused by major change. “If those two were addressed a little more thoughtfully and systematically as components of the change process, change could be significantly less painful,” he said.

We think that it’s time to make sure that leaders are helped to handle all aspects of change, and that includes the emotional responses change can trigger. If we tackle it now through leadership development programmes and support then school leaders will be better equipped to handle major change - and make it work for their pupils, their teachers and their schools.

The emotional impact of change: what the research tells us

In a recent piece of research Mannie Burn, a consultant at Best Practice Network, explored school leaders’ experiences of leading on the psychological aspect of the change process.

The research asked whether leaders felt sufficiently resourced to lead on this aspect and whether they thought the transition model devised by William Bridges could be of use.

The Bridges model makes a distinction between the operational aspect of the change process and the psychological aspect that accompanies all change. The research suggested that typically leaders focus on the operational and overlook or avoid the emotional and psychological.

For example, if a school is converting to become part of an academy chain there will be lots of operational matters to focus on, such as a premises, new governors, new uniform and new staff as well as a clear vision and rationale.

Feeling that arise when change is welcome are familiar and easier to deal with. Some people for example will love the change and feel excited, and energised about it.

But the feelings that arise when change is unwelcome - feelings such as hostility and anxiety regarding identity or sense of meaning - are more complex, especially when they are often associated with weakness and shame which are hard emotions for all of us to face.

Bridges argues that leaders need to address both aspects experienced during change otherwise they run risk of simply rearranging the furniture rather than firmly embedding the change. Mannie’s research suggested that even the most senior leaders struggled with this aspect. They felt under resourced and said that they had had very little input or training in psychology and that this was an important area for further study. The research also identified the complicated nature of dealing with the emotional aspect of change; it is a complex and multi layered subject.

Key points from the research

Working with the psychological aspect of change is vital, however it can lead us to unfamiliar territory. Much of our behaviour is driven by our subconscious, before we are even aware of it. It is important to get to grips with some of the basics of the psychology of change – aspects such as social defences, psychological habits as well as emotional literacy and self-regulation. We need to acknowledge as leaders that we ourselves may need some training and practice to deal with our own emotions and then the emotions of others.

In terms of the change process, neuroscience tells us that any change, welcome or unwelcome leads to a disruption of the status quo and this can put the part of the brain which deals with survival into a state of alert and we may shut down to other matters - such as teaching - while we adjust. It is difficult for teachers to teach and maintain high standards and wellbeing if they are feeling these difficult, alarming and perhaps undermining feelings in response to change. Psychologist Michael Carroll urges leaders to do all they can to help people not to shut or close down during change. Otherwise the stress involved can lead to a downward spiral of sickness and absenteeism with obvious detrimental effects on students.

The leaders interviewed found it difficult to talk about their feelings. They all talked about some significant change they had been involved in and all were hard pushed to describe the feelings they experienced or how they had dealt with the emotional aspect because they had not really done so. All the leaders interviewed knew about Daniel Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence and Emotional Literacy but a vocabulary of emotions is not always easy to call on. There is a need to develop this skill because it is one way to provide an all-important sense of ‘holding’ or managing feelings.

Reflecting on the research, we think it is crucial that leaders can deal with the feelings triggered by change in a positive and effective way; psychologist Marshall Rosenberg points out that our feelings are signposts to common human needs. If we feel hungry it is probably because we need food. If we feel afraid it may be that we need security or reassurance. These needs are part of being a human being and all are valid.

Gaining an understanding of the psychology of change and a high level of emotional literacy needs to become part of a school leader’s repertoire of knowledge and skill. It is key to ensuring success. There is a wealth of practice and theory to draw on and we need to start using it.

Try this online exercise

Recognising the emotional responses of your team to change is a crucial first step on the way to managing change more effectively. Download this activity workbook at which is designed to help you get a sense of your own ability to identify and name emotions.

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