About Life, Work

Organizational change is like a drop of shiny liquid chrome

When I was younger, I used to play with liquid mercury with my bare hands. A thermometer for the house’s heat control was broken, so what is a kid to do? We lived in an ancient house, and I’m sure there the paint had led in it, so liquid mercury was just part of the ecosystem. I know…it explains a lot!

I noticed something very peculiar about the mercury while it was on the palm of my hand. It resembled a big drop of shiny chrome liquid. Any time I broke it apart with my finger, it split into smaller shiny chrome drops that eventually rolled back to the center of my palm and seamlessly became the original big drop it was before. When I saw the movie Terminator 2, with its liquid metal special-effects, it reminded me of my play with liquid mercury.

Change causes schools to behave like that. When a major change comes into an organization, smaller drops split from the one big drop, and smaller groups of staff debate whether the new director/direction is a good idea or not, and whether they agreed with and like it. Eventually, if all is executed right, it becomes one big drop again as the splintered groups join in the new direction.

Coming into any new organization and bringing along substantial change implies expecting, and dealing with, that initial splintering of staff. Smaller groups will form, some talking hopefully about the new that is coming, and some being more skeptical about the unnecessary shaking of the status-quo-tree. Not having sufficient notice and not knowing their place in what is becoming the new organization can be very taxing on people’s nerves. Add to it that in schools the cyclical nature of an academic year means change will often come at the worst time.

Having been part of senior leadership for over 20-years has allowed me to see various versions of this scenario play out. In my younger years I found myself on both sides of the fence, not knowing that my position requires me to be on the positive and hopeful side, and not providing fuel for dissent. Along the years I’ve learned that certain things are best said in the shower in a song and not shared out loud with staff. Senior leadership must stick together, regardless of conditions. Staff will hear a scream even if we whisper. We must weigh our comments and non-verbals carefully, especially when staff are commenting on ongoing organizational change. It’s part of the trust that is granted to us by our proximity to the catalyst of change. We cannot go unguarded in behavior, however daunting the challenge.

Likewise, staff should understand that what is happening is not only happening to them but to the whole. As part of the organization it is a must that if there are unanswered questions we don’t join in the game of “who can make the best guess or assumption” of what is happening. Conversation should be hopeful and fuel should not be added to the skeptic-fire.

It’s inevitable that change comes into your school, sometimes with relentless repetition. The best way to brave through it is to stay focused on your contribution, and if you need to smile, students are great at providing reasons for that. Trust that eventually the smaller drops will join and form the original big drop, and all will point in the same direction once again.