Overcoming Burnout and Mistrust in Times of Change


Change is exciting, exhilarating and inspiring. It also can be stressful, overwhelming and, at times, painful. In the Beaverton, Ore., School District, our ninety-four administrators know this all too well.

During the past seven years, the district has cut $62 million in programs and staff, struggled to implement an ever-changing state education reform act and managed a twenty-three percent enrollment growth (to 31,000 students). In addition, the staff has adjusted to two complete turnovers in top management.

Our administrators were struggling stoically to manage their staggering workloads, changing roles, unrealistic expectations and lack of time. However, about two years ago the burden became too heavy. They were burned out, frustrated and overwhelmed. I realized we needed to address the situation together.

We chose to use learning organization principles to involve all administrators in a generative dialogue on the tough work-related issues. We relied on the skills and experiences of district administrators, many of whom were recognized nationally for their work in this area, to design and implement a process to meet our specific needs.

Job Obstacles
First, the administrators identified the key issues affecting their ability to perform their jobs well. These included: trust, communication, time, resources/support, workload/stress, unrealistic expectations, changing roles, competitive environment and greater accountability.

Then we facilitated an in-depth dialogue that delved into the historical and current perspectives of each issue. Each administrator examined the management style, values, expectations, demographics and key issues the district was facing when she or he joined the system. Immediately, value differences became apparent.

Through this work, we learned how our different histories with the district were creating differences in expectations and work styles. We then were able to create our own values and expectations and develop strategies for improving the administrative culture.

For example, long-time administrators joined the organization when perfection, strict protocols, top-down management and male domination were inherent to the culture. Newer administrators joined the district when thoughtful risk taking, collaboration and data-driven decision making were valued highly.

Together, we identified the common values we wanted to retain, including excellence, pride and a strong work ethic. With common values and better understanding, we were able to delve in-depth into each key issue.

Throughout the entire process, we closely followed the disciplines of dialogue: Listen, suspend certainty, slow down inquiry, hold the space for differences and speak from awareness.

While we view our work as an evolutionary process, we have noted significant improvement. Through surveys and focus groups, we have found our administrative team's morale has improved greatly. We also have found our creativity, problem-solving abilities and overall resilience have increased.

A Shift in Thinking
How can you use this process to empower your staff when they may be feeling burned out and disconnected?

The first step toward meaningful dialogue requires a complete shift in thinking. Process leaders must be prepared to abandon the traditional governing principles of staying in control, winning at any cost, refusing to consider alternatives and keeping intentions private.

Instead, leaders must embrace the learning principles such as: seeking self-knowledge, creating conditions for free choice, discussing difficult topics, seeing others as strong and capable and making decisions mutually.

With this shift, people change from "knowers" to learners. They show vulnerability instead of uncompromising certainty. They respect and model humility. They move from observing and directing to participating.

Facilitated Dialogue
After a shift in thinking, a staff can put learning principles and concepts into action through dialogue. Meaningful dialogue requires time, openness and skillful facilitation. We used the following guidelines, based on Peter Senge's work, for our conversations:

  • Pay attention to intention. Ask participants to answer for themselves three questions: What do I want from this conversation? Am I willing to be influenced? What are my interests?

  • Focus on inquiry. Encourage participants to ask questions and seek understanding. Avoid blame and defensiveness. Tackle problems, not people.

  • Create shared meaning. Encourage dialogue by asking participants to withhold judgment and clarify statements. Dialogue is no place for assumptions.

  • Explore agreements and impasses. Facilitate a conversation about areas of agreement and disagreement. Clarify and define differences and common ground.

  • Strive for inclusion. Allow one person to talk at a time and encourage participation from all members of the group. Allow silence.

  • Richer Conversations
    Dialogue takes time. It takes time to build trust, hear all voices, learn and process other perspectives and opinions. It takes time to find common ground and shared vision. But it is time well spent. In Beaverton, our conversations are richer, our work is more effective, our working relationships are stronger and more productive and our administrators are more satisfied with their work.

    Yvonne Katz is superintendent, Beaverton School District, 1 6550 S.W. Merlo Road, Beaverton, Ore. 97006. E-mail: