Guest Column

Leadership in the Age of Instant Communication

by Blake McCann

The speed of human communication is at an all-time high.

The Internet now connects us to one another instantly and globally via e-mail and provides a wealth of information about any organization, including our own.

The rapid-fire pace of our communication can lead to a smaller world with more connections and vast amounts of useful information, but it also can contribute to more mistakes, ineffective communication and unintended outcomes. Electronic communication is now less about relationships and more about moving to the next decision as instantaneously as possible. Communication is more reactive and less reflective due to what Thomas Friedman, the best-selling author, calls the “flattening of the globe.”

This flattening affects public schools in ways my generation never imagined in the early stages of our careers in education. Today, the expectations of parents and staff are often unrealistic. “I e-mailed you about that this morning, but I didn’t hear back from you!” Electronic access has given stakeholders increased chances for involvement in the operation of public schools, meaning school leaders need to communicate better and more often with more people.

Adverse Effects

Unfortunately, the ubiquitous nature of e-mail and instant messaging, plus the popularity of blogs, chat rooms and social networking websites, does not contribute to effective communication among those who work in our schools. Communication among colleagues is sometimes misinterpreted, leading to a lack of trust and defensive behavior by one or both parties.

Recently, in communicating with school district employees, I stressed the importance of a welcoming environment. Staff took this as a criticism, which was not my intention. To rebuild the relationship, I met with each person to clarify my comments.

This communication deficiency is adversely affecting school districts and their ability to focus on their mission and educational goals in this time of rapid change. Ambiguity reigns as members of the school community no longer understand who is responsible for a particular decision. Consequently, no one accepts responsibility.

In the absence of clarity and courageous leadership, I have learned that blame and finger pointing usually results in such comments as “someone else is responsible” and “they are not doing their job” and “somebody ought to do something” or “the budget is not my problem; it is yours.”

In my experience transforming schools into learning organizations, I discovered if we invite individuals to the table, we must listen to them in a sincere manner because trust is difficult to build and easy to destroy. We must be aware of the fragility of our relationships. When we lose the trust of our colleagues, we lose our ability to learn and to lead.

Maintaining mutual trust and respect in the age of instantaneous messaging is even more important to the development of a safe environment where dialogue may take place. This doesn’t mean we always will see eye to eye, but in a democracy we have the right and obligation to state our views about improving our schools.

Conversation Types

Anyone employed by an organization doing meaningful work will enter into difficult conversations, meaningful conversations and conversations that lead directly to decisions or action. In a school organization, we must recognize these types of conversations and be aware when a casual conversation may turn into an important one.

Of course, difficult conversations are the ones that raise our anxiety levels and are the sort we avoid. Difficult conversations may lead to defensive routines that make it hard for staff members to reflect on their behavior. When conversation becomes emotional and disrespectful, any chance of professional learning shuts down: “You do not think I have the skills for the job!”

For me, a meaningful conversation is one that is open and more about sharing ideas than about winning an argument. A safe conversation is one where trust is evident and staff members feel comfortable sharing their best thinking. Educators need time to reflect collectively, through which coherence emerges and positive action follows.

In my world, I try to merge the different elements of communication into a framework that applies to meaningful and sometimes difficult conversations about teaching and learning. The elements of my framework are:

  • Listening empathetically;
  • Speaking to clarify and develop a mutual understanding;
  • Asking meaningful questions as part of inquiry;
  • Acting with data to make an appropriate decision;
  • Sharing responsibility to implement a decision and analyze the results; and
  • Organizing meetings to focus on critical questions.

    Reflective Discourse

    It is not easy for schools to become learning organizations because staff must commit to changing its behavior, including its communication skills. Staff may be tempted to return to old patterns of behavior because it feels more comfortable. However, if we support one another through this transformation, new patterns of behavior will make us better equipped to improve our schools and our communication.

    We cannot slow down advances in technology, but school district staff members can display courage in their communication by suspending preconceived judgments, by listening empathetically to understand a colleague’s frame of reference, by developing mutual understanding and by responding only after careful reflection, not knee-jerk reactions. Recently, a staff member came to me with a proposal to improve our educational services. She said: “I have never come to the superintendent before, but this is what I think we should do for our students.” I felt great she felt safe to communicate her views for our schools.

    Margaret Wheatley, writing in the foreword of Juanita Brown’s book The World Café: Shaping Our Future through Conversations That Matter, put it best: “First, we humans want to talk together about things that matter to us. In fact, this is what gives satisfaction and meaning to life. Second, as we talk together, we are able to access a greater wisdom that is found only in the collective.”

    Blane McCann is superintendent of the Shorewood School District, 1701 E. Capitol Drive, Shorewood, WI 53211. E-mail: bkmccann@shorewood.k12.wi.us