If you live in Quebec, I’m sure you’re not immune to the controversy that’s going on right now about the decision that was made to progressively open schools over the next few weeks.
I’m not here to debate whether or not this was a good decision.
But what I do want to address is the way in which the decision was communicated, how this influenced people’s reactions and what parallels we can draw for leaders about how NOT to communicate changes to your team.
I share my insights from an outside perspective and acknowledge that I may not know all of the steps that were taken prior to this announcement being made. My commentary relates solely to my observations of information shared publically by different stakeholders.
On April 27th, François Legault made an announcement that schools in Quebec would begin opening as of May 11, with those in the Montreal region opening one week later. No concrete plan regarding the reopening or any safety measures was announced at this time.
The backlash was immediate and intense.
Parents and teachers alike stormed social media sharing their concerns. School boards and school administrators appeared to be blindsided, reporting they had no additional information beyond what was shared during the official press conference. They were left in a position where they left having to mediate between what the government was telling them to do and the concerns raised by parents and teachers.
I’m gonna guess that it was a stressful week for those who work in the education system.
Let’s look a bit about how this situation could have been handled a little differently and extrapolate lessons for business leaders.
1. Consultations with the school administrators and teachers to understand their concerns.
An overriding theme in the outcries that followed the announcement was that teachers did not feel that their concerns were heard. I understand that it this is a tough situation, with time restraints. I’m also aware that there likely was some extent of consultation. However, the overwhelming message from teachers was that they did not feel heard. They did not feel their concerns were understood or being addressed.
Leadership lesson learned: As a leader, if you plan to implement change but don’t seriously focus on gathering information about how this change will impact those it affects directly, you’re setting yourself up for resistance.
2. A better explanation of the reasons why this decision had been made.
The explanation provided by Legault as to why schools were opening didn’t seem to add up with the other information the public had access to. People questioned why Quebec first when Quebec has the highest infection rates. Parents of special needs children challenged his claim that the schools were opening to help their children, reaching out to the media to share that their children have never received the services they need at school.
Let’s face it. The real reason behind the decision is likely economic. Or because they’ve decided to continue gradual rates of exposure and infection, under the assumption that the healthcare system continues to have capacity to treat those affected.
I’m not saying that I agree with the decision. But presenting an explanation that doesn’t fully convey the elements that weighed into the decision is guaranteed to get people challenging you.
Leadership lesson learned: Be transparent. It’s as simple as that. People can tell when the story you share doesn’t add up. And they’ll challenge you on it. Either directly, or by subverting your efforts.
3. A concrete plan of the steps being put in place to decrease risk should have been communicated at the same time as the announcement that school were opening.
A lack of coordinated planning meant that school boards were only able to share their concrete plans regarding the reopening of schools a day or two after the formal announcement. This left lots of time for people to panic about what would or would not be put into place, all the while wondering about how this impacted their own child’s situation. This type of uncertainty is difficult for people at the best of times. A concrete plan would have at least provided teachers and parents with a better understanding of what they were facing.
Leadership lesson learned: When you announce big changes coming, make sure you have a concrete plan that outlines the change as well as how this impacts your organization and your employees. Provide people with a clear timeline. People are able to handle change better when they aren’t left guessing about how it will affect them.
These type of top down approaches need to stop. When leadership makes what feel like unilateral decisions to those working front line, with a message to “make it work” or “figure out the details”, people inevitably become disengaged and resentful. And resentful people do not produce their best work. In fact, they start going to work just for a pay cheque.
Instead, slow down just a bit and ensure that you’ve established a communication plan that takes into account all of the stakeholders the change will affect. I know it seems time-consuming. But the time spent setting up the groundwork in situations like these will save you the time you’ll otherwise spend dealing with the push back you get if you don’t.
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