Friday, October 21, 2011

Leading Changes: Overcoming Faith-Based Beliefs

This is the third part of a series of posts in which I offer some suggestions to school leaders about leading changes in schools.  In the first part, I described a major challenge of leading change as overcoming previous beliefs.  I went on to suggest that beliefs are built upon two general platforms: evidence and faith.  In the second part of this series, I wrote about overcoming evidence-based beliefs.  In this post, I provide some ideas about how to overcome faith-based beliefs.

The term "faith-based" is often associated with religious beliefs. For the purposes of this series, I am NOT referring to faith-based in any religious sense. In this conversation, I use the term "faith-based" to represent beliefs whose foundations are not based on any published research, experience, or observation.  Beliefs about teaching and learning that are based more on intuition, culture, and tradition would be considered faith-based.  To clarify even further, you are likely hearing a faith-based belief if the teacher to whom you are talking speaks from one of two angles:
  1. A broad stroked statement about some part of the school (intended to overwhelm the change effort) that actually has no basis in known fact.
  2. Uses, either directly or a derivative of, "We have always..."
Potential Problems With Both Angles

The problem with the broad statement is that is generally is based on an untested assumption.  You may have heard something like, "We cannot do that, our students wouldn't attend."  Did anyone ask any students?  How do you know they wouldn't attend?  Often this is a statement that masks personal preference by trying to connect one's displeasure to a large group - safety in numbers.

"We have always..." presents a similar problem.  Often, the "always" is much less time than the speaker would like you to believe.  I have been faced before with such statements.  For example, once I faced some opposition to a schedule change from 80 minute blocks to 40 minute periods for middle school students.  "We have always had 80 minutes blocks." was a frequent visitor to the conversation.  The problem was that the school had used 80 minute blocks for only 4 years - not "always."

Another potential issue with "We have always..." is that if a change effort is needed, then the "always" practice may not be delivering the results the school needs to see.  Yes, you can stick to what you have always done or you can consider an option that could make a welcomed adjustment.

Suggestions for Overcoming Faith-Based Beliefs

Call the broad statement out and put it to the test

If you are dealing with a broad, unsubstantiated claim, test it - and ask the person making the claim to be a part of the test.  Of course, you risk confirming the claim, but at least you now have confirmation - which is good for both sides.

Speak to the claim maker one on one to determine if the statement is actually a personal opinion

Some people do not like to voice their opinion publicly.  They use "everybody" as a mask for their own feelings.  Talk to them aside and see if the claim is actually a community concern or a personal one.  If community - test it.  If personal - dig deeper to find out why there is resistance.

Use facts to counter the stated myths

This requires you to do your homework.  If you have facts to counter the baseless claims, use it.  At least those who value evidence-based beliefs may begin to turn your way.  This may swing momentum in your direction and propel the idea further.

Demonstrate your own faith in the team

If you demonstrate faith in the team and use faith based claims in their ability to make the right decision, you may build credibility with the faith-based group.  Genuinely showing faith and trust in your team is always a good leadership strategy, but is will have huge pay-offs when trying to overcome faith-based beliefs.

"We should always..." and "We will always..."

When faced with "We have always..." do an exercise that asks the group to complete these two sentences: "We should always..." and "We will always..."  The answers may lead you to a strong connection to your idea.  Remember, changes are about the present and future.  "We have always..." is about the past.  The past is not inherently bad, but if you are talking about a change, then there is probably a reason.


If you followed this series from the beginning, "Thank you."  Of course, you can access the other parts using the links provided in this post.

Leading changes is tough.  In schools, it may be even tougher because school tend to take on a very personal and emotional life that other organizations do not have.  School leaders who can overcome the challenges of leading change are in a good position to maintain a culture of student achievement and innovation.

If you have any other suggestions about how to overcome resistance to change, please feel free to leave a comment.

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