Tip #3 from @KaraKnollmeyer says to Lean Into Challenge. This can mean many different things, but she refers specifically to leaning into challenging conversations and what we can learn from them.

I have really struggled with writing this post. Not because of the nature of the topic, but because I just happen to have some really challenging conversations this week with staff members. The timing could not have been any better (worse depending on how you have look at it). This week has been a humbling learning experience for me.

While it was happening I was not leaning into the challenge of those conversations. If I can be completely honest, those conversations put me into a bit of a funk for a couple of days. These are staff members that I care about and truly want the best for (even if they don’t believe that right now). 

I just finished “Can’t Hurt Me” by David Goggins. He is a former Navy Seal and “hardest man in the world.” He has run and won many ultra-marathons (100+ miles) and at one time had the world record for pull-ups in one day (completing 4,030 pull-ups in 17 hours). I will probably have a longer post about the book later, but he has tasks after each chapter and one really applied to me this week. He talks about an After Action Report (AAR) they do in the military. They use that to review and recap what happened during a mission. After the hard conversations I had, I remembered this task and thought that I need to really dig into those conversations and see what I can learn from them. I am relatively new in administration so I will have a lot more of those types of conversations. My AAR included items I wish I had clarified. Also policy I learned afterward that would have answered some of the questions they had. I also need to do a better job of addressing the fact that I can tell this is a hard conversation, but I am there to support my teachers.

In my job I have found that challenging conversations usually involve parents or staff members. With students, I find it much easier to have tough conversations because I have worked hard to gain their respect and feel like we can have those open conversations. Tough parent conversations are hard because they are coming in wanting to defend their students and what the student did. The respect is not there and they sometimes go into full “mama or papa bear” mode to protect their young. Most of the time I don’t even blame them because I get where they’re coming from, but it does make for a harder conversation to break the initial barriers. My principal asked me a couple of days ago what my next blog post was going to be about. I told him “tough conversations.” I then asked him his take on them. He recognized that I had some tougher conversations about teacher evaluations. But he said that the toughest for him is giving feedback on their teaching. For the most part, these people have spent many years in college and their professional life teaching. This is their career of choice and most even have a major part of their identity as a teacher.

Recently I also read a book called Radical Candor by Kim Scott. She has quite the pedigree leading teams Google and Apple. Her message was impactful for me because of its simplicity. She shares a quadrant on giving feedback and suggests we are in the Radical Candor quadrant when giving feedback.

To illustrate the four quadrants Scott gives the example of observing a co-worker walk out of the bathroom with their zipper down. Lean East gives a great summary of the example:

Challenging directly means you will tell the person about their zipper so they can fix it quickly. If you care personally about the person’s feelings you should privately whisper “Your fly is down,” so your employee can fix and move on. This is radical candor, and is always recommended!

Challenging directly without demonstrating that you care personally is obnoxious aggression. An example would be saying aloud, “Look, his fly is down,” and pointing at the employee. The employee gets to fix the issue, but not without some embarrassment.

What if you care personally about the employee (and really don’t want to hurt their feelings) but also don’t bother to challenge directly? In this example, you are silent since you are worried about making them embarrassed. Later the employee will wonder why he wasn’t told about his fly being down. This is ruinous empathy and is probably most commonly how I observe leaders behaving. Being nice will slowly ruin your team and relationships. Most people want to be challenged directly so they can improve, yet time and time again I hear leaders complain about their employees without ever giving direct feedback to the employee.

The last quadrant is the worst when you neither care personally nor challenge directly. These leaders stay silent because they are worried not about the employee, but about themselves. Scott calls this manipulative insincerity and it does not build trust between the employee and leader. 

Even though this is a business book, I have found application to my job in education. We are constantly giving and receiving feedback. But what type of feedback is it? Are we doing it with radical candor?

On Kim Scott’s website, she has a guest blog post written by a former teacher and how they applied this to education. She has four different areas and how it applies. The section that stuck with me was about administration (shocking I know). But it might not be for the reason you think. She said:

As a leader, your job is to give and receive feedback. In order to do this effectively, you must be clear that you are open to receiving feedback before giving it.”

When I read that I immediately started reflecting on my experience as a leader and if I was open to receiving feedback… Am I? How do I go about my interactions with my staff so that they know they can give me that feedback? Do I need to solicit it?

This also applies to teachers. As a teacher, we sometimes falsely view ourselves as the masters of our content. Maybe it was easier for me to not believe that because I taught a lot of technology classes and with how rapidly it changes I couldn’t know everything. Do we allow our students to give us feedback? When? How? One thing I did at the end of each semester was hand out 3×5 cards with three questions the students had to answer:

  1. What did you enjoy about this class?
  2. What did you not enjoy about this class?
  3. What can I do differently next semester to improve this class?

There were also some good, bad, and ugly feedback. But it was nice to receive that feedback. Here is one of the more surprising feedback I received. I’ll let you guess which body part referenced that was censored.

I would always talk to them beforehand about what constructive criticism is but unfortunately, they didn’t always listen. One student even went so far as to post it on Twitter. If you are offended by high school language, you’ll want to skip this one.

I actually had a conversation with this student as she was still in my class when she wrote it. I told her I had been called worse, but I’d like some specific reasons as to why she thought that about me. It actually turned into a worthwhile conversation where I learned some things, though I’m not sure her opinion of me changed.

To recap, let’s lean into the hard conversations we are going to have. Use the time after to make an AAR to see what we can learn. And finally, make sure people are comfortable enough to give us feedback.