Skip to content
ascd logo

Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
October 1, 1993
Vol. 51
No. 2

The Rule for Role Change: Show, Don't Tell

When decision making becomes a shared activity, it's up to administrators to demonstrate that the new roles are not just on paper.

“Supposedly our district is officially into site-based management, but we can't see how things are different. It's still `business as usual.'”
This teacher's comment typifies common reactions to the trend away from hierarchical management toward participatory decision making at the school level. Usually a state mandate or central office initiative results in a written policy endorsing site-based management, with the assumption that defining new formal procedures and changes in roles and relationships will result in enthusiastic implementation. Little attention is paid to the development of skills needed to work as collegial teams, and even less time is spent planning strategies that will demonstrate a sincere commitment on the part of administrators.
As Deal and Peterson have pointed out, the expectations and norms of an organization are communicated both technically and symbolically. Writing new policy and modifying job descriptions are technical necessities, but do not meet the need for symbolic actions called for when people comment on how things look and when they want to see that things are different. In order to develop new skills and build the trust level needed for new roles and responsibilities, administrators must consciously plan symbolic actions that will demonstrate the reality of the change.
During the past three years, I've worked with school leadership teams struggling to implement models of shared decision making that range from school improvement processes based on the effective schools research, to site-based management, to total quality education. I have been impressed with the creative ways principals and superintendents have found to demonstrate role shifts through formal and informal changes in their own behavior.

The Nonverbal Message

One principal shared his frustration in this way: I've formed a leadership team, arranged for teamwork training, set regular meetings, developed the agendas jointly with my co-chair (who's a teacher), but the same thing keeps happening. When it gets right down to stating an opinion or reaching closure on a decision, the whole group becomes silent and looks at me. Then everybody's uncomfortable, and I end up taking over so we can move on.I know it's because I've been principal there for a long time, and they're used to waiting for me to decide. Maybe they're even afraid to really test whether they can make decisions themselves. How do I convince them that the days when I'm going to make all the decisions are out the door?
As workshop participants reflected on his comment, they noted the importance of eye contact as a cue and focused on his expression “out the door.” “What would happen,” they asked, “if you broke the eye contact by looking somewhere else, like literally out the door?” They mentioned the value of silence and wait time in classroom questioning, and thought it might also apply to better team decision making. The principal decided to implement this nonverbal technique and let us know how it worked.
Several months later, he mentioned how awkward it first felt to withhold his opinion and look away from the group. One team member had spotted the change immediately and asked, “Why do you keep looking out the door? No one's there.” The principal then explained that it was important to him to hold back so that others in the group would participate more actively in reaching decisions. “I've told you that the days when I make all the decisions are `out the door,' so I thought I'd try to demonstrate that I really meant it.” After that exchange, his nonverbal message became a humorous routine that reminded team members of their collegial relationship.

The Personal Reminder

In another setting, the group consisted primarily of administrators who were discussing the central office role in support of school-based leadership. One principal complimented her superintendent on the changes he had made that year, noting that “for the first time, I've really felt that my input was valued and used.”
When asked how he had been able to demonstrate that change, the superintendent shyly described that “all it really took was two words.” Above the inside of his office door, and on each page of his planner, he had placed the question “Who else?” That simple strategy had provided him with a constant reminder to consider who else should be involved, who else would be affected, who else had expertise, and who else's support would be needed to ensure success.

The Visible Opportunity

At the ASCD conference in Washington, a facilitator from Canada shared a variation of a “graffiti wall,” which had turned the staff lounge into a forum for input on decisions. The principal had installed a large wipe-off board titled “Decisions Pending—Input Requested.” At least once a week, the principal listed some current items on her task list, and staff members jotted their suggestions.
Another member of the group described a similar technique, which included columns headed “Handle it yourself,” “Use the team,” and “Meet as a whole.” In addition to their written comments, this visible device allowed staff members to indicate those topics that would merit time at a staff meeting. As a result, staff members became much more aware of how many decisions are involved in leading a school. A second benefit was that when staff members were the ones to recommend whole group discussion of an item, there was very little grumbling if the staff meeting went beyond the designated contract day.

The Collective Strategy

Since Texas is one of many states mandating site-based management, it was no surprise that “knowing we really have district support” was a high-priority concern among participants at a principals' conference there. The comment that “since it's the state's idea, we don't really know whether our superintendent believes it or not” generated nods and murmurs throughout the room.
  • The superintendent and the board participate in training.
  • The organizational chart is redrawn to show schools at the top.
  • Site team decision making is modeled by a district-level team.
  • Funds are provided to support innovations.
  • Time is provided for teams to work together.
  • The central office doesn't “red ink and revise” our building improvement plans for us.
  • Inquiries and complaint calls are referred back to the building so the community learns that we are the decision makers.
These indicators may not be appropriate for every setting, but the technique of asking “What will you need to see for you to believe?” can be adapted to many issues and contexts.
As these accounts from successful and struggling practitioners indicate, saying that we're changing roles is not enough. Conscious modeling of new behaviors by the formal leader is required to demonstrate sincerity and faith in the leadership ability of those who have seen themselves as “just” followers and receivers.
End Notes

1 T. E. Deal and K. D. Peterson, (1990), The Principal's Role in Shaping School Culture. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Edie L. Holcomb has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

Learn More

ASCD is a community dedicated to educators' professional growth and well-being.

Let us help you put your vision into action.
From our issue
Product cover image 61193174.jpg
New Roles, New Relationships
Go To Publication