By Phil Slade & Roshelle Weir
There is a certain irony that people who will clearly benefit from strengthening mental health and resilience are likely to be the ones to strongly resist, and more likely to announce that they don’t need it. Is it unconscious incompetence? Fear of exposing a weakness? Professional insecurity? Annoyed that the automatic way they have learnt to navigate the day is being frustrated by something new? Don’t like the person leading the change initiative?
Over the past 20 years we have worked with teams, leaders, boards, executives, students, and thousands of interesting individuals across all ages and stages in all types of vocations. We know a little about people, and one thing that is certain - irrespective of IQ, education, financial status or social standing, people can be weird and irrational. The smarter and more experienced people are, the more skilled they are at post-rationalising irrational behaviour, and just as susceptible to the same level of emotional reactivity and blind behaviour as anyone.
Irrational behaviour we define as when people behave in ways that are actually in conflict with their best interests, or the interests of a relevant social group (eg. your family, work colleagues, community group etc.). During change is the most common scenario that we see this irrational behaviour.
This is because the brain views change as potentially threatening to survival. and the hard-wired survival instinct that has been bred into us over the millennia is a hard beast to shake. Any change is instinctively seen as potentially dangerous, and it feels good, vigilant, even noble to resist.
The good news is that we’re more predictably irrational than we like to believe, and during change there are simple things that can be done to avert or mute the emotional triggers that produce change resistant behaviours.
This becomes even more important when implementing a new mental health and well-being program, because mental health comes with all sorts of taboos, fears and unknowns. It’s all particularly scary!
The following list is a blueprint for navigating change when deploying a mental health program in schools. You will obviously need to nuance the details to suit your particular context, but it’s a solid framework that will help guide you through the treacherous waters of change.
1. Understand the ‘Why?’
People need a compelling reason to change. The digital revolution has delivered incredible tools and capabilities to make things more accurate, more efficient, and less individually taxing, but this is often not enough when talking about mental health. This change needs to be linked to the growing prevalence of anxiety and depression within the student population, and the potentially devastating consequences of not exploring better ways to connect and manage mental health. Further to this, in the future simply being a technical expert at something will not be enough to survive. Higher emotional intelligence, critical thinking and cognitive fluidity are going to be required, which are all things intrinsically linked to our mental health. The school that does not address these issues will fall behind other more progressive schools on every measure you care about.
2. Put your own mask on first.
You are likely to be an ineffective leader of change if you don’t first know how to understand, identify and manage your own emotions. Disgust, fear, frustration, sadness and over-excitability can all create blind spots and lead to reactive decision making that will undermine the change. Spend the time and create the habits to exercise and strengthen your own mental health before guiding others through the change. These are tricky waters, and the last thing people need is an unstable captain at the wheel.
3. Create clarity, aligning it to strategic objectives.
Make sure that you are clear in your own mind in regard to why and how the change will roll out, how the change will help the school win (strategic alignment) and the likely impact on others. Then make sure that the way you talk and communicate these things makes sense to those that you are trying to communicate to. Too often leaders communicate without looking for understanding. Check for comprehension by asking open ended questions and if there is a misunderstanding realise that it’s your messaging that needs to change rather than simply telling them the same thing assuming they’ll get it the second time around. Remember that when people say ‘yes’ in response to a question regarding comprehension, they are often actually saying, “Yes, I heard you” rather than, “Yes, I understand”.
4. Leverage and celebrate your early adopters
Early adopters are your greatest allies, make sure you show them some love! Bring them into the inner knowledge community, use their testimonies to generate a positive narrative regarding the change, and use them to trial some of the initiatives so you can refine them before releasing to the broader group. These people will be your agents of change and critical to creating social momentum and a ‘tipping point’ of group buy-in. As an interesting side note, you want to have more early adopters than evangelistic nay-sayers. You are not trying to convince the nay-sayers, it is the middle ground that you are competing for. The nay-sayers will fall into line once the bulk of the middle ground feel positive and excited about the change.
5. Over communicate.
One email will never be sufficient communication, even if it comes from the principal. If you don’t have people complaining that they’ve heard it before, then you haven’t communicated enough. Use the ‘three points’ rule which states that people need to read, see or hear it three times before they begin to take notice of something. Usually this needs to be via three different modes of communication. It could be an email, a mention at a staff meeting and a poster on the staffroom wall. It could be a text message, an update on a group teleconference and a notification on the school notice board. Don’t simply rely on one mode of communication to get the message through.
6. Make sure your systems, symbols and behaviours reinforce what you want to do and the outcomes you want to achieve.
People that are ‘on the fence’ will look for anything that seems to be incongruous to the change that you desire. If you want people to do something, but there are no consequences for those not toeing the line it will be seen as a not important and deprioritised. If there are different rules for different people it will be scorned as, “do as I say, not as I do”. If there are logos, posters, or visual aids that remain to reinforce the old way of doing things then it will be confusing and frustrating. Take note of the small things and make sure every cue points toward embracing the new system.
7. Celebrate small wins.
The shared narrative is a strong influence of group behaviour and attitudes, and negative stories are much more enjoyable to tell than positive ones. You need to pepper communication channels and meetings with success stories, pointing out the small wins at an individual and group level. This will give the ‘middle ground’ confidence and belief that the new change or initiative will be successful.
8. Be Patient. Play the infinite game.
Patience to pause momentarily when people are feeling overwhelmed when still coming to terms with the change will save time in the long run and improve adoption rates. The mantra of the change should be to strive to be better today than we were yesterday. Often leaders grossly either underestimate of overestimate the length of time change will take. Learning to move and respond at the speed your people can accommodate while feeling psychologically safe will be the fastest way between where you are, and where you need to be.
Spending the time to think through each of these rules before you implement any mental health change process will ensure you give any new initiative the best chance of success and have the most positive impact on the students and the broader school community.