Four colleagues sitting around a conference table working together

As we launch into part three of our series, it is likely clear that there is no easy way to be comfortable with feeling uncomfortable. There will not be one methodology that successfully engages all staff members because there is no one-size-fits-all approach. And, by being agile and flexing through the process of creating a brave space, you can inspire positive change and see results.

In this post, I’ll offer details about why the mindset shift that is required to participate in a brave space is so challenging and share next steps to help you identify what may be holding you or your staff back.

Recognizing the Dynamics at Play

Previously, I described the ways trust is built through the lens of the Emergenetics® Attributes and how different environments can contribute to individuals feeling more or less comfortable expressing their authentic selves. That knowledge can empower you to establish stronger relationships that may encourage staff to be more vulnerable. Still, creating space for all people to share their honest opinions and experiences means that we need to understand the many dynamics that may not be visible on the surface.

The Mind’s Inner Workings

Let’s consider social neuroscience. The brain’s natural function is to keep us safe, and it is constantly scanning our environment for threats. In a brave space, people are likely to feel scratchy, which may cause the brain to produce stress hormones like cortisol that can cause fight, flight or freeze reactions in our bodies.

That is why building trust is so essential to engaging in challenging dialogue. When we are with a group that we’re comfortable with, the brain is more likely to release hormones like oxytocin and dopamine, which help you feel safer. To be candid, it is unlikely that all concerns will be eliminated in a brave space because these conversations innately require vulnerability. Instead, it’s important to cultivate opportunities to promote group cohesion so the atmosphere feels less nerve-wrecking.

Leaders can begin by modeling vulnerability themselves by admitting to mistakes and sharing learnings they have gained from participating in challenging conversations. It is also helpful to remember that the onus is not squarely on your shoulders. Creating opportunities for all staff to bond with one another and encouraging them to get to know each other can also inspire individuals to feel more comfortable opening up.

Socio-Cultural Experiences

In addition to acknowledging what’s going on in the brain, remember that your staff have lived experiences that may impact their willingness to participate in a brave space. Perhaps inclusion conversations went poorly at their previous school, or maybe they were punished for sharing a perspective that was not in line with the status quo.

Even if your team’s perceptions about challenging dialogue are positive, it takes time for coworkers to build trust with one another, especially when they are new. They will likely want to get a better feel for the school’s culture and their team members before sharing transparently.

To support those first steps, help new staff acclimate by making sure your values and norms are visible. Post them publicly, reference them in meetings and explain your traditions. Assigning mentors can be another powerful way to engage employees and help them build trusting relationships with one another.

School Climate

Your existing culture will certainly influence the discussions your team has. Most schools have a set of stated norms that indicate how educators and students are expected to treat each other and engage with one another. Understanding “the way we do things around here” is vital in communicating effectively, and the tips I provided in the previous section can help you make those expectations clear.

There are also unstated norms that inform school climate. These unwritten expectations will affect the ways individuals interact. As a school leader, you may not even be aware of the differences and how they show up within teams, grade-levels or school-wide.

To recognize the rules of engagement that may be hiding underneath the surface, it is essential to listen to your staff. Your personnel are far more likely to recognize any discrepancies and can provide insight into what the school climate looks like, feels like and sounds like beyond the norms that are stated publicly.

Identifying Roadblocks

Knowing all these factors contribute to your school’s climate, it may feel daunting to construct a brave space, and the benefits are worth it. When coworkers are authentic and willing to express themselves openly, they are more likely to feel fulfilled in their jobs, develop meaningful connections with coworkers and discover better ways of working with each other. To take stock of the dynamics that could be at play, I recommend three steps:

1) Practice self-reflection.

For anyone who has followed my posts, you have likely noticed the importance of self-awareness to support inclusion. Until you recognize your own proclivities, it will be difficult to appreciate how your actions may help or hinder your efforts to cultivate relationships with your staff and encourage honest dialogue.

To explore how the ways you prefer to think, behave and interact may influence how you lead and participate in difficult discussions, I invite you to revisit my blog on relational trust and my post on utilizing Emergenetics to explore your identity. The previously noted activities can offer insights into differences between you and your team as well as provide some ideas to start building bridges where gaps exist.

2) Engage with staff.

You will also need to turn to your employees to construct an environment that allows for and welcomes challenging conversations. As a starting point, it can be useful to determine which of your staff members wield the most influence. You may find that it is helpful to partner with influencers who can positively change the mood of a room and turn skeptics into believers.

I also invite you to seek out opportunities to hear your staff’s perspectives on your efforts to create a brave space. Ask them what you should keep doing, what you should re-evaluate and what undercurrents they see that may be affecting the success of your initiatives.

3) Define stated and unstated norms.

Actively explore the rules of engagement that impact the way individuals interact in your building. This is a time to be curious and ask a lot of questions to learn about the differences between your school’s espoused values and lived ones. By uncovering unstated norms, you can discover elements that may support or prevent people from being their authentic selves.

Keep in mind, however, that to get this sort of authentic feedback, your people need to believe they can confide in you. Some team members may not feel comfortable being open about the obstacles they see. You can try using anonymous surveys or working with your school’s influencers to solicit input. If you are having trouble getting honest responses, that may also be a sign that you should spend more time modeling vulnerability first.

Speaking your truth can be scratchy. That is why it is essential to focus on trust and appreciate the many circumstances that influence vulnerability. By listening to your people to understand their needs and the considerations that are impacting their willingness to share their real opinions, you will take positive steps toward co-creating a brave space.

Learn more about how Emergenetics can support your educators. Explore our Certification programs or fill out the form below to speak with one of our team members today.

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