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Take Morale Out of the Closet and Own It

For years, school leaders have reported that faculty and staff tell them they are unhappy in the workplace.  And for years, administrators have responded on their own to those concerns in various ways with limited success.  This past school year our district elected to get a “true” measure of this perception and its causes by conducting a district-wide culture study of all staff.  The hope was that by collecting feedback, we would be able to determine what factors were contributing to the overall morale of our faculty and staff so that appropriate action plans could be put in place to address any concerns.  In doing so, the district agreed on a third party vendor to conduct the survey.
Eventually, the results of those surveys were shared with all employees. The culture study provided us with a baseline measurement of employee satisfaction and engagement level.  Initial results revealed for the most part staff feeling engaged, inspired and satisfied in their current position.
But were they really? 
It didn’t take long for me to hear murmurs of dissatisfaction with the instrument and the questions that were asked.  Many teachers felt as though they did not have a “true” opportunity to have their voices heard.  Similar to what we do with students, we had teachers fill out a bubble sheet, when what they really wanted was an opportunity to air their concerns in writing and/or verbally.
 As building principal, I have always preached to our staff how important it is for me that they look forward to coming to work each day. I want them to have pride in their school and when asked by others about their job, I want them to express how much they love working at Bettendorf High School.  As I shared in my last post, I want them to carry the banner for their school. Why? Because I know that if they love coming to work and morale is positive, then I know they will be in a place to give their best to our kids.  A positive work environment is the most critical element of ensuring that students feel safe, connected, valued, and primed for success.  In addition, I also recognize that that when morale is high, staff not only looks forward to coming to work each day, but they also look forward to going home each night and are in a position to also give their best to their families and that is sometimes just as important.
No one likes to be criticized or not feel appreciated, especially if you feel like you give everything you have to do your best.  However, as leaders, we sometimes have to take morale out of the closet and own it.

So I did.
This past spring I met with my Team Leaders one on one and asked them to be candid with me about what they and their colleagues believed to be the areas that were impacting staff morale.  Of course, in doing so, I had to ask them for their trust. Trust that I wouldn’t violate their trust in me.  Trust that I wouldn’t get defensive or hurt by their comments, even if it was about my (lack of) effectiveness as a leader.  Trust that I would act to improve on the areas they considered needing attention.  
So we got to work.
I shared with them a process whereby every voice would be heard and together, we would begin to address areas that needed improving.  I solicited their candid feedback and compiled their responses in general themes and shared them out and asked them to review with their teams and bring their comments back to the group. Together, we prioritized the responses and I allowed them to select the areas they wanted to address first.  We agreed that we would begin to address the recommendations this upcoming school year and that considerable attention would be given to improve our practices.
This summer, I was able to meet with each team leader again one on one to revisit our conversation from this past spring. I cannot express to you how proud I was of my team when we finished.  I must admit, as vulnerable as I felt initially in soliciting feedback face to face, I now felt a sense of relief knowing that some of the morale issues that my staff were experiencing would now be addressed together as a team and not be dependent on me to resolve on my own. 
Ironically, our district leadership team has struggled with some of the same morale issues from a district administrative level. Recently, during our leadership retreat, many of these concerns were brought to the surface by several us during an open discussion.  Although it may have led to some moments of discomfort, what transpired during the conversation needed to happen if higher order change of any magnitude is going to occur among our district leaders in order for us to develop into a high performing team.  These are the five most important things I took from these experiences.
1.       Communication:Communication is one thing, effective communication is another. Most leaders will tell you they believe they communicate through many different means, but what it really comes down to is effective communication.  Moreover, people need to know what you stand for.  Effectively communicate what you are passionate about, what you believe in, what you think; what you believe needs to happen next.  Our best people want to do a great job, but they also need to know what we as leaders expect from themThis is the time to say this is what I stand for.
2.       Trust:Asking for your team’s trust is only the first step. Building it takes time. We build trust by maintaining the confidence of our team members, by not taking things personally, by not becoming defensive, and by trying not to offer an explanation every time we hear something we don’t like.  Listen and accept the feedback you asked for when you asked to be trusted.  This is the time to listen, not talk.
3.       Placing Blame: As leaders, we must always take responsibility for our results. After all, we are the leaders. It is too easy to pass the buck or make excuses for why we didn’t achieve the results we wanted.  By placing blame, we only give others a reason to question our integrity and our leadership.  Remember, you don’t want your own team members worrying about how you will respond when their own performance or actions are the ones being questioned.  This is the time to use “I” or “We” statements in your explanations and/or our responses.
4.       Team Builder:  As leaders, one of our most fundamental core principles in building a successful organization depends on building a team atmosphere.  That is on us as leaders. We do not delegate that responsibility to others.  No matter how many team building activities we do or how many facilitators we bring in to help us build a team, it will not give us the results we want unless we model what it means to be a team. This is measured in how we interact, respond and acknowledge the work of others on a daily basis.  This is the time to be intentional in establishing meaningful and purposeful relationships with each member of our team.
5.       Follow Through:  When someone brings a concern to you or you ask for feedback or you take time to address an individual or building wide issue that is brought to your attention, by all means follow up, communicate a plan, and then take action.  Respect people’s time.  In my experience, people don’t expect us as leaders to resolve every issue, but they do expect us to listen, gather information, seek the cause of the issue, communicate what we find, and then take some action to try and resolve the concern.  This is the time to demonstrate that we value our team members’ opinions/feedback and show that we value their time.
I learned a tremendous amount from these two experiences, points that dug deep with me in how our fear, unwillingness, or inability to address morale issues can and do lead to serious culture issues in any organization.  It is clear to me more than ever that if not addressed appropriately, a poor morale threatens our ability to work effectively as one team.  Only by stepping out of the closet and taking ownership for our team’s poor morale will we ever be able to reach the standard of excellence that we all desire to have in our organizations.  Our staff desires a positive work environment, our students and our community deserve our best and we should always demand the most of ourselves and our team.  

Our morale depends on it.  Let’s own it!
“Don’t ever allow anyone to take away your excellence.”  – Sue Enquist

  • Christie
    4 years ago

    Jimmy, this is such a timely post as we are thinking about the morale and leadership within our department. I appreciate when you acknowledged how difficult it was to listen, face to face, as each of your team leaders described their concerns. However, now you are in a position to address those concerns as a team. You have earned the trust of your team. I am sure that the staff in your school will be wearing their morale along with you!

    • jimmycasas
      4 years ago

      Thank you Christie for commenting on my post. As we all know it definitely is a work in progress. I do think the more we can have difficult conversations the more people begin to see we all want the same thing…to make a positive impact on kids.

  • Anonymous
    4 years ago

    I loved this post! I think it is wonderful that you and your team have addressed the issue of poor morale head on. I can say from experience that when communication breaks down or is nonexistent that morale plummets which can destroy the entire culture of a school. I think that most teachers want to know their voice is heard and to be kept in the loop with what is happening at school. My former principal used to bounce ideas off of the staff all of the time and include them in the decision making process as much as possible. He valued our opinions and we trusted him to make sound decisions that were good for students. Your teachers are so lucky to work for someone like you!

    • jimmycasas
      4 years ago

      Thank you. I would like to meet your former principal. Sounds like a heck of a guy. It was interesting to note that almost all of the issues could be tied back to communication. Another great reminder for all of us.

  • Matt
    4 years ago

    I appreciate the fact that you’re willing to listen to the concerns of your staff. Your trust and willingness to find authentic feedback is refreshing. More often than not, teachers tend to restrain their feedback if they have an inkling that it’ll be used against them in some way. Restraining can cause resentment, which has the contagious potential to develop deep negative roots. This quote especially resonates:

    “In addition, I also recognize that that when morale is high, staff not only looks forward to coming to work each day, but they also look forward to going home each night and are in a position to also give their best to their families and that is sometimes just as important.”

    Your leadership in addressing the morale issue in your school is admirable. I’m sure that your staff feels the same way and respects you for listening and addressing their concerns. Thank you for documenting and sharing this journey with your readers.

    • jimmycasas
      4 years ago

      Great point in your opening comments Matt. I think that dear of retaliations is prominent in our profession and hard to break down, but we just need to keep plugging away one person at a time. I always tell my staff, students and parents that if I violate their trust then I give them permission not to trust me or talk to me again and that is on me. I would have to own that.

      Thank you again for taking time to share your thoughts. Appreciate it. – jimmy

  • Ben Gilpin
    4 years ago

    Enjoyed the post Jimmy. I’m a believer in the difference between climate and culture. I believe staff morale is tied into climate. I say this because as leaders we do our best to have a strong, collaborative, learning culture. We also desire a positive building climate. I feel less in control of climate. I try to model a positive attitude at all times, but I don’t obsess about the climate, I can’t control everyone’s ups and downs. I do feel that culture is a little more constant.

    Your post made me reflect and think. I don’t want to constantly obsess about morale, but I do desire a positive morale throughout the building.

    You said it best with “communication” – “Communication is one thing, effective communication is another. Most leaders will tell you they believe they communicate through many different means, but what it really comes down to is effective communication. Moreover, people need to know what you stand for. Effectively communicate what you are passionate about, what you believe in, what you think; what you believe needs to happen next.”

    Thanks for pushing my thinking Jimmy. I enjoy learning from you.

    • jimmycasas
      4 years ago

      You are right in my opinion Ben. It is hard not to constantly be reminded about climate and culture, but that is because we care. We want the best learning environments for our students, staff and parents. Hence, comes a great responsibility by choosing to own that.

      Having said that, I do enjoy the challenge of looking to improve every day. Great way to model learning by us. As Joe Mazza would say, that is why we model being the Lead Learners.

      Keep up the great work my friend.

  • Mike Lubelfeld
    4 years ago

    Great lessons Jimmy. Once again you have inspired many with courageous leadership lessons. Thank you!

    • jimmycasas
      4 years ago

      Thanks Mike. You have been a great mentor for me as well as a great inspiration to want to better. I feel blessed to have crossed paths with you and now consider you a good friend. Be excellent!

  • Jeff Z
    4 years ago

    Jimmy, You make many keen insights herein—in addition, I love the graphic showing the differences between a “boss” and a “leader.” Not settling for just the “bubble-in” survey at your school was but one way you exemplify the latter so well. I maintain that whether we are speaking about “morale,” or “relationships,” or “climate,” we must focus on #2 of your “”5 Most Important…” that you list above: Trust. In my own work, I often refer to “trust” as the single most important “relationship” word. I typically share the following list of the “Top 10 Trust Traits.” As I read your post, I was reminded of this list and reminded of how well you lead the way for so many in living out these important leadership qualities on a daily basis!

    1. Be there
    2. Show you care
    3. Provide resources
    4. Communicate regularly
    5. Involve others
    6. Celebrate success
    7. Value diversity and dissent
    8. Support innovation
    9. Address underperformance
    10. Demonstrate personal integrity

  • jimmycasas
    4 years ago


    Thank you my friend. This is a great list. If you don’t mind, I would like to share it with my leadership team & others. This is a valuable resource that will serve as a great reminder to many of us. Thanks for being a great support to me and others. -jimmy

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