Understanding the Emotional Systems in Schools

Understanding the Emotional Systems in Schools

A Case Study of effective, real-time change in an Ohio High School

There is a hidden dynamic in society that is potent, pervasive, and impacts all aspects of a functionality. This is especially prevalent in our schools. Revealing this hidden world and understanding its impact is key to moving schools forward. What follows are examples of how our school used a conceptual framework known as Resilient Leadership, based on Bowen Family Systems Theory, to help our team better understand this hidden world as we moved forward. Our school needed a framework to help everyone navigate the emotional tumult that inevitability occurs through the process of improvement.

Principal, Jeffrey Hartmann of Stow-Munroe Falls City Schools, in Ohio describes the change his schools underwent under the guidance from Resilient Leadership Development.

According to Hartmann, “Teachers need expressions of personal regard and support as much as anyone else does, it is the intersection of the technical aspects and the emotional systems that is the focal point of Resilient Leadership.”

Resilient Leadership examines the recursive nature of emotional systems response to rational, technical, processes. Much of the literature related to change leadership seem to focus on the technical work of improving organizations through structures, processes, strategies, or vision creation. Other work approaches change as a culture-building enterprise, creating feelings of momentum, celebrating small victories, and embracing positivity and resiliency throughout the firm.

When the school opened 1987, it instantly became the largest high school in our county. There was never a high school-specific, school-wide focus to improve that applied to everyone. The organizational inertia was strong. Hartmann continued, “Our teachers expected to be left alone and teamwork was an anathema.”

“When we ask people to change or improve, we are, in essence, asking them to break their loyalty to the person or place that bestowed that belief set in the first place. Understanding this deep emotional connection was very important for me as a new school principal trying to move a building forward that had not ever experienced change. Collectively and individually, we lacked the skill sets to successfully navigate the emotional tumult associated with change.”

The conceptual models within Resilient Leadership were applied by many with the help of their Resident Leadership coach, who became a crucial guide on their improvement journey. Resilient Leadership is a framework established by Bob Duggan, Jim Moyer, and Bridgette Theurer in their books Resilient Leadership (2010), and Resilient Leadership 2.0 (2017). The goal of Resilient Leadership is to improve a person’s or a system’s emotional differentiation. A basic definition of emotional differentiation is an individual’s ability to separate thinking from feeling.

Hartmann went on to describe some of the key critical elements identified by Resilient Leadership in order to support improvement. “We focused on: the concepts of the rational system and the emotional system, over and under-functioning, being a step-down transformer, and relationship triangles.” With the help of coach John Moyer, “our work began during professional development sessions for our school district.”

John then started to hold book studies and then branched into individual leadership development sessions for other teachers in building. Soon, the district leadership asked John to provide his services district-wide to any interested teacher or administrator. The Resilient Leadership 2.0 book joined other supporting texts to form the “canon” of our school improvement program.

“In so doing, it reduced anxiety because the staff was better able to identify what they were feeling and why.”

Emotional and Rational Systems

Hartmann exclaimed, that, “One of the first instructive experiences I had was understanding that there was a whole world that was invisible but reacted directly with the tangible world in front of me. We term these two worlds as the ‘emotional system’ and ‘rational system,’ respectively Rational world changes include, but are certainly not limited to, policies, procedures, evaluation frameworks, shifting priorities, and the like. These rational world changes often have a direct emotional system reaction both within an individual and within a group.”

The entire Resilient Leadership framework aims to grow the capacity of individuals to reduce their emotional responses, reducing system anxiety regardless of the stressor. The Resilient Leadership authors explain that the internal feeling of being off-balance is considered a form of reactivity. Being able to be thoughtful amid heightened anxiety is known as emotional differentiation. Essentially, emotional differentiation suggests that individuals have more than one method of coping with change, thus keeping their chronic anxiety in a state of balance. Emotionally differentiated individuals can stop, think, and respond in a thoughtful way to a change. Individuals with less emotional differentiation, however, provide an automatic, immediate and less thoughtful, reaction to a change.

Teacher anxiety and stress rates are well-researched, international phenomenon. The multiple, ever-changing policy and practice expectations that educators face take a heavy emotional toll and contribute to high amounts of anxiety and eventual teacher burnout.

We see the deleterious effects of stress with productivity decline and job satisfaction trending downward, resulting in otherwise good teachers feeling forced to leave the field. Conversely, teachers who can regulate emotions and, by extension anxiety, display a higher job satisfaction and positive affect. “Teachers who are calm, positive, and content are likely to be better equipped to treat students warmly and sensitively, even when students behave in challenging ways”. The conceptual frameworks presented in Resilient Leadership assist educators in understanding these multiple stressors and should be given the same priority as pedagogical theory in teacher preparation programs.

Over-and-Under Functioning

Over-functioning is generally regarded as the reciprocal relationship where one person or group is overly responsible while another person or group is irresponsible. “At a meeting with union representatives one afternoon, they provided a list of chronic areas of improvement. The topics had titles like ‘morale is low,’ ‘communication is poor,’ and ‘leadership visibility.’ When I asked for more specifics, the representatives were not able to share anything further. I then asked the representatives to come to the meeting with a few proposed solutions so that, as a team, they could work together to solve problems.”

Hartmann said that it was, “an uncomfortable meeting because the representatives were waiting for me to offer solutions, as had been custom for previous administrators. I declined to provide answers, however.” A few days later, he spoke with some of the members individually and was able to unpack the key elements of the situation. “These impromptu meetings assisted in my understanding of the block to offering solutions.” He continued, “For the better part of a decade, the union vice president worked closely with the building administration, and building representatives were mostly ceremonial. When a changeover in the union vice president position occurred, an elementary-level teacher filled the position. As a result, the high school administration had to work with building representatives who never had to exercise leadership before.” The Resilient Leadership coach orchestrated one-on-one sessions helping build their capacity as leaders so that the roles of the team equalized, and effective collaboration could take place.

To level out the functioning of individuals, we need to engage in new learning experiences to build capacity. This build is not linear, not rapid, and has a significant amount of emotional processing involved. To encourage an under-functioning individual or group to move beyond their current parameters requires a challenge which disrupts the emotional system mentioned earlier.

Step-Down Transfer

During times of organizational stress, interactions among people and groups can become tense as they search for resolutions or determine where to place blame or both. Resilient Leadership speaks of leaders as “step-down transformers,” an analogy to the role of these devices play as part of our power grid. Members of any social network have the power to increase or decrease the anxiety within that social network. When others engage in gossip, raise voices, shout, or display hostile body language, they are adding anxiety to the system. In effect, they are acting as a step-up transformer. Step-down transformers remain calm amid stress, provide thoughtful responses, and ask thoughtful questions.

Hartmann continued, “one morning, one of my leadership colleagues attended a department meeting regarding the emotionally charged topic of final assessments. The department was comprised teachers with a high degree of reactivity amongst the group. During the meeting, teachers lobbed question after question to her while she responded in a thoughtful and calm tone. Internally, her anxiety was rising, but she knew that if she reacted with an equal level of emotion, she could have increased the negative momentum within that network.” The leadership colleague stayed connected by listening and weathered the storm. “Regardless of how much of an emotional crescendo that was taking place, she was determined to explain her thinking calmly, in order to show others how to respond constructively, and not add to the negative momentum.” Understanding one’s emotional state and whether one can act as a step-down transformer is a vital element of self- awareness and a critical skill for all members of a system to exercise.

Triangles

Triangles exist everywhere, and when the system or network is calm, they remain invisible. When under stress, however, triangles are more clearly seen. In his book, Failure of Nerve, Ed Friedman expands on the idea of emotional triangles that form between three individuals or between two individuals and an issue.

Triangles form most often when organizational stress increases, and schools are no exception to that phenomenon.
“One afternoon, one of my assistant principals was working in her office,” Hartman describes, “when a teacher stopped by and out of nowhere, started talking about the person recently placed on administrative leave. She soon realized that the teacher on administrative leave had many friends in the building who were speaking on his behalf and advancing his cause for reinstatement. Being “triangled” is now part of our school-wide lexicon.” We have all been caught in triangles and often realize it after the fact. Having this awareness during the act of “triangling” better guides comments and actions during the conversation.

The Resilient Leadership framework has supported our change initiatives since 2015, bringing people together, focusing our efforts, and guiding us through a hidden world that often thwarts school improvement.

Ohio’s schools are not alone as they face a constant set of changing parameters that impact their work with kids.
American education has become a political football, and American educators unfortunate actors in a constant back-and-forth between the left and right elements of the political spectrum. We see a national reduction of people wanting to enter the field of teaching, with 54% of parents saying they would not want their child to enter the field of education.

Summarizing the effective initiative, Hartmann said, “in our small corner of the country, in suburban Ohio, I believe that the introduction of the Resilient Leadership framework has helped us understand and emotionally process the world around us, while also moving our practice forward, seemingly despite all odds. Change is risky for leaders and terrifying for everyone else.”

When asked about the impact of the Resilient Leadership experience, Hartmann said, “We have found that our use of Resilient Leadership has reduced our fears and provided valuable insight into the hidden world of emotional systems. When asked about the impact of the experience with Resilient Leadership, Hartmann said, “It has helped many of our educators, leaders, and students, and I hope that you also find equal amounts of insight and guidance.”

Here are some resources to help you understand some of these concepts better:

Step Down Transformers (PDF)
Triangles (PDF)
Understanding Reactivity (PDF)
For more information, email JimM@resilientleadershipdevelopment.com

About Jim Moyer...

Jim Moyer

Jim is a founding member of Resilient Leadership, LLC, and is the co-author with Bob Duggan of the book Resilient Leadership. Jim is an Executive Coach and strategic planning and organizational development consultant with over 30 years experience in for-profit, not-for-profit, and government organizations.

Jim has successfully grown his consulting and coaching practice since 1998. Before he began his consulting practice Jim worked for 25 years at Marriott International as a manager, director, and senior executive in Strategy, Organizational Development, Human Resources, Quality and Loss Prevention.