Climate · Culture · Hierarchy of Needs of Innovation & Divergent Thinking · innovation · leadership · Mandy Froehlich · reflections · relationships · Trust

Hierarchy of Needs for Innovation & Divergent Thinking: Climate & Culture

The idea of the Hierarchy of Needs for Innovation & Divergent Thinking came to me at a time when I was looking for a more concrete way to support teachers in becoming innovative thinkers. This is post two in the series. You can find the introduction here.

Hierarchy of Needs Infographic

When processing the hierarchy diagram, there are a few important points to remember:

The hierarchical structure is not about being linear but instead about there being foundational concepts that support the rest of the hierarchy. It is not gamified, you do not finish one level and move onto the rest. Instead, there may be places where the district, school, or person is strong, and then holes in other areas that need to be filled.

The hierarchy is not about answering the question, “How can I be more innovative?” nor does it represent innovative thinking and doing. The question the hierarchy is trying to answer is “How can we support an environment conducive to innovative thinking?” Each component is less of a level and more of a foundation to the following level to get to the environment that we want to provide for learners so that they have the best chance to choose-their-own-adventure…so they have the opportunity, the climate and culture, leadership support, mindset and the personalized professional development that they need in order to begin thinking innovatively. The process of innovating and ideating is messy, but the organizational support to give people the best chance at thinking this way definitely shouldn’t be.

While I developed the hierarchy for organizational change, it could definitely be applied to a classroom as well to give students the best chance at innovative thinking. Climate and culture, leadership (both teacher and student leadership), mindset, and personalized learning (versus personalized professional development) will lead to an environment that supports innovation.

The climate and culture of our district, building, and classroom is the foundation in which all of our other activities, thoughts, and daily interactions because it creates the relationship and feeling we have toward our professional environment. When we feel a connection to the rituals, traditions, people, and icons, it allows us to focus on our jobs instead of any negative outside influences.

There are many issues that can affect climate and culture: a lack of connection felt among educators, leaders skipping the “why” and moving right to the “how”, or maybe a history of opaque transparency and mixed messages in regards to district initiatives. But, if climate and culture is the foundation that supports the rest of the hierarchy, trust is the foundation of climate and culture and building and maintaining trust is imperative to supporting it.

If you don’t trust the people around you, there is a significant amount of energy expended on wonderings like this:

  • If I tell other people that my idea failed, will they think I’m an idiot?
    (You don’t trust the people around you to support you learning from failure)
  • I’d rather ask for forgiveness than permission, so I’ll just do it and hope I don’t need to say sorry later.
    (You don’t trust your leadership to be supportive of new ideas)
  • I am overwhelmed and need help, but I can’t ask for it because people will think I’m incompetent.
    (You don’t trust people to be empathetic and support you when you ask)

When people don’t feel like they can trust the people around them to be supportive and make them feel safe, it breeds overall negative feelings. That negativity can eventually seep into other cracks in the climate and culture foundation. Unfortunately, the only way to combat distrust is to either never break the trust bond to begin with or to build it back up after it’s been broken. I’ve spoken with leaders who have clear trust issues with their staff, and they’re always disappointed when they feel like they’re trying but it’s not working. Trust is not an overnight fix. When trust is broken, it takes a significant amount of effort and time to bring it back. Another issue with rebuilding trust is that it’s the perception and acceptance of the trusting relationship on the part of the person whose trust has been broken that matters, not the person who broke the trust. In other words, if a leader has broken trust with a teacher, it is up to the teacher to decide when enough has been done to restore the trust, not the leader.

To build trust, one must do what they say they’re going to do, be consistent and fair, have policies and procedures that are followed the same for everyone, and place a high value on the feelings, attitudes, and actions of the people around them. This needs to be done purposefully and with legitimate concern over improving trust. If it’s faked, everyone will know. 

An example of a common scenario that has the potential to create broken trust: A teacher has decided to take a risk and try a new technology in his classroom with kids. It doesn’t go as well as he would have hoped, but he considers tweaking what he did and try again the next day. The school administrator, who regularly discusses risk-taking and how to be more innovative, comes in, witnesses the failure, and advises the teacher that they shouldn’t try that again because it “clearly didn’t work”, types up some notes, and leaves. In this case, the administrator has taken the chance that they have broken trust. They said one thing (risk-taking is encouraged to be innovative) but did another (sent a message of “you failed at that, don’t do it again”). The administrator has shown that while they might support the idea of risk-taking, ACTUAL risk-taking and failing is not acceptable. Result: possible broken trust.

Another issue that can affect climate and culture is the prevalence of teachers who are disengaged from their profession. We often speak about teachers who are disengaged from professional development, but don’t know what to do with the teachers who have become apathetic towards teaching. We often say they’re “checked out”, ready for retirement, should get out of teaching, etc. I’ve found more often than not, these teachers were not always like that, but have become this way due to not feeling supported or trust that was broken somewhere along the line. At some point, they gave up trying. For teachers who are still engaged in what they are doing, these people can bring a negativity to otherwise pleasant interactions that ruin any positive climate or culture that could develop. Leaders often give up on these people, feeling like no amount of coaching or professional development is going to change how they are. I feel, however, that they don’t need “fixing”. What we can do for them is remind them why they became teachers in the first place. Allow them room to find and follow their passions in teaching, and then give them the support they need. Reignite them. They were a teacher superhero at one point, too. They deserve that attention. 

Climate and culture drive the decisions we make and how much buy-in we will receive. They determine how we feel about our jobs, how we talk about our schools and kids, and how supported we are in our journey to become the innovators that we know we want to be. It can be the most time-consuming and difficult of the levels to fix because it involves a unified effort by all to solve issues and improve. It is also incredibly rewarding to work in an environment where everyone feels connected, supported, and joined in the mission to do the best job we can for our students, and is definitely worth the effort. This kind of positive climate and culture is one of the first steps in developing an environment ripe for innovation and divergent thinking.

You can find the third post in the #hierarchyseries on Effective Leadership here.

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