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How to Best Lead Change

By Jeremie Rostan

The quality of a school is not a given, but a dynamic. It depends on the institution’s ability to change—to adapt to evolving circumstances, challenge itself, and reach and expand its potential. For that reason, the main function of school leaders is arguably to be innovators and initiators of change. What they should lead, in the end, is this constant process of institutional self-improvement.
However, as noted in a recently published study on the topic, it is teachers who are “the single most important school-based factor that determines the change outcomes in the change process.” Indeed, “if teachers do not buy in or put changes into practice, school reform will be adopted superficially or even fail” (Mei Kin et al. 2018.)
According to the authors of the study, leadership can be defined as “setting a direction and developing the strategies necessary to move in that direction, that is, creating and achieving a vision.”
Unfortunately, human psychology tends to be very conservative, starting with our status-quo bias, which makes us quite partial in our appraisal of the costs and benefits of change. This raises the question: How to lead change?
The science of psychology has a great deal to tell us on the subject. A key idea, for instance, is that our behavior is rooted in our beliefs, which should thus be the first target of any change process. More precisely, Mei Kin et al (2015) identified three dimensions that dictate teachers’ attitudes towards change:
Discrepancy - First, teachers need to understand that a change is needed, i.e., that there is an obvious gap between the current and the desirable state of affairs in a certain domain.
Efficacy - Next, teachers need to be confident that the institution, as well as themselves, have the ability to make the intended change.
Support - Finally, teachers need to be confident that all school leaders are both supportive of and committed to the success of the change, and thus see it as a collective effort.
Well understood, these three needs constitute a roadmap for successful change, which is what Mei Kin and colleagues (2014) offered in designing their Principal Change Leadership Competencies (PCLC) Scale with the following four factors:
Goal Framing - First, leaders need to set a clear goal that will help direct the change effort. This step also includes developing strategies to attain this objective, as well as communicating very clearly both the intention and the rationale behind the change.
Capacity Building - Next, school leaders need to ensure that they offer teachers opportunities and avenues to develop their capacity to enact the desired change.
Defusing Resistance and Conflict - Effective leaders will anticipate the resistance behaviors that will most likely threaten change efforts. This includes both dissipating unfounded fears and misperceptions and managing potential conflicts with flexibility, but without compromising the underlying vision.
Institutionalizing - Finally, once introduced, best practices should be turned into usual routines, so as to become the norm within the organization.
In their 2018 study, Mei Kin and fellow researchers verified empirically that these change competencies (PCLC scores) were significantly related to teachers’ change beliefs, and had a positive impact on cognitive, affective, and behavioral attitudes towards change :
Cognitive - Individual perception of the need for change, as well as interpretation of a proposed change.
Affective - Individual emotional reaction to the prospect of change.
Behavioral - Individual action contributing (or not) to a collective process of change.
Hopefully, equipped with the findings of this Malaysian team of researchers, many international schools will be able to continue changing for the better! l
Jeremie Rostan is a philosopher and psychology teacher with over 10 years of experience in international education. He has taught in Europe, America, and Asia.
Tai Mei Kin, Omar Abdull Kareem, Mohamad Sahari Nordin, and Khuan Wai Bing (2014), “The Development of a Principal Change Leadership Competency Model: A Structural Equation Modelling (SEM) Approach”, International Studies in Educational Administration, 42:2, pp. 3-43.
Tai Mei Kin, Omar Abdull Kareem, Mohamad Sahari Nordin, and Khuan Wai Bing (2015), “Teacher change beliefs: validating a scale with structural equation modelling”, School Leadership & Management, 35:3, pp. 266-299.
Tai Mei Kin, Omar Abdull Kareem, Mohamad Sahari Nordin, and Khuan Wai Bing (2018), “Principal change leadership competencies and teacher attitudes toward change: the mediating effects of teacher change beliefs.” International Journal of Leadership in Education, 21:4, pp. 427-446.

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