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  • Joseph Dumont

No or Yes But? Leadership and Motivation



Arely, my 7 year old, wanted to build a rollercoaster in our back yard. Earlier this summer we had been at Silverwood Amusement Park and we rode Timber Terrors - a wooden rollercoaster. It was awesome, and full of terror!! So Arely had this idea to build a rollercoaster for weeks and one day she just started lining up old deck boards in our backyard. In her mind, this sucker would zip around our yard and she would ride in it with her stuffies. And I didn’t have the heart to say no. I went out with my drill and Mitre saw and we started connecting boards. As we started working, I asked her some questions to get her thinking more about this project. She was so excited. She said, “dad, are we really going to build this?” I said, “yes, but…”


As a school leader I think a fair bit about staff engagement and motivation. I believe that when teachers and school staff feel motivated and engaged at school they will do their very best work with students. It is because I feel so strongly about that correlation between staff engagement and student learning, that I try to lead my staff in a way that will maximize their motivation. This belief is shared by Gallup - an analytics and advice company that works within many industries. One survey they have is called Q12 - it is a simple 12 question survey for any organization’s staff to take to measure employee engagement. The research around the 12 questions is very in depth and I have found particular tool very interesting. Essentially Gallup is saying that staff engagement is key to productivity. (https://q12.gallup.com/public/en-us/Features)

“Learn more about what we know about employee engagement, and how we can help you strengthen & engage your workplace.” - Gallup


For me as a school leader this has resulted in an interesting behaviour: I tend to not say ‘no’. I have been criticized for always saying yes to employees actually, and that criticism lead me to some good reflection and conversation. The reason I avoid ‘no’ as much as possible, is because I do not want to disengage an employee. When a teacher comes to me with an idea or dream of something they want to try, I tend to say, “yes, but….” and then I add in the things I want them to consider before jumping in. Sometimes, I say, “I like it, but let me think about it more first before we go ahead” so that I have a little reflection time. I know from personal experience, when you come in to your boss with a big idea, or a potentially new approach to something and the answer is “no”, it can really take the wind out of your sails. After a while, or after hearing “no” a bunch of times, I have felt disengaged and unmotivated to put in extra effort. I personally may detach a little, and I think that is a normal human reaction. So I try to avoid no as much as I can as a school leader.

Here is what I have learned approaching staff ideas with a “yes, but”:

  1. Sometimes things dont turn out great, or work out at all, and the results can have a negative impact. But if there is also trust in my relationship with that staff member, there will be a tremendous opportunity for learning as a result. Why not let them try it and see how it goes - if they are reflective in any way, even if it doesn’t go well, they may learn so much!

  2. Try to look at each situation and carefully consider if a “yes” will result in the disengagement of other staff before jumping ahead. Occasionally, I have missed this and even though a project may have been amazing, there is damage control needed for another employee who felt upset or hurt about their role or lack thereof in the event. This is usually prevented by slowing things down slightly and increasing communication.

  3. Its not about me. As a school leader, I am the lead learner. I need to model how to learn, and I need to create a culture where learning is the priority (as opposed to trying to get everything right.) I need to let go of how things will look, or how I will look, and allow for space to grow and learn. Saying yes more than no will help create a culture of risk takers and learners,

  4. Saying yes more often may result in more ideas and more sharing of those ideas. I find that risk taking and the spirit of creativity to be contagious among staff when they feel safe to reach out and to try something new. Be prepared for a wave of great and outstanding ideas :)

  5. No one has the perfect idea. When staff get together to collaborate and iterate their idea with others, it will get even better. Try to encourage staff to work in teams when they come up with something new and inventive - the results will be better and the learning will increase!


Now back to the rollercoaster…

Arely and I agreed after a few attempted that this rollerocoaster would be too unsafe for humans. We tried it out and then decide to reiterate our plans to make it for stuffies only. We watch a few Youtubes about rollercoaster safety and we have both learned so much. Arely is one engaged and motivated family member… maybe too motivated!!! Gallup should come give her their survey; she would rock it.

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