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  • Writer's pictureJoseph Dumont

The Psychology of Change

Happy New Year! It has been a pretty wild 2020 and I think most people are hopeful that 2021 will be better. We all hope for an end to the pandemic and for some type of return to normalcy in our lives pre-March 2020. The pandemic, however, has provided many of us with an opportunity to learn and grow due to the challenges we have faced. For example, most people that can work from home have learned how to successfully make that happen. Many secondary students have also figured out how to successfully learn at home, with their teachers taking what didn’t work so well in the spring and changing it so this past month was a better learning experience. Many of us, myself included, have also had learned how much we appreciate our in-person interactions with family and friends. FaceTime and Zoom social events during the holidays are great, but are not at all like the real thing.

Don't it always seem to go

That you don't know what you got 'til it's gone

- Big Yellow Taxi, Joni Mitchell

Like many people, I have also been following the news and the comments on social media as the Alberta pandemic ebbed and flowed through the summer and into the fall. I was surprised by how late the Government put in new restrictions in November, but when they finally did, the reactions of many of my fellow Albertans were negative. Rallies were held in Calgary, Red Deer and Edmonton demanding freedom from masks and restrictions. People were posting and reposting their disgust for the governments newest mandates. At the same time, many Albertans were upset because they felt the government was dragging their feet as the infections and hospitalizations numbers grew through October and November. Who knew it would be so hard to get everyone on the same page?

This has made me think deeply about how we change behaviour, and why some people have so much difficulty with change. I have been wondering about the psychology behind it all and how it impacts our own lives as we navigate new expectations and new ways of doing things to the best of our abilities. It has also been a stark revelation that, in general, people do not like to be told what to do. This was probably best exemplified by the video of the hockey player in Calgary who was arrested by Police in December in an incident that started because he refused to wear a mask. Of course, social media blew up, some defending the police asking why this man was being so selfish in his behaviour, while others demanded justice for him by having an investigation into the police’s action - after all he was only trying to play shinny, what is more Canadian than that?

I thought of maybe quittin'

I thought of leavin' it behind

- Bobcaygeon, The Tragically Hip

My first reaction to the video was sympathy for the police. I know how hard situations can be where someone won’t cooperate, especially in my role as a principal. It made me wonder whether or not people have always struggled with changes like this or if is this something new. I was wondering if there are other examples, and I came across an interesting example - the Seat Belt Law that came into effect in Alberta in 1987. I was only 12 when the new law came in but I was obsessed with all things cars. I recall my peers at school echoing the conversations they heard at the dinner table, many of whom were upset that they were being told what to do by the government. My memory of it was simple - the law came into effect, and pretty much everyone started wearing their seat belts - it was no big deal… Or am I remembering this through my OLD MAN glasses? “Back in my day we didn’t flaunt the law, we did what we were told because that’s the way it was and we liked it… we liked it fine!!”

Turns out people were upset! Prior to the law, 72% of Albertans did not wear their seat belt regularly. People thought the law was an infringement on their freedom. One person in the CBC News video from 1987 said that the law sucks; as a professional driver, he would decide on his own if he wanted to wear one. Another person said that he would get a medical exemption from his doctor so he didn’t have to wear his seat belt. Most vehicle related deaths prior to 1987 were as a result of people not wearing seat belts. The government of the day mandated seat belts be worn to save the lives of Albertans. Absolutely no one had a logical argument about why we should not wear seat belts, but people were miffed any way. The government of the day put up signs and ran commercials to remind Albertans of the new expectations. The biggest difference between today and 1987 of courses was that social media didn’t exist in 1987. For someone to start a campaign to change the law, they would need to be physically out there, working hard and connecting with people to make that happen. This would be a difficult task and it may have been challenging to find like minded people to join the cause. In 2020, anyone with internet access and a mobile phone can start a campaign or protest anything they don’t like.

You say you want a revolution

Well, you know

- Revolution 1, The Beatles

Social psychologists say they way to help implement mask mandates and other restrictions in society is to explain to the population why these rules are in effect - we need positive, clear and consistent messaging about the reasons why. Psychology tells us that if people understand the why behind a change, they are more likely to comply. We should also make the message positive and relatable, and having leaders demonstrate the new expectation is also very helpful. If you lead with ticketing and fines, you will have less success with implementation of new mandates. This makes sense, but in situations that demand change quickly, is there a better way to do it?

When I first began my new role as a high school principal, I had a curve ball tossed at me in February as the school division and the county of Strathcona entered into a new agreement that limited student use of parking spaces in from of the school. This change was a result of the pool next to the high school experiencing issues with students using their designated stalls, so they offered the division full ownership of the large lot to the east of the school, which students had been using during the day anyway. Although the school gained full use of the large lot, the net result in function was a loss of 70 student parking spaces. in total. This decision was shared with students and parents with little lead time for consultation or collaboration but it was an excellent lesson for me around change.. I was surprised at the visceral reaction as students used social media and began a campaign online complete with a petition to have the decision reversed. They also collaborated to ensure I heard their voices as my inbox was flooded with email after email regarding their displeasure. I replied to each and every student who wrote me over the better part of a week. The message was received and the result was a delay in the parking lot change until the fall of the new school year, along with consultations with students, parents and community members who would be impacted. It turned out to be a cart before the horse situation, but an excellent learning opportunity for me to be placed in the middle of as the principal. I was very new in my role, still learning the history and context and most importantly still building relationships with students, parents and the community. When this change came suddenly, I hadn’t had enough of an opportunity yet to build trust with the community or demonstrate my integrity as a leader. All the reasons in the world were not going to satisfy the students in that situation until I could demonstrate who I was as a leader. The next few weeks were critical and how I handled the social media backlash and email barrage were critical, not to mention the giant line up of students who came to buy parking passes the following Monday after the announcement. It was a PR disaster, the could have been much worse in the end if I hadn’t taken three steps back, listened intently and very carefully navigated the next set of decisions.

They paved paradise and put up a parking lot

- Big Yellow Taxi, The Counting Crows

When political leaders implement new laws or policies, their citizens will tend to approve or disapprove of the changes based on their relationship with that political party or its members/leaders. In some cases, people will agree entirely with almost anything their party of choice declares, but most people will analyze the situation and come to a judgement on it based on a few factors. When people trust their leadership, although they may be skeptical about a change, they are more likely to at least hear it out and give it a chance because they recognize it’s coming from people they feel that they know and trust. Donald Trump is a master communicator and his supporters feel that they can always trust him to point out corruption, deceit and to defend their freedoms. When Trump speaks at his rallies, he shares the values of independence and economic prosperity with his supporters. This has made it nearly impossible for him to share messages consistent with public health measures in the USA, because they demand restrictions on personal freedoms and economic sacrifice. As a result, the pandemic in the USA is barrelling along as many people continue do what they want in spite of the pleas from many local politicians and health officials. When the message from leadership is you should wear a mask, but I don’t think I will - how should the populace respond? The chances for any public health measures to be successful in that type of environment are nil.

Then I thought who gives a damn if all the jobs are gone

I'm gonna be a pirate, on the river Saskatchewan

  • The Last Saskatchewan Pirate, Captain Tractor

In contrast, New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and her government celebrated the new year nearly COVID-19 free. People can wear a mask if they like, and most of their citizens wash their hands regularly and use a bluetooth enabled app to help with tracing if there is a case, so they can quarantine everyone who may be exposed. They accomplished this because their government used the best information available and focused on a strategy to eliminate the virus without worrying about politics or compromising for other interests. They went into a strict lockdown in March, and their citizens trusted that decision because they trust their government.

“But there are takeaways from the early and immediate successes of the New Zealand response. The authors credited the combination of immediate risk assessment driven by science, with the decisive actions of the government.” (How Did New Zealand Control Covid-19, Kevin Kunzmann)

The article concludes by quoting a report by the New England Journal of Medicine, “Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern provided empathic leadership and effectively communicated key messages to the public—framing combating the pandemic as the work of a unified “team of five million”—which resulted in high public confidence and adherence to a suite of relatively burdensome pandemic-control measures”.

I absolutely love this language - New Zealanders recognize themselves as a team of five million Kiwis! They are united and supportive of their government because of the relationship of trust and honesty that has been created over time. “We are all in this together” was the the theme for my high school staff as we returned to school in August, because that is the best way to do overcome the challenge ahead of us. A divided nation or a divided organization will not be as successful in enduring the challenges that come our way - the pandemic has demonstrated this in spades.

Julius Caesar, and the Roman Empire

couldn't conquer the blue sky

- Weather with You, Crowded House

As I write this, January 1, 2021, the Alberta Premier decided to provide a statement to the press and do a Q and A to explain the international travel that some in government have take in the past month. Our Premier stated that he accepts responsibility for these decision by government officials to travel because he was not clear enough with his members. Kudos to the Premier for taking responsibility, however the damage that these decisions have had are currently dominating social media. Many Albertans cancelled travel plans because of the government’s travel advisory, and stayed home during the holiday. Again, in these stressful times of new mandates, advisories, warning and directives, people are upset when their leadership is not communicating a clear message and when these expectations are not fairly applied to everyone. This can dismantle the public trust and create resentment among those making sacrifices when they see others, especially when their leadership is not doing the same thing. “Do as I say, don’t do what I do” never plays well with anyone.

'Cause I'm leavin' on a jet plane

Don't know when I'll be back again

- Leaving on a Jet Plane, John Denver

Last school year, 2019-20, our high school staff tried to tackle a difficult situation; we tried to curb smartphone use!! YIKES! Curbing smartphone use is not as simple or direct as one may think; there are many opinions about smartphones, personal property/privacy, the high cost of devices, and accessibility to learning tools that make this challenge very complex. Compulsive smartphone use is not just a problem for teenagers either, the staff and even the principal (that was me) can have issues with this too. After doing some research on this topic, I took it to the staff and we we agreed that smartphone use in class is a detriment to learning, if not properly managed. They also said that it was exhausting trying to address this in class all day long, we could benefit from a school policy on this. We also agreed that technology has a place in the class, but teachers should manage how and when it is used. We then took our conversation to our students and found that many of them were just as frustrated by issues related to smartphones as the staff were - they could see their classmates being distracted by Tik Tok or Snapchat. Many of our students felt that if they were being good students not using their phone in class, we should ensure that all students are doing the same - it felt more fair. Plus, it would make for a better classroom environment where more students are engaged and contributing to the discussion. Then we took this to our parents and the results were the similar. The general consensus was YES - please put in a policy around phone use.

As a result of that work, we came forward with a Personal Communication Device (PCD) Policy that established school-wide expectations for all staff and students. We were able to bring out a cohesive plan that was clear and consistent. The first two months of the school year we focused on education and reminders to help us all get used to the new expectations. The success of this change was due to ensuring we had evidence, we gathered input from all stakeholders, the new policy was clear and we were consistent with these new expectations. We were also patient and flexible with both staff and students as we navigated this change. Most importantly, the school leadership team and staff leveraged their relationship with students to help in making this policy widely accepted. Students knew that this change was for their benefit, and we did this because we care deeply about their learning and their well-being.

So leave a message

And I'll call you back

- Spiderwebs, No Doubt

To all the leaders out there, if you are making a change, start with why and build a clear and consistent message. Be sure to collaborate with your stakeholders and develop your changes that takes into account a variety of perspectives. It is also critical to lead with honesty and transparency, so those you are leading feel that they can trust the information you are providing and that the reasons shared have validity, there can be no hidden agendas. In the age of social media, this is more important than ever because the slings and arrows can come fast and furious, especially if there are inconsistencies, disinformation, or any type of scandal. Instead, leaders can leverage social media to reinforce the values of openness throughout the process. It is also good to remember that any missing information will be filled with the best guesses of people anyway, so it is better to get ahead with information right away. Most importantly, following the advice that was shared with me in my first leadership role 15 years ago: be a good human being and act with integrity - be humble, walk the walk and model the change you expect in others. If you can do all of that and bring people together to create unity, there is a better chance of successfully implementing change.

by Joseph Dumont

Twitter @principaldumont

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