Recently, I wrote about how our inner worlds are customizable and that their makeup depends on the ways we use our time. Sometimes our time gets used in the ways we intend; but often, our time is hijacked by habits or interruptions. These interruptions can be good! But they can also be soul-sucking, especially when they devolve into negativity.
One of our colleagues, who I’ll call James from Australia, wrote to me in response to a blog post and shared a beautiful story about a strategy he has implemented to disrupt negative patterns in his school. I think you’ll really enjoy this, and I appreciate James’ willingness to share.
I can really relate to the negative conversation scenarios you address in this post, so I just thought I would share a little positive story of my own experience of dealing with negativity at work.
I began work at my current school five years ago. I had previously been at a very different kind of school for over a decade, so it was a big adjustment for me. Anyway, on top of all the predictable changes and adjustments I found myself in a great staff room but one where conversations could easily go towards the negative. This was due to a staff member who was a very gifted and wonderful teacher and colleague but someone who could, for a number of reasons, get very cynical and negative. This colleague was also a prominent leader in the school.
The negativity seemed to get worse as we went into the semester wind-up phase, and as we headed into this time in the second semester of the year (this was my first year at the school) I was really struggling personally with the negativity in the staff room. I was getting angry about it as it was making everything so much more difficult for no good reason. I noticed I was getting resentful of the leader, and yet I had a great respect for this person in so many ways. I didn't know what to do. Then it happened.
One afternoon I was alone in the staff room, and it was about time to go home. Suddenly, it came to me. I quickly typed up an affirmation letter addressed to the leader. I only wrote what was true, and I kept it very simple and to the point. I can't quite remember what I wrote as I never saved it — it just came from the heart and was all positive and affirming and truthful. No praise or flattery. I printed it out and signed it ‘from a colleague who wishes to remain anonymous.’ I folded it up and went down to the main staff common room and slipped it into their mailbox and went home.
The next day was amazing. When I came in to work I went to my desk as I usually do but then remembered what I had done the day before. I noticed that the colleague in question was not there. Burning with curiosity I went down to the staff common room to see if the letter had been taken from the mailbox. As I was walking down the corridor towards the common room, who should be coming in the opposite direction, opening and beginning to read my letter as they walked, but my dear colleague. I played casual said, “Hi,” and kept walking, barely getting a reply as they were engrossed in the letter. I vaguely overheard something like, “What on earth is this…?”
When I got back to my desk the whole staff room was abuzz with this strange occurrence. I played along and kept anonymous as all the speculation on who wrote it ran its course. By the next day it was no longer mentioned; however, the effects were extraordinary and long lasting. There was an immediate cessation to all negative comments in the staff room and this lasted right into the next year — some months later. I was able to finish the year in peace, and above all else I felt surprisingly empowered by this simple action — I could do something to change what had seemed to me to be an impossibly intractable situation.
I have since done it again but don't do it all the time or without reason. I think it is important that it remains anonymous as this does not give the receiver (who is often cynical) any grounds to question the motives of the sender; and furthermore, being anonymous means it could come from any member of the staff, making the receiver more open to people in general.
Does anyone else have goosebumps? This strategy is beautiful to me for several reasons:
- It came from the teacher’s instinct — not a book, not a blog. The teacher was puzzling over this frustrating situation of a negative staff room dynamic, and suddenly an idea occurred to the teacher, and the teacher put it into practice.
- It was implemented quickly and without overthinking. The teacher didn’t add a thing to his to-do list — he thought that he would try something, and then he rapidly implemented it.
- The teacher removed his name from the letter, and as a result took out a temptation for him to boost his ego or for the letter recipient to question motives. This is a brilliant example of the oft-overlooked genius of humility.
- The effort-to-impact ratio was awesome. 10-20 minutes of writing led to months of palpable culture change. Just writing that makes me laugh with delight.
So is this something for you to take a swing at in your setting?
You’ve got nothing to lose.
I say, go for it.