Rebuilding Working Relationships

Vol. 11 No. 6


Looking at the calendar (and observing the cold, gray weather here in the Northeast), we know that we’ve reached the winter doldrums—the time of year when measures of enthusiasm, engagement, and morale bottom out in schools (and most other organizations, for that matter). Part of the collateral damage often involves a fraying of working relationships between groups as well as individuals.

As an antidote to this somewhat dour perspective, we offer the following story. It doesn’t involve a school directly—but, seeing as your school is comprised of groups and individuals that sometimes may struggle working together, we’re guessing you may see some direct relevance to a situation or two at your school.

The Toast

At a recent group dinner, the conversation was lively, the atmosphere cozy, and the mood light. A Department Head rose, glass in hand. Speaking to the other team, he said, “I’d like to offer a toast to your entire department, for the terrific way that you have worked with and supported us this past year.” Looking over the clinking of glasses and the round of warm congratulations sat a gratified leader. This simple scene represented the culmination of a year-long journey to rebuild tattered relations between the departments present—and therein lies our story.

The Back Story

For more than a decade, relations between two departments had been frayed, sometimes to the breaking point—reflecting in large part the contentious relationship between the heads of both groups. Words like toxic, angry, skeptical, uncommunicative, antagonistic, and the like could be used to describe the tone between the groups at various points. How did things move from this paralyzed state of affairs to the happy dinner scene above? In a word, determination—manifested by steady, persistent actions over the course of years.

Lessons Learned

A series of actions served to break the logjam and help move the relationship between the groups forward.

  • Change in Players—The first key event was the departure of one Department Head (for reasons unrelated to this situation). The hard feelings between the two groups had become so entrenched that no progress would have been likely without some change in the principals.
  • Determination—When a new Department Head was appointed, she made it her mission to repair and restore the relationship between the two groups. She didn’t say a word to anyone about this. There were no flowery speeches (or e-mails), no lofty promises—just a quiet determination to form a plan and carry it out, day-by-day, week-by-week.
  • Credibility—The new Department Head wasn’t much for “touchy-feely” or “cotton candy” approaches. Rather, she determined that what she needed to do in each of her interactions with the other department was to ask questions, fulfill their requests as expeditiously as possible (with as little “drama” as possible), and, over time, help them realize that her team was meeting their needs and could be counted on. Seeing her approach, the other members of the department followed suit and shifted their interactions with the other department in the same way.
  • Moving from Respect to Partnership—The final step in the transformation occurred over the course of two planning meetings with the other department. In the first, each side staked out its respective positions and qualifications—“Here’s who we are and here’s what we can do.” By the time of the second meeting, six months later, the daily interactions had helped the relationship develop to the point where both departments could engage in real dialogue regarding their hopes, needs, dreams, and aspirations. They formed plans in common … moving from “Do this for us” to “Let’s do this together.” Joint accountability was achieved.

The culmination of this dialogue brought the groups to the celebration dinner “toast”—a sign of their joining as partners. It was a long journey … but one that looks like it will continue on much more positively than would have been conceivable at the outset. Every relationship has its own history, obstacles, and dynamics, of course—but taking some of the steps noted above may help restore some working relationships in your school.

Additional ISM articles of interest
ISM Monthly Update for Human Resources Vol. 10 No. 5 Constructive Conversations, Coaching, and Mentoring
ISM Monthly Update for School Heads Vol. 11 No, 4 Team Professional Development Adds Value to Lessons Learned

Additional ISM article of interest for Gold Consortium members
I&P Vol. 31 No. 7 Faculty Autonomy and Collegiality: A Leadership/Management Challenge
I&P Vol. 34 No. 8 Recognize Your Faculty’s Excellence and Boost Student Retention
To The Point Vol. 10 No. 5 Your Role as Faculty Leader: What Teachers Need from You
To The Point Vol. 12 No. 1 Cultural Competence: Build Effective Interaction with Your Faculty and Staff

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