Moving the immovable

The perpetual challenge for any leader is the successful management of change.

For a multitude of reasons, change is a constant in schools. It is often connected to external influences such as curriculum developments, research about the learning process or recognition that current practice is not meeting the needs of learners.

Faced with such imperatives for change, the school leader embarks on a mission to create new ways of working. It's at this point that the wheels often come off.

Researchers have consistently demonstrated that educational systems are remarkably resistant to change. Traditionally, the process first sets out the improvements that will arise from the new practice - whatever it might be. The leader describes the "gain" and then expects people to get behind the project.

But this (near-universal) approach ignores an enormous body of evidence indicating that any promise of gain is lined up against a much more powerful impetus to retain the status quo. School leaders know that shifting people from their current practice is a challenge, but they often believe that their powers of persuasion and leadership capabilities will win out. How mistaken they are.

One of the advantages of working with leaders in a range of sectors is that I come across different bodies of professional knowledge. Over the past few years I have been introduced to the field of behavioural economics. Despite its sleep-inducing title, it has huge implications for school leadership.

Behavioural economics is the study of the psychology of decision-making, with particular reference to investment decisions. At the heart of this field is the notion of loss aversion, summed up by the concept of "prospect theory". This conclusively shows that human beings prefer to avoid losses approximately twice as much as they do to acquire gains.

So what does this revelation mean for school leaders? Well, it helps to explain why people have a preference for the status quo over the promise of a better future.

I regret that I did not have access to this knowledge when I was a secondary school headteacher. Rather than decrying my colleagues for their recalcitrance and resistance I would have approached the change process in a very different way. The starting point comes not from thinking about how the new practice is better, but from considering psychological challenges we need to overcome to escape the status quo.

Working in other fields, I am beginning to see how a leader's own change of perspective can assist the change process. The challenge must be framed in a manner that starts from where people are coming from, rather than solely focusing upon the final destination.

Don Ledingham is director of innovation leadership at Drummond International, and honorary professor of leadership at Queen Margaret University

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