The Room Where it Happens: 5 Reasons Leaders Make Decisions Behind Closed Doors
“I want to be in the room where it happens...”
There are so many powerful scenes in the award-winning musical, Hamilton. The moment Aaron Burr laments being left out of the decision-making process is not only a turning point in the story but a great depiction of how many feel when it comes to the all-important “rooms” where decisions that affect their lives are made.
Whether it’s the government, businesses, or schools, people often feel as though the organizations that greatly impact their lives don’t communicate with them until after key decisions are made. As a result, they grow increasingly distrustful and frustrated. Even if your plans as leaders are exactly what the community needs (which is highly unlikely if you haven’t included them in the process), constituents will still be largely skeptical where the process wasn’t transparent and inclusive.
Community engagement in the strategic planning process
Here at Education Elements, involving the community is an essential part of our school and district strategic planning process. We believe that when community members are engaged in providing feedback and input on design, there is high investment and low friction. The districts we partner with engage with communities in a variety of ways. Some methods are in-person, some are virtual, some are discussion-based (like focus groups), and some are observation-based (like shadowing). But no matter the method, one thing is certain: the participants are grateful for the opportunity to share their experiences and provide feedback, leading them to look more favorably on the process.
In working with district leaders across the country, I have found there are five primary reasons leaders leave the community out of the strategic planning process:
You are doing it the way it’s always been done.
While it may be the norm to make plans or decisions and then communicate them with your community, it can breed distrust. According to the 2022 Edelman Trust Barometer report, 6 in 10 adults say “their default tendency is to distrust something until they see evidence it is trustworthy.” Without feeling involved in the process, constituents are likely to distrust decisions, along with the person(s) who made the decision. As many district leaders are forced to grapple with increasing teacher turnover and school choice, it is more important than ever to have the trust of your teachers, students, staff, and families. One of the best ways you can earn that trust is by purposefully including them at the beginning of decision-making or planning processes by asking for feedback and frequently updating them.
You already know the problem.
As a district leader, you have a birds-eye view of your district and are able to experience it from a unique perspective, giving you more insight into the big picture than most. Even with this extensive understanding, we are all subject to naive realism. Naive realism is the belief that the way one sees a situation is objective and anyone with different perceptions must not fully understand the situation quite as they do. To protect against this cognitive bias, it is necessary to check our own perception against others. As much as no one quite understands your perspective as you do, the reality is that you don’t understand others’ experiences quite as they do. I have seen numerous leaders, many of whom were confident they had an accurate pulse on their district, pivot their focus due to community feedback. If nothing else, engaging your community allows you to build empathy for the constituents you serve and gain a more nuanced insight.
But let’s say you are right, and you really do have an accurate understanding of the problem. You don’t have to solve it alone. By seeking out input, you can generate numerous possible solutions and end up with a more optimal outcome. Leveraging your community in this process allows you to maximize your time and ensure outcomes are truly reflective of the community’s needs.
You don’t have time.
Speaking of time, the to-do list for a district administrator seems to never end. One superintendent told me recently that he doesn’t have a single free night in the next two months! When your plate is already full, it is much faster to just make decisions on your own without going through the process of including others. It’s hard to imagine how you can even fit community engagement into your already busy schedule.
This is one of the reasons partnering with an outside organization like Education Elements can be so valuable. Not only can we administer a community survey and lead focus groups, interviews, or community forums, we also compile all of our findings into a convenient report. After leading these efforts numerous times over the years, we have built and refined work efficiencies that streamline the engagement process and take up as little of your time as possible, while still getting quality input and feedback from the people you serve.
You don’t know how.
Including the community in the decision-making process seems like a big undertaking. How do you ensure every group is represented? How do you decide whom to include? Once you decide, how do you get them to show up and to open up? When they do, what do you do with the data you collect? It’s a lot to think through and plan for, and it’s even more overwhelming when you don’t know where to start.
Along with leading the initial comprehensive community engagement effort, our team focuses on building capacity within district and school teams to become responsive leaders, and part of that is helping your team to eventually lead engagement activities. Once we gather the initial data and model the process, it is much easier for your team to lead ongoing efforts. We can show you efficient and effective ways to gather and process data so that community engagement becomes embedded into your district and is not just another to-do list item.
You want to protect the process.
“Don’t ask questions you don’t want the answer to” may be good advice when asking someone if they like your haircut, but not when it comes to responsive leadership and shared decision-making. I know of very few leaders who come into their role without a vision or priorities, so it can be hard to ask others for their opinion. It can especially be hard when what they give in return is critical feedback.
Let’s face it, the likelihood that someone in your community disagrees with your vision, methods, and priorities is great. But consider this: part of the reason people may be critical is that they aren’t privy to all the information and simply can’t see it quite like you. This is the beauty of community engagement. It’s a conversation. Involving your community is not just about receiving feedback and ideas from constituents. It’s an opportunity to communicate your vision and ideas to them as well. And, people are far more apt to listen once they feel heard.
While I don’t think making decisions behind closed doors will result in an 18-century-style duel like it did for Burr and Hamilton, I do believe that the benefits of shared decision-making far outweigh any risks. In the end, I think it comes down to simply re-framing the way you look at community engagement. It’s not another problem to be solved or an item on your to-do list. It’s an opportunity to connect with the people you serve, learn and grow from them, share your own insights and vision, and most importantly, build trust and understanding amongst your community.
If you need a thought partner as you navigate strategic planning in your school or district, our consultants are here to help.
About Lauren Schulten
Lauren is a former teacher and school counselor who is passionate about supporting districts to create a responsive culture that is defined by engagement, innovation, and belonging. While serving in the classroom, Lauren earned a M.Ed. in Teacher Leadership and later a M.Ed. in School Counseling. She then earned her doctorate in Curriculum, Teaching, and Teacher Education from the University of Florida. She has also worked as a project manager for Connected Nation and the Gates Foundation. At EE, she specializes in organizational strategy and community engagement and leads strategic planning efforts across the country. Lauren currently resides in Louisville, KY.