Perspectives on Leadership in Early Education: "We are wired to be in safety mode"

An interview with Lisa Lahey about leading adults towards more strategic work and sustained change.
Blog Post
March 3, 2020

New America's Early & Elementary Education Policy team is partnering with the Saul Zaentz Early Education Initiative at the Harvard Graduate School of Education on the blog series: Perspectives on Leadership in Early Education. We interviewed experts on leadership, management, and organizations for a cross-disciplinary conversation about cultivating great leaders in early childhood education.

In this interview, we talk with Lisa Lahey, professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, and co-founder and co-director at Minds at Work, an organization that works with senior leaders and teams to promote learning in the workplace. Lahey’s research focuses on identifying the individual’s psychological and behavioral barriers to change, which she and her colleagues describe as “Immunities to Change.” Building from our conversation with Amy Edmondson, we talked with Lisa about the psychology of taking risks. Key excerpts from the interview follow here.

Nonie: I’m so curious to hear your thoughts- what are some of the initial entry points to creating psychological safety and conditions that encourage people to take risks?

Lisa: Well, if you have a person leading a system who can actually model how to talk about having made a mistake and the learning that comes from it, that can go a very far distance. If leaders can actually demonstrate what it is to be vulnerable, and in the right context, that can allow people to start experiencing a level of trust. That’s often challenging for the senior person in the system because their communities encourage them to be the expert. But you need people who can provide demonstrated proof that it’s okay to be a learner, who are more “developed” according to adult developmental theory.

Nonie: Yeah, and therefore distribute the leadership a little bit more and communicate we’re in this together.

Lisa: Yes, and then it makes it much more natural that somebody could have a conversation with somebody else, saying something like, “What was one [of the] juiciest things that was hard for you this week?” Discussing what’s really hard for us starts fitting into the container of what we can talk about.

Nonie: Rather than leaders maintaining distance, it’s sort of like getting in the work with their staff, right?

Lisa: That’s right. If you can say, “Yes, this is messy, let’s get our hands dirty and we have one another’s backs,” that’s kind of it in a nutshell.

Nonie: Can I just shift gears with one related issue that I would really love your take on? I feel like a common leadership issue- which we often see in early education- is people get into a cycle of putting out fires, as opposed to stepping back and considering strategic options.

Lisa: Right. Let’s spend a little bit of time working up that issue using the Immunity to Change Framework. Let’s say you have a goal, which is to get better at anticipating challenges and planning ahead—to be more thoughtful and operate more frequently at a strategic level. I can think of two common behaviors that work against that goal. First, focusing on the day-to-day stuff, like attending to a to-do list which is always growing. The other is not actively prioritizing creating time to think about the future, so it never makes it onto the list to plan, for the day or meetings with other people. So those are two very easy behaviors to acknowledge. So, why do people behave in ways that work against their goal? What worries contribute to these behaviors? Imagine you’re not going to focus so much on the day-to-day, the biggest worry might be the loss of ongoing hits of small successes.

Nonie: And feelings of accomplishment.

Lisa: That’s right, it’s a very powerful sort of thing. And I’m sure there is a brain chemistry here. The idea of getting stuff done and the sense of self-confidence that comes with it.

Nonie: And being needed. It’s got this very short-term instrumental value, right?

Lisa: I think that being needed is a really important thing to consider because it feeds the interpersonal need while also feeding your, “I’m a competent person” need. And maybe if you were to actually prioritize thinking about the future and the strategic work, it would lead to a sense of deep incompetence, that you don’t know what you don’t know, and you would have to face and feel the mess.

Nonie: And get into this really unknown, uncharted, uncomfortable territory.

Lisa: Which means you have to take risks, and that’s really dangerous.

Nonie: And, you have to follow through on things that won’t give you that hit.

Lisa: That won’t give you the immediate hit, that’s right.

Nonie: It’s a different kind of motivation and reward.

Lisa: Absolutely, because you are shifting the timeframe and many of the things that allow you to know, like feedback loops. Feedback loops look really different when you have long-term stuff. Things are not linear, things are indirect. So, you have to have some appetite for ambiguity and know how to handle your feelings around ambiguity.

It’s interesting because early educators work with young children around their own emotional regulation. But most adults are not very skilled at expanding their range of the feelings they can actually tolerate. Personally, I think this is one of the most serious challenges that we face because it is what leads people to be self-protective, to not push themselves into uncharted territory.

Nonie: So, it’s developing people who are self-reflective, who are self-aware, operating at a meta-level. Like for a child care administrator, it’s really important to step back and reflect on how to strategically pair teachers rather than dealing with consistent problematic interpersonal dynamics among staff.

Lisa: Yep, in my mind it all goes back to the fact that we are wired to be in safety mode. But you can learn how this predetermined wiring actually is incorrect in a lot of ways because it’s so primitive.

Nonie: Yeah, it hasn’t evolved to match today’s complex, modern world.

Lisa: Right. It can be helpful to picture what it would look like to shift out of safety mode enough that you had more availability, all that time that was saved not having to put fires out that you unintentionally created. It also strikes me how important it is for the leaders to have support themselves to get beyond some of these challenges.

Nonie: In some ways, these conversations always lead back to focusing on the adults in the early education system to really make a difference for children. Thanks, Lisa, for reminding us to embrace the vulnerability that comes with taking risks and learning from mistakes, especially for leaders. We also appreciate your insights about psychological and emotional dimensions associated with change that affect people in the early education and care field.

Please join us for our next blog, where we’ll hear from Junlei Li about adopting a “human-first approach” that focuses on developing reciprocal relationships to accelerate quality improvement in early education classrooms and systems.

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Birth Through Third Grade Learning