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Facing up to the challenge of change

In his final Speech Day address before proceeding on retirement next year, principal of the Parkinson Secondary School, Jeff Broomes, reflected on his controversial tenure, making reference to what he called “resistance to necessary structural and cultural changes” he had implemented for improved learning for the benefit of students.

Jeff Broomes

Jeff Broomes

Mr Broomes, whose tenure at The Alexandra School was equally as turbulent before he was shifted by the Ministry of Education to Parkinson, said the changes offered “clearly outlined structures to correct the failures that this school experienced for at least five years”, but were reversed with consultation, presumably by the Ministry of Education, after they encountered resistance from teaching staff.

It is noteworthy that at both Alexandra and Parkinson, Mr Broomes’ management style came in for much criticism, especially from the teaching staff who staged industrial action in both instances. Though he obviously meant well, he was frustrated in the implementation of a change agenda because
of what was clearly his failure to win the support and cooperation of a key stakeholder group.

There is an important lesson to be learnt here. It is that change, no matter how relevant or how necessary, can never be effectively made unless there is buy-in from key stakeholder groups –– whether the setting is a school, a business or at a national level involving a government and its relationship with citizens. It is because change, though a constant feature of life, is threatening to the average person and, for this reason, must be fully explained.

Effective communication, therefore, is critical at every stage of the process. This task is the responsibility of whoever happens to be occupying positions of leadership and spearheading the change. To win the support and cooperation of key stakeholder groups, they must understand and appreciate what the change is about, why it is necessary, the roles they are expected to play and, most importantly, how it will make things better, especially to their benefit.

Human beings are inherently resistant to change because we are creatures of habit and find comfort and security in what is familiar, which offers some degree of predictability. Change is especially hard to implement in Barbados because Barbadians, by nature, are basically conservative. Conservative thinking informs an approach which says if something is working and has been so for ages, why change it? It overlooks the important point, however, that change offers an opportunity to do it better.

Given this Barbadian disposition, it seems that the best approach is to implement change incrementally instead of suddenly. Sudden change is especially stressful for the average person because it presents a test of their ability to adjust and adapt to what is new and unfamiliar. Providing reassurance, therefore, is another important function of communication whenever change enters
the environment.

At a national level, Barbados is currently going through a painful process of economic change that suddenly removed many of the things which were familiar in the Barbadian experience for several years. Things like not having to pay for a university education at Cave Hill and being rewarded by Government through tax allowances to invest in home ownership, saving with a credit union or investing in a retirement plan.

Adjusting and adapting to this new reality has been a difficult experience over the past two and a half years. The ruling Democratic Labour Party and, especially, Prime Minister Freundel Stuart have come in for considerable criticism over their handling of the crisis, especially their failure to engage Barbadians through more effective communication. Had this been done, Barbadians generally may have demonstrated more understanding of the need for sacrifice.

It certainly would have been better for the Government had it opted
to secure a national consensus before proceeding to make the kind of changes that were effected. Such an approach would have involved putting its proposals on the table, seeking feedback and alternative proposals from the citizenry and them coming up with a final package that blended its ideas with the people’s.

Had this been done, Barbadians would have felt a sense of ownership of the change process. Change is always difficult but necessary sometimes. However, experience shows it stands the best chance of succeeding when it is pursued in a partnership, instead of being viewed by one side, which usually has less power, as an unwelcome imposition from on high. Such an approach is almost certain to trigger resistance.

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