The Problem With Nice: Moving from Congenial to Collegial Cultures

Spring 2022

By Brent C. Kaneft

This article appeared as “Nice Shift” in the Spring 2022 issue of Independent School.
In the mid-’90s, my parents experienced some marital challenges. Essentially, they had buried years of resentment and frustration under the façade of keeping the peace. When that volcano erupted, their marriage was in crisis. What did they do? First, they both agreed the marriage was worth saving. Then they identified a shared goal: the New York City Marathon. When they trained for the race, they’d fight for their marriage, literally. They yelled at each other, said things they’d always wanted to say, and when things got too hot, one of them would slow their jog to get some separation. And then they would come back together and start again.
They weren’t skilled at this type of conversation, but after practicing for years, being honest and open with their ideas, needs, and criticisms is much easier. I can imagine passersby seeing this married couple screaming at each other and thinking, “That can’t be good.” In reality, of course, this was the best decision they ever made. It saved what they call their second marriage, because in the first, they weren’t allowing themselves to be fully human, to fully participate in the dance. They suffered from the unexamined commitment to congeniality. It is what many schools suffer from today.
In 2012, Robert Evans wrote “Getting to No,” a seminal Independent School magazine article, in which he argues that schools—teachers, staff, administrators, parents—are often highly congenial: generous, friendly, considerate, and supportive. An outsider entering such a congenial environment might say the school has a wonderful culture, positive and happy. No doubt because of the expertise often found in independent schools and the resources we enjoy, not to mention the pool of applicants we pluck from, the school is likely achieving good outcomes on traditional scales: 100% college acceptance, high SAT/ACT scores, National Merit Finalists, strong teacher-student relationships, etc. Congenial cultures often enjoy this success, so it can be difficult to evolve. Everything looks great on the surface.
In congenial cultures, there is a tacit agreement that the individual’s comfort is paramount, whether you’re a teacher, student, leader, or parent. Individuals in these cultures can suffer from the hubristic illusion that their school’s mission, vision, and values are secondary to one’s level of comfort with any issue. For example, a parent who contacts the supervising administrator before a teacher, when their issue is with the teacher. Parents often avoid the discomfort of talking directly to the teacher. Or a student, whose skills and knowledge are average, is lost in a course, yet they receive a solid “B” or even an “A” on their report card, though they clearly have not met the outcomes for the course. Teachers often avoid the discomfort of grading integrity. Or a leader who asks for their colleague’s opinions about a new project fails to listen to and consider those opinions and, instead, rebuts his colleague’s feedback immediately, taking a defensive position. Leaders often avoid the discomfort of critical feedback. There is nuance to each of these examples, of course.
Congenial cultures exist partly because we are having the wrong discussion about culture, especially as of late. Some pundits measure the health of a culture based on the individual’s experience within it, whether they enjoy working in that culture or feel they can thrive. Does having a healthy culture matter only to support the individual? Or does having a healthy culture matter because it supports the goals of the institution while also serving the needs of the community? It’s not popular to say, but the success of the institution and community is more important than the individual’s.

Pivoting from Polite

In education today, to borrow from Ross Douthat’s concepts in The Decadent Society, school communities are suffering from a seemingly endless repetition of the same old arguments—progressive versus traditional, 20th century versus 21st century learning, administration versus teachers; the same frustrations—too busy, too tired, too underpaid; and the same lie—that our “decadence” is an “overture to a catastrophe” that seems to loom in a perpetual state above our heads (e.g., our students won’t be prepared for the future). What is truly scary is that we can exist like this for many, many years to come, and if congeniality is the ethos in the community, this perpetual “sclerotic” state is guaranteed.
When congenial cultures begin discussing the way forward, the importance of buy-in is talked about early. And this is where the cycle Douthat warns us about begins: new idea, need buy-in, resistance, a lack of institutional backbone, nothing changes (repeat). That’s why buy-in is often used to shut the conversation down. It’s effective. The term is not about learning or growing as a school community; the term is about ensuring that everyone feels comfortable with the change and has opted in after weighing the pros and cons.
A leader who waits for immediate buy-in is a leader who will maintain the status quo because immediate buy-in is an educational unicorn. Consider the famous quote from Alison Gopnik, psychology professor at University of California, Berkeley: “It’s not so much that we care for children because we love them, as that we love them because we care for them.” Her point, I think, is that even in parenting, an immediate and consistent love for a child is not automatic; it’s a commitment to care. Likewise, true commitment to innovation happens when sweat and intellectual equity have been invested.
I am not arguing for a steamroller approach to change. I am suggesting that the future of our schools is worth fighting for, and the prize is buy-in because we all participate in the fight. We all know, however, that buy-in ebbs and flows and is often used to stall progress in an effort to protect a fragile environment where clarity and honesty are undervalued.
Congenial cultures suffer from the delusion that tension and conflict are toxic and are to be avoided at all costs. “In polite cultures, people withhold disagreement and criticism,” argues Adam Grant, organizational psychology professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. Yet disagreement and criticism are essential to responsible and sustainable change, to breaking free from the sclerotic cycle, and to sustaining healthy cultures. Paradoxically, what congenial cultures attempt to protect with their politeness—a good feeling in the present—constructs a breeding ground for stress, frustration, distrust, and resentment. Peace in the moment is always a recipe for disaster. But schools can avoid this by championing collegial behaviors.

The Honest Truth

In the three faculty lounges at our school, I posted a quote from a 1997 Harvard Business Review article: “The absence of conflict is not harmony, it’s apathy.” As Evans notes, “To flourish, collegiality requires a foundation of shared commitment to appropriate candor in the service of collective growth.” I remember hearing the author Elizabeth Gilbert say that those people who are brutally honest are just looking for people to brutalize. So, this is not an argument for “brutal honesty” but for the “appropriate candor,” Evans highlights. The point is, as Brené Brown argues, clarity is kindness, and sometimes clarity causes conflict—and that’s healthy. When a teacher is using ineffective strategies in the classroom, they need to know. When an administrator is not being empathetic, they need to know. Members of a collegial culture recognize that being honest and clear is highly valued and essential to the school’s mission.
There are a couple key characteristics to a collegial culture, including:

Allocentric Framing of New Ideas. There is a tendency to frame new ideas in an egocentric way. How will the implementation of this idea affect me: my workload, my students, my courses, my position, etc.? As any of our spiritual traditions will argue, the ego is responsible for so much of our suffering, and it is no different for members of a school community. When we frame change in an egocentric way, we desperately grasp onto the continuity of the status quo. This may be done out of fear or anxiety or even general concern for the future of the school. After all, educators are working with young learners and are actively shaping futures every day. Emotionally, that’s a lot to handle. But to move forward, we must be aware of this tendency in ourselves and work on moving beyond the ego.

Borrowing a term from the research on spatial navigation, I argue that members of a collegial culture are adept at allocentric framing, meaning that when they engage with new ideas, they consider the relationships between myriad factors, questioning, for example, how admission, development, fine arts, athletics, or science may be affected by the implementation of this new idea. Members recognize how the change affects the community and furthers the school’s mission first. This is key for collegial cultures because when members debate the idea, they are more expansive in their thinking and less hostile to change that could have significant impact on their role at the school. This shift requires practice, specifically professional development that designs for this type of thinking.
To help colleagues evolve their thinking in this way, each person must feel a sense of validation, that they matter to the mission.
Empathy and Validation. Recently, a friend from another school shared a story with me. A senior administrator, who makes well over $100,000, crumbled when their head of school forgot to thank them publicly for a major project they had been working on for years. At first, we might look at this scenario and scoff at this person who needs to “suck it up.” But on second thought, this should be a heartening story that money is potentially less important than being validated for giving your finite resources—time, energy, attention—to something greater than yourself, for being “institutionally minded” and moving the school forward. In a congenial culture, this administrator would stay quiet, show a stiff upper lip, and move on. This behavior, of course, breeds resentment toward the head of school and distrust about whether their work matters to this institution.
In a collegial culture, this administrator is going to share their frustration with the head of school and can certainly be empathetic to them. Heads of school have a ton on their plates, but this is not being petty; this is an active way of ensuring that the culture of your school stays healthy. It provides an opportunity for the head to apologize and for the administrator to clear the air. This type of exchange, of empathy and validation, is normal in collegial cultures and becomes easier with practice.
In hopes of improving our school’s culture, we have partnered with workplace empathy consultant Liesel Mindrebo Mertes. She has worked with our leadership team and our faculty and staff for about a year, and I hope we will continue this work with our board and parents. Liesel has participants practice challenging conversations—like when a teacher is upset about changes the school is making—and provides a space to be empathetically engaged. That means we actively listen, we don’t try to fix everything right away, we show up for the person across from us. Collegial cultures embrace empathy and validate emotional responses by being present with and attentive to colleagues. Validation in this case doesn’t necessarily mean changing a policy or decision because someone is upset about it; it is simply recognizing and creating space for someone’s full humanity without pathologizing normal emotional responses.
If we want honesty and clarity in our cultures that allow for this type of exchange, then we must continue to build daily cues for psychological safety. Our brains are constantly searching for these cues, a process called neuroception, a term coined by psychiatrist Stephen Porges. Validating someone’s work is a major cue and helps teachers and leaders avoid egocentric framing and relax into collegiality. That means sincerely thanking people for their work, dropping them an encouraging note, including them in important conversations, stopping by their classroom or office to see if they need anything, and recognizing that the work they do is as stimulating as it is perplexing and is always inspired by gratitude.

Greater Good

Park Tudor is not on the boat waving at all the congenial schools drowning in the ocean of sclerosis and mindless repetition. We are working hard on our culture, and the work is not easy. But at this point, I think we know that navigating the future is going to be a challenge for independent schools, and cultures that trend toward congeniality are not prepared to overcome the obstacles ahead. They are too fragile. We must be prepared to engage in tough conversations.
The truth, however, is the dichotomy between congenial and collegial cultures is too clean. The truth is culture is determined by the daily practices of collegiality in the service of the institution, and some days will be better or worse than others. I am arguing that the tendency should be toward collegiality, and characteristics like allocentric framing, empathy, and validation should be fostered. But the question of whether your school has a healthy or unhealthy culture is, for me, profoundly unhelpful. It gives people something to spin their wheels about—more repetition—but we all know the human dynamic in schools is messy and nonlinear and, if we are paying attention, unable to be summed up. Today, the English department could be having incredibly collegial conversations about the inclusive status of their curriculum, and at the same time, the science department may be stepping on eggshells when asked if their curriculum is acultural and as objective as we may once have imagined.
Culture happens in the seemingly ordinary decisions to be less egocentric, more empathetic, to seek out ways of validating others, but all in the service of creating a place where individuals can be fully human, can share their emotion as well as their ideas without the fear of judgment or ridicule—and, more important, can move the school forward in the right direction.
My parents have now been married for 45 years. They still fight, but they’ve learned how to fight and hold their marriage above all else. School cultures that foster collegiality will learn how to fight, too, while holding the mission, vision, and values as sacred, but I can guarantee there will not be immediate buy-in for this approach.
Brent C. Kaneft

Brent Kaneft is head of school at Wilson Hall in Sumter, South Carolina.