Adaptive Messaging

Adaptive Messaging

Communicate Hope:

Leaders communicate hope and energy even in the midst of uncertainty.  Some on our staff are hurting from loss. Others are fearful for their safety. And some are opposed to vaccines and masks. How do we as leaders fill everyone’s bucket … so they in turn … can fill student buckets?  And how do we channel renewed energy into our mission of reaching each and every child?

Adaptive Leadership:

There are technical solutions to technical problems.  But for adaptive challenges we need adaptive leadership.

Adaptive Leadership suggests the need to focus on:

  • where we are now (empathy and self-care),
  • where we want to go (student learning and equity), and
  • how we will get there (adaptive messaging).

Adaptive Messaging:

We are still hurting.  Our staff and community are all over the map in their response to COVID.  As a result we are speaking to a wide range of audiences. Below are some of the perspectives we are hearing.  The first few columns remind us that the pandemic and trauma can cause some of our students, parents, staff to go through several stages of grief: shock and denial; pain and guilt; anger and bargaining; depression; reconstruction … before getting to acceptance and hope.  And the last few columns remind us that we still have a mission to do – serving every child.  Three adaptive messages that may bridge the gap:


Still lots of need to respond with empathy by naming the emotion and making it okay to talk through those feelings. See ideas below from Brené Brown’s Dare to Lead.

Work we CAN do:

Doing productive work and caring for others (our kids) is one of the best therapies to move us through the stages of grief.  Being clear about what we want to see … Spend the first two months re-establishing positive relationships with your students … can help ground us and center us.


Finally, whether it is a light touch or a more definite push, we need renewed hope and vision. We are still here for each and every student. We still want racial equity.  We still want every student to reach and exceed standards.  Our number one job is to help hope thrive.

What are the 3 key things you want everyone to know?

Make your messages stand out.  Repeat them often. Your messages need to be heard above the noise of COVID, safety and all the challenges of our return to in-person learning.  I use these three Ps – People, Plan/Process, and Purpose – to provide a messaging game plan in every situation.  Messages something like the following may resonate for you and your team:


I am SO glad to see all you and our students back in school.  It has been our most challenging year ever and I am so proud of our resilience and service.  And I know that we are each in different stages of “recovery.”  We need to be here for each other and help each other so we can be strong and resilient for our students.  For the first two months of school lets focus on taking care of each other and our students.


We are aiming for a strong start.  District staff have been working 24/7 to get us ready.  We have tried to think of everything but know there will be bumps in the road.  Let us hear what else is needed.  We want to support you.  Call XXX to report issues.  We will be meeting a 7 am each morning to work the bugs out for a strong start for the new year.


Our vision and mission … equity and excellence for every student … has not changed.  We are still here for each and every student.  Let’s keep thinking about and focusing on teaching to standards and scaffolding to success.

What are your three key messages? 

  • What do you want to say about: equity; social-emotional learning; goals; vision?
  • How do you scaffold the messages for the four stages of mindsets in the chart?
  • What role does cabinet/district leaders play in sharing and reinforcing those messages?

Address anxieties, provide hope and point to the future.

Some tips & tools from current superintendents … about four types of messaging … for four audiences:

Audience 1: Woe’s me:

Potential Trap – Buying in to: our kids are so far behind.  Australia recovered from the fires quicker than expected.  Avoid deficit thinking.  Kids are not broken.  We are here for them.

  • Demonstrate empathy for staff … and for our students
  • Name the fear. Put it on the table. Make it discussable. Acknowledge the fear. Track down responses for FAQ. That lets people know you care and helps prevent hysteria from spreading.
  • Rumble with uncertainty. Acknowledging what you don’t know actually helps build trust. Empathy: Dare to Lead has lots of good advice on showing empathy.
  • Limit time “below the line.” Connors: The Oz Principle, urges us to keep the focus on being pro-active.  His formula is: See it, Own it, Solve it, Do it.  And he recognizes the group may need some process time … 10 minutes … then acknowledge the fear and move to problem solving.

Audience 2: Self Care:

Potential Trap – Buying in to relationships over results.  Thinking we can’t do anything for kids until we get the adults healthy and happy. Focus on self-care AND care for kids.  They need us.

  • Pay attention to the affective for the first few months … recapture the joy of learning
  • Staff are either going to get love and care from admin … or seek it from labor. Do take time to let staff know you see them, hear them, care for them.  One district used ½ day of ‘district day’ to tell employees how much they were appreciated and knew they needed that day to get ready for school.  Staff responded with enthusiasm … feeling valued and appreciated.
  • Warm Ups. Start every meeting with 10 minutes of relationships.  That ten minutes helps us decompress mentally.  And  Vulnerability Warm Ups build trust and relationships. (Jon Gordon, Culture Code, Brené Brown). Ask for 20 ideas here. We need each other right now; create a culture of caring.
  • According to Gallup, the 5th element of an engaged work force is = Someone at work cares about me.
  • Some staff may well have COVID trauma and be working through the stages of grief. Those going through trauma may react in unpredictable ways and need extra care and understanding.
  • The Mood Meter acknowledges emotions for what they are … and gives a pause to reflect and make a plan to manage our moods. 

Audience #3: Dis-oriented:

Potential Trap – Buying in to the sense of being overwhelmed; we just can’t take any more.  Engage staff in routines.  Build bridges of trust and safety.  Ask them … what are we learning about what is best for kids?

  • Yes, we want to double down on kindness and welcome and safety
  • AND, Keep working to engage kids in learning grade level standards
  • Work hard on clarity; use feedback (Thought Exchange) to test/refine
  • C.O.P.E. = Create Once, Publish Everywhere
  • Become co-cheerleaders with Ps >and< District; each supporting the other

Audience #4: Forgot our Mission:

Potential Trap – Buying in to the tyranny of the urgent; getting so busy that we forget our mission, vision, strategic plan.  Without a vision, our Big WHY, we get sucked into multiple diversions.

  • Start with mission and vision … they haven’t gone away
  • Don’t let ourselves off the hook with academic standards
  • Double down on the Big Why … making meaning
  • Sharpen and clarify key messages – check for understanding with key leaders
  • Questions are our friends. Ask leaders: How can we make this clearer?
  • Ask principals and cabinet to help spread key messages (C.O.P.E.)
  • Reinforce the key messages again and again

Adaptive Leadership reminds us to keep focusing on:

  • Where we want to go
  • Where are we now
  • How we will get there

We communicate best when we communicate together.  Hammer out your messages with your administrative team.  Then, Create Once, Post Everywhere.  And engage your leadership team in reinforcing those messages.

– Larry Nyland, Leadership Coach and Consultant

Dare to Lead excerpts on empathy from Brené Brown:

Empathy is connecting to the emotions that underpin an experience.

  • Empathy is one of the linchpins of cultures built on connection and trust
  • In those bad moments, it’s not our job to make things better. It’s just not. Our job is to connect.
  • When we see that someone’s hurt or in pain, it’s our instinct as human beings to try to make things better. We want to fix; we want to give advice. But empathy isn’t about fixing, it’s the brave choice to be with someone in their darkness.

Empathy Skill: To see the world as others see it

  • Perspective taking requires becoming the learner, not the knower.
  • Skill: “Tell me more — what are you thinking?”
  • Every study we see confirms the positive correlation between inclusivity, innovation, and performance. Again, it’s only when diverse perspectives are included, respected, and valued that we can start to get a full picture of the world, who we serve, what they need, and how to successfully meet people where they are.
  • We cannot practice empathy if we need to be knowers; if we can’t be learners, we cannot be empathic.
  • Curiosity is the key; knowers struggle with all four of the building blocks of courage.

Empathy Skill: To be nonjudgmental

  • We tend to judge in the areas we feel the most shame
  • We offload the hurt by judging others
  • [Judgment, shame] rolls downhill

Empathy Skill: To communicate understanding another person’s feelings

  • If we can’t name what’s happening to us emotionally, we cannot move through it.
  • To process emotion, we identify, name, and talk about our experiences.
  • Communicating our understanding of the emotion is key … and we may get it wrong.  As long as we show up with our whole hearts, pay attention and stay curious, we can course-correct.
  • Skill: “What I hear you saying …” allows you to put the issue on the table, show you are willing to go there and rumble about what others are feeling.
  • This exchange alone builds the connection and alignment that we need to have a meaningful trust-building, and even healing conversation.






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Larry Nyland – Leadership Coach and Consultant.
Seattle Schools superintendent 2014-2018

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