Restorative Practices in ResLife: Organizational and Group Culture Shift

This post is one in a series about integrating Restorative Practices into a model for residential learning.  Start with the introduction as a primer and explore posts on other strategies you can utilize with a restorative lens.

| Introduction | Roommate Agreements | Floor Meetings & Circles | Curriculum Development | Residential Curriculum | Intentional Conversations & Interactions | Assessment | Organizational Culture | Into Practice |

Perhaps you as an individual have adopted aspects of Restorative Practices into your work.  You understand the fundamental hypothesis and have worked to integrate restorative tools like circles and Fair Process into your daily work, and you’re seeking others around you – like your colleagues or students – to make changes and do the same.  Leading restorative change can be difficult since it will be key to utilize Restorative Practices in the implementation of the change, not just in its content.  While you may have your own idea of concrete changes you’d like to see, simply imposing those changes on a group of people is antithetical to the fundamental hypothesis of Restorative Practices.  Essentially, if you are dictating a change to a group of people, you are not working with them, and hence it’s likely that folks will not respond to that change positively.  Rather than imposing new practices, cocreate them with those you work with.  This process may be more involved than mapping out a plan on your own, but when others are involved in the creation of a culture shift, they are more likely to embrace it.

Build Relationships and Understanding of the Existing Culture

Restorative Practices are rooted in daily informal interactions that create norms and relationships that make conflict less likely and easier to handle when it does occur.  Given that any shift in culture or practices is likely to create some conflict, it’s important to prioritize building relationships with those who will be impacted by the change you hope to lead.  Many of us who work in residence life are inclined toward building relationships, so this may not always feel like work, and in some cases, it may even feel like a distraction from work.  However, the relationships you form provide a level of trust that is necessary for change and the opportunity to build norms and standards that will make change easier.  If you have a good working relationship with your colleagues, students, and supervisors, when it comes time to implement change, they’ll likely be better equipped to communicate with you –  even in the face of conflict or difficult feedback –  since they value the relationship and may already know how to reach out and your communication style. 

While building these relationships, you may also be able to get a sense of how RP may already show up in the culture, where knowledge of RP exists, and where there may be challenges and resistance to change.  Even if the group you’re working with has never heard of Restorative Practices as a concept, it’s very possible that some elements of the group or its leadership align with RP.  For example, a team may already use elements of Fair Process by collecting feedback before making a decision, utilize circles in some format, or have created shared standards or expectations, even if they don’t know the language of RP.  These elements can be a great starting point for expanding the use of RP and introducing terminology that integrates the practice.  On the other hand, folks on the team may have already used RP in other settings and may have some great insight into where opportunities to utilize RP or challenges to its implementation might exist.

Educate Others on Restorative Practices

One major challenge to having others buy-in to RP is a lack of understanding exactly what RP is.  Because of its growing presence in education, many folks working in residence life may have heard of Restorative Practices, but their associations are not always helpful if they paint an incomplete picture.  For example, if an individual only knows of RP from the K-12 setting and fixates on affective theory (i.e. the understanding of emotion), they may see RP as juvenile and unhelpful in the setting of higher education.  Alternatively, someone who has only observed components of RP used in isolation – like the use of only circles or restorative questions without a focus on relationship or “with box” leadership – might think RP is ineffective based on the results of the incomplete implementation they observed.  Hence, when introducing or reintroducing folks to RP, it’s important to paint a holistic picture that includes both the theory of RP with the practices themselves.  This can be done by introducing quality resources as a starting place or bringing in an expert to conduct training for your organization.

While an integrated understanding of specific practices and the theory behind them is key to aiding others in adopting RP, modeling the practices is more persuasive than teaching about them.  Much of the content one needs to understand to implement RP and build strong communities is not conceptually difficult, but its effective use is powerful.  For example, the syntax of an affective statement is not particularly complex, but it’s meaningful to see a leader display the awareness and vulnerability to express their emotion when making a request.  Similarly, the guidelines for circle facilitation aren’t extensive, but when practiced regularly, circles can aid in forming deep and meaningful communities.  Hence, it’s more important to model RP, not just in training scenarios but in daily work.  Build relationships using restorative tools, practice making decisions utilizing Fair Process, in the face of conflict and crisis, cocreate ways to hold those who caused harm accountable while providing support to all parties.

Make Small Changes Utilizing Fair Process & Assessment

If you are in the position to make formal changes to infuse Restorative Practices into a culture, make sure you’re making changes in a way that brings others along for the change.  It might be tempting upon learning about a practice like circles or community standards to immediately impose the practice in any team meeting you lead.  However, this form of implementing change likely falls in the “to box” and may come off as authoritarian.  To ensure the implementation itself is restorative, it’s key to balance accountability and support.  In this context, holding others accountable as a leader means holding steady that a change is necessary and never abdicating authority to create change.  However, support may look like finding ways to make change incrementally, to ensure all team members have a means of contributing feedback, and to provide clarity around decisions made in implementing the change.To implement this sort of change, it may be helpful to imagine a large-scale change as a roadmap with tools of Fair Process and assessment providing continual guidance.  I appreciate the metaphor of a roadmap for implementing change as a leader.  You likely have a general direction and a possible destination in mind, and you may even have a route in mind to arrive there.  However, as with mapping a road trip, it’s helpful to have a level of flexibility for detours and pit stops you weren’t initially expecting, which will impact the route and perhaps the destination itself.  In this case, the detours may be informed by the feedback you receive from your team and the effectiveness of small changes, which can be yielded through Fair Process and assessment.  Essentially, break your change down into more manageable changes, ask for feedback as changes are implemented, explain how that feedback was utilized and how to move forward, and when applicable, measure the impact of the change.  The feedback and results can be the driver of continued small changes, whether it turns out to be justification for continuing in the current direction or the impetus for a detour.  Such an approach goes beyond generating buy-in to generating ownership since stakeholders had a part in creating the change.

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