I have written elsewhere about the importance of establishing the most positive and, I hope, mutually respectful relationship between senior leaders and the rest of the school community. It seems to me that, in part, this relies on the most effective communication – open, professional, calm, constructive, sensitive and empathetic communication on both sides which does not dodge the difficult issues which emerge from time to time but which reflects a commitment to finding resolution and moving forward. Can we adopt a ‘How can we?’ approach, rather than defaulting to a ‘Why we can’t’ position when we have tricky issues to navigate? Can we keep in mind that we are all, in fact, on the same side, and that a collegiate, collaborative approach is always likely to take us further than a confrontational and combative stance?
In a recent Sunday evening #SLTchat, I posted this tweet:
“@stevemunby says if when you’re a leader & you walk into a room everyone falls silent, that’s when you need to STAY, not leave. Build relationships & improve communication.”
which drew this response:
“Bad idea – a room of nervous staff hoping SLT leave so they can eat their lunch. Maybe broach SLT unpopularity in a staff meeting instead of ruining breaks as well.”
My immediate reaction was this:
“Think I may need to write a blog about this! It’s about building relationships and establishing positive conversations one at a time – not a staff meeting discussion, in my opinion….”
The exchange has made me thoughtful.
If members of the SLT are universally unpopular, this has to be damaging with respect to what the school is trying to achieve. There needs to be some unpicking, in my view, of what the issues are and how they can be positively addressed by the whole-school community. Teaching is challenging and schools can be stressful places. If the senior leaders are adding to this stress (or the perception of the staff is that this is the case) rather than supporting and constructively challenging others to do the best job they can, this can lead to a dysfunctional school community. I have no problem with constructive challenge and accountability – good leaders recognise that they have to hold those they lead to account, and that can mean navigating difficult conversations sometimes, but this can still (and should) be carried out supportively, positively, and professionally. If senior leaders are not respected, if trust has been eroded and relationships are characterised by active dislike and antipathy (on both sides), examining communication is a good beginning.
I wouldn’t broach the subject in a staff meeting. In my experience, the minority of staff who are prepared to speak up in staff meetings may not represent the view of the majority, so everyone can come out of a staff meeting with a distorted impression of what people think, how they feel and, crucially, what the next steps should be and how issues can be addressed and positive progress made. As a head, I often said at the end of a staff meeting, “If you haven’t had the chance to say what you wanted to say tonight, do drop me a note or an email or call in and see me tomorrow” and I often had a range of interesting responses in consequence. Whole-staff surveys can be better, though, even then, and even if surveys are completed anonymously, some staff are cautious about what they are prepared to record. Sometimes comments need unpicking and further discussion which, frustratingly, is not possible if surveys are anonymous – though I think you can gauge from surveys a better sense of the general feeling of the staff than an open meeting may generate.
I find myself going back to my initial reaction in the #SLTchat exchange that better relationships rely on each individual interchange being as positive as possible. That if the room goes quiet, there is a clear sense that these relationships need to be built and this won’t happen if senior leaders just back away. Communication is complex and nuanced and it may be impossible always to get it perfectly right, but we should never stop trying – we listen, we reflect, we learn. We show empathy, awareness and emotional intelligence. All of us. All the time. In every exchange.
What do you think?
Photo credit: John Berry. On the Tokyo Metro.