I remember at an early stage of my career, when I was a relatively young leader, reading Winifred Holtby’s novel, ‘South Riding’, about a young female headmistress trying to establish herself after moving to lead a provincial girls’ school. It resonated in a number of ways – although headship was a long way off for me at that point. I was very much struck by this observation:
“Often before Sarah had infuriated her colleagues by suggesting remedies instead of grievances. She had not yet recognised the human preference for complaint.”
I realised that, in my leadership role, someone occasionally came to me with an issue they felt unhappy about. And I might say something along the lines of, “I’m sorry to hear about that. Maybe we could get round it by…” and then look at their face and realise that, in fact, they didn’t want a solution. They wanted the grievance.
I do recognise that, in my very first years of teaching, I too had had a tendency to enjoy a grievance a little too much – to hold onto it and feed it because, somehow, feeling badly done to, and complaining about it, had a certain satisfaction to it. I remember in my first school often coming out of a full staff meeting feeling cross about something or other.
But as I developed and matured as a professional, I think I moved past this. I could see that some of the staff I worked with were ‘why we can’t…’ people. Whatever was suggested, their default response tended to be negative and critical, and often they relished their reputation as a naysayer. And then there were the ‘how can we…?’ people, whose focus tended to be on finding ways of overcoming any obstacles, finding solutions and trying to make something work. I realised that I would find my professional life much more fulfilling if I situated myself in the latter camp.
However, over the course of my career, I also learnt a number of other things:
- That the naysayers often have good points to make – they may well be right in some ways – and they need to be listened to, even when (especially when?) you really don’t like what they’re saying, and/or how they’re saying it. They need to have a voice and to know their opinions will be taken seriously and not automatically dismissed as coming from the ‘cynics’ corner’. Leaders at all levels need challengers as well as champions.
- That moaning is human, and natural, and we all need to indulge ourselves from time to time. The important thing is to be able to move on in due course and not to get drawn into a negative spiral. Inveterate moaners and complainers can have the Harry Potter dementor effect on their colleagues: it can feel like they’re sucking out your soul.
- That in leadership, you need to make judgement calls all the time about what you tackle, and what you rise above. No-one can fight on all fronts, and so you pick the battles that are worth fighting, and where you believe you have a chance of success. Which are the boulders that may slow the water, but the stream will continue to flow around them? What are the barriers that are causing so much obstruction and damage that you need to take time, working with others, to remove them? And sometimes we have to find compromises if we’re to move forward. I feel uneasy when the adjective ‘uncompromising’ is equated with leadership strength.
So my advice to leaders at all levels is to consider when you need to ‘let it go…’. Ask yourself how important this is, and, even if at times you feel unfairly judged or criticised, remember this can come with the leadership territory, and it can’t ever be all about you and your ego. If you find yourself relishing a sense of injustice, and enjoying your anger and irritation a little too much, ask whether it’s time to rise above it and move on.
And if someone you lead comes to you with a problem, or a complaint, listen to them. Say something along the lines of, “I’m sorry to hear this, but thanks for coming to talk to me about it. Tell me what you’ve done so far.” If their face is blank at this question, it may be that all they’ve done so far is to bring it to you – either to try to hand you the problem, or because on some level they are enjoying moaning about it. I like the suggestion in ‘The Leaders’ Guide to Coaching in Schools’, by Christian van Nieuwerburgh and John Campbell, that after encouraging someone to pour out their disgruntled feelings about ‘What’s not wanted’ you encourage them to go on to outline ‘What’s wanted instead’ in order to help them move towards a solution-focussed, rather than a problem-obsessed, perspective.
So I’d follow up the initial question up with, “What could you do, do you think, to make things better?” Encourage them to identify possible strategies to resolve the problem, and to think about why they have suggested these strategies, what they’re hoping to achieve, and when they could act on them. Arrange to meet them again when this has happened to discuss how it went, and what further action or support might be appropriate. It may be that the issue has been addressed. Or it may be that the process you have just been through helps them see that this is a situation where the best response is to ‘let it go…’