When leaders, peers and colleagues behave collaboratively and respectfully towards each other, it helps to build a positive and supportive culture.
Happier staff are better able to focus on their important work and more likely to deliver improved outcomes for their pupils and for the school. A positive culture can help with tackling long-term recruitment and retention issues, too.
Incidents of inter-staff strife, disputes and conflict achieve the opposite. The current climate, in which staff are under pressure to consistently deliver strong results, has given rise to conditions that can cause tensions to sometimes boil over and arguments to emerge. Other exacerbating factors, such as staff shortages, funding cuts and curriculum changes, further add to the likelihood of staff falling out with each other.
It was encouraging to see the Education Secretary commit to plans for clearer accountability at the NAHT annual conference in May this year, but these will go to consultation first, so it will be some time before any benefits are felt. At the same time, however, he also set out enhancements for staff that included greater support for new teachers and improved development and progression, with clearer pathways for those wanting to stay in the classroom. All very welcome, but again it will take time before any real changes filter through.
So what steps can school leaders take now to better maintain harmony among their staff?
Prevention’s better than cure
Successful line managers will be aware of behaviours and practices that make staff arguments less likely. Examples of these include mediation, being objective, dealing with issues head on and resolving them and not acting as a ‘peacekeeper’.
The behaviours needed are shown within three of the 12 competencies found to prevent or reduce staff stress, based on research by Goldsmiths, University of London commissioned by the Health and Safety Executive. Understanding what sits beneath each of these and modelling them every day will mean that staff are more likely to work together effectively and ensure that issues are picked up and dealt with at an earlier stage.
Distributed leadership is key, and every line manager has a role to play. They should schedule regular check-ins and conversations with each team member, and ask questions about what’s happening with them both in and outside of work. It’s also important to be fair, deal with underperformance issues promptly, monitor staff workloads, praise often and make sure that effective appraisal conversations are being held regularly.
You can find further details concerning the HSE’s three competencies and self-assess against them here.
When things escalate
Prevention isn’t always possible, however, and there will inevitably be times when two or more members of staff are in dispute with each other. In some cases, even where leaders have become aware of poor behaviour, arguments or inter-staff disputes, too many will fail to act early enough, or worse, delay until a disagreement escalates into something more serious.
This inaction can stem from worries about upsetting those involved, concerns at what others might think, reluctance to spoil a good working relationship or friendship, or a failure to prioritise and find the time. It’s a big reason as to why managing difficult conversations is such a popular topic for training, particularly among middle leaders.
Yet prompt action is what will be needed. Here’s a brief step-by-step process to follow:
1. Identify the issue and its causes
Leaders must be specific when confronting the issue. Find evidence and identify what’s causing it. You can’t base your response solely on the views or opinions of those directly involved. Depending on the circumstances, you may need to hold a preliminary meeting with the parties concerned to understand their respective views of what’s happening and why.
2. Establish the impact
How serious is the issue, how many people is it affecting and is it having an impact on staff performance? This will help you decide on the action needed and the urgency with which the matter should be dealt with.
3. Meet with the staff members
Think about where your preliminary meetings should be held – preferably in a location that’s private and confidential – what notice to give and the time you’ll need to set aside.
Begin by setting out the purpose of the meeting and what is to be discussed. The staff member needs to know what the issue is, why it’s a problem and the impact it’s having on others and the school. What follows should be an open discussion, where they’ll have the opportunity to put forward their point of view and be heard.
4. Devise a solution
Ideally, the solution should come from the staff members themselves. This might not always possible, but by sharing evidence, asking effective questions and listening to the staff members’ answers, leaders can help them identify ways of moving forward.
You should try to pull ideas from the staff you talk to, identify common ground and keep the discussion focused on the facts and outcomes needed. You can then offer them assistance in areas such as training, development, coaching, mentoring, the expectations placed on them or their levels of responsibility.
The meeting needs to finish with the agreement of a clear action plan. There can be no grey areas or doubts as to what is expected. Your action plan should include:
- Agreement on specific expectations for future behaviour
- Details of any follow-up training, development and support and when this will be provided
- The consequences (particularly with more serious or repeat issues) and next steps if they don’t deliver on what’s agreed
Leaders must subsequently review with the staff involved at an agreed time and provide feedback and encouragement. Even if the issue appears to have been resolved, a follow-up meeting should still be scheduled so that you can acknowledge the actions taken and thank staff for their response. Poor behaviour can sometimes be repeated if success has been declared too early, or in the absence of an effective follow-up.
If the expected outcome hasn’t been achieved, more serious action may need to be taken. That might include further coaching, issuing of formal warnings, capability assessments, or in the most serious cases, termination of employment.
Fortunately, serious arguments and disputes among school staff remain relatively rare, but with staff facing high stakes accountability measures, long working hours and the increased stress that can accompany those, the prospect remains a real one. Make sure your senior and middle leaders fully understand how their daily behaviours set the climate for those they lead.
Equipping yourself and your senior colleagues with the tools needed to quickly and effectively deal with such problems before they start to affect others will ultimately mean more of your staff stay with you, and deliver the required outcomes.