Of the numerous difficult conversations my team and I have supported, ones involving site managers are among the most common. They come up for many reasons, but the main ones are:
• Not prioritising tasks
• Not completing routine tasks, like Legionella tests
• Not doing tasks quickly enough
We see a lot of ‘power’ dynamics in these conversations, where the site manager projects dominance or superiority over the head, SBM or person having the conversation. When addressing issues such as those listed above, there are some key points to observe when starting the conversation. Doing so will bring about greater clarity and dramatically increase the chances of a positive outcome.
Avoid talking about ‘regular tasks’ or ‘jobs.’ Be specific as to what these actually are, whether it’s emptying the bins or locking the school gates by 5pm. If the concerns you have involve multiple tasks, state how many there are so that the site manager knows what the scope of the conversation will be. Number the tasks and go through them; the more specific you are, the easier it will be for them to make the changes you want.
Talk about timing
You may need to raise the issue of frequency (how often a task should be done), the due date for a one-off item of work or how they should report the completion of routine, but relatively infrequent tasks. If they know when you expect something to be done by, you’ll both have clarity as to what the expectations placed on the site manager are. If they can’t complete the task(s) within your preferred time-frame, see if a different completion date might be an option.
Power plays can show up in a number of ways. They may manifest physically, as sitting in a dominating way (‘manspreading’, though women do it too), or through a patronising tone and condescending language – ‘If you’d been here as long as I have…’; ‘You’re young for a head…’ Other examples include them talking over you, being dismissive or making light of what you’re asking by deploying humour.
If these behaviours are preventing you from tackling the issue at hand, think about your response. People will react differently when talking to someone who’s dominating them, but often in ways which won’t help, and which the individuals in question typically won’t be conscious of. For example, some might join in with humourous barbs; sometimes this can work, but sometimes the effect will be to encourage the other party to dominate even more, our body language becoming increasingly submissive in the process.
Instead, try to create equality in your conversation. Adjust your body language to mirror theirs and maintain the tone of a professional trying to move an issue forward. That’s not to accuse those reading this of failing to sound professional; it’s to point out that power play behaviours can bring out our submissive side, which we then betray through our own tone of voice.
If and when the time comes to have a difficult conversation with your site manager, I hope these suggestions help. That said, there’s an overarching philosophy that’s worth following when having a difficult conversation: ‘If what you’re doing is getting the result you want, keep doing it. If not, try something different.’ Good luck!
Sonia Gill is founder of Heads Up, helping school leaders on their journey to outstanding via bespoke training programmes, and author of the books Successful Difficult Conversations in Schools and Journey to Outstanding.