School leaders spend a considerable amount of their time in problem solving mode.
There are those problems that leaders can create themselves – perhaps through their own actions, or due to change initiatives they’re overseeing or requiring of others. Then there are those problems that emerge from factors beyond school leaders’ control. It can be a minefield.
One of the biggest challenges leaders face is when a problem is pushed in the their direction because no-one else feels – rightly or wrongly – that it’s theirs to solve. The notion of ‘somebody else’s problem’ is something we’ll all have encountered at some stage.
In some cases, the leader will be left on their own to solve the problem, which might explain why school leaders can find the role to be an isolating experience. When leaders are simply left to resolve problems they’re given by themselves, it’s possible that the solution they come up won’t satisfy those who aren’t willing to lend help and support. In such cases, school leaders will need to develop resilience and other strategies to deal with the criticisms which may follow.
One trait that leaders need to develop is that of being approachable, so that critics feel able to engage in respectful dialogue in order to better understand the actions that have been taken, but this is no easy task.
It firstly requires leaders to be open to feedback. Many leaders might say they have an ‘open door’ policy, but the true test of this is how comfortable colleagues feel when entering said door. This may be a reflection on the leader themselves, or possibly reflective of their colleagues’ prior experiences of working with other leaders in the past. It’s crucial that your colleagues feel safe in expressing opinions without fear of retribution – but then there can be some willing to give leaders blunt, often cutting feedback, without reservation.
Be aware that many of your critics will first seek to be understood, before seeking to understand. They will often not be able to perceive the bigger picture, and in some cases, may not even wish to see it. In my view, this has worsened over time with the rise of social media and the instant gratification that comes with being able to air personal views quickly. Compounding that are increasing expectations throughout wider society that problems can be remedied with immediate fixes.
Empathetic leadership is required here – the ability to take a deep breath, take a step back and bite our tongues, while trying to understand why our critics are acting in the way they are. This is hardest of all when we know the behaviour of some critics is downright wrong.
Nevertheless, we must strive to create environments that encourage respectful and civil approaches to dealing with problems. To get there, we need workplace cultures where the norm is that we first seek to understand each other, then seek to be understood.
Before we tell someone how their actions have made us feel, let’s first ask them why they took those actions in the first place, as doing so will open the door to a more productive discussion. As leaders, we’ll sometimes enter meetings where we know a colleague is going to express some frank opinions. On these occasions, we might want to lay some groundwork that will prompt them to want to understand, in a way that opens respectful dialogue. Because always seeking to be understood may well close those doors through which we can receive valuable feedback.
Richard Bruford is a head of school, public speaker, and consultant based in Suzhou, China.