What will happen? How will they react? How will I be viewed?
These are some of the questions that will go through the minds of school leaders when faced with making courageous decisions, or engaging in difficult conversations where feedback needs to be given to a colleague. There is a genuine sense of fear, which explains why so many tough conversations and decisions that will make a difference in our schools are often avoided.
Let’s look at the fear first. When engaging in a difficult conversation with a colleague that usually centers around giving them feedback about something that they have done, how they have behaved, leaders often think to how our colleague will respond. Will they be upset? Will they react angrily? Will they become less committed to the school? Will they talk about me negatively to others and gain their support? These possibilities will play out through our minds and, quite possibly, influence a leader enough to avoid the conversation completely for it will cause too much angst and damage.
Sure, this can be the case sometimes. Difficult decisions and unsought feedback to colleagues can result in varying levels of fallout. The conversation can soon become a topic of conversation in the staff room, or in some cases, a colleague can react in being vocal in online forums. A colleague may not agree with the feedback that we are giving them and argue the case, which may lead to them not talking to us for a while, or our relationship with them changes. When faced with making difficult decisions that involve a group of colleagues, small or large, then our fears can be even greater. School leaders may question themselves beforehand: How will the judge me? Will they no longer ‘like’ me?
The reality is, however, that we should not be positions of school leadership if we are seeking popularity. Sometimes, the tough decisions are those that will benefit our students, our colleagues, or the sustainable future of our schools, which will upset some people along the way. Getting total alignment, buy-in and support on everything is nigh impossible. We need to stop kidding ourselves that we are ever going to be respected by everyone we work with. This can be hard to accept, especially if we see our mandate as trying to please everyone and keep them happy.
We need to view courageous decisions and giving necessary feedback in those difficult conversations, as crucial to moving a school forward. For example, if we really want a colleague’s behaviour to change because it is upsetting others and ourselves, then we need to commit to giving our colleague this feedback. As, written in another post, school cultures evolve to become very much about what the leaders and people in those cultures are prepared to tolerate and school’s are no different in this regard. Occasionally, we have to make that difficult decision in order to make progress and, yes, not everyone will be happy. As long as, we have good reason for making decisions and they are with the best intentions, without overwhelming opposition, then things will be fine. We must, however, be prepared to deal with a bit of turbulence, which can at times get personal and hurtful depending on who is reacting. Acknowledged, this is not as easy to do, as it is to say.
The key with all courageous decisions and difficult conversations boils down to picking our battles. Our role as school leaders is emotionally taxing. Take too much on and school leaders will quickly find themselves exhausted. We need to find ways to have others share in taking some of this load and be mindful that making decisions and giving feedback is about inching towards progress rather than making headway with one fell swoop.