Challenges for Senior Leadership – the dangers of a GOTcha culture.

The aim of this article is to encourage you to reflect on your dominant leadership approach in your day to day work.  Do you operate a GOTCha attitude, striving to catch colleagues not doing what they are supposed to be doing, letting the team down or acting like one of the lazy teachers Sir Michael Wilshaw believes pervades our school system.  Or do you seek to motivate by accentuating the positives – do you look for opportunities to catch staff doing things well, give them a Whale Done,  so that you can thank them for their effort and consideration.  If this is the first time you have seen GOTCha and Whale Done then hopefully they will make more sense by the end of the article

Let me start off by listing a few scenarios for you.  If any of these resonate with your experience of working in school than may I suggest you read the rest of the article, print a copy off and leave it in the pigeon hole of the offending member of SLT.

Have any of you been subjected to…

  1. On the spot book scrutiny and checking of your marking without notice.
  2. Learning walks where SLT or middle leaders drop in without prior notice or declaration of what the focus is for the “walk”.
  3. Being chewed up for a mistake or missed deadline far more often than your efforts are recognised.
  4. Meeting your performance management targets with no real sense of value in the achievement from your line manager – no impression of your crucial role in helping the school achieve its targets for that year.
  5. Leaders at either senior level or middle leader level passing you or others in the corridor and not making eye contact.
  6. Leaders staying in their offices with doors shut for long periods of the day.

I used to think that points one and two were the right way to go about self-evaluation.  I attended the SSAT conference in 2008 where Sir Dexter Hutt, in opening the conference, shared his thoughts about default settings.  A school is only as good as the default settings, not what goes on when it can raise its game but the daily diet and experience of the students.  After all, this is what everyone in the school experiences when no-one is really looking.

In order to obtain a view of the school’s default settings I thought it stood to reason that the first two points on my list above were valid ways of measuring a school’s strengths and weaknesses.  In my previous role as an AHT I had argued, passionately, that any observation or learning walk should be unannounced, that learning walks and book samples should be restricted to a need to know basis otherwise how would we know what our default settings were.  I realise now, looking back, that what I probably meant was, “How will we catch people out?”

Two things have altered my position on this entirely and, as a result, have caused me to be very uncomfortable with the last four points on my list.

Firstly, I changed schools and worked with a different headteacher and leadership team.  It is worth pointing out here my assertion that if you are committed to headship or even moving up from middle leadership or SLT positions then you need to experience as many other leaders as possible. You do not have to do anything as drastic as change schools, although seeing as it is unlikely you will be a head in the school you worked as AHT or DHT it will do you good to move during at least once during your SLT years.  You could gain experience by undertaking an exchange for at least three days in a school that has a completely different context to yours, (and a differing style of headship).

Anyway, let me get back to my point about working with a new head. I remember the discussion during a leadership team meeting well.  We were planning the upcoming rota of observations of staff as part of the on-going monitoring.  I asked whether the staff were to be notified of the dates in advance and my head said yes of course.  I pointed out my thoughts about the validity of observations where staff know, often two weeks in advance, that they are going to be observed.  The head replied that he was not interested in trying to catch them out; he wanted to see them at their best.  He went on to say that just because their best was x he knew it didn’t mean they did this all the time that didn’t matter.  “I will know what they are capable of” he said.

This was quite a shift from my experience.  What mattered here were stress levels, making sure that, with as many conditions being favourable, staff could teach good or outstanding lessons.  What mattered was that the process was seen to be transparent, fair and supportive.  It might be true that we don’t know what goes on from a day to day basis but I can say with some assurance that staff are more engaged with this process and more willing to observe others because of the care and attention to the right culture being maintained.  It is very difficult to set up a culture of openness and sharing practice if monitoring is done in the “GOTcha” style of leadership.

My second point also explains the “GOTcha”.  During a recent twitter exchange on seeking recommendations for books to read over the Christmas period @ssgill76 sent me the following tweet….

So I bought a copy of Whale Done by Ken Blanchard, Thad Lacinak and Jim Ballard (6 Mar 2003) and proceeded to read it in two days.  The book is about a business man who takes a trip to Florida to get away from the fact that he has issues in his home life and at work.  He watches a Killer Whale show and at the end of the amazing show asks one of the animal trainers how he manages to get Killer Whales to perform the tricks.  What follows is a narrative on how you can not motivate Killer Whales or people at work or home with a stick approach – you need to catch them doing things right first and recognise that over pulling people up for getting things wrong.  The authors pen this as a “Whale done” over a “GOTcha” style of leadership.

Reading it triggered of a chain of light bulb moments of opportunities of where I could use this in my role and, unfortunately plenty of times where I had used the GOTcha instead of the whale done.  The prime example of the GOTcha attitude is the mistaken belief that I needed to catch people out not teaching the lessons we expected or marking the books in the way we wanted.  Another example is performance management.  The authors pointed out, through the story, when was the last time we actively praised when people meet the goals set of them?  Can I ask you to consider, when you carried out your performance management of the staff you line manage, how did you recognise their efforts in meeting their targets?  Was it an effusive well done, “You must have worked really hard at these, the school will benefit as a result of your dedication and professionalism” or was it more of a, “We can tick these off now and work on next years”?

I know what my approach was.

The problem is that we tend to be quite British about this reward kind of thing – or is it that the problem is really we don’t know our staff well enough to know how to praise and acknowledge their efforts so we tend to brush past it?  Have you ever asked your staff how they would like to be rewarded?  I know that sort of question tends to be followed with a public service sort of line and we don’t use school funds to reward teachers other than salary.  Well that’s o.k. and I would say that we spend enough of a budget on salaries but there are other ways we can recognise hard work and dedication that don’t have to involve increases in salary above normal pay scale progression.  I bet if you asked your staff you would be surprised with the answers. I was when I asked.

What came back to me was one person wanted more time to focus on an aspect of their role they felt didn’t get as much time as they wanted.  So we have agreed for me to cover a couple of their lessons over the next term so they can work from home on a specific task.  This doesn’t cost the school anything and it strengthens the trust between me and my staff which should be prime concern of all of us.  You might be asked for an afternoon off once in a while to visit a child’s school or assembly or dance class – who knows, but showing genuine gratitude for someone’s hard work and offering to say thanks in a way that actually benefits your staff is a very simple way of saying whale done and, as psychologists will tell you, you tend to reinforce the behaviours you focus on.

Developing a whale done attitude in your role means that you can not be guilty of point five or six in my list above.  A chance 2 minute conversation in the corridor with a, “Well done on that assembly, you really made them reflect on the theme.” Or a, “I heard some students talking about your lesson yesterday – they really enjoyed what you covered with them and the tasks you got them to work on.” Takes no time at all but conveys powerful messages about what matters to you. I guarantee that these conversations will make their way back to the staff room and these are the comments that you need to circulate about you and your leadership style if you want to maintain a trusting and effective relationship with your staff.

There can never be a time where it is acceptable, as a school leader, to behave in the ways I set out in point five or six.  I know we get busy and the tasks and projects that we lead can be burdensome and cause us worry.  But we should never give the impression that we can not cope with our workload if you don’t want other staff to react in the same way.  We have to go out of our way to connect with staff, make them smile, find out how we can support them in the daily roles in order to be effective and genuine leaders.

This brings me to one of my final points.  I have discovered this change in mindset by moving schools, working with different headteachers and staff and by taking it upon myself to read about leadership in different settings. The debate about whether leadership is natural or not is clear as I am concerned.  I have yet to meet a “natural” leader.  How can leadership be natural when its success depends on our ability to overcome our most basic flaw – our humanness?   We owe it to ourselves, our staff and our students to read as much as we can about leadership – to visit other settings and reflect on how leaders work in those settings, learn from our failures and pause over our successes.  A book about the Killer Whales in Florida might not seem to have the most relevant narrative to a deputy head but seeing the implications of the message in our setting is very empowering.

My final point is a tale of a missed whale done that really bothers me – it was a great opportunity to reinforce the change in effort a member of staff had made and therefore make the change in effort and approach more persistent.   A member of staff had been spoken to about their marking.  It didn’t meet the expectations of the department or the school policy and they were asked to take steps to improve it.  Some weeks afterwards I removed a student from the teacher’s room as a result of being disruptive and took the lad’s exercise book with him to work in the back of my office.  The marking was excellent in this book.  There was no way the teacher knew I would be the one to remove the miscreant so it gave an illustration of the change in effort from the member of staff. Shamefully I got carried away with other things at the time and I didn’t take the 1 minute it needed to follow this up with the teacher.

Leadership is a behaviour and a habit.  The very best leaders do not miss opportunities like these because they have either learnt from making these mistakes in the first place or they are on the look out for whale done opportunities and develop a sixth sense for chances to acknowledged the efforts of their staff and students.  I would urge you to ask your staff how you can show your gratitude for their efforts and take the time to look out for whale done opportunities.  If you resort back to GOTcha leadership then you have no real hope of motivating your staff or developing the trust that is needed for a school to progress and thrive.

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