It’s a culture of trust, not a cult

For a leader, it can be reassuring when everyone consistently backs up decisions from the top – but is it really healthy? Principal Helena Marsh argues that school leaders need to guard against blind conformity to ensure that decisions are properly scrutinised
9th November 2018, 12:00am
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Helena Marsh


It’s a culture of trust, not a cult

There is a fine line between a strong culture and cult-like conditions. The strength that comes from a common cause can easily tip into a "homogeneity of perspective" that can stifle healthy challenge. It's something that school leaders have to watch for closely.

So I very much enjoyed reading In Defence of Troublemakers: the power of dissent in life and business by Charlan Nemeth, professor in the department of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley. She unravels the science of dissent and exposes the dangers of conformity. The principles of mass coercion by cult leadership that she cites serve as a warning against totalitarian regimes that inhibit disagreement. High-profile school leadership scandals in which whistle-blowing is muted and staff are complicit in unethical practices highlight the danger of forced consensus.

So what did I take from Nemeth in terms of how we can build a culture of challenge and avoid crushing dissent? And what has my own experience taught me on this issue?

Lesson 1

Encourage authentic dissent

A school's ethos is the golden thread that runs through the organisation; it influences recruitment and decision-making at all levels. But Nemeth highlights the inherent danger in appointing and promoting staff on the basis of their ideological similarity. Enabling a diversity of perspective is crucial, she argues.

Nemeth also warns of contrived opposition that arises from playing devil's advocate. She argues that fabricated challenge is flawed in its approach. The lack of authenticity in traditional debating models, Nemeth argues, undermines the very purpose of challenge.

So we need to have people around us whom we respect but who can hold a different view - we don't want everyone to blindly buy into the direction of travel simply because the school vision aligns with it.

But what if everyone genuinely agrees it is the right decision? In the absence of genuine dissent, Nemeth advises a robust process of decision-making interrogation. She advises spending "several days writing pages from the perspective of why that decision is wrong" to encourage deep, divergent thinking.

The premise of conducting a pre-mortem is a good one, particularly for significant decision-making. Building in time to identify potential pitfalls and opportunity costs should be a deliberate precursor to strategic policy decisions. However, in practice, time-poor school leaders are unlikely to have the luxury of labouring over their decisions in this manner.

Lesson 2

Welcome constructive challenge

It is a leadership truth universally acknowledged that debate is welcome within a senior team meeting but, once a decision has been reached, a unified approach is required to avoid divisive confusion among staff. However, a lack of constructive conflict role-modelling may, unwittingly or deliberately, create a climate in which challenge from staff is quashed or perceived to be unwelcome.

In order to ensure a diversity of perspective, it is essential that the channels for challenging the status quo are clear and constructive. Staff must know how to raise challenges and suggestions productively. They should not be fearful that raising a challenge will result in them being ostracised or shot down.

Creating a climate in which fruitful disagreement is welcomed, rather than being perceived as rebellion, is key. Providing regular and varied opportunities for staff to share their views and be consulted can enable this. However, while creating space for staff voices to be heard and, more importantly, listened to, is imperative, decision-making in schools should not be a relentless tug-of-war.

Ultimately, we need to act in tandem for the benefit of our learners, rather than spending precious, limited time on intellectual sparring. It's a tough balancing act.

Lesson 3

Be comfortable with complexity

Challenge can feel like a personal leadership attack; it can be uncomfortable and exposing. It takes strong, confident leadership to be receptive to alternative ways of doing things.

Being comfortable with the "messiness" that an opposing view can create is important.

In developmental psychologist Jane Loevinger's nine stages of ego development, the model identifies being comfortable with complexity as an important feature of a mature leadership development.

Furthermore, the BBC Radio 4 programme How to Disagree: A Beginner's Guide to Having Better Arguments also acknowledges the benefits of profitable disagreement. Across the series of episodes, Timandra Harkness shares useful gems of advice that can be applied to personal and professional contexts to achieve better thinking, including the importance of being prepared to speak up and listen; going after the argument, not the person; and not just hanging out with people whom you agree with.

Of course, underpinning this, and all the other points above, has to be open, trusting relationships. Ultimately, effective and genuine dialogue and ethical, transparent leadership decisions should eliminate the need for dissent.

Helena Marsh is executive principal of the Chilford Hundred Education Trust and principal of Linton Village College, Cambridgeshire

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