A happy team pulls together

13th June 2008 at 01:00
School leaders who follow a code of behaviour can relieve staff stress in stormy times. But it's a two-way process - managers need feedback to improve, says Emma Donaldson-Feilder

School leaders who follow a code of behaviour can relieve staff stress in stormy times. But it's a two-way process - managers need feedback to improve, says Emma Donaldson-Feilder

The way headteachers and heads of department behave can cause or relieve stress among their staff. At worst, it could be experienced as bullying, but a lower level of conflict or poor communication can also affect teachers. Conversely, good relationships can protect teachers from stress and help them perform at their best.

Managers have a "gatekeeper" role: alleviating or exacerbating other sources of stress. If a school is expecting an Ofsted inspection, good planning and sensitive support from heads will be helpful; lack of planning and panic at senior levels just adds to anxiety.

Research released last week, which I co-directed, examines the link between managers' behaviour and staff wellbeing. There are four broad areas of behaviour that managers must address to minimise staff stress, which are:

Respect and responsibility

Managing emotions involves being honest and treating staff with respect. If you are a leader, act calmly in pressurised situations and take a consistent approach, as opposed to panicking or exhibiting mood swings. Plan effectively and ensure deadlines are realistic. Give more positive than negative feedback and show consideration for people's work-life balance.

Managing and communicating

This includes communicating job objectives clearly and monitoring workloads, developing action plans and prioritising. Encourage your staff to review how their work is organised and look for improvements - remembering to deal with problems rationally but decisively.

Leaders should keep staff informed and encourage participation through team meetings and individual discussions. But they must also judge when to consult staff and when to make a quick decision. Helping staff develop, acting as a mentor and delegating equally among the team will build confidence and motivation.

Reasoning and managing difficult situations

Dealing objectively with conflicts and acting as a mediator is key, but also follow up conflicts after resolution - seeking advice where necessary and supporting staff through abuse and bullying. Make it clear that you will take ultimate responsibility.

Managing the individual in the team

Speak to people personally rather than using email, provide regular opportunities for staff to speak one-to-one, and be available to talk. It may be as simple as having a laugh and socialising with staff outside school, or it could be encouraging teacher input in discussions and listening when they ask for help. Regularly ask staff how they are and treat everyone with equal importance.

This approach does not mean additional work; it is about the way you behave on a daily basis. Teachers can use the framework to help their managers improve. Be clear about your needs and ask managers for specific support. Let your manager know what motivates you and join discussions. Managers often find it helpful to receive sensitive feedback about their approach - what works and what doesn't.

Emma Donaldson-Feilder is a chartered occupational psychologist with Affinity Health at Work, which helps employers improve workplace wellbeing. Her research, Management Competencies for Preventing and Reducing Stress at Work, co-written by Joanna Yarker and Rachel Lewis from Goldsmiths, University of London, is available at: www.hse.gov.ukresearchrrhtmrr633.htm


Try this exercise to improve your management style. For each of the four areas of manager behaviour (see left), give yourself a score from 1 to 10 based on how closely you follow that model when managing staff. You could discuss this with staff beforehand to get feedback on your management style.

Where you score lowest, list five ways in which you could change your behaviour. Some changes you will be able to implement straight away, for others you may need coaching or training.

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