`Give teachers a place to gossip'

2nd November 2012 at 00:00
Heads should offer staff a space to talk freely, and even to ridicule their leaders, says expert

Innovative heads should actively invite ridicule by creating spaces for teachers to gossip, according to an internationally renowned professor of psychology.

You have to be brave to be the first person to embrace a new idea, said Mark van Vugt at an international leadership event in Scotland this week. The first followers must then be cherished as they encourage others to get on board and transform "lone nuts" into leaders.

Never make staff feel dominated, warned the Amsterdam-based academic, whose various roles include research fellow at the University of Oxford. Human beings have an innate aversion to being dominated and "strategies to overcome the powerful" include disobedience and rebellion, not to mention assassination.

He also recommended giving teachers a place to gossip about and even ridicule those higher up the chain.

"Employers would be unwise to ban water-cooler gatherings, because the fear of loss of reputation is a powerful incentive for a manager to behave well," he said.

Our ancestral past in the African savannah 2 million years ago affects the way modern human beings behave, Professor van Vugt told the European School Heads Association conference in Edinburgh.

These "ancestral prejudices" influenced the way people elected leaders: they gravitated towards taller and physically stronger candidates, while excluding women and minorities.

Strength and masculinity mattered more when food was scarce and battle frequent, but not in today's relatively well-fed and peaceful societies, he said.

"Do not judge potential leaders by the shape of their jaw line," he urged the conference, hosted by AHDS, the union for primary heads and deputes.

In groups, leaders emerged in the first 25 seconds, but he cautioned against making "snap judgements".

Humans were most comfortable with groups of 100-150, he continued. In larger groups, gaps had to be filled by managers.

Leaders should bear this magic number in mind when establishing personal learning networks, according to former HMIE chief inspector Frank Crawford.

The easiest way to set up a network was to join Twitter, he said in his workshop.

Education was facing a tsunami of change, he said, and schools need to "mutate", not evolve.

emma.seith@tess.co.uk.

Original headline: Give teachers a place to gossip, advises expert

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