Scheisskopf on a roll?

10th November 2006 at 00:00
Headteachers - and perhaps heads of primary schools in particular, where teams are small and relationships close - depend heavily on colleagues to keep them in constant touch with emerging problems. Where this doesn't happen - where there's a feeling that people aren't being entirely frank about bad news - it may be because of what I call the "Scheisskopf effect".

Scheisskopf is the officer in Joseph Heller's Catch-22 who insists that everyone be frank with him.

"I want someone to tell me," Lieutenant Scheisskopf beseeched them all prayerfully. "If any of it is my fault, I want to be told."

Yossarian's friend Clevinger takes him at his word. "He wants someone to tell him," Clevinger said. "He says he won't punish me." Yossarian, however, knows better. "He'll castrate you," said Yossarian.

Scheisskopf knows that good management relies heavily on a good flow of information. Without it, problems can rumble and develop until they explode. At the same time, though, he can't restrain himself from dumping his anger on the bringers of bad news, and so the word goes round to keep a low profile.

Who are the victims, in school, of the Scheisskopf effect? Perhaps it's the teacher whose relationship with a group of difficult children is deteriorating, but who keeps quiet for fear of being thought incapable. Or the caretaker who's forgotten to order the toilet rolls and hopes half-term will arrive before anyone notices.

How to avoid it? Not by monotonously insisting that people are free to speak up. That's what Scheisskopf does, to little avail.

It's like the manager who earnestly intones: "My door is always open." The more you hear this, the less likely it is that the openness is more than cosmetic. What matters is not so much whether the door is open or closed, but to what extent your colleagues can tell from your attitude and actions that their ideas and concerns are being accepted in a non-judgmental way:

"You were right to come to me about those children. We should have spotted it before. We're going to put some support in, and arrange for a bit of specialist input for you from the authority.

"Jack, take an hour off. Go down to the cash and carry and get as many toilet rolls in your car as you can. Leave a packet in the boot to remind you not to do it again."

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