Don’t let poor communication undermine your leadership

24th August 2018 at 00:00
A common source of anxiety among members of staff who are not part of the senior leadership team can be avoided by fostering more reciprocal working relationships, finds Elliot Douglas

If you have some leadership responsibility in your school, here’s a question for you: how good are you at communicating what you want – and also what you don’t want – to those you lead?

It seems a strange question – after all, this type of communication is a teacher’s trade; every day in every classroom and corridor or playground, a teacher needs to make their instructions clear. And every leader knows that good communication is the key to good leadership – it becomes clear quickly if your instructions have been misinterpreted or ignored.

Yet, how often do you hear teachers complaining about poor communication from leadership teams? And how often do you complain yourself about those above you?

Humaira Hussain, a lecturer in health sciences at the University of Bournemouth, conducted research, published in 2007, into the levels of stress experienced by teachers and identified a common source of anxiety among those who were not part of the senior leadership team.

On the issue of dealing with disruptive pupils, she claimed that middle managers cited “poor communications between senior and junior teaching tiers with a strong sense of bureaucracy ruling their decisions”.

Leaders, it seems, are often not getting communication right. So what does good communicative leadership look like?

A 2015 study identified “transformational leadership” as being the most consistently effective style, leading to better engagement from your staff and higher performance ratings from your leaders.

Transformational leadership involves becoming a role model to inspire improvement; the leader works with their team to identify issues and prompt change, modelling effective practice in the process. This is the communicationvia-example approach.

But Dennis Tourish, professor of leadership and organisation studies at the University of Sussex, is not a fan. He criticises the accepted leadership styles – including transformational leadership – for placing too much focus on what the leader should do. Instead, he says the relationship should be much more reciprocal with understanding flowing in both directions.

Tourish cites his own research finding that “two-way communication” produces better results. “The role of follower dissent and power relations is a crucial area of inquiry in understanding leadership strategies,” he says.

In other words, leaders can be as inspiring and goal-orientated as they like, but without an understanding of followers’ needs and priorities, they will struggle.

So with all this in mind, how can SLTs communicate most effectively with their classroom teachers? Here are four ways.

1. Consult staff face-to-face

Tracey Lawrence, acting headteacher at Danemill Primary School in Leicester, says one-to-one meetings are key to healthy relationships between tiers of management.

“We have termly wellbeing meetings for teachers with a member of the senior leadership team,” she explains. “It’s an informal way to discuss any improvements we could make in SLT communication, as well as helping us to look at things within the school on a personal basis.”

2. Support teacher-led initiatives

Enabling staff, rather than senior leaders, to be at the heart of change within a school can have a huge effect, according to Nick Gallop, headmaster at Stamford School in Lincolnshire. He says: “Most of the better and longer-lasting initiatives are generated by teachers themselves, who understand the pressures and expectations of the classroom on a daily basis.”

3. Be clear and concise

There is a lot of information to be communicated in schools, but that doesn’t have to mean bombarding staff with constant communication, says Roy Souter, headteacher at Stoke Hill Junior School in Exeter. “It helps to be really consistent and systematic,” he says. “We send home weekly staff notes, rather than ad hoc emails. These contain details of what’s coming up, reminders about safeguarding and general notices to keep the school running smoothly. I aim for one side of A4 a week.”

4. Be open with staff

An honest, open approach can bring about great developments, especially around difficult topics, says Suzy MacCarthy, head of staff development at Stamford School.

“One of the most powerful education discussions that I have been party to was a senior leader sharing with a group of classroom teachers and middle managers his experience of being under a school investigation,” she says.

“In explaining the complaint, the process, the outcome and, most importantly, how it felt at every stage, he gave teachers the confidence that if one of their decisions was challenged, they would be supported by the school and provided with due process. It really bridged the divide, bringing that leader closer to the staff.”

Elliot Douglas is a freelance journalist

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