When a senior leadership team is truly dysfunctional, the group can be incredibly harmful to all involved in school life. So how do you know where your SLT sits on the spectrum between harmonious and horror show?
In my thinking about the culture created by such issues – and how to avoid them – I’ve been aided by the work of the brilliant Patrick Lencioni and his book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. Here are five things that an SLT needs to watch out for.
1 Lack of trust
The first element of dysfunction seen in an ineffective team, as described by Lencioni, is the absence or loss of trust.
Trust – knowing that we can rely on the honesty of colleagues – is the element of an effective team that many of us would describe as the most important. But I am sure that we all have examples that reflect a lack of trust, such as the swallowed words held back by some team members, who fear ridicule or damnation. One thing is for sure, though: without trust, the long-term development of teams and an effective culture is impossible.
Engendering trust can only be done through treating each other with respect and honesty. This is not just a question of “being nice”, but of speaking from a place of mutual respect and the understanding that everyone is on the same team, working towards the same goal. As a leader, it is vital that this is held up as a virtue and practiced in public, as well as private, discussion.
2 Lack of attention to results
Lencioni highlights a lack of attention to results as a core reason why dysfunctional teams go on to fail.
That is not to say that individuals are not focussed on results at all. Many new-wave senior leaders who are promoted quickly are most definitely focussed on results. However, dysfunctional teams include (and are often led by) individuals who are more concerned with their own results, status and ego than the collective success of the team. I have become concerned at a new style of headteacher who appears to enjoy three or four years of hype and apparent success before quickly vacating their position, just before the bubble bursts.
Without a national shift in the judgement of schools, this short-term approach can only be tackled by schools becoming advocates and defining agents of the communities they serve. In this way, heads are forced to aim for a broader impact than their own CV.
3 Fear of conflict
Senior team meetings should be a time for the projection of new ideas, for discussions based on improving outcomes for students and for developing the craft of teaching across the school. This should include the chance to challenge and foster healthy conflict.
However, all too often in dysfunctional teams, individuals can become passengers and offer little help in the refinement of new ideas. Discussions can often become time for dysfunctional team members simply to sit quietly and plan with whom they could form oppositional alliances at the conclusion of the meeting.
To avoid this, challenge and discussion should be celebrated and the team should understand that without each other and their feedback to each other, their great efforts will not be as productive.
4 Lack of commitment
Alongside a fear of conflict is silent opposition. This is food for a lack of commitment and an ambiguity of opinion. If senior leaders do not insist that colleagues can voice concerns, share support and arrange planning in an open forum, this can lead to a lack of buy-in.
In order to drive commitment, it is essential that staff are required to give an opinion, a steer or even just a voice to the discussion.
Leaders must not accept non-committal meetings where some team members allow other colleagues to accept all the risks in terms of strategic decisions.
Lencioni uses the American phrase “call out” to reinforce the notion that this is a pivotal aspect of the leaders role. This means ensuring that all team members have taken the opportunity to state their opinion and, in doing so, freely give up their safety clause of “it wasn’t my idea”.
5 Avoidance of accountability
The issue of accountability, as described by Lencioni, is commonly referred to as “the blame game”. When the pressure mounts up, too many people look left, right, up and down for someone or something to blame.
As soon as avoidance of accountability is accepted by leadership, it spreads like wildfire throughout any organisation. Therefore, senior leadership teams must act. While it is fine to have disagreement and high-level challenge behind the boardroom door, once decisions have been made and the direction has been taken, leaders must take on the accountability of the collective. This responsibility should be a key consideration when recruiting and adding new members to the SLT.