When teachers and staff are not recognised for their achievements, or alternatively, are unsure of their effectiveness, this lack of timely and specific feedback can lead to low morale.
These conversations include regular formal and informal 1:1 check-ins, career and professional development discussions, opportunities for two way feedback and praise and recognition. Addressing underperformance and behaviour issues is an equally important task and school leaders and line managers can find it challenging to hold these conversations, often labelling them ‘difficult’. It is one area that generates plenty of requests from school leaders for training and why we added a comprehensive interactive on-line course to our Welbee toolkit.
Difficult conversations often take leaders out of their comfort zone, worried that it may turn into a confrontation or not go as planned. A feeling of anxiety is a natural response to a situation with an uncertain outcome. A study by the Chartered Management Institute found that two-thirds of managers feel stressed or anxious if they know a ‘difficult’ conversation is coming, with 11% suffering from nightmares or poor sleep in the build-up to it.
The UK’s Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) suggests this anxiety is often due to not feeling in complete control of the conversation. While this is understandable, it is important to consider who sets the ‘difficult’ label! After all, it is just a conversation, and the key is preparation and practice.
Begin by reflecting on the situation. This may include noting down any factual information or observations that could be useful during the conversation. Make notes about what to say about the key points and spend time thinking about possible questions the other person may ask and how you could respond. Consider possible outcomes or solutions to the problem you are addressing - although it's essential that you first listen to the other person’s perspective on the situation and are open to their suggestions.
Plan a time and place to hold the conversation to ensure that you can do this without distractions and in an environment where both you and the other person will feel comfortable and away from prying eyes. Suggest a convenient time when the staff member is likely to have post conversation support available - holding it on a Friday afternoon is not ideal.
Share details ahead of the meeting, give them the opportunity to prepare and ask if they want a third party present. To think clearly under pressure, prepare a response to everything that might happen during and after the conversation.
‘Thinking Clearly Under Pressure’ was a training process introduced by Sir Clive Woodward to the England Rugby Team during the Rugby World Cup in 2003, and he attributes it as a key reason why they were able to win. He would pose specific scenarios in short team meetings, for example, ‘the team are 16-12 points down with 4 minutes to go’. Team members were invited to share their ideas and were expected to answer quickly – a team discussion and agreement followed. Continually doing this, and covering more and more situations, meant that whenever they came across one during a match, they could immediately respond. Sir Clive now shares this technique with organisations and individuals across the globe.
While you are more likely to be on your own or may only be able to discuss things with one or a few colleagues, this principle works well for ‘difficult’ conversations. Make a list of scenarios you think may happen and that could cause you to feel anxious or under pressure and detail steps to take to address these, for example, consider:
1. What would you do if someone becomes upset and cries? Always have a box of tissues with you and work out what you would say – ‘It’s ok to be upset, let’s just take a moment. Would you like a tissue?’ In most cases they will recover quickly, though if they remain very upset, offer to reschedule.
2. What would you do if someone becomes angry or even aggressive? If you feel this might occur before the conversation – which is rare - invite a third party to attend. If the staff member does become angry during the conversation, give them the opportunity to vent, then take action that allows them to calm down before proceeding - ask for a break or if they want a coffee.
3. What would you do if they refuse to acknowledge there is an issue? Share the specific evidence, and not opinion, as this is hard to dispute. Explain the expected resolution, share the action needed to get there and the timeline the action needed to get there and the timeline.
Even with preparation it is likely you will come across something you have not experienced before, see this as an opportunity and good experience for next time.
Regularly review the staff member’s performance to provide ongoing feedback and encouragement. Even if their performance meets the agreed outcomes or the issue appears resolved, continue to follow up for a period. Often underperformance repeats because success has been declared too early, or because of a lack of follow up and review.
Effective performance management involves ongoing dialogue. Making these conversations a regular feature of school life, supports staff wellbeing, retention and performance, and is an essential element of your effective people strategy.
For staff wellbeing and people strategy, support and advice, please contact welbee.international.