As a school principal I am always reading leadership books and listening to podcasts on how to create the conditions for an effective organizational culture in schools. Each school and organization is different but I have appreciated the books by authors such as Dan Pink, Jim Collins, Steven Covey, Robin Sharma, Seth Godin and many others that have focused on the emotional aspect of organizations. Pink’s book “Drive” (based primarily on the research of Edward Deci and Richard Ryan) has been instrumental in helping me to work to create an environment that makes professional autonomy, mastery, and a sense of purpose at the core of what I can provide for staff members to help bring out the best.
An area that I continue to see having a large impact on organizational culture in school is strength-based leadership. The idea is rather simple: encourage staff members in areas of strength as much as possible and watch them flourish. Educators are often highly criticized by the public (you will see that many governments do not follow the research referenced below when working with educators) so a strength-based lens really helps to create a more positive organizational culture that focuses primarily on what we CAN do rather than all the things we CANNOT do (yet).
My reading recently led me to some research that supports what I have observed actually works in education and this research was not conducted in the field of education. The Corporate Leadership Council surveyed over 19000 employees in 34 large companies (ex. Canon, Lego, LG, Lowe’s, H&R Block, Caterpillar, etc) in 27 countries to determine what are the key strategies to increase performance in the workplace. The paper was released in 2002. It is a lengthy document (but well worth the read) so I have summarized what I believe are the 8 (alright, there are more) key points from the research. I am not a huge fan of quantitative data, but I believe there are some very important trends in this research. I have added my thoughts as they relate to the role of school and district administration (in italics).
Note: “The term “impact on performance” indicates a shift, either up or down, in the percentile rank of the employee” (p. 7a)
- Employee understanding of performance standards resulted in an increase of 36.1% in individual employee performance. Providing clarity around what is expected in our schools is key to teacher and staff performance. I am not saying that principals decide these expectations but are we (principals and district leadership teams) asking our teachers and staff what quality instruction looks like? Is this clear to new and experienced staff members? Do we have a vision of instruction at our schools? On the other side of this performance management aspect, the use of ranking employees (sometimes done in the US through test scores) resulted in an extremely low increase of 0.1%.
- A culture that encourages risk-taking resulted in an increase of 38.9% in individual employee performance. By promoting a risk-tolerant culture, employees are encouraged to push themselves beyond their current practice (p. 21a). How much of our school culture is based on compliance? Do we provide autonomy and time for teachers and staff to try new things and take risks? How do we support this?
- Internal communication resulted in an increase of 34.4% in individual employee performance. When employees were able to engage in effective communication with their peers, believed that management was sharing all relevant information, and felt they had a voice with management, performance significantly increased. Are principals and district leaders sharing all relevant information with teachers and staff? How is this information communicated? Are we facilitating time for collaboration and communication for staff members? Are we creating the conditions for teachers and staff members to be heard and feel they have a voice in our schools? On the other side of performance culture was that “differential treatment of best and worst performers” (ex. bonuses for better performers and the weeding out of low performers) only resulted in an increase of 1.5%. “Weeding out underperformers and rewarding top performers does not in itself provide employees with information, resources, or experiences that directly improve their performance” (p. 21a).
- Helping find solutions to problems at work resulted in an increase of 23.7% in individual employee performance. Helping employees to attain needed information, resources, and technology resulted in an increase of 19.2%. Are we helping to make the job for teachers and staff members easier by solving problems and providing them with the needed tools? I remember Chris Kennedy said to me, “it is our job to give good teachers the tools to become great”. I know our budgets are tight but do we provide enough resources to help our good get to great? On the other side of the manager-employee interaction aspect, “measuring employee performance and results” resulted in only a 5.6% increase while “making frequent changes to projects and assignments” resulted in a decrease of 27.8% in individual performance! Can we please move on from measuring and ranking teachers using test scores? How often do we ask people to shift the focus to a new goal, a new flavour for professional learning? Are our school and professional plans for one year or longer? Are we given the time to take our projects to completion?
- Emphasis on performance strengths (in formal reviews) resulted in an increase of 36.4% in individual performance while the emphasis on performance weaknesses resulted in a decrease of 26.8% in performance. (In addition, an emphasis on personality strengths resulted in an increase of 21.5% while an emphasis on personality weaknesses resulted in a decrease of 5.5%). The swing from emphasizing performance strengths to emphasizing weaknesses results in a whopping 63.4% in performance! In our feedback to staff during evaluations, is the focus on strengths or weaknesses? Are we continually taking the time to acknowledge the strengths of our staff members? We always want to provide each other feedback for improvements, being “tough” or providing too much negative feedback can undermine the goal of the performance review.
- Providing fair and accurate informal feedback resulted in an increase of 39.1% in individual performance. Manager knowledge about employee performance resulted in an increase of 30.3%. According to this research, fair and accurate feedback was the single largest driver of individual performance. How often are we in classrooms and follow up with informal fair and accurate feedback? In order for us to have knowledge of performance, we need to be in classrooms – how do we make this a priority? Instructional Rounds may be something to consider so feedback is not solely coming from admin.
- Providing informal feedback that helps employees do their jobs better resulted in an increase of 25.8% and emphasizing personality strengths in this feedback resulted in an increase of 22.3%. Are we providing helpful feedback? Is there a relationship there that makes the presence in classrooms and informal feedback actually valuable? When we are in classrooms, does our presence and follow up feedback actually help or hinder performance? On the others side of informal feedback, when performance weaknesses were emphasized, performance actually decreased by 10.9%.
- Being provided with the opportunity to work on things you do best resulted in an increase of 28.8% in individual performance. The opportunity to do things people do best “contributes more than any other on the job development or training opportunities to improve performance” (p. 43a). Do we know the strengths of our staff members? Are we aligning opportunities with these strengths? Are we encouraging leadership opportunities in areas that people do best?
Here is a summary of the best drivers of performance (resulting in increases of 25% of greater):
Here is a summary of the worst drivers of performance (resulting in a decrease in performance):
For me as a principal, this challenges me to be better and continue to grow in the following ways:
- Be in the classroom more often – not to “hover” or just to be there to provide informal feedback but to also find out what the strengths of staff members are and to determine the resources staff members need to be successful in their jobs. Often we need to provide ideas, feedback and needed resources, then simply get out of the way.
- Make sure feedback (formal and informal) is fair and strength-based.
- Ensure that staff members feel they can take risks in their classrooms and have the time/resources to support this. I need to also make sure that staff feel that I will support them if they take a risk and it does not go as planned.
- Have more dialogue with staff around creating clarity of what effective instruction looks like. Yes, there are many ways of teaching but are there certain characteristics that we should be striving for in our schools? This needs to be a staff discussion and not a principal-driven expectation. I often hear that the principal needs to be the “instructional leader” which I believe is flawed. As a principal, I teach only a small amount and I think that we need many leaders of instruction on staff and the principal needs to be a part of this… with teachers. Staff should drive the conversation on clarity of expectations in our classrooms and it is up to us (as admin) to create the conditions for staff to be supported to meet these expectations in the classrooms.
- Make time for effective communication. This involves helping to ensure there is effective communication between staff members, making sure I share all relevant information (and build trust with transparency), and actually take the time to LISTEN to staff members.
- Provide leadership opportunities in areas of strength for staff members.
When I look at the above list, as a teacher, it seems these were also goals for me with students and the classroom community. Although this research is not from the field of education, it was timely for me but I also wonder what was missed from this? What other ideas and areas (particularly in education) can help create a “high-performing workplace” in our schools? As I strive to grow in this area I would appreciate thoughts from teachers, admin, as well as people in other fields. How do we create the conditions that bring out the best in the educators in our schools?