Bringing out the best in everyone

As we all know, there is there is plenty of evidence that the quality of school leadership makes a difference to pupil outcomes. It is second only to the quality of teaching. But for all types of organisations, the relationship between leadership and results is not a direct one, as the diagram below suggests. What leaders at all levels actually do makes a difference to the culture and climate of their team. By creating an effective culture and climate, they can make a huge difference to outcomes.

Leadership and results
From Pendleton and Furnham ‘Leadership – all you need to know’

In this context, culture is taken to mean ‘the way we do things around here’ which relates to the systems, procedures and common practices - and in particular to the high standards that exist in the way these are delivered. A useful way of thinking of culture is to consider what someone new joining a team would see happening on a day-to-day basis and the extent to which everyone in the team is working in the same way and to the same level of expectation. Is there a consistent set of high expectations about how hard pupils are working in lessons and the standard of their presentation and behaviour? Are the learning environments inspiring and well organised? Do pupils have strong and supportive relationships with their peers and all the staff they work with?

Climate is more about how it feels to work in a team. This reflects team morale, how appreciated team members feel and the degree of trust within the team as whole. This is much more difficult to describe or measure but detailed research has shown that the effect of climate on team productivity is considerable. It will be characterised by lots of evidence of people showing they really care about their work and what your team, as a whole, is trying to achieve.

Discretionary effort

Taken together, the more positive the culture and climate you create, the more likely staff and pupils are to go the extra mile. This concept is known as discretionary effort. It is commonly described as the input from individual team members over and above that which they need to contribute in order to keep their jobs. Critical in this context, however, is that the effort individuals make is directed productively. Many well-meaning and hard-working colleagues regrettably do not always have the impact that their efforts deserve because they are too often focused on doing the wrong things. It’s all very well having fantastically enjoyable lessons if what the pupils are learning doesn’t relate to the curriculum they are meant to be following or the assessments they will have to take!

You would be forgiven for thinking, however, that those with the biggest influence on discretionary effort within the school would be members of the leadership team not those in middle leadership roles. After all, they set the overall ethos for the school. Interestingly, whilst the evidence from a number of studies does show that senior leaders in organisations do have a significant effect on the effort made by staff, the single most influential factor in determining discretionary effort in an individual member of staff is their relationship with and respect for their direct line manager.

Given that the significant majority of staff in secondary schools are, in fact, line managed by middle leaders, it is hardly surprising that most head teachers and governors acknowledge the critical role they play in the success of any school. Middle leaders really are the engine room of any school.

So what is it that school leaders at any level can do that increases discretionary effort? The diagram below summarises those things that seem to make the biggest difference.

As well as building discretionary effort, a productive culture and climate also has a positive effect on staff retention. As Richard Branson says: “Train people well enough so they can leave; treat them well enough so that they don’t want to”. Given the challenges that never seem to go away when it comes to teacher recruitment in many areas, reducing the requirement to attract new staff by retaining those you already have, makes a great deal of sense.

With all of the actions listed above there is a risk, however. If they are just applied universally without any sense of context or any attempt to understand others’ needs or predispositions, they will have far less impact. A leader’s approach needs to be carefully tailored to the situation and individual. Which means a critical habit for leaders to keep well tuned is that of asking brilliant questions. This is where coaching style conversations play an important part in school success. Apart from showing interest, which in itself brings greater discretionary effort, this will also mean that leaders can be more nuanced in the way the work with individuals to bring out the best in them.


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