Honest upward feedback

Staff don’t often tell school leaders what they truly think about what matters most..

Why does seeking honest upward feedback from staff matter?

Being ignored is demotivating.

We want staff to be able to share their struggles and mistakes without hiding them. 

If you feel unable to be honest, you tend to feel bad. 

If you’re able to be honest, you tend to feel happier. 

Happy staff are more likely to stay in the school.

Unhappy staff are more likely to leave the school.

Students prefer to be taught by experts who are happy, and who stay in the school.

But expertise is hard to build in a staff with lots of churn, turnover and attrition. 

Russell Hobby has spent more than a decade working with, listening to and learning from hundreds of headteachers and school leaders. I’ve learned lots from listening to him, from his humility and from trying to understand the wisdom he has accumulated about leading staff in schools. In an extraordinary article, he distils his insights on power, perception and distortion:

“One painful revelation for me was that the more senior my role, the more distorted my view of the reality of my organisation. 

The more power you are perceived to wield, rightly or wrongly, the more effort people put into managing you. Their careers depend upon it.

People are less likely to bring you bad news. They are more likely to agree with you. They are less likely to tell you that you are being an idiot. People are more reluctant to interrupt you with helpful observations. They may assume you have wise reasons for your outwardly baffling decisions. And they are more likely to behave well in front of you.

The distortion of the prism is correlated with the power gradient inside your organisation. You need power – quite a lot of power – to be effective in your role. But there are two types. There is earned authority based on wisdom, perspective and good judgement, with a minimal hint of just sanction in the distant background. And there is the power to hurt and humiliate. Right and might, if you will. You want to maximise the first and minimise the second. People will talk to you with relative candour in the former. They will avoid you as far as possible in the latter, and lie to you without a second thought.

There’s usually someone who can be relied upon to tell you the truth. Usually at the least convenient moment and in the most unpalatable way. Treasure your responsible mavericks. And if you ever punish anyone who gives you a difficult message you’re probably done for.

You wield power over people’s welfare and it shapes their behaviour. You need that power to do the good in the world that you want to do but you need to use it in a way that doesn’t provoke people to coddle or misdirect you in return. There is nothing more pitiful than a grandiose leader who is merely cocooned by their court in a prism of delusion.

Your perspective is inevitably distorted by your power. And the more visible your power, the greater the distortion.”

After 10 years working closely with some of the most extraordinary (and outlandish!) school leaders in education, including Katharine Birbalsingh, Barry Smith, David Thomas and Summer Turner, visiting and studying some of the highest-performing schools in the country, led by Sally Coates, Max Haimendorf, Luke Sparkes, Darren Hollingsworth and Izzy Ambrose, and listening and sharing ideas with longstanding headteachers like Tom Rees and Amit Hathi (all of which I’d like to do much more of!), there’s a set of beliefs, habits and practices for inviting honest staff feedback that I’m testing out. I’d like to share it with the edusphere and invite critique. 

The challenge of encouraging honest staff input and involvement is only one small part of school leadership, but it is a vital part, and very hard to do well in schools, which are quite hierarchical.

Headteachers and school leaders wield power over staff livelihoods, salaries, promotions, pay progression, opportunities, timetables, classes, duties, feedback, capability and daily experiences. 

It’s hard for staff to be fully honest with anyone on or close to the senior team.

So we have to work hard to encourage that honesty.

Which beliefs do I try to hold true to that help me with my reality distortion field?

Reality is hard to see.

We all have blind spots. Especially in leadership.

Truth doesn’t flow to the top. 

We tend to confuse what we want to be true with what is actually true.

Burying our heads in the sand like ostriches, avoiding problems – doesn’t help.

No involvement, no commitment. 

If people don’t weigh in, they can’t buy in.

One of my most vital decisions is who to ask questions of. 

Which messages do I share with my colleagues and team mates and keep returning to?

Share what’s hardest to share. 

Don’t criticise people behind their back without giving them the chance to act on it! 

Tell them, not someone else without them knowing.

If I don’t know about it, how can I fix it?

Depriving me of feedback denies me the chance to improve. 

It’s hard to see my shortcomings, so I rely on your input! 

What habits do I try hard to practise for seeking staff feedback and input?

I ask staff for honest, forthright feedback, suggestions, ideas, criticisms and input.

I devote lots of time to talking and listening to people and asking them lots of good questions.

I learn something from everyone (and any school). Including, sometimes, what not to do!

I think carefully about who to ask questions of, thinking: who do I know who might help with this?

I invest lots of time to get teammates in sync; I don’t leave important conflicts unresolved. 

I work hard to see others’ viewpoints. ‘You see it differently! Help me see what you see!’

I summarise crucial opposing views to mine and check whether I’ve fully understood it.

I make staff feel completely backed. I insist they tell me if they ever feel undermined.

I instil confidence in my colleagues by developing my expertise, competence and reliability.

I surface disagreements to try to resolve them. 

I do not avoid, repress or deny conflict but see it as an opportunity for greater trust, teamwork, unity and alignment long-term through an open, honest and transparent conflict resolution.

I share dilemmas with people, especially those I trust most, and involve them in the problem so we can work out solutions together.

I share my mistakes to work out the most vital lessons learned – and work hard to apply them.

I never blame anyone, including myself! I take full responsibility for my choices instead, by working out what I could and should have done differently, sharing that and asking to be held to it.

I share my struggles, failures, and areas of low (or no!) expertise openly, so as to encourage others to do the same.

I recognise that everyone has things that stand in the way of success: I work these out, starting with myself, and try and address them.

I work out what my persistent shortcomings are and what my blind spots tend to be.

I make decisions – when they involve and affect others – considering not just the outcome but process, involvement and procedural justice. 

Plenty to work on there!

Which questions am I trying to ask myself more?

Where am I contributing to people’s thinking and impact?

Who am I overlooking?

Where am I getting in my own way?

Where am I getting in others’ way, hindering more than I’m helping?

Which questions am I trying to ask others more?

‘What would better enable you to do your best work? that’s within our control?!’

‘What are you doing that you want to do less of?’

‘What are you not doing that you most want to do?’

‘What’s (been) most helpful for you?’ 

‘What could we do differently?’

‘If you were going to be totally, brutally honest, what would you say?’ 

‘What haven’t I asked about that’s important?’ 

What practices am I trying out for encouraging honest upward feedback from staff to SLT?

#1. Chats

Walking around the school, taking time to chat, ask, listen and hear what’s on people’s minds. 

#2. Polls

Creating surveys to gather staff perspectives, ideas and suggestions. 

#3. 360s

Running annual 360 degree reviews – surveys seeking developmental feedback – to help me overcome my self-serving biases and misperceptions; to stop, start and keep up the right things! 

#4. Drafts

For irreversible, high-impact decisions, creating drafts of the tradeoffs and options to share with staff to invite their thinking, to overcome option blindness, and to improve the iterations. 

#5. Dragonfly-eye

Synthesising different views into clear-sighted summaries. Dragonflies see in 360 degrees!

There are downsides to this set of beliefs, messages, habits and practices. If not combined with strong values and steadfast resolve on principle, priorities and decisively saying no, they risk overstretch. They backfire in the wrong circumstances. And they must be combined with the multiple other dimensions to school leadership, such as clarity, cohesion, instilling confidence, safety, rapport and learning.

There are many other aspects to staff culture beyond upward feedback, such as difficult conversations about lapses in standards, misplaced priorities, persistent underperformance or misaligned values. There are team conversations, delegation conversations and coaching conversations within pastoral or curriculum areas. There’s thinking to be done on how best to give feedback and how best to accept feedback. But those are beyond the scope of this blogpost and for another time. 

A big part of creating a culture of honest upward feedback is receiving it really well. Let’s look at how to take feedback in the next post.

About Joe Kirby

School leader, education writer, Director of Education and co-founder, Athena Learning Trust, Deputy head and co-founder, Michaela Community School, English teacher
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4 Responses to Honest upward feedback

  1. Gooders_gold says:

    It’s great to see you back blogging. Thank you for making me think a lot about my leadership and my teaching!

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