Feedback helps you move forward
OPINION: Listening to feedback can be confronting, but failure to do so can be detrimental to a school’s performance.
Many of our good schools are missing something that by its very absence is holding them back from becoming great. And what it is may surprise you.
It is not the quality of our teachers, a lack of support from members of the parent community, the presence of difficult students, or even the adequacy of a school’s resources.
Rather, it comes down to the significant number of school leaders who, scarred by past joyless experiences of receiving feedback, have dug their heals in and refuse to seek further input from others.
At times, all leaders struggle to take on feedback.
But in the case of school leaders, who preside over places of learning and development and are required and encouraged to regularly provide feedback to others, remaining resistant to receiving feedback of their own will ultimately smack of hypocrisy to many in the school community.
There are compelling reasons why more school leaders should jump on the bandwagon and accept the feedback of others.
As one of Britain’s greatest leaders of all time, Winston Churchill, argued: “Criticism may not be agreeable but it is necessary. It fulfils the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things. If it is heeded in time danger may be averted. If it is suppressed, a fatal distemper might develop.”
For school leaders, seeking out feedback from teachers is an invaluable way of shining a spotlight on the issues and challenges facing a school and its community, which enables leaders to take appropriate action where needed.
But let us be clear, it can be difficult for school leaders to ask teachers for their honest feedback.
The type of feedback sometimes dished up serves to judge school leaders and not their actions, is vague or exaggerated with generalities, and at times comes across as a veiled threat.
To add insult to injury, the feedback is often unhelpful in that it fails to suggest a solution or preferred outcome.
Feedback of this nature leaves many school leaders feeling as if they have been attacked, put down, generally devalued or even dehumanised.
No-one likes to be criticised, which is why we usually go out of our way to avoid negative self-talk. We have a particular view of ourselves, and offering feedback can burst our bubble.
Yet school leaders who remain closed to the idea of feedback are denying themselves access to a precious resource that can help to enhance their leadership capacity, and in doing so enable their school to make the leap from good to great.
There are some solid steps school leaders can take to advance on the journey towards embracing feedback.
It starts with a school leader investing in building a workplace culture that delivers constructive feedback.
This will involve regular discussions within the school community about the value of feedback and the importance of feedback flowing freely at all levels.
It will also include efforts to emphasise the behaviours associated with delivering constructive feedback that build capability, rather than the type that is dehumanising or humiliating.
Those behaviours include providing timely, specific, non-judgemental, positive and direct feedback.
Without a doubt, nothing is more important than a school leader modelling these behaviours.
It’s critical to avoid at all costs feedback systems that are anonymous in nature. Schools are places for trust and relationships, and more often than not anonymous feedback does little more than breed a culture of mistrust.
But if you remain unconvinced about opening yourself up to feedback, then consider an alternative step – feed-forward.
While feedback is all about commentary about what has happened in the past, feed-forward is concerned with the future.
With the feed-forward process, comment is made on what behaviours or actions school leaders might take in the future.
The process avoids the obvious dwelling on the past by having a focus on the future.
School leaders can even structure the entire feed-forward process by communicating a future-oriented goal and then inviting comment from others about the type of leadership behaviours that might contribute to achieving that goal.
Getting started with feedback – or even feed-forward – may never be a completely pain-free process. But the rewards can be enormous; and besides, you will be on your journey to creating a great school.
It is important to note that opening yourself up to feedback does not mean you are open to snippy, threatening or abusive behaviour.
Should you encounter others who think these types of behaviour are appropriate, make it your job to coach those individuals to enable them to deliver feedback of a constructive nature.
• Professor Gary Martin is chief executive officer at the Australian Institute of Management WA