Leadership and staff retention (Part 3)

This article was written for SecEd magazine and first published in January 2018.  You can read the original version on the SecEd website here.  

You can access the full archive of my columns for SecEd here

This is the third article in a 5-Part series. Read Part One and Part Two here. 

So far in this five-part series, I’ve argued that, if schools are to successfully stymie the crisis in staff recruitment and retention, they need to appoint, recognise and reward “architects” – school leaders who quietly redesign their school and transform the community it serves.

What’s more, our schools need leaders who understand that it takes time to improve a school and so take a long-term view. They need leaders who create the right environment for teachers and the right school for its local community by improving student behaviour, increasing revenue and improving teaching and leadership.

In short, our schools need leaders who take a holistic view of their school, its stakeholders, the community it serves, and its role in society.

Next, I said, our schools need to allow these architects to build organisations based on the “commitment” model: in other words, schools which engender a sense of trust among staff that entices everyone to work harder and stick together through setbacks.

School leaders, I have argued, should invest heavily in professional development. They should value making employees happy over quick results and gift teachers more decision-making authority. They should foster a strong culture and ensure that new recruits fit that culture.

In short, they should think hard about staff recruitment in order to ensure they hire the best people, then they should work hard to ensure those staff stay by making people feel valued and rewarded, and – perhaps more importantly – making sure they are developed professionally.

This week, I will share some tips for improving the organisational effectiveness of schools and explore ways of increasing teachers’ intrinsic motivation so that their job satisfaction and wellbeing improves.

Eight ways to improve effectiveness

In Smarter, Faster, Better, Charles Duhigg offers eight tips to improve organisational effectiveness – including staff recruitment and retention.

First, in order to increase staff motivation, he says leaders must allow colleagues choices that put them in greater control of their roles. This might involve connecting something they do to something they care about, explaining to them why a task will help them get closer to a meaningful goal. In short, staff need to know why their work matters.

Second, staff need clear goals – ideally stretch goals which reflect their ambitions and aspirations. But such goals need breaking down into sub-goals and SMART objectives.

Third, staff need to stay focused. This involves planning ahead, considering the order in which tasks need to be undertaken, foreseeing potential barriers.

Fourth, staff need to be helped to make better decisions. In other words, they need to imagine various possibilities – some of which might be contradictory – so that they’re better equipped to make wise choices.

Fifth, leaders need to foster effective teams by managing the “how” not the “who”. In other words, leaders need to help develop staff’s psychological safety by ensuring that everyone in a team feels that they can speak in roughly equal measure and that team-mates show they are sensitive to how each other feels.

As team leaders, we need to think about the message our decisions reveal. Are we encouraging equality in speaking, or rewarding the loudest people? Are we showing that we are listening by repeating what people say and replying to questions and thoughts? Are we demonstrating sensitivity by reacting when someone seems upset or flustered? Are we showcasing that sensitivity so that other people will follow our lead?

The sixth of Duhigg’s eight tips for improving organisational effectiveness is that, in order to improve staff’s productivity, leaders need to develop lean and agile management techniques and delegate control because, as we have seen, staff work smarter and better when they believe they have more decision-making authority and when they believe their colleagues are also committed to their success.

By pushing decision-making to whoever is closest to a problem, we can take advantage of everyone’s expertise and unlock innovation. A sense of control can also fuel motivation, but for that drive to produce insights and solutions, staff need to know that their contributions won’t be ignored and that their mistakes won’t be held against them.

Seventh, Duhigg argues that, in order to encourage greater innovation, leaders need to become a broker – because creativity often emerges by combining old ideas in new ways – and encourage brokerage within their organisation. This entails being sensitive to our own experiences, paying attention to how things make us think and feel which will help us to distinguish clichés from real insights.

We leaders need to study our own emotional reactions and recognise that the stress that emerges amid the creative process isn’t a sign that everything is falling apart; rather, creative desperation is often critical. Anxiety can be what often pushes us to see old ideas in new ways.

Finally, leaders need to remember that the relief that accompanies a creative breakthrough, while rewarding, can also blind us to alternatives. By forcing ourselves to critique what we’ve already done, by making ourselves look at working practices from different perspectives, by giving new authority to someone who didn’t have it before, we can retain a clear perspective and oversight.

The eighth tip for improving organisational effectiveness is that leaders need to help staff to understand and use data better. When we and our colleagues encounter new information, we and they should force ourselves to do something with it. For example, we should write a note explaining what we just learned, or identify a means of testing out an idea. Every choice we make in life is an experiment – the trick is getting ourselves and our colleagues to see the data embedded in those decisions, and then to use it somehow so we, and they, can learn from it.

Autonomy, mastery and purpose

Duhigg’s eight-point plan echoes an argument espoused in the book Drive by Daniel Pink. Intrinsic motivation, Pink argues, is three-fold:

Autonomy – the desire to direct our own lives.

Mastery – the urge to get better and better at something that matters.

Purpose – the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves.

First, Pink says that people need autonomy over task (what they do), time (when they do it), team (who they do it with), and technique (how they do it). The theory being this: if someone is in control of their activities, they are more likely to be motivated by them and more likely to excel at them.

Second, Pink says that “only engagement can produce mastery – becoming better at something that matters”.

He goes on to say that “mastery begins with ‘flow’ – optimal experiences when the challenges we face are exquisitely matched to our abilities – (and) requires the capacity to see your abilities not as finite, but as infinitely improvable”.

Again, this is about the desire to improve, to want to get better and better at something. People are only motivated to get better at something they are engaged in and enjoy. Pink goes on to say that: “Mastery is a pain: it demands effort, grit and deliberate practice. And mastery is asymptote: it’s impossible to fully realise, which makes it simultaneously frustrating and alluring.”

And, third, Pink says that humans seek purpose, “a cause greater and more enduring than themselves”. This is to say that people need to feel that what they are doing will have a long-term purpose and meaning in the world. It is the desire to leave your mark on the world, to do something worthwhile and with impact.

Pink provides a useful example of the power of autonomy, mastery and purpose in action. He takes us back to 1995 and asks an economist to consider two business models, each concerned with developing a new encyclopaedia.

The first model comes from Microsoft, a multi-million pound global organisation; the other is the result of a not-for-profit “hobby”.

Microsoft’s encyclopaedia involves a band of paid professional writers and editors working for well-paid managers who oversee a project which is delivered on time and on budget. Microsoft sells the encyclopaedia on CD-ROMs and online.

The hobbyists, meanwhile, do not belong to a company and are not paid. Instead, tens of thousands of people write and edit entries in the encyclopaedia just for fun. Contributors offer their time and expertise for nothing and the encyclopaedia itself is offered free of charge to anyone who wants it via the internet.

Clearly, any economist worth his or her salt would predict that the first business model led by Microsoft would go on to thrive while the second model would falter.

But by 2009, Microsoft had discontinued Encarta, while Wikipedia continued to thrive – with 13 million entries in 260 languages, it had become the largest and most popular encyclopaedia in the world. The business model that relied on traditional rewards to motivate its employees and customers had failed; the one that relied on intrinsic motivation (doing something simply for the fun of it) had succeeded; in the battle for supremacy, money had lost to the love of learning.

Schools built on intrinsic motivation

The most successful school leaders, then, build their cultures on the foundations of autonomy, mastery and purpose.

But then they do something else, something just as important and just as powerful, though rarely found in the pages of leadership manuals: they show kindness…

The best leaders genuinely care for others and they don’t mind who knows it. They respect their staff’s dignity, no matter their role in school.

In short, the best leaders engage in small, but regular, acts of kindness towards others; the little things they do to recognise and reward their staff and students build morale and engender trust.

Kindness also plays a significant part in developing a momentum around school improvement: when people feel valued and cared for, they repay that trust by valuing and caring for the place in which they work and for the people with which they work.

What’s more, by publicly displaying kindness, the best leaders – and, in turn, the best teachers – model the behaviours they want their students to develop. In short, teachers who are treated with respect show respect for their students and that way a school becomes a community, a family.

In part four next week, I will delve a little deeper into the power of kindness, before extolling the importance of creating a “no-blame” culture.


Follow me on Twitter: @mj_bromley


If you enjoyed this article and want to find out more, take a look at How To Lead


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