Leaders: Tackling an Underperforming Colleague
Leaders: Tackling an underperforming colleague is never easy but by avoiding it or passing the buck you risk undermining school improvement. Edward Gildea offers some strategies for handling sensitive situations.
Leaders: The Truth Hurts
One of the key characteristics of leadership outlined in a speech last year by Steve Munby, chief executive of the National College, was the ability to hold “courageous conversations”.
Effective leaders, he said, “hold people to account, have high expectations of them and challenge underperformance and mediocrity, not because they like power but because the children and young people deserve the best.”
Conversations with underperforming staff are often difficult, uncomfortable and sometimes distressing, but they are at the very heart of our role and responsibility as leaders. By avoiding them, we are doing a disservice to both colleagues and young people in our care.
So what makes these conversations so difficult? We may fear that it will call into question the perception of us as ‘a nice person’. Conversations which focus on areas of inadequacy, failure, underperformance or immaturity, and which we hold by virtue of our position of power, can leave us open to the challenge of being mean, unsympathetic or a bully.
We may also fear:
- adverse reactions – resentment, defensiveness, aggression
- making things worse
- damaging our working relationships
- hearing their criticisms of us
The avoidance of challenging conversations goes both ways, of course. Our reluctance is frequently matched by other people’s ‘prickly’, hedgehog behaviours which say: “Don’t engage with me!”
You may be faced with:
- anger: “I’m dangerous”
- tears: “You can’t be that cruel”
- election as the union rep: “I’ve got massive support”
- counter-allegations of bullying: “This is an abuse of my professionalism”
- grievances: counter-attack
- sickness: “This will cost you”
The dangers of sweeping our difficulties with underperforming colleagues under the carpet are all too well-known. Some schools and colleges might try to timetable teachers into less difficult classes – a pretty hopeless task unless you think that there are some young people who matter less than others.
Others might supply references which are less than honest as part of compromise agreements, as if the children in another institution or county don’t matter so much.
If we don’t engage with poor performance or unprofessional behaviour, whether among teaching or other staff, we run the risk of not drawing clear boundaries. Just as with children, when bad behaviour is unchallenged it is deemed to be approved.
A teacher or staff member who fails to meet deadlines has probably learned that there are no very serious consequences of this failure; that targets set in performance management meetings are not meaningfully followed up and rarely result in either praise or a more rigorous ‘holding to account’. S/he will then go on to test the next boundary, and the next…
Defensive or in denial?
A strategy for initiating the conversation is the first challenge. Sometimes job descriptions seem to be of little use. They are too mechanistic and lack any of the qualitative criteria that make up our professionalism. For teachers, a far more useful document is the framework of professional standards.
Looking back on my headship I see that I seriously underestimated my right to express high expectations and expect colleagues to deliver on them. If I couldn’t find a legal basis for what I was asking, I felt disempowered.
The framework now gives school leaders a sound basis on which the high expectations we have of our students can be equally powerfully expressed to colleagues. Whatever the issue of behaviour, attitude or professionalism, you will find a clause to support calm and reasoned discussion.
For support staff and colleagues in colleges who are keen to establish a professional standing, an equivalent framework can be negotiated.
So how do we prepare for challenging conversations with difficult colleagues? Strategically, we should attempt to work with them collaboratively. This is easier said than done, since it takes two to tango. They are likely to be defensive, in denial or nauseatingly self-justifying.
There are tactics we can use to overcome denial, defensiveness and obduracy. For instance, put the ball in their court by making them find the solution to the problem. “Yes, we are all under tremendous time pressures. How can you manage your time more effectively in order to meet your obligations?”
Ask yourself who is doing the hard work. All too often the manager works valiantly, trying to phrase complex questions or find delicate modes of expression while the underperforming employee receiving the feedback sits back and enjoys the discomfort. The onus should be on them.
Avoid the word ‘but’. It signals a criticism after compliments and is a cue to raise defences, justify a position or deny failings. Using ‘and’ instead enables you to move towards collaborative mode, but it is not always easy.
You can use the coaching technique of asking simple but wise questions. “Tell me more about…”, “Why do you think that happens?” “How might you manage that differently?” These questions prompt analytical reflection and constructive thinking.
Combining sensitivity with clarity is not easy, but pussyfooting around will get you nowhere. The sensitivity can be in your tone and body language while you are presenting objective data and evidence for constructive discussion.
Finally, silence is the greatest tool of the coach. It is proof that you have just asked a significant question. We often feel compelled to fill any void after about two seconds – stay with it. Children know that if they stay quiet for 2.5 seconds they will be off the hook. It is the same with colleagues during ‘courageous conversations’.
More assertive techniques
If all these techniques fail and a collaborative response is not forthcoming, your colleague is effectively forcing you to take a more directive position. It is probably time to employ more assertive techniques of “negotiating for improvement” and for formal procedures swiftly thereafter.
We also need an emotional strategy for these conversations. Being emotionally proactive means managing our emotions in order to steer the encounter in a constructive direction, rather than being bounced into a counter-productive response.
The key here is to avoid defensiveness. If you defend, they will have to attack harder, and collaboration will be impossible. Effective emotional management can be achieved through a sort of professional detachment: be analytical about their anger, see the problem as something they are experiencing and be calmly confident of the importance of this conversation.
Meanwhile, while preparing for such challenging encounters – with, one hopes, a small minority of cases – it is as well to consider whether a cultural change is needed in management and leadership of both teaching and support staff at all levels in schools and colleges.
One headteacher summarised his prevailing culture brilliantly when he said: “I seem to have the greatest difficulty in persuading my staff that they are not self-employed!”
The idea of being autonomous professionals, allowed to get on with the job without outside interference, is a highly attractive one. And we can also become deeply resentful of a target-driven, micromanaging culture, which treats us like recalcitrant employees who have to be motivated by the fear of public humiliation in the league tables.
Mature, highly motivated and intelligent professionals deserve something better: a culture where middle managers feel relaxed and confident about engaging with colleagues in meaningful ways about learning, their contribution to the team, professional standards and professional development.
A culture which prioritises providing and receiving feedback, in a constructive and mutually supportive atmosphere, has the wellbeing of young people at its heart.
- Edward Gildea is a former headteacher.
- Edward Gildea is co-leading an ASCL course Managing Challenging Personnel: Addressing Underperformance on 17 March (Swindon) and 17 May (Manchester). He is also co-leading the course Managing Uncooperative Attitudes on 26 May (Nottingham). For further information visit www.ascl.org.uk/calendar
Case study: Lutterworth College
Creating a feedback framework
Lutterworth College in Leicestershire has put in a great deal of effort into developing a culture of individual professional accountability and self-evaluation, where managers are confident giving robust feedback on performance.
This culture shift has included a commitment from staff to engage in honest professional dialogue in which issues of performance and accountability are part of the regular agenda.
To provide a framework in which challenging conversations could be based around objective fact and evidence, a number of procedures were implemented. They included:
- increased accountability, with all staff evidencing achievements against agreed expectation and performance criteria.
- a shared knowledge and understanding of College Improvement Priorities and their contribution towards the achievement of these.
- sharing existing best practice – to utilise the internal resource we had to embed professional learning and growth as an expectation.
- explicit expectations of staff framed within the context of their roles. For instance the National Teaching Standards were used as a benchmark for teaching staff and college standards were created for support staff.
To create a system in which continuous professional learning (CPL), performance management, improvement planning and self-evaluation are interconnected and interdependent (something the TDA has since described as ‘embedding the links’), we used Bluesky Education, an online CPD and performance management tool. This enables us to have an explicit connection between individual performance targets and improvement priorities of the faculty and the college, reinforcing the contribution of the individual to whole-school outcomes.
Because information is entered directly into the system, reviewers can see live performance information relating to their reviewees, enabling rapid intervention and in many cases pre-empting challenging conversations. CPL requests, also administered through the Bluesky system, signpost expected outcomes and their impact on college, faculty and individual improvement priorities. Activities are recorded and evaluated in relation to pre-determined and agreed learning objectives, and focus on improving the quality of teaching and learning.
All elements of performance management are also captured. This supports a professional dialogue in which there are clearly defined actions and roles for the reviewer and reviewee. Logging of evidence against targets and the professional standards, discussion around completed CPL and setting new performance objectives all become part of a structured activity. An added bonus here is the powerful use of this data and evidence to inform pay progression recommendations and decisions. A culture of self-evaluation has become an essential component of educational practice and the need for all staff to be self-reflective was key for us in establishing this culture. It means dialogue about performance is objective and concrete and enables early intervention and support.
- Michelle Wright, Assistant Principal, Lutterworth College
- Bluesky is an ASCL preferred supplier. For details, visit
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