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Q: I work in human resources for a pretty big school district in Ohio. Staff members contact me for help when they feel wronged or bullied. I’ve gotten more than one complaint about a specific principal. One teacher who complained is an underperformer, and the principal is under tremendous pressure from parents and supervisors to push her out of her job. Instead of trying to help her improve, he’s relentlessly documenting her shortcomings — and having other evaluators stalk her classroom — hoping she either quits or he creates a big enough paper trail to push her out. I’m sure it feels like self-preservation from his perspective. But here’s the thing. As soon as this teacher is fired, she’s going to file a lawsuit claiming he bullied her. I think this is an unfortunate and unnecessary outcome, especially since she may have a case. I want to help this principal learn how to communicate more effectively so staff don’t feel unfairly targeted or bullied. This will require him to be direct and honest, which runs counter to his nature. He’s conflict-averse, generally easygoing, and likes to be liked. The irony is that his personable approach is going to be his undoing. Are there concrete tips I can give him to improve the way he gives feedback so staff more readily accept the outcome? Other principals seem to have an easier time with this, and I want to help him.

 
A: As the principal has discovered, giving feedback is more art than science. He’s not communicating to this teacher that he wants to help her succeed. In fact, it’s the opposite. She’s quite aware that he’s working feverishly to make her go away. Even if his views are justified, he’s not doing himself any favors. He’s eroded all trust and created a dynamic where she’s pushing back and filing a complaint. So how can he avoid this in the future?

For starters, he should offer consistent feedback over time that pushes teachers to their learning edge. He should back up his words with tangible support so they feel he wants them to improve. If a teacher gives a student an F on a paper with no comments, the kid is going to feel confused and wronged. On the other hand, if the teacher peppers the essay with constructive suggestions, the child is more likely to accept the grade even if he doesn’t agree with it. The student also has something to work with when he completes the next assignment. He’s likely to conclude that the teacher thinks he’s worth the effort, and he’ll feel more in control of the situation.

Similarly, poor performance reviews should never come as a shock, and teachers should feel they’ve had chances to tweak their approach. In the best-case scenario, if a teacher can’t turn things around, she’ll eventually determine on her own that it’s a bad fit. The principal should want the teacher to see the writing on the wall, but also work with her to save her job. She should never be left wondering why this is happening to her.

Some conflict-averse leaders are terrible at communication and avoid giving feedback at all. The problem is that they then tend to overcorrect. If they start to feel intense pressure to remove a teacher from the classroom, for example, they might be tempted to send in an army of observers to document her failings. It sounds like that may be what’s happening here. It’s understandable that the teacher feels ambushed and set up for failure. There’s a fine line between poor communication and bullying. Speaking of which, I’m assuming the principal is this teacher’s direct supervisor. If he doesn’t have personal knowledge of what’s going on in her classroom, his feedback is going to feel like bullying. If he sends other observers into her classroom, he should tell her why they’re there, and the majority of visits should be announced. Occasional surprise visits are fine if they’re consistent with your district’s policies, but good communicators do more than simply follow the rules. He should be ensuring that the teacher knows what’s happening at every step of the way.

Conflict-averse people also tend to be more likely to sugarcoat or avoid telling the truth. As a result, a written evaluation may sound totally different than the conversation a principal had with the teacher. Even if his tone is kinder in person, the two should essentially match. If being straightforward and honest doesn’t come naturally to him, he needs to practice that skill. It’s possible to be both balanced and direct. The best communicators also are aware of power dynamics. For instance, a teacher may share (or leave unsaid) that she feels vulnerable because she’s part of a group that’s underrepresented in the building. The principal is better off seeking advice from HR than pretending that this dynamic doesn’t exist.

With this man, it sounds like his indirect, avoidant style is leading to the perception that he’s a bully. This is a bit of a twist, especially considering that there are so many ways to more overtly bully someone. This particular leader may not need the following reminders, but I’ll state them here anyway. No leader should be verbally abusing staff, humiliating them in front of others, making cutting remarks, swearing at people or cracking offensive jokes. Principals shouldn’t be crossing physical boundaries, belittling or threatening to fire staff, spreading rumors about their appearance or personal life, sabotaging their work, isolating them or preventing them from attending work meetings. In general, any time a supervisor tries to make others believe someone deserves to be treated unfairly, they’re crossing a line. As this case shows, though, it’s not just what you say and do that matters. What you don’t do can be equally problematic.

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