Teacher is undermining a colleague: What can principal do? 

Businesswoman Being Gossiped About By Colleagues In Office

Q: I’m a principal who recently promoted a teacher (let’s call her Lisa) to a team leader position. She had applied before, but I passed her over in large part because her department chair (Susan) discouraged me from making the hire. She said Lisa would turn off the teachers she was supposed to lead because she’s too self-promoting and makes everything about her. Susan felt that giving Lisa the promotion would make her even more insufferable because she’d actually have a taste of power. 

After I told Lisa she wasn’t getting the job, she asked me how she could make herself a more competitive candidate, so I started paying closer attention to her work and interactions. To my surprise, I couldn’t identify anything especially off-putting about her. Yes, she’s ambitious and talks about her projects a lot, but she’s also kind, friendly, hard-working, and smart. So, the second time she applied to be a team leader I listened to my gut and hired her. I didn’t give Susan a chance to weigh in. And Lisa is doing great in the role — with one exception: Susan keeps getting in her way. She “tattles” on her, telling me that parents are displeased with her leadership or that teachers can’t stand her rambling meetings. She gossips about Lisa with teachers on her team, too, trying to goad them into complaining about her. So far, Susan is the only one complaining, but I can see that she’s ratcheting it up a level. 

I’m onto Susan, but I don’t get it. She’s a department chair herself and she’s never wanted to be a team leader. Lisa’s promotion doesn’t affect her at all. In fact, before Lisa started applying for the team leader position, Susan never had a bad thing to say about her. Can you help me understand her behavior, and give me some guidance as a principal for dealing with it? Even better, how can I prevent this from happening in the first place? What happened to colleagues actually acting collegial? 

A:  This is a logistical question with a philosophical angle. Yes, we’re all better served when we focus on supporting each other rather than tearing each other down, but human beings are complicated. Some people think that success is a zero-sum game. If you’re someone who subscribes to scarcity theory, then another person’s win is your loss. Individuals with this mind-set can wreak havoc with school culture — they may even sabotage colleagues. The great irony is that they’re unaware how much they’re damaging themselves, too. There are both practical and psychic costs to undermining others. They may think they’re preserving their authority or status, but they’re actually limiting their own opportunities. If they behaved generously, they’d inspire reciprocity. They’re also slowly eroding their self-image as a good person, and that takes a toll. 

Let’s start by examining Susan’s perspective. She has always viewed Lisa as subordinate rather than as a competitor. Susan also is used to having your ear. You didn’t hire Lisa the first time because of her reservations. But now everything has changed, and Susan perceives a double threat. Lisa has risen in the school hierarchy, and you’re no longer treating Susan as your most trusted adviser. This time, you iced her out of the decision-making process entirely. To be clear, you acted appropriately and wisely. In the short run, you’ll have to deal with Susan’s bruised ego, but in the long run, you’ll establish a reputation as a fair and independent thinker, and that will boost everyone else’s morale. 

So how can you convince Susan that it makes more sense to be kind and support her colleagues? The short answer is that you can’t, so I’d focus more on her behavior than her attitude. Make it clear that you won’t tolerate unhealthy competition or undermining behavior. Identify and address destructive or false comments right away, and let her know the consequences if she continues to make them. Ask her how it feels when she spreads negativity. Has she considered that people might listen politely but privately judge her? So much of this is about ego, so tap into her ego to target the bad behavior. Does she want to be viewed as a backstabber? Is that how she sees herself? Resist the urge to soften the message by making small talk at the end of the conversation. Let the message marinate.  

Have a second conversation later to better understand Susan’s underlying needs. Does she feel like her career is stagnating, and therefore it’s hard to see someone else progressing? Has she always viewed herself as your right-hand person, and she worries she’s being displaced? Does she define herself by her professional role? Help her articulate specific, personal goals that don’t pit her against any other staff members. Maybe she wants to work toward a graduate degree, or revamp how she trains new teachers in her department, or even act as a mentor for new staff members in other departments.  

On a school-wide basis, focus on relationship-building. Give staff opportunities to get to know each other, perhaps by pairing up for a 10-minute walk before a staff meeting with someone they don’t know very well. Focus on pro-social behavior, too. If a teacher praises a colleague, pass along the compliment but really highlight the act of praise. You also can point out whenever someone has created an opportunity for someone else. Maybe a teacher asked a coworker to present with them at a conference, for example, or recommended them as a resource for a staff development teacher at another school. Let your staff hear you celebrating these kinds of gestures. Susan (and others like her) may still struggle any time a peer distinguishes him or herself, but she’ll be less likely to go off the rails if she’s busy working on her own goals and knows she’ll be penalized if she lashes out.  

For more Career Confidential: http://bit.ly/2C1WQmw

Have a question that you’d like Career Confidential to answer? Email to careerconfidential@pdkintl.orgAll names and schools will remain confidential. No identifying information will be included in the published questions and answers.

PHYLLIS L. FAGELL (@Pfagell; phyllisfagell.com) is the school counselor at Sheridan School in Washington, D.C., a therapist at the Chrysalis Group in Bethesda, Md., and the author of the Career Confidential blog. She is also the author of Middle School Matters, available at https://bit.ly/2RNXVu3.

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