Guest Column

Is That Limburger on Your Colleague’s Breath?

by William W. Wayson
School administrators hear a lot of complaints. Some come from people who wake up with Limburger on their breath and think the whole world is rotten. More often they hear legitimate complaints, concerns or calls for reasonable improvements. Dismissing constructive criticism robs the organization of a source of information about festering problems and closes the door to potentially valuable advice.

When complaints are received about decisions made by central-office or school personnel, administrators may feel obligated to defend their subordinates’ actions no matter how wrong they might be. Yet defending any action that is clearly wrong is poor practice and destructive. Defending wrong behavior erodes employees’ initiative and morale and diminishes public confidence in the schools.

Protecting personnel from the consequences of their actions signals that employees are inferior, unable to accept the consequences of their actions. Those messages become self-fulfilling prophecies. Employees come to fear parents; they fear the boss; they fear one another. With less confidence, they expect a parental figure to protect them. The school system erects walls against criticism and feedback. Eventually everyone in the system is blind to what anyone ought to see.

Overprotective Bosses

Human beings make mistakes. Responsible adults learn from their mistakes. People learn as they discuss their behavior and its impact on those affected. They learn to explain, defend, apologize or change position on the basis of their own best assessment of their actions or inaction and its effects. They exercise better judgment and take more initiative as they learn to deal effectively with the natural consequences of decisions and actions.

When overly protected by administrators, school personnel never learn to do it right. More than that, competent staff members, students and the public lose confidence in the administrator’s judgment. Observers lose respect for all personnel in the system. Ultimately, the entire school system suffers.

The administrator does not have to condemn a subordinate’s actions unless the mistake has been horrendous and was precipitated by malice, unforgivable neglect or gross incompetence. In a self-correcting school, no one has to reprimand anyone. People learn from the consequences of their actions.

Sometimes the administrator will have to be a protector. Employees should be protected when they are victimized by higher authorities or by unreasonable community prejudice. On those occasions, the administrator might have to intervene and defend the subordinates’ right to be treated justly—that is, their right to make a mistake.

Sometimes the employee might not behave professionally. Then students or others should be protected from unreasonable, malicious, petulant or retributive actions. However, most school personnel are unlikely to make such poor judgments, especially as they learn responsible skills for dealing with feedback.

Individuals have to learn those mature skills. Administrators can model the necessary behaviors in their own interactions. They also might coach individuals or groups of staff members on how to deal with criticism, to make an important decision or to communicate with superiors, outsiders, colleagues or subordinates. The best way to develop such skills is to explain, defend or bear the consequences of one’s own decisions, preferably with feedback about the effects. The best feedback is from the person most affected, but if subordinates won’t hear that, it can come from an administrator, a fellow worker or an ombudsman.

Confidence and Morale

Effective superintendents expect central-office and school personnel to make decisions and accept responsibility for what follows. If they want to be particularly savvy about developing a self-correcting school, they might do the following:

  • Ensure that avenues are open for legitimate questions, concerns and criticism.

  • Provide honest responses to concerns and criticism.

  • Insist that problems are solved as close as possible to their origin.

  • Refuse to protect or excuse actions that harm students, citizens or staff.

  • Encourage concerned citizens and employees to go directly to the person by whom they feel aggrieved.

  • Help personnel to value feedback, to use conflict-reducing responses and to know that an apology for a mistake is better public relations than defending the indefensible.

    Over time, these practices improve productivity and morale. They strengthen public confidence. They open ways to improve professional performance. They also can make an administrator’s life easier and perhaps add to the superintendent’s tenure.

William Wayson is a professor emeritus of educational policy and leadership at Ohio State University. He can be reached at 9728 Monteray Drive, Plain City, OH 43064. E-mail: