An intentional approach to decision making can make a big impact on governance and internal school culture.
This is a two-part newsletter series, Part I: Governance, Part II: Faculty Culture
Note: To simplify, I used the decision making mode definitions from The Decider App
Chances are if someone in your school community was asked how decisions get made, they would answer one of two ways — “consensus” (typically said with pride) or “administration decides everything” (typically not said with pride). While I’ve only worked at two schools, I’ve participated in plenty of accreditation visiting teams as well. Faculty cultures often see “consensus” as the desired state, the full expression of a community that is a utopian vision of adults coming together in unison to enlighten the next generation. I remember that vision as a faculty member!
However, if you dig down, often what is meant by the use of the term “consensus” is that every view has a seat at the table and — this is usually vague — “everyone agrees” with the decision. If you ask faculty or staff the role of trustees in school decisions, you will likely get a long pause before an answer, if you get an answer at all.
Some school communities vote — the democratic method — which in theory has the appeal of clarity but in practice is pretty complicated.
Chances are, in reality, most of the decisions are in fact made by the head of school or head of school and board of trustee chair, in some combination of an autocratic/consultative manner. This means the head gathers info from the senior team and other community members and takes it into account in making the decision — or not. And some decisions are just made autocratically. In the spring of 2020, I can certainly attest to that experience.
So you have a decision that needs to be made. And you have the faculty meeting or the task force meeting or the faculty forum or whatever the structure at hand is and everyone shares their perspectives. Often, it’s kind of a mystery where all that leads. Leaders generally don’t have time to articulate what they took from this feedback and intend that the decision will speak for itself — that it will be obvious what pieces of feedback were incorporated and which were not. These processes take up an extraordinary amount of time. It falls in the bucket of the “way we always do it.”
In this ever-increasingly complicated world, letting decision making fall to the vicissitudes of “it’s the way we do it” is a recipe for low morale and simmering discontent. It also gets to the heart of authority vs responsibility. Faculty often perceive, real or not, they are responsible for aspects of the school they have no authority to change. And a vague process around decision making just escalates and underscores this perception.
How can we have all this time spent on process and many people still feel unheard?
It cuts against the grain of a family-like school culture, but spelling out a decision-making process and who ultimately makes the decision can go a long way towards relieving this tension and the cognitive dissonance that goes along with it. It’s less an “this is an absolute monarchy” drama than a “here’s your role, here’s my role” clarification.
Improved Decision Making, Part One — A Path to Better Governance
Voting on the record is, of course, a basic way of operating for boards. But voting is not as simple as it seems. Who decides what gets voted on, other than anything spelled out in the bylaws? How much open and honest debate happens in committee meetings or full board meetings before a vote?
Here is the dynamic I often perceive:
- the (unspoken) expectation of the process by trustees is (more or less) getting to consensus by wrestling with complicated issues
- the reality is a combination of autocratic/consultative decision making by the head of school and board chair — shaping the board materials to lead to an expected conclusion
- the decision making mechanism is democratic (voting) but it doesn’t feel democratic — it feels like it takes an act of bravery to vote against the crowd
This is a recipe for cognitive dissonance, dissatisfaction, and confusion over authority vs responsibility. This literally makes people feel crazy.
I believe the unstated and frustrated expectation of Board members that decision making happens by consensus is one of the main reasons it can take only one or two outspoken trustees to end a head of school’s tenure. While there is a board structure, there is often a reluctance to operate as a hierarchy. All board members are equal and the board needs to police itself. The board chair has specific duties but I think it is often unclear in practice whether he is the “boss” of the board. So this reluctance to step into the role of an authority figure can cause issues to expand from some mild griping to a four alarm fire that the board chair or key board leaders will then be less able to quietly put out by having a conversation with a trustee so she feels her concerns are heard, but the issue doesn’t escalate. It’s been said a million times but there are precious few instances where an unplanned head of school exit is good for the future of the school.
And the authority vs responsibility conundrum is especially acute for anyone in the important role of trustee. As a trustee it is widely understood that you are entrusted with the ultimate authority regarding the well being of the school. That matters. That has actual legal implications as a fiduciary. It is serious. And if you feel as a trustee that you have this responsibility but someone else — the head of school, the board chair — has taken all the authority — well, it is understandable you might be uncomfortable, dissatisfied and start to feel that no one is listening to your concerns. The stakes are real.
Clarity about how decisions are made and what individual trustee’s roles are in this decision making could go a long way to clearing up this mess. This should also be discussed when inviting a new trustee on the board so expectations are clear, and if a person desires a purely consensual process, he may not be a good fit for your board.
Issues that go before the board are shaped by the head of school, senior team, and board leadership in a consultative decision-making mode. That is the place to gather input and feedback during committee meetings, surveys, one on one conversations. But the final decisions about how an issue is shaped and what information is shared with the board ultimately has to be the head’s and the board chair’s.
The language of the final votes is decided on by board leadership as part of this consultative mode. That is a power to be respected and approached thoughtfully.
The vote itself is the mechanism for the decision. By the time you have finished a thorough consultative decision-making process, most concerns and objections should have been surfaced. The vote is for the record and it should be made clear during a trustee orientation that it is OK if people vote no or abstain — but if the vote goes down to defeat, there is something wrong with your consultative process.
People want their concerns not being taken seriously when they understand they have been entrusted with a serious responsibility. And of course, the board itself needs to be united enough that if one or two members are significantly unhappy with the direction of the school despite a good consultative process, exiting may be the best option. And that should not be a shame or drama filled decision, either.
A zillion other questions can flow from this brief description around decision making but it is a place to start to create more intentionality and transparency. I am confident that the perceived risk of the authority figures stepping into their authority ultimately pays off.
Improved Decision Making, Part II – Shaping a faculty culture that nurtures health morale
This article was originally posted to Julie’s “Talking Out of School” blog on August 12, 2022.