Improved Decision Making — The Road to a Faculty Culture that Nurtures Both School Change and Ultimately Better Morale
Often, the core of confusion around decision making within the internal school community is faculty’s belief in the superiority of a consensus process when the reality, given everyone’s obligations and time constraints, is generally a consultative process. And a big part of this problem is that school leaders are reluctant to spell out that the faculty have a consultative role and consensus is not the goal, leaving faculty to perceive that any process to hear their voice and have their opinions incorporated into a decision is well meaning but futile at best and performative at worst.
And much of the problem is rooted in unspoken assumptions about authority and responsibility. Feeling as if you have responsibility but not the authority is a recipe for disgruntlement.
When I first arrived at Westover, I was told “the faculty vote on everything.” It took years of repeatedly asking long-time folks for me to finally get a handle on what that meant in practice, because the faculty meetings themselves were structured as departmental report outs. My team and I moved the agenda of these meetings to a combination of housekeeping and professional development topics. Some people repeatedly complained that now decision making was “all made at the top” but despite my repeated, specific, genuine inquiries about how this sense “the faculty voted on everything” actually manifested, the responses I got were vague.
I am not a fan of voting cultures. As several mentors have pointed out, voting supports factions—winners and losers. I think there are other ways people can share their viewpoints and feel heard even when a decision doesn’t go their way. But I was fine to work within a voting culture IF I could figure out what that voting culture actually was—for example, what level of decision was voted on? Do we really want to have a faculty vote every time we tweak study hall? (response—shrug) Or was it over major policy decisions? (response—no one could come up with an example of a major policy decision).
After several years of hearing complaints that my team and I were too “top down” and repeatedly asking people these questions about faculty/staff voice, the past, and voting, I finally got an answer that made sense from a long time faculty member. She told me the story of a decision years before to go from number to letter grades that was made by faculty vote at the end of a school year. And then when the faculty gathered for re-orientation in the fall, a faculty member asked if they could vote again on the same topic—and it went down to defeat. Number grades stayed.
Cultures tend to solidify around predictable patterns of behavior, good or bad. At Westover, the faculty meetings consisting of reporting out and “q and a” was the recognized process of people being included in school operations. The knowledge that a faculty member could call for a vote gave some faculty the sense that they were the last word and change was not going to happen without their imprimatur. When that was replaced by structures such as task forces with charges and clear parameters for their authority and responsibilities, there were community members who experienced this structured, intentional, distributed leadership model as a loss of power and influence. Even if they rarely called for the vote, the knowledge they could was the important piece.
Some leaders may be thinking after they read this last paragraph—hey, let the faculty think what they want; I can navigate around that. In actuality, everyone knows I have the power.
But who has privilege and who does not?
The lack of clarity and intentionality around how decisions get made has profound and unhealthy implications for school culture. A hundred more questions arise—does every faculty member perceive they have an equal ability to call for a vote? Is it most often the group with the most privilege that takes advantage of this ability? Would a newcomer to the community feel comfortable calling for a vote in the first faculty meeting?
As the leader, if you silently navigate around these cultural norms, you are reinforcing a pecking order that came about based on influences in the greater culture dictating who has privilege and who does not. You also reinforce the pecking order the school culture has developed based on its own priorities and biases—the charismatic varsity coach whose sport galvanizes the school’s identity, the department chair who is a legendary guru figure, the longtime faculty member who carries moral authority with other faculty. The list could go on. Sometimes this pecking order is subtle and sometimes it is written in letters six feet high, but it always exists. And sometimes the familiarity and predictability it brings to school life is such that even community members who do not have privilege or don’t benefit from the current pecking order fervently support it at every turn, even when well-respected new faculty point it out.
None of this is because of ill-intention or incompetence or malice—it’s because “we always did it this way” and it worked well enough and the school is in many ways a wonderful, magical place. And in the words of my first board chair—you can’t ask the fish how the water is. They just don’t know. And layer on interpersonal relationships and the vivid emotional investment that comes with working in intense, mission driven communities and—“the way it is” gets pretty complicated and multilayered.
And all change involves loss. Who wants to feel bad? We already have plenty to feel bad about these days.
My first year at Westover, the one thing we actually voted on turned out to be a total mess in action. We voted on the calendar dates for the next year. It was different than usual because we were trying to execute a complicated renovation project in a short amount of time the following summer. We voted three times and kept coming up with a tie. Then there was a discussion as to whether staff, who were not affected by a change in teaching days, should or should not be voting. Finally they voted to delegate the decision to me and a small group of administrators.
I sense that the unspoken expectations in many school communities has been:
- There is a strong belief that traditionally, faculty meetings were processes to reach (more or less) consensus and we all had skin in the game
- The reality was a consultative process with faculty input—decisions were made by the head of school and senior team
- The reality was also sometimes decisions were made autocratically by the head or the head, the CFO and the board, particularly around resources and resource allocation.
- But as that reality became impossible to gloss over during the pandemic, resulting in two phenomena—one being, people telling me “I wouldn’t want your job” i.e. making these autocratic decisions and dealing with the fallout, and the other being a deep sense of grief as the belief in the community consensus model evaporated before our eyes.
Clarity about decision making is a cornerstone of culture change
This is not to say that clarity about decision making is fairy dust and everyone is going to celebrate you. In fact, a sign of success is that the opposite happens. Clarity around decision can fundamentally shift the all important perception of who has authority and who has responsibility. And when these two things begin to align consistently, you are on the road to a healthier culture and to channel the same messaging consistently.
And once again, the core of the shift comes down to communications—strategic, well thought out, internal communications.
Artifacts can help:
- A good, accurate org chart
- A good, up to date employee manual vetted by counsel (no one will read it until they have a problem but typically they are surprised as to how much good information as to who has authority and responsibility for aspects of school operations they find in there.)
- Accurate monthly budget reports for each department, even if the budget is $1200. It’s communication as a sign of respect and acknowledging the department head’s responsibility and authority.
Here are some options about how to spend precious faculty meeting time:
- Discussing pain points of the school operations with a clear structure in place as to forming the question at hand, the role of the meeting, and how a final decision will be reached and communicated. It is important that the decision makers give the community feedback on what they heard and what they are taking away that will impact the final decision.
- Talking time at a few faculty/staff meetings each year for the non-program senior admins to explain what they do and how their work impacts the faculty and staff—i.e. what areas of the school does the buck stop with each of them?
- Taking time for the chair of the board and the head of school to explain the Board of Trustees lane vs the HOS lane.
- A faculty/staff “advisory committee” that has a clear charge, understands what issues they provide input for and how final decision making occurs.
- Task forces to take on specific school challenges. Curate the membership but curate generously and seriously consider anyone who volunteers. Be specific in what the charge of the task force is, what decision they are making, how community input will work, and ultimately, what role the head of school and relevant senior admins will have in the final outcome.
And when it comes time for the head of school to make a unilateral decision, explain it through powerful, authentic communication rooted in your values as a leader and the values of the school, likely in several ways, and then—own it. Own it over and over again.
During my head of school tenure, we had time to put some of this into action although some years were better than others. All of these things take an enormous investment of time and often there were fires to put out even besides COVID.
But at a time now when schools are struggling to recreate community while coming out of a global tragedy and a fundamental shift in work culture, to not put the time in, particularly around major decisions, is a major lost opportunity.
But keep in mind—you will likely not be immediately celebrated and if you are doing it right, there will be grumbling. When you hear the grumbling, it means that the culture is loosening up—people feel safe expressing their thoughts. And invest in the faculty and staff who are excited about the opportunity to speak up, serve on a task force, etc. Their positive energy will be influential. And remember, you are on the road to improved morale as people begin to understand the predictability of the new normal.
And the best measure for success in the short term is—did the change stick?
A few years ago, we did a schedule task force with two faculty chairs, made of up faculty and a few staff. There were guiding principles as to the impacts we agreed we wanted a new schedule to have on the program and the quality of the student experience, developed over many years prior to my arrival. The assistant head and I attended only one meeting when the task force was stuck on a particular problem and invited us in. The group recommended two possible new schedules at a faculty meeting and collected feedback. Based on that feedback, the task force made a recommendation to me and the assistant head, who made the final decision.
Was there grumbling? Oh yes! In fact, as we were implementing the new schedule, one long time faculty member politely told me that the process was still top down because I had been the overall architect behind the scenes and we were implementing what I wanted all along. (My immediate thought—I wish I was that talented! Second thought—this is so interesting he is comfortable telling the head of school this! I guess he is not afraid of me.)
Did the change stick? Yes. Has the grumbling died down? Also yes, with a few exceptions. Has it had the desired impact? Yes. Will there be continued tweaks? Yes. But it’s never going back to what it was.
The goal is to have the change stick, not to have zero grumbling. Keep saying it to yourself—the grumbling is a sign of success and our culture can support differing opinions.
This article was originally posted to Julie’s “Talking Out of School” blog on August 19, 2022.