Many school leaders find one of the most challenging aspects of their roles is holding difficult conversations with colleagues in performance management or disciplinary situations.
According to the Principal Health & Wellbeing Survey, “work related stress was higher in education than across all other industries”. This is due in part to school Principals and Deputy Principals experiencing high levels of emotional conflict at work, resulting in high levels of burnout and stress.
It is therefore more important than ever the Principals, Deputy Principals and others working in leadership roles in schools develop the emotional skills for dealing with conflict in the workplace, by engaging in crucial performance conversations with staff.
Avoidance of these crucial conversations is not optional, given that excellent learning outcomes for students are likely to be linked directly to a Principal’s ability to explore and improve the capability of his or her teachers.
What are crucial conversations?
In an educational setting, crucial conversations may involve delivering bad news, critical performance discussions, dealing with allegations of misconduct against a teacher or coaching a colleague on their teaching style or methods.
Most crucial conversations have the following elements present:
- The conversation is with a person you care about (for example, a staff member);
- The conversation is about an issue you are concerned with (for example, performance issues);
- The outcome will be uncertain (that is what makes it difficult and important to discuss); and
- The situation will require your influence as a leader.
It is important to remember that crucial conversations should be conducted face-to-face. An email is not an effective way to deliver critical feedback or seek the understanding of the teacher. It provides no room for explanation and may be misinterpreted.
The success of the conversation will depend upon the preparation put into it (see our 6-step process below) and ensuring the conversation is future focused. While it will be necessary to address past conduct or performance, it is important to avoid blame and move towards changing the teacher’s attitudes and performance by focusing on expectations and standards for the future.
Avoiding crucial conversations
Some senior professionals in schools seek to avoid the conflict associated with difficult conversations. The most common reasons include because they are too busy, because of a desire to avoid conflict and confrontation, they are concerned they might make the problem worse or because the employee might become upset.
In NTEU v RMIT  FCA 451, a redundancy was concocted in order to avoid difficult conversations with a difficult academic. The Federal Court found that RMIT University took adverse action against a Professor when it terminated her employment by using a sham redundancy as a “pretext for getting rid of an undesired employee.” The Professor was re-instated to her original position.
Unsurprisingly, avoidance of crucial conversations usually makes the problem worse. Employee performance or conduct issues rarely, if ever, resolve themselves. For example, in Borg v Victoria University  FCA 252, an academic at Victoria University did not have her employment renewed after a series of fixed term contracts. Dr Borg has previously made complaints to HR alleging bullying, discrimination and harassment as well as vitimisation by other staff. However, it was not because of her complaints that she was not re-engaged, but because the course coordinator had chosen a more qualified teacher for her subject. In this case, the course coordinator’s reluctance to disappoint Dr Borg by telling her he didn’t need her contributed to her suspicions that there was some unlawful reason for her non-engagement, so she brought litigation in the Federal Court.
Conversations about performance and conduct should be a routine part of everyday conversation because frequent conversations about professional improvement drives a high performance culture. Ultimately, the avoider of the conversation ends up losing credibility up and down the chain of command, with low morale and reduced productivity being the most common outcomes.
While not an exhaustive checklist, here are 6 important elements school leaders should follow to have crucial conversations with teachers:
Plan and articulate the issue
It will be necessary to plan what you want to say in advance. You should be concise. State the facts relating to the issue (i.e. consistently poor performance or inappropriate conduct towards peers or students) and explain the impact of the situation on the school. Refer to provisions of policies or codes of conduct that might be compromised by the performance or conduct issue in question.
Do not focus on ‘winning’ the conversation. Seek information from the employee by asking questions. Use open-ended questions that require employee input. Summarise the important points as you go.
Reach agreement on what needs to be accomplished
Ask the employee if you can agree on what is expected of them, if possible. It is better than forcing a solution on the employee. While it is not always possible to reach agreement on the outcomes required, try to reach agreement on something, even if it’s a basic principle.
Discuss alternatives for achieving success
Ask the employee their ideas on how to resolve the issue. Encourage them to suggest a solution he or she can support. Together, weigh the pros and cons of each alternative.
Set specific actions to be taken
Specify who is to do what and when. Clarify what is required of the employee and ensure this is documented in an improvement plan. To build trust, state your commitment in the employee and your confidence that they can work towards achieving the outcomes you have set.
Express confidence in the employee’s ability to resolve the issue
Be specific and sincere about your confidence in the employee’s ability to resolve the issue. Set a date to review required outcomes.
Take away points
Leaders in schools who learn how to tackle difficult performance and conduct conversations with teachers at the earliest opportunity, in a careful and considered way, will build trust and credibility with the workforce and contribute to the professional growth and career satisfaction of teaching staff. This in turn, will enhance the learning outcomes and educational experience of students.