Damming the Flood – dealing with bad news

Psychologists sometimes describe being emotionally overwhelmed by negative emotions as being ‘flooded’. Your emotional foundations are overrun and can feel in danger of being washed away. At some stage, all Headteachers will experience this overwhelming surge wave of negative emotions when facing bad news. A serious incident, a bad Ofsted experience, a poor set of examination results, a trusted colleague suddenly resigning. How do you cope with the breaching of your emotional storm protection?

Grieve. Take some time to come to terms with what’s happened. Bring in trusted confidants and explore the hurt, disappointment and anxiety the news has caused. Of course, a leader’s role is to be strong during times of challenge but who motivates the motivator? All leaders need a trusted support network to unload with in safety and without judgement. It maybe this support is external to the school but wherever your support, you need to offload. And for me unleash some of my favourite Anglo-Saxon words!

Face the fear. Share the fear. At the most basic level a leader facing really bad news will fear for their job. Their rent, mortgage, car loan, kids’ school trips will feel in peril. Seeking catastrophe is natural and expected. It can also impair rational thought and action. In most cases the worst-case scenario is not going to happen. It is hard to act though when you feel that your security can be washed away. If the culture of your school/Trust is strong and supportive you might be able to discuss this fear openly – if not seek a trusted colleague outside of the institution to speak to. I have a number of Headteacher friends who have proved invaluable sources of rational perspective when I have seen only doom and despair.

Resist the reclusive. There is a huge temptation to withdrawal into the security of your office as wearing the burden of bad news is heavy and uncomfortable. Yet your school needs you most at this time. At my first ever Ofsted inspection, a term into being a Head, the HMI told me in the first meeting the Academy would likely be put into a category. It wasn’t even 9 o’clock on the first day of inspection! As I came out of my office, shell shocked, a wonderful TA smiled at me and gave me an enquiring thumbs up, questioning ‘is all ok?’. I wanted a hug but returned the thumbs up and beamed a smile. Walk your school, seek out the excellent, talk to your students, prepare in your mind the best way to communicate to all those who care about the success of your school. You will find inspiration within your school and a vital connection to the moral purpose which will be vital for you in moving forward from a bad experience.

Be transparent. I have always sought to share bad news openly with staff, taking responsibility for it but also narrating the cause and effect. Sometimes you’re just too early in the journey and, in the future, plans will embed and be more effective. Sometimes events are out of your control but you have to offer reassurance and direction to assure the school that these difficult times won’t destabilise your progress or undermine the values the school is built upon. After a bad inspection a local Head called me and told me she wasn’t sharing the news with the staff until the report was published. This unleashed weeks of gossip, misinformation and staff morale, which had united to deal with the inspection, collapsed. It’s tempting to convey a ‘nothing bad has happened here’ demeanour but it won’t foster trust and a collective responsibility to address the challenge.

Start the resistance movement. There is a whole set of thinking that suggests leaders learn more from failure than from success. I think there is much truth in this – if failure leads to future success. There is nothing more powerful for a staff to face adversity and come through and deliver success. Adversity stress tests you, your team, your plans, your processes, your systems. You will identify weaknesses that need fixing or priorities that have been, perhaps brutally, put into perspective but the negative events encountered. You need then to set out simple, decisive responses to some of these problems with perhaps a longer reflection on more complex challenges. Unify your spirit, your team and your school with a humble defiance. You accept that things weren’t good enough but you there is also positives and strengths within the school which provide exemplars on how problems can be addressed effectively.

We know, unfortunately, that too many good school leaders have been disposed of, sometimes brutally, as a response to bad events. Sometimes this may be necessary but there is a group of leaders who have been unfairly branded by disappointments who still have enormous potential to offer schools. How we deal with disappointment is a key measure of leadership, but you should know, we have all been there and most of us not only survived but eventually thrived. Reach out, take your mental health seriously and seek laughter – even if for a few weeks the humour is a dark shade of funny.

James Eldon is Principal at Manchester Academy, Moss Side.

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