Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Leaders' surgery


Staff behaving badly...

Q I manage our team of support staff middle managers. One person in particular does her job effectively but doesn't work as well as I would like as part of the team. She gets annoyed when asked to do things that fall outside her job description and complains about little things that really are not important. It's not a performance management issue; just that I would like her attitude to improve. How do I approach her about this?

A It is often difficult to make a move on attitudes rather than performance, as if the two were not related. This person's behaviour is clearly giving you difficulties: it is affecting your relationship, it is detrimental to the functioning of the team and it is contrary to the professional flexibility we need if we are to embrace change and progress.

You are just as entitled to talk to her about behaviours and attitudes as you are about performance and targets. As her manager, you have the right to hold a set of expectations about the attitudes and behaviours of your staff as well as the components of their job descriptions. Equally, as with children, when we don't challenge bad behaviours they take it as a form of approval. They both continue that behaviour and experiment with still more challenging ones in order to find out where the boundaries are.

There is no alternative but to have that 'difficult conversation' with her, to bring all these concerns up to the surface and to clarify your expectations. This does not have to be part of her formal performance management but is simply part of your job as her manager.

Prior to that conversation, identify two or three issues you want to raise based on the most recent incidents. Check how these relate to relevant school policies so you are sure of your ground, and make the appointment. Check out your strategy with your line manager or the head so that you know you are supported from above.

For teaching staff, you could also refer to the Framework of Professional Standards for Teachers, which is the basis for the School Teachers' Pay and Conditions.

The framework sets out to establish the standards of our 'new professionalism', serves as the context for performance management and provides the backdrop to discussions about performance and future development.

During the first half of the meeting, allow her to do most of the talking: listen to her side of the case, pick out the key words she uses and incorporate those words in your follow-up questions, so that you are following her agenda at this stage and illuminating her issues and insecurities. This will enable you to base your strategy on a clear understanding of the problem from her perspective.

In the second half, it is time to be more assertive, sharing with her the impact of her behaviours on you, the team and the students and clarifying your expectations. Agreement about your expectations would be great, but is not necessary. You are entitled to continue to assert them, gently but clearly setting out the boundaries.

Try to identify one particular target or requirement for the near future, agree to it, however small, and then take out your diaries to book a further discussion within three weeks. This will give the message that you are not going to let this one go after just one chat and gives her time to absorb what you have said and consider her position calmly. If you can't agree a target (agreement might involve too much 'loss of face'), book the follow-up meeting anyway.

Keep your manager informed about your progress and if after three meetings you are still getting nowhere, it is time to develop your case for formal procedures. Take further professional advice at this stage.

After each meeting, write her a friendly 'thank you' note or email, briefly outlining what you discussed, how helpful you had found it and what you agreed. Keep a copy for your files. This becomes part of the paper trail of evidence of your good, proactive management and of her responses - invaluable in any future formal procedures.

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