Mary-Jo Hill

14 Oct 2020
Holding it together at work can be hard.

What happens to your default leadership style under continued pressure? We all have innate strengths as a leader and more so as very competent managers, as I would argue that all headteachers are demonstrating right now, but what does happen to those strengths as we continue on this trajectory? For some, the continual change and reactive response to real challenges and crisis management will be bringing out the very best of many headteachers. I am not sure about any comparison to Trump here but you get my gist when thinking about the efficiency of fast-paced/problem solving ‘as if on steroids’, can be an addictive way of coping that is difficult to sustain.

How measured do we become? How removed can you take yourself from the anger and frustration played out locally and nationally that puts you right at the very cliff face of dealing with these inequalities? Does this manifest in your leadership style? How conscious are you of the way in which you are managing all of those around you? A recent study by Harris and Jones (2020) describes the importance of self-care as a leader but also the importance of distributed leadership. Distributed leadership is fundamentally about building lateral capacity. Tricky at the best of times.

When pressure turns into tears

In my many years of coaching, I have had my fair share of encounters with tears. Coaching is not counselling but it can be a similar experience in some ways, since we are basically working on places that we might not be going for obvious reasons. Acknowledging a behaviour or experience that is having minimal or detrimental impact or the feelings of being overwhelmed and that you maybe lacking as a professional is always difficult. And difficulty can trigger many different reactions such as anger, denial, disappointment, and sometimes, crying. What is your deep and unaddressed response to the teacher/s on the Upper Pay Scale who are not putting in as much effort as you are? What are the uncomfortable thoughts you may have about the TA in your class? Possibly some cognitive dissonance rearing its head.

However, we live in a society that is not comfortable with tears whatsoever, and when this happens in the workplace the demonization can be bigger. ‘Weak’, ‘vulnerable’, ‘sensitive’, and ‘too emotional’ are many of the labels that some professionals have to deal with if they ‘make the mistake’ of crying at work. The person seems to gain a negative stamp that makes them less valuable in the working place. I only imagine that every virtual staffroom has a box of tissues alongside the biscuit tin. But who are we able to share this with?

When I find myself in a session in which tears are involved, I feel moved because I know I am dealing with someone that cares. Someone that wants to do better. Someone that is hurt by the thought of disappointing their school, the staff, the pupils or feeling just overwhelmed by all of this. Sometimes its is someone who is dealing with a lot at the moment and that is more than just the school day.

Leadership style: Dealing with emotions

As a coach you are always dealing with someone and something. All the tools, the methods, the models are being used on a person with feelings, expectations, and fears. Crying at work might not be considered ideal, but pretending it does not happen won’t help. That is a key situation in which your leadership style is tested.

So, how to deal with emotional responses in the workplace? You don’t have to fix it. Don’t tell a funny story to end your discomfort with other’s tears. Don’t give them a pitying look. Just acknowledge what they are feeling by respecting their reaction. Listen to it. Ask if they want to take a break. Maybe offer a tissue. But, please, let them cry.

Of course, the reality is probably very different: catching that loo break – if you can – and taking your moment to collect yourself to go back to class will be very short-lived. Feel reassured that many are catching their own very snatched moments for a cry or a rant or perhaps even indignant rage, which is also difficult to be on the receiving end for any headteacher.

Which brings us nicely to the issue of school toilets. Every school council wants to talk about the toilets. I cannot count the number of conversations I have had with school pupils about toilets over the years. Very important. Only this week, a post on Twitter about a retiring head writing messages of hope and reassurance in the staff toilets made me smile but will no doubt be one of his most cherished legacies for many staff to follow. What is in your staff toilets I wonder? I like to think that that many are emulating high-end hotels as a place of secret refuge. So what is making your staff toilets a place of refuge from the chaos right now? Would love to hear the best and worst. After all, polarities and inequalities are where we are at right now.