There is no question that educational leaders today deal with a relentless stream of competing demands, requiring them to work at a rapid pace, shifting quickly from one task to another. Often the survival cry of “let’s get it done” is overheard from school leaders as they zigzag between incidental needs and project deadlines. As a result, sometimes school leaders hesitate to stop and seek feedback on the issues that surround them. Some leaders may feel that gathering feedback slows down the pace or creates unnecessary obstacles that could be avoided. Under constant pressure and accountability to be both effective and efficient, it’s easy to see why school leaders can be tempted to skip over the feedback process. But when they do so, they risk the opportunity to launch the best ideas, build quality stakeholder and cultural investment, and make the strongest decisions they can.
Seeking feedback from those around us, and even those who seem distant from the issue, is necessary to help school leaders see through lenses that are not their own. Although school leaders do have a unique view on the school or district, it’s not the only view. Often leaders are too close to their own ideas, strategies, or solutions to examine the intricacies of the issue, as well as the ripple effect of their leadership moves. Feedback offers the leader anticipation in foresight, rather than regret in hindsight.
Some leaders may have a dislike of feedback, asking, “What if I ask for feedback and stakeholders aren’t supportive?” Too often leaders are afraid of adverse feedback, so they push their idea through to implementation prematurely. Leapfrogging over feedback may feel efficient, but its effectiveness is shortsighted. Feedback not only refines the leader’s idea, but also builds stakeholder investment along the way. In the end, if the idea failed to grow, it’s because it didn’t have enough initial feedback or it really didn’t have merit at the start. But, a leader will never really know about the potential of an idea until it goes through a healthy litmus test of feedback.
Although being a feedback-informed leader is not for the faint of heart, leaders can reframe difficult feedback to see it as a helpful tool; one that helps them steer toward a more inclusive idea in a preliminary stage. When leaders become feedback-seeking, rather than feedback-fearing, the leader’s collaboration, dialogue and transparency positively pervades the school culture. Stakeholders begin to think, “My thinking is important, my input is valued, I am an essential part of this process, and the leader wants and needs my feedback.”
Too often, educational leaders are expected to be the sole visionary, navigator, and decision-maker for their school or district. Leaders must change this prevailing belief to a shared leadership model. We know that the best leaders are not a solo act; truly effective leadership is collaborative. Shared educational leaders include stakeholders in the design, implementation, and improvement of ideas, strategies, and plans. Along the way, successful school leaders also engage in a steady diet of feedback from those around them. But who should they include? By putting key issues early and openly on the table, and thinking aloud about who the issue impacts, a leader begins to openly chart the territory of the issue and gain input on who to ask for meaningful feedback.
Before jumping into the deep end of feedback, leaders should think about who (which stakeholders), where (conversations, meetings), how (informal dialogues, written prompts) and when (sequence, timeline) the feedback will be sought. All of these factors will qualitatively and quantitatively impact the type of feedback a leader receives, and moreover the trust that is created or dismantled in the process.
One model of feedback gathering is questioning. Leaders should select only a few key questions to help inform and hone an idea at a concept stage. For example:
- “Who do you think should be involved in this idea/strategy/decision?”
- “Does my rationale make sense?”
- “How do you think this idea might affect ________?”
- “Could you read this draft and ask me clarifying questions that will help me crystallize my thinking even more?”
- “Does my explanation seem clear?”
- “How do you think _________ would perceive this idea/change/plan?”
- “Is there anyone you think would want to weigh in on this idea/plan/decision?”
- “Can you think of anyone or anything I might have overlooked?”
- “Can you help me think of a different way to approach this?”
- “Can you help me by arguing the other side of this idea?”
- “Can you help me think if I have missed a step?”
- “What might be a positive (or adverse) reaction to this that I may not be anticipating?”
- “If this idea went well (or did not go well), what would be the potential outcome?
When a leader’s questions are asked openly and nonjudgmentally, balanced with the right timing and undivided attention, staff will feel valued by the leader’s inquiry. Conversely, if the initial feedback dynamics are not set up with forethought, the leader runs the risk of creating an intimidating feel. Leaders should be thoughtful and genuine about asking questions, providing authentic acknowledgement along the way. Leaders should also leave stakeholders with the feeling that they had an important and productive conversation, where the light shed will unquestionably and positively impact the outcome.
Focus group model
Another effective strategy for obtaining feedback is to turn the idea over to a small diverse team or a focus group to vet the concept. The purpose of this group could be to ask clarifying questions, evaluate the feasibility, or design for improvement. This is a particularly effective means of getting feedback, since it instills a feeling of trust. When the leader hands over the early draft of an idea, it communicates, “I need you. I am relying on you to do your best thinking for our school.” In turn, stakeholders feel appreciated and will yield quality feedback in a safe way for the leader.
Creating a feedback culture
Becoming a feedback-informed leader inevitably and positively leads to the development of a feedback-informed culture. Whether a leader uses an inquiry method or a focus group model, regular feedback loops fast become a productive and dependable way of doing business for all. Stakeholders also seek and thrive on feedback-informed conversations, because of the early input and end value they offer, leading to shared leadership and decision-making in everyday teaching and learning. Feedback, then, is a naturally supportive and necessary leadership and learning tool, giving leverage to leaders and stakeholders alike.
What steps can you take to become a more feedback-informed leader this year?