Why we need to eliminate damaging hierarchy in the education workplace


15 Jun

 Over the past 18 months I have been working with lots of different colleges, schools, and universities. It has been extremely enlightening in many ways and I have observed how hierarchy can inhibit how organisations and teams operate. 

With changing landscapes and having had to be more flexible and adaptable then ever in education to ensure our students get the best experience, I have seen different approaches and have some thoughts on what seems to have worked best.   

Where there is a clear ‘them and us’ culture, staff expect to be told what to do and do only what they are told to do and what they hope is good enough without question. Often this leaves them anxious and stressed as they haven’t asked for clarification, support or training to fill the gaps. Or they have regressed into ‘compliant child’ mode where they feel 'done to' and haven’t bought into the bigger picture. They are not used to having or feel they have no voice in a hierarchical culture. In this kind of environment there is also an element of fear around risk taking as the environment does not provide a safe enough space to encourage and enable this. There is a lot of telling and little listening. Because of this little change happens and poor practice can perpetuate. Aspirations to improve practice are suffocated. 

To feel able and empowered staff need to have ownership and accountability for their practice, professional integrity, and behaviour. This helps them to have a voice, improves efficacy and leads to them feeling valued. This is underpinned by a culture where  everyone learns from what  does and doesn’t work, where we learn from learning – the platform for innovation and change . More on the psychology behind this in ‘Black box Thinking’,  Matthew Syed.  

The best practices I have seen include coaching conversations taking place everywhere - 2-way conversations, which are approached with curiosity using appropriate questions to dig deeper, give everyone an equal platform and involve lots of lots of listening . When these are being used In learning walks, observations, appraisals, team meetings, in informal conversation with colleagues and in every conversation with students there is a respectful ‘can do’ approach to learning where individuals own their actions. 

Practically, some good practice which encourages leaving hierarchy at the door includes ensuring everyone respects turn taking for equal participation, rotation of who leads meetings, encouraging everyone to bring in ideas and harnessing the experience and expertise of teams. This encourages respect and better collaboration. When individual strengths are known, the right people can be tasked with what they are best at and the quality of engagement and outcome improves greatly.

 We personalise learning for students, let’s also do that for staff members who need to be managed in different ways. It is very useful to determine readiness for tasks so that individuals can be supported and motivated in the right way and we can tailor bespoke ways to best suit them. One of the most interesting philosophies encouraging equality and  leaving hierarchy at the door is ‘The thinking Environment’,  Nancy Kline. https://www.timetothink.com/thinking-environment/the-ten-components/

 'The quality of everything we do depends on the quality of the thinking we do first. The quality of our thinking depends on the way we treat each other while we are thinking the quality of everything we do depends on the quality of the thinking we do first.The quality of our thinking depends on the way we treat each other while we are thinking’ 

Finally on a practical basis where this non-hierarchical environment is working managers and  leaders are approachable, available, flexible, visible, interested, great active listeners, really know individuals, and adjust  their management style to suit.  There is high praise and high levels of accountability which encourages ownership of actions. Successes are showcased and celebrated, there is reflection when things  don’t work out and  everyone is encouraged to learn from their mistakes and to learn from the learning. As a result these teams demonstrate, high energy, are motivated, innovative, have  growth mindsets https://fs.blog/2015/03/carol-dweck-mindset/ and are  happier  and more productive at work. 

Some research based and evidence informed CPD activities for teachers hat I have seen to enable this include: 

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