When I accepted my first school superintendent role in 2018, I wasn’t sure what to expect. To prepare for the position, I reached out to several well-respected current and former superintendents asking for advice.
While arranging these conversations took a lot of work, the advice gleaned during these conversations was absolute gold. We covered many topics including administrator evaluation, program assessment, instructional leadership, and public relations.
However, one conversation in particular will always stand out. During a phone call with a retired superintendent, I asked him to share his best “rule of thumb” for school leadership. When I asked him the question, he paused for a moment and then said the following:
After another pause, he continued:
“When facing a major issue, you must keep the board and your administrators in the loop. You must guarantee they are never caught off guard, and you must avoid making decisions that leave them scratching their heads. And in turn, they shouldn’t surprise you. It all comes down to no surprises … you must create a culture of no surprises.”
In theory, the concept of “no surprises” sounds simple.
In practice, creating a culture of “no surprises” is far from easy.
Surprises come in all shapes and sizes and originate at all levels of school leadership. Surprises typically start with a school leader saying “By the way…” and end with any of the following:
"...you have an IEP meeting today after school."
"...you will teach a new course second semester."
"...you need to work the volleyball game tonight."
"...you have a new student starting today."
"...you are moving buildings next year.”
To administrators, these may not be big deals. “Teachers will just have to adjust" principals declare prior to arbitrarily changing teacher lunch schedules for 2nd semester or abruptly implementing a new classroom walkthrough template. While some staff go with the flow and make adjustments regardless of the decision, most employees do not appreciate surprises.
Consider the science behind surprises. According to Surprise: Embrace the Unpredictable and Engineer the Unexpected by Tania Luna and LeAnn Renninger, surprises magnify emotions as much as 400%. When surprises are positive, the resulting happiness feels four times stronger compared to the same event without the surprise. Alternately, when surprises are negative, the resulting unhappiness feels four times as intense.
This is where school leaders must be very careful. Whereas many bosses believe their surprises will benefit staff, in reality they have the opposite effect. “Why wouldn't employees want to be recognized in front of the faculty?” and “Why wouldn’t our at-risk team want another counselor?” were two surprise decisions I made as principal that didn't go over so well.
As an assistant principal, I will never forget when we decided to hold a last-minute pep rally for our football team. Our team was in the middle of the 2012 state playoffs - and while we already held a pep rally for the first-round game - there was mounting student pressure to hold a pep rally for the second-round game.
Always a sucker for school spirit, I convinced our administrative team to cut 8th period by 20 minutes so we could gather in the gym to give our football team a fitting farewell. “Why wouldn’t teachers want to end class 20 minutes early?” I assured the other administrators.
So as the last lunch shift wrapped up, I got on the loudspeaker and announced, “By the way … we will have a last-minute pep assembly for our football team. Please bring your class to the gym at 2:40pm!”
Assuming I had made their day easier, I visited several classrooms shortly after the announcement. But instead of excitement, I noticed frustration on teachers' faces. “I’m giving my 8th period a test. What am I supposed to do?” asked one teacher. “This is the third time you’ve shortened 8th period in the last two weeks,” said another teacher. “You’ve had two pep assemblies for the football team, but nothing for our music programs,” said a third.
The more classrooms I visited, the more I realized my “surprise” had backfired. What should have been a cool moment for our students was diminished because of added stress given to our teachers.
Better times: Former NFL player and Waterloo East grad JJ Moses at the 2013 Homecoming Pep Assembly.
What steps can leaders take to limit surprises? Consider these five ideas:
Brainstorm: When decisions are imminent, cycle through every individual who could potentially be impacted by the news. Even seemingly small decisions - such as when to schedule a meeting or how to handle a sticky student situation - could create issues if leaders do not look at each decision through a “who-could-be-surprised-by-this-news” lens.
It Goes Both Ways: When limiting surprises, the natural tendency is to consider employees we supervise. However, school leaders must also consider their supervisors. Whether you report to a principal, a superintendent, or the school board ... understand that your boss determines your professional fate. Far more leaders lose their jobs as a result of surprising their supervisors than they do poor test scores.
Ask for Feedback: One simple step to avoid surprises is asking questions. "What do you think about this idea?” is a powerful question. Bosses who constantly ask employees for feedback on ideas eliminate the surprised feeling when decisions are made. As I've discussed before, leaders who actively pose questions and seek input find that staff are more supportive of decisions.
Don't Wait: Reduction in force. Plan of assistance. Reassignment of position. Administrators are responsible for having difficult conversations with employees. Fearful of upsetting their staff, many bosses wait until the last minute to share hurtful information. While some information must remain confidential, the general rule is the early you communicate and the more informed your people are, the better they’ll be able to deal with discomfort.
Explain Tough Decisions: School leaders are notoriously bad when it comes to explaining tough decisions ... especially personnel decisions. Rather than tell subpar employees why they are being moved to a different position or tell aspiring leaders why they didn't get a promotion, many bosses avoid these conversations all together. Not only is this approach unfair to the employee, this creates a culture of mistrust and uncertainty within the organization.
Apologize: Did you make a decision that took staff off guard? When this happens, one of the best things you can do is take ownership of the mistake. Apologizing is one of the most powerful gestures in the human arsenal. Leaders who have the courage to say, "I'm sorry ... I screwed up ... I won't make the same mistake again" build trust with employees and can win over even the harshest of critics.
Having spent several years thinking about surprises, I've developed the following theory:
“People only get upset when they are surprised.”
Think about this phrase for a moment. When you feel most upset, what are the root causes?
My son totaled the car.
My daughter didn't do her homework.
My boyfriend cheated on me.
My girlfriend made plans during the game.
My husband forgot our anniversary.
My wife spent $500 shopping.
My friend isn’t coming to my wedding.
My boss is making me work this weekend.
In every case, what is the root cause of unhappiness? Being surprised.
Bosses who establish a culture of "no surprises" bring stability to a volatile profession.
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