When I accepted my first job as school superintendent, I wasn’t sure what to expect. To prepare for the role, I reached out to several current and former superintendents asking for advice.
While arranging these conversations took work, the advice gleaned during these discussions 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 school leadership “rule of thumb.” 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. In turn, they should limit their surprises as well. 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 an unexpected request or demand. Examples include:
"...you have an IEP meeting today after school."
"...you will teach a new course second semester."
“…you have a student teacher starting next week.”
"...you need to sell tickets at the game tonight."
"...you have a new student starting today."
"...you are moving buildings next year.”
To administrators, these may not seem like big deals. “Teachers will just have to adjust" principals declare prior to changing teacher lunch schedules or implementing a new classroom walkthrough template. While some staff go with the flow and adjust on the fly, most employees do not respond well to 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 by 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, oftentimes 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 a high school principal that flopped.
As a high school 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 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 leadership 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. Go Trojans!”
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. “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.
Tro-Jan Na-Tion! Former NFL player JJ Moses hypes up the pep assembly crowd.
What steps can leaders take to limit surprises? Consider these six 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 meetings are scheduled or how to order classroom supplies - 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. Most supervisors do not appreciate being surprised with news. Catch them off guard too many times, and supervisors start to wonder if they hired the right person. Always remember that no one determines your career trajectory and professional fate more than your direct supervisor.
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. Furthermore, 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. Realignment of duties. Administrators are responsible for having difficult conversations with employees. Fearful of upsetting their staff, many bosses wait until the last minute to share bad news - if they share bad news at all. While some information must remain confidential, the general rule of thumb is the earlier you communicate and the more informed your people are, the better they’ll be able to deal with change.
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 took the car without asking.
My daughter is failing a class.
My boyfriend cheated on me.
My girlfriend made plans during the game.
My husband forgot our anniversary.
My wife maxed out the credit card.
My friend isn’t coming to my wedding.
My colleague didn’t show up for their shift.
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 profession full of uncertainty.