Leaders across all professions now live in a “what have you done for me lately” culture.
Rather than consider what they have done over the long term, bosses are being judged on their most recent actions. Whereas these individuals may have a stellar professional track record, today's "instant gratification" culture shows them no mercy.
One prime example is with college athletics. In the high-stakes world of college football, coaches can reach legendary status one year ... and be fired the next.
Take for instance former Auburn football head coach Gene Chizik. In just his second season at the helm, Chizik led his team to a 14-0 record and the 2010 National Championship. This was the first national title in fifty-three years for a football-crazed university. For many Tiger fans, Chizik was hailed as the Second Coming.
However, the next two seasons were not nearly as successful. In 2011, Chizek's Auburn team went 8-5. And in 2012, they went 3-9. As the end of the season neared, Auburn alumni grew restless. Fans who were once Chizik's most loyal supporters called for his firing.
Sure enough, less than 24 hours after the season ended, Chizik was terminated. Just two years removed from being named National Coach of the Year, Chizik was without a job.
Although their jobs may not be as volatile as college football coaches, many school leaders fall victim to recency bias.
School leaders can do incredible things for years, but over time, stakeholders forget the progress that the leader brought to the position. Rather than wonder, "What is wrong with me?", leaders must understand this scenario is commonplace in today's society.
For a moment, imagine a low-performing school with a history of underperformance. The school has gone through a number of principals due to poor hiring and a toxic environment. However, this time the school hires a dynamic principal. In just one short year, the principal brings much needed energy to the once dormant building.
Staff say, “We love working for our new boss!”
Parents say, “The new principal is awesome!”
Board members say, “We are happy to have them here!”
However, a few years later, the new leader "shine" has worn off. Even though the principal is doing the same exact things that brought them praise in year one, stakeholders question the leader.
Staff say, “I'm sick of working for this boss.”
Parents say, “The principal isn't good for students.”
Board members say, “I'm don't think they're a good fit."
Rather than reflect on how far the building has come since the principal's arrival, the school community finds reasons to complain.
While this narrative doesn't seem fair to the leader, this rapid decline in public opinion highlights a principle of human psychology called adaptation.
In The Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz explains: "Adaptation means that as we get used to things, we start to take them for granted. Because of adaptation, enthusiasm about positive experiences doesn't sustain itself."
Adaptation is found in all aspects of life. For example, at some point you likely bought a new car. You loved everything about your new vehicle: the look, the smell, the features. Every time you thought about your car, you got excited.
However, over time the excitement wore off. As your car needed repairs and new cars hit the market, you began to take your vehicle for granted. A few short years later, you started to wonder if it's time to trade in your "old" car for something new.
Similar to how you treated your car over time, school districts do the same to their leaders. Whereas the individual may be one of the best principals a building has ever had, over time staff and parents begin to think things could be better with someone else in charge.
A personal example of a “what have you done for me lately” attitude came last winter.
When I took over the role of superintendent, I was told we needed to shore up communication around weather-related cancellations. In the past, timely, transparent communication was lacking.
So, from day one we promised to improve our weather-related communication. For three years, we were applauded for our winter weather communication. Parents appreciated the early announcements so they could adjust their schedules, and staff valued the transparency in how we made decisions.
However, in March of 2021 we got caught in some untimely bad weather. As of 5:00am, roads were manageable and the forecast looked clear. After some discussion, we decided to bring kids into school. However - as kids were starting to get dropped off at school - the weather quickly turned for the worst. And after checking with our district leadership team, we chose to cancel school for the day.
You would have thought we had never made a good decision in our life. Immediately, parents flooded the district with their displeasure on how the situation was handled. They let their opinions be known through phone calls, emails, and - of course - social media.
Here were some of the “school appropriate” comments we received:
“Someone needs to pay attention...”
“This one is on you, STC administration!”
“Administration must have forgot to set their alarm."
"Roads were crap at 5:30!”
“Your policies need to be ripped up.”
To make matters worse, I received word that several employees were upset about the decision.
“Many staff are upset about the communication this morning,” was one communication I received.
“Did you think about your staff when you made your decision?” was another.
“We need to seriously consider changing our weather policies,” was a third.
To this day, some staff in our district still believe we need to completely overhaul our communication system as a result of this one incident.
While weather-related decisions are a bit of an outlier, the truth is many stakeholders operate with recency bias. Whether the situation involves the handling of a thorny student issue - or the dismissal of a popular staff member - leaders who do great things for years can quickly find themselves in hot water with the school community.
What can leaders do to combat the "what have you done for me lately" mentality? Consider the following:
You Are Not Alone: Even when we understand the concept of adaptation, the principle is so deeply ingrained in our nervous system there is little we can do to lessen its effect. However, being aware of the idea - and knowing most leaders go through similar experiences - lessens the blow.
I Go Back: Leaders can't let people forget how far the school has come under their leadership. Understanding that most people have terrible memories, leaders must get in a habit of sharing multiyear data trends with internal and external stakeholders. Assuming the data is positive, these reminders limit the community's ability to question their performance.
Flip It and Reverse It: Use recency bias to your advantage by addressing weaknesses. Say a leader is criticized for not being approachable. Rather than complain, "They don't know what they're talking about!" this leader would be wise to attack those concerns. After several months of "good behavior", there is a great chance stakeholders will have forgotten their previous perceptions.
I'm Movin' On: Few people want to show up to a job when their efforts go unrecognized. There are many reasons why principals average only average four years in a position, and feeling under-appreciated is one of them. Many leaders indicate that moving to a new job where they feel valued can be a breath of fresh air and rejuvenate a career.
Is it Too Late Now To Say Sorry: Assuming you treat people well and perform your job at a high level, people who are critical of your work likely realize "we didn't have it so bad" when you are gone. Too many times, employees wish for another boss only to realize they made a huge mistake when the new principal is a dud. People who stay positive and lead with integrity leave lasting legacies in schools.
School leaders must understand that stakeholders won’t remember their past glories for long. In a fast-paced world where the only constant is change, humans are always on the lookout for better options.
When staff and parents complain about your leadership after years of effectiveness, don't beat yourself up. Instead, understand that many leaders go through similar experiences.