ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Joseph Grenny is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.
Dear Crucial Skills,
In our school we have a teacher who is a bully. Others are afraid to confront her and the team atmosphere has suffered as a result. Word has now reached us in administration that some teachers might even leave the school if this continues. However, no teacher who has complained to us is prepared to be quoted. This makes it impossible to either coach this teacher by sharing examples with her, or hold her fully accountable with verifiable evidence.
Given this need for anonymity, how should I, as the supervisor, approach this with the teacher concerned?
Dear No Data,
I believe the most basic yearning of the human soul is the desire to be loved. We all want to be accepted, affirmed and approved of by those around us. And when you tamper with someone’s view of their peers’ esteem, you touch the most tender part of their self.
When supervisors presume to expose an erring employee to the scourging experience of long-withheld negative feedback, we must do so with utmost caution. When a community colludes for a long period of time in sustaining someone’s distorted view of themselves, we stand to inflict enormous pain on this person who is suddenly dragged kicking and screaming from the cave into piercing daylight. The experience can ultimately be healthy, but it can also drive someone back into the cave if not handled appropriately.
I say this for two reasons.
First, I’d like all of our readers to think carefully about the active damage we do when we collude with others by withholding negative feedback for a colleague. When we allow a colleague to continue for long periods of time with a distorted image of themselves, we set them up for profound suffering in the long term—not to mention immediate ineffectiveness as they continue their bad habits.
Second, while I have no desire to absolve this teacher of responsibility for her abusive actions, I want to temper the emotion that often accompanies long-withheld feedback. The longer you wait to confront others, the more toxic our emotions become. Interesting, isn’t it? The other person continues to behave in the same way, but our emotions get hotter and hotter. Why? Our reaction to the first offense is the maximum amount of negative emotion we should attribute to that person. The rest of our upset that accrues over time is due to our own sellout—our long-standing decision to withhold the honesty we owe others.
I hope this brief reference to the shared responsibility that got you to your current position helps temper the emotions you (and others) might carry as you begin this crucial confrontation.
Now, you’re in a tough situation. Given that you’ve chosen to step up, and those with the information required to do so have not, you’ve got two hands tied behind your back. So let’s see if we can wiggle a limb loose to help you succeed.
I suggest the following three options to get unstuck:
1. Challenge the offended. Consider gathering the handful of people who have been offended by the teacher and respectfully encourage them to consider their own role in perpetuating the situation. Ask them to consider “What do I really want?” and see if this reflection and the safety of numbers boosts their confidence in being quoted.
2. Gather direct data. In an ideal world you would put yourself into a situation to observe some of the teacher’s behavior. This may be difficult, but if you could gather these facts you would be able to speak with first hand knowledge.
3. Contact for coaching. If #1 and #2 fail, you can discuss the concerns at a high level and offer to play the role of coach. You would let the teacher know that you ve heard multiple concerns about behavior that some find abusive. You should let her know that your only goal is to help both this teacher and those who seem offended. Explain that others have been unwilling to be quoted, but that you would like to conduct interviews with a broad sample of other teachers who would have a view on the topic and then share findings from those interviews afterward. While the teacher will likely be uncomfortable, if you help her understand that you want to get her the coaching she may need and support her in addressing these concerns, you can build a modicum of trust and safety with you. Finally, during the interviews, I would encourage you to ask each interviewee to commit to attending a group debrief with this teacher at the conclusion. This would be a 30-minute session in which you would share the findings with this teacher, and allow her to ask questions of any of those who were in the interview. If they agree to participate in this, it would help them accept some of the responsibility they should own for influencing the situation for the better.
There are no easy answers at this point. But I hope these suggestions help you find a path forward.