As school leaders, we need feedback from staff on how things are going; we can’t be present in that many hotspots, CPD sessions, lessons or conversations. But it’s hard for staff to be fully honest when their jobs, livelihoods and promotions depend partly on their relationships with heads and senior leaders.
Getting honest feedback depends hugely on how well we take feedback when it’s given – however unsolicited!
What tried-and-tested ways are there to take feedback well?
How can we create a culture in our school where we all receive feedback from others really well, so as not to discourage people from sharing it in the future?
Four examples of being given feedback in schools
Let’s take some examples of unexpected feedback that I’ve seen people give and get given in the last 11 years.
Three heads of department come into a deputy head’s office. Things look heated.
‘Can we have a word please? The data drop deadlines for Year 7 to 11 and sixth form are all hitting teachers at the same time! Some of our teachers teach all 7 year groups. There’s massive pressure on us right now, and the communication has been really poor, to be frank. There’s a bit of a vacuum of leadership on this.’
A head of year emails SLT about whole-school end-of-break routines, with strong feelings.
‘To be honest, we haven’t cracked lineups yet. Standards are slipping, and though we ask for silence it isn’t happening. Our expectations are lowering, and we don’t have enough SLT support or presence. There’s sometimes not a single SLT member or duty staff member there at all. It feels chaotic, students ignore us and bundle off loudly and boisterously into corridors, and to tell you the truth, I come into work dreading having to lead them. It would be good to get your thoughts on what we do about this.’
When a VP pops into a subject department office, a long-term cover teacher is in tears.
‘That was a terrible cover lesson. They were so disrespectful. On call didn’t come when I asked. One rubbed my warnings off the board. Another hid the projector remote. I think another went through my bag. It was really intimidating. I felt terrible. totally helpless.’
A middle leader is exasperated that other staff aren’t doing what’s needed, and shares their frustrations with an assistant head.
‘People aren’t doing their jobs! We always have to pick up the pieces but we don’t have time for it all! If people just did what we asked them to… it doesn’t have to be like this, but they have to start pulling their weight!’
In these moments, it’s human to feel defensive, to defend ourselves or others from criticism, to justify, contextualise or explain. It’s normal and natural to feel a little prickly when our ideas, our close colleagues or our teams come in for criticism. It’s hard not to inadvertently deflect responsibility.
These are moments of truth for staff in schools. The school leader’s response sends a signal, whether deliberate or not. The response either signals that we are open to listening and welcome upward feedback, or it signals that we are not open to learning and that we don’t want honest feedback.
To stop me getting defensive in these moments, and to show staff that honest feedback is a good thing, I’ve created a mnemonic to help me remember what’s best to do in these moments.
Five things to keep in mind to receive feedback well
To receive feedback well, we can try and keep five things in mind, chunked into the mnemonic RESET.
Reassure: reassure them that the feedback is taken in the spirit it’s intended.
‘Just to reassure you – I’ll never take feedback badly. It’s valuable: it improves things!’
Enquire: ask to hear more about their view, and other perspectives.
‘What are the impacts of this that you’re seeing?’
’What else is on your mind on this?’
‘What would you tell me if you were being even more totally honest?!’’
‘What’s the other perspective on this?’
Summarise: summarise the core of the feedback and check it’s been fully understood.
‘What you’re saying is, if I’ve understood it….. Is that it?’ … ‘What am I missing?’
‘To summarise, here’s the top thing I think we can do better. Is that the one that makes most sense?’’
Encourage: encourage further honest upward feedback in future – or in the moment.
‘Keep sharing your thoughts honestly and directly like this! If we don’t know about it, we can’t address it.’
‘Keep letting us know about this sort of stuff! We have blind spots on SLT – we won’t see the things you do unless you help us see what you see!’
Thank: appreciate the giver for taking the time, effort and courage to be up front.
‘Thanks for letting me know about this and for being honest about how you feel; I appreciate it!’
‘Better to let me know than talk about it behind my back – thank you for fronting up!’
‘I appreciate you sharing this, so that we can work out what we can do better.’
To be clear, this isn’t a set sequence: it’s not that you have to go through all five things every time, and it doesn’t have to be in order at all. That’s far too formulaic and doesn’t feel genuine.
It can be light-touch. Here’s an example of how I’ve seen it work in practice.
These five options give us a way to avoid natural but suboptimal defensive reactions.
Instead of criticising the criticism, in the first instance I might summarise it.
Instead of pushing back and shutting down the conversation, we open up to asking and hearing about the situation, its impact and context more fully.
Instead of justifying or rationalising a mistake I’ve made, say, I can use the chance to listen and understand, and make my colleague feel understood.
Instead of leaping to defend myself, discouraging future honesty, I can encourage my colleagues to keep letting me know how inevitable unintended consequences are playing out.
Instead of putting up barriers between staff and the senior team, I can learn where things aren’t working out that well.
Instead of ignoring it, I can work out at least one thing we can do better.
Knowledge and expertise, though, are key. Unless we as school leaders know how best to improve behaviour (cover and lineups in the examples above), curriculum (assessment and data in the examples above), and staff culture (underperformance, staff teamwork and comms in the examples above), reassurance and encouragement will fall flat without actually improving things.
What do we gain from taking feedback well?
First, staff trust us as school leaders more.
Reassuring, encouraging and thanking – each takes care of the emotionally risky side to giving upward feedback. Staff worry. They fear they’ll be seen as complainers or moaners. I’ve often heard staff express this feeling when giving honest upward feedback: ‘I don’t want to moan!’ ‘I don’t want to come across like I’m just complaining the whole time!’ We all worry how others perceive us, especially those who control our prospects of career progression; it’s natural. So we on SLT have to work hard to counteract these natural fears.
Second, trust helps the truth flow upwards.
We see reality better.
We see our blind spots better.
We see unintended consequences better.
We get useful disagreement.
We understand people’s concerns better.
Two ideas I learned from Harvard law profs Stone and Heen are the idea of a second score and the importance of boundaries when taking feedback.
Five questions for giving ourselves a second score
When receiving feedback, no matter how harsh, we can always choose how we respond to it.
We can always strive to respond well, to build trust and to approach things well.
Even in response to an Ofsted grade, or lower-than-hoped-for GCSE or Alevel results (for a school, department, teacher or kid!), we can give ourselves a second score: a score for how well we respond.
Reassure: How well did we react to the feedback, even parts that weren’t quite right or unhelpful?
Enquire: How well did we ask for others’ input and thinking?
Summary: How well did we summarise rather than criticise it, to work out what, if anything, we can learn from it?
Encourage: How well did we encourage future feedback by acting on it, choosing one top thing to try out from it?
Thank: How well did we make the conversation, or trust-building useful for the future, perhaps by showing appreciation?
But we can also get overwhelmed and overloaded by feedback. Especially if we become what Stone and Heen call a ‘gimme-feedback fanatic’, which I have susceptibility to become!
Some feedback isn’t so useful. Especially harsh or bitter criticism, where it’s badly clouded, often says much more about the person giving the feedback than the person it’s about. As a pal of mine puts it, ‘feedback is a gift; but some gifts you take to Oxfam!’
Given the volume of input that school leaders get, it’s important to discern and filter out feedback that isn’t useful.
We have to draw boundaries. We have to be able to say: ‘I don’t want feedback on that subject, not right now.’ Or: ‘I don’t (think we) have the headspace to act on that at the moment, but thank you for letting me know about it.’ There’s always masses to work on. Change is taxing; overloading ourselves doesn’t help. External feedback may not be the very best next step to take and focus on. We can decline the offer of overloading feedback firmly, appreciatively, explaining why and redirecting feedback to where and when it’s most welcome.
Some forms of feedback can start to become toxic.
If the feedback is unrelentingly hostile.
If the feedback always involves you having to change, and never any change from the giver.
If your views and feelings aren’t a legitimate part of the relationship.
Then the feedback may be turning toxic.
That’s when drawing boundaries – or, ultimately, if boundaries are ignored, moving on – are important.
Feedback is, for the most part, a path towards learning and improving. It’s hard to perceive ourselves fully, and the impact we have on others. Seeking plenty of feedback can often propel our development.
To create a culture of receiving feedback really well, we can share these three challenges and ideas with staff.
How to respond to tough feedback in the moment: RESET.
Reassure, Enquire, Summarise, Encourage, Thank.
How to keep improving how we accept feedback: second score.
Give ourselves a second score for how we responded to the feedback, rating or grade given.
How to clarify to feedback givers when it gets overloading: boundaries.
Explain gently but firmly: ‘I don’t feel able to act on feedback on that, not right now.’
These ideas help us lead by example in moments of truth, when it’s most difficult.
Seeking feedback is vital for school leaders; so is taking it well.
Let’s look in the next post at how we as school staff can best give feedback.