Gráinne, what should I do? #5


Leading Your International School today shares our weekly Q&A for international school leaders and teachers. Questions are answered by Gráinne O’Reilly – founder of 13 schools around the world. Today we share Julia’s question. 

Julia: Dear Gráinne, I am several months into my principal journey. Everything is not quite as I expected. It appears there are some toxic members of staff who have been at the school for many years and are very opinionated.  What is the best course of action?

Gráinne: My Dear Colleague,

Please accept my apologies for the delay in answering your question – I have taken a few weeks to ponder it, read around the subject and discuss it with others.

Sadly, as with any group of people who find themselves working together, there will be those whose behaviours, opinions or actions create discomfort at best, and outright devastation at worst.

It can be very challenging pinning these individuals or small groups down and sometimes impossible to provide proof of their actions as much of the toxicity that is created is due to the underhand nature of how many of these people operate. Gossip, criticism of others, undermining or excluding certain people, or constantly behaving in a negative or complaining manner are all examples of the elements that create a toxic environment. Nobody wants to admit to this sort of behaviour, yet everyone knows how it feels to find oneself in this type of atmosphere.

This sort of culture is occasionally actively and purposefully created by one or two strong individuals who seek to achieve power within an organisation. I have been on the receiving end of this, myself, as a leader. More often, however, it is caused by an accumulation of perceived slights, petty grumbles or lack of support/answers/benefits/changes that have not been addressed in an open, assertive or proactive manner.

It is vital, as a leader, to create an environment in which disagreement and difference of opinion is valued. This is not easy – or indeed, comfortable! It is, however, extremely important for everyone to be allowed to openly express their professional opinions and to be heard without preference or fear of retribution.

For this to work there must be multiple routes and avenues for communication. Whilst a school, like most institutions, will have a hierarchy – great leaders make themselves available to everyone. I have seen so many organisation and communication charts in schools that create layers and layers of separation between leadership and many of the staff members. Leaders cannot be all things to all people at all times ( although there is an element of that in a start-up or when taking over a new school ), but you must ensure that your leadership structure is as flat as possible and that anyone can come to you when needed. This does not do away with the structures that we need to run the school, but regardless of those structures, everyone must know that access to leadership is available and that any member of staff will be afforded time and will be heard.

Assertiveness and honesty are also key in creating a free environment ( as free as humanly possible!) from negativity, back-biting and strife. Assertiveness is completely different from aggression – it is a win-win situation for both parties. As a leader, one’s responsibility to staff is to guide and develop them assertively, so that they may be the most effective professionals possible. That includes their communication, their relationships with others and the way they are perceived. I remember a ( wonderful) Head, fairly early on in my career telling me that I was perceived as overbearing as I was always shouting. I truly did not understand what she meant. As we discussed this, I realised that my very clear enunciation and vocal range were perceived quite differently from how it was meant. I grew up in a hearing-impaired family and to ensure that my lips were read with ease I developed speech patterns that were very precise and clear. Added to that, I trained in drama at university and never needed a microphone! These combined, made others think that I was shouting- that was their perception and as we know, perception is truth. Having this pointed out to me in a supportive manner, with no agenda other than to guide and help me, really made a difference in all of my interactions both professional and personal.

Many professionals go through their careers with no one giving them support or guidance- with no appraisals, professional interviews or opportunities for reflection and growth. All too often when these individuals find themselves in schools with poor communication, lack of clear and fair structures, and perhaps no support, their behaviour can become destructive, damaging and toxic.

This is a subject that we could muse upon and discuss forever as it is so wide and sadly, so ubiquitous. How do we combat it, however? I offer these suggestions:

•Assume good intent. This sounds simplistic, but it is a very important paradigm shift. If you truly see the other person or group as wanting the best, as desiring positive change, as seeking positive outcomes ( even when expressed poorly) then your response will be given in an entirely different spirit than viewing them as trouble makers, complainers or constantly moaning!

•Consider cultural influences- is there an issue here with communication and how it is perceived? We all communicate differently – is there an age gap, are there subtleties of language, are there limits or expectations that are cultural or due to gender? Hierarchy and position alone can hamper or affect communication, much less cultural or societal norms. How can you assess, understand and ameliorate this?

• Is this person right? Has there been an ongoing injustice or situation that was never acknowledged or perhaps purposely ignored for convenience or political reasons? Can the airing of this and acknowledgement create an opportunity for relief or forgiveness?

• Has this person or group had the opportunity to engage in face-to-face conversation? So many long-running, damaging situations have rumbled on, due to WRITTEN communication between parties and no direct, face-to-face communication. Speaking directly to each other – where one can gauge tone of voice, body language and a whole host of unspoken cues is always preferable, if possible.

• Has mediation been offered? A chance to speak with, or through, a neutral party- where both sides can fully express everything needed to be said in a calm, safe environment. Sometimes there is no actual solution, but people need to speak their truth and be respectfully heard.

• Is there something going on in this person’s life that you do not know about? In the international world, we are all without our extended network of family and friends. We may not have access to many of the things we take for granted such as medical care, therapy or opportunities to safely let off steam and truly relax. Mental health issues can often be triggered or exacerbated by isolation or dealing with the unknown. Being far away from familiarity and security can lead to risky or unwise habits or behaviours.  Dealing with the consequences of these issues may create considerable anxiety and changes in behaviour. Does the school provide opportunities to support staff who have to deal with these issues or staff who are feeling lost or isolated? Are there safe people or save spaces for them and if there are- do they know that? Wellness is a huge issue for everyone, but particularly for those of us who are thousands of miles away from home.

That leaves me with one more comment to make. If, as a leader, you have considered and actioned everything reasonable, supportive and practical in these matters- to no avail- you must consider the needs of the whole school before you bow to the tyranny of one malignant element. Staff do not deserve to come to school and have to deal with bullies, other people’s misery or constant negativity. That sort of behaviour always percolates through to the pupils and families and can ruin a school. If someone is unprofessional, selfish, malfeasant, damaging to the school’s reputation and unwilling to reflect or change- they cannot and must not be allowed to remain in the school. Document every interaction with them, however minor, monitor them, ensure you know the employment law of your region or country and let them go, with as much dignity as possible. You may be giving them the new start they need and you will certainly be releasing your school from significant stress and possible damage.

I hope this has been of use to you. In support of this, I recommend some books that you will undoubtedly find useful. 

If you would like to learn more about how to develop a successful school culture, or in dealing with a culture of toxicity, you can schedule a free consultation with Warren Cook, Leading Your International School’s resident People Leadership and Human Resources expert. 

Connect to Warren via email:

The Culture Map by Erin Meyer, 

Please Understand Me ( Books 1 and 2) by David Keirsey

The Courage To Be Disliked by Ichiro Kishimi and Fumitake Koga and 

Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goldman.

Thank you for reading, if you have any questions for Gráinne to answer about Leading Your International School, email them to:  

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