The unintended consequences of not looking after yourself

By December 30, 2015 Uncategorized

A blog about the positive impact of leadership wellbeing.

No one sets out to have a negative impact on relationships within their team, or to create a climate of tension and therefore discourage communication. However, these can be the unintended consequences of neglecting your wellbeing as a leader.

Recognising the emotional impact of not looking after ourselves is relatively easy (although doing something about it is harder!) However, many leaders simply don’t take the time to stop and reflect on how a lack of wellbeing affects their leadership behaviour, and subsequently impacts on those in their team.

If you are stressed as a leader, your ability to listen to your staff, to focus on helping them with their own wellbeing and to provide much needed support is greatly diminished. If you can’t provide support to your staff they are unlikely to work at their best. If they aren’t working at their best, their teaching may suffer. When their teaching suffers, children and young people don’t receive the quality of education they deserve. If you are not in the best of health, both physically and emotionally, how can you support others to be so?

I am a different kind of educator. I work with teachers and school leaders to develop their leadership skills. Over recent years, I’ve worked with hundreds of Heads, Senior and Middle Leaders and Heads of Department across all phases of education. As a result, I feel privileged to have gained an insight into the culture of different education settings, and more importantly, into the thoughts and issues of a large number of different leaders.

As someone who has been a leader myself since the late 90s, I’ve learnt the hard way the impact that we have on those with whom we work. One particularly difficult year, we were forced by the economic climate to make redundancies. I woke unspeakably early each day worrying about the effect of changes on our staff and I struggled to balance delivering work at the same time as managing a significant restructure. As I battled with an increasing panic that I couldn’t control events, I became over tired and more stressed. I was less self-aware, and less able to make time to listen properly to my senior team, or my staff. High stress levels overwhelmed and distracted me, and culminated in my crashing my car. Thankfully, no one was hurt. Looking back, I can see that my sense of panic, loneliness and stress was fuelled not only by the situation, but more pivotally by my not having the insight to tend to my own wellbeing.

At times of real emotional overload, we carry on, thinking of ourselves as towers of strength, when in reality, inside we are slowly crumbling. The emotional turmoil we feel seeps slowly into the team, affecting relationships, workplace culture and ultimately staff behaviour.

What I should have done is reached out to those around me for moral support. I should have been making time to exercise to release my stress and frustration. I should have been talking more to my family and friends about what was going on. I can now see that if I had stopped and taken time to reflect, I would have avoided the overwhelming panic. I would have been in a better position to support my staff, both the ones who were leaving, and the ones who were staying, not to mention having more positive relationship with my husband and children.

Some of the senior and middle leaders with whom I work spend a lot of time thinking about how to protect and support their staff from stress. They talk of “shouldering the burden” and being the “gatekeeper” for their team, shielding them and taking on the stress themselves. For example, a Head of Department on one of our leadership programmes told fellow participants how she doesn’t tell her staff some of the “bad news” that she hears from senior leaders about her department in case it stresses them too much and makes them feel undervalued. The knock on effect is that her stress levels reached breaking point, reducing her emotional self-control so that she daily finds herself snapping at her colleagues. She feels drained and tired all of the time, and so is not able to provide energy and direction for her team. For her, this had gone way past “filtering out the unimportant things” for her team. She’d reached the point where she was taking the whole burden on herself. This is hardly a good starting position from which to lead her department at a time of increasing change, nor is it positive modelling of effective leadership. Sometimes we need to admit that, far from having the positive impact we intended as a leader, our actions can have a very negative effect.

Since working on her own leadership competence, alongside much reflection, the Head of Department concerned has recognised the degree to which her behaviour made her seem closed and unapproachable. By stepping back and taking the time to see the consequences of her previous behaviour, she has become better able to manage her emotions when dealing with colleagues, better able to empathise and more adept at recognising when she needs to be frank with her team about messages from the SLT.

Another SLT on one of our programmes last year talked of the fact that he never had time for his team, as he was too caught up in attending meetings, addressing emerging issues and tackling a barrage of emails when not teaching. Only after realising that he didn’t know what was happening in a tricky staff conflict, did he come to the conclusion that he didn’t know individual team members sufficiently well. On reflecting, he openly shared how he had previously considered getting to know colleagues as rather a ‘fluffy’ activity that shouldn’t take up valuable time. He had lost sight of how important positive relationships are to peoples’ sense of wellbeing. This reflection led him to use some creative activities within a staff meeting instead of sticking solely to the usual agenda and tick box of tasks. As a result, the whole team grew to know more about each other as individuals, and the SLT member was better able to empathise, understand their workload and help resolve conflict.

Having considered the negative impact of not looking after your own wellbeing as a leader, let’s look at some of the positives if you do! Aside from the obvious health benefits, taking a step back mentally and emotionally allows you to think straight and see clearly. Both are absolutely imperative if you are to lead with vision, passion and a sense of purpose.

Reflection, coupled with increased self-awareness, can have a dramatic and positive effect. If we develop our own resilience and tend to our own wellbeing, we will be less harried, more able to take a breath and think about the choices we make as leaders. We will be able to spot quickly when we’re not having the effect that we want. We can then identify how to change our behaviour. Relationships will be enhanced, team members will come to us for help, and we will be in a better position to listen, to coach and support our staff.

This is bourne out by research. For example, in one study, Offermann and Hellmann concluded that, in order to support wellbeing, leaders need to provide emotional as well as “instrumental” (task based) support. Their study showed that four aspects of emotional support had the most positive effect in reducing staff stress. These were: approachability, team building, interest in the growth of individual staff, and building trust. These are essential starting points for building a positive, trusting culture.

The additional benefit in taking time to look after yourself, is that it sends a clear message to staff and Governors that wellbeing matters. People begin to trust that it is ok to speak out, ok to take time for themselves, ok not to push themselves to their limits.

As Henry Ford said – “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.” So, whether you mentor NQTs, aspire to leadership, are a Middle leader, Faculty Head, SLT, Deputy or Head, if you find that you encourage your team to look after themselves, but have been guilty of not applying the same principle for yourself, try reflecting on these questions at regular intervals across the next year to prompt some changes.

  • What energises me? How can I make enough time for this over the coming week/month/term?
  • What have I done for myself that has helped me to interact with others in a way that’s had a positive impact?
  • What changes do I need to make in order to lead in a way that is most in alignment with what’s important to me
  • What are the signs in my emotions or behaviour that tell me I need to pause, reflect, relax and renew?
  • How can I encourage other leaders in my school to look after themselves in order to benefit their teams?

Being an effective leader involves attention to self, as much as attention to others.

Over the past few days on Twitter, many teachers and education leaders have been engaging with #teacher5adaySlowChat with #ScotEdChat. This has generated suggestions and purposeful ideas about encouraging wellbeing in schools and education settings, building on the excellent support already created around Martyn Reah’s #teacher5aday

I am delighted to have been invited to host the chat on 2nd January. I would love to hear your thoughts on leadership wellbeing. Please join the conversation to continue the much needed focus on wellbeing.

Here’s to a happy and relaxing 2016!

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