Chickens. candles and staff wellbeing

Written by: Peter Radford | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

If we cultivate freedom and innovation, teacher performance will soar – and this culture begins with middle leaders (as well as with chickens and candles). Peter Radford explains

Recently in SecEd, I suggested 36 actions that could help to transform working life and wellbeing for teachers in your school (October 2019). Central to these are four interrelated key points:

  1. Your middle leaders are the most important asset in your school.
  2. Line meetings between staff and managers/leaders are the most important meetings in the school day and should be timetabled and protected.
  3. You should train your middle leaders in people skills, management skills and effective leadership.
  4. Ask your middle leaders what they think at least once per fortnight.

This will transform your school. The culture of your organisation will coalesce around the ethos, enthusiasm and engagement of your middle leaders and their proficiency or otherwise in effectively managing and motivating their teams. I will share here two notable studies that speak volumes about staff motivation and engagement.

The first study was carried out by Dr William Muir, an evolutionary biologist at Purdue University in the 1990s (see Muir & Wilson, 2016). Dr Muir wanted to study productivity and for his case study he used chickens! Easy to measure productivity in chickens – just count the eggs!

He established two groups of chickens – Group One was a group of average chickens and he left them alone for six generations. However, Group Two was comprised of the most individually productive chickens and each year he selected the most productive chickens and only bred those chickens.

Six generations later what do you suppose had happened? Group One was flourishing but in Group Two all but three chickens were dead – the rest had been pecked to death! Individual success had been achieved by suppressing the productivity of the others. Arguably humans have more in common with chickens than we may have thought. There are two distinct cultures operating here:

  1. A culture of collaboration and helpfulness.
  2. A culture of individualism and one-up-man-ship.

In the short term, a superhead or new department head can appear to be “shaking things up” and improving standards. Sometimes this is done by actively culling staff, sometimes by establishing a fairly ruthless culture of fear. Over the long term however, I would argue that this approach will be counterproductive and lead to unsustainable work patterns that in turn lead to a high turnover of staff and a miserable working environment.

By contrast humans (and chickens!) flourish in an environment where they do not feel under threat. Threat and fear produce performance anxiety and lead to a culture in which staff work strictly to the minimum standards: a box-ticking culture. On the other hand, when teachers feel safe, invested in, valued and have the freedom to be themselves – they flourish, thrive, innovate and give far beyond the call of duty. A culture like this is established or undermined by the team leader.

The second study of relevance here is cited by Daniel Pink in his book Drive (2009; see also Pink, 2014). He cites what is known as The Candle Problem. Groups are provided with a candle, a box of pins and some matches. The task is to pin the candle to the wall in such a way that when the candle is lit no wax drips on the floor.

Groups approach this in different ways: none of which work except for the solution – which is to use the pin box itself: pin the box to the wall as a platform for the candle. Invariably after a few minutes groups arrive at this solution – it just requires a little lateral thinking. Here’s what is interesting though: when groups were timed and financially incentivised to solve this problem as quickly as possible, in test after test they completed the challenge three minutes slower than groups who were not incentivised.

This conclusion has been verified and reinforced by many studies since and it tells us something essential about human motivation and productivity. Namely that in tasks that require creative thinking or innovation, traditional incentives of either carrot or stick (performance-related pay, anyone?) make people less effective.

In other words, if the culture of our schools and departments leans towards extrinsic motivations and short-term success assessed by narrow data measures, the productivity of our teachers will be stunted. If by contrast we cultivate freedom, innovation and major on the joy of teaching and of shaping young lives productivity will go through the roof.

And who sets the temperature gauge that in turn determines the culture of your teams? The team leaders. Invest in your middle leaders and transform the culture of your school.

  • Peter Radford is the founder of Beyond This and an educational trainer with 20 years’ experience in youth work and school leadership.

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