Tags: Headteacher | School Business Manager/Bursar | School Governance | School Governor | School Leadership & Management

In our governing bodies we blithely talk about ‘team-building’. And in our more serious moments we may even think about ‘group effectiveness’ and ‘the quality of our decision making’.

If things are going reasonably well, it is easy to slide over these and to concentrate our time and effort entirely on the tasks in hand – and who can blame us? We do, after all, have limited time to give to governance. But problems can arise, seemingly out of the blue, so prevention is better than cure!

My experience over the years in working as a trouble shooter with governing bodies in difficulty has led me to the conclusion that the overwhelming majority of governors have the right motives. Their aim is to help their school to succeed, but problems occur because they are just not sure how to do this effectively. Sometimes relationships become so bad that outside help is sought – and it is only then that the realisation dawns that it is not individual governors who are at fault but a faulty system that is causing the trouble.

A couple of examples:

– A well established governing body with very little turnover suddenly finds that it has a ‘rogue governor’ in its midst. This governing body had prided itself that relationships were excellent and there was never any conflict within the group. That has now changed; the new local authority representative questions every decision and even wants to revisit some decisions made before his appointment. This has unsettled some other governors who are also becoming vocal in their complaints. The previous consensus is no more and meetings are becoming increasingly acrimonious.

– Three newly elected parent governors are causing grief. The school staff find them aggressive and intimidating. The head thinks they are overly demanding and, in order to protect her staff, is considering banning them from the school premises except for governing body meetings. They ‘over contribute’ at meetings and the chair doesn’t know what to do for the best.

Thankfully, for most of us these are just tales – we haven’t encountered such bad feeling on our governing body. In each of these examples the finger of blame could be pointed at individuals and their removal might be considered the perfect solution. But investigation in each case showed that the problems lay deeper and were systemic in origin.

Two factors are central to effective team working. In order to complete the tasks and maintain relationships, the group needs to:

– be sufficiently cohesive to facilitate good decision making;
– communicate efficiently and effectively.

Group cohesion

I very much doubt that your governing body is considering invading Cuba – but it could learn some vital lessons from those who did. John F Kennedy and his advisers turned the Bay of Pigs invasion into a pig’s ear.

Afterwards, Kennedy said, ‘How could we have been so stupid?’ Stupidity is certainly not the explanation. The group that Kennedy assembled comprised some of the greatest intellectual and military strategists in the history of American government. Yet, between them, they made several fundamental errors and the result was death and disaster. The reason – they became victims of ‘groupthink’.

The dangers posed by over-cohesive groups were first outlined by Irving Janis, a psychologist working at Yale. He gave the label ‘groupthink’ to the tunnel thinking that leads to faulty decision making.

Most modern theories about group dynamics have as their central tenet the concept that the more cohesive the group, the more effective it is. Yet Janis has shown that a group can become too cohesive and, as a result, can make wrong decisions. Consensus seeking can become so important to group morale that it drives out the expression of critical thought. The local authority governor who wanted to revisit decisions had intuitively seen the problem of groupthink in the governing body he’d joined.

Groupthink doesn’t happen in teams that are functioning well. Here, as group cohesiveness increases, so does the ability of group members to pose questions or voice concerns without fear of recrimination. Groupthink is an aberration where concern for the maintenance of unity stifles real debate.

At government level it can result in disasters such as the Bay of Pigs invasion (and one wonders about Iraq). But, at all levels, it is more common than we realise. Group members suppress critical thoughts and doubts to avoid creating disunity. They persuade themselves that their misgivings can’t be relevant and that they should give the benefit of the doubt to the majority view. Discordant thoughts and contrary evidence are ignored and decisions become one dimensional and occasionally disastrous. And no one knows it’s happening!

Could groupthink be a feature of your governing body? Try the short quiz above to find out. Answering ‘yes’ to a majority of the questions should give you pause for thought.

Of course, you may be thinking, ‘If it makes for a quiet life, is groupthink such a bad thing?’ The unequivocal answer is ‘yes’, and for two reasons. Firstly, the composition of governing bodies is designed to bring a variety of perspectives to its decision making. The strength of a governing body lies in its diversity. Dissenting voices may seem like a nuisance but they add value – if only by making the rest of us think again. I wonder how many ‘rogue governors’ are really just using their critical faculties to question the prevailing culture? Are they merely disturbing the cosy consensus of victims of groupthink?

Secondly, most governing body decisions are relatively unimportant, but governors are in the hot seat on occasion. Some decisions will have repercussions for the school and its community for years – headteacher appointment or dismissal, the nature of the extended school, a change of school status, an increase or reduction in the admission number. Governors need to have practice at effective decision making before they go for the big on.

Fortunately for the whole of humanity, by the time Kennedy faced his ‘big one’, the Cuban Missile Crisis, he had made extensive changes to his group’s decision making processes. With essentially the same group of people, he avoided the earlier mistakes. How did he do this? By encouraging the group to give high priority to the airing of objections and doubts and ensuring that there was regular feedback from experts outside the group. And at every meeting where there was an evaluation of policy alternatives, he assigned at least one member of the core team to the role of devil’s advocate.

In other words he encouraged and valued different perspectives – and it worked. The world survived!

Efficient and effective communication

Communication is the crucial factor in the development of relationships. It is so prevalent in our lives that it is usually invisible to our gaze. We give little thought to its importance, yet the quality of our communication has a dramatic effect on the quality of our relationships. We would do well to give it the attention it deserves.

We think that we communicate with words – and we do. Words are central to our communicative skill, but they form only a small part of our repertoire. We communicate in all that we say and do, and in all that we leave unsaid and undone. Every minute that we are in company and (because we use written words and electronic communication) for much of the time that we are alone, we are involved in intentional or unintentional communication. We are continually transmitting verbal and non-verbal cues for other people’s antennae to receive. Some are better than others at picking up these cues (fortune tellers and stage magicians are adept) but to a greater or lesser extent, in every encounter we expose to the world elements of precisely who we are.

When I talked to those three parent governors, they were mortified when they found the effect their behaviour was having. They insisted on going to the head immediately and apologising, which proved to be an excellent start to rebuilding relationships. Significantly, they were not the only people in the school whose communicative style left something to be desired. Taking ‘communication’ as a theme, the school was able to depersonalise the problem and improve the quality of communication throughout the school.

The questions they asked themselves are in the panel above. The result of using this exercise, with governors, staff and with pupils too, was a school that became more at ease with itself.

It is probable that you are experiencing no problems on your governing body – but, even so, giving some thought to your group processes could pay dividends. And prevention, as I said, is far less hassle than cure.

Jane Phillips is a business psychologist and a governor of a primary school. She has worked extensively with both headteachers and governing bodies to encourage effective working practices.

Is your governing body prone to groupthink?

– Does your governing body assume that the decisions it comes to are always the right ones? – Is there a tendency to dismiss, without discussion, information which contradicts the majority view? – Is either subtle or heavy pressure exerted at meetings for members to conform to the majority view? – Do members express misgivings after meetings which they fail to express at meetings? – Is there an assumption at meetings that there is unanimity of view? – Are there members of your governing body who take dissenting members aside to ‘warn them off’?

– Does your governing body rationalise negative feedback from past decisions so that it does not feel obliged to revisit those decisions?

This article first appeared in School Governor Update – Sep 2005

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