August 9, 2020
The sudden onset of the COVID-19 pandemic caught the world off guard. School Heads have found themselves grappling with making decisions in the face of unprecedented uncertainty.
The rules of the game are changing by the hour. Alas, decision-making cannot be avoided, especially during a crisis. Heads who must make important decisions under duress need to recognize problems that can affect the quality of their decision-making.
Although a moderate level of stress promotes learning and good decision-making, stress can be so great during a crisis that it can lead to flawed behaviors. A severe crisis, like our current global pandemic, requires creative policymaking. Importantly, creativity depends on the input of ideas from a wide variety of individuals, reflecting different experiences and expertise.
Unfortunately, during a crisis, there is a tendency for a contraction of authority to occur in schools. Decision-making shifts to high-level school leaders, such as the Head, Assistant Head, CFO, and key Trustees. As the decision-making group contracts, the amount of stress on each individual increases as each member feels a greater responsibility for potential failure.
This increased stress, coupled with more perceived pressure for decisiveness, leads to a narrowing of creative thinking. Individuals under stress can unconsciously screen out essential input, restricting their perspectives and resulting in less adaptive, less creative decisions.
As a leader, seeking the opinion of others communicates that their roles are important, conveying respect and appreciation. Asking for input from faculty, administration, and staff draws them into the decision-making process and helps them feel "ownership" for the decision. There is power in asking four simple questions:
- What do you think?
- Who else would you recommend I ask?
- What am I missing?
- Who will this decision affect?
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During a crisis, the sheer volume of information can overload even the most able School Head. The debilitating impact of the “information tsunami” is compounded if the school has reduced the number of individuals involved in the decision-making process.
School leaders need to “functionally filter” available data. Reputable sources of data must be identified. The critical metrics used to guide reopening decisions (and subsequent decisions about renewed shutdowns) need to be established and communicated to the school community as much in advance as possible.
As we have come to understand, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic expands daily. It’s a dynamic situation and, therefore, decisions need to be written in pencil and frequently revisited. The uncertainty this crisis creates can be mitigated by transparently communicating what data the school uses to move forward with in-person learning, distance learning, or a hybrid model.
When schools are under stress, Heads tend to tap a small group of trusted individuals to participate in the decision-making process. The group generally emerges from the Board and Leadership Team, forming a tight-knit, homogeneous team.
The group is often insulated from the rest of the school by a sense of shared responsibility, trust, and mutual support. This can lead to problems.
In times of crisis, homogeneous groups can have an aversion to dissent and devolve into groupthink. Groupthink is defined as “approaching issues as matters to be dealt with by consensus, rather than by individuals acting independently.” Groupthink can impede creativity and novel problem-solving as team members can be reluctant to stray from the party line or the position taken by the School Head.
Smart leaders understand the importance of dissension and healthy disagreement. They take precautions to prevent groupthink from taking hold. They seek divergent opinions and actively work to address differing points of view.
One useful tool to consider is the de Bono Group’s Six Thinking Hats. Six Thinking Hats is a parallel thinking process that helps groups focus more productively on problems and issues. The process focuses on symbolic thinking hats. Members of the decision-making team “wear” and “switch” the hats (and corresponding roles) as they consider issues, problems, opportunities, and decisions systematically. Setting up formal processes like this one actively encourages people to voice dissenting opinions and can help avoid groupthink.
Schools have always practiced risk mitigation, ranging from acquiring simple insurance coverages to establishing comprehensive risk management committees. While it is impossible to predict every crisis, your school’s preparedness is an important determinant of stress resulting from an unexpected event and your school’s ability to cope.
The rarity of an event (like a once-in-a-century pandemic) contributes to the degree of alarm. Infrequent events, and concomitant lack of experience, create higher stress. In our current situation, we see the result: schools have no repertoire of coping responses and the effects of the potential impact are unknown.
The perceived intensity of a crisis depends on the change required for the school to adapt successfully. The more unfamiliar the event, the greater the requirement for change and, therefore, the greater the level of stress.
In real terms, schools that previously embraced pedagogical practices like flipped classrooms, interdisciplinary instruction, term schedules, and formative assessment may require less change to adapt to the coronavirus reality.
For schools that have maintained a more traditional approach to teaching and learning, the adaptation needed will be more profound. School Heads must determine the change required to navigate multiple scenarios while assessing the ability of their faculty to acquire and implement new teaching practices quickly.
Every teacher in every school will experience some disequilibrium as we adapt to the “new normal.” That said, school leaders must recognize the limits of their faculty when making decisions, as pushing too far or creating excessive imbalance could lead to a failure to perform.
Emergency school situations require quick and precise decisions and implementations. All such decisions require the support of teachers.
A word of caution: Heads must be aware that, even though their decisions may be timely and well thought-out, the school may still miss the mark due to faulty implementation.
The likely causes for this failure:
- Teachers are not motivated to carry out the decisions—they don’t see the vision.
- Teachers lack the skills needed to implement the decision—they haven’t been given the training and support to be successful.
- Teachers have not “bought into” the decision—they weren’t included in the process, nor do they understand the incentives for them and for their students
- Teachers lack resources for successful implementation—they don’t have the time, space, or technology needed
- Teachers lack a clear understanding of the metrics used to inform decision-making and the pending course of action—they are not being informed of the who, what, why, when, and where related to the decisions.
Each of these five barriers can prevent your team from making sound decisions. Consider what barriers stand in your way and how your school can overcome them to make the best decisions for your community.
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