This article first appeared in Academic Leader on June 22, 2017© Magna Publications. All rights reserved.
Recently, I was in an informal conversation with a group of faculty members and chairpersons. We were discussing challenges frequently encountered in our daily work. One faculty member noted that he is often unsure of how to respond to students who seem agitated, question a grade, or challenge something related to the course or his teaching. The professor indicated that he is cautious about responding immediately because he is aware that a knee-jerk response could escalate the situation. At times, he wished he could avoid an impending confrontation by just not reacting. A program leader added that she too has been confronted with unexpected situations where she feels it is required of her to make a snap decision that she later regretted or questioned.
The discussion reminded me of a lesson I learned more than 30 years ago from a principal who was my mentor when I first became a supervisor. We often discussed issues of leadership, supervision, and administration. The following incident led me to learn an important lesson based on his years of experience.
Each spring I completed end-of-year evaluations of the teaching staff. After a private conference, each teacher was given a written evaluation and rating. One day after distributing the evaluations, I was confronted by a teacher in the teachers’ lounge. The teacher was quite upset and chose to confront me in front of her colleagues. I was not prepared for this public challenge as I had the distinct impression that we had agreed on the content of the evaluation report during our conference.
At this moment, I made a serious leadership mistake. I did not like having my judgment and authority challenged in front of other staff members. I responded immediately, emotionally, and with other teachers present. I did not consider the impact that reacting in an emotional manner on the spur of the moment would have on my reputation as an ethical, thoughtful, and caring supervisor.
The lesson learned
I went to my mentor for advice. After I recounted the story, he provided me with this guidance: “There is no need to respond immediately; give it a dignified 24 hours.” I have followed his advice ever since.
Applying the lesson
The following story is an example of how valuable this sage advice was to my future leadership. Many years later, I was the leader of a Department of Education central office that was responsible for monitoring schools for compliance with federal, state, and local regulations. I received a complaint about a local district’s failure to provide adequate space for the provision of services related to special needs students. The school shared space with the district superintendent’s offices. I assigned a staff member to visit the school to assess the situation and report back to me. He was to take no other action. Later that day, I received an angry call from the district superintendent. He told me he had thrown my staff member out of the building. I politely asked the superintendent what had transpired. He responded that my staff member had directed him to reallocate space from district office use to the school principal for use as space for the provision of related services. Although this might have been the appropriate eventual course of action, it was clearly not the staff member’s place to bring this directive to the superintendent without consulting me.
I was distressed by the staff member’s actions, which showed disregard for the directions I had given him. He also violated the protocol he had been trained to follow. I knew that resolution of the issue would take negotiation with the superintendent, and this was now going to be much more difficult.
When the staff member returned, I could have immediately challenged him; in fact, I could have removed him from the field. Remembering my mentor’s guidance, instead of reacting out of anger or frustration, I told the staff member that I had received the complaint. I asked for his view of what had transpired. I listened to his account of the events and told him we would discuss next steps the next day. I was determined to give it a dignified 24 hours before I acted.
In those 24 hours, I reflected on my own level of responsibility for what had occurred:
- Had I given this staff member clear instructions?
- Had staff training on the protocol for interacting with people above their level of responsibility been adequate?
- Did I model effective strategies for dealing with school and district leaders?
At our meeting the following day, I was prepared to deal with the staff member in a productive noninflammatory manner. The dignified 24 hours helped me determine the best way forward with both the staff member and the local superintendent.
The lesson shared
- Acknowledge the person who is questioning or challenging you by simply telling him or her that you need some time to think before responding. This shows that his or her point of view has been heard and you understand that he or she deserves a reply.
- Use the dignified 24 hours as a time to reflect on the situation. The act of self-reflection helps moderate the way you might feel as a result of being challenged, and it separates you from the emotions you feel at the moment. It helps provide some space between you and the other person involved. It helps you review the situation in a calm and balanced way, brings clarity to the situation, and allows you to consider an appropriate response or further action.
- Respond to the person or act to resolve the incident in an effective and professional way.
I have found that this leadership strategy helps in many different and difficult situations. The time given to quiet reflection over the dignified 24 hours will work when, as a leader, you are challenged by a staff member. As a faculty member, it will work when you are challenged by students about a grade or if they accuse you of not treating them fairly. As a supervisor or an administrator, it will help give you time to consider the correct action when you are considering disciplinary action against a staff member or a student. As a leader in higher education, it will allow you to think carefully before you respond to a request from a superior.
Giving it a dignified 24 hours has provided me with satisfactory results over the years. It has never failed to provide me with a better perspective of the situation. It is a trusted and valuable strategy for leaders and all professionals.
Dr. Alan Sebel is an associate professor of school leadership and administration in the Graduate School of Education at Touro College in New York City. Before joining Touro he was a deputy assistant superintendent in the New York City Public Schools.