School & District Management Opinion

Healthy School Culture Depends Upon Human-Resource Leadership

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — June 21, 2016 5 min read
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Dealing with human resource issues is a challenge for anyone. Most often, they are responsible for the accountability system related to the performance of others. They must be consummate communicators, balancing human compassion with organizational mission. They are the delivers of professional rewards and accolades and of the hard and tough decisions that disrupt people’s lives in significant ways. They are the eyes and ears, the barometers, of the organizational culture and, as such, provide the linkage between the organization’s “people” and the organization’s “leaders”.

Leaders in All Positions
Often, human resources leaders occupy district office positions with organizational responsibility for employment and civil rights laws and contractual agreements. Without direct authority over those who implement these laws and contracts, they are forced to deal with the consequences of others’ actions and decisions. Their authority relies on their ability to know the field, be a guide for other leaders and develop a relationship with the superintendent and board that establishes credibility. These must be the organization’s standard bearers, the models of its values, acting with honesty while honoring the constraints of confidentiality and objectivity. These individuals must be able to hear more than one truth and make decisions based on more than one perspective.

Of course, there are absolutes, blacks and whites, but the world of human resources can be primarily grey. Breaking rules, mandates, laws and violating contract provisions is really objectively determined based on investigation. Then come the question, “What do we do now?” Then, judgment enters the conversation. If there is one sabbatical given a year, how does one select the single person among the many qualified to obtain it? And, how does that happen without so discouraging the others? We want them to continue being outstanding professionals and apply again. The manner in which people relate to each other, to students, to parents, may be a result of a culture that needs some attention, but it can also be a result of the actions of one person that calls for attention.

United in the service of children, educators have a shared responsibility to help children learn and grow in a safe and respectful environment. But, human beings have good times and bad times. Striving for perfection is a virtue that leads to failure for all. And, human resource leaders will work in the domain of imperfect. Like a building leader who knows best the students who are difficult, the HR officer will encounter those among us who have made the most mistakes or who fall farthest from our standards. Unaddressed, growth and change is unlikely. Here we identify one unarticulated organizational value that is a guiding principle in any HR office. Are we an organization who separates those employees who are falling short, or do we decide to invest in them and develop them....and how is that decision made?

Confidence, Courage, Sincerity, and Communication
In most cases, unless someone identifies and addresses what someone cannot do, or what someone has done, they are unlikely to improve or grow. Herein lies the call for confidence, courage, sincerity and communication. In the cases where situations do not rise to the level of requiring “discipline”, it is not unusual for allowing the infraction to “slide.” But it is in those subtle, minor situations that we can find the building blocks to nurture a healthy school culture. Mistakes are human. Unrecognized and unaddressed mistakes are opportunities lost. Human resources experts can distinguish between a behavior and a person in addressing these issues.

Avoiding the uncomfortable conversation is a normal response, but leaders can ill afford to indulge themselves in that response. All leaders are faced with the challenge of prioritizing in every aspect, of every minute, of every day and all leaders will experience some aspect of the human resource function. The urgent demands of the leader’s work pull the mind to a place of reaction. Each reaction pulls attention away from a systems view and away from the complexities of the human beings who work with us. Those human beings will watch the little things, the behaviors that reveal our inner self, to determine who we are. They rely on those unrehearsed moments more than the words we speak in public settings.

For example, if the burden of completing year-end evaluations is given the full attention it requires, it cannot happen at the expense of:

  • a minor skirmish between faculty,
  • an off-handed comment by a secretary about a parent who has just left the office,
  • a comment by a teacher in a meeting about a student’s expected failure,
  • a student whose behaviors have radically changed as the end of school approaches

To allow these incidents to slide by releases an invisible danger. They create the ground water that erodes the very foundation of values we hopefully have worked to establish. The safe environment we all know that must exist for adults and children to learn and work within is built with the little actions of the leaders as much as it is by their larger actions.

Address Those “Little Things”
When and how to address those “little things” is an individual decision; relationships, timing, and history all play a role. Then there is “how” to address these issues. The subtitle of Rushworth M. Kidder’s book, Moral Courage reads: “Face moral dilemmas head-on. Know the stakes before you act. Live your values with integrity.” Well, there you have it. So, here is a summer time reflection suggestion. Think back on the 2015 - 2016 year.

  • Make a list of the little moments that you noticed but left unaddressed. If you remember them, it is likely because they grew and became larger issues.
  • Consider your motivations and how they might have changed an outcome. If you don’t remember any, ask yourself if you addressed them or if perhaps you didn’t notice them.
  • Can you see patterns on the list? Is there a category of little things you see? Why might that be?

But, most importantly, remember that this is a growth question for yourself, not a performance one. Be honest with yourself but then be kind and forgiving. As any human resource leader knows, none of us are perfect. Those among us who grow and improve do so because we are willing to go into those places of discomfort, where we might have been better. If we can go there ourselves, we can lead others to go there also.

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The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.