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A culture of fear?

By Feb.13, 2014

“Fear is good”

At least that’s according to headteacher, Steve Fairclough, speaking at a national conference of headteachers on the subject of performance-related pay.  Fairclough is himself a headteacher, at an independent school.  But hold on, fear is bad isn’t it?  Well, not really; it is neither good nor bad – it acts as a warning system, alerting us to potential danger and is something that can be crucial to our survival.  But what has this got to do with teaching?  Over to you Steve…

Headteachers should make their staff “so scared if they don’t perform or if they don’t behave in a way you want them to, you’ll ask them to leave“.  He apparently also feels that performance management should introduce a “culture of fear“.  Oh Steve.  Really?  I’m sure he means well and that his, wooden, pea-sized, heart is in the right place (a securely locked drawer, presumably).

Before I go on, I should make it clear that I didn’t hear the speech, and I’m basing this only his comments reported in articles from today’s Independent (13th Feb, 2014) and the TES website (11th Feb, 2014).  I had a quick search around for the full speech, but couldn’t find anything – anyway, it got me rather annoyed so I’ve quickly dashed off a stream-of-consciousness rant about it!  To be fair, Steve Fairclough’s comments are clarified a little more in the TES article, so he does not come across quite as badly (in my view) as in the Independent, where he seems to be auditioning for a part as one of those stereotypically awful boss in a 70’s/80’s BBC sitcom (ask your parents!).  But the use of phrases like ‘culture of fear’ instantly set off alarm bells.

However, seeing as the speech was about performance-related pay, I will begin by saying there is a fair bit of research showing the dangers of performance related pay and how it can actually – over time – negatively affect motivation.  Nonetheless, I can’t claim to be an authority on the complexities of performance-related pay, and it is quite possible that this aspect of Steve Fairclough’s system is highly effective, but it is worth mentioning that it can end up having unintended effects.

My problem with Steve Fairclough’s comments, related to his ‘culture of fear’.  In fact, as a fairly decent human being, I have several problems with it.  To start with, morally this doesn’t sit well at all for me; why treat people like that?   Secondly, I can’t quite see how his ‘culture of fear’ for teachers is congruent with his own school’s ‘vision and values‘, which seeks to ensure their pupils learn to be “sensitive to the needs of others“.  But maybe it doesn’t have to be congruent?  I’m no headteacher, after all; perhaps, ‘do as I say, not as I do‘ is an entirely appropriate way to lead others.  I am not convinced though.  Thirdly, and moving on from moral arguments, the type of management style he promotes is well-known for being negatively associated with levels of psychological, and physical well-being of staff, as well as sickness absence levels.   I’m not saying that ‘poor’ performers in any job should be given a free pass to drift along – but surely we should always start by supporting people, and promoting an environment where it feels ok to raise problems and seek help if they need it.  The National Institute for Health & Social Care guidance for promoting mental well-being in the workplace, as well as the Health & Safety Executive stress management standards, also explicitly highlight the importance of this.  The research they base their recommendations has amply demonstrated the impact this can have – on people, and things like employee turnover (which Steve seems quite keen on, to be fair).

Manager/supervisor behaviour has also been linked with ‘presenteeism’ (i.e. when people are unwell, but still come to work) and it should be obvious that an environment where people are fearful of being labelled a poor performer may be particularly prone to presenteeism.  Perhaps Steve would see this as an endorsement of his style – people too scared to be off sick?  Brilliant.  But, of course, it isn’t brilliant.  Those who continue to work under those circumstances are more susceptible to burnout, and more serious long-term absence; after all, we all have a breaking point.  Secondly, fear is severely detrimental to cognitive performance – our ability to effectively process information is inhibited under these circumstances.  In a job that relies so heavily on the ability of teachers to think, process information, and effectively deal with own students, fear seems an exceptionally poor way to rule. How many of us would be at our clear-thinking best when working in a fearful environment; where pressure and fear is constant?   A little bit of pressure can often be helpful in motivating us (deadlines, presentations etc), but the kind of constant pressure (or to use Steve’s word, ‘fear’) provided by the knowledge that if we slip up we will be out of the door is therefore not only unnecessary, but damaging to both people and their performance.

I am sure the reporting of this speech has been simplified, so perhaps his position is not as ludicrous as it appears.  And I also cannot say with certainty that some aspects of what Steve Fairclough has done to his school haven’t been effective – at least not in the short-term.  However, at best, the deliberate use of this type of language sounds anachronistic and, at worst, extremely harmful.  I hope this kind of thinking is left back in the dark ages where it belongs.

Edit: (21st Feb 2014) Steve Fairclough has since claimed his comments were taken out of context.  They seemed pretty unequivocal to me, and I’m intrigued to know what other context they could have been used in (satire?!), but at least there is some recognition that this type of talk is damaging.
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