Building discretionary effort

What you do as a school leader makes a difference to the results you achieve, however you choose to define what you mean by results.  But the relationship between leadership and results isn’t direct.  As the diagram below suggests, the actions you take as a leader have a significant impact on the culture and climate within you sphere of influence.

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In this context, culture is taken to mean ‘the way we do things around here’ and relates to the systems, procedures and common practices and, in particular, to the high standards and expectations that exist in the way these are delivered.  A useful way of thinking of culture is to consider what someone new joining your team would see happening on a day-to-day basis and the extent to which everyone in the team is working in the same way and to the same level of expectation. Is there a consistent set of high expectations from you about how your team should work? As a result of this, for example, are the learning environments you oversee inspiring and well organised? Do pupils have strong and supportive relationships with their peers and all the staff they work with?

Climate is more about how it feels to work in a team. For your team, this reflects its morale, how appreciated your team of staff feel and the degree of trust within the team as whole. This is much more difficult to describe or measure, but detailed research has shown that the effect of climate on team productivity is considerable.

Discretionary effort

Taken together, the more positive the culture and climate you create, the more likely your team of staff are to go the extra mile. This concept is known as discretionary effort.  It is commonly described as the input from individuals over and above that which they need to contribute in order to keep their jobs. Critical in this context, however, is that the effort individuals make is directed productively. You will probably know from your own experience of well-meaning and hard-working colleagues who regrettably did not have the impact that their efforts deserved because they were too often focused on doing the wrong things. In a classroom context, it’s all very well having fantastically enjoyable lessons if what the pupils are learning doesn’t relate to the curriculum they are meant to be following or the assessments they will have to take!

The diagram below summarises some of the key elements that I believe are most useful in building discretionary effort in schools. They represent a powerful combination of factors that help to create great schools.


You would be forgiven for thinking, however, that those with the biggest influence on discretionary effort within a school are members of the senior leadership team. After all, senior leaders surely set the overall ethos for the school?  Interestingly, whilst the evidence from a number of studies does show that senior leaders in organisations do have a significant effect on the effort made by staff, the single most influential factor in determining discretionary effort in an individual member of staff is their relationship with and respect for their direct line manager.  You only need to go back and look at the list above to realise that for the vast majority of factors, someone’s line manager is often the best person to help realise each factor.

As the significant majority of staff, particularly in larger schools, are line managed by middle leaders, it is hardly surprising that most heads and governors acknowledge the critical role they play in the success of any school.  Middle leaders often really are the engine-room of a school.

As well as building discretionary effort, a productive culture and climate also has a positive effect on staff retention.  As Richard Branson says: “Train people well enough so they can leave; treat them well enough so that they don’t want to”.  Given the challenges that never seem to go away when it comes to teacher recruitment in many areas, reducing the requirement to attract new staff by retaining those you already have, makes a great deal of sense.

This blog is based on an extract from Leadership Matters. You can order a copy here.

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