Shouldering the responsibilities of middle management can be an overburdening task for individuals, who are suddenly faced with serious accountability pressures from many directions. This is true in the business world, but also recognisable in schools, as teachers become tempted by progression, pay and future plans, thrusting them into the world of middle leadership, accepting responsibility for a Key Stages, subject areas, or data analysis.
But, with pressures coming from high up in the command chain, and expectations from colleagues lower down, recent research has shown that some middle managers may turn to unethical behaviour to face unrealistic expectations. Although not aimed at the educational sector, the research conducted by Smeal College of Business, Penn State University in the USA, highlighted how middle managers used a range of tactics to inflate performance and deceive top management, because leadership instituted performance targets that were unrealisable.
The research showed that, faced with obstacles, middle management enacted a series of moves designed to deceive top management into believing that teams were actually meeting their goals, getting really creative because their bonuses were tied to what their people do, or because they didn’t want to lose their jobs. “How can you lead a company if the performance information you get is fake? You end up making bad decisions”, Niki A. den Nieuwenboer said, assistant professor of organisational behaviour and business ethics at the University of Kansas.
There are clear links here with how schools operate, in many jurisdictions. Goals and targets are set nationally, with government, quangos, local groups, governors, and parents all placing pressure that schools achieve exams results. Accordingly, schools create their own targets, strategies and tracking solutions to ensure that they are on target, but who wants to openly admit that they are not working, and the schemes are not going where everyone had hoped?
Teachers and headteachers get banned from the profession for ‘adjusting’ data or helping pupils receive good grades for their tests. There is a growing wealth of evidence that such malpractice happens behind locked doors in more schools than we would like to admit. But are those individuals really to blame, or should we be looking more closely at the culture of expectations that are placed on schools? We all want our pupils to succeed, of course we do, but not all pupils are academically gifted, and many will enjoy vocational jobs during their lives.
Essentially, as the research highlighted above concluded, top management in organisations should do more in-depth work to institute realistic goals and incentives. Failing this, middle leaders in school will produce results that are not reliable, as all they are trying to do is save their reputation and job.