7 powerful questions for leaders: creating a culture of ideas

Communication is the life-blood of an organisation. Dialogue needs to be honest: seeking objectivity, reducing bias and never covering up truths or views to make things ‘comfortable’. However, a habit of bad conversation stifles problem-solving, dampens enthusiasm and encourages the building of defensive routines.

From my own organisation and having worked with many schools, training providers and charities, it’s clear that the good communication begins with the leaders. As a leader there is always an enormous temptation to jump in and start giving advice without having really listened to the issue, without having sought enough perspectives, and without leaving room for others to grow their own solutions. The trouble is, however good your ideas, they come with a big shiny sign that say ‘the boss likes this, I should prioritise her/his thinking above my own’. What we want is a culture where great ideas and great thinking can take root, driven by everyone.

Here are 7 questions which I think can help.

1. “What’s on your mind?”
This is a great way to open a conversation – it signals that you’re interested in what the other person is thinking, and that you’re open to hearing concerns. It puts the ball in the other person’s court; they get to name the priority and they have control over the agenda.

This question needs to be used together with question 2 which is…

2. “Let me check I’ve understood. Are you saying <re-phrase and summarise>?”
It’s worth doing this check even if you’re reasonably certain you have understood. As you’re listening to what is being said you’re automatically reinterpreting it to your own view of the world. It’s useful to try and re-phrase/summarise and check that a) you’re on the right track and b) you haven’t missed something that’s important to the other person. Sometimes, when I listen to people, some elements of their dialogue spring out at me, but when I summarise the overall meaning I discover that I’ve distorted or obscured some of the key meaning that the other person intended. This technique demonstrates that your first priority is listening and understanding, not to jump in and take over control of the problem or situation.

A way of making questions 1 and 2 work together even better is to physically sit next to each other during the conversation, perhaps on two adjacent sides of a table, and sketch out ideas as the other person speaks. It could be a flow chart or a napkin sketch. It slows the process down, ensures you can repeatedly check that you’re on the same page, and allows the other person to see a map of what they’re saying and refer back to it later.

An image of a napkin showing a sketch of people sketching on napkins.
Napkin sketching can be a powerful tool for communication. [image source: Fast Company]

I’m grateful to Oliver Caviglioli for introducing me to this whole area of sketching, especially napkin sketching. It certainly takes some practice and it’s not always the right solution, but I have found it useful.

3. “What’s the real challenge here for you?”

Cover of book
The Coaching Habit

This is a lovely question which I recently read in The coaching habit: Say less, Ask more & Change the way you lead forever” (Michael Bungay Stanier). It’s helpful when someone has given you a laundry list of issues or concerns, or where someone has gone round in circles, or is being fuzzy. It forces the other person to search for the nugget that is really important, that matters most. As Stanier says, the word real “implies that there are a number of challenges and to choose from, and you have to find the one that matters most. Phrased like this, the question will always slow people down and make them think more deeply.” The words ‘for you’, are “what pin the question to the person you’re talking to. It keeps the question personal and makes the person you’re talking to wrestle with her struggle and what she needs to figure out”. [quotes from the book, Chapter 3]

4. “It sounds like you’re frustrated/disappointed/angry with X. This suggests that you have a vision in your head of what X should ideally be like, and it’s falling short. Could you describe that vision/ideal?”

This question has led to a few breakthrough moments for me, not only with other people but also even challenging myself to answer it. I was inspired to try this approach after a conversation with Tony Nicholls who inspired me to read about appreciative inquiry, an approach/philosophy of change and improvement that invites people to focus on the positive, not the negative.

This question draws on the ‘dream’ element of appreciative inquiry which is about articulating potential. It allows people to start describing and fleshing out an alternative reality. I have found that people often drift back quickly to describing the deficits – it takes quite a lot of gentle steering to get the other person to stay on ‘positive’ first, while not making them feel you’re ignoring the facts and emotions around the problems – e.g. “I can see that you find that frustrating. I’m keen to understand your ideal so that I can understand why the current situation is falling short.”

It allows them to imagine some light at the end of the tunnel and flip a negative conversation into one with more potential. Once the desired future is clear, it’s much easier to see the path to get there.

5. “Who could you ask to get helpful and different perspectives on this?”

This question serves multiple purposes. Firstly, as a manager, your instinct is to give your perspective and try and solve the problem. This question interrupts that instinct and helps the other person look elsewhere, using their own resourcefulness to do so. Secondly, it ‘zooms out’, reminding both of you that everyone sees the world from their own point of view, that everyone will be missing something, and that multiple perspectives are better than any one.

It’s not necessarily an easy question. If someone is feeling stressed and emotional then it’s hard to ‘zoom out’. An invitation to do so may even sound like a criticism. It may be the right thing to do to simply ‘park the conversation’ and say “it’s good to understand your point of view on this. Can we take a break to allow us both to reflect on this a bit?” You can then come together when the tension is lower, summarise where you were and start the process of ‘zooming out’.

Once you do start thinking of people, it’s worth teasing out “why do you think that person’s perspective might be helpful and different?” as this continues the process of helping the other person imagine themselves in other people’s shoes.

6. “What’s the most helpful thing I can do right now?”

It may be that the other person simply wishes to make you aware of something. It may be they want a specific piece of guidance. Maybe they want some feedback. It puts the ball in the other person’s court to say what you should do. It also stops you from going into ‘telling’ mode by default.

You have probably already helped by simply getting the other person to clearly articulate an issue and what the solution could look like, as well as sources of perspective and expertise. You might have (hopefully) sparked a sense of curiosity and drive to solve the problem.

Even if you’re asked for an opinion you might sometimes say “let’s see what you come up with first as it might be better than any idea I come up with”, or “I could come up with some ideas but I’d rather hear yours first.” Note that it’s worth avoiding signalling that you have ideas that you’re simply hiding or else you could just encourage a game of ‘guess what’s in my boss’s head’.

7. “When will we revisit and review this?”

Toward the end of a conversation you may both feel some relief that some difficult ground has been covered, or excitement that a seed has been sown. However, part of the reason that progress has been made is because you have a) paid attention to it, b) given permission for thinking and honesty and c) made it clear that the other person has ownership. Over time, the other person may see your attention fade, they may start doubting if they are still allowed to be creative and honest, and they may start interpreting things you’re doing and saying (outside of the meeting) as signalling that you’re taking back ownership.

I’ve learned this the hard way, with colleagues feeling I started some creative thinking and then interpreting later actions (sometimes rightly, sometimes wrongly) as implicitly ‘dousing the flames’. It’s important to review and revisit ideas together, if only to continue to show that you’re not just about to jump onto the field of play uninvited – nor end the game early and start a new one – but that you are still very interested and enthusiastic. You may have planted a seed and started an initiative because it’s something you’re excited about. When you come back to it, you may now be excited about something very different. However, by reconnecting, showing interest and attention, and encouraging energy and curiosity, you can stay engaged and seek to maintain growth.


I’ve come to learn that I’m often at my happiest when I’m constantly exploring new ideas and sharing things that excited me. However, I’ve also learned the hard way that a tendency to be slow to listen but be quick to share my ideas, suggestions and latest enthusiasm has a toxic effect that encourages others to feel their own ideas aren’t valued and that they are not being heard.

I’m fascinated by the 7 questions above as a way of learning how to keep turning this dangerous habit on its head. I hope they’re of some use to you and I’d warmly invite you to share with me any critique, ideas or questions.

Some further reading

I’ve been enjoying these books recently – they’ve helped to spark some of this thinking.

Cover of book
The Coaching Habit
Image of the book cover
An everyone culture: becoming a deliberately development organisation – Kegan and Laney
Book cover: Multipliers
Multipliers: how the best leaders make everyone smarter – Wiseman and McKeown

Note: thanks to Dame Alison Peacock whose wonderful mantra ‘a culture of ideas’ continues to guide so much of my thinking.

The disagreement dissolver: a check-list for stamping out misunderstanding at work

Updated 13:30 17th January with another checklist!

So many conversations leave leave people with more misunderstanding than they started. Workplaces are rife with suspicion about hidden agendas, lack of trust, and brewing resentments because the quality of discussion is so poor that we read (and often mis-read) between the lines to figure out what is really happening.

discussing the undiscussableI’ve recently been reading around the work of communication guru Chris Argyris and came across a brilliant book, Discussing the undiscussable by William R. Noonan. In it, Noonan discusses one of Argyris’ key ideas, the Ladder of Inference. Essentially it’s a way of analysing the way you’ve reached a conclusion and helping to ‘re-trace your steps’ so that you can check out where you might be creating a misunderstanding at the root of a disagreement. I’ve already found it so incredibly useful and exciting that I wanted to blog. It won’t solve every disagreement but I think it’s a really helpful way to break down some of the defensiveness and resentment and reframe the discussion.

The Ladder of Inference

Argyris suggests we consider our reasoning as a 3-part process.

  1. We select our facts or data
  • We filter the things that we see, hear, or remember and select or highly-weight useful items (generally ones that confirm existing thinking or assumptions). This process is partly conscious (e.g. filtering out or minimising items that we deem boring/ridiculous/irrelevant, or where we believe the source is unreliable/biased/foolish/annoying)  or unconscious (we’ll notice words or pictures of people/things we have a stronger emotion about – e.g fear/excitement).
  • We bring a particular lens to the filtering process – e.g. we may be typically more sensitive to positive emotions, or perhaps we’re more cynical and look for the worst.
  • Our emotions us can restrict our ability to ‘cast the net wide’ – we ‘amp up’ some facts and ‘drown out’ others while our nerves are jangling. [See more in this blog about emotional blindness]
  • We aren’t aware of what we aren’t aware of – we don’t know what data are out there, what events have occurred, that we aren’t aware of. We can only begin to reason from the small subset of information we read, hear, or see – missing out enormous amounts that others have read, heard or seen.

2. We interpret the facts

  • We ascribe our own meaning to items of evidence based on our mood, our previous experience, culture (organisational, personal, national, etc) and understanding. It is inevitable that elements of nuance (or even major aspects) or meaning that were intended by the author/speaker are missed, and that we superimpose feelings and ideas that were also not intended.
  • Words have associations to us that they may not have to others – each word or idea is tainted with different positives and negatives to us than it is to another person.

3. We draw conclusions

  • We summarise our filtered, re-interpreted data and select a concluding thought
  • We unconsciously connect an emotion to it through our own interpretation – again based on where it came from, our current situation, our past, our mood, our feelings about the other person or people involved.
  • We focus on the conclusion and tend to allow the data and interpretation process to fade from memory.

We’re prone to reach conclusions that conform to our existing views, filtering and interpreting the data to help us achieve this. Challenging views which may lead to us feeling embarrassed or angry tend to result in us drawing a conclusion that the other person is hostile, unreliable, untrustworthy, etc.

On the other hand, if we like someone then we cast even unreasonable data in a more favourable light, reaching less negative conclusions. We may choose to minimise or water-down any conclusion, and pussy-foot around its presentation to avoid presenting data that we believe could harm our relationship. [See more about communication issues and techniques here]

Argyris noted that, once we reach a conclusion, we tend to cling to it. However, most people reach conclusions while missing a significant number of other views, interpretations and facts.

The check-list

To dramatically reduce miscommunication, Argyris and Noonan suggest that we carefully check our assumptions and those of others, systematically checking facts, observations and inferences.

Key ideas:

  • Interrupt the action:
    As soon as you realise that you’re engaged in debate that is mainly abstract conclusions and misunderstandings, interrupt your thought pattern and emotional response to take a step back.
  • Engage your curiosity:
    Rather than focusing on ‘being right’ and trying to persuade, focus on trying to fully understand the other person or people’s position. What may be obvious to one of you may not be obvious to the others.
  • Shine a light on your differences:
    Publicly note that you’ve spotted a misunderstanding and different point of view. Tentatively paraphrase what you’ve understood of the other position(s) – both final conclusions and observations – inviting clarifications and additions to clear up what you’ve missed.
  • Pursue a line of enquiry
    Importantly, these authors state that you must begin with a brutally honest reflection on your own conclusions or opinions, interrupting any impulsive or emotional reaction to check your facts. This needs to happen before you approach someone else to challenge their own beliefs or conclusions. You can then follow a respectful enquiry approach with the other person, as follows.
  1. What facts or observations have you and I selected to make our cases?
  2. Is there anything that I’ve deliberately chosen to ignore, reject or minimise? Is it worth re-checking its value? What about the other person?
  3. What might we have missed? Is there something that one person has observed that the other is unaware of? How might we find out?
  4. Are these facts or observations truly objective or have we layered on our own interpretations about meaning? What would they look like in a purely objective way with no interpretation?
  5. Is it possible to reasonably come to a different conclusion?
  6. What extra information will we need to seek in order to check our conclusions?

Use this checklist to, as Argyris and Noonan would put it, “climb down your ladder of inference” to check for misunderstanding. This may be needed quite rapidly, in a meeting or conversation. Social media arguments may seem fast-paced but their brevity makes them particularly prone to a self-reinforcing cycle of misunderstanding on both sides. Emails can very often appear colder and more aggressive than the sender intended – hence it is important to check your reading of what is ‘between the lines’ and the intended tone.

The same techniques can be used both to check your understanding of someone else’s assertions or opinions. Work back carefully, asking questions to understand what led the other person to a conclusion, and the underlying observations or facts. This can help gain an insight into the person’s real meaning, or uncover a relatively easy-to-resolve misunderstanding at the heart of a disagreement.

You can also use this approach to present your own ideas and conclusions more effectively. By carefully layering up from selected data, adding your interpretations then presenting your idea, you have time to check for understanding and missing data/facts along the way and present a cogent case with less chance of misinterpretation and more chance to learn and improve the conclusions along the way. You also present ideas in an open way, able to be both clear and authoritative while also showing a trust-inducing openness and ability to listen.

This is really just the tip of the iceberg of Argyris and Noonan’s work and I’ll try and blog more of the approaches in future.

What are your reactions to this? Have you used these techniques? Am I missing other ideas or approaches that would help? Is there a flaw in this that I haven’t spotted? Please do help me explore this.


The art of being level-headed, not emotionally blinded

Imagine it: your face flushes red, your shoulders tense, your skin prickles and your stomach sinks. Stress, anxiety, anger – it’s your body’s fight or flight response.

When we’re young these emotions are all-consuming and lead to regular emotional breakdown. As we get older, we gain an increasing ability to separate ourselves from the emotion – to see that it is temporary, to slightly detach from it and explore it with some curiosity.

Both as a teacher and an organisation leader, this ability has been completely critical. When I’ve allowed emotions to go unchecked then I’ve compromised my abilities to control classes and dealt badly with meetings. Stress reactions spiral out of control, they are exhausting and destructive.

When we are stressed a number of effects occur:

  • We zoom in on the stress – our attention is drawn closely to the stimulus that is causing us anxiety or anger. This might be the person who is being threatening or the particular thought going around our head that is worrying us. Other things around us and other thoughts recede into the background. We lose sight of the bigger picture, losing perspective and becoming, quite literally, narrow minded. Conversely, but also harmfully, we are also much more easily distracted, finding it harder to filter stimuli and thoughts that are irrelevant to our goal. This is a particular problem if the source of stress is not the thing we’re supposed to be focusing on – e.g. trying to engage in a calm, thoughtful conversation after an emotionally stressful event.
  • We are more likely to be aggressive (the fight response) and competitive or alternative we may feel compelled to withdraw – physically or emotionally. We are less likely to think things through calmly and logically. Our decision-making is more haphazard and more likely to be sub-optimal.
  • Due to paying attention much more selectively, we are likely to form narrower memories from the event which focus on the emotional content and the stressful stimulus – we will remember different things differently to someone who was calm. We are much less effective at tasks that require integrating different inputs or ideas – processes and tasks requiring divided attention or focus is impaired. More generally, our working memory is impaired. Not only makes this harder to think about the current situation, this also impairs retrieval of past events
  • Our risk-taking behaviour is modified. On average, we all tend to be more keen to pursue reward with less avoidance of possible negative outcomes. However, stress also amplifies gender differences. On average, men’s risk-taking is ramped up much more strongly than women’s.
  • We are less likely to take a team perspective in groups, leading to lower performance as a team more generally.

All of this is pretty disastrous if you are trying to remain calm in the face of a class that needs calm authority, or a stressful meeting which requires strategic decision-making and careful person-management.


So, what’s to be done? I personally use a few key principles. Apologies if they sound a little fluffy or odd, but they seem to work for me!

  1. Practice noticing your own emotions. Get used to spotting the first flush of adrenaline and making a note that you are getting an emotional reaction. Check your mental state and the tension in your muscles at regular intervals to see how tense or stressed you are feeling. This is the vital first step in dealing with the emotion and detaching yourself from it.
  2. Allow the emotion to subside and pass. Take a moment to pause. Drop your shoulders. Take a deep breath. Slow your rate of speaking.
  3. Also notice the emotional state of others. Spot when they go red, look for tension in their faces, particularly around the eyes. Remember that it is temporary. Recognise that it may cause an empathy reaction in you and look for this.
  4. Most importantly, zoom out and see this is as a small and possibly even helpful emotional blip in a successful extended process. Emotion can lead to opening up, and to learning. Think of the big picture and the long game. Use the words curiosity and design to trigger calmer, more logical thoughts, more detached, giving yourself space to see wider solutions.

Outside of the stressful episodes you need to try and encourage yourself to be better at coping. Practice noticing your emotional state regularly. Ensure you get enough sleep. Even one late night can have knock on effects for the rest of the week. Sleep deprivation makes you emotionally less resilient, less able to detach, more liable to stress. Give yourself space to unwind and relax. I personally find mindfulness techniques help me both with the noticing of my emotional state as well as helping to put aside nagging or stressful thoughts, though I don’t have the patience to practice at all regularly.

What works for you? Am I missing some techniques or ideas? I’m keen to learn from you, please do leave a comment.

9 ways for leaders to be better at communication

Image by Matt Weibo from https://www.flickr.com/photos/21065622@N08/5556628632/ under Creative Commons CC BY-SA 2.0

Poor communication sucks the life out of organisations. Many teams are full of uncomfortable issues, awkward misunderstandings and confusing meetings where everyone leaves with a different idea of what is going on. This leads to frustration, reduced trust, reduced respect and reduced sense of each other’s competency. It leads to suspicion about whether real intentions match stated intentions and it generated lots of unnecessary stress.

I’ve enjoyed reading through some great blogs and books on leadership and communication. In the spirit of sharing and to help my own learning, I’d like to suggest an initial 9 ideas for leaders that you can use to transform communication. Do you agree or disagree with these? Can you improve on them? Please do comment and share.  I’d love to hear your ideas, challenges and reflections. I’ve included links to some of my reading at the bottom of this blog.

1. Approach with a spirit of respect, curiosity and enquiry
Your mental state at the start of the conversation is vital. Note and acknowledge your own emotional state while focusing on your curiosity about what the final solution might look like. Be prepared to learn something about (and potentially to change) the assumptions you’re bringing, and to learn more about the other person and their context. Avoid bringing a laundry list of ideas to impose. Imagine a blank space in which you will create a way forward, where the other person will also bring some building blocks and some ideas.

2. Don’t fluff, don’t pussy-foot, don’t ease-in
Good leaders build and maintain trusting relationships, but this doesn’t stop them getting to the heart of an issue. Fear of causing stress can make us spontaneously water down or ‘fluff’ the discussion of challenging facts, or spend far too long ‘easing in’ or ‘pussy-footing around’ a challenging conversation so that the point gets lost. Even though the intention was to maintain the relationship the other person will probably realise you’re not saying what you really think and this leads to suspicion and lack of trust and, ultimately, does more harm than good. Prioritising short-term emotional comfort over long-term goals and genuine, trusting relationships is damaging, and can lead to watering down expectations/challenge which, ultimately, harms everyone in the organisation. However, the flip side is that systematically creating insecurity and reducing trust will also lead to organisation breakdown! Great conversations aim to maintain and build relationships while addressing challenges and moving things forwards.

3. Check your assumptions, bring your view as just one possibility
The relationship with the other person is very important too! Respect and understanding can be built together when you check your assumptions about the situation. Simply starting by saying “I’ve made some assumptions here and I would like to check them with you” invites the other person to contribute and shows you are open to listening. Maintain your alertness to your assumptions throughout the conversation and try and discuss them openly.

4. Restate and summarise
Every element of a conversation is being interpreted and heard differently by each party. We bring our own feelings and understanding and we’re constantly reinterpreting what we hear to fit our own mental models of the world. To avoid the worst of this, use phrases such as ‘I’d like to pause and double check I’ve understood what you mean’ or ‘Can I summarise what you’ve said as’. Follow this with a question like ‘Have I captured the key points you were making or is there anything I’ve missed or misrepresented?’ Invite the other person to summarise too, e.g. ‘I don’t know how clear I’m being – please could you play back what I’ve just said to make sure we’re on the same page and help me ensure I’m not being confusing?’

5. Be alert to your emotional cues
Every time you get a little burst of adrenaline you feel it in your stomach, you may feel yourself going red, and you may feel your muscles tense. This typically happens when you get an emotional ‘fight or flight’ reaction within the conversation. Use these as clues to unspoken assumptions or issues you’re bringing to the table. When you notice this reaction then you also need to work twice as hard to check assumptions, listen openly and check for understanding as the adrenaline will be working against your ability to think logically and openly. This commonly happens when the other person says something that threatens our own feelings of competency, our safety or our social standing. If necessary, pause the conversation. ‘I had an emotional reaction to that last question/idea which makes me realise that I am worried about X’ or ‘I’ve realised I got a bit tense, can we resume [in a few minutes]/[later today] so that I can make sure I’m listening openly?’ or ‘When you said that it made me feel tense – I’m reflecting on why and I think I’m worried that…’

6. Check their assumptions too
Not only are you bringing assumptions to the conversation, the other person is too. Questions that the other person asks may not always be the ones that are addressing the real issue, only tangential issues. They may also be forming assumptions behind what you’re saying that may not be true. This is a real test of your leadership qualities as some of their assumptions may be questioning your competency or character – be very careful aware of your emotional reactions and be open to exploring and learning about yourself. Use questions like ‘so that I can answer your question better, could you explain why you’re asking it?’ and ‘do you think there’s an important or difficult issue here that we’re not talking about? I’m really open to hearing your thinking even if it’s critical of me’. By showing you listen and making yourself a little vulnerable you can learn a lot and build trust. It can also raise your standing as a genuinely respected leader rather than having to rely on ‘hard’ power and risk reducing trust.

7. Make space – don’t fill all the conversations space, ask questions and wait
When you’re anxious or stressed you tend to talk more and listen less. As a leader you have more ‘presence’ and ‘weight’ in the conversation than you often realise. Leave silences at the end of the other person’s contributions. This allows you to be more thoughtful, and allows the other person to add other points they may have forgotten. Follow questions with longer pauses than normal. Imagine that each question creates a space between the two of you – don’t shut down this space by pushing your own answers in. Open body language, e.g. relaxed stance and palms up, can help create this conversational space. Sometimes you can explicitly acknowledge the space – e.g. ‘in this space here between us we’re going to create the solution to this – what does it look like?’

8. Be careful with suggestions, label their ‘power’
Your inherent power as a leader can overwhelm the other person’s ideas and suggestions. Every time you say ‘what about ….’ then it can come across as ‘I want us to do this and I will be annoyed if I don’t get my way’. You need to preface and caveat every suggestion with clarity about whether it is a firm idea that should be accepted, or merely a contribution that can be ignored or changed. Use phrase such as ‘This is just a tentative suggestion to build on – feel free to reject it’. Be extremely sparing about your own contributions. Ideally you want to seed the conversation with sufficient space and challenge that colleagues can start generating their own solutions.

9. Integrity builds trust
Make sure your deeds match your words. If you say you are open to listening, you need to make sure you don’t punish the other person for speaking, suggesting or criticising. If you say you are open to their contributions and ideas, you need to follow through and not end up systematically rejecting them all. If you say you are making the other person responsible for the next step, recognise that stepping in or taking back control will undermine both them and you. If you say you will follow up with an action, failing to do so makes you look untrustworthy.

No amount of great dialogue can overcome the damage done by lack of integrity – indeed, failure to follow through or match deeds to your words makes it orders of magnitude harder to communicate effectively later. Where trust is low, aim for smaller, quicker wins to show that you will follow through.

These are all really tough, and it’s through making (many) mistakes with pretty much all of the above points that I’ve been learning to develop my own leadership. I’m going to try and blog more frequently and share some of the interesting ideas I’ve been reading. In my next blog I want to explore how to raise the level of challenge and expectation while improving buy-in and avoiding becoming top-down.

Pages 171-199 of the Best Evidence Synthesis: School Leadership and Student Outcomes: Identifying What Works and Why. Viviane Robinson, Margie Hohepa, and Claire Lloyd, The University of Auckland

Open-to-learning conversations – a presentation by Viviane Robinson

Chris Argyris – Teaching Smart People How To Learn, Harvard Business Review

PS In a spectacular mathematics teacher fail, my original post was called “8 ways…” when in fact there are 9. Oops!

That’s not fair! The psychology of our natural sense of justice.

Social experience is as important to our wellbeing as physical environment. Research suggests that our innate neurological threat-reward systems are activated not only in response to basic physical stimuli such as food/hunger, pain/pleasure, etc. but in response to five basic social qualities:

5. Fairness

In 2007 Tabibna and Lieberman did an interesting experiment where people were told that there was a certain quantity of money available and that it would be split between them and one other person. They measured the reward-mechanism response in their brains as they told them this, and found that if offered $0.50 out of $1.00 total then the subjects experienced a greater reward response than if they were offered $10.00 out of $50.00. The perceived unfairness of the latter situation was greater, even though, objectively, they were getting a better deal.

Fairness, it seems, is an inbuilt mechanism in the brain, and can affect our sense of relatedness and status.

“People who perceive others as unfair don’t feel empathy for their pain, and in some instances, will feel rewarded when unfair others are punished (Singer et al, 2006).”
(SCARF white paper)

Similar parts of the brain are activated when people perceive unfairness as when they are physically disgusted by something, driving people to a state of either anger or fear – the classic fight or flight response.

So what lessons can we draw from this for teaching and learning, school leadership and education policy?

Teaching and Learning

Having a consistent approach to rules, both rewards and punishment, can work in a teacher’s favour. It ensures students sense they too will be treated fairly, thus reducing anxiousness. It increases certainty and helps students recover relatedness even after they have been disciplined. Stressed and inexperienced teachers often attempt to mix ‘tactically ignoring’ problems with sudden harsh punishments when their patience breaks. This immediately aggravates the sense of fairness in every member of the class, turning them against the teacher. Attempting to do any real teaching when the class is in this state is futile – their fight-or-flight response is activated and completely dampens the relevant mechanisms relevant for learning.

School Leadership

In the general stress of a teacher’s job, the very last thing that they need is to feel that they are being treated unfairly themselves. A lack of transparency in pay, rewards, and promotions are common causes of perceived unfairness, and even more so when new management are parachuted in and suddenly decide that one or two members of staff need to be removed. Even if it is for the best intentions, a decision to treat some people by different rules will destroy the collegiate atmosphere for the rest. If in doubt, senior leadership should ensure that they come off no better, and ideally ever so slightly worse than their colleagues when a change in rules is announced.

Education Policy

Politics is rife with accusations of unfairness. In times of change when anxiety is generally higher then people will be acutely aware of any lack of justice. Common problems are when politicians push their ‘pet’ projects or make announcements without any genuine transparency. Of course politicians, like many other, suffer unfairness at the hands of the media, but it is vital that they avoid making the same mistake.

In times of hardship it is worth demonstrating how politicians and policy-makers are being affected, and again it is worth ensuring that the perception is that “we’re all in this together, but we value you so much that we’ll take a slightly bigger hit ourselves”. A notable place for this would have been where the UK government was negotiating pension decreases. I suspect that the whole thing would have been accepted much more readily by unions if MPs had made a show of how they were cutting their own pensions by ever so slightly more than their proposals for the rest of the country.


  • We make make assessments of fairness based on how we are treated compared to everyone else – it plays to our natural sense of empathy.
  • Unfairness causes stress and anxiety and induces anger, fear and hopelessness.
  • Lack of consistency is unfairness, and lack of transparency can lead to perceived unfairness.
  • If you have to inflict suffering on people you lead then you should be seen to be suffering at least as much yourself, in order to maintain the sense of justice.


  • Managing with the brain in mind, Strategy Business magazine issue 59, Autumn 2009.
  • SCARF360 white paper, David Rock, NeuroLeadership journal, issue one, 2008
  • Singer, T., Seymour, B., O’Doherty, J.P., Stephan, K.E., Dolan, R.J., Frith, C.D., 2006. Empathic neural responses are modulated by the perceived fairness of others. Nature, 439, 466-469.
  • Tabibnia, G., & Lieberman M. D. (2007). Fairness and Cooperation Are Rewarding: Evidence from Social Cognitive Neuroscience. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1118, 90-101.

Friend or Foe? The science of empathy and relationships explained.

Social experience is as important to our wellbeing as physical environment. Research suggests that our innate neurological threat-reward systems are activated not only in response to basic physical stimuli such as food/hunger, pain/pleasure, etc. but in response to five basic social qualities:

4. Relatedness

We all know the feeling of meeting someone completely new. There’s a slight tension and greater alertness: the classic fight-of-flight response. In fact, our brain is programmed make a judgement about each new person we meet in order to assess the risk of the situation.

“The decision that someone is friend or foe happens quickly and impacts brain functioning (Carter & Pelphrey, 2008). For example, information from people perceived as ‘like us’ is processed using similar circuits for thinking one’s own thoughts. When someone is perceived as a foe, different circuits are used (Mitchell, 2006). Also, when treating someone as a competitor, the capacity to empathise drops significantly (Singer et al, 2006).”
(SCARF white paper)

If the initial interaction and conversation goes well then you get a sense that you are ‘warming’ to the other person. This feeling appears to relate to the release of oxytocin in the brain, a natural brain hormone associated with affiliative behaviour (Domes et al, 2007). It has been suggested that oxytocin not only allows us to bond with another person, but also helps us overcome existing preconceptions or stereotypes by easing the process of ‘unlearning’, an important point for conflict resolution. Oxytocin is known to be release in particularly large quantities at the start of new romantic relationships and when people become parents.

“Studies have shown far greater collaboration when people are given a shot of oxytocin, through a nasal spray. (Kosfield, 2005).”
(SCARF white paper)

Relatedness and its importance in in organisations and schools is not a new idea. ‘Team Building’ exercises are very common, although if these are implemented by simply throwing a group of people together at random then you’re not likely to get a great response. The key is to explore ways that people can see team members, colleagues and classmates as ‘like me’ in some way. This is important to counteract feelings of loneliness.

“the human threat response is aroused when people feel cut off from social interaction. Loneliness and isolation are profoundly stressful. John T. Cacioppo and William Patrick showed in 2008 that loneliness itself is  a threat response to lack of social contact, activating the same neurochemicals that flood the system when one is subjected to physical pain.”
(Managing with the brain in mind)

So what lessons can we draw from this for teaching and learning, school leadership and education policy?

Teaching and Learning

First and foremost this article should hopefully help to further dismiss the adage of ‘don’t smile before Christmas’. It is immensely important that students create a warm relationship with their teacher. When this happens then the empathy created will foster greater trust and better behaviour. The best teachers always take time to know and understand their students and try and relate to them.

It is also important that students relate to each other. In secondary schools in particular there are many different classes with different groupings, and teachers shouldn’t ignore the importance of relationships between students. Peer collaboration is a powerful learning tool, but won’t be possible until relationships have been properly established.

School Leadership

Professional development happens much more effectively when teachers collaborate, not only with performance managers, line managers and mentors, but with other members of their departments. The best school leaders encourage social activity within and outside the classroom, and give staff an opportunity to learn together. Teacher sports teams, yoga classes, choirs, etc. are all excellent to create useful relationships, but you may also like to experiment with a display of teacher photos with accompanying brief ‘biographies’ including interests. School leaders need to participate in this as well: a cold, aloof management team reduces trust, and means they are less likely to hear about problems until too late.

Education Policy

Politicians have left a trail of PR disasters as they attempt to wear baseball caps and proclaim ‘pop’ music tastes in an attempt to make voters think they are ‘like me’. When you’re in charge of such an enormously diverse group of people then the values and consistency demonstrated by your actions will be more important.

When management teams or ‘superheads’ are placed in schools then there needs to be serious time and effort put in to building relationships with existing staff, students and parents. New federations or chains cannot hope to pull together successfully unless they give time for staff to get out and visit colleagues in other establishments.


  • We are tense when we meet new people. Our fight-or-flight response kicks in.
  • ‘Warmth’ between people occurs when they find similarities, and this can help break down stereotypes and preconceptions.
  • Loneliness can be a severe problem, with mental repercussions similar to physical pain.
  • Effective organisations work on trust and empathy between staff, and it is worth spending time on relationships, although crass attempts at ‘team-building’ can be counterproductive.


  • Managing with the brain in mind, Strategy Business magazine issue 59, Autumn 2009.
  • SCARF360 white paper, David Rock, NeuroLeadership journal, issue one, 2008
  • Carter, E. J. & Pelphrey, K. A., (2008). Friend or foe?
    Brain systems involved in the perception of dynamic signals of menacing and friendly social approaches. Journal
    Social Neuroscience, Volume 3, Issue 2 June 2008 , pages 151-163.
  • Mitchell, J. P., Macrae, C. N., & Banaji, M. R. (2006). Dissociable Medial Prefrontal Contributions to Judgments of Similar and Dissimilar Others. Neuron, 50, 655-663.
  • Singer, T., Seymour, B., O’Doherty, J.P., Stephan, K.E., Dolan, R.J., Frith, C.D., 2006. Empathic neural responses are modulated by the perceived fairness of others. Nature, 439, 466-469.
  • Domes , G., Heinrichs, M., Gläscher J., Büchel, C., Braus, D., Herpertz, S. (2007). Oxytocin Attenuates Amygdala Responses to Emotional Faces Regardless of Valence. Biological Psychiatry, 62(10), 1187-1190.
  • Kosfeld, M. Heinrichs, M., Zak, P. J., Fischbacher, U., & Fehr, E. (2005). Oxytocin increases trust in humans. Nature, 435, 673-676.
  • Cacioppo, J. T., & Patrick, B. (2008). Loneliness: human nature and the need for social connection. New York: W. W. Norton and Company.

Taking Control: Why Autonomy Reduces Stress

Social experience is as important to our wellbeing as physical environment. Research suggests that our innate neurological threat-reward systems are activated not only in response to basic physical stimuli such as food/hunger, pain/pleasure, etc. but in response to five basic social qualities:

3. Autonomy

“Autonomy is the perception of exerting control over one’s environment; a sensation of having choices. Mieka (1985) showed that the degree of control organisms can exert over a stress factor determines whether or not the stressor alters the organism’s functioning. Inescapable or uncontrollable stress can be highly destructive, whereas the same stress interpreted as escapable is significantly less destructive. (Donny et al, 2006).”
(SCARF white paper)

Human beings have evolved to carefully evaluate each social situation for danger. I previously wrote about status, but there is a broader evaluation of whether the situation supports or threatens one’s capacity for choice, presumably to ensure options for fleeing are available at all times.

A greater feeling of control leads to reduced stress. In a study of nursing homes, Rodin and Langer found that residents who had all their choices made for them were less healthy and had shorter life-spans than those who were given more control over decisions that affected them. Other studies in the workplace have shown that the number one cause for people leaving a profession is perceived lack of control over work-life balance.

So what lessons can we draw from this for teaching and learning, school leadership and education policy?

Teaching and Learning

If teachers dictate the content, delivery and pace of every lesson then not only are they giving themselves a hard time but they may be unwittingly inflicting greater stress on students. If a child is faced with obligatory tasks that they feel they cannot do then they will become anxious, and their learning will be impaired. However if we allow them choices at these moments of stress then it can help them relax and enjoy themselves. Of course, this doesn’t mean kids should be allowed to opt for the easy low-challenge material, and we have to be careful that each challenge has that optimum level of uncertainty that promotes the greatest learning.

Teachers commonly proffer control to students in other situations, using choice to help defuse anger and bad behaviour, although we can see that transparently fake choices (‘it’s my way or you leave’) will only increase the tension further.

School Leadership

Micromanagement is well-known bad practice, and we can now see why from the brain’s perspective. School leaders should avoid dictating classroom practice as this piles on pressure when teachers need to be calm. Instead, offer structures with clear room for choice. At moments of high stress (e.g. inspections) offer staff choices and some control. “You have to do it this way” will lead to much more stress and resentment than “Something needs to change, which of these two options would you prefer?”

Try to give flexibility in working patterns – a good school will be clear that they will support part-time working if at all possible. If your timetable can introduce elements of choice for students then they will also feel more empowered and engaged.

Education Policy

Autonomy is the current buzz-word in education, although politicians are irresistibly drawn toward micromanagement and centralisation as it satisfies their own feelings of control and therefore safety. Devolving power may be intellectually satisfying but it increases the stress of policy makers when they don’t feel they have hands on the levers. Political leaders and commentators should recognise that stressed, insecure politicians centralise, and that attacking them incessantly can only exacerbate this.

School inspectorates have a tough but necessary job to assure quality. However even a small amount of autonomy could help. For example, allowing teachers to opt to choose broadly to be seen during one day or another would be massively beneficial. Teachers would be less stressed, and this would ensure observations were more realistic.


  • Lack of control or choice increases stress levels. This suppresses learning, demotivates, and can lead to poor health.
  • Leaders’ desire to reduce their own stress drives them toward taking control over everything, but this instinct will increase stress in everyone else. A balance needs to be maintained.
  • At moments of high stress, simply giving a choice can help defuse some of the tension.


  • Managing with the brain in mind, Strategy Business magazine issue 59, Autumn 2009.
  • SCARF360 white paper, David Rock, NeuroLeadership journal, issue one, 2008
  • Donny, E. C., Bigelow, G. E., & Walsh S. L. (2006). Comparing the physiological and subjective effects of self-administered vs yoked cocaine in humans. Psychopharmacology, 186(4), 544-52.
  • Dworkin, S I., Mirkis, S., Smith J. E. (1995). Response-dependent versus response-independent presentation of cocaine: differences in the lethal effects of the drug. Psychopharmacology, 117(3), 262-266.
  • Rodin, J. (1986). Aging and health: effects of the sense of control. Science, 233, 1271-1276.

Future Fear: Why Uncertainty Leads To Anxiety

Social experience is as important to our wellbeing as physical environment. Research suggests that our innate neurological threat-reward systems are activated not only in response to basic physical stimuli such as food/hunger, pain/pleasure, etc. but in response to five basic social qualities:

2. Certainty

Our brains are constantly trying to predict the future, based on known patterns of behaviour. When you activate muscles to take a step forward your brain predicts the sensory information that should be forthcoming, and assuming all is well and that this pattern is matched by reality then the whole experience further reinforces the expected pattern and you continue with your next action or thought.

This prediction system allows the brain to operate much more efficiently – instead of carefully and consciously evaluating every single nerve sensation received on each step our brain compares the signals to the expected pattern. If it matches then very little energy is expended. However, if it detects a mismatch then we suddenly go in to ‘error’ mode, and our attention is rapidly switched to the situation to decide what to do next, along with the production of stress hormones, i.e. the threat response. For example, if our foot lands on a banana skin and starts sliding we become rapidly and consciously aware of what is happening in order to decide what to do about it. (Hawkins, 2004).

Because this prediction is so much more efficient, we have evolved to crave certainty. Even slightly uncertain situations (perhaps an unknown surface to walk on, a slightly different type of maths problem, or meeting a new person) redirects the brain’s attention away from one’s goals in an effort to concentrate on finding new patterns, and greater certainty. (Hedden, Garbrielli, 2006)

Of course uncertainty is also necessary for learning because the brain’s ‘error’ response is responsible for forming new patterns.

“Mild uncertainty attracts interest and attention: new and challenging situations create a mild threat response, increase levels of adrenalin and dopamine just enough to spark curiosity and energize people to solve problems”
(‘Managing with the brain in mind’, Strategy Business magazine issue 59, Autumn 2009)

However, if there are multiple sources of uncertainty then attention cannot be focused on learning so effectively.

So what lessons can we draw from this for teaching and learning, school leadership and education policy?

Teaching and Learning

Every new problem we pose in the classroom poses some sort of uncertainty. As teachers we are aware that we can begin a lesson in an unexpected way in order to focus attention, but we also know that we should have consistent expectations and routines in order to decrease stress. It is a difficult balancing act and the mark of the talented professional is one who can create the optimum level of uncertainty at all times for each student. However, it is worth realising that if a student comes in to the room who is experiencing uncertainty in other parts of their life then they won’t be able to fully engage in the lesson or learn effectively. We can reduce uncertainty stress by ensuring that students have a clear map of the future learning, and are aware of any future changes well in advance.

School Leadership

Teachers face uncertainty every time they step in to a classroom. With a difficult class the teacher’s stress levels are raised from the very start as they cannot be sure what will happen. IT-failure, fire bells and late-comers all increase anxiety no matter how experienced we are. A looming threat of inspection, uncertain job prospects, or lack of clarity about routines can decrease teacher’s creativity and enjoyment. Leaders can help reduce these problems with clear timetables and expectations, road maps for the future, and clarity about when and where inspections will take place.

Education Policy

Schools will have more opportunity to be creative and effective in a certain political climate. Endless changes of policy create anxiety and reviews that fail to deliver on time exacerbate the problem. Policy leaders should create clear roadmaps and timetables and stick to them clearly. Policies should not be changed too often or else people will be anxious when engaging with any current set of rules as they will fear their work will go out of date.


  • Our brains crave certainty. Every unexpected outcome creates stress. A small amount is useful for learning, a large amount is debilitating.
  • Creativity and learning will be blocked with too much uncertainty or too many sources of it. Reduce stress with transparency, share rationales, publicise changes in advance, and break complex processes down in to smaller steps.


  • Managing with the brain in mind, Strategy Business magazine issue 59, Autumn 2009.
  • SCARF360 white paper, David Rock, NeuroLeadership journal, issue one, 2008
  • Hawkins, J. & Blakeslee, S. (2004). On Intelligence. Times Books.
  • Hedden, T., & Gabrieli, J. D. E. (2006). The ebb and flow of attention in the human brain. Nature Neuroscience, 9, 863-865.

I Win, You Lose: Why Losing Status Hurts.

Social experience is as important to our wellbeing as physical environment. Research suggests that our innate neurological threat-reward systems are activated not only in response to basic physical stimuli such as food/hunger, pain/pleasure, etc. but in response to five basic social qualities:

1. Status

“As humans we are constantly assessing how social encounters either enhance or diminish our status. Research published by Hidehiko Takahashi et. al in 2009 shows that when people realise that they might compare unfavourably to someone else, the threat response kicks in, releasing cortisol and other stress-related hormones” (‘Managing with the brain in mind’, Strategy Business magazine issue 59, Autumn 2009).

Social status is something that we are all implicitly aware of at all times. Studies have shown that we use the same areas of the brain for evaluating social pecking-order or seniority as for mathematical calculation (Chaio, 2003) and that this area is activated whenever we are interacting with other people, constantly reassessing our position  (Zink, 2008). This isn’t merely a superficial self-aggrandising reaction, it really matters to our health and wellbeing. Our perceptions of relative social standing have been shown to correlate with our life-expectancy and health, even when controlling for factors such as education and income (Marmott, 2004). It has even been shown that experiencing social rejection causes the same brain activity as physical pain (Eisenberger et al., 2003)

This mental reaction is our evolutionary reward for developing behaviours that promote our superiority in our ‘pack’ and thereby achieve a level of safety and security in our lives. Increase in status can be incredibly rewarding. In fact one study showed that an improvement in social standing prompted the same reactions as a financial windfall (Izuma et. al, 2008).

So what lessons can we draw from this for teaching and learning, school leadership and education policy?

Teaching and Learning

Children are acutely aware of status as they establish their identity and position in the world, and teachers are masters of using status in the classroom. We have traditionally used status-based rewards when we use competitive behaviour in our lessons, and the mere thought of status-raising associated with sport and games make them particularly appealing. The downside of this is that we have sometimes reinforced feelings of failure and anxiety in students – a problem that has led to over-compensation in the form of ‘all must have prizes’.

However, the lessons from this research is that while we can’t (and shouldn’t) shield students from ‘real-world’ status-related issues, we can encourage a culture where we value improvement, effort and resilience. This will mean that, wherever possible, status in our classroom is gained through effort and not ingrained ‘talent’. We need to encourage classrooms where success is celebrated in a number of different forms. An obsession with publicising levels, for example, might reinforce status anxiety.

School Leadership

Given that most classroom teachers are on a relatively level status playing field, school leaders should realise that status anxiety can easily become heightened among staff. The mere thought of inspection judgements, classroom outcome data analysis, or student surveys about teachers can send staff in to a fearful state that results in anger, defensiveness, and closed-mindedness. The simple act of a colleague saying ‘may I give you some feedback about that?’ will probably be at least partly interpreted as ‘I know more than you, I am superior’. The much vaunted 360-degree review will have little beneficial effect when the recipient is sat anxiously expecting a wave of status-lowering criticism from their colleagues.

Of course, it would be ludicrous to conclude that you have to avoid all comparisons or any of the aforementioned quality-assurance methods. However a wise leader will ensure that all staff feel fully valued for their strengths and improvements, and that they begin appraisals, where possible, with self-evaluation.

Education Policy

League tables, inspections and exam systems vigorously reinforce the notion of status in education. Generally speaking successful political leaders, journalists and business-people will have been the recipient of the upside of these systems – if you succeeded in staying at the top of the success ladder at school then you will view competition as being very beneficial as it provided you with a huge amount of positive reinforcement.

On the flip-side, a system with a very narrow view of educational success/status will simply create anxiety and, eventually, disengagement, as only a small proportion of schools and students can ever be top of any specific pile. Of course, policy makers need to strive for success and would be in danger of a lack of focus if they attempted to consider too many metrics at once, but they should avoid denigrating the teaching profession or groups of schools as failures. This will simply make it more likely that staff in those schools spend more time in ‘fight-or-flight’ brain mode – exactly the wrong state to be in when attempting to improve teaching skill or find creative solutions to help difficult students.


  • Value a range of skills and talents. A narrow definition will encourage anxiety and ‘gaming’ in order to achieve status-based rewards.
  • Feedback should be handled carefully. When presented in a threatening way it could be worse than no feedback at all.
  • Status doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game. It is possible to raise status through praise and positive feedback, or by providing an alternative field in which to excel.

This is the first post in a series of five on lessons for education from SCARF.


  • Managing with the brain in mind, Strategy Business magazine issue 59, Autumn 2009.
  • SCARF360 white paper, David Rock, NeuroLeadership journal, issue one, 2008
  • Michael Marmot, The Status Syndrome: How Social Standing Affects Our Health and Longevity, Times Books 2004
  • Eisenberger, N. i., Lieberman, M. D., & Williams, K. D. (2003). Does rejection hurt? An fMRi study of social exclusion. science, 302, 290-292
  • Chiao, J. Y., Bordeaux, A. R., Ambady, N. (2003). Mental representations of social status. Cognition, 93, 49-57.
  • Izuma, K., saito, D., sadato, N. (2008). Processing of social and Monetary Rewards in the Human striatum. Neuron, 58(2), 284-294
  • Zink, C. F., Tong, Y., Chen, Q., Bassett, D. s., stein, J. L., & MeyerLindenberg A. (2008). Know Your Place: Neural Processing of social Hierarchy in Humans. Neuron, 58, 273-283.