Nondiscussable Issues for School Districts
Leadership Insights

District Level Leaders: What Are Your Nondiscussables?

By Terry Wilhelm June 23, 2015
Nondiscussable Issues for School Districts

In his 2002 ASCD article “The Culture Builder,” Roland Barth introduced the notion of “nondiscussables” within a school site’s culture.

I would suggest that as the parent culture-setting organization, school districts must consider this issue at the central office level. If the district is to build and demonstrate a culture of serving students, staff, and leaders at the sites (rather than vice versa), it is an all-important one.

A district’s ‘nondiscussable’ issues can vary

Barth likens site-level nondiscussables to the elephant in the living room; that analogy is appropriate at the district level as well. These are the things that everyone knows but no one mentions publicly. School district nondiscussables can include:

  • Turf wars and silos
  • A cabinet member who throws up blockades whenever discussions broach changes that touch upon his departments
  • A verbally abusive middle manager
  • The obvious discontent and disengagement of an entire department
  • The famously toxic behavior of a particular employee who is allowed to continue her behavior year in, year out, whenever someone approaches her for service

Like all elephants in the room, these issues are typically discussed very regularly behind closed doors and out in the parking lot.

Identifying and addressing your district nondiscussables

At each level in the district hierarchy, the leader who is well aware of the nondiscussable issues within his or her own jurisdiction and steadfastly avoids addressing them contributes to the overall dysfunctional culture. Because these elephants are typically clearly seen by all, this seeming passivity has the same effect as the overt throwing more logs onto a slow-burning fire.

What if a leader is truly unaware of a nondiscussable within his or her area of responsibility? Any leader who suspects that these issues exists has a moral imperative to surface and address them. Tools for doing so include:

  • Surveys
  • One-to-one sensing interviews with department members
  • Paying closer attention to interactions and other signs of trouble

Gathering data on potential nondiscussables should be done respectfully and confidentially. Once the issues have been identified, the leader must clearly communicate his or her expectations for change, then follow up to ensure the behavior has stopped or improved.

Nondiscussable issues affect a school’s health

The more typical situation is that managers know of these issues, but continue to turn a blind eye, or that problematic conditions between departments or power conflicts between managers who are peers are not resolved. With chain-of-command being sacrosanct in districts as it is in most bureaucracies, upper managers may be reticent to interfere in subordinates’ areas of operations.

At the school level, Barth warns, “The health of a school is inversely proportional to the number of nondiscussables.” This is true at the central office level as well.

In my next post on this topic, I will continue to explore potential avenues for courageous leaders to address nondicussables so that schools and students can receive the maximum and best possible service.

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