Blah, blah, blah… OR ELSE!

  • Posted on: 20 February 2014
  • By: Tina McCoy

Is the age of accountability in Education turning you into someone that you don't want to be? School systems have been under significant scrutiny for years, and the pressure has mounted over time.  With politicians, the press, members of the public, and governing boards raising the bar and expecting better results with fewer resources and given greater challenges, all educational leaders are under great stress.  Actually, I would go so far as to say that it is beyond stress.  Many school leaders are actually under threat.  Make changes, or else.  Improve scores, or else. Reduce or eliminate problems, or else.  Given the circumstances, it is understandable (although very unfortunate) that many school administrators have given up leadership altogether.  Are you one of those professionals?  Have you replaced 'building vision' with dictates?  Have you confused 'building capacity' with having teachers sign off? Have you given up 'consensus building' for mandates?  Perhaps you believe that it is your job to (figuratively speaking) 'beat people with a stick' in order to make them change or perform. Reprimands over understanding, documentation over trust, and threats over support. All these have become increasingly common in schools.  Although I understand why some school administrators behave in this way, it's not leadership and it's not effective.

If the pressures of educational accountability are making you into a proverbial monster, take heart.  It doesn't need to be that way!  You may be interested to know of a research study on threat rigidity. I stumbled across this concept while researching a different topic, but the concept struck me as very meaningful - and something all leaders should know. In the article Threat Rigidity, School Reform, and Education Policy Contexts (2008), authors Olsen and Sexton describe threat rigidity and the results of their qualitative research study, which uses threat rigidity as a framework for analysis.  

In the words of Olson and Sexten, "threat rigidity is the theory that an organization, when perceiving itself under siege (i.e. threatened or in crisis), responds in identifiable ways: Structures tighten; centralized control increases; conformity is stressed; accountability and efficiency measures are emphasized; and alternative or innovative thinking is discouraged" (p. 15). Sound familiar?  Unfortunately, these conditions eventually result in maladaptive responses that are also predictable. Strife and conflict, struggles for power, and the strengthening of some groups at the expense of relationships between groups across the organization.  Group members' view of their own value to the organization is decreased. The first tier leadership is typically replaced and the second tier gains power (often temporarily), but the system is left in a survival mode

Not only is this unpleasant, but it is not effective.  According to the work of sociologists Staw, Sandelands & Dutton, the stress caused by threat rigidity results in difficulties between groups in the organization, resentment and defensiveness, a desire for members to hide their practices, and eventually a move to replace leadership. Individuals begin to value their own perspectives over their commitments to the organization. Obviously, none of this will help our schools to improve in the long run.  Enough of the bad news; Is there any good news?

The good news is that school leaders can take conscious steps to diminish the effects of threat rigidity and build a more positive school culture even in the face of external (and sometimes uncontrollable) pressures or threats.  Olsen and Sexton recommend that school leaders acknowledge the phenomenon of threat rigidity beforehand, so that they can proactively work against it. Open discussions, supporting teachers, encouraging innovation, and striving to build a culture of trust and cooperation are all ways to counteract threat rigidity and encourage a healthy and more productive work environment.  It's also important for leaders to remember that teachers are trained and educated to be professionals, capable of making decisions in service to students. They are not educated to simply follow orders without question, and therefore a dictatorial environment is not conducive to high levels of professional performance. School administrators can better tap the full potential of their teachers by bringing them in discussion around school reform and allowing them to be part of the solution, rather than workers to be 'managed'.

The moral of the story:  You don't have to play the game of 'threats' to effectively reform or transform your school system.  In fact, you can use what you know to work against threat rigidity to be a true leader who inspires others to action rather than pressuring them into submission. Compassion and relationships will always be important. So, be yourself: collaborative, communicative, encouraging and inspirational.  It's ok!  After all, the research says so.


Olsen, B. & Sexton, D. (2009). Threat rigidity, school reform, and how teachers view their work inside current education policy contexts. American Educational Research Journal, 46, 9-44. 

Staw, B., Sandelands, L., & Dutton, J. (1981). Threat rigidity effects in organizational behavior: A multilevel analysis. Administrative Science Quarterly, 26, 501-524.