Best Practice

Getting tasks done vs building staff relationships: As a school leader, is it either/or?

As a school leader, do you prioritise the relationships you have with your colleagues or does getting the job done trump everything? Robbie Burns looks at combining task-orientated and people-orientated leadership
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Balancing the demands of moving a school forward with developing deep, trusting, safe professional relationships is complex. How should school leaders manage this?

In this article, I want to explore a case study, drawing on two helpful models that will hopefully aid school leaders in exploring their own processes for thinking through their work with their colleagues.


Scales of concern: Relationships and tasks

Much has been written on project management blogs, websites and articles about “relationship-centred” or “task-centred” leadership – and about which is preferable.

I don’t think it’s a choice. I think both are important. Tasks are important because schools cannot move forward unless work is done. But work cannot be done without people who are engaged and motivated to perform the tasks well.

Leaders must never see themselves as “task-orientated” or “relationship-orientated” in their approaches: to do this would skew the way the school runs into dangerous troughs on either side of the road to success.



The model shown here is helpful in explaining the dangers of leadership approaches that sway too far one way or another. I will briefly explain the two extremes and then look at an example.


High concern for relationship – low concern for task

When leaders care more about the relationship, they have with their colleague over the task that has been given to them, the work is sacrificed – or at least the leader accepts that it may be completed poorly.

The dangers of this are obvious: work will not get done, curriculum will not be written, books will not be marked, risk-assessments will not be completed. Low standards of work are accepted while the wellbeing of the person and the relationship is maintained or even strengthened.

Some may say that there are cases when this is appropriate: bereavement, home struggles, parenting issues. Leaders may give more space and patience to colleagues when these issues occur.

However, importantly, it is worth noting that school leaders should not provide high-quality care for their colleagues’ wellbeing for the sake of the relationship they have with that colleague – this is the wrong motive.

Leaders should care for their colleagues because they want to ensure that high-quality work will be done when the time is right for that colleague in the wider web of their lives.

If leaders sacrifice the tasks at hand when their colleagues’ might be going through difficult circumstances in their lives, they fail to do their job as leaders and lose sight of their role: to lead the school towards success for the sake of their students’ education.

When leaders sacrifice tasks for the sake of relationships, they make decisions with the desire to please others at the root of their actions – easily done but it causes problems later.

Over time, this approach to leadership can lead to a warm, caring environment among a staff team, where the leader is loved and seen as thoughtful and in touch with their emotions.

But leaders are never meant to be loved. Leaders are supposed to lead. Being loved may happen in the warp and woof of school life, but it is not a given. Staff teams may end up losing engagement and motivation to do high-quality work because the most important thing to them is good relationships.

School environments can become places where challenge is not provided and people end up not being held to account properly. At its worse, this can lead to cultures where children are not kept safe and key tasks may not get done – with all this going unchallenged.


High concern for task – low concern for relationship

When leaders put tasks before relationships, what drives the decisions leaders make is the desire to achieve at all costs. Sometimes the intentions of this are good: leaders want the best for their students, they want good outcomes, they want high standards of teaching.

The danger of this approach, however, is that tasks may be completed, even completed to a high standard by their colleagues, but it is highly likely that over time, staff will feel burnt-out, students may feel under undue pressure and might not enjoy school – or might even become rebellious.

The wider school community will be very pleased with the high standards, but concerned about teacher workload, the amount of student homework, or the increasing level of focus on compliance.

Focusing too much on tasks and not enough on relationships can create a staff culture where work is completed in a way that is more about compliance than creativity; engagement can also become low but in a different way – staff might meet every requirement on the checklist just in time for the next learning walk and end up never thinking for themselves about how they could improve teaching and learning, and never contributing to the development of school life because they feel so burdened by their never-ending task list.


Addressing task and building relationships

When school leaders are at their best, they build relationships and address the task. They never lose sight of the vision for their school, what needs to be done to get there, and the role that the colleague they are working with plays in that overall goal.


Working with Alex

Alex is a good teacher and has worked at your school for 15 years. You have a good relationship with Alex, but he doesn’t respond well to feedback or challenge. He also doesn’t like changing or improving things and would prefer to keep things as they are. If it ain’t broke, as Alex often says, why fix it?

The issue for you as a school leader is that you have noticed that some of Alex’s foundation planning, particularly geography, could really be improved.

The tasks that he sets don’t deepen thinking or support retrieval of key concepts across a range of units. He isn’t the only one and you’ve made it a school focus this year.

You attempt to challenge and inspire Alex, alongside the other staff, to improve the quality of geography planning and provide good-quality CPD and time to do it.

When you do some monitoring of Alex’s classes’ books six weeks later, you notice that very little has changed. In fact, Alex has done exactly the same lessons as last year even though you have explicitly asked all colleagues to improve the quality of tasks.

It is time to talk to Alex a little more about what you’ve noticed.

As a leader, it would be easy to protect the relationship, say nothing and move on. Alex’s attainment and progress year-on-year is pretty good, not the best but definitely not the worst. You could also swing the other way be firm and clear: “Improve the tasks as stated and I will be back in a few weeks to see how you have improved things. Or else.”

Neither of these is the right way to approach this situation. The first option doesn’t support Alex’s growth. Over time, he will feel as though he doesn’t have to respond to whole-school initiatives because he has never been personally challenged to – the goals of the school don’t apply to him. This will slowly seep into the attitudes of other colleagues: Alex isn’t changing anything, so I won’t either.

The second option doesn’t help either: simply repeating the instructions that clearly didn’t hit home with Alex in a firmer, stronger way will distance your relationship from Alex, possibly leave him confused and definitely more bitter towards you.

Therefore, the key in this moment is to address the task and build the relationship. But how?

Combining the model above with Vivanne Robinson’s work on theories of action (Robinson, 2017) is helpful here. One of the main claims she makes about the way leaders ought to address moments like this is that they ought to engage with the beliefs and values of their colleagues, rather than bypass them and continue to give directives.

From a discussion about the beliefs and values that colleagues hold, leaders can move to consider how these inform actions and what consequences may result from them.

By looking beneath the surface to consider beliefs with colleagues, leaders seek to understand and rather than simply restating their expectations, they root their focus on getting things done in terms that can be mutually understood. Let’s consider this in light of the situation with Alex.


Alex’s beliefs and values

  • My teaching and planning are good. I know this because I am rarely challenged and if I am, I have a reason.
  • I value the status quo; what I do is good.
  • The whole school changes to geography don’t apply to me.

Alex’s actions

  • I don’t change my teaching and planning. My students get good outcomes, so I do not need to do anything too different each year.
  • I will ignore the whole school changes and CPD related to geography teaching.


  • Nothing changes but nothing needs to. The whole school changes don’t apply to me. I will do nothing about the changes that have been proposed.

The theory of action that you have proposed through the training you have put together is, however, like this:

School leader’s beliefs and values

  • Our current geography curriculum needs development, particularly around the quality of tasks.
  • The training I am putting together provides better resources for us to use.

School leader’s actions

  • I deliver training of what I hope will be a high standard and share why I think my beliefs about this are accurate and want them to help you consider changing.


  • The intended consequences of my actions are that teachers will change their geography tasks.

The theory of action the leader holds is very different to Alex’s. In fact, if we are honest, our theories of action as leaders are often very different to those of our teachers.

Realising this is the first step to addressing the task and building relationships with our colleagues.

When eventually you get to doing some monitoring like discussed, the skill of the leader who wants to address the task and also develop relationships is engaging Alex in an open discussion about his beliefs and values in a way that is curious rather than confrontational.

Rather than asking: Alex why haven’t you changed your planning? Or even simply telling Alex that he needs to change his planning, leaders can begin with questions like: I’ve noticed that the tasks that we discussed in the geography training haven’t made it into your own planning. Why might that be? For you, what makes good quality tasks in geography? How do you know this?

These sorts of questions mean that a leader can delve into the ideas that Alex holds, rather than simply challenging the actions he has taken.

The aim is always for the leader to help the teacher to make explicit the beliefs they hold so they can understand them together. From this platform, greater change can be made. From this platform, hopefully, Alex will see that there is a problem, a gap between his understanding of “good” geography tasks and the work that has been done in the CPD and the resources that have been shared.

It is at this point that the relationship can be developed (you have listened carefully, sought to understand Alex) and the next step tasks can and must be addressed.


Final thoughts

Importantly, within school leadership, as I mentioned earlier, it is highly unlikely you will be loved by everyone. Many will not be your best mate, and this is a good thing.

The relationships we have with our colleagues have a clear purpose: to support students to fulfil their potential. By engaging in this form of thinking: evaluating beliefs and values, analysing actions, and considering consequences with our colleagues, it helps us keep this front and centre, and stops us falling either side of the task/relationship dilemma.

What has been discussed and shared here is the tip of the iceberg of what I believe to be foundational knowledge and skills for leaders in their interpersonal work with their colleagues. It is something I am trying to develop in my own practice.

This week, consider the relationships in your own organisation in light of the models and ideas shared here. You might even plot your relationships on the graph and consider how you can move your relationships into the address the task and build the relationship section.


Further information & resources

  • Robinson: Reduce change to increase improvement, SAGE Publications, 2017.