Can you really hear their voice if you are camped beside the billabong?

By Dr Olav Muurlink

One of the most striking cases I’ve been involved with as a researcher was a highly troubled school in Queensland. The identity of the school remains confidential, suffice to say once upon a time the school was at or near the very bottom rung of performance on objective measures such as leaving certificate scores and student truancy. And then something happened. Or, perhaps more accurately, someone.

The “big man (or woman) in history” theory, roughly speaking, states that powerful individuals can make powerful differences that can cut across culture, demography, even fate. These stories have to be tempered with reality. ‘Big’ leaders rarely act alone, and their arrival, and their impact, is often a product of social movements. In this case, that social movement was the federal government’s Low SES Schools National Partnership program, which delivered a very large bucket of money to this particular school, and placed a fair bit of power over that bucket into the hands of a new principal. But there were other National Partnership Schools who got the same bucket and did less with it.

This research showed that it was not the size of the bucket, or even where the money was poured into, that made the difference.

Firstly, the school had an unusual demographic profile—well over a third of the children spoke a language other than English at home, and there were high proportions of children whose parents had little formal secondary education. But the new principal, white and middle class as he was, had spent almost his entire teaching career as far from the leafy suburbs of Brisbane as possible, working with indigenous and refugee children in remote or deep blue-collar communities across Queensland. The children and teachers at his new school very quickly realised that he knew about their world first hand.

Secondly, when he knew what they didn’t know, in particular, gaps in the teachers’ knowledge and skillset, he set about introducing intensive, pervasive school-wide training. This training included explicit training on voice. Where employees appeared reluctant to speak, they were given training on how to offer constructive criticism and provide negative feedback without resorting to mere character assassination. It wasn’t uncommon for teachers to be involved in four after-school hours training activities in a week. But any resentment about the training overload was muted by acknowledgement that the ‘boss’ practised what he preached.

Other major changes at the school were also about improving voice. Performance management, a process where traditionally boss and employee get together for an awkward half hour once a year, became a more genuine twice-yearly hammering out of issues that often took two hours. The principal mailed out weekly newsletters that were so newsy and plausible that union newsletters became redundant.

The principal and his deputies began to enter the classrooms and staffrooms on a grand scale, opening up formerly closed spaces and involving themselves in grass-roots teaching. This was about visibility as well as voice. Voice, in turn, was not just about management speaking, but management listening. Union representatives told us that on no occasion had they come up with a suggestion that was simply ignored. Junior teachers, and even students, gradually felt at ease skipping layers of management and speaking with staff two or more tiers up—or even with the principal himself.

What was particularly moving about this school was that as a result of these changes, staff and students didn’t simply feel more “heard”… but the kind of results the National Partnerships program was looking for started to flow. Students’ grades improved by over 20%. It had been common to have half the class ‘wagging’ school before the ‘revolution’… now the region’s parks and fast food joints were empty of teenagers on a school day. Retention to year 12 shot up by 30%.

What made the change? I think the ‘big man’ who seemed to trigger the change would himself acknowledge he couldn’t have done it alone. Regardless, it is true to say that if a big leader speaks of ‘open doors’ and an ‘improvement in voice’, but remains camped in solitary by the billabong, nothing much is going to change. Armed with dollars—which always helps—this particular ‘big’ leader left the billabong and went to where the river flowed. He had a vision, but he didn’t just express it—he practiced it. I like to think that this school is living proof of the impact of ‘authentic voice’.

Dr Olav Muurlink is a Senior Lecturer in Organisational Behaviour at the School of Business and Law at CQUniversity.

This research was supported by Voice Project, Griffith and Macquarie Universities and the Australian Research Council in the Linkage Project: Employee voice in Australia: The impact of employee participation arrangements on organisational performance and employee well-being (LP110200198).

If you would like to find out more about leadership development or providing a voice to your staff in schools please contact Voice Project at or call 1800 8 Voice (1800 886 423).