“What looks like a people problem is often a situation problem”

I like ideas that absolve people of blame. That’s the most consistent theme in all of my work. I don’t like blaming people’s nature or behavior for things. I like blaming systems and structures and environments for things. — Malcolm Gladwell

I like ideas that cause me to question conventional wisdom, to think more deeply about my own often unexamined cultural assumptions.

Malcolm Gladwell’s perspective is just such an idea, one that I am willing to grapple with because of the respect I have for his work even though I don’t immediately agree with the idea.

Gladwell recognizes the influence of environment and of systems and structures, powerful forces that are often invisible to those who are profoundly affected  by them.

Chip Heath and Dan Heath extend that line of thought in this essay I first published in May 2010. 

“Shape the path” to influence change

“What looks like a people problem is often a situation problem.” — Chip Heath & Dan Heath

Chip Heath and Dan Heath explain the change process this way in Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard: “For individual behavior to change, you’ve got to influence not only their environment but their hearts and minds.” To explain their ideas they offer the metaphor of an elephant with a rider, with the intellect represented by the rider and emotions by the elephant. 

The rider plans and directs; the elephant provides the energy. They extend the metaphor by including “the path,” the situation or environment in which the rider and elephant find themselves. Leaders’ work, then, is to guide the change effort through clarity of purpose and direction, motivate the elephant by engaging people’s emotions, and “shape the path” to enable the desired performance. Previous essays described ways to affect “the rider” and “the elephant.”

To help us understand the power of the path, the Heath brothers ask readers to note how many times a day someone has tweaked their environment to shape their behavior (examples include lane markers on roads, the location of displays in groceries stores, and ATM machines that made it difficult for you to leave your card or cash).

The Heaths stress the power of culture and habits to shape behavior. “People are incredibly sensitive to the environment and the culture…,” they write. “Because we instinctively try to fit in with our peer group, behavior is contagious…. To change yourself or other people, you’ve got to change habits….” 

Noting that even small environmental changes can make a difference, they suggest “action triggers” in which you create a mental plan that includes a time and place in which you’ll engage in a particular action. “Action triggers simply have to be specific enough and visible enough to interrupt people’s normal stream of consciousness,” the Heaths note.

Chip and Dan Heath also suggest the development of habits and routines as ways to shape the environment because they create a kind of “behavioral autopilot.” In addition, they encourage the use of checklists to remind people of important behaviors that might otherwise be overlooked.

The Heaths use the phrase “rally the herd” to describe ways in which organizational culture and peer influence can be used to promote the desired behavior, citing efforts to promote “designated drivers” in the 1980s as an example of cultivating cultural influence to shape behavior. Meeting agreements and group protocols are examples of ways leaders shape habits and routines and cultivate high-performance cultures.

Ways school leaders might shape the path:

Meeting agreements: Establish meeting agreements (some people call them “norms”) that establish group expectations regarding meeting behavior (for instance, arrive on time and stay until the meeting’s conclusion, be fully engaged, and do not say anything outside the meeting you have not said in it).

Protocols: Use protocols to shape meeting behavior, whether the meeting is for the primary purpose of professional learning, problem solving, or decision making.

Action triggers: To establish new behaviors/habits, imagine yourself in a future situation doing a desired behavior. Trigger the behavior through a notation in your calendar, to-do list, or post-it on your bathroom mirror.

Take a moment now to…

• select one of the methods above to “shape the path” regarding improvements in your own leadership practice or for a significant change effort in the school community.

Creating organizations in which everyone thrives

Emotions are contagious.

If a leader’s goal is to gain and hold power by sowing fear and spreading anger and hatred, such a leader will be angry and hateful at every opportunity.

But if a leader’s goal is to create organizations in which everyone thrives, in which participants are given every opportunity to become their best selves for their benefit and that of others, then this post from December 2013 is as relevant today as it was then.

Effective leaders exemplify positive attitudes and respect

Positive emotions such as compassion, confidence, and generosity have a decidedly constructive effect on neurological functioning, psychological well-being, physical health, and personal relationships. —Richard Boyatzis & Annie McKee

Civil school cultures are those in which community members think the best of one another, display positive attitudes, speak with kindness, respect others’ opinions, and disagree graciously while candidly expressing their views. 

Those qualities are unlikely to exist and persist without school leaders who embody them in their day-to-day interactions with staff members, parents, and students.

In The Civility Solution: What to Do When People Are Rude  P. M. Forni writes, “Whether positive or negative, attitude is destiny…. Positivity makes relationships better, and better relationships reinforce positivity. So, if you are inclined to perceive what happens to you through the fog of negativity, make a change of attitude your number one priority.”

Changing habits of mind and behavior, however, requires that leaders be intentional and persistent in approaching these changes, beginning with themselves.

To establish civil school cultures, leaders:

Hold positive expectations for others by setting high standards for conduct and learning and by living those standards on a day-to-day basis. And when leaders stumble, as they sometimes do, they acknowledge the lapse and set about resolving whatever problems it may have caused.  

Display a generosity of spirit which assumes that others are honest, trustworthy, and capable unless there is abundant evidence to the contrary. Assuming the best is a key attribute of hopefulness, which, in turn, is a critical attribute of relationships that nurture and support continuous improvement.

Speak with compassion and kindness, which Forni believes is at the heart of civil behavior. In another book, Choosing Civility: The Twenty-Five Rules of Considerate Conduct, he writes, “Never embarrass or mortify…. Always think before speaking…. With your kind words you build a shelter of sanity and trust into which you welcome others for much-needed respite.” 

Speak truthfully. Civility recognizes that people look at the world differently and are entitled to a fair hearing of their views.

Civil school cultures are places in which ideas and beliefs are vigorously and respectfully expressed in meeting rooms. Sarcasm, disparaging gossip, and “parking lot meetings” have no place in such cultures. 

These cultures have at their core leaders who display positive attitudes and deep respect for the abilities and perspectives of everyone in the school community and who interact with and speak about others in that spirit.

Words matter

We need look no farther than current news headlines to see that leaders’ words can cause harm by inciting hatred and provoking fear.

But we can also can find examples of words that uplift and inspire.

My February 2016 post spoke to this issue, and my next post will address what administrators and teacher leaders can do to create and sustain civil school cultures.

Here’s what I said in 2016:

Words can injure, or uplift and inspire

A hospice patient in her 60s whose life story I was videotaping told a sad story from her childhood about an adult who had said cruel things about her, words that produced a depth of pain that was still sufficiently strong that she felt compelled to talk about it at the end of her life.

“Some people say that sticks and stones may break our bones, but words can never hurt us,” the patient told future generations of her family. “I want everyone who sees this to remember that that is not true. Words can hurt us.” 

Words matter not only because they affect our feelings but because they can alter how we view ourselves—whether we see ourselves as valued or unimportant, respected or disrespected, competent or incompetent, included or excluded.

While words can injure, they can also uplift and inspire. Most of us can recall things that significant adults in our lives said that encouraged and sustained us—the right words at the right time.

The words spoken by teachers, principals, and parents can have a particularly strong resonance across a lifetime, for good or for ill.

Which words encourage and sustain you? Which words disempower?

True, but incomplete

Some things are true, but by themselves incomplete. 

For example, it is true that planning is important. But planning is insufficient without careful implementation of the plans.

Here are other examples from a September 2013 post on:

5 contradictions that reveal essential principles of teaching, learning, and relationships

1. While hope is essential, it is not a strategy. Hope must be supported by stretching goals, robust plans, professional learning, and strong teamwork.

2. While goals cannot be accomplished without activity, it is easy to confuse activity with accomplishment.

3. While the quality of teaching determines the quality of learning, it is the quality of leadership that determines the quality of teaching across the school and the school system.

4. While professional learning can occur by attending lectures, reading books, participating in social/learning networks, and other individual activities, it is ultimately the quality of school-focused learning and teamwork among teachers with common responsibilities that will determine the quality of teaching and learning across the school.

5. While teachers’ content knowledge and instructional skills are important, another essential but often overlooked attribute of good teaching is the quality of relationships teachers have with their students, particularly those who most require the best teaching to be successful in life.

What qualities should be required of all new teachers?

Are there some qualities that are so important that individuals who don’t possess them shouldn’t be teachers?

And, if those qualities are essential, should they be required of all beginning teachers?

Or, can those qualities be acquired through experience and professional development after teachers are hired?

Since I pondered the first of those questions in May 2013, the compensation and working conditions of many teachers have deteriorated, which has made teaching a less attractive profession. 

That, in turn, has meant that it is harder for many school systems to be as selective in the hiring process as they may once have been.

Nonetheless, I continue to stand behind these “non-negotiables,” although I understand the reality of placing teachers in every classroom may require unfortunate compromises.

6 non-negotiables that I would want to see at the beginning of a teacher’s career

On the subject of “highly effective teachers,” Kappan Editor-in-Chief Joan Richardson wrote in her “editor’s note”  for the April 2013 issue:

“During practice teaching, we should be watching closely to determine if these candidates have a deep interest in how children learn. The best teachers aren’t just content experts. They not only understand how children learn; they are intrigued by the way that children learn. Content experts may get really excited about sharing their knowledge. But expert teachers get really excited because students are making it their knowledge. That’s a crucial distinction.”

Richardson’s recommendation got me thinking about the things that I think are essential to see at the beginning of a teacher’s career, in addition to a solid foundation of classroom management and instructional skills. Because I agree with Joan, I started with her suggestion for beginning teachers:

1. I would want evidence that new teachers are intrigued by the way children learn. Which would mean that they want to know in real time if and what students are learning. 

2. I would want evidence that new teachers believe in the potential of all students to learn and grow.

3. I would want evidence that new teachers appreciate and enjoy the qualities of students at the level they are teaching.

4. I would want evidence that new teachers value and tap the strengths and resources provided by families and the broader community.

5. I would want evidence that new teachers believe they can always improve the quality of their teaching and of student learning.

6. I would want evidence that new teachers believe that working with others is essential to continuous improvement and that they are committed to the process of becoming effective collaborators.

What would you add to or subtract from this list? Are these qualities essential for all new teachers, or can they be developed over time?

What’s the biggest problem in professional development?

What would you say is the biggest problem in professional development?

• Leaders do not provide sufficient time and other resources for it because they do not understand its importance?

• Teachers lack motivation for professional learning for a variety of reasons?

• Administrators and teacher leaders don’t know enough about effective professional development to plan and implement meaningful programs?

Here’s how I answered that question in May 2014, an answer that seems as valid today as it did then:

The biggest problem in professional development is…

The biggest problem in professional development is that administrators and teachers significantly underestimate what’s required to create the new habits of mind and behavior that are necessary to provide high-quality teaching and learning for all students.

One of the best and most accessible explanations of the challenges of shaping human understanding and practice is provided by Alan Deutschman in Change or Die: The Three Keys to Change at Work and in Life in which he explains that people are influenced to change through three linked elements he describes as relate, repeat, and reframe. 

Relate underscores the importance of sustained relationships that inspire and sustain hope and provide support.

That means that:

• Teachers work in teams rather than in isolation and are accountable to one another for continuous improvement rather than to district offices or state education agencies. 

• Teachers relationships exhibit high levels of trust and appreciation rather than distrust, blaming, and negativity. 

• Teachers speak with candor and courage rather than evading discussion of important issues. 

• Teachers are hopeful and energetic rather than victims of a “slow-death spiral” of distrust, anger, and stress.

Repeat means learn, practice, and master new skills until they become habits.

The cultivation of new habits requires intention, attention, and persistence across many weeks or months until mastery is achieved, a task often complicated by the tenacity of old habits. 

The development of new habits begins with an initial learning that explores new ways of thinking and acting. It continues with the repetition of those thoughts and behaviors (often in the face of opposition from people who prefer the old habits) until new ways of thinking and acting have become routine.

An example of what may be required for leaders to alter their own behavior—which is almost always a precursor to influencing the behavior of others—is provided here.

Reframe means providing new ways of thinking about a situation. Because established frames resist facts and reasoned arguments, deep-rooted beliefs and conceptual frameworks must be identified and altered to support desired changes.

Conceptual frames are the mental organizers we use to think about things. Our thinking, and hence our ability to change, is limited by these deeply rooted, beneath-the-surface system of beliefs and ideas. While often difficult to alter, frames can be changed. The process begins with awareness of the dominant frame and its influence on practice, and continues by identifying alternative frames that better serve student learning.

Strategies for promoting reframing can be found here.

Although Change or Die is not explicitly about education, it explains why well-intentioned innovations more often expire than thrive.

A problem, Deutschman says, is that leaders too often rely on relatively ineffective change strategies—facts (human beings are not as rational as we think we are), fear (at best it’s a short-term motivator), and force (there are many ways it can be resisted) to promote change.

Instead, successful change efforts in schools:

• offer a sense of hopefulness that student learning can be improved through a genuine sense of community and teamwork that supports the implementation of new practices (relate), 

• provide sustained learning with practice to enable the acquisition of new habits of mind and behavior (repeat), and

• enable the development of new conceptual frameworks aligned with the innovation (reframe).

Do you agree that administrators and teachers often underestimate the intensity and duration of learning that is required to meaningful influence thinking and behavior?

Better together than alone

We are better together than alone is a pretty good maxim for life. 

There are exceptions, of course, but those exceptions would not include the power of well-functioning teams of teachers working together over time to improve student learning.

But what exactly is a team, and how is it the same or different from a committee or task force?

And, what are the qualities of a well-functioning team?

Leaders’ deep understanding of those qualities and their skillfulness in implementing them in complex interpersonal environments are hallmarks of schools that continuously improve teaching and learning for the benefit of all students.

This post from March 2010 offers guidance regarding this complex subject.

In addition to creating effective teamwork, a separate but related “fundamental” of leadership is the ability to speak or write concisely about important ideas or practices when the situation requires concision. 

A “Six-Word Leadership Tool” is a device I invented in the spirt of “6-word novels” and “6-word memoirs” to help me be concise and to encourage others to do the same. 

This post closes with my 6-word tool on teamwork (“Effective teamwork requires intention and persistence”) and an invitation to readers to create their own personally meaningful statement.

Here is my post from 2010:

Be clear about what teamwork is and why it’s important

If you want to go quickly, go alone; if you want to go far, go together. — African Proverb

You must undertake something so great that you cannot accomplish it unaided. — Phillips Brooks

Schools rise and fall based on the quality of the teamwork that occurs within their walls. Well-functioning leadership and teaching teams are essential to the continuous improvement of teaching and learning. That is particularly true when schools have clearly-articulated, stretching aspirations for the learning of all their students. Effective teams strengthen leadership, improve teaching and learning, nurture relationships, increase job satisfaction, and provide a means for mentoring and supporting new teachers and administrators.

Schools will improve for the benefit of every student only when every leader and every teacher is a member of one or more strong teams that create synergy in problem solving, provide emotional and practical support, distribute leadership to better tap the talents of members of the school community, and promote the interpersonal accountability that is necessary for continuous improvement. Such teamwork not only benefits students, it creates the supportive leadership and the process and time for  meaningful collaboration which enable teachers to thrive and are better able to address the complex challenges of their work.

In Leading for Results I wrote: “A widely-held view of instructional improvement is that good teaching is primarily an individual affair and that principals who view themselves as instructional leaders promote it by interacting one-on-one with each teacher to strengthen his or her efforts in the classroom. The principal is like the hub of a wheel with teachers at the end of each spoke. Communication about instruction moves back and forth along the spoke to the hub but not around the circumference of the wheel.”

Such a form of instructional leadership, however, fails to tap the most important source of instructional improvement in schools—teacher-to-teacher professional learning and collaboration. “[S]ome of the most important forms of professional learning,” I observed in Leading for Results, “occur in daily interactions among teachers in which they assist one another in improving lessons, deepening understanding of the content they teach, analyzing student work, examining various types of data on student performance, and solving the myriad of problems they face each day.

Defining effective teamwork

Simply labeling a group of people a team (or a professional learning community) rather than a committee or task force does not, however, make them a genuine team. To address this issue the Rush-Henrietta Central School District near Rochester, NY developed a rubric based on Patrick Lencioni’s The Five Dysfunctions of a Team to enable it to better understand teamwork and to chart their progress in developing effective teams.

The Rush-Henrietta rubric lists four key characteristics: clarity of purpose, accountability, effective team structures, and trust. Each key characteristic is defined by a number of indicators. 

For instance, “effective team structures” includes as indicators “use protocols to help guide the group work and provide a consistent framework” and “has agreements in place that are clear, purposeful, and understood.” “Accountability” asks team members to be “committed to decisions and plans of actions” and asks them to “hold one another accountable for delivering against the plans agreed to and feels a sense of obligation to the team for its progress.”

Leading for Results “Six-Word Leadership Tool”:

“Effective teamwork requires intention and persistence.”

Strengthen your leadership practice by . . .

• assessing the quality of teamwork in your setting using the Rush-Henrietta “Key Characteristics of Effective Teams” rubric, the “Team Assessment” provided by Patrick Lencioni in The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, or other tools you may have available to you. Better yet, to stimulate professional learning and teamwork, develop a rubric with your team using the Rush-Henrietta document as a starting point. (You may want to make separate assessments for the leadership team of which you are a part and teachers’ instructional teams, which may go by other names like “professional learning community.”)

• determining a next step to strengthen teamwork in your setting.

• developing a “six-word leadership tool” to summarize your learning or to express an action you will take as a result of this essay. Please add your tool to the comment section of this blog and share it with one or more colleagues “back home.”


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