View “emotional work” as core element of Leading for Results

"It is emotional work to experience the loss of old ways of doing things. It's emotional work to give up an old habit and to feel incompetent while learning a new habit. If adaptive work only meant acquiring new ideas, we'd be learning incredibly fast. It's not a paucity of ingenious ideas that's a problem; it's our attachment to old ideas that makes it so difficult to do adaptive work." —Ron Heifetz (Photo: Dennis Sparks)

In Leadership Without Easy Answers Ron Heifetz of Harvard University tells us that learning and invention are necessary when organizations must break with old ways of doing things to achieve new, stretching purposes and that this process may be fraught with anxiety, fear, and conflict. Heifetz uses the term “adaptive” to describe such challenges, and says that addressing them has an emotional component that often involves conflict.

In a JSD interview Heifetz told me that “Conflict is essentially dangerous. That’s why we are allergic to it. But conflict is a product of people holding different points of view about which they feel passionate. It’s these differences that generate learning and innovation and adaptation.  People learn by engaging with different points of view.  Staying in the game with one another when we feel passionately about our differences is the saving grace of any community. The cohesion of a community tested by the conflict within it is a measure of the community’s health. In our effort to control the dangers of conflict we also eradicate the benefits of having different points of view within an organization.  Conflict can be a resource that promotes creativity and learning.  The orchestration of such learning is an important part of adaptive work.”

In another JSD interview Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey, also of Harvard University, described a four-column exercise that has implications for the emotional components of adaptive work. “In the first column,” Lahey explained, “participants in our workshops list commitments about which they feel passion. . . . [T]hese commitments are sometimes revealed by their complaints. In the second column, we ask educators to note things they do or don’t do that undermine their first-column commitments. In column three, participants identify competing commitments they hold that are the basis of their column two behaviors. These competing commitments are often held with little or no awareness. They are typically forms of self-protection, like wanting to be liked or to feel in control. We ask people to assume that each competing commitment has a theory embedded in it about how the world works and how we work in the world and to ferret out what we call the big assumptions.”

Kegan elaborated on the power of these assumptions: “Big assumptions always have what we call a BTB conclusion to them—big time bad. People believe that something cataclysmic will happen to them or to their organizations. The consequences are never trivial. Big assumptions set the terms for what you can and can’t do within your world. The surfacing of these assumptions and the ongoing exploration of them creates a royal road for a reflective stance towards one’s work. As a result of this reflection, the person may then alter his or her map of how the world works, which then permits other choices and actions.”

Applying the four-column chart

Let’s assume that a school leader is committed to quality learning for all students (column one) but undermines that commitment by avoiding difficult and sometimes emotional conversations about instruction with individuals and with the faculty as a whole. Upon reflection the leaders realizes that her competing third-column commitment is a strong desire to have harmonious relationships with others and to be liked by colleagues. That awareness reveals a “big time bad assumption” that having difficult conversations will lead to anger and harsh words, which in turn will cause irreparable damage to relationships.

In our JSD interview Kagan noted, “We always tell people that surfacing and making big assumptions explicit does not presume that the big assumption will prove false. It simply allows us to examine them. Until then, they were just a given. But when we give people an opportunity to explore their big assumptions in actual practice, they almost always find that the assumptions are too globalized. They realize that their big assumptions are absolutely true in some respects with some people in some situations, but that there are a host of other circumstances in which they are not true. In our experience, people don’t have to completely give up their big assumptions to produce significant improvements. Even small changes in big assumptions can lead to big changes in people’s actions and sense of possibility.”

A final step

The final step in the process asks school leaders to design a series of experiments that test the big assumption with activities that range from low risk to high risk. With each experiment the validity of the assumption can be tested and revised. For instance, a long-avoided crucial conversation can be tested on a lower-risk issue and/or with an individual with whom the leader has a substantial emotional bank account. If successful, the leader may choose to engage in conversations on more emotionally-laden topics and/or with individuals who provide a greater test of the leader’s interpersonal skills.

Leading for Results “Six-Word Leadership Tool”:

Meaningful school improvement involves emotional work.

Strengthen your leadership practice by . . .

• completing Kegan and Lahey four-column chart to clarify your commitments and big assumption. Design a relatively low-risk experiment to test your assumption.

• 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.”

4 Responses to “View “emotional work” as core element of Leading for Results”


  1. 1 Cathy Gassenheimer March 11, 2010 at 9:48 am

    Dennis,
    This blog entry was certainly timely for our work. We’ve started conducting Instructional Rounds (Elmore and City)in two districts and through our Superintendents’ Leaders Network. To prepare leaders for the Rounds, they are reading both the Instructional Rounds in Education book (Elmore, City, et. al.) and Change Leadership by the Harvard Change Leadership Group. That bok includes Kegan and Lahey’s four column chart.

    I continue to be fascinated by the “nice-ness” of educators. At a Round yesterday in a high poverty district, observers were “pulling their punches” as they were recording what they saw in classrooms. For example, in one classroom, this is what I saw and recorded: One student selected a word from a list of 10 words to diagram after teacher had reviewed each word. Student selected “traction.” Definition was “something that tastes good.” Synonym was “good.” Sentence was: Her mother bake a cake that was real good.”

    Other observers said: “teacher asked students to use process to diagram word.” “students did small group work after teacher reviewed vocabulary words.”

    Focusing on “just the facts” and presenting them in a nonjudgmental way is important to school improvement. Thinking back to Kegan and Lahey, I wonder whether too many people’s big assumption is if they are honest with each other (in respectful ways), they’ll be ostracized.

    In any event, thank you for your reflections!
    Cathy

    • 2 Dennis Sparks March 11, 2010 at 1:55 pm

      Thanks, Cathy, for your report from the front lines of instructional improvement. Roland Barth put it quite starkly when he said, “I wonder how many children’s lives might be saved if we educators disclosed what we know to each other.”

  2. 3 Jason Glass March 12, 2010 at 9:36 am

    Excellent piece Dennis. I love this: “The cohesion of a community tested by the conflict within it is a measure of the community’s health.”

    Further to your point, I would argue that the inability to engage in constructive conflict on the part of a leader quickly undermines the credibility of that leader, erodes the concept of organizational justice, and ultimately either brings down organizations or leaders … or both.

    Good stuff Dennis.

    Jason Glass
    Eagle, CO

    • 4 Dennis Sparks March 12, 2010 at 10:28 am

      I appreciate your response, Jason, and I’m glad you brought the notion of “organizational justice” into the conversation. It reminds us of the compelling moral purposes that inform our important work.


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