“Direct the rider” to influence change

Photo/Dennis Sparks

“For things to change, someone has to start acting differently.” —Chip Heath & Dan Heath

Our behavior is shaped by three things—our intellect, our emotions, and the situations in which we find ourselves. When school leaders promote change, however, they often appeal only to the intellect, ignoring other powerful factors that affect performance. Leaders seeking to motivate change solely through presentation of research, data, and professional literature more often than not find that their rational approach meets with limited success. That’s why it is essential for leaders to consider ways they can also affect emotions and alter situations in ways that promote continuous improvements in teaching and learning.

That’s my summary of the “big ideas” in Chip Heath and Dan Heath’s book, Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard as they relate to school leaders. The Heath brothers explain it this way: “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; the rider is our intellect and the elephant is our emotions. The rider plans and directs while the elephant provides the energy. They brothers 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. My next two essays will consider school leadership practices related to “the elephant” and “the path.”

The Rider

“What looks like resistance is often a lack of clarity,” Chip and Dan Heath write. “Clarity dissolves resistance.” To promote clarity, the Heaths advocate “destination postcards” (“pictures of a future that hard work can make possible”), “scripting the critical moves” (“to create movement, you’ve got to be specific and concrete“), and “black-and-white goals” that describe all-or-nothing intentions (“I will not eat refined sugar”) in situations where rationalizing and backsliding are likely. “When you want someone to behave in a new way, explain the ‘new way’ clearly. Don’t assume the new moves are obvious,” the Heaths caution.

While the rider brings the ability to analyze and plan, it “. . . has a terrible weakness—the tendency to spin his wheels. The Rider loves to contemplate and analyze, and, making matters worse, his analysis is almost always directed at problems rather than bright spots,” they observe. To address this problem, the Heaths recommend focusing on the “bright spots,” and to that end they describe Jerry Sternin’s work with “positive deviance,” an approach I described in an earlier essay.

Ways school leaders might direct the rider:

Destination postcards: Hone a clear, compelling, one-sentence description of the school’s vision (for example, “quality teaching and learning every day for every student”).

Black & white goals: In an area or it will be easy to excuse backsliding, set a goal that does not allow for equivocation (“Because professional learning is essential to the achievement of our goals, it will be a priority at every faculty meeting. No exceptions, no excuses.”).

Script the critical moves: Explain in clear, simple language a behavior that will lead to the “destination” and engage members of the school community in activities in which they can experience the effects of the behavior rather than simple talk about it (“We’ve agreed that we want reading and writing to be part of each students’ school day. To demonstrate its importance, we will use a portion of every faculty meeting to carefully read a journal article or other text, write about our views, and engage in dialogue about the implications of those ideas for our community.”)

Look for bright spots: Use the “positive deviance approach” recommended by Jerry Sternin to identify and spread desirable behaviors.

Take a moment now to . . .

• select one of the methods above to direct “the rider” in a change in your own leadership practice or in a significant change effort in the school community.

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