Spectrum Unbound

Challenging the accepted way of doing things usually, if not always, involves conflict. Doug Johnson (Blue Skunk Blog) encourages us to set ourselves on fire and consider our responses to these questions...yet to write, or share, those responses in public could get you fired, eh?

Who limits the spectrum of discussion in your school? Do districts and buildings keep some issues off the table? Why? And are there ways to allow such conversations that skirt the traditional conversational gate-keepers?Hmmmmmmm.Are you being kept "passive and obedient" by not addressing the bigger issues of educational policy? What are they? How is it done? How do you fight it?
Who limits the spectrum of discussion in your school? In most schools, the spectrum of discussion is limited by the people most affected by "the issues." Often, it is far easier to stay quiet than it is to speak up and present a well-articulated point of view...of course, when it's the administrator who is perceived as the limiting factor, everyone DOES talk about it...but not where the administrator in charge can hear. What polite creatures we are, eh?


Over the last few months, I've been reading, re-reading, listening to Crucial Confrontations. The book is helpful, although I remain a poor user of any leadership advice.
The hallmark of a crucial conversation is disagreement. . .disagreements poorly handled lead to poor decisions, strained relationship, disastrous results...Opinion leaders wielded influence because they were the best at stepping up to colleagues, coworkers, or even their bosses, and holding them accountable.
After years of observation, it's clear to me that the structure of an organization limits or facilitate dialogue that leads to change. Even in organizations with a high level of turn-over among top administrators--where you think there would be more change because fresh leaders are walking in the door--the organizational culture makes it difficult for them to bring about the change envisioned in fancy change books. What worries me most about NOT having crucial conversations about what we're doing in schools, at the leadership level, is the lack of discretionary effort.
A national poll of U.S. workers found that 44% reported putting in as little effort as they could get away with without being fired. (Source: Crucial Confrontations)
This means, as I understand it, that people who could do a LOT more are simply coasting...and managers are needed to make them "do more." But the truth is, we know that management designed to force people to do more just doesn't work effectively. 
Transactional leaders believe that people are motivated by reward or punishment. These leaders give clear instructions to followers about what their expectations are and when those expectations are fulfilled there are rewards in store for them and failure is severely punished. They allocate work to subordinates whether resources are there or absent. (Source: transactional leadership, Wikipedia)


People produce a lot more when they want to, when they are engaged by the work they are doing, and, to be blunt, the benefit to the organization is the by-product of that a la Adam Smith and the Invisible Hand....
...every individual necessarily labours to render the annual revenue of the society as great as he can. He generally, indeed, neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it. . .he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for the society that it was no part of it. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it.

I've seen this first-hand in people I've worked with, as well as myself. What's powerful about social media is that we all have easier access to each other. No matter what the tool we use, we prefer the one that grants us the most access to other people's work (so we'll have it when we need it, whether to praise, pass on, or procure).


We could revise Doug's question in this way: Do educators have conversations that promote the organization's good over their own gain?


The question appears to set the two benefits at cross-purposes, doesn't it? Why can't we have conversation that promotes the organization's good and benefit ourselves as well? Probably because it is too easy to perceive that your boss is being a selfish jerk while you are laying the groundwork for sainthood (which you will be eligible for as soon as your boss finds out what you really think).


Mutual purpose, mutual respect...those are two of the touchstones of advancing change. The problem is, there is no trust that organizational leaders--the gatekeepers that Doug refers to--will allow the free-flow of conversation. Why? They believe their approach to organizational change is the best...why involve stakeholders who don't have a view of the whole picture?


I still remember one leader's approach. The top brass had laid out a plan that was unpopular. The leader's approach was to take responsibility for the unpopular plan from above, implement it as it were his own idea, then make it look successful.
"This whole misguided operation might have been cut short if not for catastrophic failures to share key information," Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Vista (San Diego County), and Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, told Attorney General Eric Holder in a letter Tuesday.
Read more: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2011/07/06/MNBC1K7CFE.DTL#ixzz1RcmDRy69


"Many misguided educational initiatives might have been cut short if not for catastrophic failures to share key information," might be one way to revise the statement cited above about the gun-trafficking disaster. Adopting failed plans, decisions to not communicate key information...well, I've always thought such an approach disingenuous.


 Any plan should be made to stand apart from any one person or group, worthy of critique by the best our minds can marshal. At some point, we have to move forward together, but unless we do our best to find the flaws in the plan as proposed, we are setting ourselves up for problems. Surely, such a simple approach advocated here would have revealed the problem in situations like the gun-trafficking fiasco that put taxpayer-paid weapons in the hands of druggies and murderers


When I look at the efforts of teachers whom I know, I realize that they've either a) Along for the ride wherever it goes because, after all, you can only take so much garbage at work and remain sane; or b) Engaged, trying to do everything they can, the ant facing the tidal wave that will end life as he knows it, yet persisting in building the ant hill anyways. Of the two approaches, the second appeals to me the most.

For both groups, the following is true:

  1. A lack of trust. Teachers must adhere to a lock-step curriculum that denies them the opportunity for innovation and, yes, experimentation. Mistakes aren't allowed, encouraged, and as such, they cannot be used as stepping stones to new ideas and successful practices.
  2. A lack of time. With a strong focus on raising test scores, your average elementary teacher finds him/herself spending time preparing to teach, assessing progress against external measures designed for "everystudent" using a variety of high-tech technology gadgets, and tutoring after school and on Saturdays.
  3. A lack of funding for initiatives that matter at the classroom level and more focus on spending on programs that are "cooked up" by powerful special interests who are doing their own experimentation in schools.
  4. Teachers are "soldiers of reform," expendable because they are unremarkable, interchangeable because they are not trusted to know more than they must know to follow orders, forgettable because they are neither reform or reformer.

How do you fight it?
The approach is the flavor of the week, isn't it? Seth Godin counsels us in this blog entry cited by Tim Stahmer (Assorted Stuff):
People have come before us, failed, learned, written it down. Scientists have figured out what works, and proven it. Economists have gained significant understanding about the long-term impacts of short-term decisions. And historians have seen it all before...If you're doing important work (and I'm hoping you are), then you owe it to your audience or your customers or your co-workers to learn everything you can.
A purveyor, and avid reader, of leadership texts, I'm not convinced that they know what the heck they are talking about. What I do believe is that people in power tend to do what they want, seldom think it through to consider the natural consequences of their decisions, fail to involve stakeholders at critical junctures, instead preferring to "PR" their way through the resulting mess. My observations also reveal that gatekeepers would prefer to NEVER have discussions about what they are going to do with those who will be tasked with implementing their plan.


At this point, a dear friend would ask me, "What in your experience has led you to write that?" The text of that story would be a book no one would want to write. So, let's not delve into that area too much...and why Doug's initial question of Who limits the spectrum of discussion? probably can't be answered by most of his readers in any real sense. 


To broaden the discussion, as I believe stakeholders who are not consulted by tyrant-managers too afraid of being leaders must do, I'd invert the negatives I'd observed:

  1. Enact expectations on organizational leaders that force them to align what they do with outside the organization goals. By this, I mean aligning organizational goals with two fundamental areas of concern: a) Legal or curricular standards and b) Stakeholder needs, including fundamental growth.
  2. Involve stakeholders at every stage of the game. And, to be specific, "great leaders serve the group they lead, by creating and maintaining an environment which encourages and supports everyone in maximizing their potential, especially vis-à-vis group goals" (Source)
  3. Allow everyone in the process, and those not directly involved, to communicate via social media to tell their own story, not the "photoshop'd," sanitized version of events preferred by PR/Communications moguls in schools today.
  4. Require public accountability meetings, not just superintendent to school board, but for every district administrator with a budget. There is no need to do things in secrecy, or barring that, obscurity in today's technologically enhanced communication landscape.
  5. Implementation plans must reflect alignment to outside goals and stakeholder needs...and those must be revisited regularly.
Do I think most school systems can accomplish this level of transparency? Frankly, I do not. Organizations have limited resources, time, etc. But striving for this is essential.

Am I wrong? Probably. Do I know what I'm talking about? Well, I'm writing a blog, aren't I? I would suspect that passivity and obedience don't go hand in hand with blog writing about leadership and transformation.
...we should welcome such debate, and we should meet it with more. There is no threat to academic freedom in vigorous public discussion. There is only freedom itself.Source: Erin O'Connor


Image References
Black horse. http://fineartamerica.com/images-medium/unbound-fran-j-scott.jpg



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Everything posted on Miguel Guhlin's blogs/wikis are his personal opinion and do not necessarily represent the views of his employer(s) or its clients. Read Full Disclosure

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