Coaching Letter #41

Good evening, I hope you’re doing well.  I may be totally wrong, but I feel like readers are expecting an end of the year reflection, as almost everyone has just closed out school or is just about to.  But I say: bah, humbug.  It sticks in my craw to send out an end of the year reflection.  The work we do is continuous and cyclical, and there is nothing about the work that says that that those cycles have to fit with the school year.  Indeed, we would all be smarter if we actively rejected that idea and stopped treating the end of a school year as the end of the work.

However, there are limits to even my Scrooge-like sensibilities.  I spent yesterday in Milford, and witnessed two really remarkable happenings.  One, as a counterpoint to the point of my first paragraph, was an end of year celebration that was really moving and powerful, and honored the work of everyone in the room.  The other was the transition between the retiring and the newly-hired superintendents.  I wish I could say that I scripted their comments at the beginning of the morning, as they were perfect, explicitly reinforcing the continuation of the work that Milford is engaged in.  Betty Feser, the outgoing superintendent, referred to the work that they have done in the past year, and the incoming superintendent, Anna Cutaia, talked about the work to be done.  Then they sat together all day—it was impossible to miss the symbolism.  I was so impressed.

So, anyway, back to the idea that the work continues… Coaching Letter #38 was about Kotter’s change model.  I had three objectives:

  1. To point out that it is dangerous to believe that you are morally superior to others.  This definitely resonated with those of you who responded with your own tales of what they hear that indicates the same stance (“lazy”; “just do your job”).  Leaders tend to lack empathy, to be hubristic, and to think that they do not suffer from cognitive biases, even when those are pointed out.  They are, in fact, the most biased people, not the most rational thinkers.  How you respond to this idea is, indeed, a test.  Thank you, Bob, for reminding me of this article, with the terrific title, on the subject.
  2. To point out that people often feel beaten up by data, whether or not that was your intent.  As Chris Argyris pointed out, people employ defensive routines when they believe themselves exposed to threat or embarrassment.  Whether this is how you want them to respond is beside the point.
  3. To tell another failure story.

Thank you also to those who pointed out that there is a more productive interpretation of Kotter’s statement about urgency.  My sometime co-author Sarah Birkeland pointed out, and this is only part of her email:

“People do need to believe that their effort will be worth it. Maybe the words Kotter uses are offensive. What if it were phrased as ‘creating a compelling story that we can all tell about what we care about, what problem we are trying to solve, and why this change we are making is likely to solve that problem’? This is not driven by an assumption that people are unmotivated but by the assumption that if we are going to effectively share the work of organizational change, we all have to be on the same page about not just the WHAT but the WHY behind it.”

So yes, please, do create a compelling story of the future, which is also known as a vision.  (I can hear my dad telling jokes at this moment about leaders seeing things.)  And remember that motivation is not something that people bring to the party, it is what you provide.  As Dylan Wiliam says about students, we need to stop thinking of motivation as an input, and start thinking about it as an outcome.  This is just as true for adults.  If you want people to be motivated to do something, then they (not you!) must:

  1. To understand what it is they are being asked to do (clarity is your friend)
  2. To believe that they are capable of doing it, and that doing it will have the desired result (perceived self-efficacy);
  3. To believe that there will be enough time to master this new aspect of their craft before some other urgent request supplants it.

And now, based on what Sarah said in another part of her email, I would add a fourth: people must believe that making the change will be worth it.  As Sarah points out, “Pretty much any significant change in practice is going to cost people something.”  In asking people to do something differently, we should interpret these four points as commitments we make to them.

Finally, I promised a summer book club.  I’m sorry it has taken me so long to organize it.  I have no clue how well this is going to work—with any luck, it will be a complete failure, thereby providing me the opportunity to demonstrate how failure is the best teacher (the terrific educators I worked with in 092 programs are laughing right now).  The first book is Humble Inquiry, by Ed Schein.  The discussion will take place in Google Groups—you can access it on the web at https://plus.google.com/communities/109390517899032274686?iem=1.  If you click on this link it will give you the option to join the group, but then nothing dramatic will happen, as nothing has been posted yet.  You can also download the app on Android or Apple, including, of course, your iPad.  If you want me to send you an invitation directly on Google, I can do that too, just let me know.  And if you are going to participate, please post an introduction to the group—who are you, what do you do, and why are you joining the book club?  Prizes to the first half dozen or so to post—a margarita, at minimum, maybe two.  If you have problems, let me know, and I will do what I can to help.  Please, encourage others to join—send to your friends, your colleagues, or, as I am planning to do, your dad.  I made the group public exactly for that purpose—if we encounter Russian hackers, we’ll just have to cross that bridge when we come to it.

I am so excited to broaden this conversation.  Thank you so much.  I wish you a very successful close of the year.  Yours, Isobel

Isobel Stevenson PhD PCC
Program Coordinator
Connecticut Center for School Change
151 New Park Avenue
Hartford, CT 06106
Office: 860.586.2340

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2018-10-04T17:19:06-04:00