Roadblocks to Possibilities

The August selection for Books & Belonging (a program for creating community between people developing their leadership skills) is Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know by Adam Grant.  I’m a fan of his podcasts.  I’m also a firm believer that people (especially leaders) should never fool themselves into thinking they know everything, and should be lifelong learners.  Grant does a phenomenal job of explaining the pitfalls of our own thinking, even those of us who consider ourselves to be open-minded and eager to learn.  

One of the ideas he explores is the tendency for humans to think in polarizing ways.  I’ve heard this explained before as our brains being lazy, looking for the easiest way to categorize information and leading us to think in binary terms–right/wrong, positive/negative, good/bad.  As I read how Grant connected this idea to creating communities in which rethinking is part of the culture, I started to think about workplace structures and norms that foster binary thinking and an us-versus-them mentality within organizations.

The first thing that jumped to my mind was evaluation systems.  As a former school administrator, I’ve conducted numerous teacher evaluations.  There was a rubric designed to give teachers and instructional leaders a clear, standardized way of talking about the qualities of effective instruction.  It makes sense–without clearly articulating expectations for instruction, how could we expect all of our teachers to deliver the type of instruction that we know leads to student achievement?  The problem was that by being tied to employee ratings, the rubric drew more of a divide between teachers and administrators, rather than creating a collaborative culture.  It didn’t matter if my overall impression of a teacher’s instruction was positive, or that I attempted to use the process as a way to highlight strengths and narrow in on one or two areas for growth that would make them even stronger.  And, it didn’t matter if there were opportunities for more feedback, coaching, or professional development.  For most teachers, what mattered was how many checkboxes they received in each of the categories from ineffective to highly effective.  What mattered was that they were being judged.

So, how are school districts or other organizations supposed to have clear, objective expectations for success while also creating learning communities?  The answer is, unfortunately, “it’s complicated.”  Yes, there should be clear definitions for effective instruction.  Yes, ratings should be based on performance and not left to the subjectivity of the evaluator.  AND, as Adam Grant suggests, we need to constantly take into consideration the complexities of any given situation if we want to engage with others in learning and improving.  Teachers recognize the different challenges each of their students face, whether they have a learning disability, come from unstable homes, have access to plenty of resources, or are high-performing.  No two students are exactly the same, and no two teachers for that matter.

When thinking about how to create a learning community within your own organization or team, consider this–What are the existing structures or norms that limit our thinking?  Is it the hierarchy, company policies, or the widely known opinions of those at the top?  Then ask yourself “How might I disrupt that structure in a way that can open us up to more possibilities?  You may find that all it takes is a subtle shift in your own thinking.

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