You know how some people say, “There are no bad questions.” Yes, actually, there are.
In a September 2017 INC article, Claire Lew shares how as a CEO, asking employees, “How can I help?” is one of the worst questions a leader can ask. She explains that it’s lazy and general which makes it hard for a person to answer. She proclaims, “Stop hurting your employees with the wrong question. Start asking the right one.” Lew proposes various alternatives to the question, “How can I help you?” In so many words, she goes on to say that many times we should be asking, “How am I contributing to the problem?” For example, “Am I interrupting you too much during the day with meetings and requests?”
As I think about our current infrastructure and systems, it strikes me, “Culture eats strategy for lunch.” – Peter Drucker. And certainly, there are many things that need to change in our ecosystem, but the way we talk to one another may be the biggest problem of all. Ironically, it is the one thing that we control every day. Ourselves. My friend, Tom Olson, often reminds me of Tim Kight’s work: E+R = 0. Event + Response = Outcome.
Here are few things I’ve been wondering lately about the way we talk:
1. Are we, as leaders, talking too much? We want teachers to elevate student voice in the classroom, but when we get them in conversations and meetings, I’m finding that we, as administrators, are taking quite a bit of the airtime. Michael Fullan will tell you that the biggest influence on a student’s learning is the teacher. And the second biggest influence is the principal. With teachers as the biggest influencers, we should be giving them the most airtime in our staff meetings, BLT meetings, PLC’s, and the list goes on.
2. When things go wrong, are we modeling the response we expect to see? For example, when I make a mistake, am I owning the impact of that mistake on the project/other person or am I making excuses? Am I sharing what I learned from that mistake, so others can see mistakes as learning opportunities? Am I trying to hide my mistakes? Because if I’m always trying to cover it up, I’m doing quite a bit of damage. Sure, it might make me feel better at the time, but in the end, it takes the learning opportunity away from others. They don’t get to see the messy process on the path to success and instead, they may view leadership as something which is unattainable; something that only perfect people do. We need everyone to be a leader and to be the best leader they can be.
3. How often do we share the positive thoughts we have toward others? I work with some incredible people. Teaching is hard, hard work. I remember when I was a teacher, I could live for a month on a positive, parent email or a note from my principal. Are we carrying the hearts of our teachers in our hearts? Because they are carrying so many of our kids’ stories in their hearts every day. There IS such a thing as empathy fatigue. We have got to take care of our teachers, so they can take care of our children. Teaching is a very personal profession when done well. We cannot forget to take care of people. As George Couros says, “We need to make the positives so loud that the negative is almost impossible to hear.” Are we doing that? Do our teachers feel that we are doing that? And are we doing it in authentic ways because if it feels contrived and disingenuous, the impact may be counterproductive. Not every role nor every organization nor every school is the right fit for us. We have got to find our right fit. The place where our magic can dance with the magic of others. And then, be RELENTLESS in our pursuit of accentuating the positives.
Sure, we can’t only talk about the positives. Daniel Pink recently states in his most recent book, WHEN, that when people are feeling really good about their work, the energy and momentum is high, and people are riding the wave of that shared success, that is the time to give a gentle nudge about the next step for growth. On the contrary, he explains that when people are feeling a bit low, tired, or unsuccessful, that is the time to ramp up your encouragement. This is not unlike what I’ve heard my husband say; he works on the coaching staff of a college basketball team. Sometimes, when there is a particularly bad first half of a game, I will ask him, “Was the locker room rough?” Many times he will say that the team was already feeling downtrodden about their performance, so this was the time to build them back up.
In so many words, our ecosystems are complex and require daily nurturing, but there is no system that can overcome the way we talk. Event + Response = Outcome.
We must commit ourselves to being the variable on a daily basis. Let’s ask the right questions, listen more, and accentuate the positives.