Companies that fail to gather and implement their employees’ good ideas leave a lot of money on the table. They also increase the odds their best people will leave.
Did you see this video of a teacher verbally abusing a first grader for getting a math problem wrong? It went viral last week. The teacher, Charlotte Dial, rips up the child’s work, and nearly spits at him, “go to the calm-down chair and sit. There’s nothing that infuriates me more than when you don’t do what’s on your paper.” She says she’s, “very upset and very disappointed.”
None of the kids appear agitated at all. It looks like the teacher is the one who could benefit from a little ‘calm-down’. Yet she is the one in the room with the power; the one who sets the tone; the one who makes it clear what kinds of behaviors are rewarded or punished.
It’s a glaring example of how screaming for results, Results, RESULTS! can damage the people and the partnerships required to produce them. Most educators agree that cultures of learning are marked by trust, connection, and a willingness to make mistakes and learn from them, rather than fear, shame, and control.
This video struck a nerve. Thousands of people have commented on it and the techniques used by Success Academy to produce high test scores. Surely there’s some rubber-necking going on here; the more flashing lights there are, the more we slow down to see how bad the accident is.
But there’s something more. We all sat as kids in some classrooms where teachers ridiculed and rejected kids. Many sit as adults in companies right now, afraid to speak up about what practices don’t make sense, what systems could be improved, what assumptions haven’t been questioned.
Francis Frei of the Harvard Business school, observes that culture, “tells us whether to risk telling our bosses about our new ideas, and whether to surface or hide problems. Employees make hundreds of decisions on their own every day, and culture is our guide. Culture tells us what to do when the CEO isn’t in the room, which is of course most of the time.”
What kind of culture enables your best work? What works best for others on your teams? Why does it matter?
I’m not offering specific approaches to enhance individual skills, teamwork, or outcomes. These change with the situation, time, place and people. Nor am I suggesting there is a one-size-fits-all culture that brings out the best in everyone.
What’s true is that we build or diminish people, partnerships, and performance in every interaction we have.
Whatever else you do, it pays to simultaneously keep one eye on building people and one eye on building partnerships, all in the context of delivering the results that matter most.
In his poem “Second Life,” David Whyte describes, “my uncourageous life (that)….doesn’t want to speak, wants to make its way through stealth, wants to assume the strange and dubious honor of not being heard.” My uncourageous self took root in a world that didn’t feel safe enough to be bright, to be bold, and to fly.
But everyone has ideas about how things around them could be better. They could be small but significant improvements to products or customer experience. They might be ways to run meetings that energize, activate, and clarify instead of putting everyone to sleep.
Companies that fail to gather and implement their employee’s good ideas leave a lot of money on the table. They also increase the odds their best people will leave.
Let’s contrast the outcomes of the short-term, results-only focus of a teacher rejecting a student’s work with a partnership of allies that generates ideas, energy, and commitment.
I’m working with a colleague who has helped companies behave more like living systems—self-organizing, self-repairing, smart, flexible, and fast—for twenty years. Sixty people worked for our client company a year ago. They have over one hundred and thirty today. Their challenge is to develop structures and processes suited to their current size and continued growth while preserving the inclusive, open, and honest culture they believe is the heart of their success.
We had this ‘match on dry grass’ moment as we talked about how we could help them reach their goals. I overcame my own need to avoid looking stupid, and instead shared a barely formed idea about how they could deliver feedback in a way that would improve performance and strengthen partnerships at the same time.
She grabbed the kernel of my idea, and sprouted it into an almost fully formed model that had both of us smiling and catching our breath. A half hour passed as we built on each other’s thoughts, took notes, and savored being a part of a creative process that was more interesting than what either of us had been thinking alone.
Our focus never wavered from our goal: to deliver critical learning, retention, and self-reinforcing behaviors. It was our willingness to take risks, not know, listen, and think together that allowed us to turn our individual ideas into something better.
This may be a small example. But stepping into our bigger selves is a big deal. Whether as kids in school, partners in a marriage, or colleagues at work, the permission of partnership moves us step by step from “the dubious honor of not being heard” to more personal agency, fulfillment, and impact.
Einstein said, “Love is a better teacher than duty.” Love lends a hand to lift us up, to pull us forward. David Whyte says as much as, “My other life, my first life, the life I admire and want to follow… even extends a reassuring hand for the one holding back…”. It’s hard to imagine Charlotte Dial lending that kind of hand to the six year olds in her class, struggling to master new ideas and reach their potential.
How will you build people, partnerships, and performance in key interactions today?
Photo credit: Flickr/U.S. Navy