Obstacles and Learned Behaviour

I was in the process of planning a training session within which I planned to use Stephen coveys circles of concern and influence.   I was considering Coveys comments regarding the fact that as we work more in our circle of influence we grow the circle.    This growth is the result of others seeing our ability to bring about change and to have an impact.   We also build up trust in ourselves that we can succeed and have an impact.   So the impact is two fold changing the perception of other towards us and also changing our own self perception. I found myself considering if this self fulfilling prophecy might be applicable beyond Coveys circles and into the domain of overcoming obstacles.    Where we freeze or shy away from obstacles we may be seen by others as ineffectual.    We ourselves will also start to believe that we are incapable of overcoming the prevalent obstacles in our lives.  It is a negative self fulfilling prophecy.   It may also be considered as learned behaviour as each experience of being unable to overcome an obstacle reinforces the belief that we can’t overcome obstacles. Looking at the other side of things, if we see an obstacle as an opportunity and proceed to overcome it then we show others that we can succeed.  We also build our self confidence in our ability to overcome obstacles.   When the next obstacle makes it appearance we will be more likely to challenge it and to view it as an opportunity.   Again we have a self fulfilling prophecy and learned behaviour however here we have significantly better chances of a positive outcome. Now both the positive and the negative examples above show evidence of learned behaviour.    Such behaviour is often enacted with little conscious thought.  The challenge therefore is for us as individuals to remain aware of what we are doing and why and to rethinking those situations where the behaviour is negative in nature and to encourage those behaviours which are positive. AlarmClock_small It’s now been a few days since I started seeing the obstacle of being tired and having to get out of bed as an opportunity rather than an obstacle.   Each day I get up and out of bed rather than hitting snooze, the easier it is to repeat the task the following day.  Yesterday the extra time and motivation I gained from succeeding in getting up despite being tired resulted in very significant improvements in productivity.   So next time you hit snooze and roll over in bed give some thoughts to this fact as I promise the impact on your day is bigger than just the loss of 10 or 15 minutes from the available time in the day. As Ryan Holiday puts it in the title to his book, “The Obstacle is the way”.

Obstacles and Opportunities

obstacle_is_the_wayAm currently listening to “The Obstacle is the Way” by Ryan Holiday on the drive to work.   Now in this hectic world where we are all looking to squeeze every bit of efficiency out of our waking hours I recommend the use of audio books on the drive to and from work, however that’s not the subject of this post.

In “The Obstacle is the Way” the reaction of people to “obstacles” is discussed including how generally people are often found complaining about obstacles or difficulties which they encounter in their life, be it a difficult colleague, students or a disagreeable boss.   Ryan Holiday suggests that such obstacles need not actually be obstacles and that instead they may represent unrealised opportunities or the way ahead.    Marcus Aurelius, for example said:

“Our actions may be impeded, but there can be no impeding our intentions or dispositions. Because we can accommodate and adapt. The mind adapts and converts to its own purposes the obstacle to our acting. The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.“

This approach to obstacles means that little time is wasted on complaining, an act which may provide some self satisfaction however is unlikely to do anything in terms of progressing a resolution to the prevailing obstacle.    Consider the teacher complaining about a lack of resources which are available to them.    The act of complaint is unlikely to help address the issue of the lack of resources however it will take up valuable time.   Instead we might change our perspective and consider the lack of resources as an opportunity to develop new bespoke resources which specifically meet the needs of teaching and learning in the coming weeks.     We might consider it an opportunity to work with the students in creating resources together.   Maybe we might consider the situation as a challenge to our ability to improvise and exercise creativity in our teaching.    These three perspectives provide the teacher an opportunity to at least attempt to tackle the identified obstacle and in doing so he/she might realise new solutions and success which otherwise they may not have.

I myself have found things difficult in recent months mainly due to perceived issues with my workload.    The fact I haven’t posted much since January goes to prove that I have been finding it difficult to manage my time or to find time to actually post anything.    Having listened to the book however I have decided to change my perspective with regards the lack of perceived time.   Instead I will consider this as an opportunity to try out techniques from Coveys, First things first which is a book I am currently reading.   This will include focussing on doing what is important as opposed to trying to do a high quantity of tasks.   Part of this will require me to spend some time on identifying that which is truly important to me both in terms of work, family and also personally.   I will also try to be more efficient in my use of time, no longer hitting the snooze button as opposed to getting out of bed when the alarm rings in the morning.   I have decided to commit to this act of getting up, in order to be able to better trust myself, that I will make best use of the available time to maximise my impact.

It is my intention to take each obstacle that stands in my path, and try and change my perception to turn it into an opportunity.

To trust or not to trust

Have been reading and have finished Stephen Coveys Speed of Trust recently.   I have found the book to be very interesting and very much in line with my thinking with regards having a growth mindset and focussing on solutions rather than problems plus on the need to acknowledge the humanistic side of education rather than focussing purely on data such as standardised tests.  It is my belief in the need to trust people and act with trust as a default condition as opposed to assuming distrust and acting accordingly.     The Speed of Trust focuses on this although it also goes on to discuss “Smart Trust” such that we take care on exercising trust where previous events or the situation dictate it.     The book discusses a predisposition towards either trust or distrust, which I think is the key feature of the book.  It suggests the need to encourage a predisposition towards trust.   I have found myself having to defend this position during the last six months having been told that I shouldn’t be open with how I feel to my team and colleagues.   Leaders apparently need to be totally positive even when the situation, either professionally or personally is not, or at least this is what I was told.    For me I believe, and according act, in a way as to display trust in my colleagues and staff and as such I communicate how I feel to them.   I am, after all, a human, a person like everyone else and therefore I have good days and not so good days.   This is not to say that I necessarily have negative days, more a case that I have days when I find positivity and the act of working with a growth mindset more difficult than normal.   During a period of time recently my wife had damaged ligaments in her knee which limited her ability to move, leading to time off work and myself having to take on more duties around the house and with our family as a whole.   As such my ability to remain positive while at work was more difficult than normal and in phone calls or in discussions my tone of voice and body language may have conveyed this.    I was open with people as to the prevailing situation yet I was told that my openness with my emotional status and feelings was a negative thing and something unwanted in senior managers.

Now let us consider the alternative here;   A leader consistently comes across as positive both in terms of beliefs and emotion despite the prevailing situation.    I have worked with people like this and over time you start of lose your trust in them as they repeatedly underplay the humanistic side of life and also the challenges which particular jobs, tasks or activities may present.    They also tend to underplay or fail to acknowledge the culture and climate within the organisation, department or team.   Imagine the boss who you have plainly made aware of personal or professional difficulties who makes light of it rather than engaging you as a person, looking to provide support and arrive at a solution.   “Its going to be fine, just keep at it and focus on solutions”.    I think the reason this constant positivity is stated as positive lies in the hope that positivity will rub off on those you lead and work with however this underplays trust.   Constant positivity both in belief and in emotion suggests a constant level of effort however this is not the case.    Some professional situations require more effort or, as in my situation where my wife was injured, some personal situations result in the need for more effort professionally in order to maintain the normal level of positivity.     As such a consistent “things will get better” approach to positivity may not always work as it fails to recognise the personal effort, commitment or resilience required.     If a leader fails to recognise and acknowledge how a static level of positivity may require varying levels of effort, commitment and resilience then trust may be lost as they more and more appear to be disconnected with a team members reality (Note: I am considering reality as subjective with the only reality which exists to a colleague or team member being their own reality).

Covey puts so much stake in the importance of trust and I cannot help but agree.   Education is more and more focussing on data and standardised testing while ignoring the softer data of what school leaders see and hear on a daily basis.     Trust may steadily be in process of being eroded and teachers more and more see themselves being judged based on data which very often lacks any context.  This is especially evident in terms of a focus on achievement.   Here in the UAE not all students will do Kindergarten so would it be fair to compare two teachers where one has a class of students who did not do kindergarten against a teacher of a class which did, where the later teacher benefits from a class who have two additional years of schooling despite being the same age as the students in the former class;   I would suggest not.

Data is going to continue to be an integral part of education systems as is accountability.   I believe we need to also make some room for trust.    We need to develop the predisposition towards trust as suggested by Covey.   Professional development for example should not be focussed on the needs of the weakest staff at the expense of those who have highly developed skills.    Education often talks of distributed leadership and of empowerment however both of these concepts cannot operate without a level of trust.

I write this in following one of Coveys initial points in his book which is to trust yourself and in writing this I am trusting that my beliefs and ideas are worthy of sharing and consideration.   I trust that you will feel free to share your thoughts whether they be in agreement or disagreement.