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Wednesday, January 9, 2013

It Starts at the Top

In my previous post I described some of the reasons why bystanders are reluctant to intervene or report bullying even when they might have empathy for the target of bullying.  It is important that we understand all of the social psychological and developmental issues that impact bystander behavior.  Intertwined with all of those reasons is one underlying issue: fear.  Fear when added to those other factors only further suppresses positive helping behavior.  Fear by its nature makes us self-centered.   When we sense the slightest danger (physical or psychological), we will first make sure we are safe before we begin to consider others.   This protective response can also inhibit creative thinking and even how we perceive the world in general. 

Most people look one place first to determine if an environment is safe-the person at the top-the leader.  In the classroom it is the teacher and in the school it is the principal.  One of the first things I learned as a teacher but even more so as principal was how attuned people were to what I said or did or didn’t say or do.  The great majority of people want to do well and that also means pleasing the person in charge. 

People will subconsciously do or say what they think the person in charge wants to hear. 
Teachers who were sick used to call me at home to tell me that they would be out and would need a sub.  I always told them I was sorry to hear that were sick and told them to take care of themselves.  I recall one teacher telling me that she was so relieved to hear me say that because a previous principal had a questioning tone of voice as if to suggest that the illness was not legitimate not severe enough to warrant a day off. 

I realized as principal that I had to consciously say and act in a way to overcome this mindset that people had about the position I held.  I wanted people not to worry about just what I wanted but to give their attention to the actual problems and challenges that they faced.  Amy Edmondson in Teaming describes it this way:

“The problem is that hierarchically embedded fear is not so easy to shrug off or replace with psychological safety just because it is a good idea.”

If adults are so tuned into other adults in leadership positions, children are even more susceptible to  the subtleties that a teacher conveys.  It is a good thing that children respect authority and developmentally children need to please adults.  We shouldn’t however use the "fear" element of that tendency for our own purposes.  The wise parent or teacher realizes this tendency in children and then makes sure that he/she uses it to direct children to take risks, try new things even if it means they will make mistakes or even do things we don’t want them to do.

People in leadership positions need to be comfortable with saying these phrases on a regular basis:  “I made a mistake”, “I am sorry”, “I am not sure”, “What do you think”, “I need your help”, “This is hard for me too”.   Why is it hard to be kind and polite to people when they make mistakes?  Is it because we are afraid that if we are nice then people will feel ok about making mistakes?
I have always found that when people make mistakes they are in the most need of support and understanding.  I never found it difficult to be kind and understanding of the person who made a mistake while at the same time not accept or condone the behavior involved with the mistake.  I found that children and adults learn better after they make a mistake if they receive understanding and kindness rather than reprimand and judgment.  They are more likely to think about the consequences of their actions on others rather than being more concerned about what is going to happen to them.  If any teacher or principal took the time to ask themselves how they would want to be treated after they “screwed up”, failed or said something stupid or offensive and then applied that to how they treated others in that same situation, we would have kinder and safer schools.  When people know that the person is charge is a caring, understanding and kind person, they feel safer and they are more likely to be caring, understanding and kind.

When it comes to bullying prevention the best place to start is with the people in power.  If they use their power to help and serve others, bullying with stand out as an aberration, if they don’t bullying will blend in and become immune to any program or policy.


Matt Langdon said...

Brilliant, as always, Jim. I found one of the toughest jobs I had when I was in charge of a workplace was convincing new employees that I wasn't the bad guy. By default, "bosses" are placed in a position of mistrust by employees.

I can say that once I had surrounded myself with other good leaders, it was easier to convince new people. The social norm was that "the bosses here are good". It just needs to start with one person working hard to address the perceptions.

The Peaceful School Bus said...

I agree can start with just one person who decides to lead a different way. Robert Sutton has written a lot about how positions of power often can turn people into jerks.