Provision #689: Happiness Matters

Laser Provision

As someone concerned about the future of education in America and around the world, I have watched with increasing dismay the strident calls to get tough with teachers. There’s no hiding the behaviorist philosophy: punish the low-performers and reward the high-performers. But are such threats and incentives the best way to change behavior and reform the system? Twelve years of coaching adults to higher-levels of learning and performance tell me the answer is no. Happiness matters. That’s the most important incentive of them all.

LifeTrek Provision


When the stakes are high it’s tempting to bear down. That’s what’s happening right now in American education. Over the past twenty years, American public schools have slid from number one in the world in most categories to middle or even bottom of the pack among developed countries. Forty years ago the United States had the highest high-school graduation rate in the world; today it ranks 19th. Such statistics are concerning and many are rightly alarmed. President Obama has called the situation unacceptable and has vowed to turn things around.

Such high-profile attention has understandably made for a tense atmosphere. The just-released movie, Waiting for Superman, has ramped up even higher the volume on the national debate. I encourage you to watch the trailer and listen to the videos on the movie’s website. The overarching tone is one of alarm: the system is broken and kids are getting irreparably harmed. As a result, the search for heroes and villains is in full swing. Who will pay the price and who will lead us out of the wilderness?

Without wanting to minimize the urgent importance of evoking excellence in education, one of our passionate commitments through the Center for School Transformation, I would nevertheless point out the simple and well-established truth that tense atmospheres do not encourage innovation. To quote Rosamund Stone Zander, co-author of The Art of Possibility, “People do better when they are not governed, constricted, and tightened up by fear.”

And fear is what we have in abundance in the conversation today. Fear that people will be evaluated unfairly. Fear that students will be lost forever. Fear that teachers will lose their jobs. Fear that leaders will be removed from office. Fear that America will lose its edge in the world economy. Fear that not even Superman could get the job done.

Suffice it to say, fear isn’t fun. There’s not much happiness or positive emotion when people are working with a boatload of fear or an ominous sense of foreboding. Yet research indicates that happiness matters when it comes to creativity, commitment, and competence. If we want to improve our schools, then it’s time to pay attention to the happiness factor in the equation.

Unfortunately, many people dismiss happiness as unimportant. They think of it as an expendable nice-to-have rather than as a critical have-to-have. “We’re not here to baby people,” seems to be the drift of many arguments. “Either they do their job, and do their job well, or they should get fired. Those who do a great job, on the other hand, should get recognition and hefty raises.” Such get-tough arguments are little more than the old carrot and stick, rewards and punishments, approach to “scientific management.”

But there is more to the equation than that. Although no one denies the importance of equitable salaries, trying to motivate excellent performance with behavioral incentives is fraught with danger. People end up working for all the wrong reasons (the incentives) and they end up resenting being pawns in someone else’s game.

I was amused at the Harvard Coaching Conference when one of the speakers talked about an experiment conducted by the students in one of B. F. Skinner’s classes. Skinner (1904-1990), for those who don’t know, was an American psychologist at Harvard University who invented the operant conditioning chamber and who introduced radical behaviorism in both experimental research and applied settings. Skinner viewed all human behavior as a function of environmental histories of reinforcing consequences. You get what you reinforce.

Skinner would undoubtedly side with those who seek to improve teacher performance through positive and negative reinforcements. But in one of his classes at Harvard, the students decided to conduct an experiment of their own. They wanted to see if they could manipulate his teaching behavior. Whenever Skinner sat on the table at the front of the room, the students would look at him and pay rapt attention. Whenever he got off the desk and started to walk around, they would look away and act distracted.

What do you think happened? Sure enough, Skinner was soon teaching almost exclusively from the table. But a funny thing happened on the way to the dance: Skinner found out that the students were conducting an experiment. He learned, in other words, that he had become the object of their operant conditioning. At which point, apparently, he became incensed and told the students to knock it off. Given that they wanted good grades, Skinner got his way.

Imbedded in that story is the problem we have with many of today’s school-reform efforts. People don’t like to be manipulated and once they figure out what’s going on they have many ways to push back. Skinner had the power of the grade book. Teachers have the power of their formal and informal networks. From unions to coffee klatches, from public forums to water coolers, teachers have ways to slow down school reform if they become disenchanted with the process.

That’s why happiness matters. In order for school reform to take hold, the people involved with school reform have to feel good about the process and about themselves. Although Skinner was wont to explain human behavior in terms of unobservable phenomena such as perceptions, thoughts, feelings, needs, and desires, new research as well as common sense make clear just how important these internal dynamics are when it comes to initiating and sustaining behavior change.

If we want people to try new approaches then we have to cook up and cultivate positive emotions. How do we do that? Many of the speakers at the Harvard Coaching Conference addressed this very topic.

  • Edward Deci from the University of Rochester, NY spoke to the power of choice and positive feedback. Why? Because choice meets our need for autonomy and positive feedback meets our need for competence. When such needs are met, we feel happy.
  • Deci also spoke to the need for relatedness. When people have high levels of trust and rapport with significant others, they are more likely to set and cooperate on mutual goals. Controlling environments work against this dynamic; need-supportive environments help to get and keep people in the game.
  • Barbara Fredrickson from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill spoke to the power of positive emotions. It’s not enough just to feel happy with our work environment, we also have to feel happy with our whole lives. Personal well-being matters. The happier we feel in life, the more creative, resilient, and competent we become at work.

These four needs • autonomy, competence, relatedness, and well-being • underlie human happiness. And human happiness underlies work performance, whether that work is teaching or doing anything else.

Understanding the importance of happiness, great leaders strive to create need-supporting environments. They talk to and treat people in ways that foster autonomy, competence, relatedness, and well-being. Such environments are not expendable nice-to-haves. They are essential have-to-haves. It really does matter if leaders alienate the people they work with. Principle is no excuse for pugnacity. Great leaders make work fun.

That explains the approach we take with evocative coaching through the Center for School Transformation. When we write about “transforming schools one conversation at a time,” we are referring to the power of conversations to change the framework through which people view their life and work. When that framework is happy and positive, all manner of things become possible. When that framework is unhappy and negative, just about everything gets bogged down and difficult. The framework we come from, how we carry ourselves, is a choice every leader has to make.

Coaching Inquiries: What framework do you come from? How can you make life and work more positive? What is one thing that could make you happy right now? How can you meet more of your needs for autonomy, competence, relatedness, and well-being? How could you assist others to meet those needs as well?

To reply to this Provision, use our Feedback Form. To talk with us about coaching or consulting services for yourself or your organization, Email Us or use our Contact Form to arrange a complimentary conversation.

LifeTrek Readers’ Forum (selected feedback from the past week)

Editor’s Note: The LifeTrek Readers’ Forum contains selections from the comments and materials sent by the readers of LifeTrek Provisions. They do not necessarily reflect the perspective of LifeTrek Coaching International. To submit your comment, use our Feedback Form or Email Bob.


Your last Provision, Health Matters, was an excellent report on the Harvard Coaching Conference. Thanks!


Thanks for writing your last Provision just for me 🙂


I just changed my email address for receiving Provisions. I almost can’t imagine not receiving this each week. I have passed particular pieces along to friends when it reminds me of them and hope they will explore your site and subscribe themselves. It has certainly been life-changing and life-giving to read these few paragraphs each week and then allow them to open me up to the possibilities of what is before me in each moment. 


I am going today to a wonderful independent bookstore down the road to order your new book, Evocative Coaching. I have been looking for it in bookstores and haven’t seen it yet and can’t wait any longer. I have already passed on the link to my daughter’s middle school principal and will pass along the book to him when I finish reading it. 


Keep on transforming schools! So proud of the work you•re doing. And thanks again for Evocative Coaching! I’m about half way through and wish that all those trying to •fix• our educational system would follow your wonderful advice.


I’m so glad the Amazon Kindle edition of Evocative Coaching is now available. Congratulations on another step forward! 



May you be filled with goodness, peace, and joy.

Bob Tschannen-Moran, MCC, BCC

President, LifeTrek Coaching Internationalwww.LifeTrekCoaching.com
CEO & Co-Founder, Center for School Transformationwww.SchoolTransformation.com
Immediate Past President, International Association of Coachingwww.CertifiedCoach.org
Author, Evocative Coaching: Transforming Schools One Conversation at a TimeOnline Retailers

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