Few, if any, leaders would disagree with the title of today’s Provision. Quality matters. Quality matters not only in our goods and services, it also matters in the way we carry and conduct ourselves as leaders. If quality is so important, then, it becomes a key work of leadership to continuously maintain and to constantly be on the lookout for ways to improve quality. If that doesn’t always define your leadership, or if you’re not sure how to do it, then this is the Provision for you. Read on.
Since 1998 I have been in the business of coaching leaders. There have been many other assignments, of course, such as my extensive involvement in the work of schools andWellcoaches, but coaching leaders has always been in play.
That’s because leaders value the importance of quality and understand coaching as a way to improve quality. That’s not because coaches are necessarily experts in the content matter of any leader’s particular position; that’s rather because coaches are process-matter experts in the key work of learning from experience.
In a certain sense, then, no leader actually needs a coach. Learning from experience is a universal attribute of humans and other animals. The most primordial of which has to do with aversion. Hence the age-old expression, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.”
It doesn’t take too many burned hands before young children learn to avoid touching a hot stove. The pain leads instantaneously to a reflex reaction; the reflection on that experience then leads to the theory that we will keep our hands away from hot stoves in the future.
Such reflection on action represents one of the hallmarks of human intelligence. Thanks to our massive cerebral cortexes, no animal can match our ability to learn from experience and to apply that learning over time.
One can even make the case that all learning is a matter of reflection on experience. Even book learning has to be applied before it really makes sense and takes hold. And, in the application process, great ideas are inevitably transformed. Theory to practice is never a straightforward matter. It always involves improvisation.
So I’m not persuaded that learning is ever a matter of reflection on reflection. Such meta-reflections are little more than ruminations. They may feel good, meeting our brain’s need for stimulation, but they don’t constitute real learning until they get applied and adapted and we have the opportunity once again to reflect on experience.
All learning, it seems to me, is action learning. And we don’t always learn from our mistakes; indeed, the best learning often comes from our successes. That may sound counter-intuitive, but there is a growing body of research underlying one of my favorite quotes from Marcus Buckingham: “Excellence is not the opposite of failure. To learn about success you have to study success. Only successful examples can tell you what excellence looks like.”
The best learning, in other words, is not aversive (what we want to avoid) but attractive (what we want to amplify). Take the study from the 1980s of two groups of bowlers. Both groups were of comparable ability and both groups were involved with the same bowling league in Wisconsin. Their desire? To learn how to be better bowlers.
Researchers filmed the bowlers so they could watch themselves bowl as an action-learning strategy. What the bowlers didn’t know, however, was that the films were edited differently. One group was shown only the times when they made mistakes (gutter balls and missed pins). The message: figure out what you were doing wrong so that you can avoid those mistakes when you go back out to bowl.
The other group was shown only the times when they did well (strikes and spares). The message: figure out what you were doing right so that you can amplify those successes when you go back out to bowl. Sure enough, when they went back out both groups had learned to bowl better. But the group who had learned from their successes demonstrated significantly more improvement than the group who had learned from their mistakes.
Many other studies have confirmed the value of learning from success. It is more fun, more encouraging, and more directly relevant to our goals. By reflecting on success we learn what we want to do instead of what we don’t want to do. And the brain has a difficult time with not.
Allow me to illustrate. For the rest of the day, I want you to avoid seeing red cars. Don’t notice them or pay any attention to them. And, while you are at it, don’t bump into anything, either. Just be careful and avoid both obvious and hidden hazards.
Hopefully, I have not consigned you to a day of seeing red cars and bumping into things. In fact, the best thing you can do is to forget my suggestion altogether. The more you try to not see red cars or and the more you try to not bump into things the more you will see and do those things. That’s just the way the brain works.
Action learning, then, involves two critical ingredients. First, the discipline of reflection. Unless we take the time to think about what we are doing, both in the moment and after the fact, we will not learn and grow from our experiences. That takes discipline because it’s easy to be “busy, busy, busy” all of the time.
Second, action learning requires the discipline of reflecting on success. It’s called a discipline because learning from success is not our first impulse. Pain is designed to get our attention. It is a protective mechanism that hijacks our thinking and takes over in the face of existential threats. That’s when we “fight, freeze, or flee,” not to mention “tend and befriend,” until the threats are mitigated and resolved.
Such responses are so primordial that they have come to define human learning, even when the threats are not existential. We assume that trouble shooting and problem solving are the best ways to improve quality. Take, for example, our response when our child comes home from school with a report card, having four “good” grades and one “bad” grade. What do we focus on and talk about? If you are like most people the answer is obvious. We focus on the problem.
But school report cards, like bowling scorecards, can be improved more by focusing on and talking about the “good” grades than by focusing on and talking about the “bad” one. What happened with these “good” grades? How do they make you feel? What do you value most about yourself as a student? What are your best qualities? What helped you to be so successful? What are your aspirations now?
These are the kinds of learning-from-success questions that have the highest potential for generating even more success in the future. By asking such questions we do not deny or pretend that there are no problems. We are rather seeking to outgrow our problems through strengths-building rather than to tackle our problems head on. From the most personal to the most global of problems, we can reflect on and learn more from the best of times than from the worst of times.
I wish our current political and economic leaders would take this lesson to heart. With all the doom and gloom of the debt crisis, the budget crisis, and the employment crisis, not to mention the health crisis, the education crisis, and the climate crisis, most people are focusing on the problems and what we can learn from adversity rather than on the strengths and what we can learn from prosperity.
No wonder we so often find ourselves in a downward spiral! We get more of what we focus on, even when we tell ourselves that this is definitely what we do not want. Do not panic is like do not see red cars. Our brains process the panic and forget all about the not. So we do all the things we don’t want to do, which can often make the crises worse rather than better.
Enter the coaches. If coaches are anything we are thinking partners for the people we work with. Our primary tools are questions and reflections that assist people to review and learn from their experiences. The discipline of talking with a coach is, in and of itself, a great way for leaders to engage in the discipline of reflection. It is certainly not the only way, but it does guarantee certain levels of consistency and intensity that are vitally important to the learning task.
Great coaches take that discipline to the next level by assisting leaders to stay focused on success. In my experience, that is one of the real functions coaches play with our clients: we assist them to rise above the fray, to think about their strengths, to mine the treasure trove of their best experiences, and to entertain possibilities they might otherwise be too distracted or too scared to consider.
Back in 1983, Donald Sch•n wrote a now-classic book titled The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action. In that book, Sch•n persuasively argued that regular patterns of both reflection-in-action and reflection-on-action are the hallmarks of professionalism and the keys to quality.
Sch•n wrote: “It is this whole process of reflection-in-action which is central to the ‘art’ by which practitioners sometimes deal with situations of uncertainty, instability, uniqueness, and value conflicts.” Such reflection “consists of on-the-spot surfacing, criticizing, restructuring, and testing of intuitive understandings of experienced phenomena; often it takes the form of a reflective conversation with the situation.”
When such reflection becomes embedded in the professional practices of leaders, it leads to ever higher levels of quality. Sch•n referred to this quality as “knowing-in-action.” More recently, this has been described as the shift from “conscious competence” to “unconscious competence.” In leadership terms, it means we have the ability to make informed decisions, in the moment, even when we are faced with new and unfamiliar situations.
With clear mental models as to the practices that express our values, strengths, and abilities, confidence rises and all manner of things become possible. We move beyond the crises du jour to the important work of envisioning and designing the future.
Although research into the virtue of learning from success was still in its infancy back in 1983, Sch•n was clearly and compellingly making the case for regular reflective practices as a key part of learning from experience. That case holds true perhaps more today, with the changes in technology and society, than it did 30 years ago. Slowing down as the world speeds up, learning about the root causes of success, may well hold the key to quality for us all.
That is certainly one way to make the case for coaching. If you are finding it hard to step back and to think about your life and work, if you are getting increasingly distracted and agitated by the troubles of our time, if you are more painfully aware of your weaknesses and shortcomings than of your strengths and success, then entering into a coaching relationship would be one way to turn the tables around. It certainly wouldn’t hurt to give it a try.
Coaching Inquiries: How would you describe your commitment to quality? What helps you to continuously improve that quality? Are reflective practices a regular part of your life? How could you strengthen and derive more benefit from those practices? What part could coaching play in the equation?
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LifeTrek Readers’ Forum (selected feedback from the past week)
Editor’s Note: The LifeTrek Readers’ Forum contains selections from the comments and materials sent in each week by the readers of LifeTrek Provisions. They do not necessarily reflect the perspective of LifeTrek Coaching International. To submit your comment, use our Feedback Formor Email Bob.
I never before thought about the power of questions to shape our conversations. Thanks for the reminder to pay careful attention to our questions in your last Provision.
May you be filled with goodness, peace, and joy.
Bob Tschannen-Moran, MCC, BCC
President, LifeTrek Coaching International, www.LifeTrekCoaching.com
CEO & Co-Founder, Center for School Transformation, www.SchoolTransformation.com
Immediate Past President, International Association of Coaching, www.CertifiedCoach.org
Author, Evocative Coaching: Transforming Schools One Conversation at a Time, Online Retailers
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