Provision #743: Understanding Matters

Laser Provision

Two weeks ago I wrote about the importance of knowledge when it comes to leadership. By knowledge I meant a clear grasp of what’s important when it comes to leading organizations and optimizing performance. Best efforts are not enough. Best efforts without proper direction are doomed. To that end, I put forward Deming’s theory of knowledge as a great framework for leaders. But knowledge without understanding is also doomed. Understanding enables leaders to translate knowledge into action. Is that one of your goals? Read on!

LifeTrek Provision

W. Edwards Deming, the quality-improvement expert and leadership guru that I have been writing about for several weeks, was famously critical of best efforts. It’s not that he didn’t want people to do their best. It’s rather that best efforts, without a guiding theory of knowledge to direct those efforts, might actually push organizations in the wrong direction. Here are a few samples of Deming’s quotes on the subject:

  • “Best efforts are not enough, you have to know what to do.”
  • “Best efforts are essential. Unfortunately, best efforts, people charging this way and that way without guidance of principles, can do a lot of damage. Think of the chaos that would come if everyone did his best, not knowing what to do.”
  • “Best efforts will not ensure quality, and neither will gadgets, computers or investment in machinery.”
  • “Best efforts will not substitute for knowledge.”
  • “We are being ruined by best efforts.”

To avoid that eventuality, Deming developed a Theory of Profound Knowledge involving systems theory, causes of variation, adult learning theory, and human psychology. Why should leaders care about such seemingly esoteric topics? Because they hold the keys to success. As Deming once quipped, “There is an excuse for ignorance, but there is no way to avoid the consequences.” Failing to know what to focus on and do is not a good idea when it comes to leadership.

Knowledge alone, however, is not sufficient for success. We also need understanding. What’s the difference? Knowledge comes from the head; understanding comes from the heart. All the knowledge in the world will not do leaders any good if we don’t understand how to apply that knowledge in real situations, with real people, in real time.

That was the point of my wife’s 2004 book on leadership in schools, Trust Matters. This book tells the stories of three school leaders, each of which are doing their best, but only one of which gets it right. What’s the difference between them? All three would probably give lip service to the same theory of knowledge. They would all say that school leadership involves paying attention to both tasks and relationships, but only one manages to pay attention in a way that generates cooperation, competence, and conscientiousness.

How does that happen? Through understanding people and what’s called for in the moment. All the data in the world (and Deming was a strident voice for the importance of collecting and analyzing data) will be for naught if we just use the results to punish people and to beat them up as to what they are not doing right. That was part of Gloria’s problem, one of leaders in Trust Matters. She had a taskmaster personality and data were used as arrows in her quiver for identifying problems and pushing people to get on track.

That was a bad idea in two respects: Deming would point out that she was not using data correctly. I would point out that she was not using empathy correctly. Both factors have to do with understanding.

One of the big mistakes people make when it comes to data is failing to analyze the data with a control chart. Control charts enable leaders to correctly distinguish between systemic variations that occur naturally, through no fault of any one individual, and special events that may have unique causes from which we can learn and benefit. For an easy-to-read discussion of control charts, you may enjoy Latzko’s & Saunders’ book, Four Days with Dr. Deming.

Leaders make terrible leadership mistakes, Deming notes, when we fail to analyze data correctly. We blame people for things that are outside of their control and we fail to intervene in situations where the exercise of control is possible. As a result of these mistakes, our leadership is less than effective. We make matters worse rather than better when we go at systems in the wrong way. And we fail to at our responsibility to coach individuals who are truly outliers from the control set.

As coaching leaders, it is our job to initiate learning conversations with those outliers (and to leave everyone else alone). What can we learn from extraordinary examples of both successful and struggling performance that can improve individual performance and optimize the system as a whole? Identifying those examples correctly and facilitating those conversations adeptly are, according to Deming, the primary tasks of leadership in any organization.

And that’s where empathy comes into play. There’s no way to have those conversations unless people trust us to understand their concerns and appreciate their perspectives. We all know what happens when leaders ask people for feedback or suggestions. We only hear what they want us to hear. People don’t open up and talk honestly unless they have first come to recognize and trust us as empathetic leaders.

But don’t confuse empathy with sympathy. That was part of Fred’s problem, another one of the leaders in Trust Matters. He wanted everyone to like him and no one to be upset with him. So he would sympathize with whoever he was talking with in the moment. That made people feel good, because it seemed as though Fred was on their side. He was feeling their pain, to borrow a phrase, leaving people with a reassuring sense that he would do something to alleviate that pain.

Unfortunately, to avoid upsetting people, Fred usually did nothing. He was a great guy who could not be counted on to have those learning conversations. As that reputation grew, Fred’s leadership became more and more compromised and ineffective.

Empathy is a very different kind of understanding. Through empathy we don’t just feel someone’s pain, we seek to understand and respect the causes of that pain. Empathetic leaders dig below the superficial level of what can be seen by walking around (MBWA) to understand not only the data but also the needs behind the data. We engage in honest, meaningful dialogue around the performance of both individual players and the system as a whole.

That takes emotional intelligence, since it is easy to become emotionally reactive when we hear or see something we don’t like or understand. From that vantage point, both Gloria and Fred lacked the emotional intelligence to be effective school leaders. One was too hard while the other was too soft.

But honest, meaningful dialogue takes more than just trust and understanding in the character of the leader. It also takes an organizational climate in which people are free to express themselves without fear of losing of their job. That’s another one of those Deming Management Principles. “Drive out fear, so that everyone may work effectively for the company.” It is impossible to raise the quality of a system if the individual parts of that system are evaluated in relation to each other, apart from the system itself.

When the focus of evaluation is on the system, however, the individual parts become continuously engaged in conversations as to how to make things better. That’s when “continuous improvement” moves from being a slogan to being a reality. Everyone is continuously and forever striving to make things better. Data become our friend rather than our enemy. There is no competition between individuals or departments. Everyone is working together for the good of the whole.

That’s the understanding of empathy that coaching leaders bring into the workplace. Brenda, the third principal in Trust Matters, got that right. She set the tone that led to a culture of cooperation, competence, and conscientiousness. At times, that meant Brenda had to stand up for the people in her building against outside forces that might have pitted them against each other. Most of the time, however, that meant Brenda carried herself as a leader with both knowledge and understanding. She could work equally well with data and people.

And that was the secret of Brenda’s success. She understood how to work with and apply one of Einstein’s most important discoveries when it comes to data and empathy, knowledge and understanding: “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.” May we each learn to balance those dynamics in our own leadership as well.

Coaching Inquiries: How would you describe your emotional intelligence? What kind of energy do you project? What kind of tone do you set with the people you lead? How would you describe the culture in your organization? What can you do to make it more of a coaching culture? With whom could you have an honest learning conversation today?

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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.

Kindness Matters. Again I have been inspired and enriched deep within. I’m sure my teachers will appreciate purposeful “kindness” as we close our first term. Busy, yes, but not too busy to take time to show kindness. As they review progress data, creating progress reports and diligently planning learning for the weeks ahead, experiencing kindness • purposefully directed toward their needs, I know they will be refreshed and enriched. Thanks. I sometimes let the work overshadow the needs of the workers.

How uplifting and inspirational! You orchestrate and connect these stories so that they powerfully highlight the significance and implications of kindness lived out. What a wonderful testimony of your purpose and passion to influence the heart motives of leaders on our planet. 

Kindness Matters was a great Provision. Stories always contain that wonderful ability to include us in their world through the surprising transformation of our imagination. Thank you for choosing and sharing these four stories on kindness.  

Not sure where kindness fits into the Somali situation but we would greatly appreciate your prayers for one of our God-daughters, Blanca, who works for Doctors Without Borders and was kidnapped last Thursday. Such a long journey to move from desperation, anger and faith to kindness and respect and finding ways to solve such huge problems. (Ed. Note: I’m passing this on to our readers. May we all keep Blanc in our thoughts and prayers.)

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

Bob Tschannen-Moran, MCC, BCC

President, LifeTrek Coaching
CEO & Co-Founder, Center for School
Immediate Past President, International Association of
Author, Evocative Coaching: Transforming Schools One Conversation at a TimeOnline Retailers

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