What if Everything We Learned is Wrong?

January 16, 2012 § Leave a comment

Some of you may be having a negative reaction to this title.  Please bear with me for a moment.  Help me answer these questions.  Why is it we continue to put more money into our schools and yet tests scores are still flat and nationwide high-school dropout rates are stuck at about 25%?  Why are Human Resource managers putting greater investment into employee engagement efforts and yet employee engagement numbers are flat or falling (Blessing and White, The Corporate Leadership Council, and Gallup)?  Why does all the research show the importance of attracting and retaining talent and yet 55% of employees are dissatisfied with their jobs and don’t trust their supervisors (Conference Board)?

We have a major problem with our ability to lead people and to solve our problems. We seem stuck.   OK, I appear to be a “Debbie Downer” but think about it.  Are things getting better, getting worse, or staying the same?  How confident are you we can lead our way out of these tragic situations?  What if everything we have been taught is wrong and that explains why we are stuck?

I am questioning the very foundation of our improvement models i.e. our leadership theory.  I know it is scary but consider please that we may have been misled and continue to be deceived.   For example, how can we be putting so much effort into the most important initiatives and still remain stalled?  Our children are our most important asset and yet we are unable to make significant improvements in schools to boost their learning experiences?

Leadership theory is the model (or paradigm) that helps us to decide how we think about people and problems.  How we think is significant because it leads to the actions we choose to solve the problems.  For example, if you don’t trust people you will create more rules and policies to follow.  Furthermore, you will set up processes to “ding” them when they wander off plan.

A leader’s paradigm creates an impression because it creates an environment that influences certain behaviors.  My mom used to be unpredictable. I never knew when she was in a good mood or a bad mood.  I would “walk on egg shells” until I knew it was safe to “be myself.”  If I knew she had a bad mood, I would be very cautious about what I said.  Her mood and her way of thinking influenced my behaviors.

We need a revolution in the leadership of schools so that students are free to learn and teachers are free to facilitate that learning. We need a revolution in our organizations (one leader at a time) where each of us decides to embrace a paradigm that significantly boosts employee engagement. That shift will improve innovation, productivity, and performance.

I believe Dr. W. Edwards Deming’s theory of Profound Knowledge offers our best hope for our future.   Deming helped us to understand that a system has interdependencies and interactions.  He taught us that the qualities of the interactions in a system are more important than the parts of the system.  He taught us that there will always be variation and we must be able to manage that variation with knowledge of the system.  He helped us to appreciate how to accumulate knowledge.  He helped us to appreciate the differences between people and not treat them as widgets in an assembly line.

Take a moment and answer these questions. They challenge our current paradigm and they might begin to convince you that everything we have been taught is wrong.

  • If people are the most important asset why do we insist on creating fear by rating them with performance appraisals and pay for performance?
  • If people are emotional beings and employee engagement is an emotional reaction why do so few organizations encourage the respectful expression of emotion in the workplace?
  • If grading students is a good idea why do 80% of high school students admit to cheating?

Perhaps we need to study and understand Dr. Deming’s Theory of Profound Knowledge.  Perhaps everything we have learned is wrong.


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