The Teaching and Practice of POS, Part V: Transcending Your Own Culture

December 21, 2012 / General /

By Robert E. Quinn

In this five-part series, I explore the ways in which positive organizational scholarship’s teachers and practitioners can use empirical examples to make the subject both clear and engaging.

I was recently teaching a class on how to be a transformative teacher of positive organizational scholarship (POS). To make a lasting difference with these fellow educators, I realized I needed to carefully plan our lesson, and then be prepared let go of the plan and let the students take the teacher where they most need to go—to co-create with them.

Modeling the teaching process for educators who would then share the POS message of transformation was exciting. At the end of class, I asked for final observations, and three people commented:

  • -“For our students to be great, I need to be great.”
  • -“I can get out of our old routines.”
  • -“It is difficult to teach in a new way, in a way that I have never been taught.”

I thought the last comment was very important. It suggests we are prisoners of our culture. In fact, I tend to become what I have experienced, even if I do not like what the culture has done to me and others who are part of it. Sadly, people often let their culture turn them into the very thing they hate about it. I think of three cases that depict this tendency. Only the third depicts bot a problem and a solution. This person was able to transcend the pressure of the normal culture while acting as a teacher of transformational impact.

Brutal Military Training. I recently read an account of several young men who came from countries where there was compulsory military service. Although they came from different parts of the world, they used similar words to describe the training process: “Harsh, unkind, unfeeling, and brutal.” They all expressed resentment. But three of the four also expressed something that is worthy of attention. When they were promoted to the position of trainer, they adopted the same methods that had been used on them. They actually recognized the inconsistency in this but never tried anything different.

A Corporate Bully. I know of a company where the CEO is a bully. He delights in intimidating his direct reports. Nothing they do is good enough. Meetings are almost always marked by episodes of screaming. It is a miserable place to work, and turnover is high. His direct reports deeply resent him. Yet they tend to dress and groom themselves as he does. They not only look like him, they behave like him. They bully their own people. They do to others what they hate having done to them.

PeeWee Baseball Coach: A friend of mine volunteered as a coach in a town that put great emphasis on Pee Wee Baseball. One of the coaches was extremely competitive and drove the children hard to win. Every year, his team did win. The other coaches truly hated him. They abhorred his treatment of the children.

Because they disliked him, the other coaches wanted to beat the competitive coach so badly that they imitated what he did. To beat him, they treated their players as he treated his. In order to win, they, like the people I described in the military and corporate realms, became what they hated.

There was hope, however, and it began with my friend. He told the parents that his prime objective personally was to build confidence in each child. So he would not continually assign the worst players to places where the ball is least often hit. Every inning, he would rotate every child to a new position.

Surprisingly his team began to win, and it kept winning. As the final games approached, some of his team parents suggested that winning was now more important, and it might be time to relegate the worst players to the least vulnerable positions. Those parents were making normal cultural assumptions about competition and authority. In asking these normal questions, they were conveyers of the normal culture.

If my friend had been less purposeful and more internally directed, he would have been shaped by that pressure. But he was clear about his purpose and willing to suffer for it. If his team lost, he would absorb the consequences. He told the parents no and continued. His team ended up winning all the games. His more confident young players even beat the team of the competitive coach.

The Evolution of Strategic Advantage

When he reflected on what transpired, my friend realized that his novel policy produced an unanticipated strategic advantage. In rotating the players, they did gain confidence, and the worst players became adequate players. Almost all these adequate players ended up getting key hits or making key defensive plays in the big games. Because of their growth, the kids loved their experience.

My friend was a transformative teacher. His students were fundamentally altered. They had a new outlook and new capacity. Because he came to the task with a higher purpose, he could withstand the cultural pressure for conformity. Because he was committed to his purpose, he and his students learned their way into a new level of ability and greater achievement.

Yes, it is difficult to teach or lead “in a new way” or “in a way that I have never been taught.” But if we have a purpose and a plan, we can begin the journey, hold to our purpose, drop our plan and co-create our way into transformative capacity.