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Thursday, February 10, 2011

Universal Fears And Needs

Tonight's Blog entry evolves from a terrific book written by Marcus Buckingham, entitled, The One Thing You Need to Know.

The author references the work of anthropologist Donald Brown. After examining a large number of wide ranging cultures throughout the world Brown identified five fears held among members - and the needs they reflect - that were common, in varying degrees, among the different cultures. He categorized the findings within his book, Human Universals, as follows:
1. Fear of Death – The Need for Security
2. Fear of the Outsider- The Need for Community
3. Fear of the Future – The Need for Clarity
4. Fear of Chaos – The Need for Authority
5. Fear of Insignificance – The Need for Respect

I kept this information in the back of my mind as I started work in a leadership role within a totally new work environment.

I was aware that the Green Island Union Free School District had been subjected to a closely monitored study on the advantages and disadvantages of merging with another, larger district. Although the decision was made to remain independent and avoid being swallowed up by the neighboring school system, the exercise nonetheless left a fear of another attempt in the future and the potential demise of the school district. Since a merger would substitute local governance and critically alter the educational infrastructure and grade configuration of the building it would seem like an organizational "death."

According to Brown and Buckingham the antidote to the fear of death involves creating and sustaining a sense of security. Admittedly this is becoming more difficult each year that the state reduces aid to schools and erodes much needed fiscal support. However, we have been reviewing our school district in an attempt to increase both effectiveness and efficiency to earn credibility with our stakeholders and justify their investment to the degree that we may feel secure.

I cannot underestimate the second point - fear of the outsider. I have been told that I am the second person to become superintendent of Green Island without having prior experience in the school district. It has been twenty years since the last, and perhaps only other, "outsider" served the system. The tendency to promote from within holds both advantages and disadvantages. The leader was once "one of us." Familiarity offers a smooth transition in that the leader has an understanding of the culture and the staff members have an idea of who the leader is as well as the values and beliefs of the leader. Despite whatever differences that exist between the superintendent and staff members, at least all parties know each other. There is little time lost in having to learn new people, policies, and programs. This provides a fairly secure transition. In contrast, that same familiarity could possibly blind the organization to changes in the external environment that could impact the district. There is a possibility at a conscious or unconscious level of the organization to perpetuate the past in spite of the need to seek alternative designs and adapt to changes to remain competitive.

The response to this fear is nurturing a sense of community. That will account for welcoming people as they enter the building at the start of the day, maximizing my visibility by visiting the cafeteria, attending community events, being present at athletic events and concerts, having lunch with learners, and trying to be out of the office as much as possible to interact with members of our learning community and develop personal relationships. Communication, whether it's this Blog, informal chats with staff and learners, personal letters home recognizing those contributing toward our mission and goals, or phone calls seeking feedback from parents, all point to promoting a sense of community.

The third item - fear of the future, is closely aligned in Green Island with the fear of death, or losing our identity in a merger with a larger school district. Uncertainty, or even ambiguity, can cause anxiety among members of the organization. Not knowing what comes next, or feeling confused about our direction, can exacerbate fear. People want to have a clear mental picture of where they're going and why they're expending effort and energy in the endeavor.

Articulating a vision of a desired future state for the school district is important. The call for Green Island to be a "small school with BIG ideas" speaks to our future as an independent district free of being absorbed by another school system. It implies innovation, change, creativity, vitality, and a commitment to make a difference by being different. Hence, our interest in pursuing alternative programming, stretching to see with new eyes, redefining our collective purpose, building alliances among constituent groups, forging common goals and shared meanings.

The fourth category - fear of chaos and the associated need for authority is one which requires political agility in Green Island. Confusion undermines the collaboration necessary for our success and wastes valuable resources of time, material, and human capital. On the other hand, an aggressive or overbearing assertion of authority would make the transition of a new leader very difficult. There needs to be order without intimidation and inhibitions that could strangle the system. Dictatorial and absolute power would not cultivate the empowerment needed to distribute leadership throughout the organization. The more "I, Me, and My" present in the culture the less "Us, We, and Our" within the culture. The latter will sustain the organization much more than the former.

Subtle and specific tactical moves and diplomatic interventions are needed to convey a sense of authority and avert conflict. The successful resolution of a contract negotiation that had reached impasse (for a year prior to my arrival) and involved a fact finder's report was central to both actively inserting myself into the political process and working to bridge the distance and differences that had separated the two parties in the process. It took three meetings to reach an agreement. There was no evident animosity interrupting those three negotiating sessions. I believe progress was made when we focused on areas of influence rather than positions of power.

Despite assumptions that a small school population would insure that no one feels insignificant, it's easy for anyone to feel neglected, disrespected, and rendered meaningless (these are often the same contributing factors in a dynamic as small as two people in a failed relationship, so it's not a matter of numbers). One must give respect in order to receive respect. This mutual exchange requires credibility, honesty, integrity, and communication. In this case, the leader models desired values and beliefs. Any dissonance between what one says and does will invariably lead to confusion and loss. Treating people as you wish to be treated remains sound advice. The manner in which the leader spends his/her time often serves as an accurate gauge in relationship building. Time is a precious resource and its use is a testament to value and meaning. Spending time with people, actively listening to people, and extending time as a form of respect, all contribute to building esteem, pride, and worth.

Of all of these five fears, and their related needs, Buckingham claims that the most significant one is the need for clarity. People must perceive and inculcate a sense of the direction and meaning of, and for, their life in order to generate hope and reaffirm purpose. Eliminating, or greatly reducing, that fear of the future decreases the anxiety emerging from the other four fears. It's a personal and emotional tipping point.

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