The Secret DOS

The Little Emperor Strikes Back

More lessons from the pulpit

This last week has been an ongoing journey towards Management Nirvana. Management Buddhists would presumably say that the point of management is suffering, but we would do well to remember that to suffer used to mean to tolerate. Who do managers tolerate? In my case, had you asked me a few weeks ago, I might have rolled my eyes and raised my eyebrows. These days I suspect that the person I most need to tolerate is myself. After all, I’m everywhere I bloody go. But for this last week at least, I have greatly enjoyed my own company and I seem to have taught myself a few handy things. Like what? Well…

There’s positive feedback and there’s constructive feedback

Oh lord! How I would have rolled my eyes and snorted derisively!  Old Me thought that Secret DOSes needed to shoot from the hip and tell it like it was. Don’t pussy foot, Tiger! Let ’em know that things ain’t how they should be! I hated the fact that I couldn’t give it to ’em with both barrels and yearned for a more enlightened past when managers could just say, “Look! This is fecking useless! Let’s sort it!” But something happened to make it click: this sort of feedback is clearly not at all constructive. It’s only ever going to get people’s backs up and it will move you ever further away from your goal. More importantly, I found, it’ll stop you from seeing what good there is going on. And believe me, I have moved from a situation where I would have proper struggled to identify elements of good practice to being able to spot real strengths in each and every one. So what’s the difference between contructive and negative feedback? Well, it sounds different for one thing. And it sounds different because -and this is a very important because- it is intended to achieve a very different outcome. Negative feedback is intended to highlight a deficiency in something or somebody. It tends to place blame; it certainly holds people responsible. And people almost universally react defensively when they are blamed or held responsible. When they don’t react defensively, the chances are that they are taking the line of passive resistance. Rarely are they accepting of blame/responsibility. Constructive feedback is intended to draw someone’s attention to ways in which they could do something differently and perhaps in an improved manner. There’s no judgement involved. You’re not saying, “Look, that was crap”; you’re saying, “I was wondering if there was an opportunity to up the level a little?” One is an affirmation; the other is a question. Constructive feedback can also draw somebody’s attention to things that they may have been unaware of. This kind of feedback can be useful, but needs careful phrasing. There is a need to recognise that perceptions are not realities here. Just because I think brussels sprouts are rank does not mean that they are. before I would have said that my perception is my reality. But these days, I think that my perception is pretty much my perception and nothing else. It is as changeable as a pair of underpants. So, how do you share perceptions? By simply following the framework of telling somebody that their actions make you feel a particular way and that you would like them to do something differently. Thus: “When you were arguing with me in the meeting, I suspect that it made people feel uncomfortable. It certainly made me feel uncomfortable and I didn’t think it was a productive discussion. If there is anything that you feel particularly strongly about, I’d like you to give it some thought -perhaps for a day- and then come and speak to me in private about it. I think this might make it easier for me to listen more constructively to what you’re saying, rather than making me feel defensive and putting me on the spot.”

Drop the shoulds and take up the coulds.

This is an idea that I recently came across in the book The Chimp Paradox. If you’re a manager and you haven’t read this book, I suspect that you may die before your time. The same applies to those of you who are managed by others. Should is a word that we often use to wrestle the world into how we think it is supposed to be. Inevitably, that means disparaging the worlds that others have created and prioritising our version over everyone else’s. Could, on the other hand, is part of constructively offering your view with the intention of making a better world. You should be getting to work earlier becomes Could you get here earlier? Similarly, What the teachers should be doing…becomes What the teachers could be doing… At least to my ears, the second way of putting things makes me think of possible obstacles that teachers have to overcome whereas the first just makes me despair. Give it a go for the next week and see if your view of reality changes.

Abandon time management and embrace attention management

This is a concept that I have picked up from Graham Allcott’s How to be a Productivity NinjaBasically, yer man says that time management is an outdated concept from an era when we all believed that things could be Done if only there was enough time to do them in. These days- thank you Mr Internet; thank you Ms Mobile Phone- things can never be Done. Modern technology is the equivalent of looking at Sisyphus with his bloody stone and saying, “Oooh! I’ll have a bit of that!” The work will never be done. So, we don’t need to regulate our time; we need to regulate our attention. Science pretty much backs up our Graham and researchers have demonstrated that when we devote a lot of cognitive effort to a particular task, our attention stores are depleted. We become more likely to succumb to temptation and more likely to jump to easier – and wronger- conclusions. It follows that we need to make sure that we are aware of when our attention is at its height and save all the Attention Heavy tasks for those moments. Graham writes that this means just a couple of hours a day for him. At all other times his attention is either limited or non-existent. So, for those windows of the day when he knows that his dander is up, he makes sure that he is where he cannot be disturbed and gets on with those tasks that demand a lot of him. So, syllabus reviews need to be done in windows of intense concentration; checking people’s pay claims needs hermetic silence; typing up minutes can tolerate some interruptions; filling in a simple spreadsheet can be done with a circus band playing a melody of popular favourites. Start classifying your work by the amount of attention it is likely to need and then distribute it throughout the day as is most logical. See what happens.

Do not judge.

Not because we are all equal little butterflies, beautiful and all fluttery in the eyes of nature. Don’t judge because you will end up pissing somebody off and they will not do what you want them to do. You will also feel frustrated because although you want to tell them that they are shit, modern social norms preclude this which means that you have to swallow your bile and it ruins your tea. But you really have to embrace this; it is no use thinking, “Oh Christ, but you’re shit” while your mouth is busy not judging: “That was really interesting? Why did you spend the term focussing each lesson on the present perfect?” You really need to abandon the need to judge. If a teacher is doing something, the chances are that they think it is worth doing. Alternatively, and this is probably at the root of most questionable practice, they have not given it very much thought and are doing it because it’s what most teachers do. Before you would have torn your hair out; now you see it as reflecting an area for you to lead development in. So, the teachers who you observe teaching individual words like Lexical Lepers: advice, committee, leader are not crappy teachers who are blind to the lack of interest and engagement that their approach is causing. They are not teachers who refuse to engage critically with their practice and to question the practicality of what they are teaching. They are teachers who may find some inspiration in the concept of lexical chunks; they are teachers who may welcome the idea that a text can be mined for chunks of language that end up being more productive than words in isolation. Or who may not. After all, you can only share with them your experience. When we stop judging, our demeanour changes; our approach to others changes. We stop being corrective and we start being educative. We open ourselves up to understanding and reflect more on what our experience could offer to somebody else. By doing this, we are forced to critically engage with our own experiences. Win win!

Technology does not always serve us well

I am thinking predominantly of emails here. Most people haven’t got a clue about email and it is making us all miserable. Graham Allcott reminded me of a time when the post used to arrive in the morning and then in the afternoon. The job in the morning was to work your way through the intray of letters and mailings and then go home. The next day, the post would arrive again and the process was repeated. These days the post never fecking stops arriving. Which means that our Primal Office skills are kept in constant flow: open, check, read, react, open, check, read, react open, check, read, react. Die. Want to get a grip? Follow my lead, people: open your emails when you get to work. Have a pen and paper next to you. Things that require further action, scribble down on a list and then delete the email. Things that need to be read, scribble down “Read minutes from X meeting” and then delete the email. Things that are pointlessly copied to you, don’t even read. Things that can be answered quickly by email, answer them there and then and then delete. Things that can be answered quickly by going and talking to the people that sent the email, scribble down, “Talk to X about Y” and then delete. And once you’ve worked your way from top to bottom, close the goddam programme. You will open it again half an hour before you go home and you will repeat the process. It goes without saying that you NEVER empty your waste bin! It is the collective consciousness of all that you have and haven’t done. It is also searchable. But your brain knows – really knows- that it is a load of rubbish. But what about all the emails that come in to me during the day?!?!? The world will end. No it won’t. If it is that urgent and people are sending it in an email, they are fecking idiots. There is a slightly older piece of technology called the telephone. That is great for averting disasters. If you overhear a conversation about a mad plan to herd explosive sheep into a busy shopping centre at the height of Christmas shopping, the chances are that you will call 999 rather than sending an email to the local police force. But as far as work is concerned, we lose all sense of perspective. At the end of every working day, my inbox is less populated than Uranus. And I feeeeeel good, like I knew that I would. Graham Allcott is better with punchy phrases than I am and shares with us his view that productivity is enhanced through lack of connectivity. That is a mantra worth meditating on.

Technology can serve us well

Oh yes, brothersister. There is no yin without yang. True dat. Technology is also bloody marvellous. There are many things I can point to that really help me at work. I use a cloud based To Do list and when I have finished scribbling down all of my tasks from my emails, I add any that are left over at the end of the day to by To Do list. This means I can cross them all off my scribble pad. My To Do list syncs to every possible place that I need it to. Cool. Unlimited credit (now long dried up) means that I have a selection of Apple products that I cannot really afford to replace. Not thinking too far into the future, I decided to use Things as my To Do app. When the Mac products die and I am relegated to Acer technology, I will need a good alternative.

At the end of the day, I go home and I scribble a few thoughts on the days good and bad things into my Penzu notebook. If I have read something that made me gasp in amazement at its perspicuity, I scribble it into my Penzu reading notebook. What makes Penzi so bloody genius is that in a month’s time or in a year’s time, it will email me some highlights of what I had written a month earlier or a year earlier. So, ideas and reflections from the past are reanimated and I am reminded of quotations and insights that had slipped out of my focus. Genius.

Whenever I have a meeting with someone or something happens that deserves to be remembered because it either highlighted a growing concern or stood as a great example of how good somebody is, I scribble an entry into Evernote. I tag it with the initials of the person concerned and then leave it. The next time I have a meeting with this person, I search Evernote for the relevant tags and have a list of issues that need to be addressed or good practice that needs to be commended. I also have a record of all previous conversations with that person. Groovy.

I know that I have a lot to learn as a manager, so I dig [this hipster speak is meant to be ironic] Mind Tools. A lot of it is free, but for £12 a month, it’s worth it. I am trying to get my line manager to approve this so that the £12 a month is someone else’s; not mine. But if that doesn’t happen, I can live with it.

Pocket and Feedly are invaluable tools for helping reassure me that I have captured all of those things that I will one day have to read or succumb to the fight for survival. Feedly gathers them for me and a quick swipe of the fingers consigns them to Pocket where I can read them even if I am not connected to the world wide web. Again, drawing on Mr Allcott, I have realised the value of setting aside time in the day when my job is to meet with myself and either reflect or read. Sometimes I am reading minutes that give me tasks to do; other times I am reading management articles or ELT journals that let my imagination soar.

Snakes alive! You’ve had your value today. This is what happens when I wake too early and don’t want to go jogging…


31 Oct 2013 - Posted by | Rants and ramblings


  1. Great post, Secret, with lots to chew on. On the subject of feedback etc, I was recently at a workshop given by Jim Scrivener on dealing with difficult people and problematic situations and, among much else, I was struck by what he said about the way we can enhance the opportunity of getting the desired outcome by how we formulate the problem. He suggested that it’s often a good idea to 1) say how this situation makes us feel and 2) explain why. So, instead of saying to a teacher “Why are you always late?” which will produce a defensive response (“I’m not always late”) it is better to say, for example “When you’re late it makes me concerned because I’m afraid you won’t have time to set up your classroom properly”. This formulation is less likely to lead to an angry confrontation and much more likely to lead to the desired behaviour. There was much more, but that was the gist of it.

    Comment by timjulian | 31 Oct 2013 | Reply

    • Thanks, Tim. I’ve come across the same formula in a couple of places. Dr Steve Peters puts in down as a good model for assertiveness. He recommends three parts: When you …, it makes me feel…I would like you to…

      He also stresses the importance of using the word “I” to emphasise your agency – not so much to the person you’re talking to, but to yourself.

      I like this model because it provides a framework upon which to hang your feedback and sometimes it requires completely rethinking what you were planning to say.

      Comment by thesecretdos | 01 Nov 2013 | Reply

  2. Am I the only one who misses the old Secret? 😉

    Comment by Paul Duffy | 31 Oct 2013 | Reply

    • Wait till the sh*t really hits the fan; all this hippy nonsense will evaporate into patchouli-scented air and Primal Secret will return.

      Comment by thesecretdos | 01 Nov 2013 | Reply

  3. Your last 2 posts had me thinking lots of the time as I read: “It could have been me saying all this”. I went through a lot of soul-searching when I was DOS and confronted many of the issues you discuss. I was very product-orientated and had to force myself to pay attention to process; I was sometimes intellectually arrogant and often a bad listener. But I was, tho I say it myself, passionate about taking ELT forward and trying to make sure that we as a school offered the very best courses. When you go through the kind of “What’s it all about?” process you describe, there’s an almost inevitable tendency to emphasise the bad bits in the way you’re doing your job, and the job itself.

    Boringly predictable as it is, I conclude that balance is required. It’s not all about you and it’s not all about the teachers you deal with; I suggest that any DOS should start by recognising the limitations of her power. I wanted to hire non-native speakers and couldn’t; I wanted to send more teachers to conferences and training courses and couldn’t; I wanted to offer cookery and archery courses, immersion courses, special grants to students; etc., etc. and couldn’t. Similarly, every DOS is limited in her power to influence the performance of teachers, although it’s certainly true that a DOS has the capacity to lead and inspire, and, equally, to hector and destroy the morale of staff.

    Anyway, thanks for sharing; your posts not only make interesting reading, they contribute to a better understanding of the weird old world of ELT.

    Comment by geoffjordan | 01 Nov 2013 | Reply

    • Wise words, Geoff. And I recognise the description of a product-oriented, intellectually arrogant bad listener!

      Comment by thesecretdos | 04 Nov 2013 | Reply

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