Give me strength!
I’ve been away from my Secret Blogging keyboard recently, reading, reading and reading. There are some great books out there. And I’ve been reading a disproportionate amount of books written or co-written by one Marcus Buckingham. If you are struggling as a manager -of teachers, of students, of time or whatever- then you could do a lot worse to suspend all your cynicism in a stocking over the chimney and give Mr B. a whirl. Like a lot of good books, Buckingham’s work helps to reframe the way that we look at things. Whenever this happens, I find myself aghast at how much I had swallowed of the previous frame: not just hook, line and sinker, but rod, reel and arm as well.
Buckingham’s work falls within the canon of positive psychology, a discipline that wins +1000 level points because it features Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi: the sole reason that I have spent the last few years of my life lobbying the International Scrabble Gaming Confederation to allow proper nouns to be played. Now, I read at breakneck speed, pointlessly highlighting, asterisking and annotating pages that I am almost certainly never going to re-read, so understand that I am unlikely to be able to give you the most helpful precis of Buckingham’s palace of insights. However, it is rare that something doesn’t stick. I would love these blog posts to be a little more academic, a little more focused, a little more grounded in literature, but this rather debonair approach to the printed word means that I rarely remember where an idea has come from and it is a considerable achievement if I can sometimes remember who wrote about it first, even if where they actually wrote it escapes me. Nevertheless, I can reveal that the first Buckingham book I read was First, Break All The Rules.
What’s not to love about a title like that? After all, there are an awful lot of rules to break. It turns out that B. was referring to most of the management dross that is recycled endlessly by the pearls of wisdom purveyors who peddle their junk in the bookstores of train stations and airports from here to eternity.
Buckingham lists twelve questions that he claims provide an insight into how well a team of people is functioning. And he makes a further claim that this list of twelve questions is evidence-based with a huge body of research to back it up. Could it be magic? It’s full of positive upbeat stories and a bit light…quite a bit light…on any disconfirming evidence and subsequent explanations, but I am easily swayed and if somebody told me that standing on one leg in a bucket while whistling Camptown Races would make my life happier and allow my true talents to shine, well, I’d figure that I had little to lose.
But you don’t necessarily come here to read this sort of stuff. Where’s the beef, you might be asking. Off the top of my head, I was impressed by the following Buckingham bits:
1. Too much research focuses on what’s wrong. Not a great deal of research focuses on what’s right. Instead of building the path of progress on addressing weaknesses, turn the focus onto strengths. Everyone is good at something, right? So rather than try to put in what was once left out, try and get more from what’s already there. According to Buckingham, it leads to greater happiness which, in turn, leads to better work.
2. Talents are hardwired. Everyone is good at something. These are their talents. Unlike The X Factor, Buckingham offers a clear definition of what a talent is: it is “a recurring pattern of thought, feeling or behaviour that can be productively applied.” Put another way: if you think, feel or do something frequently and it helps you to apply yourself productively, then this is your talent. I write a lot. I read a lot. I think a lot. I talk a lot. I make jokes a lot. All of these things (and some others too, I hasten to add) have helped me apply myself productively to my work, my family, my world, and my interests. By this merit, they are all talents. I am a talented writer, reader, thinker, talker and joker. Yay!
But talents cannot be added to past a certain very young age. They can be developed; they can atrophy. But you cannot pick up a new talent and expect it to stay. You can behave as if you have that talent, but you will not be truly talented and you will not be up to scratch in it. You is being employed generically at this time. I might just as easily have said People can behave as if they have that talent. If I wanted to be like many management books, I might have further added Your people…In other words, Moses, if they don’t have the talent when they come to you, don’t waste your time and their happiness by trying to ram it into them. Make the most of what they’ve got.
3. Which leads us to the need to recruit wisely. A simple formula would be to think of the talents that a teacher needs to do the job that you need your teachers to do. In my case, I’d look for an autonomous teacher who feels comfortable with interpreting a vague syllabus and applying it to the needs of students; a teacher who can see through the cant of the communicative approach and who has enough subject knowledge to make students feel enthused about the varying different types of clauses; a teacher who has strongly held convictions about some of the shibboleths that stalk the halls of EFLdom; a teacher who feels a drive to engage in talking about their profession in a positive, constructive manner; a teacher who doesn’t need to be told what to do and who thrives on being given enough room to do what they feel needs to be done; a teacher who can create a positive experience for students while at the same time pushing their linguistic capabilities ever onward. The next stage is to design a job description that captures these talents. The subsequent part involves dreaming up some questions that explore these talents. This is followed by the part where we ask those questions andevaluate the responses to them. Buckingham counsels against pushing for too much detail. If the talent is there, he reckons, it won’t need dredging to uncover it. If you have to dredge, he says, it probably isn’t there in any great amounts.
4. If you are managing a pre-existing team that you didn’t get to choose, find what talents are there and decide if they can be exploited or redeployed. Ignore the weaknesses…focus on the strengths. The point here is to re-emphasise that there is no point trying to address what isn’t there. No amount of training courses, development plans, further education or neurosurgery is going to work. A strong sense of frustration will inevitably arise from a righteous quest to do the impossible. I have discovered that Issey Miyake cologne does not improve the taste of the Sunday roast; however, I have also discovered that I can spray it on my body and it means I wander round in a fragrant haze. Result! The moral of the story: round pegs are great for round holes. Actually, they fit nicely into square ones and triangular ones too. Hmm. Back to metaphor school…
5. Give the golden rule the boot. What is the golden rule? The golden rule of ELT is that there is no golden rule of ELT. NO! NO! NO! I am just shamelessly plagiarising now. The golden rule is that which states how we should do unto others as we would have them to do unto us. Scratch that, says Bucko: Do unto others as they would have us do unto them. Well, duh! It makes good sense. We are not them; what works for us might not work for them. However, what works for them will, rather obviously, work for them. Do it! How do you know what works for them? Bucko points out that it often helps to ask them. I remember once getting a piece of constructive criticism that I did not praise people sufficiently. I couldn’t understand it. I praised people regularly. But in a way that I regarded as appropriate. Inevitably, this meant jokingly exaggerating the award ceremony or quietly passing on positive feedback. But it might have been that the ones who were jocularly held up wanted the quiet words of positivity and the ones who received the quiet asides wanted public recognition. If this were so, it might explain why neither camp felt properly praised. God damn you, Perception!
Enough already with the numerically headed list. It’s summary time. Everybody sitting still? Right, let’s go. My reading makes me want to learn a little bit more about positive psychology. Yes – even more than is on that Wikipedia page I linked to earlier. Secondly, it makes me want to abandon all of the metrics that look at what we’re not doing well enough and to look for other metrics that look at what we are doing well and what we could do better. The nuance might be so small that it appears insignificant, but I think that it might be one of those small acorns we often hear about. Thirdly, it makes me want to revisit our recruitment practices and make sure that we adopt an approach more in keeping with Ted Moult’s double-glazing advice.
I just thought I’d share…
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