Have you ever, as a leader, said or done something that was a “Think Stopper?” You know… the conversation is flowing in a meeting and you get caught up in the excitement and you interject something and all of the sudden… BAM the conversation stops and you think, “What? What? What did I say?”
Oh, come on, admit it, you know you have! I know I have! I have heard think stoppers and I have said them.
I’ve been to meetings where the conversation is flowing and then the leader says something and WHAM, the conversation stops! Why? What happened? Usually, the leader (or even another member of the organization) unknowingly and/or unintentionally expresses an opinion in a manner that inhibits the conversation, actions, or thought process of the organization.
Before we examine this phenomenon, and discuss how to remedy the situation when you do let out a Think Stopper, let me share a recent, somewhat comical experience that happened to me.
I belong to an online community for educational professionals where we discuss topics of interest regarding educational issues. One can be invited or he/she can ask to join a particular “community” or “group” if he or she wishes.
Since school culture was a focus in my doctoral studies, I asked to join a group who was discussing this topic. I was granted access, analyzed, and then joined the conversation. As the posts unfolded, the group started to discuss “influencers” of culture. Group members pondered who influenced, affected, or even “swayed” culture. Many shared experiences and stories as to how formal and informal leaders, individuals and cabals, within and outside of their schools and educational organizations influenced the culture in both positive and negative ways. A lively discussion ensued as to who truly was “in charge” of setting and influencing the culture of an organization.
I was eager to join in the conversation since I had worked in lots of situations where I had both experienced this and observed this, which is what motivated me to research it extensively. After I watched and read the posts and comments, I decided to make my remark. This is what I said:
“ Hi folks! I’ve read your comments with great interest and I, too, would like to add my thoughts to the conversation. The topic of school culture and how it is influenced and shaped is something I have always wondered about, too. So, this became a focus of my researched during my doctoral studies. The last thing I want to sound like is a “know it all”, however, I can share what I found during my “comprehensive” review of the literature that my doctoral committee encouraged me to create.
When I dove into the literature I was remarkably surprised to find out the following about who and what influences the culture in an organization. This is what the researchers said… The leader sets the tone for the culture, yet those within the organization actually shape and uphold the culture of the organization. Isn’t that interesting? So, those meetings after the meeting, where the staff meets in the parking lot or at the water cooler are really important! Sometimes the staff can uphold the leader, or sometimes the opposite can happen!
When my cohort was studying school culture, one of my colleagues (who was a principal) always said that as he watched his staff interact with one another, he wanted to say to them: you can be your own best friend, or your own worse enemy. Wow!”
Now, I wasn’t expecting much of a response from this post since most of my colleagues on this site were pretty much saying the same thing I was saying as they were posting their thoughts. But, one person, the person who created the group responded. Her response was this:
“@ Fran, RUUUUUUBBBBBBBIIIIIIIIIIISSSSSSSHHHHHHH!!!!!!”
The next time I logged onto the site, I noticed the “headlines” that flash across the screen at the top. (This website is pretty fancy. Random posts fly across the screen as you log on to attract your attention.) As the random responses flew by, I noticed THAT response fly by. I was a little surprised and I wondered what that strange word was when it flew by. So, I looked at it again and thought I should click on it. Sure enough, it was a response to my post. I was quite surprised to say the least.
Here was my thought process…
First, isn’t this a forum for educational professionals? Shouldn’t we be disagreeing professionally?
Second, my post wasn’t “rubbish,” it was based upon RESEARCH!!!! What part of it was rubbish? If you think something is rubbish, then say what part of it is rubbish? State your opinion in educational terms!
Third, isn’t this a forum about culture? Isn’t it ironic that the very thing we are talking about is the very thing this person did?
So, after I took a deep breath and a little walk around my house, I decided to private message the person who responded to me. I politely asked her to tell me what her thinking was in posting the word, “rubbish” and to kindly explain herself publicly if she could. Then, people could respond to her post.
So, then I watched the forum, day after day after day. Guess what? Everyone stopped posting. Yep. Crickets.
No one responded. Would you? Who would take the risk, especially after someone called someone else’s post rubbish, especially in what was to be a safe discussion on what else, but “culture?”
So, here’s the real question… What do you do after you’ve said that Think Stopper?
How do you recover? I mean, it’s out there… and there’s S I L E N C E
And if you are the leader, you know what happens, your staff stops talking to you.
- or the phone stops ringing
-or the emails stop coming
-as Elmer Fudd says, it gets vewy vewy quiet!
First, let it get quiet. That’s OK. Use that time to reflect. What DID you say that was a Think Stopper? What DID they hear you say? What was their perception?
Their perception is their reality and that is very important for you to remember. In fact, that is your most important question to think about.
Then, make a decision. Should you address this or not? Do you need to apologize? How offensive were you? Sometimes, you just need to let it go. Other times, not so much!
If you offended someone, you need to talk with him or her (and NOT in your office). Go to that person’s space and have a heart to heart. Be a listener. Remember, you were given two ears and one mouth for a reason.
And that “group apology” at the next staff meeting… well, at first, I’d say, they just don’t work. Take the time and go room to room, office to office. This will give you a chance to have a nice discussion with each person. Then, when you are finished, when you have your next staff meeting, address the situation by admitting your blunder and begin that topic of discussion all over again should you feel the need.
This time, be a better listener! Refrain from jumping in! Make sure each person has had a chance to talk before you speak. If you need to, move to a more formal protocol or (and this is my favorite trick) make sure 3-5 people have spoken before you speak. Record what people say, too. This will make you a better listener. When you are a better listener, you will not say those Think Stoppers! Most of those Think Stoppers fly out because you are being impulsive with your speech.
Now, about my friend’s comment. Rubbish! Each time I share my school culture findings with a group of educators they shake their heads in agreement. No one likes to talk about it. There will always be people who try to undermine or challenge the authority of the organization behind the leader’s back. Conversely, anyone who has ever been a leader knows that it is lonely at the top. We do our best to set the tone for the culture of the organization, but there is always someone who is there to challenge that culture.
However, there is good news, really good news, for those people are in the minority. Throughout my career, I have worked with outstanding educators who have been supportive and eager to do anything and everything to uphold the culture of the organization in which they work in order to do what is best for our students. These educators would live, eat, breathe, sleep, and die for our kids. From my first day of teaching up until today, I continue to work with people such as this.
I choose to focus my energy upon this type of person. These people are Think Starters!