Archive forNovember, 2009

In defense of the sandwich

When Richard Farson came to speak at High Tech High about eight years ago, he talked about the sandwich technique, which he also mentions in Management of the Absurd (p 66):

“Praising people does not motivate them. . .  Praise can come to be associated mainly with criticism.  The happens when we use praise to sugarcoat blame, or employ the ‘sandwich technique,’ whereby praise is followed by reproof, then repeated.  ’I'm very pleased with your work, Fred, ‘ says the boss.  ’You’re really getting the work out, but . . . ‘  Fred then hears the unhappy part of the story, the reprimand.  The boss finished up with ‘Keep up the fine work.’”

When Farson talked about this, all eyes turned to me, because I had encouraged teachers to use the sandwich technique in their comment writing.  I’m not sure what I think about this.

When I was a new teacher and advisor at a school outside Washington, D.C., someone had the wisdom to pair me as an advisor with this amazing Dean of Academics.  She used the following “technique” in parent meetings.  The student, family, teachers, and advisor would gather in a room.  She would say, “First, let’s go around the room and say something that Suzie is doing well.”  I have been in so many meetings where that technique is used or not.  When not used, almost invariably, most people in the room immediately launch into the laundry list of things that Suzie is not doing.  When the technique is used, almost invariably, Suzie and her parents beam with pride at all the nice things that are being said about Suzie.  And importantly, they always seem to be in a better place to hear the unhappy part of the story, because they see that these adults know Suzie, recognize her strengths, and care about her.

I have always wondered about this “technique,” because it is so transparent, just what Farson is talking about.  By saying, “Let’s say something nice about Suzie,” it always seemed to me like people would think, “Well, they’re just saying that because they were prompted to.”  But I have never seen it not improve the quality of the meeting.

Similarly, I have seen teachers write comments about Johnny that merely focus on the negative.  And I have always felt that it is important to also celebrate Johnny’s successes.  It reminds me of a workshop for new school leaders that I went to where Michael Thompson told us all to think about what we are good at and then figure out how to spend more time doing more of that.  As opposed to feeling guilty about the things that we’re not good at.  He actually made us turn to our neighbor and say out loud, “I’m not working on that right now.”

So I think that Farson raises a good point about using praise as a motivator, yet my experience tells me that there is a benefit to pointing out what is going well.  Are these two ideas in conflict?

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Once you find a management technique that works, give it up

From Richard Farson’s Management of the absurd: paradoxes in leadership.

“Each new human relations technique always promises to make the leader more effective.  Managers who are taught to listen nonjudgmentally or to reward  certain behaviors in others may initially feel that they have found the answer…Over time, they usually discover that their newfound techniques are actually working to prevent closer human relationships — just the opposite of their intended effect.  The most obvious reason is that any technique loses its power when it becomes evident that it is a technique.  ’Don’t treat me as if you were my therapist.’  ’I see what you are doing (p. 35).’”

I was struck by this passage because it points to a paradox in a graduate program in school leadership.  Are there such things as leadership skills?  Can they be learned?  Can they be taught?  Should we be learning ways of thinking or being rather than techniques?

I feel like I am getting better at not jumping when I hear about something that has happened, recognizing that there are always at least seven versions of the event.  I think I am improving at having more direct conversations with people while still being soft (but working on the latter).  Are these “techniques?”  Are people catching me “using techniques?”  Sometimes someone will say that they saw me doing something that was in a book that we read.  And often, I don’t necessarily agree that this is what I was doing.  Have I picked up a technique without realizing it?  Should I stop using it?

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Our hiring process

I’m reading a book by Richard Farson called The innovation paradox: the success of failure, the failure of success (formerly titled “Whoever makes the most mistakes wins).  One of the quotes that really struck me is the following:

Wild Ducks
Innovators are seldom easy to be around.  The most creative members of an organization can be irascible, annoying, touchy, intolerant, prickly, self-aggrandizing.  Their lack of tact offends coworkers.  It also makes them willing to speak up when others hold their tongues.  What comes out of their mouths is often quite valuable, if not always easy to hear (p 79).”

The reason I was so struck by this is that it makes me think about our hiring bonanza process.  I’m glad we have a process where everyone has a say.  But to be specific, does anyone think that Jeffey could make it through our bonanza process now?  Wouldn’t he say something outrageous during the group interaction?  Would his one hour lesson plan particularly stand out?  And yet think about the quality of work that his students produce.  Is the most important quality that a new teacher has that they get along well with other adults in an interview process?  Should it be?

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