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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Can We Do the Greatest Harm With the Best of Intentions?

By Liz Wiseman — May 21, 2013 5 min read
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Today’s guest blog is written by Liz Wiseman, the author of the WSJ bestseller Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter and co-author of The Multiplier Effect: Tapping the Genius Inside Our Schools.

Is it possible that leaders inflict their greatest damage with the best of intentions? Consider the case of a well-meaning, helpful principal.

Sally, a veteran principal, was responsible for submitting a critical application that would determine her school’s status as a Blue Ribbon school. She dove into the briefing documents to get a thorough understanding of the analysis that would need to get done. Realizing that the project was significant, she decided to involve her assistant principal, giving him full ownership of the analysis.

Marcus was relatively new to his role, but he was thorough and insightful. Sally wanted him to be successful, so she carefully planned the handoff. She met with him, reviewed the report specifications with him, told him he would be in charge, and laid out clear expectations for what needed to get done. Sally then began working on other elements of the report and waited for Marcus to send over the data analysis. When he hadn’t sent it two days later, she suspected he was struggling and, wanting to help him, sent him more instructions. Again, she didn’t hear much from him. She stopped by his desk to see if he had finished it. He hadn’t.

Knowing how conscientious Marcus was, Sally assumed he needed more help. She began offering suggestions, “Would it help if I gave you a quick tutorial on how to use the statistics functions in Excel? Or perhaps we can sit down together and go through the data elements?” Strangely, he didn’t bite at any of the offers. Sally was about to offer to help do the first set of analysis with him, when he spoke up. He began tentatively but grew more confident as he said, “Sally, I think I could use . . . just a little less help from you.”

Sally sheepishly acknowledged his message, backed off and gave him the space he needed to figure it out on his own. And he did, delivering a vital contribution to the report that allowed this school to once again be awarded Blue Ribbon status.

While her intent was to help, her help was actually a hindrance.

How might we, with the very best of intentions, have a diminishing impact on the people we lead? Can people be hindered by our honest attempts to help or teach or lead by example?

In our research for our book The Multiplier Effect: Tapping the Genius Inside Our Schools, we studied over 400 leaders discovering that some leaders were “Multipliers” who brought out the best in everyone around them while others were “Diminishers” who received, on average, only 40% of the true capability of their staff. Even more surprising, was finding that many of these

Diminishers weren’t tyrannical egomaniacs, but rather good people operating with the best of intentions. Many popular leadership practices intended to increase energy, agility or innovation actually have the opposite effect, causing people to shut down and hold back.

Here are three of the most common ways well-meaning educational leaders can have a diminishing impact.
The Rescuer - These are leaders who don’t like to see people struggle, make mistakes, or fail. At the first sign of a problem, they jump in and help. They lend a hand, resolve a problem and help people across the finish line. Blinded by their sincere desire to help, these leaders starve people of the vital learning they need to grow and to be successful on their own.
The Pacesetter - These are leaders striving to improve the organization or reform a school. To build momentum, they personally set the standard for performance, quality, speed or innovation. They take the lead and set the pace and expect people will take notice and catch up. But, as they pull out ahead, others fall back and become spectators instead of followers (or better yet, leaders themselves).
Optimist - These are the positive, can-do, glass-half-full kind of people who believe that everything is possible and that most problems can be tackled with the right mindset. They remind people that “yes, we can do this!” But while they see the possibilities, others on their team are relegated to the role of devil’s advocate and wonder if the boss has severed his tether to reality.

Being a supportive, energetic, and positive leader doesn’t consign you to the fate of a Diminisher- it simply makes you vulnerable to having a diminishing impact, and perhaps being the last one to realize it.

The good news is that the remedy for our Accidental Diminisher tendencies involves simply doing less rather than doing more. For example, when no one else is speaking up in an important meeting, we can resist the temptation to jump in and instead hold back hold back and allow silence to draw in others. Instead of being big, we might try dispensing our views in small but intense doses.
When faced with a critical initiative or mandate, we can put others in charge rather than trying to set the pace ourselves.

Alyssa Gallagher, an assistant superintendent at Los Altos School District in California did just that when given the herculean task of using technology to revolutionize learning across the district. Instead of setting the pace herself and dragging along reticent teachers and staff, she put teachers in charge of the revolution. She started with five teachers, who soon built and army of 50 teachers who have established a cadence of change and innovation.

Becoming a Multiplier requires us to understand how our most noble intentions can have a diminishing effect, sometimes deeply so. As pop diva Ke$ha aptly said, “It can bum you out when your intentions aren’t, like, translated properly!” A leader’s good intentions often get lost in translation and their staff reads something very different into the leader’s actions.

As you consider the unintended consequences of your most noble intentions, you open a pathway to more fully tap the genius inside of your school. And you might find that in doing less you allow others to do more.

Connect with Liz on Twitter

To find out if you might be an Accidental Diminisher, take the quiz at MultiplierEffectBook.com

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.