- On 11-03-2013
“You cannot have performance breakthroughs without cognitive dissonance … in other words … challenging what you think you really know and believe is the truth.”
The more that I work with schools, the more I realise how important it is to coach teachers and school leaders in having personal performance breakthroughs as part of the journey to creating a high performance learning culture in a school. What I have been finding is that it is the unconscious limitations a person imposes on themselves and/or the individual’s ingrained habits and practices that can limit or slow down the building of an authentic learning culture.
In my coaching one of the first tools I use I gleaned from Steve Zaffron and David Logan’s book called “The Three Laws of Performance”. The Three Laws are:
- How people perform correlates to how situations occur to them
- How a situation occurs arises in language
- Future-based language transforms how situations occur to people
Let me delve a little into the neuroscience here. In the simplest description, our brains are pattern making machines that, through trial and error of experience and learning, create a template or mental model of how the world is so the individual can successfully interact with the world around it. As a short cut to operating in an increasingly complex environment, the brain creates unconscious habits and practices for those actions that are ritualised. For example, most of us don’t have to think about walking. We just walk. We put one step in front of the other not consciously recognising the extraordinary coordination required of our brain and body to have this happen. For those of us who drive to work, many of us drive home from our normal place of work mostly unconscious because our brain “knows” where it is going.
As we grow up there are there spans where we undergo large physiological and neurological changes. These include the period from being a baby / toddler to a child (gaining of language), a child to a teenager (puberty), a teenager to an adult (pre-frontal cortex and executive decision making). These neurological developmental changes are critical periods in our lives as it is at these times that we lay down certain foundational or fundamental ways of being (mental models or templates). Based on these templates we build our interpretation and reaction to the world around us.
My experience in coaching people over the past 15 years is that in areas where individuals lack performance they have not overcome the programming that originated when they were children. Have you ever experienced an adult who still throws tantrums like they were 6? Have you noticed that some people can’t seem to organise themselves and still act like they are teenagers in managing themselves and their time? Have you noticed the emotions and feelings that come up when you are confronted by conflict in the workplace (most teachers avoid constructive conflict like the plague)!
In those areas where you experience being challenged to develop yourself or you lack performance, your actions are logical and consistent with a childhood perspective or viewpoint of that situation. How a situation occurs to us is correlated to our fundamental way of being or mental model that originated when we were quite young.
Conversely, in those areas you do perform, at some point in your life you challenged your childhood mental model and “grew up” in that area. You went through a period of cognitive dissonance and challenged and re-circuited your hardwired habits and practices in that area.
Let me give you an example. I come from an Italian family and my viewpoint of my father when I was young was that he was not very communicative, he didn’t really show his love for me like my mother did, and that when I did something wrong (which being the middle boy of three boys we always got up to some mischief) he yelled at us and we occasionally got smacked. So I decided at quite a young age that I would “never be enough”. When you look at my behaviour over a long period of time it is not surprising that I am always out to prove myself and succeed in whatever I do. I have three degrees including a Ph.D. I taught Aerospace Engineering (including … yes … rocket science). I came second A LOT, in sport as well as academically, and it frustrated me no end. I know myself as someone who, no matter what I am given, will figure it out and become successful at it. Within this fundamental way of being I have developed particular habits and practices that enable me to learn and develop myself. It isn’t surprising that education is one of my fields of interest.
The problem with the Fundamental Way of Being is that until I became become conscious to how it was driving me in everything, and the cost it had to my well-being and just being able to be in relationship with people, I had no power to choose to behave in a different way. I was very hard on myself and overanalysed everything. My brain was always whirring and busy so I found that I was constantly exhausted to make up for NEVER being enough. I was quite often surrounded by “fools and idiots” and became frustrated with people when they didn’t understand me. I lacked empathy for others.
The Fundamental Way of Being is not a bad thing as it has you gain a certain success in life. But like any ritual habit it drives you to behave in particular ways in circumstances that other ways of behaving are more appropriate. You cannot begin to change a habit until you have become present to how it is driving you. Until then you are the passenger in the car that is your behaviour.
When I coach teachers and people in leadership positions I give them two pieces of homework involving reflective journaling.
- At least 2-3 times per week spend 5-10 minutes reflecting on their day and write down experiences from the day that they felt driven by their fundamental way of being. It will feel uncomfortable at times. The intention of the first piece of homework is to have them become self-aware of when their machinery, that is their ritual behavioural pattern, is operating.
- The second piece of homework is to write down, what they would do differently next time in each situation that arose that day. They could also acknowledge any victories where they took a different action from the one normally given by their mental model. The intention of this part of the homework is to start challenging the ingrained behavioural patterns so that they can create new patterns. In some ways this is about growing up to be an adult!
What I have found is that, over time, people start to produce remarkable results and shift their behaviour in those areas where they felt stuck or unable to develop and grow.