Saturday, August 4, 2012

Nordstroms Rocks!

Yesterday I gave a talk on motivation, loosely based on Daniel Pink’s book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. If you are a teacher, motivation is a subject worth considering. The number one concern of every teacher is class control, without which not one inch of the territory schools traverse can be crossed. But already that word “control” calls up visions of security guards and cattle prods. I prefer to talk about class culture, creating an atmosphere of trust, safety and excitement. And motivation is a big part of that. Motivated students are excited students eager for the next class and ready to explore and risk when the culture is supportive and encouraging.

The teachers who are able to create that culture tend to be people with a common mindset about human beings. In short, that though we are flawed and complex creatures, we are all essentially good at heart, happy to help each other and thrilled to discover what we can do and how we can be in our short time on the planet. We don’t need to be beaten with sticks or enticed with candy to do what is good and decent and pleasing to both ourselves and others. If we create a culture built around our natural tendencies to want to do things well, to follow our own curiosities and fascinations at our own pace, to take pleasure in working and playing side-by-side with our fellow humans, that culture helps fulfill its own prophecy. People retain their inquisitive nature and sense of wonder and learn to “play well with others.” But if we are inside those social structures that consciously seek to keep us down and manipulate us to other’s selfish ends, few of us are strong enough to resist and the grand possibility of human potential is narrowed down to an unappetizing slice of who we might be.

Damn Machievelli for starting the systematic manipulation of people to serve some greedy person’s lust for power! From the military to the government, from the corporation to the classroom, there are thousands of effective methods to keep people afraid, obedient, mindless and often heartless to their fellow creatures when the social structure punishes them for being decent. And the history of the world that interests me is the slow inching forward toward social structures that liberate and celebrate the human spirit. It’s a long, snail-paced progression and it keeps slipping backward before the next wave of energy to keep it moving, but it’s a glorious struggle worth making.

I began the lecture with a structure designed to affirm people’s natural inclination to help. 10 instruments are in a circle with 10 people at each one and 10 more in-between each one. While 10 are playing, 10 are observing the next player. At the signal to switch, the observer becomes the player, the player the observer of the next instrumental part. On they go around the circle and not incendentally, playing some kick-ass jazz while they’re at it. While the 20 people were playing, the rest of my audience was observing and I asked them to particularly notice what happens when someone is struggling with a part. Invariably, in every corner of the world where I do this simple activity, the people around them lean over and offer help. When I ask the people afterwards why they helped, the answers are always the same:

1)    I didn’t think about it. It just felt like the right thing to do.
2)    I knew I’d appreciate help when I needed it.
3)    I wanted the music to sound better.

Then I ask people to imagine what would happen if I was grading everyone and that every one could not get an A. Immediately the atmosphere changes. What happens?

1)    People are nervous about getting it right—and thus more likely to make mistakes.
2)    People are conflicted about helping, knowing that someone else’s failure is to their benefit.
3)    People get more concerned about how they’re doing on each instrument rather than listening to the music and enjoying the sound of the group’s collective effort.

Well, welcome to school. Those kind of interruptions of the natural process of community building and individual success and pleasure happen every day, unquestioned, in schools around the world.

From this beginning, I went on to talk about Daniel Pink’s research and how the best motivation is neither the stick nor the carrot, but the thoughtful application of our innate need for some degree of autonomy in taking control of our lives and following our own way of doing things at our own pace, our innate desire to master the things we care about it and our deep-seated longing to find purpose in our lives. Autonomy. Mastery. Purpose. Build your communities and practices around that and you have happy people living lives dancing towards fulfillment.

That’s what we’re doing in our Orff training here. People have constant opportunities to autonomously create. Everyone is motivated by their own desire to inch toward mastery, be it in recorder, dance, xylophone technique or pedagogical understanding. And our collective purpose to serve the 10,000 plus children we teach and cast our vote for a worthy future is present throughout each day.

But side by side come all the stories of even enlightened schools shifting to outdated corporate practices, with thoughtless and harmful top-down decision-making that rob teachers of autonomy in our classroom (or their very job!), subvert their pleasure in mastering the art of teaching and shift the purpose of school from nurturing children to running an illusory smooth and efficient business.

The great irony is that even as the new breed of administrators look to corporations for guidance, the corporations are slowly shifting to the model of enlightened schools. That is the great power of Pink’s book, focusing less on creating fulfilled human beings able to spout poetry, sing in four parts and play rollicking West African music and more about creating contented workers who will help corporations make lots of money.

One example not in his book that I find extraordinary is the Nordstroms Staff Handbook. Nordstroms is one of those big department stores along the line of Macy’s and such and though someone says it has changed now, at least for a while, a new employee was given a large file card that said the following:

Welcome to Nordstroms. We’re glad to have you with our company. Our number one goal is to provide outstanding customer service. Set both your personal and professional goals high. We have great confidence in your ability to achieve them.

1.     Use your best judgment in all situations.
2.     There are no additional rules.

Within a couple of years after this new policy was instituted, Nordstroms outperformed their competitors by a two to one ratio. In short, when making money was the goal, a corporation didn’t earn as much. When creating a welcoming, inviting workplace whose purpose was to offer service was the goal, they incidentally made more money.

America, pay attention here. School administrators, get on the welcoming community bandwagon or you will be left in the dust. And incidentally, the children will be happier. 

PS. Hey, Nordstroms! Want to open a school? 

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