Interview by Leah Thayer
From the January/February 2019 Net Assets magazine
Net Assets: Independent schools face huge challenges, and it’s important for leadership teams to work with the same expectations and goals, whether they’re contemplating big decisions or carrying out day-to-day responsibilities. What’s your current thinking on how to do this?
Howard Teibel: I’ve been working with independent schools and higher education leaders around something called “speech acts.” This basically involves the use of language to produce effective coordination. Most of us think we already do this just by speaking what we want, but miscoordination is widespread across organizations. For instance, a person making a request might not be very specific about their needs, or they might assume certain knowledge in the people they’re making the request of. They also might make a request to a group of four people, but each of the four has a different orientation and history associated with the matter at hand.
The concept of speech acts was proposed by J.L. Austin back in 1962 and then further written about by philosopher John Searle from UC Berkeley. I’m most inspired by a Chilean entrepreneur, engineer and business leader Fernando Flores, who wrote about speech acts as language in action oriented to how we work together. According to Flores, there are a series of speech acts that are fundamental to producing new possibilities: making declarations, offers, promises, requests, assessments and assertions.
Net Assets: How do speech acts play out in the workplace?
Teibel: In any organization, you have members of a senior team who have the responsibility and authority to make decisions, and then people further down in the organization who are looking for direction. The work of communicating more effectively using speech acts requires a fundamental shift to orient ourselves to the listener.
Breaking Down Organizational Silos
Getting Schooled on Leading Change
The Business Officer’s Dilemma
For instance, let’s say you’re the head of school and want the business officer to provide you with an enrollment report for the upcoming trustee meeting. The business officer assembles a very detailed Excel file, but you’re dissatisfied with it because you know the trustees only want an executive summary that identifies trends and frames certain facts. One of the missing pieces in effective coordination is the speaker and listener recognizing the importance of uncovering the conditions of satisfaction. In this case, the underlying conditions of satisfaction are that the trustees are satisfied with the enrollment report. When you orient yourself to conditions of satisfaction of the speaker and have a back and forth conversation about it, you increase the likelihood the request will be fulfilled in a way that meet your needs.
Net Assets: Whose responsibility is it to ensure that the conditions of satisfaction are met?
Teibel: Both parties. Let’s say I work for you, and you make a request of me. I need to ask myself if there’s something missing in your request, or some ambiguity that needs clarifying. When I have deeper awareness of your concerns and willingness to explore what will satisfy you, it opens up the possibility to meet your needs in a way that is often missed in the initial request. Individuals can develop expertise and practice these speech acts the same way we develop skills for a physical sport and other activities that eventually become second nature. We work with teams to develop these new habits through exercises that can fundamentally shift our capacity to listen and respond to one another’s needs.
Net Assets: You talk about the leadership skill of navigating versus problem-solving. Can you say more?
Teibel: Most of us are expert problem-solvers, but we’re addicted to this way of being in the workplace. Being a navigator is about exploring our future together with a mood of openness and anticipation of breakdown, not fear of breakdowns. When we think longer term about the future we’re creating together, problem-solving is a limited and narrow lens. The beauty of navigation is that it creates a different mood that is oriented to the future we’re looking to invent together. We can better lead our teams by paying attention to the moods we find ourselves in. What’s fascinating about moods, such as ambition, confidence or even skepticism, is that these moods are already present in the background and precede whatever you’re trying to accomplish. By learning how to attune yourself to the moods that show up on your team or in a meeting, you can help others shift their mood to open possibilities.
Exploring mood can happen in many situations. In fact, when I'm leading an event, I'll typically begin by going around and asking the group: “What’s the mood you find yourselves in these days?” This gets people connected to themselves and allows them to be present.
Net Assets: What if the mood isn’t sufficiently open? What are some practical tips for shifting the mood in a group?
Teibel: Shifting the mood starts with anticipating where others might be, whether they’re an audience at a talk you’re giving, a team you’re working with, or just one other person. Do your homework in advance to learn about the mood of the group you’re about to engage with.
In addition, when you’re in a meeting and sensing that people are in a mood of skepticism or resignation, ask this question: “What do you hope to get out of today?” Behind their responses there’s a mood present. When I listen, I’m paying attention to see if I can name the mood. For example, if someone were to say, “I have been through many of these types of gatherings and don’t have any expectations,” I might interpret that as ambivalence or resignation, or just a sense of feeling shut down.
Net Assets: Can you give an example of how you’ve responded in such a case?
Teibel: Recently I was brought into a project by an administrative leader, and we were going to meet the school’s academic dean. The dean had hired another change consultant to help with some issues involving faculty. I had a sense the dean was skeptical about the need to have two change consultants. When the three of us gathered, I shared with him that I might also be skeptical if I had been in his shoes, and that I wanted to understand his concerns so that I wouldn’t compete with his chosen consultant but instead complement him. Immediately his mood relaxed.
In another situation, we were brought in to assess what a school’s internal IT group was working on, with the goal of defining potential innovative projects they might turn to next. Most of the interviewees were unaware of the purpose of the gathering, so we started by saying “If I were you, I’d be skeptical about who we are and what we’re doing here.” Again, the room relaxed, which made it possible for people to listen with openness.
If you’re leading a meeting and you sense cynicism or negativity, stop what you’re doing and call it out as a mood of the room, versus the mood of a person. “Before we dive into the topics I came here to discuss, I have a sense there is a conversation we need to have. What are people feeling right now? Would someone be willing to share?”
All it takes is one person to open up for others to feel safe to share as well.
Download a PDF of this article.#Leadership
Learning to Learn and the Navigation of Mood by Gloria Flores
Conversation for Action and Collected Essays by Fernando Flores
Challenging our Blindspots — Moods, Assessments, and Assertions (with Gloria Flores)
"The Beginner's Creed": What does it mean to be a beginner? (with Peter Denning)
Cultivating Emotional Resiliency
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