Recently a very wealthy member of our community approached me and requested me to give some thought to the issue of what it would take to give every single person on the planet access to an educational process (I presume he meant that it could be accessed electronically) that leads to self-determination (and, thus, he assumed, to self-reliance and a successful life). He is clearly moving into philanthropic mode and looking to leave a meaningful legacy for humankind. He made it clear that this is a question that requires a lot of thought and research, and that he expected that it would take years to even begin to formulate an answer that was better than superficial. By sharing my initial thoughts in this forum, I am hoping that the community can participate in this intellectual venture?
I undertook to begin thinking about this issue because it is something that interests me not only from the perspective of the challenges my grandchildren will face as they grow into adulthood, but also from the perspective of my experience in Africa and the struggle of many people there to survive, let alone thrive.
So here are my initial thoughts …
Fundamental to this issue is the belief that one has the power/capacity to change one’s situation. Where does this belief come from? From my perspective it comes from being taken seriously by another person at some stage of one’s life … someone who is respected, admired and hopefully loved. I think it is hard to take yourself seriously if nobody else has ever taken you seriously. The implications of this are huge for educationalists – if nobody in the family/community has taken the child seriously, in the early years of schooling a teacher can make a significant contribution to this aspect of a child’s life by doing so. Taking someone seriously, though, may mean confronting that person, as the colloquial term ‘tough love’ implies. Grant Allan (an MBT alumnus) in his PhD research identified what he called ‘intelligent caring’ as a key leadership practice that underpinned the achievement of technical innovation in two Google teams that had not produced any technical innovation over the previous three years. This practice entailed confrontation of poor performers (people who were not taking themselves or their team mates seriously) as ‘an act of caring’ because (it was explained as a prelude to the confrontation) nobody would go through the onerous task of confrontation of a team mate if they didn’t care. This practice (together with three other leadership practices that emerged from Grant’s research) led to the transformation of these two teams and the creation of four technical innovations (between the two teams) that are now appreciated by millions of Google customers.
So, belief that one can change a situation is the first step … in psychological language this is referred to as developing an internal locus of control. This means accepting responsibility for the outcomes of one’s action (or inaction). This is the first step towards problem-solving, whether the problems be personal, social, technical … whatever! The capacity to problem-solve is, for me, fundamental to a life of self-determination but I must believe that I can change a situation before I will attempt to solve a problem embedded in it.
Then there is the issue of how long do I devote to the problem-solving process when the problem appears to be intractable? Staying power when addressing complex problems is termed resilience in the psychological literature. Resilience is an admirable quality but how is it developed? From my work, there are two major factors that contribute to the exercise of resilience in problem-solving: firstly, how important is solving the problem to the person? Where there is a goal that is highly meaningful to an individual, the strength of the resilience will increase; it will take a lot more problem-solving failures for the individual to become demoralised and give up. Secondly, as I discovered in research conducted on jockeys many years ago, the level of social support is crucial to sustaining the level of individual resilience. In this study, we found that the most successful jockeys had a strong social network of support; people who cared about them and assisted them to take learning out of failure, and who re-energised them through encouragement to literally ‘get back on the horse’ after experiencing failure. Thus, an important aspect of self-determination is developing the social skills that underpin the ability to build a strong social network around one. Related to this is another leadership practice to emerge from Grant Allan’s research – one he termed seeing the self-in-the-other and the other-in-the-self – which emphasized the role of mutual empathy and shared identities in successful collective endeavour. It was only once team members identified with each other and were able to empathize with each other in ways that facilitated the interpersonal trust required before individuals would admit to the imperfection of their knowledge (a necessary admission before learning can occur – if one knows everything there is nothing to learn!), that breakthrough technical innovation (created through new collective learning) began to manifest in each Google team.
I’ll stop the article here … if interest is shown in it (measured by ‘likes’ and comments), I’ll continue this pattern of thought onto the role of factors such as confidence, breadth of experience, learning, etc. which my initial thoughts have identified as also playing a role in the development of self-determination.