Monday, February 23, 2015

La Botta Secreta

Once upon a time, an elderly fencing master, after a long and distinguished career, was asked, “How is it so many champions came out of your salle d’armes?”
“Very simple,” he replied. “Only champions came in.”


I’ll tell you a secret.
It’s the secret to being a good fencing master, good teacher, good boss, good leader.
It’s a simple thing, and it doesn’t require you to go on a diet, stand outside during inclement weather, or do any heavy lifting. It won’t muss your hair or scuff up your blue suede shoes.
Here’s the secret in a nutshell:
Believe in your students, in your workers, in your followers.
And show them that you believe in them.

I offer the following four items of evidence for your consideration.

Item #1: The X Files  v The Y-Philes
Very few people, under very few circumstances, labor for extrinsic rewards alone. They will, however, bust the proverbial hump in order to feel competent and self-determining in dealing with the world as it exists for them.

Douglas McGregor postulated two different theories on peoples’ work behavior, dubbing them Theory X and Theory Y. There is a fair amount of social science research to back him up.  Each of the theories encompasses certain specific assumptions.

Theory X assumes:
The average human being has an inherent dislike of work and will avoid it if he can.
Because of their dislike for work, most people must be controlled and threatened before they will work hard enough.
The average human prefers to be directed, dislikes responsibility, is unambiguous, and desires security above everything.
Theory X management is characterized by tight controls, “micro-management,” and harsh, often disproportionate punishment.  Theory X thinkers view people as expendable, easily replaceable. I think of it as the “Plantation” model, the “Work ‘em ‘til they drop; slaves are cheap,” philosophy.

Theory Y assumes:
The expenditure of physical and mental effort in work is as natural as play or rest.  Indeed, work can BE play.
Control and punishment are not the only ways to make people work.  Man will direct himself if he is committed to the aims of the organization. (Note, as example, the great numbers of volunteer firefighters).
If a job is satisfying, then the result will be commitment to the organization.
The average person, under proper conditions, will not only accept responsibility, but seek responsibility.
People will use their imagination, creativity, and ingenuity to solve work problems.

Item #2: The Mood Pyramid?
Abraham Maslow postulated that there were a variety of human needs that provided the motivation for human behavior. He arranged these needs in his famous – and frequently misunderstood – “hierarchy of needs.”   I’d be willing to wager he almost immediately regretted that he hadn’t called it a circle of needs, a garden or a pantheon of needs,  or even “Abe’s Big Box of Human Needs.”

Maslow’s five types of needs are: 
1. Biological or Physiological needs - air, food, drink, shelter, warmth, sex, sleep.

2. Safety needs - protection from elements, security, order, law, stability, freedom from fear.

3. Social Needs (Love and belongingness) - friendship, intimacy, affection and love, - from work group, family, friends, romantic relationships.

4. Esteem needs - achievement, mastery, independence, status, dominance, prestige, self-respect, respect from others.

5. Self-Actualization needs - realizing personal potential, self-fulfillment, seeking personal growth and peak experiences.

According to Hoyle, 1) when one has a deficit in one of these needs, one is motivated to fulfill that need and) 2) one must fulfill the lower needs before one can address the higher needs.

The trouble with Hoyle’s interpretation is that it is demonstrably false.      
 IF, as typically asserted, the lower biological needs and safety needs MUST be met before one can be motivated by the higher social, esteem and self-actualization needs, just how exactly does one explain the phenomenon of the volunteer firefighter?  A volunteer firefighter is a person who knowingly and willingly assumes great personal risk in order to rescue another person (or sometimes even a dog or a cat or other animal), who may be a complete stranger, a person to whom he/she has no prior specific duty, thereby putting his/her own “biological and safety needs” on hold for the sake of social, esteem or self-actualization needs.  AND the volunteer firefighter does this for NO material reward. If the “hierarchy” model were correct, then volunteer firefighters would be impossible, at least without the influence of incredible amounts of alcohol or demon possession.

This is not the single lonely exception.  From the Spartans at Thermopylae, to Sidney Carton, to Rachel Corrie, human history is replete with exceptions. And there are countless exceptions today, every day, as ordinary people do extraordinary things, apparently oblivious to their own biological and safety needs. I should hasten to add that not all these things are good and noble.

I would submit that, in fact, those human needs, so astutely observed by Mr. Maslow, aren’t arranged in a rigid, permanent hierarchy at all. At any given moment, a person may be motivated by a particular need, depending on a complex web of circumstances. One must ask, like a good actor, not just “What is this person’s motivation?”  but also “What is this person’s motivation AT THIS MOMENT.”  That notwithstanding, it’s also true that a person may seem to have a particular core need that tends to drive his/her behavior. Often, this driving need is the result of some significant experience of deficit, in that person’s past, for which their current behavior is an attempt to either compensate, or prevent a recurrence of the experience. 

R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Find out what it means to me.  – Aretha Franklin

Item #3: Don’t it Make My Brown Eyes Blue
The day after civil rights leader and anti-war spokesman Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King was murdered, Jane Elliot, a third grade teacher decided to try an experiment to help her all-white class understand the meaning of racial discrimination.

On that first day of the exercise, she designated the blue-eyed children as the superior group. Elliott provided brown fabric collars and asked the blue-eyed students to wrap them around the necks of their brown-eyed peers as a method to easily identify the minority group. She gave the blue-eyed children extra privileges, such as second helpings at lunch, access to the new jungle gym, and five extra minutes at recess. The blue-eyed children sat in the front of the classroom, and the brown-eyed children were sent to sit in the back rows. The blue-eyed children were encouraged to play only with other blue-eyed children and to ignore those with brown eyes. Elliott would not allow brown-eyed and blue-eyed children to drink from the same water fountain and often chastised the brown-eyed students when they did not follow the exercise's rules or made mistakes. She often exemplified the differences between the two groups by singling out students and would use negative aspects of brown-eyed children to emphasize a point.

At first, there was resistance among the students in the minority group to the idea that blue-eyed children were better than brown-eyed children. To counter this, Elliott lied to the children by stating that melanin is responsible for making children blue-eyed and was also linked to their higher intelligence and learning ability. Shortly thereafter, this initial resistance fell away. Those who were deemed "superior" became arrogant, bossy, and otherwise unpleasant to their "inferior" classmates. Their grades on simple tests were better, and they completed mathematical and reading tasks that had seemed outside their ability before. The "inferior" classmates also transformed – into timid and subservient children who scored poorer on tests, and even during recess isolated themselves, including those who had previously been dominant in the class. These children's academic performance suffered, even with tasks that had been simple before.

The next Monday, Elliott reversed the exercise, making the brown-eyed children superior. While the brown-eyed children did taunt the blue-eyed children in ways similar to what had occurred the previous day, Elliott reports it was much less intense. At 2:30 on that Wednesday, Elliott told the blue-eyed children to take off their collars. To reflect on the experience, she asked the children to write down what they had learned. Later she was quoted as saying "I think these children walked in a colored child's moccasins for a day." (

In addition to providing a direct, emotionally-connected learning experience for her students, Ms. Elliot brought to light a vital psychological principle, often know as the Pygmalian Effect. Simply stated: “people tend to perform in accordance with the expectations placed upon them.”  Treat people like winners, and they will tend to behave like winners; treat them like losers, and they will tend to behave like losers – and lose.
This is because everyone acts in accordance with what he/she believes to be true.

Item #4 Goldilocks and the Three Learning Domains
We recognize three types or “domains” of learning: the cognitive, the psycho-motor and the affective.
In short, the cognitive domain is about knowing,  the psycho-motor domain is about doing, and the affective domain is about feeling.

The cognitive domain deals with acquisition and processing of  information.. If you can explain how an internal combustion engine works, you’re operating in the cognitive. If you can recite a history of 16th century fencing masters, the books they wrote and what they said in those books, that’s the cognitive domain. If you know all the rules, tactics, and strategies of the game of basketball and who played for what team over the last decade and what all their “stats” are, that’s the cognitive domain.

The psychomotor domain deals with the acquisition and performance of a physical skill. Now, if you can disassemble and reassemble an internal combustion engine, that’s the psychomotor domain. If you can PLAY basketball, even if you can’t remember who started for the Boston Celtics at the GARDEN in 1961, that’s the psychomotor domain. If you can wield a sword effectively, even if you’ve never even heard of Capo Ferro’s “Gran Simulacro…”that’s the psychomotor domain.

As teachers, as coaches, as bosses, we tend to concentrate on these two domains. Do our people have the knowledge to do the thing? Do our people have the skill to do the thing?  If they do, then all should be well, right?
Not so fast, m’darlin.’

Enter the affective domain, the realm of the emotions. The affective domain is how you feel about the thing, about your work.  While the Cognitive domain explains WHAT to do and the Psychomotor domain teaches you HOW to do it, the Affective domain tells you WHY you do it.  It provides the emotional connection that motivates (back to you, Abe…) your behavior. You can have all the knowledge and skill in the world, but without motivation…

Allow me to cite my favorite example. 1990. Japan. “Iron” Mike Tyson versus James “Buster” Douglas for the heavyweight boxing championship of the world. 

Tyson was in the view of most aficionados of the sweet science, a practically invincible champion. He had summarily destroyed the previous 9 challengers in less time than it generally takes me to make coffee. Buster Douglas was a good but uneven fighter, sometimes excellent, sometimes mediocre. Though the challenger was ranked #3 in the world, the fight was seen as such a mismatch, that the odds against Douglas were about 50 to 1.  If there were bets made, they were bets on whether or not Douglas would survive the first few rounds. It was inconceivable that Douglas might actually win the fight, right up to the moment Douglas knocked Tyson out in the X round.    

Upon winning the fight, the first thing Douglas said to the microphone-proffering sports press was this: “for my mom, god bless her heart.”  You see, Buster’s mother, to whom he was very close, had died just 23 days earlier.  He fought the most perfect fight of his life, not for the belt, not for the money, not for himself at all.
He did it for his mom. 
Because she had believed in him.

La Belle
I strongly encourage to cultivate your capacity to believe in your people. REALLY, believe in them. In your gut. This isn’t something you can fake. If you’re faking it, anyone with two brain cells to rub together will see through your posturing in short order. It has to be real, honest and sincere. If you’re a teacher and you can’t or won’t believe in your students, if you’re a boss who can’t or won’t believe in your crew, then I strongly encourage you to find another line of work.

Take Home Points
1.     All people act in accordance with what they believe to be true.
2.     People tend to act in accordance with expectations placed upon them.
3.     People are not primarily motivated by survival or safety needs.
4.     People need to feel competent and self-determining.
5.     Teaching in the affective domain is the key to enabling a person’s best possible performance.

Recommended reading/viewing
1.     Religion, Values and Peak Experiences by Abraham Maslow
2.     Psycho-cybernetics by Maxwell Maltz
3.     A Class Divided (1985 Frontline Episode re: Jane Elliot)   


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