Background Beliefs

Apathy and lack of community support can be a source of major frustration for a school superintendent. Here’s a snippet of one “off the record” conversation.

“I put a lot of time into creating a reasonable budget. We go through a very open process of discussing it at Board meetings; but usually the public doesn’t attend unless there is something really controversial going on. I spend time with community organizations, explaining the budget and talking about the academic success of our schools. No matter what we do, the general community doesn’t seem to trust us. They are suspicious of whatever I say. They feel it’s all self-serving. I’d like them to appreciate the good job we are doing.”

This common scenario illustrates a phenomenom that we can all learn from. Whenever we try to communicate with others we should understand that they bring a set of background beliefs to the conversation. Those beliefs will influence how they listen to what we say and what they hear. In the case of the frustrated superintendent and the skeptical community what set of beliefs did they have?

A few years ago the Harvard Business Review had an article that cited research showing that 65% of American workers don’t trust management. That is an incredibly high number and is worthy of much more scrutiny than I will give it here. The reason workers gave for this “trust gap” was that managers said one thing and did another.

When the superintendent began working with the public as part of the budget creation and passage process, knowing that the majority of the public had background beliefs that predisposed them to distrust management and authority would have been useful.

When we undertake the roles of change agents and visionaries it is important for us to create narratives that take the background beliefs of those we want to lead into account.

Sometimes teachers listen to us with the belief that when we speak of the need for change and transformation that we are saying what they are doing is not valuable. If a teacher has had success with a traditional approach, they sense our talk of change as an attack on their years of experience, their deeply held beliefs, and the success they have seen with their own eyes. Either they don’t hear, or we are not articulating, the complete message. We must be aware that our audience sometimes hears only part of our message or may take part of it and exaggerate it.

If we know that many teachers feel technology is an isolating and dehumanizing force…kids sitting solo at computers playing meaningless games instead of engaging each other in play and discussion…then we know to proactively provide them with examples of how technology can connect kids to each other and how using technology may allow the teacher to be more efficient in dispensing administrative duties so they have more time to spend with students.

It’s up to us to understand that those we work with are not blank slates. They have strong background beliefs that act as filters that shape their listening. With this knowledge we can create narratives that address these beliefs proactively.

When we take time to understand the beliefs of others and respectfully address them, we increase our chances of being heard.



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