Conflicting Beliefs

It’s not uncommon to set a goal as an individual or as a team and find out, as time goes by, that progress towards achieving it is minimal or non-existent. What happened to the initial enthusiasm of the stakeholders? A good place to look is our own, or our team’s ‘limiting and supporting’ beliefs.

Let’s look at a district leadership team that agrees that great leadership is incredibly important to transforming teaching and learning in their schools. They decide that in order to foster more effective leadership they will attend an in-district leadership program. When the time comes to attend, many members of the team opt out.

What happened to the commitment the team made to improve their leadership?

It’s a clear case of conflicting beliefs.

Yes, the team believes that effective leadership is important; but they may also believe that:

  1. Doing their daily jobs is more important than participating in a leadership program.
  2. Leadership programs are phony and don’t make any difference in the long run.
  3. They are already effective leaders.

It’s interesting that often teams aren’t consciously aware of the beliefs that are operating under the surface. We accumulate beliefs from a variety of sources, including past experiences. As a team leader, it is important to surface the beliefs of the team. Once they are out in the open, it’s possible to examine them without prejudice. We may want to discuss the underlying belief that leadership programs are ineffective and phony, or that the “to do” list is more important than taking time for a leadership program.

Let’s use another example to illustrate the point. A Director of Technology builds a technology plan and includes in it a statement like,

“Professional development is key to the success of educational technology in the district.”

In fact, to emphasize this point she builds a tech budget with 25% of her allocated dollars earmarked for PD. As the budget process progresses she is told that she must reduce her overall tech expenditures by 10%. She decides to make up most of the 10% cut by decreasing the amount of money she has allocated for PD.

This is a great example of conflicting beliefs. On the one hand the Director of Technology holds a set of supporting beliefs:

  1. PD is important to the success of educational technology.
  2. Teachers need to have time to ‘play’ with the new technologies.
  3. Teachers need time to share technology ideas, activities, and lesson plans with each other.

On the other hand, she may hold conflicting, or ‘limiting’ beliefs:

  1. PD takes too much time away from the classroom.
  2. Giving kids access to more technology is probably more important than giving teachers PD.
  3. She can find ways of doing PD without spending money.
  4. If the teachers are professional, they’ll learn on their own, the way she does.

It isn’t surprising that our own unexamined beliefs can often undermine our success.

One really important note,

“Beliefs feel like truths to the believers.”

If every leadership program I have attended in the past has been ineffective, my belief that these programs are useless, feels like a hard and fast fact, a truth. How do you, as a leader, shift a belief that has been long held and deeply ingrained? It may be difficult to accept, but you can’t change someone else’s belief. You can discuss it, you can be sensitive to how it was created; but essentially, only the person holding a limiting belief can let go of it.

The dilemma for leaders is what to do with team members whose beliefs are in conflict with the stated goal and who refuse to alter their points of view. Is the team sufficiently committed to the goal that it can overcome the negative drag of one member? Or is it necessary to remove someone from the team because they are acting in a way that is contrary to the beliefs of the team?
As long as there are unexamined, conflicting, and limiting beliefs within our organizations, our teams; or us we will find it difficult achieve our stated goals, or develop highly effective and successful teams.



4 thoughts on “Conflicting Beliefs

  1. I agree that I can’t change someone’s beliefs. I can only share mine, ensure that my behavior is aligned with my stated beliefs, and attempt to begin and sustain discussions that place people in situations where they must examine theirs. I need to find ways to build creative tension that results in reflection about the gap between one’s belief or position and those of my fellow team members.

    Part of the problem is that many teams lack the skill set necessary to engage in dialogue and skillful discussion. Individual ladders of inference and the inability to share private thoughts preclude teams from surfacing the mental models that ultimatly drive individual and team behavior. The problem is compounded when those responsible for planning and running meetings do not have the faciltation skills necessary to ensure alignment of goals and active processing strategies.

    We don’t do a very good job of supporting leaders with the skill set necessary to plan for and failitate meetings that require sharing of beliefs and positions on emotional issues. We do a good job of teaching how to develop an agenda and tick off items, but that will not lead to where we need to go.

  2. Mike,
    Yes, you are right, we don’t do a good job of supporting leaders on the non-cognitive elements of team leadership. How many leaders probe the beliefs of their team? How many recognize and address the mood of the team? How many have created team standards and team practices which are monitored on an ongoing basis?
    The list goes on.

    This blog and my consulting work is dedicated to bringing this most important, and neglected, area of leadership into the mainstream.

    Great leaders work to develop more than their minds…for they realize that they need to win over the hearts AND the minds of those they lead.


  3. Very insightful article Pete. How to reconcile conflicting belief is a tough undertaking but it has to be done in order to achieve stated goals and develop dynamic teams.

    Thanks for sharing

  4. Jules,
    Surfacing the team’s beliefs is a delicate process; but it is essential to building a high performing team.

    Thanks for being open to the possibilities of looking at team leadership from the human perspective.


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