I was a middle school math teacher for eight long years. I finally quit teaching because I wanted to find a career where I could actually make a difference in the lives of others. That, plus I couldn’t stand those bastards.
As a teacher I worked with some amazing people. One of my fellow teachers taught a speech and drama class. One of the projects she assigned her students was to film a music video. Very cool. One group of students wanted to film their video on the roof of the school. Also very cool. She let them do it. Very cool? And she let them do it unsupervised. WTF?
Now hold on; while on the roof filming their music video, one of her students fell through a skylight. HE FELL THROUGH A DAMN SKYLIGHT and dropped 25 feet onto a tile floor in the cafeteria kitchen. He was extremely lucky because there’s usually a metal cart with utensils — like KNIVES — right in the spot where he landed, but fortunately somebody had wheeled it away. And the school was also extremely lucky because he was one of those rubbery 13-year-olds who can drop 25 feet through glass onto a tile floor and jump up and say it was “like, pretty cool.”
Believe it or not, Ms. Gross-Negligence² was not fired; however, in response to this incident, the principal did send a mass email to every teacher in the school saying, “It is never appropriate to allow students onto the roof of the school.” And every teacher reading that email was thinking, “No shit, it’s never appropriate to allow students on the roof of the school!”
No teacher (except one, apparently) ever seriously wondered, “Hey, is it a good idea to let these prepubescent, hell-spawned hormone sacks go on the roof to do their homework?” Because keeping kids off the roof seemed so common sense, there was no official school policy about it. Just like there were no official school policies about teachers farting audibly while teaching¹ or releasing pigeons into the locker room or lighting desks on fire to reheat their lunch.
I read this one book about leadership once. It was so good, I exchanged it for in-store credit at a used book store. One of the things it talked about was how people in leadership roles often address issues that are specific to one individual by issuing broad decrees to everybody. They do it because they’re not leaders; they’re wussies. It can be hard to confront an individual, so instead we send out an email to everybody that’s really meant for just that one person. The hope is that the one person who needed to be corrected reads it and changes course, but in reality, this pseudo-leadership does two things.
Let’s say Mark consistently comes to work in a wrinkled shirt and a novelty superhero tie, but instead of approaching Mark directly to tell him to stop dressing like a stoner who’s applying for his first job as a bank teller, you send out a mass email telling everyone about (A) the importance of ironing your clothes and (B) the stupidity of novelty ties.
The first thing your email does is stress out the people who are already doing exactly what you want them to do. These are the staff members who finish reading the email and start thinking things like: Is this directed at me? Are my clothes too wrinkly? My tie has stripes. Is that considered “novelty”?
The second thing it does is fall on the deaf ears of those who don’t give a crap. Mark is either thinking, “If that was intended for me, they would have told me directly,“ or “Thor raising Mjolnir aloft with lightning striking it from Valhalla is a very mainstream tie,” or “They must not know that it’s me who’s the only person left in the world who’s still buying shirts made of fabric that you have to iron,” or “I truly give zero shits about how I dress.”
On Episode 55 of the Thrivecast, Jason and I interviewed Gretchen Rubin, the author of the book Better than Before. We spent a significant part of the podcast talking about Gretchen’s “Four Tendencies,” four types of people who respond to expectations in different ways. Here’s her brief explanation of each:
- Upholders respond readily to outer and inner expectations.
- Questioners question all expectations; they’ll meet an expectation if they think it makes sense; essentially, they make all expectations inner expectations.
- Obligers meet outer expectations, but struggle to meet expectations they impose on themselves.
- Rebels resist all expectations, outer and inner alike.
Upholders and Obligers don’t need your mass email. They’re tuned into your expectations because they want to please you. They’ve actually read the employee handbook, retained the information, and predict your informal and/or unwritten expectations.
Rebels and Questioners won’t be persuaded by your emails or policies. They need to be managed directly. But don’t undervalue them — they can be fantastic sources of creativity and innovation, but you have to be brave and risk confrontation by talking to them.
Because even after reading the mass email, Rebels and Questioners will still think it’s very cool to let the kids play on the roof.
¹There was one algebra class where I let loose with some SBDs while teaching, working off the correct assumption that no one who smelt it would suspect the teacher had dealt it.
²She hyphenated her name when she married Mr. Negligence.
Greg was born in Akron, Ohio, in the shadow of the Firestone tire factory. He began to swim competitively when he was eight, swimming for the Mountlake Terrace Lemmings. He graduated in 1995 from the University of Washington with a math degree. He chose math for the ladies. After serving ten-years as an 8th grade math teacher, he decided it was time for a career change, mainly because he “couldn’t stand those little bastards.” He began his accounting career with a local CPA firm in Orem, Utah, where he consistently failed the QuickBooks ProAdvisor advanced certification exam. Greg currently works as the Controller for the Utah Valley Physicians Plaza. He lives in Utah, but manages to make it to Greenville, SC once a year to emcee Deeper Weekend. He enjoys eating maple bars, drinking Diet Pepsi, and swearing.