School Culture: The “Disagreeable Giver” and the Culture of Continuous Improvement

Summary: Can evidence of successful leadership style in the corporate world be transplanted to schools and kick start a culture of continuous improvement?
Do nice guys and gals finish last and ultimately assholes prevail in the race to the mantle of leadership of an organization? Or do nice folks find success because subordinates feel massaged while the proverbial asshole sinks in a social quagmire of his or her own making?
Does context matter in determining the answer to such questions? What, in fact, are the differences in leadership style that matter in a schools setting by comparison with corporate leadership? Could the “nice” approach work in a setting that is supposed to nurture growth, such as a schoolhouse, but falter in the more competitive setting of a corporate boardroom, where the capacity for rapacity rewards the survival of the fittest? Or is not that simple?
Recently a veteran business journalist, Jerry Useem, addressed the question in an Atlantic article, “Why It Pays to Be a Jerk.” He caught the eye of this school guy always intrigued by differences in culture between the private and public sector. Useem’s conclusions are more complex than his provocative neon title implies. While the case studies he cites come exclusively from the corporate sector, his discussion begs scrutiny of schools culture in various ways.
Wharton Business School professor Adam Grant, author of a current best seller, Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success, provides Useem with much of the intellectual heft of his article.
Grant “offers evidence that ‘givers’ – people who share their time, contacts, or know-how without expectation of payback – dominate the top of their fields,” both within and outside of the corporate sphere.
Lest we reflect overly on smiling faces and wonder where the gumption of any enterprise would then come from, Grant clarifies that the traditional “nice guys and gals really do finish last.” In contrast, “the most effective people are ‘disagreeable givers’ – that is, people willing to use thorny behavior to further the well-being and success of others.” A kind of enlightened self-interest combined with a hard-nosed organizational and interpersonal altruism characterizes many if not most successful leaders.
Useem cites his exposure to the corporate culture at General Electric to illustrate the point. The people at GE “are really tough there in the sense that they’re going to challenge you to grow and develop, they’re going to set higher goals for you than you would set for yourself. But they’re doing it to make you better and they’re doing it with your best interests and the company’s best interests in mind.”
Useem also cites Intel’s Andy Grove, in whose culture of “constructive confrontation” ideas are challenged, “but not the people who expound them. It’s not personal.” The goal is a culture of professional rigor in which the competition of intellect drives the company to high standards within a complex marketplace.
Do schools ever approach this rigorous standard? Are schools able to? Do we want schools to pursue such a discomforting standard? Is there something in the nature of the nurture of young people that compels a culture radically different from the corporate ideal Adam Grant describes? Or is there something fatal in the public bureaucracies that are schools, and which struggle to reform themselves, that can be remedied by a shift in culture toward that which Grant portrays? Will ultimate school reform depend on such a shift in culture?
It goes without saying that schools will vary greatly in their composition and culture. Certainly in many schools the now aging school reform movement has lit a fire under organizational inertia and stimulated many well-disposed school folk to improve curriculum and instruction, with anecdotal successes as well as qualitative evidence, yet the cumulative revolution as measured by test scores has not arrived. Claims of improvement in graduation rates leave me unpersuaded against my experience with the many ways such statistics can present a false front.
I worked in a suburban high school with a rising low income population, as the city center became gradually too expensive for poor folks, many of them of color. My school district to its credit recognized the local world was changing and has tried to be proactive in addressing the altered population. My own school was populated with a reasonably hard working staff of more than adequate intelligence, who I was more than persuaded had good will for their students in their hearts. The administrators ran a well structured environment and were themselves capable.
Yet. When I try to conjure a transplant of the quasi adversarial quality of the “disagreeable givers” template as Adam Grant characterizes it into the climate I knew in my school, it simply does not compute. Administrators by character were once teachers and complicit in a more benign environment of supervision, which seemed to approach adversarial fashion only with those staff who were clearly not up to snuff, but who were seldom removed from the classroom for failure to perform, even though the higher stakes testing environment for evaluation has added some edge to administrative scrutiny. As a general rule, if a teacher was perceived as doing a reasonably good job, he or she was not scrutinized closely and respectfully left to order their classroom according to their professional inclinations. On the other side of the coin, teachers confronted by the kind of “disagreeable” shove Useem and Grant chronicle as integral to a successful corporation would not understand it as a respectful initiative but a message of job insecurity, if in fact an administrator engaged in such challenge at all.
There was no hard charging ethic of being pushed by superiors beyond our own perceived limits, though the multiple realities of the work we faced stretched well beyond our willing limits and such demand was a stern task master (or mistress) in its own right.
Is it that the nature of the task is so different from the private corporate sector? Is it that the history of pedagogy, so intertwined with early professional options open to women and therefore gender connections to nurture, has left an imprint on the character of schools? Are schools more bureaucratic in nature than a cutting edge corporation and so allow pockets of complacency? Do the profit motive in business and the fundamental character of the dollar bottom line make quality and improvement both more urgent and more susceptible to measurement of value added? How much does promise of greater recompense have to do with employee willingness to engage in a highly competitive and anxiety replete environment, as opposed to the acceptance of less money for apparently the greater security and lower anxiety of school employment? In this last case, there may be a mirage at work, otherwise why do 47% of teachers leave the profession within five years? Does the private sector simply attract more competitive types, as a larger stage, while education attracts less competitive types who find the engagement with kids fulfilling?
All of the above have cogency, I believe, to various degrees. Hard evidence along these dimensions is elusive. It is not clear if researchers even look for rigorous evidence of organizational cultural differences between schools that are apparently successful and those of similar demographics who are more stagnant, let alone those outright failing.
Kick-ass reformers appear in stories of change, but it is unclear to me if their aggressiveness itself will sustain progress by shifting the standards and norms of the particular setting, or if initial changes will dissolve in the preponderant culture once the aggressive leader moves on. Left on the table is the question whether or not we want our schools to resemble mini corporations, if “disagreeable giver” is the norm of success in that milieu. And if principals are to upgrade their attention to mentoring in that way, will the public and their politicians want to pay for supplementary assistance with their other myriad tasks?
Observations such as these prompt some school reformers to infuse market principles into education. In my own thinking such a model ultimately breaks down with the attempt to inject the profit principle. For a variety of reasons, the complex outcomes of learning and growth are difficult to quantify in such a way. Nonetheless, characteristics of the marketplace do play a useful role. While the imperative to continuous improvement is one of them, the concept does not originate with the corporate world alone.
There are alternative organizational models of continuous improvement and strong standards. Medicine and academia, as well as law come to mind. Peer review, both of publication and disciplinary in nature, seems to play a role in maintaining standards, but perhaps most telling is the highly competitive and hence qualitative standards aspirants must meet before becoming members of the guild at the professional and graduate school level. In other words, in medicine, academia, and law the first rule is quality in. Parenthetically, the argument can be made that access to these respective guilds is limited, which drives up the price in the form of salaries. Teachers take note?
Likely with an eye on these other professional narratives, still other education reformers focus on the rigor of teacher training programs, and programs such as Teach for America to bring type A kids from elite schools into the classroom.
Since education must compete with other professions and lines of work for a limited number of quality college graduates, better salaries for teachers are an inescapable conclusion, whether politically viable or not.
The gaze toward other institutions for models that will shake stagnation out of the school house finds its current champion in testing regimens and the push to tie teacher evaluation to these outcomes. While the focus on testing seems to me to have gone too far, the impulse is understandable. By contrast, the notion of the ‘disagreeable giver” as an engineer of human competence and perpetual improvement, while imperfect, is intriguing and perhaps more adaptable to the interpersonal heart of schools.

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2 Responses to School Culture: The “Disagreeable Giver” and the Culture of Continuous Improvement

  1. Pingback: School Culture: The “Disagreeable Giver” and the Culture of Continuous Improvement | Language Learner & Lover

    • schooldog says:

      Thanks for you interest. Though I gravitated to counseling in schools, I was once an English teacher. I’ve always thought literature helped light students’ way into an understanding of themselves.

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