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Leaders: Understand Adult Disruptive Behavior, Too

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A recent Slate.com article entitled, The CIA's WWII Guide to Creating Organizational Dysfunction Perfectly Describes Your Toxic Workplace caught our attention.  Evidently, in 1944 the CIA created a document they called the Simple Sabotage Field Manual. Isn't it odd to refer to a document from the CIA, especially one that is now seventy years old? But, after reading through the instructions on pages 28-32, it was apparent that they had an insight to be taken seriously. The positive behaviors of leaders and members of an organization that contribute to progress and success were turned upside down. The consequences are dire and perhaps too familiar. It reminded us of the amount of small, and unintended behaviors in an organization that contribute to failure to grow.

These behaviors can be overlooked, or deemed not important enough for attention. But we posit that, collectively, they can become a much larger problem. We can all think of people in organizations, who, without intention, demonstrate behaviors like these from the Field Manual:

  • Bring up irrelevant issues as frequently as possible.
  • Refer back to matters decided upon at the last meeting and attempt to re-open the question of the advisability of that decision.
  • Make "speeches." Talk as frequently as possible and at great length.  Illustrate your "points" by long anecdotes and accounts of personal experiences.
  • Misfile essential documents.
  • Spread disturbing rumors that sound like inside dope.
  • Work slowly.
  • Contrive as many interruptions to your work as you can.

Looking at them as a collective, across the organization, and considering the CIA identification of them as disruptive behaviors, we might want to give them greater attention. They are labeled disruptive but perhaps they are even sabotaging our ability to move organizations forward.

Those who do address these behaviors might do so in a conversation or memo that describes the behavior and directs that it be discontinued. This can decline into a game of "Whack-A-Mole" that never ends. People make mistakes; each one documented for a file without the consideration that each individual incident can be contributing to overall organizational dysfunction. 

A Look at Patterns
This, like most all things, has a better chance of changing if a systems approach is also taken. Who in the organization takes the time to review all these data pieces to examine them for patterns? What are the causes? Why are people making those mistakes or behaving in undermining ways? Some may be simply personnel aberrations. Others may reveal patterns of behaviors across schools and buildings. In these cases, correcting individual behaviors is not the whole solution. Instead, an invitation to review the patterns and think about their meaning allows for the questions about system weakness, determining where derailing situations occur and a systemic response or correction can happen.

Feeling Empowered and Motivated Makes a Difference
Adults, like children want to do well and feel good about their work. Albert Bandura's work with self-efficacy offers an alternative to discipline when people demonstrate the behaviors that are not contributing to the progress of the organization. 

Efficacy beliefs operate as a key factor in a generative system of human competence. Hence, different people with similar skills, or the same person under different circumstances, may perform poorly, adequately, or extraordinarily, depending on fluctuations in their beliefs of personal efficacy (p. 37).

All that by way of saying...how can the leader attend to the efficacy needs of faculty and staff in order for them to feel empowered and motivated and do their best work? Might addressing the larger issues of self-efficacy help faculty and staff find their own way to successful work behaviors and greater contribution to the overall success of the organization? Surely it is a more systemic approach than addressing disruptive behaviors individually. It is leadership work central to schools and districts. We acknowledge that leaders, also, make the greatest contributions when their self-efficacy needs are met but the leader's role does allow them to extend opportunities to others or further constrain them. We are obligated to know which we are doing with our decisions and actions and why.

Bandura, A. (1997). Self-Efficacy: The exercise of self control. New York:  W.H. Freeman

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