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What Works An Ageless Question from Kindergarten

June 22, 2001
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Several months ago, I did something I haven't done in 33 years: I went to kindergarten. That's right, I sat down with 20 five-year-olds and did my best to absorb the day's activities.

No, I wasn't there for a refresher course on colors and letters. As the parent of a soon-to-be kindergartner, I was checking the place out.

Truth be told, I arrived fully expecting to enroll my child in this school. It was just five minutes from our house. How perfect can you get?

Well, it was anything but perfect. From the moment I arrived until the moment I practically ran out, the classroom was an exercise in behavior control. At every turn, kids were given firm instructions on what to do and what not to do. Even art projects came with step-by-step decrees on how to color, what to cut, and where to glue. Loud voices were quickly quelled. Even an "aha" brought on by a learning moment prompted a rebuke from the teacher.

Then it was time to move from one room to another. The kids formed what appeared to be a pretty organized single file, but the teacher, who seemed to mistake this group for a troop of Marine Corps recruits, wanted something better.

"John, get behind Susan. Susan, stop looking around. Chris, go and put that book away." John, Susan, Chris, and their classmates all had that glazed look that comes from being told too many times to do this and do that and please can you hurry up?

As I drove those five quick minutes back to our house, I decided that my child would never attend that school. And I felt so bad for those 20 kids who were in the process of having their creativity and curiosity drilled out of them.

I went on to visit several other kindergartens. Not all of them were so focused on rules and behavior, but overall, it seemed as if the top priority was to keep the kids in line. One teacher told me she was against small-group activities because then "I can't control what's happening."

These visits reminded me of the hundreds of interviews I've conducted with employees from all walks of life. Over the years, so many people have told me about workplaces that are all about managing behavior and, seemingly, constraining curiosity and enthusiasm. As one person put it: "My company is rule-driven. We should be mission-driven."

Are organizations this way because people love rules and behavior control? Is it because we really think this is the best way to manage a complex enterprise? Is it because we have some innate desire to keep things tightly organized?

Or is it because of how we are nurtured in our early years?

In some areas of India, elephants are trained in a very traditional way. When they're still babies, they're tied to a thick tree with a heavy chain. Over time, the chain is replaced with something lighter, and the tree might give way to a stake in the ground. Then the chain is replaced with a thin rope tied to a post. Pretty soon, the elephant no longer tries to move beyond the length of the rope. The behavior-control system has become its own self-inflicted prison.

Of course, there's no comparison between the brain capacity of an elephant and that of a human being. But science abounds with studies that show how early experiences create paths -- ruts, in some cases -- that lead us through the rest of our lives.

My search for a kindergarten eventually took me across town to another school district. I entered with a hard shell of cynicism and took a seat in the back of the room.

Then I noticed that things here were different. With a bit of facilitative guidance from the teacher, the kids went to work in groups of three or four, creating their own buildings out of modeling clay.

From group to group, the creations that took shape were wonderfully different. A hum of excited conversation floated through the room. Occasionally a child from one group would visit another for ideas. You could almost feel the electrical charges in these young minds as they exerted their creative powers. They were so engaged that no one seemed interested in getting "out of line."

Part of this school's mission is to foster passionate curiosity and a love of learning. And that day, I watched as their mission came alive. It was the same day that my search for a kindergarten reached a successful end.

We have just sold our house and bought a new one, and we're getting ready for the character-building endeavor of moving an entire family. In our own way, we're trying to stay mission-driven.

But I'm still thinking about how this applies to workplaces. And I'm starting to appreciate just how profoundly our early management training -- very early, as in kindergarten -- shapes the way in which we manage and lead.

So what about it? Are so many organizations so rule-bound because we have a deep fondness for policies and behavior control? Nope. Do we really think that rules and controls are the best way to manage a complex enterprise? To get compliance, maybe, but certainly not to stir commitment among employees. Do humans possess some deep desire to keep things always under their thumb -- a "control" gene of sorts? Hardly.

Every workday, tens of thousands of managers wrestle with what and how questions. "What products should we launch in the next sales cycle?" "What new policy will prevent this problem?" "How can we reduce turnover?" "How can we increase customer satisfaction?"

Given all of the above, perhaps the most critical questions begin with a why. Why are we organized the way we are? Why are our systems designed the way they are? Why do we manage and supervise the way we do? As you explore these questions, be sure to go back far enough -- at least to kindergarten.

Workforce, June 2001, pp. 26-27 -- Subscribe Now!


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