Friday, January 1, 2010

Checking your prejudices

One important educational task is to help students uncover their prejudices. Prejudices cause students to “pre-judge” ideas, concepts, and truths and, when unchecked, can block learning since learning requires the accommodation of the new to the old: adding new knowledge to existing knowledge; dismantling old structures in order to build new ones, or giving up beliefs in order to embrace new truths.

The challenge of prejudices is that they tend to function outside of our awareness. They filter our perceptions and interpretation of experiences without our realizing it. We’ve all had moments of coming to realize how mistaken we were with a first impression, or, a mistaken interpretation of a conversation or experience. On occasion, we may find ourselves thinking, “How could I have been so wrong about that?”

Leaders, like learners, need to check their prejudices in order to be effective. Bringing our prejudices (sometimes called “blind spots”) to the surface is part of being self-aware, a key quality for leaders. Even the most intelligent and competent of leaders can be hindered by their blind spots.

Here are prejudices common among congregational leaders:

That the system cannot change without your help. The source of this prejudice may span from a need to be needed to unbridled hubris. Leaders who function out of this prejudice tend to be overfunctioners and may suffer from a messiah syndrome. One paradox here is that if church and pastoral leader buy into the prejudice the congregation looses its ability to take responsibility for itself, and its growth, as it becomes more dependent on the overfunctioning leader. Needless to say, this prejudice is a certain path to burnout.

That you do not need to deal with people’s emotions (anger, fear, anxiety). While it is not appropriate to take responsibility for other people’s feelings, effective leaders do not ignore the reality of other people’s experience of emotions. Leaders tend to be too quick to rely on rationality and logic to make a case, introduce a cause, defend an opinion, or respond to critics. Most of us would rather not have to deal with the emotional side when dealing with every issue that arises, but the fact is that the answer to “What is really going on here?” has more to do with emotional process than with matters of cognition.

That dealing with personalities is the key to addressing problems and conflict. An overfocus on “personalities” tends to personalize issues (create “identified patients”), make problems personal, and gives a myopic (and inaccurate) understanding of situations. Leaders who take a systems perspective look beyond the prejudice of personality and strive to understand what is going on in the system as a whole, They try to discern what is going on in the emotional field, gain insight from multigenerational transmission dynamics, assess their own functioning from their family of origin dynamics, and assess how the “personalities” are acting out of their positions in the system.

That your repertoire of strategies, approaches, techniques, models, interpretation, and problem-solving is the best way to go. As much as we all wish otherwise, we have the tendency to go with the quick fix. Many leaders tend to rely on the pragmatic techniques and strategies that have served them well for solving problems in the past. Thinking is hard work, and most people don’t put much effort into it. When faced with a new problem our prejudices will try to shoehorn a solution for a quick fix rather than spend energy understanding the issues and the nature of the problem. A leader who does not take the time to check his or her prejudices may get willful in insisting on a favored strategy, technique, or model when addressing a new problem. That’s a short path to getting stuck.

That the projects that are of most interest to you will be the most beneficial for the system. This is a big one for congregational leaders, and one that will guarantee both ineffectiveness and a crisis brought on by misunderstanding and sabotage in response to willfulness. Sometimes this is part of the “bag of tricks” syndrome. A pastor of staff member will impose personal predilections of style, programs, or projects on a congregation will little thought about its “fit,” appropriateness or the readiness of a congregation to embrace it. There are plenty of examples, but a common one is characterized by the “worship wars” that ensue when pastors or staff push the start of a “contemporary worship service” onto a congregation, fully and sincerely convinced that it will be good for the church. What often is most apparent to the congregation, however, is that the push is more about what a pastor or staff wants (or likes) than what is most beneficial for the congregation.

See Robert J. Marshak, Covert Processes at Work: Managing the Five Hidden Dimensions of Organizational Change (San Francisco: Barrett-Koehler Publishers, 2006) for a good treatment on how prejudices and blind spots (covert processes) can hinder change in organizations.

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