PLCs and the Constellation Mindset - Steve Barkley

PLCs and the Constellation Mindset

I am currently reading The Power of Giving Away Power by Matthew Barzun, which introduced me to the leadership work of Mary Parker Follett (1868-1933). When I read the description of her passion, it triggered me to consider applications to the work of PLCs.

“Small, diverse groups of people with a dizzying array of different and diverging hopes and fears can try to work together to make something more impactful than they could alone.” (pg. 58)

Barzun focusses on moving organizations away from our pyramid structures of either top down or bottom-up formation…

…to a constellation model.

As I read Follett’s description of integration being the critical desired outcome, I connected to my earlier writing describing the difference between PLCs cooperating compared to collaborating.

Follett identifies (pg. 60) why decisions reached by acquiescence, victory, or compromise are less effective than those reached by integration:

  • Acquiescence – If you give in to the pushiest or highest-ranking person you haven’t brought your whole self to the group.
  • Victory – If you prevail and the group agrees to your idea. You haven’t provided for others to contribute.
  • Compromise – If everyone provides some acquiescence, no one leaves satisfied.

Integration happens when all the members of a group make something new together. Everyone owns the new idea. Individuality is enhanced not reduced as a result.

Vendiagram of lightbulbs that say "idea" in the right and left and "best idea" in the middle where they overlap.

Recently, I have had several conversations with instructional coaches about their roles in PLC meetings. In my mind, as long as the instructional coach is planning and facilitating these meetings, they have not yet become real PLCs. For that to happen, the coach would need to be seen as a member of the group. As a member, they would have shared accountability for the success of the PLC’s goals. Most coaches would be too heavily committed considering their role in all the PLCs. My guess is that it becomes increasingly difficult to avoid acquiescence, victory, and compromise if teachers perceive the coach “in-charge.”

Too often teachers express frustration that a PLC meeting was not worth the time that it consumed, and they lay the responsibility for that on the coach, avoiding the team members’ responsibilities. I think coaches can play an important role in guiding teachers to learn the skills needed to function as a team practicing integration. The coach’s role should decrease and eventually the coach is an invited guest when her skills and knowledge would support the PLC’s exploration.

Our focus should be on creating environments that encourage and support interdependence rather than dependence which drowns out individual potential or independence which inhibits contributions to something bigger than ourselves. Follett identifies three expectations (pg. 62) to take to a meeting with the goal of building interdependence. I see them all applying to PLCs. They might make a great addition to the PLC’s norms.

  1. Expect to need others. The understanding that diversity builds stronger decisions supports the role that others will play in your decision-making. An article from Catlin Ryan explores three benefits of diversity in community engagement:
  • Diversity can help groups to analyze the facts more clearly.
  • Diversity creates clarity on the real problems.
  • Diverse representation pulls us all forward.

2. Expect to be neededBring your whole self to the meeting and be open to answering and asking hard questions and pursuing them wherever they go. This is why it is critical to have an environment of trust that encourages vulnerability.

An expectation of needing others and being needed helps create vulnerability so trust can be built. When trust is present vulnerability increases and equally, vulnerability is often necessary for trust to be built.

“Trust is essential to an effective team, because it provides a sense of safety. When your team members feel safe with each other, they feel comfortable to open up, take appropriate risks, and expose vulnerabilities. Without trust there’s less innovation, collaboration, creative thinking, and productivity, and people spend their time protecting themselves and their interests – this is time that should be spent helping the group attain its goals” (Crowe Associates).

3. Expect to be changed- You should expect to leave a meeting not quite the same as you entered. If you were engaged in integration, you created something “new.” While you gave power to the larger co-creative activity, your own power did not diminish but rather it increased.

In an earlier blog, I explored four questions about intellectual humility from Daniel Pink and Warren Burger, which PLC members can ask themselves individually and collectively to increase interdependence:

  1. Do I think more like a soldier or a scout? (Soldiers defend positions while scouts explore.)
  2. Would I rather be right, or would I rather understand?
  3. Do I solicit and seek out opposing points of view?
  4. Do I enjoy the pleasant surprise of discovering I am mistaken?

As school leaders build interdependence among staff, they are modeling the environment for educators that should be built for our students. They should be providing such an environment for student to maximize content learning, while also practicing the skills and mindsets for continued success in school and beyond.

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