I was clearing some space on my phone recently and was deleting a bunch of pictures. When I looked at my photos, I noticed who my favorite subject was; me. I had hundreds of selfies in hundreds of different locations. I don’t even like to look in a mirror, but I had selfies out the wazoo! As I was looking at the photos, I started to really look at me. In my mind, I looked so cool. But actually, I am far less cool than I think I give myself credit for. This is the same thing I see when I am reviewing myself at work. I think I am kicking butt, but sometimes, I need to really assess how I am doing so I can move forward.
A good friend of mine recently shared that she was just finishing the performance reviews of her team. She had a rubric and a scale and was holding them accountable to objectives written a year ago. It is a tough process, but her team did better than most and has a solid growth mindset. She sits with them and makes it look so easy. She has them rate themselves before she sits with them and figure out how they think they did. “Do they match up with you often?” I asked. “Sometimes” she sighed, “but mostly they just want to know how they did. They don’t really think about themselves, just what I think.”
That is the hiccup in the whole assessment process. People are interested in their score, their rating, or their grade. How did they do? Not so much how can I get better. Just… did I do enough? That is the tough part of the assessment process, getting them to use the results moving forward. So, how do we do that? How do we get our people to be honest with their achievements and set solid goals?
The most effective assessment tool deals with the idea of reflection. Getting people to look back on a situation or time and using it as a tool going forwards. I learned this in my classroom in a most unlikely way: I broke up a fight.
Get off of him!
I was a brand new teacher in an urban high school in Ohio. It was after lunch and I was just strolling into my class after the bell and the sound of crashing desks told me a fight had broken out. Not a pushing, shoving, yelling fight, but a full on brawl. One young lady was kneeling on top of another boy, cursing him and was preparing to start punching him for all she was worth. I immediately jumped into action and separated the two of them. Amid all the yelling and cursing I was able to restore order and then I started in on the young lady. “How dare she do that in my class. I am calling security and you are done at this school”, I said in anger. I was shaken. I had no idea how I was going to make it through the end of the day, not to even think of a 30 year career.
As I was retelling the story to an old salt teacher in the hall after the class was over, he asked me an interesting question. “What was the fight about?” I had no idea; I just acted and thought I defused the situation. Now, I needed to know.
I went down to the office and the young lady was sitting in a chair waiting for her punishment. When I finally got her to make eye contact, I asked a simple question, “What was that all about anyway?” She grumbled and then told me what happened. As it turned out, the boy had taken the young lady’s purse and had hidden it in the class. She was upset, embarrassed, and angry. She tried to get him to tell her where it was, but when he laughed at her, she lost it. In her mind she was the innocent party. She was just trying to get her stuff back. Enter, me. Busting in like Kool Aid, and start yelling and disciplining without even figuring out what went on. I took a smoldering situation and threw gas onto it. It was a tough lesson to learn, but it forever changed how I handle discipline both in my classroom and in life. Since then, I always try to get both sides and then go, no more going off halfcocked. It has changed my class, and made me a more trusted person in the student’s eyes.
Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow
As anyone who has ever filled out a self-assessment knows, looking backward can be painful. We look at our successes, justify our shortcomings, and learn to dial down our expectations for the upcoming year. Too many times we are reluctant to be honest with ourselves. But awkward or not, we are the ones who know best what we are capable of. Taking what we did, judging it against what could be, and setting a course for the future is the foundation of true growth.
To illustrate how solid self-reflection can be, I asked a group of teachers at a recent conference to think about the best meal they had ever eaten. Many shared meals on the beach, at grandma’s house, out of a food truck in New Orleans, etc. They then reflected on the complimentary breakfast they had just eaten at the conference. Those comparisons made some people chuckle, but we moved on. “With those two ideas in your head and using your best meal as a guide” I said “think of a way to improve the breakfast experience.” They laughed and then began to talk about location, seasoning, etc. But more than that, they were introduced to true reflection; yesterday, today, and tomorrow.
Just like my friend does, many of us sit with our team members to help establish goals or objectives for the upcoming year. She has a great intro to the meeting when she sits with her members. “So if you could go back and do last year over again” she asks “what would you do differently?” This is a great starting question. Her team members go back and look at the challenges they had during the previous year and then, with the benefit of hindsight, role play situations which would have made last year much smoother. She is then able to coach them to use those experiences to build a plan for the upcoming year.
The mirror lies
It is important to recognize that just looking back rarely does any good. Glancing in the mirror can give us a good look at how we did, but, to just simply acknowledge it happened, doesn’t move change forward. The purpose of self-reflection is not to just talk about what happened. If we do that, we fall into the “reminiscing trap”. Reminiscing can be fun, but it doesn’t help us in the future. I think about this often when talking with computer analysts. When something gets called into a help desk, the person on the phone just wants the problem fixed. They are not too worried about how it got there to begin with. The analyst however obsesses over “root cause”. Trying to find the genesis of the problem, to them, is just as important as fixing what went wrong. For the analyst knows that if it happened to this caller, it can happen to others as well.
So why do we self-reflect? If the year was a good one, we don’t need to see how it went. If it was a mess, looking at it is like tearing open a wound. However, self-reflection is the only way we can make sure that the good things happen again and the bad things are isolated. I also believe the answer is tied up in our desire to be fairly evaluated. Left to someone else, we feel as if they don’t know the real us. The real reason we were a success or failure. We need to know that even though we may be our own harshest critic, we are also the one who know what we can achieve. When properly guided, solid self-reflection allows us to feel confident going forward. Taking experiences and allowing them to be our guide to doing better the next time. We know ourselves better than anyone else. We know what we can do. We just need to make sure we have a say in how it is going to happen.