Originally posted 3.23.17
So when I was in middle school (or there abouts), we had an assembly where a man told us the Parable of the Spoons. It struck me so much that I remember it to this day. I was thinking about this parable recently and wanted to share it with you.
Long ago there lived an old woman who had a wish. She wished more than anything to see for herself the difference between heaven and hell. The monks in the temple agreed to grant her request. They put a blindfold around her eyes, and said, "First you shall see hell."
When the blindfold was removed, the old woman was standing at the entrance to a great dining hall. The hall was full of round tables, each piled high with the most delicious foods — meats, vegetables, fruits, breads, and desserts of all kinds! The smells that reached her nose were wonderful.
The old woman noticed that, in hell, there were people seated around those round tables. She saw that their bodies were thin, and their faces were gaunt, and creased with frustration. Each person held a spoon. The spoons must have been three feet long! They were so long that the people in hell could reach the food on those platters, but they could not get the food back to their mouths. As the old woman watched, she heard their hungry desperate cries. "I've seen enough," she cried. "Please let me see heaven."
And so again the blindfold was put around her eyes, and the old woman heard, "Now you shall see heaven." When the blindfold was removed, the old woman was confused. For there she stood again, at the entrance to a great dining hall, filled with round tables piled high with the same lavish feast. And again, she saw that there were people sitting just out of arm's reach of the food with those three-foot long spoons.
But as the old woman looked closer, she noticed that the people in heaven were plump and had rosy, happy faces. As she watched, a joyous sound of laughter filled the air.
And soon the old woman was laughing too, for now she understood the difference between heaven and hell for herself. The people in heaven were using those long spoons to feed each other. (http://www.uua.org/re/tapestry/children/toolbox/session1/heaven-hell).
I was thinking about this recently because the difference between these two scenarios is the response to the situation NOT the situation itself. This is not to say that the situation is ideal; it’s to say that the situation is workable and can made to not only work—but to work well!
So what does this have to do with us? I think about the teachers, parents, or others who say things like, “The modules don’t work” or “Why do we have to enter data into Google Docs?” or “How do you expect me to be successful when I have students like this?” I then think about all the schools where they are seeing great success with the modules or they can’t wait to share their data or they’re students are knocking the cover off the ball (even the ELLs, SPED, and/or students of poverty or color). These are places where they have the same circumstances but their response to the situation is different.
If you’re experiencing a similar challenge of people focusing on figuratively trying to feed themselves rather than to use the spoons differently, then the problem that you’re experiencing is not with the spoons—it’s with the people holding the spoons. This requires modifying the people (changing culture) and this is done by confronting the fact that there is nothing wrong with the spoons.
The reason people behave this way is due to their thinking. Bruce Katcher, in writing about this, talks about organizational dynamics. He says:
Poor cooperation between groups in organizations is often due to negative stereotypes. For example, sales employees often stereotype production employees as people just putting in their time with little regard for the customer. Similarly, production employees stereotype sales employees as self-centered and interested only in their sales commissions, with little understanding of how products are really made.
This tendency can be explained by "attribution theory." Social psychologists Edward Jones and Richard Nisbett demonstrated that there is a fundamental difference in how people view their own behavior and the behavior of others. Individuals typically view their own behavior as being caused by the situation, but view the behavior of others as due to their disposition. These negative attributions of others in the workplace are destructive. It would be much better if, for example, the salespeople really understood the situation facing production workers and vice versa.
Here are several suggestions he lists for changing the culture:
Call Attention to the Problem: CEOs and Presidents [and principals] must continually stress to employees that "we are all in this together" and that "poor internal cooperation is unacceptable." They should also try to catch people in the act of speaking negatively of other groups and insist that they cease from doing so.
Reward and Recognize Good Cooperation: CEOs and Presidents [and principals] should publicly acknowledge when good cooperation occurs between groups. In addition, they should reward managers for working well with other groups in the organization.
Rate Employees on How Well They Cooperate: Since internal cooperation is so critically important, it should be part of how the performance of all employees is assessed. Performance ratings, salary increases, and bonuses should be based in part on how well employees provide support and service to others in the organization who depend on them for service.