Preschool is the new B-School

Or, how a four-year-old can teach you everything you need to know about managing people.  

Edmundo Ortega
Feb 4, 2014 · 5 min read

Recently, when dropping my 4-year-old off at preschool, I witnessed an interaction that took me aback. My daughter’s teacher, Caitlin, was helping two screaming kids figure out how to cope with limited resources—in this case a pink-haired, iridescent, wind-up mermaid. Each was firmly clenching one mermaid arm and shouting, “mine!” Caitlin didn’t intercede as I expected, by taking away the toy and saying something like, “if you can’t learn to share then you can’t play with this toy.” Instead of telling the kids what to do, she asked them a few questions and let them decide for themselves what to do. After a minute, the screaming stopped, the kids were friends again, and they agreed to set a time limit on how long anyone could play with the prized mermaid: 5 minutes.

If you manage a team and you don’t have moments when you feel like your people are acting like four-year-olds, then congratulations to you and please stop reading now—your world is perfect.

I later asked Caitlin and her co-teacher Meghan to explain the ground rules they use when “managing” the classroom. Very broadly it comes down to facilitating rather than dictating. But what really captivated me were these simple questions they ask the kids to get them to behave peacefully and productively.

Here they are:

What is happening here?

Preschoolers tend to live in the moment, and often times they get involved in conflicts that escalate quickly. They move from normal play into emotional crisis in the hop of a scotch. By asking the kids to describe what’s happening the teacher pulls them out of conflict mode and into analysis mode.

Imagine your team embroiled in a crisis. Things might start getting out of control in their minds. They might start worrying about who’s fault it is and who is going to take the fall. Eventually Machiavellian mechanics will take over and you’ll start hearing back-channel talk about someone not pulling their weight. If you sense turmoil in your team, nip this cycle in the bud, call a quick meeting and ask them frankly what’s going on.

What is your idea?

Teachers often find kids doing inexplicable things. They might see a preschooler banging his head against a door. The normal reaction is to intervene and offer direction: “Billy, you’re going to hurt your head! Let’s move away from the door and read a book instead.” By doing this you’ve averted a potential head injury, but you’ve spoiled a learning opportunity. Forcing kids to state their idea lets you understand their intention and then help them see it through. “I see you’re banging your head against the door, Billy. What’s your idea?” “I wanna go outside!” Now that you understand the intention you can teach Billy how to use the door handle. Weeks of head banging have been averted. Another advantage of understanding intention is to help clarify and guide a possibly fuzzy idea.

You might have an employee that is spending a lot of time at the water cooler. Instead of shouting, “Get back to your cube Wachowzski!” you might first ask why he feels this compulsive thirst. Maybe he’s not a slacker, but is just bored in the design team and is subtly lobbying the UX team to bring him on board.

The teachers call this “sportscasting” — saying what you see and then asking the child to explain. “I see you’re banging your head against the door. Can you tell me what your idea is?” or “I see you hanging out by the water cooler talking to the devs a lot. What’s going on?”

Can you tell me what she is saying?

Good preschools teach conflict resolution techniques to the kids. Often when an argument occurs the kids get stuck in a single-minded position and stop listening to their combatant. Asking them to repeat what the other is saying can quickly snap them into a more negotiable mood.

The same thing happens at the office. We get so focused on doing things our way that we close our minds to other, possibly better solutions. By asking your underlings to listen to and repeat what their peers are suggesting you can dissolve enmity with very little confrontation.

Can you solve this together?

Ultimately the job of a good teacher is to get their students to solve their own problems. When Caitlin asked the girls if they could figure out the mermaid problem themselves I could see the wheels begin to turn in their minds. They’d been through this routine before and were starting to formulate their negotiation platforms.

It may feel like good leadership when you’re in the mix every day, telling people what to do and making every meaningful decision (see: micromanagement), but you’re robbing your organization of efficiency. When kids, er… employees, learn that they will be responsible for working out their own conflicts they start having less conflicts and they start learning to collaborate.

Or do you need some space?

Sometimes a little person just gets overwhelmed and needs a cool off period. Not every conflict needs to be resolved instantaneously.

Got a co-worker that is ready to quit or punch the guy that keeps bumping his chair? Tell him to go home early, cool off, and think of some possible solutions for tomorrow.

General rules

Have clear rules, and be consistent

Rules are tools. They help your team measure for themselves if they are doing the right thing. Inevitably people will break the rules and you’ll need to address these violations the same way every time. Otherwise your team will start to eat away at the rules until they are meaningless. The fewer the rules the better, because frankly, being consistent is hard.

Be a good listener

Much of a manager’s role should be to make their team better. By listening and not assuming, you open the door for your people to be more clear about their intentions and you give them the opportunity to solve their own problems. Try it out. For one day, stop being a problem solver and instead be a problem listener.

Don’t try to control everything

The lethal thing about being a control freak is that you actually can’t control everything. Isn’t that frustrating? Forcing or coercing everyone to do things your way might work in the short term, but it will burn you out in the long term. Ask any parent.

Create an environment where failure is a learning opportunity

A big failure is a big problem. A little failure is a big lesson. Give your team some leeway to fail on their own and be smarter for it.

Encourage, but don’t force collaboration

Most high-performing people hate being forced to work in teams. But that strategy falls apart as our skills become more specialized. You simply can’t do everything by yourself. Give people the opportunity to form their own teams, but don’t force them. If they find that they can’t do it themselves, they’ll learn to reach out for help.

I’m certainly no management expert. But having managed people in the past (not very well, I might add), and having witnessed a motley assortment of management styles working with our clients at Sequitur, I’m certain that any manager could get better by learning from a preschool teacher. Experiment and try some of these things out. Let me know how it goes!

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