A Constructionist Lens

Please pardon the delay between my last post; I had to finish finals before I could get back into blog mode.

Speaking of finals, as part of my final paper to integrate knowledge, leadership and research, I decided to write about leadership and the business school.  Having graduated from the business school at the same university I am now working on my leadership studies degree, I thought it would be fitting to evaluate how the business school prepares undergradates for the real world (in regards to leadership).

In evaluating the curriculum, only one course, Organizational Behavior, taught a component of leadership.  All other courses primarily focus on technical skils such as accounting, finance, marketing, etc.  Recalling my first position, many of the technical skills I needed were taught to me on the job.  The theories and skills taught in school allowed me to be open and prepared for on-the-job training.  As we all know though, every company does things a little different, so learning doesn’t stop at graduation, but continues through your career. 

Employers today feel that college graduates are lacking important skills that make them successful at work: interpersonal skills, problem solving, effective written and oral communication skills, teamwork, and the ability to think critically and analytically (See Selingo, 2012).  How do you teach someone how to tactfully deal with colleagues at work? Or how to “think outside of the box”? 

In reading Ospina and Sorenson’s (2006) work on a constructionist lens of leadership, I thought this different view could potentially prepare business graduates to work in complex organizations.  What is a constructionist lens of leadership?  This lens believes that leadership occurs within a group over time, when members create a shared understanding of their purpose and objectives, the roles and responsibilities, and ultimately the solutions to address the group’s collective needs.  The leader is still an important function, but so is leadership as a process, where all members are responsible to contribute.  Think about the teams or departments you work in today.  In most cases, there will be some hierarchy and general understanding of members’ roles, but beyond the surface, there are implicit expectations of one another depending on personalities, skills, capabilities, passions, etc.  My job description won’t describe how I am to interact and build relationships with those around me.  These shared agreements that we create with one another, is what drives the teamwork needed to meet our collective goals. 

Leadership is relational, contextual, and the result of shared meaning-making.  Ever notice how disagreements or work conflict is often the result of people or factions not understanding the other side?  As you go through the process to resolve the conflict, members are developing a new understanding (meaning-making), that addresses or reframes everyone’s understanding to a place that is agreeable.  Unfortunately, often times we are unable to get to a mutual agreement, and one side will exert dominance or authority in order to get the other side to do what they want.  Thus damaging relationships, limiting productivity, and squashing innovation.

In the typical business class, teachers lecture to students who are memorizing information to regurgitate in quizzes, papers, final exams.  Competition between students in a business school is also prevalent, negating the teamwork aspect.  Even when required to work in teams, students will split the work and do their part individually and compile afterwards.  There’s no synergy taking place.  Taking a constructionist lens, classes would have students work together to develop an understanding of the problem (e.g. in a case study), using what they know from experience and their perspectives, along with the technical skills they’re developing, to PRACTICE.  Instead of trying to figure out the “right” answer according to the teacher or textbook, students would be trying to find the “right” solution for the problem specific to its context.     

That’s the key to a constructionist lens, is for people to be part of communities of practice, not mindless drones.  Employers are looking for people capable of adapting to the constant change at work.  In practicing how to deal with change, be open-minded, integrate different perspectives and ideas, and work with others collectively and not competitively, graduates would be better prepared for the real world.  We’ve got enough competition in our culture, and its not to say its bad, but perhaps a new lens will help us be more flexible for when competition doesn’t make sense, and collaboration does. 

One final note, remembering my first few months in corporate, I thought the theories and techncial methodologies I learned in school would revolutionize my new company.  I quickly realized it won’t, as processes at work don’t quickly change (sound familiar?), especially by a “new kid on the block”.  Providing students with skills to adapt and integrate what they have learned with what is reality, will make that transition much easier for a bright-eyed graduate looking to change the world.  And a little less annoying for everyone else.

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