Agents of Change

One of my Facebook friends had a perceptive post the other day about the Tony Bennett  debacle: she noted that, whatever the merits or deficiencies of his “reforms,” he’d broken every rule she’d ever learned about fostering organizational change.

Coincidentally, last night I ran into a friend I hadn’t seen in several months. She is retired now, but taught high school for over 40 years and worked with several education reform groups as well. She had a number of Tony Bennett stories–none flattering– but the one that struck me was this: she’d been at a teachers conference when Bennett was introduced to the assembly by a just-re-elected Mitch Daniels. Taking the stage, Bennett wasted no time on frivolous introductions–instead, he immediately launched  into a recitation of all the things the people in that room were doing wrong, and all the changes they were going to have to make.

Shades of Steve Goldsmith!

Changing the way any organization works requires changing its culture, revising behaviors that have become habitual and comfortable. Most people fear change–they find it disorienting, and they understandably resent the implication that the reason changes are needed is because their performance has been inadequate. Good managers understand both the dimensions of the task and the need to connect with and reassure people who are being asked to do things differently.

If change is to occur, and persist (which is the meaningful measure), there absolutely has to be buy-in from the troops–from the people who need to make the changes happen. No lasting change has ever been made by an arrogant superior intent upon imposing his “expertise” on the rank and file.

Strange as it may seem, “Help me figure out how we can achieve our common goal” goes a lot farther than “Listen to me, you idiot, and I’ll explain what you’ve been doing wrong.”


  1. Don’t spread that around. If he had been smarter, just think about the trouble we would have been in, and he would have still been in charge. Smart criminals are dangerous, but I’m thankful for dumb crooks.

  2. Is there any way to calculate the damage done by Bennett’s “righting all the wrongs in our education system”? Or toting up the success of Daniels’ ever increaseing voucher program and assessing the damage done to pubic schools by shifting tax dollars to private and religious schools? Why do we never see proven results of these “improvements”?

  3. The assumption seems to be that Bennett wanted change that resulted in improvements rather than change that was the imposition of his ideological policies. Given that I don’t believe this is true, Bennett’s “Listen to me, you idiot.. ” approach is what I expected.

  4. Your comments on organizational change are spot on, Prof. Kennedy. As a graduate student, I conduct research on motivation, and what you’re talking about is the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. In short, supporting employees’ autonomy, within a structure, begets “buy in” to change.

    This is why high stakes testing and increased pressure on schools won’t do anything but undermine the intrinsic motivation of teachers and students alike. If we really want to see a change in school/teacher/student performance, we’ll lose the control tactics (control is the opposite of autonomy) and we’ll start supporting the autonomy of everyone from students to administrators within a structure (read: general curriculum). This is, of course, spelled out rather plainly in the research on motivation in general education (see Self-Determination Theory), but the folks in charge seem less interested in objective findings.

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