S3: Ep. 91: Disrupting Robust Discrepancies. A Disruptive Conversations with Isobel Stevenson.


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By Keita Demming. Discovered by Player FM and our community — copyright is owned by the publisher, not Player FM, and audio is streamed directly from their servers. Hit the Subscribe button to track updates in Player FM, or paste the feed URL into other podcast apps.
In this episode of Disruptive Conversations, I interview Isobel Stevenson, Director of Organizational Learning at the Connecticut Center for School Change. The Center is a nonprofit based in Hartford, Connecticut. In this conversation, we discuss a range of topics that span areas like coaching, leadership, evaluation, and even the role of gaming the system. You will need to listen to the episode to understand the last one.
Some of the things that stood out for me in this interview were:
How and where should leadership meet coaching?
I am of the view that in today’s world leadership should adopt more of a coaching approach than what is traditionally thought of as leadership. In my view, leaders should be having more coaching-like conversations. In our conversation, Isobel and I discuss the idea that leaders need to develop the skill of challenging peoples thinking through conversations. In my view, we use conversations as the mechanism by which we get people to gain insight and a new perspective.
Evaluations are pretty much worthless.
I have always questioned the value of evaluations. Isobel, on the other hand, goes as far as saying they are worthless and gives some clear example of how they lack utility. Particular concerning their stated purpose. One way I understood the conversation was that they are useful but just not in the way they were intended or how we purport to find utility in them. What Isobel argues, and I happen to agree, is that evaluations are the best way to get people to become defensive. It is the best way to stunt their growth. We put them in a defensive frame which is not a place of growth.
Show up and focus on the process.
When I asked Isobel about the best lesson she ever learned, she talks about interviewing a very experienced coach who said show up. For her, this simple prompt got her to think about showing up for people and being of service to them. It moved her away from focusing on the end. Instead, it got her to focus on how she showed up for people. What I got from this is that it is vital to show up and be present for the people you serve. In short, focus on process and not the outcome.
What is the focus?
In our conversation, we talked about the tendency for people to focus on feeling better or feeling good. Isobel says in our conversation, she is not convinced that is the goal. Instead, let us think for a moment where people gain a sense of identity, pride or dignity. For many, it comes from feeling a sense of competence. Things have changed. Suddenly we are no longer feel that sense of competence. So not only are we feeling less competent. We are also managing loss and change. That is a lot to handle. One question that came up for me was, instead of working to feel good or better. What if the focus was on regaining a sense of power and control?
Problematizing the tendency to be positive.
We have a tendency, that is as far as I can tell, finds its roots in self-help books. We are obsessed with putting things in the affirmative or the positive. Here Isobel and I dive into this a little. For example, if one thinks of good as going smoothly or well, then we need to have a conversation about what that means. The goal could be things like learning. In my language, we instead ask people to notice the progress they have been making. Often, we need to reframe how we think about the goal because if we only wish to frame things in the positive, then we may be focusing on the wrong things. We have a very dive deeper into this conversation in the episode.
Robust Discrepancies
I love this framing. What are the robust discrepancies that we are noticing? I was delighted to be reminded to pay attention to the robust discrepancies that occur in systems. For Isobel, as an educator, they are opportunity, experience and outcomes among student groups. We all exist in systems that produce robust discrepancies, and two things came up for me. Firstly, how then do we notice these discrepancies? Secondly, how do we address these discrepancies? Take for example, as Isobel points out, “if we are looking at a situation where the students who identify as white are outperforming the students who identify as Black or Latino. If the white students are outperforming students of color by, in some cases 20 plus percentage points, that’s a pretty big discrepancy. And it’s not just about the test that they take that reveals that discrepancy. It’s also about what classes those students have the opportunity to enrol in while they are in school. And what you know, what that experience looks like.” I think it is so important to pay attention to these robust discrepancies.
We are all affected by the optimism bias.
This conversation reminded me of the planning fallacy, which is the that people tend to underestimate how long it will take them to accomplish or complete a task. This bias is deeply connected to another common bias known as the optimism bias. This is important because it disrupts people at the individual and organizational or group level. If we tend to underestimate how long things will take then when things take longer it affects us at several levels. The quote that I think should not be missed is that “the plan itself does not produce the outcome we desire.” For Isobel, many leaders attain their roles because they focus on potential and not problems. This means that they are sometimes blind to problems and have an optimism bias. They too can miss the issues.
Changing beliefs without changing people’s capacity
I enjoyed this quote. It is something I have struggled with on many occasions. In my work, I have contemplated the ethics of changing beliefs without providing people with the capacity to enact or respond to those new beliefs. I enjoyed this part of the conversation with Isobel.
Doing evaluation better.
One of my favorite questions in thinking about organizations is, are we doing what claim to be doing? Isobel’s provocation, as I understand it is that “we should probably stop claiming that evaluation is a mechanism by which people get better.” The idea is that an evaluation will improve people is unfounded.
Rank Introduces a level of scepticism
Isobel makes the point that there is a phenomenon where people who have less power have a bias towards scepticism for people with power. If leaders understood this, it could change how they approach conversations with the people they serve. People are less willing to give the benefit of the doubt. As a result, leaders need to think about communicating better.

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