Tom Matson

Senior Executive Leadership Strategist: Gallup Education

Patterns… for as long as I can remember, I’ve always searched for patterns.  I believe behavior patterns show the core of who someone is and reveal ones true life lens and story.  In addition, I tend to look at schools in the same way and have found thriving schools tend to be schools that fully align organizational behaviors to values and thus tend to create a long-term impact on their students. Ironically and yet obviously, the opposite is also true for schools that are misaligned in their values and behaviors. They tend to be challenged and have an adverse reaction to the long-term impact that has on their students’ futures.  It is within the search for those patterns that I find a story to tell.  As an education leader, what do you want your story to be?  How do you want history remembering you?

As a teacher, every single day you have the chance to search for patterns in your students and shape their future as well.  A teacher knows that if a student is able to learn from their past/present and learn how to process what they are seeing through the right lens, then they can help shape that student’s future patterns and ways to interpret future life experiences as well.  “High subjective well-being is not necessarily due to external events in our lives but rather to how we interpret those events.” (Compton & Hoffman, 2012, Page 55)  It is our job as teachers to ask the right questions that help students interpret their patterns and uniqueness.  Such actions can eliminate harmful patterns and increase a student’s well-being. 

The challenges that you face daily however is an increased pressure to teach “to the test” and our days as educators can feel far more reactionary than futuristic.    But, we can learn from great teachers that continue to be focused on great life outcomes.  Every single day a teacher has the chance to create a thriving future for each student they encounter.  If we can establish the right mindset during those formative years, we can change their entire future thriving mindset.  “Harker and Keltner (2001) found that positive emotion in high school was significantly related to well-being 30 years later.” (Compton & Hoffman, 2012, Page 53)  So, as educators, we can see our chance to impact the future of our students.  Imagine a world in which a school’s focus is to create a thriving well-being culture for a chance to influence the trajectory of a student’s future.  Imagine how that would change our future leaders and culture. 

The Gallup Organization has continued to expand our culture’s knowledge on such futures through a nightly poll of people around the world.  By simply asking people’s opinions on their view of the world around them, Gallup has found that five reoccurring areas of well-being have emerged as patterns of life influence/impact.  These include purpose (career), social, financial, physical, and community (Harter & Rath, 2010, pages 6-7).  These five areas are contagious to one another and a school must see their students from all five areas and not simply focus on one area of well-being.  When schools fall into a singular well-being lens pattern, educators find themselves looking far more like the majority rather than the minority.  Worldwide, Gallup has found that while “66% of people are thriving in one area of well-being, only 7% of us are thriving in all five areas” (Harter & Rath, 2010, Page 6). 

So, a goal of a thriving hopeful life has to be at the core of a teacher’s lens. As educators, we should be able to gauge our educational impact on this mindset foundation.  Wouldn’t it be amazing to poll every single one of your students that you have coached, taught, and impacted?  It’s my hope we would want them to look back and be able to talk about how, because of you, their well-being increased and how they learned to thrive in life. Quite simply, a student’s hopeful thriving future life should be a teacher’s barometer to gauge their impact and effectiveness. 

So, if our ultimate goal is to create a hopeful life and create a pathway towards thriving well-being for our students, then such a lens begins with seeing each of them as unique, gifted and motivated differently.  It begins with a strengths-based mindset and helping students understand where they are at their best.  However, sadly, I think too many students are simply reminded of where they are failing or falling short.  But, if we look to the study of leadership, great leaders know their strengths and find ways to spend their time not simply maintaining their strengths, but building upon them.

As an educator, when you play to the student’s strengths, it brings out their very best and their behaviors are contagious to your classroom.  In fact, if your fellow teachers focus on their strengths every day, they are six times as likely to be engaged. But, it doesn’t stop there because they are also more productive both individually and within teams. Finally, they are more than three times as likely to say they have an excellent quality of life (Rath, 2007, pages 11-13).  So, when we give individuals a chance to play to their strengths, it’s contagious to all areas of their life well-being including their community, career, friends and family and they make our schools better. 

When we are playing to our student’s strengths or we ourselves are in moments of time where our strengths are fully engaged, we enter into our spot of flow. “Flow denotes the holistic sensation present when we act with total involvement…it is the state in which action follows upon action according to an internal logic, which seems to need no conscious intervention on our part. We experience it as a unified flowing from one moment to the next, in which we feel in control of our actions, and in which there is little distinction between self and environment; between stimulus and response; or between past, present”  (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990, pages 6-7).  Simply put, time stops in such moments and it feels effortless and natural. 

We find the same thing with our students when we watch them in their sweet spot and as educators, we can’t wait to see them there again.  In fact, I bet we can all look back at our own careers and remember those time stopping moments and to this day we could still describe such moments of time.  It was in those moments that your strengths aligned perfectly with your passions and values.  Imagine a world that each and everyday students felt that flow or sense of timelessness and how it would impact their daily learning and hopeful future.

Boldly, it is our job as educators to create those time stopping moments where our student’s strengths are aligned to their learning. When that happens, you find a thriving classroom full of fully engaged students that contributes to a sense of belonging, growth, and contribution.  After studying the engagement of over 25 million people, Gallup has found successful organizations begin with great managers and teachers that focus on the strengths of those around them.  In fact, if your manager focuses on your strengths, your chances of being actively disengaged are only 1 in 100 (Harter & Wagner, 2006, pages 31-47).  Playing to the individual strengths of each team member connects to their ability to fully be present and be at their very best as a teacher.  As education leaders, if we create engaged schools, we see teams united in values, actions, and create long term thriving well-being of students, staff and communities.

So, while a thriving education world begins with a long-term focus on well-being, we can never simply teach to the test and miss out on ongoing opportunities to learn and grow together as a community. Quite simply, students and staff that attempt to learn together will be found in schools that grow, and schools full of teachers/staff that are set in their ways will remain schools stuck in patterns that will be damaging to their short and long term educational goals.  “Benjamin Barber, an eminent sociologist, once said, ‘I don’t divide the world into the weak or strong, or the successes and the failures… I divide the world into the learners and non-learners’” (Dweck, 2006, p. 16).  So, a core value as an educator and one that guides all of who we need to be, begins with a question for all of us to answer…  are we living out a growth or fixed mindset?

In fact, at the end of every single day, maybe that’s the question we all need to ask ourselves… did we have a growth or fixed mindset?  What about our fellow teachers?  Students?  A teacher’s fixed or growth mindset is tied directly to a student’s mindset.  If a teacher believes they can continue to learn and grow, their student tends to take on the same mindset.  The challenge is there are many teachers and education leaders stuck in a fixed mindset and when that happens you see the group’s inability to grow and accomplish their goals.  When it comes to leaders and educators, “some believe their success is based on innate ability; these are said to have a "fixed" theory of intelligence (fixed mindset). Others, who believe their success is based on hard work, learning, training and doggedness are said to have a "growth" or an "incremental" theory of intelligence (growth mindset). Individuals may not necessarily be aware of their own mindset, but their mindset can still be discerned based on their behavior” (Dweck, 2006, pages 6-9).  These observable behaviors start with the teacher and administrators who are contagious to their students and communities.

The gift of a growth mindset is its link to a hopeful mindset.  If we can help our students know that they can continue to grow and create the right action steps to get there, they see a future that is more hopeful than their present.  In addition, as education leaders, we too have that same choice of where we are going as a team or school.  As a team and administration, we can create a hopeful future and create the right actions to get there.  In fact, hope is a mindset that connects directly to our study of thriving well-being (Lopez, 2013).

The foundation of a hopeful education philosophy is built through teachers that are contagious in their own hopefulness and growth mindset.  Imagine a world of education that when your students leave your classroom, they continue to model such thinking for the rest of their lives!  Imagine a life that when your students leave high school, they continue to seek out feedback, learning and take what you modeled and apply it towards hopeful growth action steps. Like Plato and Socrates attempted to do, we must attempt to model what we have learned from the great leaders that have come before us.  In each of those life-changing leaders, not only did they model hopeful language, but they also modeled behaviors of vulnerability and authenticity.   

So, what does it mean for us to teach with authenticity?  Bill George, the former CEO of Medtronic and Harvard professor states, “leadership begins and ends with authenticity.  It’s being yourself; being the person you were created to be” (George, 2003, page 11).  A thriving school has authentic, vulnerable teachers that trust each other and honor the strengths in one another.  They seek to build upon teach others ideas and take the time to listen and when we feel heard, we feel valued.  When we feel heard AND valued, our engagement increases (Harter & Wagner, 2006).  But, a team’s ability to be authentic starts with leadership. “Authenticity is a collection of choices that we have to make every day. It's about the choice to show up and be real. The choice to be honest. The choice to let our true selves be seen” (Brown, 1990, Page 49). 

Authenticity starts with you.  It starts with you beginning to celebrate your unique strengths and celebrating how you can impact your student’s daily.  It also starts with you knowing where you will be challenged and may have blind spots that can hinder in your ability to be successful and create a thriving engaged classroom.  If we accept the fact that an education team founded in authenticity and openness deepens trust, then it’s our job to take the time to ask the right questions of our fellow teachers and teams to truly know them and allow them to know you.

When we are at our best and playing to our strengths, it’s our most natural self.  It’s us in our purest form and it is us in our spot of flow.  That combination of worlds collides to allow us to be our true authentic self and a spot where our wellbeing is thriving.  When each part of these values impacts our mindset as educators, it’s deeply life changing and contagious.  That contagiousness is not simply just for us as individuals, rather its life changing for our students, their families, schools and community. What an incredible opportunity.  But, our teaching philosophy can’t just be thoughts or words on a piece of paper.  Rather, they need to be authentically modeled, communicated and acted on.  It’s in the action that the true change takes place. We have the chance to impact not just our student’s daily well-being but their future hopeful self as well.  What an incredible gift and what an incredible opportunity.

Brown, B. (2010). The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You're Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are. Center City, MN: Hazelden.

Csikszentmihalyi, M., (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York, NY: HarperCollins.

Compton, W.C., Hoffman, E (2012). Positive Psychology: The Science of Happiness and Flourishing. Belmont, CA: Cengage Learning.

Dweck, C., (2006). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York, NY: Random House.

George, W., (2003). Authentic Leadership: Rediscovering the Secrets to Creating Lasting Value. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Harter J., Rath, T., (2010). Well-being: The Five Essential Elements. New York NY: Gallup Press.

Harter, J., Wagner, R., (2006). 12: The Elements of Great Managing. New York, NY: Gallup Press.

Lopez, S., (2013). Making Hope Happen: Create the Future You Want for Yourself and Others. New York, NY: Atria Books.

             Rath, T., (2007). StrengthsFinder 2.0. New York, NY: Gallup Press.

What the K-State Student Body Election Can Teach U.S. Politicians

Tom Matson

Senior Executive Leadership Strategist: Gallup Education

Last fall, I had the chance to watch the presidential debates with my two teenagers. The debates started cordially, but of course shifted very quickly to the negative. My son picked up on this and asked me, “Why are they only focused on what’s wrong rather than what’s right?” It was a great question and one we should all be asking.

Imagine what it would be like if our politicians focused more on their strengths rather than on attacking their opponents’ weaknesses.

Kansas State University recently put this concept into action in its own campus political debates. The university asked student body candidates to focus on their strengths -- not harp on each other’s weaknesses.

And by strengths, Kansas State means the specific unique talents each student possesses based on the Clifton StrengthsFinder. K-State is a strengths-based campus, meaning it partners with Gallup to give freshmen students the StrengthsFinder assessment, which identifies their top five talents and provides suggestions for how to capitalize on those talents to achieve personal, academic, and career improvement.

To that end, Kansas State incorporated strengths into its recent student body presidential and vice presidential debates. The debates were “a chance to give people an opportunity to look at the candidates through their strengths and help the candidates see their own strengths,” said K-State student Kristen Burton in The Collegian, K-State’s student newspaper.

The moderators asked questions that focused on the candidate’s strengths and how he or she would use the strength, if elected.

Here’s how The Collegian reported on what happened at the debate:

For presidential candidate Kyle Nuss, senior in architectural engineering, his strengths of achiever, competition, learner, focus and positivity were important.

“Achievers” are those who work hard to achieve a goal while “Focus” refers to the ability to keep a goal on task and follow through. Finally, those with “Positivity” are all about being upbeat and positive. 

Nuss’ vice presidential running mate Ariel Mendiola, junior in sociology, cites Nuss’ “Positivity” strength as his most important. “His positivity kept us going and would always keep us going,” Mendiola said. “He kept our eyes on the prize.”

Read what else candidates had to say about their strengths here.

The student body reacted very positively to the debates. “I think strengths are good indicators of people’s qualities, and students can see what they bring to the positions,” one student told The Collegian.

Focusing on candidates’ strengths shifts the political discourse from a negative battle over who is worse to a positive conversation about what each individual can achieve. Imagine how inspirational it would be if the next time you heard a local or federal politician talking about how he or she would use his or her strengths to grow the economy or increase productivity. This is the type of political conversation or debate I would be proud to watch with my children. One that would create a vision for what kind of leader they can be in the future.

How to Embed Strengths Deep in Your Organization's DNA

Tom Matson

Senior Executive Leadership Strategist: Gallup Education

Organizations and campuses that have successfully embedded strengths deep in their DNA leverage the talents of more than just one or a few leaders. They connect strengths-based development with meaningful outcomes, and they are fueled by more than a mere passion for learning about strengths. To embed strengths deep in your organization's DNA, answer the questions whowhy, and how.

Shaping a strengths-based culture takes more than just one leader or advocate. The talents of one person are not enough to be successful. Rather, a well-rounded and representative team is required. This group should be large enough to create impact, yet small enough to make timely decisions.

Once your strengths team is in place, the next step is to figure out which measurable outcomes you aim to affect. Why would your campus or organization invest in strengths? How will you know if it worked? Improved engagement and wellbeing are just two examples of why you would bring strengths to your organization. Strengths are how you improve these business metrics, though -- not why.

Among Gallup clients, we've seen organizations aim their strengths efforts at various performance outcomes. One organization may use strengths to increase employee engagement and profit. Another organization, such as a university, may use strengths to enhance the engagement, wellbeing, retention, and career preparedness of its students. For your strengths effort to be successful, you must clearly articulate and communicate the reason your organization is implementing strengths.

As organizations seek improvement through strengths, they can measure success by individual and team outcomes. A strengths-based organization encourages its people to use their talents to boost their personal engagement and wellbeing -- and to achieve the key outcomes of their role.

For example, when you look at a team through a strengths-based lens, you may see talents that are not being used in a healthy, productive way. In this case, the reason might not be lack of strengths development; it might have to do with the engagement of members of that team. To build a strengths-based organization, employees must put their strengths into action and understand how engagement, wellbeing, and strengths intersect. If their wellbeing or engagement aren't in a good place, their top five strengths look and feel very different to those around them.

To help employees grow, great managers won't just talk with them about their strengths. Rather, these managers will help employees understand how they can use their talents to increase their engagement and wellbeing. Great managers will ask probing questions about expectations, developmental needs, and recognition -- and help them define quality work. They will also use strengths to develop individuals and build teams that create growth and success.

As your organization integrates strengths, remember to first answer the key questions whowhy, and how. Those answers will help your organization embed strengths in its DNA. More importantly, it will help you and your employees meet the key outcomes that matter to your organization's success.