Category Archives: Malcolm Gladwell

“Threshold Model of Collective Behaviour”

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As a basketball fan, I was fascinated listening to this podcast by Malcolm Gladwell (you can read the whole transcript here as well), discussing Wilt Chamberlain and his poor free throw shooting.  Wilt Chamberlain is known as one of the best players in NBA history, yet is also considered one of the worst free throw shooters to ever play the game.

Rick Barry though, a great player in his own right, was one of the best free throw shooters of all time.  The reason why Rick Barry is brought up though is not only because of how good of a free throw shooter he was, but because he was so good, doing it in a way that is so unique.  His technique was to throw the ball between his legs (which he says is a much more natural motion).  This is otherwise known as the “granny shot”.

Rick Barry shooting between the legs, or known in many basketball circles as "the granny shot".

Rick Barry shooting between the legs, or known in many basketball circles as “the granny shot”.

What I found fascinating about the podcast is that even though Wilt, and so many others, would have benefitted from this technique, the stigma that came with it, made them choose a way that was actually worse.  Gladwell references sociologist Mark Granovetter, and his idea of “Threshold Model of Collective Behaviour”.  He describes it as the following:

Now, what does Granovetter mean by that word, “threshold”? A belief is an internal thing. It’s a position we’ve taken in our head or in our heart.

But unlike beliefs, thresholds are external. They’re about peer pressure. Your threshold is the number of people who have to do something before you join in.

Granovetter makes two crucial arguments. The first is that thresholds and beliefs sometimes overlap. But a lot of the time, they don’t.

When your teenage son is driving 100 miles an hour at midnight with three of his friends in your Toyota Camry, it’s not because he believes that driving 100 miles per hour is a good idea. In that moment, his beliefs are irrelevant. His behaviour is guided by his threshold.

Ultimately, someone in education with a “low threshold”, is more open to going with the group, where as someone with a “high threshold”, is more likely to do it their own way.  I found this fascinating in connection with opposite ends of the spectrum in education.  The teacher that may be reluctant to go beyond “traditional” ways of teaching, while others around them might do the same.  But on the other end, someone who is more open to being extremely forward thinking in an environment that is steeped in traditional ways of thinking, might also have a high threshold.  What is important is to recognize the culture of the group, as well as the individual.

But the one part that really fascinated me about the podcast was an assertion that Gladwell made about Rick Barry’s inability to move others to do it his way, when it has been proven to work better than what you typically see in a basketball game.  In one word, it was Barry’s “likability”, or lack thereof.

And I’d read all that stuff about him– half the players disliked him, the other half hated him. And I kind of braced myself before I met him. But I liked him.

Or maybe it makes more sense to say, that I really admired him. Because I finally understood what someone like Rick Barry stands for. It’s perfectionism.

And what is a perfectionist? Someone who puts the responsibility of mastering the task at hand ahead of all social considerations, who would rather be right than liked. And how can you be good at something complex, how can you reach your potential if you don’t have a little bit of that inside you?

This idea is so crucial in terms of leadership.  There are people that I am sure we have encountered that are absolutely brilliant in the fields of education (or elsewhere), yet their ideas seem to take a long time for others to gravitate towards, because they seem to be more concerned with being “right” than being “liked”.  You are probably thinking of someone like that at this moment.  Now, doing the right thing can be hard sometimes and could make you enemies, but we have to realize the importance of building relationships in helping move people forward.

As an example, after speaking to a group where one of my good friends was in the audience, I asked him what he thought.  He shared that he really loved what I talked about, but the first 10 minutes I spent too much time sharing my own story.  What I told him is that he knew me well, and so he didn’t need that, but with the majority of the group meeting me for the first time, I needed that time to build rapport.  Simply put, people don’t buy what you are saying, until they buy you. That made sense to him.

In our pursuit to continuously push the importance of developing something much more powerful in  today’s classroom, we have to remember that relationships are crucial in helping move people forward.    Stephen Covey talks about this so eloquently in “The Speed of Trust”:

When trust is low, in a company or in a relationship, it places a hidden “tax” on every transaction: every communication, every interaction, every strategy, every decision is taxed, bringing speed down and sending costs up. My experience is that significant distrust doubles the cost of doing business and triples the time it takes to get things done.

By contrast, individuals and organizations that have earned and operated with high trust experience the opposite of a tax—a “dividend” that is like a performance multiplier, enabling them to succeed in their communications, interactions, and decisions and to move with incredible speed. A recent Watson Wyatt study showed that high-trust companies outperform low-trust companies by nearly 300 percent!”

If you want to move people to places of discomfort, we must realize that the time spent building those relationships should not be seen as an expenditure, but as a necessary investment.

Strength in Weakness

“Giants are not what we think they are. The same qualities that appear to give them strength are often the sources of great weakness.” Malcolm Gladwell

Personally, I struggled throughout most of my time in school.  Although my early years I did very well, by the time I was in grade seven, I disconnected from the process of school, and honestly do not know if I would have actually stuck it out if it wasn’t for my love of sports.  If I wanted to play basketball and football, I would have to stick it out in school.  

I am also not one of those educators that grew up wanting to be a teacher.  I only decided after my fourth year of university that I wanted to become a teacher.  I loved kids but it was not my first choice as a profession.  Any way that I could avoid school, I would, whether that was missing classes or simply downloading the notes off of a website at the time.  I still have dreams about missing final exams and failing courses that I had no idea that I was actually taking.  This experience, I believe, gives me a certain empathy for the student that hates school, or gets sent to the office, because I was that same kid. Why would I recreate the same experiences for someone that I struggled with myself?

Yet sometimes, I have watched teachers that mastered school struggle with teaching students.  I remember one math teacher who was a genius in the subject, struggle to reach students.  You could see him wondering why kids just didn’t understand the toughest problems, as it became second nature.  His ability and interest in the subject was so advanced, that he would often struggle to understand why others didn’t have the same ability.  

In the context of change, are we more likely to hire an educator that breezed through school and loved the way it was created, or someone who struggled?  If want school to look different, someone who aced school might actually be the person that struggles with changing a structure they accelerated in, whereas someone who struggled, just might be the person who wants to challenge the way we have always done it.  I am not about absolutes, but these decisions are not as simple as the person with the best grades, is going to be the best for the position. Thomas Friedman challenges this idea in the article, “How to Get a Job at Google”:

Laszlo Bock, the senior vice president of people operations for Google — i.e., the guy in charge of hiring for one of the world’s most successful companies — noted that Google had determined that “G.P.A.’s are worthless as a criteria for hiring, and test scores are worthless. … We found that they don’t predict anything.” He also noted that the “proportion of people without any college education at Google has increased over time” — now as high as 14 percent on some teams. At a time when many people are asking, “How’s my kid gonna get a job?” I thought it would be useful to visit Google and hear how Bock would answer.

Don’t get him wrong, Bock begins, “Good grades certainly don’t hurt.” Many jobs at Google require math, computing and coding skills, so if your good grades truly reflect skills in those areas that you can apply, it would be an advantage. But Google has its eyes on much more.

When administrators look for strengths in what sometimes might be perceived as weakness in their educators, we create an environment where educators do the same for their students. But we might need to also realize that sometimes our greatest strengths might be the thing that is holding us back.  What works and comes natural to an individual might not work for others, and in an organization that should be so learner focused, we really have to try to understand things from the viewpoint of those that we serve, not only the ideas that have been shaped from our own experiences.