Raising the Bar Means Raising the Participation
On the playground at my school we have a set of monkey bars and rows of rings that students can play on to develop their upper body strength. This year I set the goal for all of my kindergarten students to be able to do the rings and monkey bars. Since they are both suspended off the ground, the students always have to face the threat of falling, which happens all the time. It is about a two foot drop so it is very rare that anyone feels hurt. Nonetheless, the fear factor has kept a certain percentage of the children from really going after the goal. Today something really great happened. In one of the classes, a group of girls decided that this was their day. All 5 of them made it across the rings and then they came running over to me to announce their triumph.
There is nothing really all that technical or difficult about the teaching. First I have the belief that all of my 5 year olds want to make it across the bars even if they say they don’t. When the students say they don’t, they are talking out of their fear or the messages inside already that say they can’t because of their size and lack of strength. I just say to myself everyone can do this and everyone wants to.
When people say no to activity like running or walking or trying a new sport, the no usually is coming from fear. Inwardly everyone wants to participate fully in life because this is what it means to human. What I am learning this year from my 5 year olds is that I can turn down the volume of the no or just not listen to it at all. When I am feeling fearful about doing something new which makes me hold back, I understand now that it is the fear in me that is doing the talking and not the active, participatory full of life part.
The fear has many names and voices like the fear of making a mistake and being laughed at, the fear of not being very good even though I put in a hard effort, the fear of being turned down by others, the fear of being injured physically or emotionally, the fear of being put down, or the fear of looking bad. What I realized recently was that the fear can have a strong voice in me and it can often win. So instead of listening to the strong voice of fear I can turn off the volume and instead see the part of me that loves to participate more and go for it in myself and others.
In the country that I live in right now, Malaysia, I find, that despite it being a democratic and pluralistic society, most people are not encouraged to give their opinions or express their creative ideas for the betterment of the group. In fact it seems to have been quite discouraged as it has in other parts of the world. Whenever I do a workshop in Malaysia and ask for opinions, they are not forthcoming immediately as they would be in North America because there is still a great deal of fear associated with participating in a democratic way. In authoritarian cultures people hold back their opinions to protect themselves from getting shot. Transitioning from an authoritarian form of culture to a participatory one is not without its challenges because when someone has a good idea, they keep it to themselves out of fear even if the authority figures are not so strong. The memory of the need to not participate can be so strong and be so loud that people just hide away. This was undoubtedly one of President Bush’s biggest mistakes and why the initial armed victory did not bring immediately results in Iraq. The inward fear that has been sustained through hundreds of years of authoritarian rule is slow to give way because the culture of participation is such a weak force. One tyrant just replaces another.
The great majority of leaders who find themselves in a position of power and recognition usually make the wrong decisions when it comes to participation. Instead of being an encouraging force they tend to a stifling force because when a culture in an organization or country moves toward more participation it automatically means that power is shared. This is much better for a culture because it means that more people can become more capable and do much more. It is simple when you think of it in terms of a running race. In an authoritarian culture the only runner is the leader. Everyone else sits around a watches and only does stuff to support that leader’s run. Well you end up with one person with a lot of ability and everyone else with very marginal abilities. In a participatory culture everyone runs and everyone’s running is valued and recognized even the last place person. The leaders do everything they can to mobilize everyone into running so that they can all become better. It is pretty simple.
If you are a leader and you are at a meeting to discuss the future of your organization, you can take a look around and see how many people are participating in the decision making and betterment of the organization and then you can just find ways to encourage more people to participate. Its easy.