Even if you can dream it, you still probably can’t do it. And even if you build it, they probably won’t come. That’s the takeaway from research by Christopher Kayes, associate professor of management at George Washington University, who has spent years studying how positive thinking and goal-setting in business and politics can lead to failure.
The idea came to him after witnessing the disastrous 1996 climbing season on Mount Everest—15 people dead in one spring, events chronicled in Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air. Kayes saw that climbers were ignoring risks in pursuit of their idealistic goal. “Most mountain-climbing accidents happen on the way down,” says Kayes. “The climbers may get to the summit, but they didn’t notice this storm coming in. There are unintended consequences that can result in anything from injury to death.”
By thinking positively and concentrating on an aspiration, a person narrows his or her focus and becomes detached from reality.
In politics, several characteristics mark a relentlessly upbeat pursuit that’s doomed for disaster. Most notable is what Kayes calls “face-saving behavior”—the tendency for people to become so absorbed in their goals that the pursuit becomes a part of their identity, making it harder to give up when things go awry. He points to the GOP platform on immigration reform before the 2012 election—fences, self-deportation—that had been the party’s aim for so long. Republicans became incapable of abandoning it, even in the face of election-altering demographics. Kayes saw the same fixation in Everest expedition leaders who had promised clients they’d get them to the summit—and then didn’t give up when the weather turned, for fear of ruining their reputation. Says Kayes: “When we set a goal, we engage in this behavior that says, ‘I’ve got to accomplish this or I’m a failure.’ ”
His new book, The Breakdown and Rebuilding of Learning in Organizations—due later this year—looks at similar failures in the intelligence community’s search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. “They called it a ‘slam-dunk,’ ” Kayes says. “They told everyone that they knew it so well, they didn’t even need to open it up to criticism.”
The power of negative thinking comes in when an organization can challenge prevailing beliefs like that one and adapt to potential pitfalls. That was the case ten years later when that same intelligence community chose to raid Osama bin Laden’s compound. Inside accounts have depicted the process leading to the raid as a constant battle of second-guessing and worst-case-scenario planning.
“Fast-forward a decade and a lot of those people are still in play in this decision to go after bin Laden, but they took a very different approach to how they assessed the information,” Kayes says. “It’s an improvement in learning—and how to make more intelligent decisions.”
This article appears in the April 2013 issue of The Washingtonian.
More families are trusting their children to DC public schools, according to numbers released today, but a deeper look shows promising trends, raises questions about the future of public schooling, and points out troubling numbers for the traditional public schools.
The base numbers would warrant happy days for public school officials: For the first time in more than a decade, the number of students enrolled in public schools topped 80,000, according to preliminary figures provided by the Office of the State Superintendent of Education.
In 2002 that number was 76,427, representing a trend of families fleeing the deteriorating public schools. Now the renovation of many decrepit school buildings and the drive to reform is drawing students back to public schools. The latest head count is 80,854.
New population figures show that younger people are moving into the city. Many are staying to start families, and they are sending their offspring to public schools.
Most of the increase went to public charter schools, from preschool to high school. The charters, funded with public dollars but operated independently of DCPS, gained 11 percent compared with the last school year. Traditional public schools gained 1 percent, a number that might drop to 0 when auditors review the preliminary figures.
“The trend of the past 16 years is continuing apace, at rates none of us could have anticipated” says Robert Cane, executive director of FOCUS, a charter school advocacy group.
Updated June 26, 4:40 PM: Needless to say, it's been an odd and bumpy June on the otherwise tranquil Charlottesville, Virginia, campus of the University of Virginia. Today the school's board voted unanimously to reinstate president Teresa Sullivan, 16 days after she was ousted. The action comes after Virginia governor Bob McDonnell said that if the school did not reinstate her, he would seek resignations of the board members. Half of them are appointed by the governor. According to reports, the meeting was called to order by Rector Helen Dragas, who led the move to have Sullivan ousted, at that time without a vote. She apologized for the way the matter was handled. Sullivan, for her turn, said, "I want to partner with you in bringing about what's best for the university."
The members of the school board, who sought Sullivan’s resignation, picked a new interim president, but as if to underscore the internal unrest, the vote for Carl P. Zeithaml, dean of the university’s school of commerce, was not unanimous. In a statement to the school community, the board’s chair, Helen E. Dragas, made reference to the controversial decision. “We certainly never wished nor intended to ignite such a reaction from the community,” the statement said. “You deserved better from this board.”
Sullivan spoke to the board in her own defense on Monday. We have paraphrased the remarks below and ask you to read them and give us your opinion. What do you think of the actions of the University of Virginia? Did the board act in haste? Was this political? Should the board itself be overhauled? Or was it a prudent decision and Sullivan’s time to go? Let us know in the comments.
The father of a 5-year-old Sidwell Friends School student has filed a $10 million suit against the school for allegedly allowing its staff psychologist to carry on an affair with his wife.
In court filings, Arthur Newmyer claims he and his daughter suffered "severe emotional distress" when then-school psychologist James Huntington carried on a lengthy affair with his wife, Tara Newmyer. Huntington was treating Newmyer's daughter at the time, and the suit alleges that the girl was routinely present when he and Tara Newmyer would meet to spend time together.
Arthur Newmyer is accusing Sidwell of being aware of the affair and doing "nothing to stop it." The lawsuit, posted below (warning, it contains extremely graphic language), is based mostly on a large volume of e-mails Huntington sent Tara Newmyer from his Sidwell e-mail address over the course of their affair. In one of the more outlandish examples, Huntington appears to joke about contemplating mentioning his sexual desire for Tara Newmyer while in a private professional session with her young daughter.
One other potentially salacious tidbit to come out of the suit, as the Examiner points out: Huntington, who has since been dismissed from the school, taught sexual education to sixth-graders in 2009-2010, the same year that President Obama's daughter Malia was in the sixth-grade at Sidwell.