The Magic of Perspective: How Harry Potter and My 8 Year Old Helped Me Better Understand Effective Teams

Eric Chagala (Ed.D. Educational Leadership) is the founding principal of the Vista Innovation & Design Academy (VIDA). Eric believes that all kids need a place to matter, that schools have souls and those souls need to be nurtured, and that our actions say what we believe about kids. EricChagala.com

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The reality of the modern world, especially in schools, is that we work in teams. Teachers may work in grade level teams, PLCs, vertical teams, cross-collaborative teams, and a million other configurations. Administrators also have teams: perhaps at the site level, but also typically across a district. Sometimes these teams gel and they are off to the races moving forward on the work. Sometimes these teams struggle more. Sometimes the beliefs, the personalities, or behaviors within a team can cause strife, frustration, discontent, mistrust, and otherwise slow or derail the work. So how might we be very intentional about designing organizational culture in a way that helps to work past the possible pitfalls of some teams?

One of the most magical experiences our little family has shared together was a vacation where we spent 3 days exploring The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Orlando. My wife and daughters were already raving fans of the Harry Potter books and subsequent movies, and the enchantment of the park experience made me a fan. It was on this trip that I learned about the Sorting Hat at a special school for training young witches & wizards called Hogwarts.

The Sorting Hat was used to place students into different Houses based on what it could sense from a student, and what the student wanted. These Houses can most quickly be named and described as:

House Name General Characteristic of Students in that House
Gryffindor Brave & Adventurous
Hufflepuff Loyal & Kind
Ravenclaw Intelligent & Introspective
Slytherin Cunning. (Most “bad” characters are Slytherins, but not all Slytherins are “bad” people).

It was during some silly familial disagreement on that trip that one of our daughters explained to us that if we knew what each other’s Hogwarts Houses were, that maybe we could understand why we were bickering. It was a brilliant insight from an 8 year old, and immediately a light went off in my head about an issue I was dealing with 3,000 miles away, back home in San Diego.

A few years ago in a context outside of our school, I was on a team that was, for the most part, dysfunctional. There were five of us, and we had very different views of the world, we had very different views about our work, we had very different understandings about our roles in the work—we even had different outlooks on what the work actually was. This, sadly, as in many organizations, led to discussions by a few behind the backs of others to air frustrations, discontent, and otherwise unproductive behavior. I was as guilty as anyone else in all of the mess.

In reflection, at the root of the team’s issues was that we were unable to have any real discourse with each other. We talked, but there was no understanding amongst us. We lacked perspective. Perhaps we didn’t like each other. Perhaps our viewpoints of the world were too different. Perhaps our purposes for doing the work were not aligned. Perhaps the ways we went about anything and everything were all totally off from one another.

So, building off the advice of our 8 year old daughter for how to figure out our familial bickering, I did what any well-seasoned and mature person in management would do:

I sorted everyone on the team into Hogwarts Houses!

It turns out we had two Gryffindors, one Ravenclaw, me the Hufflepuff, and a Slytherin. Standing there in line, this insight began to sink in.

Just as in the books and movies the audience was able to expect something from the characters based on the House that they were sorted; so the puzzle of dysfunction was beginning to make sense to me. What if we knew what to expect from someone because of how they are predisposed, or wired, and you allowed that knowledge to provide context for things? What if that context made you more patient? What if that patience allowed you the time and space to be more empathetic? What type of perspectives might be gleaned from that empathy and how might that then change the interactions and functionality of a team? And how would you do all of that at scale in an organization?

Sorting us into Hogwarts Houses immediately helped provide me context clues for why our team was in fact dysfunctional. When we returned, I let the Gryffindors in on this wild insight of sorting, and eventually everyone knew. It immediately made a huge impact. Suddenly in our interactions—the way we spoke to each other, the framing of questions—the patience to imagine the origin of behaviors, dispositions, and mindsets began to take root. By the time the team disbanded a few years later we had grown in our work and we had actually all become genuine friends.

In that time, no one changed who they were. No one caved in on what they stood for. Rather, context led to patience. Patience led to hearing. Hearing led to empathy. Empathy led to grace. Grace led to a willingness to grow from the perspectives of others, and it allowed for the team’s thinking to be expanded.

It may seem like a silly scenario, but it was one of the most profound moments and realizations I had had as a leader. Perspective. Before you knew it, I was sorting everyone into Houses: my bosses, our teachers, the students—it was radical—and I wondered:

How might we purposefully design for perspective-building in our school culture?

Here are a few insights and quick-resources we utilize when doing just that.

1. Territories of culture: understanding that there are different territories of culture within an organization. For the work at our school, we break “culture” down into four areas:

  • Organizational
  • Technical
  • Relational
  • Adaptive

2. Building connections amongst teams beyond Happy Hour.

3. Aligning Purpose: elevating the purpose of the work over the personalities involved in the work.

4. Talent: bringing out the best in each member of the team and inspiring them to achieve more. To be too busy for the bullshit of pettiness, and to see their own work on an elevated plane for making an wider impact.

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