Learn To Share

By Zach Mural

How many times have you learned about something happening in your program, department, or community and thought to yourself, “Wow, I wish someone would have talked to me before they made that choice”? Now, think to yourself, “How often do I reach out and communicate what I’m working on, my goals, or my thoughts about the big-picture importance of the programs and services that are offered?” Working with others and with a common purpose toward larger goals is one of the biggest challenges any industry faces, and parks and recreation (and specifically youth programming) is no exception.

Far too often, decisions are made without fully considering all of the relevant information. This occurs for several reasons. First, individuals making the decisions may not be aware there is additional information to be had. Human nature assumes that others see the world the same way we do. Even if we “know” that is not the case intellectually, we still operate under this assumption the vast majority of the time. While this might be natural, we frequently move forward with an idea without giving full consideration to the impact it will have on others.

The second reason and the primary focus of this column is that many times we are overly protective of our group and are hesitant to share information outside of a comfortable setting. While there may be several valid reasons why we operate this way, the practice is ultimately harmful to advancing the field and ensuring we have a positive impact on those who participate in the programs.

Evolving Evolution
My wife, a psychologist with a deep understanding of evolutionary psychology, frequently reminds me that as a species, humans have evolved as social creatures whose very survival was dependent on the groups to which they belonged. From our earliest days, we learned to hunt in a group, care for each other’s young, and work together to build strong shelters and safe communities for our families. “Others” were viewed as dangerous, and sharing resources (both physical and intellectual) was a risky proposition. In fact, keeping food, materials, and information for an individual group, clan, or community was the safest option. While evolutionarily adaptive for a time, this way of thinking and acting becomes a hindrance to high-quality parks and rec programs.

So, how can we move beyond protecting what is ours and start to genuinely share our ideas, direction, and knowledge with broader groups in order to advance our goals? Let’s look at three levels of groups and suggest ways and reasons to share more and shield less.

Promising ProgramsThe individual program is at the most micro-level in any parks and rec organization. Whether it’s a tiny tots gymnastics program, swim lessons, or an art class, most departments’ programs comprise a range of options for children and families. At this level, communication is usually good for individuals in the same spaces (e.g., instructors who frequently work together). Often a breakdown occurs when one group of programs is relating to another, or even between individuals who work with children of different ages, or those who instruct on different days. Getting back to the evolutionary example, there are good reasons for this. We all want to look good in the eyes of our supervisors and the families we serve, and sharing ideas, successful practices, or “little tricks” that work make it more likely that our peers will excel in their work. While it may be difficult to admit, if others look good, it puts additional (and often unwanted) pressure on us to do even better.

While the reasons to keep ideas to ourselves are rooted in self-interest, it is clear that this approach does not serve the larger mission. As supervisors, it is imperative that we create a community and culture that rewards sharing ideas, posing questions, and offering suggestions. The clear expectation is that everyone can and will be successful, and while there will be challenges, a team approach will work. Further, as supervisors, we need to go out of our way to highlight and praise individuals who share and give freely, thus advancing a positive atmosphere.

“My” Department
Perhaps the most common “groups” in any organization are the different departments that make up the whole. While having groups that focus on various areas such as maintenance, finance, operations, etc., makes good sense, these distinctions may cause individuals to hesitate in sharing important information or quality ideas. Again, this hesitancy is rarely conscious and may even be based in the belief that someone else wouldn’t be interested or understand the nuances of a particular idea or practice. The unfortunate reality is that failing to share across departments is a frequent cause of organizational stagnation and less than optimal performance.

Of course, I am not suggesting that everyone needs to or should share every detail. But if one component of an organization is unaware of what another is doing (or why it is being done), then members of the organization will likely do things that hamper the goals of others.

Fortunately, for all involved, several, relatively simple things can be done to solve this common problem. The first is to make time at leadership meetings for department heads to share what they are working on, and to be given license to ask questions of other leaders. This approach goes beyond simply reporting what is being done but instead encourages conversations about the “how” and “why” so supervisors can then share these ideas with their team. Another way to improve inter-department communication is to utilize new technologies. Workplace solutions like “Yammer,” or groups on social networks, such as Facebook or Twitter (make sure they are private), or even a daily email or text update to other leaders in the organization can all be effective communication tools. The bottom line is that no matter what approach one takes, encouraging and modeling that sharing is expected is the first step towards increased ownership and a better-informed group.

We’re All In It Together
The final level I want to touch on is the field at large. While I know that, in many markets competition for participants is fierce, the reality is the work we do builds stronger communities and individuals. Of course, there may be some proprietary information that should not be shared, but everyone benefits by sharing best practices based on new information (research studies, safety concerns, etc.). Finding consensus is critical in advancing policy, securing funding, and promoting the field to society at large. This last endeavor can only be accomplished when we all become less protective of what is ours, and more willing to share the how, why, and what we know for the greater good of those who we ultimately serve.

Dr. Zachary Mural is an executive-level leader, youth-development professional, and father. He holds a Ph.D. in Educational Psychology, is the owner of Youth Development Consulting, is VP of Education for The Minnieland Academy Family of Schools in Northern Virginia, and is an ExpertOnlineTraining faculty member. If you have questions or comments, or would like to discuss a possible workshop or training, visit Youthdevelopmentconsulting.com.