Deckchairs on The Titanic

Even though the Titanic was sinking, stewards straightened the deckchairs and the band played on. Why? Apparently, attitude is everything, and can easily hijack reason and rational decision making...
Effective Storytelling - Podcast

According to stories from the time, when the iceberg struck the ship, many of the passengers and crew were completely unconcerned – due to the ship’s reputation as ‘unsinkable’. The band played on, and some stewards set about rearranging the deckchairs (‘steamers’) that had been knocked askew in the collision. The view now, of course, is that time might have been better spent addressing the real problem – the hole below the water line – than messing about with superficial issues like deckchairs.

It’s like rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic

The quotation has lots of useful messages, especially for teachers and trainers. The main message is to do with focusing on what’s important, rather than what’s trivial – and that this might require dealing with stuff which is less obvious, immediate and urgent. It helps reinforce the point that we can easily get distracted by what’s in front of us; stuff that might be more crucial is often hidden away.

However the main message, from our point of view, is the way in which the deckchairs and the hole represent behaviour and attitude, particularly for learners. If we can see the deckchairs as learners’ behaviour, and the hole as their emotions, motives and drives, then sometimes trainers and teachers can over-focus on trying to improve key behaviours and skills, when in fact, a lot of our abilities (externally) are driven by how we feel, think and believe about ourselves and those behaviours (internally). So, for some learners to make significant progress, attention needs to be given to the internal state – often completely hidden from view – rather than on the skills and behaviours themselves.

In our view, this is a major reason why behaviour-focused training often fails: learners, in the safe and supportive environment of a training room, may easily demonstrate the key skills being taught; but once out of that environment, the internal doubts and fears re-emerge, and disable what has already, apparently, been ‘learned’. So it might be that too much teaching and training may focus on the deckchairs of skills and competencies, rather than what is making the overall vessel ‘sink’.

Finally, to confirm the power of our internal beliefs, consider another quote… “It wasn’t the iceberg that sank the Titanic… but the belief that it was unsinkable.”

It wasn’t the iceberg that sank the Titanic… but the belief that it was unsinkable.

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