Maybe You Should Focus on This

I notice this all the time with my kids.

I can’t solve problems for them.

Often, as they get older, they don’t even want my help any more.

But sometimes, just sometimes, I can say, “I think focusing on this part will make a big difference.”

And it does.

Because they have the skills. That’s not the problem.

Some of the time I can help them with diagnosis: how to apply their skills to this problem.

But most of the time it’s not even that. They have all the tools, it’s just that it feels uncomfortable–to them, to to anyone–to stick with and prioritize the hard bits.

As bosses and colleagues, as coaches and spouses and friends, we don’t need to have all the answers. Even if we had them, that wouldn’t matter, because they’d be our answers, not someone else’s.

What we do need to do is to listen attentively, to pay close attention, and, occasionally, by reflecting on our own experience, context and perspective, suggest a slightly different focus: a new lens through which to see a situation, a rejiggering of what could be at the very top of the list.

We shouldn’t be in the solutions-giving business. The answers we can provide are rarely just right, and, even if they were, it’s disempowering when an answer comes from someone other than the person facing the challenge.

But helping people channel their energy in the right way—that’s a great way to partner.

That’s Right!

A classmate of mind in graduate school earned himself the nickname, “Yes, but…” He could disagree with anything, and he would happily voice that disagreement.

It’s easy to fall into this trap, to only verbalize when you have a critique to make.

No stranger to this mistake, for many years I was most comfortable speaking up when I saw a fault in someone’s logic, a gap in a plan, or when I had a new idea that I thought was a better solution.

I thought I was helping. I thought I was moving the group towards a better outcome, and that it made sense to speak up with my ‘yes, buts’ and to otherwise keep quiet.

Not surprisingly, I was part of the problem.

To build great teams that come up with great solutions, we should spend most of our time verbalizing specific, heartfelt positive comments. In fact, on the best-performing teams, the ratio of positive to negative comments is a whopping 5.6 to 1. (Incidentally, the same goes for marriages: the ones most likely to stay together have the same 5 to 1 positive-to-negative comment ratio). For the worst-performing teams, the ratio is an abysmal 0.36 to 1.

Why is expressing positivity so important for team performance?

First, because it cultivates an environment of trust and motivation. Let’s remember that most of us, most of the time, are our own worst critics: we barrage ourselves with the echoes of our negative internal narrative. So, each external critique serves to amplify this narrative, while each compliment is muffled by it.

This is why what looks like an environment full of “helpful suggestions” is really one in which the dial on criticism – of ourselves, of each other – is turned up all the way. In this sort of space, people stop taking risks and being willing to do things that might not work.

But wait, there’s more.

The ‘yes, but’ approach does more than undermine trust and chip away at bravery and confidence. It ends up hacking away at the roots of what people need when trying something new.

In areas in which we are not yet skilled, we literally do not know the difference between good and bad. It doesn’t matter if we’re trying to write an email in a new way, practice a new technique for closing a sale or learning to play the violin, at the beginning of steep learning curves (and all new micro-skills have their own steep learning curves), right and wrong action are, to the novice, nearly indistinguishable.

That’s what makes it so invaluable to say, “Yes! That! Do more of that, it was great!!” It both identifies the right, new behavior, making it much more likely to be repeated; and it reinforces that new right action will be rewarded, both intrinsically and extrinsically.

The good news is that there’s a monumentally easy fix for the ‘Yes, but’ rut.

Just say ‘Yes, and…’

Try saying that five times a day and you’re off to a good start.

How to give and get better advice

The problem with most advice is that it’s delivered as “here’s what I think you should do.”

Yet it typically reflects, “here’s what I did in a similar situation.”

That old situation and this new one are never the same: different time, different place, different people.

Plus, upon receiving that kind of advice, we end up stuck again: we’ve turned to someone we trust who has more experience with this type of thing than we have. Hearing their advice, we face a new dilemma: is their wisdom, experience and fresh perspective more valid than what we (closer to the texture and nuance of the situation) see and know?

There’s a better way to approach this conversation, both as advice-seeker and the advice-giver.

If we are asked to give advice, we start by advising less.

Instead, we take a position of inquiry. Our job is to tease out what is going on beneath the surface, the questions that are being balanced, the decision that’s lurking but afraid to show its face. As this picture starts to emerge, we can, gently, begin to engage with what’s been offered up. We can re-frame the options that have been presented and share some new ones. We can question the weight being given to this or that risk (or opportunity). We can inquire about some strongly-held assumptions to see if the could be held more loosely, revealing both their truths and their limitations.

Ultimately, through this engagement, the person who felt stuck doesn’t get a take-it-or-leave-it answer, instead she ends up armed with new criteria, a few better assumptions, and a bit more confidence in her own choice-making ability. So equipped, she’s ready to get herself unstuck and find the path she will choose to walk.

Similarly, as the person seeking advice, we can remind ourselves that a much better opening question than “what do you think I should do?” is “can I talk this through with you?  I’d love your input on whether I’m thinking about this in the right way.”

Trying right

It might be my long-ago past as a wrestler, but I’m a big believer in effort. The willingness and ability to try hard for a sustained period of time makes a huge difference in what we can accomplish.

But sometimes it’s not enough. Yes, people care about the effort, but if it doesn’t deliver what they need then they can end up frustrated.

For example, in terms of working with teams, I find the Situational Leadership framework, developed by Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard, hugely helpful.  It serves as a simple but powerful framing for how different team members need different things depending on the task they are doing and their skill at executing against that task. (Ian does a nice job explaining situational leadership in some detail, and if you want to go deep, go here or here.)

SITUATIONAL LEADERSHIP

Situational leadership_two graphicsThe framework describes the different roles you can play in interacting with a colleague (or a team) – from Directing to Coaching to Supporting to Delegating – depending on how committed to and competent they are at completing a given task.  (The graphic on the right is the classic visual for Situational Leadership; the one on the left focuses particularly on how willingness and ability map to different intervention styles).

It’s a simple framework but it takes a lot to apply it: you’ve got to diagnose the elements that make up a task; map your diagnosis onto an assessment of another person’s skills and motivation for accomplishing the elements of that task; intervene successfully to provide support based on that diagnosis; and adjust along the way for both how well/poorly you diagnosed both the task and your colleague, and how well/poorly you succeeded in your intervention.

My point isn’t about the situational leadership framework (though if you’ve never used it I recommend it highly), it’s about the leverage comes from the right diagnosis of each situation. This is the continual work of figuring out what’s needed at this moment in this situation with this person.

Yes, we should try hard, but the question becomes: where to direct that effort? More often than not, the right starting point is to listen, think about, and reflect on what another person needs to succeed in a given situation.

There’s a selflessness to this orientation, as we move from an internal focus (“I’m thinking about how I am going to act”) to an external one (“what is this situation, who is this person relative to this situation, what do I know about their wants and needs in this type of situation?”).

In this reorientation, we start the work of shifting from trying hard to trying right.

Hard skills, soft skills, real skills

There’s a whole set of things that feel concrete and objective and are easiest to talk about: writing, financial modeling skills, project management, writing a decent PowerPoint deck, etc.

And then there a whole set of “softer” skills – skill in building relationships, how well you manage a meeting, whether or not you successfully deal with uncertainty.

And then the real biggies: Are you a great judge of talent? Do you consistently build trust?  Are you courageous?  Does your presence and do your actions make people better at their jobs?  Do you inspire people?

The challenge is that there’s an inverse relationship between how important a skill is for long-term success and how easy it feels to talk about it.

“You’re still not where you need to be in building a cash flow statement” feels safe.

“I’ve not seen you show consistent success in gaining a sense of shared ownership around your good ideas,” feels like emotional thin ice, so we don’t go there enough.

On some level we know that the second conversation is orders of magnitude more important than the first, but since it feels (inter)personal, less objective and harder to talk about, we avoid having it and stay in the safe (today) but dangerous (in the long-term) space of “stuff that you can learn in a textbook.”

Sooner or later, we have to learn how to talk about the real stuff.

The risk of being a bull

Time is the scarcest of all professional resources, yet we never seem to get enough of it.  A recent conversation with a friend and advisor helped me understand that one of my greatest professional strengths and joys might be exacerbating my time problem.

Earlier in my career, success was doing the right thing in a challenging situation.  Then later on success becam: me, my team, or my organization doing the right thing.

As my span of responsibility has grown, I cannot do everything and I can’t be – and shouldn’t be – involved in every step from here to there.  Obvious enough.  So, outside of work that’s on my plate, I focus my energies on helping those around me solve problems.  I love doing this and I’m generally pretty good at it, which makes it both is intellectually and emotionally rewarding.  I get to problem-solve (fun!) and help a colleague (fun! fun!).  Bingo!

The helpful but very sobering insight is that my enjoyment and capacity at this kind of problem-solving might not be the right end-game.  Because it is so rewarding and because the outcomes are (often) positive – both practically and emotionally – have I created a learned response and, like the proverbial bull seeing a waving red cloth, do I, when presented with a situation in which I might be helpful, just jump in and help?

Why might this be a bad thing?

The suggestion was that consistently helping to solve a set of problems keeps me in the business (forever) of being involved in helping solve those sorts of problems – without ever asking the question: what sort of problems do I want, in the long run, to be in the business of solving?  For example, it could be that I always want to have a role to play in key hiring decisions or important strategic choices, but is there another set of situations that other people are better equipped and better positioned to resolve in the long term?

If so, when I’m presented with a cool, fun, challenging and interesting situation, the first question I should ask myself isn’t “what should we do here?” but rather “is this the kind of problem I should be in the business of helping solve in the long term?”  If it is, great.  If not, how would I act differently?

Whenever I’m looking for advice about a tough situation, working through the solution with a respected colleague teaches me something.  But that process of osmosis could be accelerated by a much more explicit, meta-conversation about how I’m engaging with the problem and how my more experienced colleague is coming up with different and better approaches and solutions to that same problem.

That’s the conversation I suspect I need to be having more often.

Harder, requiring different muscles, and, toughest of all, forcing me to look at all that great short-term feedback I’m getting and say: this thing that I love doing might just be part of the reason I have too little time on my hands.