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A focus on the future brings better results

John Strom

When asked what their greatest asset is, most managers answer “my people.” They’re right! People — more specifically people’s words and actions — are the most significant competitive advantage you have.

Interestingly, when they’re asked what’s their greatest frustration, these same managers will again answer, “my people.” Why is this? It seems most managers are frustrated by the fact that they can’t seem to consistently get the best from their people. While they appreciate when their people achieve the terrific results they usually do, they’re frustrated when these same people don’t perform as they should. They do great things; then they mess up in some way. They say or do something that isn’t on track.

Managers’ frustration comes from not being able to fully understand why people say the things they say, do the things they do. “I just don’t understand why [name] does things like that,” they exclaim. “What made you say (or do) such a thing?” they ask. This is precisely where the manager starts to say and do the wrong things too! This is exactly the wrong track to go down with people.

My Approach Wasn’t Very Successful

I worked as a manager for years with the same frustrations. I figured that if I understood better why people did what they did, I could understand their motivations and tap into that to get them to do what I wanted them to do. The old “WIIFM” (What’s In It For Me) concept. Show them “what’s in it for them” and they’d do what I wanted them to do. And I was pretty successful with this approach. The problem was, they still kept messing up. I’d get frustrated by this and would question them about why they did what they did in an attempt to understand them better (and thereby better lead them).

Too often these conversations did not go well. Inside I was frustrated and despite my attempts to not show it, they knew (don’t kid yourself — they can see it in your body language, hear it in your voice). When questioned about why they said what they said or did what they did they’d try to explain themselves or give “excuses” (my word). They’d become defensive.

These conversations were usually “out of the blue” to them. They didn’t know they hadn’t done things the way they should have. They were just going along doing their job and here you come asking them about something they did or didn’t do in the past. Their defensive reaction makes sense; they’re being asked to defend what they said/did. Not long into the conversation I’d pick this up. I could often see that I wasn’t really “getting through to them” and I’d try to adjust my approach to be more successful. Usually I wasn’t! Later I’d end up “having this same conversation again” with the person — a talk that generally went even worse than the first time. I would tell them what to do. They’d nod their head up and down in agreement. Then they wouldn’t do it or at least wouldn’t consistently do it. Sound familiar?

Not only was I not being successful changing their behaviors, I was wasting both my productive time and their’s. In fact, sometimes my conversations would lead to more “mess ups” from them — and fewer of their great achievements. My approach made sense, but it wasn’t working — for them, for me and for my organization. My search for another approach didn’t get me much. For the most part, the “experts” said to do what I was doing. If you understand why people do what they do, you can be more effective influencing them. Hmmm…

An Approach That Works Better

A few years ago, working with my colleague John Robison, I figured out a better approach. It’s not that the basic tenant is wrong; it’s right!

When you understand why people say/do things you can better influence them.

The problem was the way I was going about gaining that understanding. When I looked at what people had said or done to gain that understanding and asked them about it, I was backward focused. What I need to be is forward focused. Instead of talking about what has happened, I should focus on what will happen. This gets the results I want: more consistent, productive performance.

What John and I realized is that when people look back, they naturally feel the need to defend what they’ve said/done. When we focus forward, they have no such need. The approach is like this:

You hear or see some behavior you don’t want to continue. You know what you’d like to see said/done in the future. You say “Bill, I want to take a minute or two with you to discuss how we handle [subject].” You then describe a situation similar to what you’ve observed and ask them what they’d say/what they’d do. (Notice the Future Focus). When they’ve given you their answer — and you may have to ask a few questions to get them to fully describe what they’ll do — you reinforce all the statements/actions you like and then add some things they’ve missed. If you’ve had to add a lot, it’s best to have them review with you exactly what they’ll say/do in that situation in the future. Again, reinforce their statements/actions.

One additional action is necessary to help ensure that things will happen as you want them to AND that the behavior will be consistent in the future. Ask them why making these statements/taking these actions is important. Make sure they understand all the benefits.

When people know why they should act as they do, they’re much more committed to taking those actions on a consistent basis.

And that’s your goal as a manager — what you get paid to do — to have your people consistently do the right things.

The key is for them to understand what to do and why — and for you to hear them say it.

Two wonderful side benefits of this approach are that it’s both quicker and much more positive — more satisfying to you both. You simply take people into the future, review together what they’ll say/do and why that’s important, and you’re done. And when you see them say it or do it right in the future tell them about it!

Being future-focused puts both of you on the right track — the track to greater effectiveness (things are done better) and greater efficiency (things are done quicker). A track of consistent positive performance that leads to greater productivity and greater profits!

John Strom is a SCORE Mentor with who continues to help managers improve their knowledge and skills to grow their businesses. Contact him through score-reno.org or directly at jstromsa@gmail.com.