Helping People Think Better – Don’t Tell Them What to Do!
by David Rock
”People don’t need to be managed, they need to be unleashed.” Richard Florida (2002)
pg xxii When a big change initiative comes along, the first job of a leader is to change people’s thinking. Again, most leaders have been trained to change processes, not people.
There is a metaphor called the Iceberg model used by cognitive behavioural therapy and various behavioural sciences. The Iceberg model describes how our performance at anything is driven by our sets of behaviours, our habits. These are driven by our feelings, which in turn are driven by our thoughts. In the Iceberg model, our performance and some of our behaviours are visible, while other behaviours, feelings and thoughts are below the water. There’s a lot more driving our performance than just the few habits we see on the surface. And at the base of all this is the way we think.
In other words, what we achieve at work is driven by how we think. Yet when a leader wants to improve some one’s performance, they tend to stay at the surface and focus on the performance itself. They rarely discuss which habits might be driving the employee’s performance, or discuss their feelings, and even less often have a conversation about the person’s thinking. Yet if you want to improve performance, the most effective way to do this is to start at the bottom – to improve thinking. This might sound complex, yet my experience is that if you focus on just improving thinking, rather than trying to understand or unravel it, the conversations are surprisingly quick and simple.
Freud’s model of the human mind:
understand conflict dynamics:
pg 6 1. To take any kind of committed action, people need to think things through for themselves;
- People experience a degree of inertia around thinking for themselves due to the energy required;
- The act of having an aha moment gives off the kind of energy needed for people to become more motivated and willing to take action.
It becomes clear that our job as leader should be to help people make their own connections. Instead of this, much of our energy goes into trying to do the thinking for people, and then seeing if our ideas stick. … usually a big waste of human resources…
pg 9 All this is quite logical; however, we are a long way from living like this is the truth. When we are trying to help a colleague think anything through, we make the unconscious assumption that the other person’s brain works the same as ours. So we input their problem into our brain, see the connections our brain would make to solve this problem, and spit out a solution that would work for us. We then tell people what we would do and are convinced it’s what they should do.
pg 17 There are big upsides to the fact that we perceive the world according to our wiring. Now let’s explore the downsides:
- Changing the way people think is one of the tougher challenges of leadership, as people tend to fight had to hold on to their view of the world. They feel that if they change their thinking the whole world might collapse, and in a sense this is true, given that we perceive the world through our own mental maps. Confronting people head-on can make them dig their heels in further. A more subtle approach may be needed here.
pg 24 Lots of research has been done on this fascinating gap – the gap between a thought and a habit – by fields as diverse as neuroscience, sports psychology, education, adult learning theory, behavioural science, and cognitive behavioural therapy. Here are some of the findings that are most relevant here:
- New habits take time, but not that much: …. Studies show that physical new branches, called dendrites, were emerging after just an hour after stimulation. … It doesn’t take long to create new habits. What’s hard is trying to uncreate them.
- Positive feedback is essential: …”The brain needs a happy face and to hear occassional laughter to cement its neural circuitry. The encouraging sounds of ‘Yes! Good! That’s it!’ help to mark a synapse for preservation rather than pruning.” Thomas Czerner
- Too many thoughts, too little time: … we can make a tremendous difference to other people’s thinking by helping them clearly identify the insights they would like to hardwire, and over time reminding them about these insights.
pg 25 A new field of neuroscience called Darwinism is studying how the brain constantly prunes and removes unused links. Just as your ability to do complex mathematical multiplications in your head quickly in your youth largely disappears if not used for years, any pathways you don’t use for a while slowly become less connected. So if you want to change your habits, just give less energy to the habits you don’t like.
pg 29 ”We may need to solve problems not by removing the cause but by designing the way forward even if the cause remains in place.” Edward de Bono
pg 35 The first step to being a Quiet Leader is to think about people’s thinking. In other words, to become passionate about improving not what people are thinking about, but the way they think.
pg 38 Here’s an easy way to picture the idea of self-directed learning. Imagine you’re talking to someone whose performance you’d like to improve. The issue you’re working on might be how to deal with a deadline. Let’s conceptually put that issue on the table. Imagine that what you’re talking about is sitting in front of both people as a physical object. Now, if you’re facilitating self-directed learning, as the leader you’re not interested in the issue on the table, you’re interested in the other person’s thinking process. The person opposite, on the other hand, would be thinking about the issue on the table. … There are five big reasons why a self-directed approach is so useful when we are trying to improve performance: People still need to make their own connections about anything you tell them; you’ll never guess the right answer anyway; it allows people to become energized by new connections; it’s less effort, and it’s faster.
pg 41 A ladder of approaches to self-directed learning:
Approach 1: support the other person to come up with their own answer
Approach 2: support the other person to go find the answer for themselves
Approach 3: provide an answer in a way that is in line with the person’s way of thinking
pg 46 Problem focus vs Solution focus
Why didn’t you hit your targets? vs What do you need to do next time to hit your targets?
Why did this happen? vs What do you want to achieve here?
Where did it all start to go wrong? vs What do you need to do to move this forward?
Why do you think you’re not good at this? vs How can you develop strength in this area?
What’s wrong with your team? vs What does your team need to do to win?
Why did you do that? vs What do you want to do next?
Who is responsible for this? vs Who can achieve this?
Why isn’t this working? vs What do we need to do to make this work?
pg 58 If you treat an individual as he is, he will stay as he is, but if you treat him as if he were what he ought to be and could be, he will become what he ought and could be. – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
pg 63 If we want to transform people’s performance, we need a new model for feedback that’s not just new packaging of the same thing. A new approach would follow these types of questions:
What did you do well, and what did you discover about yourself as a result?
What were the highlights of this project and what did you learn?
What went well and would you like to talk about how to do more of this?
What did you do well and what impact do you think this had on everyone else?
I’m not saying that we should gloss over the facts if a person completely messes up; there are times for honest and direct conversations about poor performance. I am proposing that because people are so tough on themselves, and because it works better to focus on creating new wiring than solving problems, that overall we will be better at improving performance if we accentuate the positive and let people handle the negative on their own.
pg76 Imagine you’re at a weekly team meeting wit your direct reports and someone you are managing says: ”I’m not sure what to do about this project.” If you were listening for potential you might say something like the following:
How can I best help you think this through?
Do you want to use me as a sounding board?
Do you have a sense of what you want to do, and want to explore that with me?
pg 101 To learn is to change how you think. – Michael Merzenich
pg 106 Studies have shown that during reflection we are not thinking logically or analyzing data; we’re using a part of the brain used for making links across the whole brain. We are thinking in an unusual way, allowing our unconscious brain to work. We’re tapping into more intelligence than the seven pieces of information we can hold at once in our working memory.
pg 109 The Four Faces of Insight is a guide to the anatomy of the aha. It is useful is several ways. For example, if you’re talking to someone and their eyes go up, the best thing might be to say nothing for a moment. And when people have an insight, it’s important to get them to act on their ideas quickly, as the energy for the action fades fast.
pg 131 I call these types of questions ”thinking questions”. These are one of the most useful tools I have ever found for improving performancce. Asking thinking questions means you are now focused on one thing: people’s thinking. If people are being paid to think, isn’t it about time we helped them improve their thinking?
Thinking questions aks about the nature of people’s thinking, in ways that have them become more self-aware and take more responsibility. More examples of thinking questions:
How long have you been thinking about this?
How often do you think about this?
How important is this to you, on a scale of one to ten?
How clear are you about the issue?
What priority is this issue for you in your work or life right now, top five, three, or top one?
What priority do you think it should be?
How committed to resolving this are you?
How motivated are you to resolving this?
Can you see any gaps in your thinking?
What impact is thinking about this issue having on you?
How do you react when you think that thought?
How do you feel about the resouces you have put into this so far?
Do you have a plan for shifting this issue?
How clear is your thinking about the plan?
What are you noticing about your thinking?
What insights are you having?
How could you deepen this insight?
Would it be worth turning this insight into a habit?
Do you know what to do to turn this into a habit?
Are you clear about what to do next?
How can I best help you further?
pg 179 Questions you could ask to deepen people’s learning include:
What was your big insight this week?
What did you find out about yourself?
What other insight did that open up?
What did you discover about your thinking or habits?
What new habit did you notice starting to emerge?
pg 206 Questions you could ask here include (to help someone identify what he or she did well):
Tell me six things you did really well.
Tell me three things you learned about yourself here.
Tell me about two big challenges you faced and overcame.
Tell me what resources you had to find, internally and externally, to get this done.
pg 208 People thrive on positive feedback. Daniel Goleman, in his book Emotional Intelligence, found that social isolation was roughly twice as detrimental to our health as smoking. The opposite of social isolation is social connectedness, and what better way to be connected than to get regular direct feedback about the impact you have on others?
pg 209 The exercise is to give positive feedback once a day for a whole week, pracicing being succinct, specific, and generous. Then make some notes about the impact this has on you and your team at the end of the week, being as specific as possible with your notes.