How to Get Your Team Focused on Solutions Rather Than Talking About the Problem

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Problems. There never seems to be a lack of them. And there is never any lack of people that want to obsess over them! And when I say obsess I really mean that they are stuck TALKING about the problem as they are not working on a solution.

If we are honest, we are all guilty of indulging in this behavior from time to time. We know it is not helpful and yet we still get sucked down the rabbit hole of negativity at LeaderShift One Day Intensivetimes. Recent brain research gives us some insight into why this is and what we can do about it.

Research on how the brain deals with positive and negative stimuli published in an article in Psychology Today  gives us some insight into why we get so stuck in the negative. It should come as no surprise that our brains are more impacted by the negative. What is surprising is that the ratio of positive to negative stimuli needs to be at least 5:1 in order to maintain a balance in our relationships. This may explain why leaders tend to try to overwhelm their teams with positive ‘how we can’ information when their team wants to talk about ‘why we can’t. Unfortunately all that positivity falls of deaf ears, and the team may eventually writes of the leader as disconnected from reality. And that leads us to Deadly Sin #4.

Leadership Deadly Sin #4: Allow People to Focus on Things They can Neither Control Nor Influence

There is a lot riding on whether you can get your team’s focus on solutions rather than problems. It will come as no surprise to you that your success as a leader is directly proportional to your ability to get your team to focus on what they can do, rather than on what they cannot. The question is HOW. In order to answer this question, we need to first look at a mental model of how problems interact with what we can control and what we can influence.

Your Circle of Control (COC):
Although we may try to control many different things in our lives, there are only two that we can exert complete control over; our thoughts and our actions. No matter how talented you are you cannot control your results, and you definitely cannot control another person. As a individual contributor you may have felt that you were in control of your results, but you really were not. You just were using your talents, skill and experience to create positive results. Once you become a leader you now are responsible for the results of others, but you have even less control because you are one step removed from the activity that creates results.

While you may not be able to control people, circumstances and results – you can influence them.

Your Circle of Influence (COI):A second larger concentric circle is your Circle of Influence. This circle encompasses people you have strong relationships with, some events that occur, and some circumstances you encounter. There are other people, events and circumstances that you have little or no influence over that would be outside your COI. While the Circle of Control is static (it does does change), the Circle of Influence is dynamic – it will grow or shrink depending on how you deal with Problems that come into your life.

Problems:
We define a Problem as a person, event or circumstance that you have some influence over. There are actually two parts to any problem. The first is the part that you have some control of influence over. The second part of the problem is the part that you have no control or influence over.

If you chose to focus and take action on the part of the Problem that you have some influence over, then you will feel empowered and you will experience growth in your capabilities and results. In addition, over time your Circle of Influence will grow; and people, events and circumstances that were previously outside of your Circle of Influence will now fall within your new Circle of Influence.

Unfortunately, many people choose to focus on the part of the Problem they have no influence over. This is initially very liberating, as blame for the problem can be assigned elsewhere. However, over time this focus will lead to a decrease in growth and eventual decay of an individual’s Circle of Influence.

How to Change Your Team’s Focus:

In order to shift a team member’s focus off the part of the Problem they have no influence over you must do something that is completely alien to most leaders. You have to agree with them and stop arguing with them. In other words, when they say “We can’t because … insert reason here” we would normally say “But you could do … insert solution here.” This amounts to an argument with your employee. It’s an argument it would appear you eventually win, because they may capitulate and appear to be committed. However you almost always will find that they do not change.

What if you tried this. Next time when a team member says “We can’t because … insert reason here” say “You are absolutely correct, that is why we can’t do it.”

Then stop. Don’t talk. It will absolutely pop their navel. They were expecting an argument but you a agreed with them. They don’t understand. And so they will be listening to what you say next.

The Magic Moment:

Now you have their attention say: “I have a different question for you though… What could you do that would positively impact the situation?”

Do you notice what happened? We moved from why they can’t – to what they could do. However, we did not ask them to do it – just to entertain the possibility. Now that you have them discussing what they could do you can engage in a conversation about can actually happen.

So next time you notice that your team is focused on ‘why they can’t’ do what needs to be done – don’t overpower them with positive solutions. Redirect their focus with a question like, “What part of this Problem do you have control or influence over? Once you identify the part of the Problem that they have some control or influence over, then coach the person to set goals and action steps in that area.

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How to Make Sure You Receive Feedback That Guarantees Results

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In the last blog post (How to Avoid the Most Common Error Leaders Make When Setting Goals) I recommended you set a goal that you were absolutely passionate about achieving, one that you most likely do not know how to achieve. I am also going to challenge you to write it down and post it somewhere where you will see it multiple times each day. If you do this, you will find that you will have one of three experiences as you review your goal:

  1. You will find yourself thinking about how to make it happen.
  2. You will ignore the goal because you cannot figure out how to make it happen.
  3. You will start hiding the goal because people keep asking you what it’s all about – and you are embarrassed because of #2.

Most people would not say they are ‘ignoring’ the goal. We just get very busy with all the urgent matters that we already DO know how to do. The end result is the same though – we lose focus on the important because we are preoccupied with the here and now.

What about hiding your goal from others because you’re embarrassed? It is natural for human beings to only want to focus on goals they know how to achieve. In fact, most of us don’t like having questions that we do not have the answer to. We certainly do not want to bring attention to the fact that we do not know how to achieve our goals! However, it is been our experience that success in life is has more to do with asking the right questions than having all the right answers. In fact, you can almost always find the right answer once you have asked the right question!

The key is to know what questions to ask – and who to ask those questions to. And that brings us to Leadership Deadly Sin #2.

Deadly Sin #2: Solicit feedback from people just like you.

One of the consistent challenges we find with leaders is that when they set a goal, or experience a challenge that they are not sure how to resolve, they either do not ask for advice or they ask for advice from the wrong people.

You may ask: Why would a successful leader have a tendency not to want to ask for advice? Most people will go to great lengths to give the impression that they know what they are doing. In addition to this, there is the socially accepted vision of a leader being a strong individual who always seems to have all the answers. So the idea of admitting you don’t have all the answers flies in the face of all socially accepted norms of leadership. It is been our experience (and the research bears this out) that the most exceptional leaders are humble individuals that admit when they don’t have all the answers. (At the very least those are the types of leaders almost everyone would prefer to work with.)

Who should you seek advice from?

When leaders do seek out advice, they tend to seek it out from people who are just like them. Now, I do not mean that they only seek advice from other leaders. What I mean is that they tend to seek the advice from leaders who approach challenges much the way they do.

Lets consider the example of an “accountability” or “task” focused leader. Let’s also assume that this leader is struggling with the ‘engagement level’ of his employees. In many cases, the root cause of this challenge is that the leader is highly focused on holding employees accountable to reach their goals. What the leader may need to do is support her employees in the learning associated with the very behavior changes that would eventually drive results. It has been our experience that  an “accountability” focused leader will tend to seek advice from another leader who is also more accountability focused. Now, these two leaders will have a great conversation and will empathize with each other as to their people’s lack of engagement, but it is unlikely that either one will learn a lot from that conversation. In fact, what they will find is that their perspective has been validated by the other leader.

LeaderShift One Day IntensiveConversely, consider the example of a leader has a more “supportive” or “people-oriented” view. This type of leader has a tendency to empathize with the people they are seeking to lead. The most common complaint from this type of leader is that his employees seem to ignore his ‘requests’ for increases in performance, In many cases, the root cause of this challenge is that the leader is so busy ‘empathizing’ with his people that he is not holding them accountable for the required behavior change. It has been our experience that  a “supportive” leader will tend to seek advice from another leader who is also supportive. Now, these two leaders will have a great conversation and will empathize with each other as to their people’s lack of accountability, but it is unlikely that either one will learn a lot from a conversation. In fact, what they will find is that their perspective has been validated by the other leader.

Sound familiar?

Now, it does not take a rocket scientist to realize that the insight we require often resides with the people who have a different perspective than us. So why don’t we do it more often? Because when we ask someone for advice and they turn the ‘mirror of responsibility’ back on us, it makes us very uncomfortable. And so, we ignore them and seek the soft comfort of those who ‘understand’ the problem the way we see it.

As a leader, you need to seek out advice and input from people who are very different from you and  your leadership style. And these won’t be comfortable conversations. But they will drive you to look at things differently, change your perspective and you’ll learn from the  dialogue.

So how about you?

Do you have a tendency to seek advice from people who are just like you? Or do you actively pursue dialogue with people who  challenge your perspective of the situation?

Here’s your next assignment:

  1. Keep your goal posted where you’ll see it multiple times each day.
  2. As you interact with other leaders in your organization, start asking them what you could do differently to move your group in the direction of that goal.

And, if you ask for advice from the right people – get ready for some pain.

Next we will look at how to make sure the team we seek to lead is focused on the right things.
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How to Avoid the Most Common Error Leaders Make When Setting Goals

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It all starts with a goal. Either you are handed a goal by your manager, or you are asked to set one for your team. Set properly, the goal will establish a GAP between where you are and where you would like the team to be. In fact if there is no GAP there is no need for a leader. And that’s what you are – so how SHOULD leaders set goals?

It turns out that conventional wisdom flies in the face of recent brain science research.

What does the research say?

Modern brain research indicates that we evaluate a ‘status quo goal’ as more difficult to achieve than a ‘modest increase goal’. Yup. Thats right. Respondents were MORE negative about how hard it would be to keep things the same versus a modest increase. (Harvard Business Review  Nov 2018 – ‘Why You Should Stop Setting Easy Goals’)

But it gets even worse…

Not only did lower goals cause more negativity in respondents, when they were asked whether they would rather pursue the status quo goal – or the modest increase goal – they again chose the modest increase goal. And that finding held true across all different kinds of areas we set goals in.

So maybe we need to rethink HOW we set goals with our team. Lower goals are not actually more desirable or easier to get people to rally around. In fact, research has found that lower goals are less likely to be achieved. Now, before you fire off setting super stretch goals, know that those stretch goals rated the lowest of all three types of goals in terms of engagement and commitment.

So that brings us to Deadly Sin #1.

Deadly Sin #1: Set a goal you know how to achieve.

Now, I realize that to many of you that statement looks like a typo, however I can assure you that it is not. I also realize that volumes have been written on setting goals. The problem is that most of the articles and books on this subject are written by people who have never had the responsibility of making payroll, or having to figure out how to make a profit or a budget month after month. So, however well intentioned they may be, they often are only repeating the same tired old mantra about how to reach and achieve objectives that has been taught for years.

But let me start at the beginning with the difference between a goal and an ideal. What differentiates the two of them? Consultants (present company excluded of course) have earned vast fortunes working with leadership teams assisting them in writing their mission and vision. I realized some years back, when challenged by a client on the definitions of these terms, that even the consulting industry does not agree on what they mean. Well heck, that’s a problem in my books. So, rather than seeking the consensus definitions, I started to look at the clients that we had worked with, specifically the ones that had experienced the most rapid change in results and what they had in common.

Here is what we found: The most profound, rapid measurable change came when clients set goals that were completely illogical but that they were completely passionate about achieving.

But wait, aren’t goals supposed to be S.M.A.R.T. (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, Timed)? (Hmmm … I think I remember teaching that somewhere!) Well, yes they are, but our experience shows us that the time frame within which you set the goal is the key. For example, if you set a time frame that is quite short, say a week or even a month, you had better adhere to the S.M.A.R.T. criteria. However, as the time line stretches toward 3 months, or a year or two; you can afford to be a little less stringent on the ‘realistic’ criteria. This is because the more time you have, the more possibilities exist for learning to occur.

Now, obviously we do not want to be delusional. Your goal should be big enough to excite you and your team. The entire team should be passionate about it’s achievement. That means that it should mean something. Many teams wonder why they are pursuing numbers that mean nothing to them. After a while they stop engaging in the ‘game’ even if they give lip service to the goals that are handed down to them. If we are just going to push people to work harder and harder, then there is very likely not much in it for them.

While you should be passionate about your goal – it should also scare you a little… but it should not panic you. If it does not scare then you probably already know how to do it, or can see how you could achieve by working harder.

Do not fall into the delusional goal setting mode though. Though it may be exciting to dream of achieving these types of goals, if it is too unrealistic then your team they will not expend the marginal effort to pursue it.

So it seems there is sweet spot in goal setting. The goal has to be big enough that there is a win in it for you and the team, however it has to be reasonable enough (within the time frame allowed) where they believe it is possible to achieve it – even if they cannot see how to do it right now.

Next we will look at what to do now you have goal you are passionate about, but do not know how to achieve. Click here to go directly to this post…

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