There’s a Goethe quote that I’ve considered getting tattooed on my arm. “The way you see people is the way you treat them, and the way you treat them is what they become.” Seems long — decisions about placement and font size are holding me back.
Our thoughts about other humans have a direct impact on our interactions with them — whether in an exchange with a cashier at the grocery store, in a conversation with our spouse, or leading a project or team meeting. What we believe about the person or people we’re interacting with gets telegraphed in our words and actions, and in turn absorbed by the recipient. When we believe that someone is incompetent, we say that, even when we don’t explicitly say it. And when we believe that another person is a vessel of infinite possibility and potential, we say that, too. And in either case, the other person hears it.
We only need to think back on our own experience to know how true this is. Think about the brand you have with your family and friends . . . are you the “smart one”? The “funny one”? Was your older brother always better at math, and did you subtly incorporate a less-than self-identity as a result? Or, in our professional lives. Think about the best boss you’ve ever worked with. What would you guess that person believed about you and your potential? What about your significant other? Or best friend?
We like to spend time with people who see something special in us. It’s just more fun. And we generally listen harder to these people’s opinions, show them more grace, and use their voices to form a cheerleading squad when we need a boost. This doesn’t at all mean that these folks never give it to us straight, or tell it like it is, or piss us off — but those moments are situations, not the enduring status of our relationship.
And what I find so interesting is this: their love, their admiration, doesn’t make us special. Sounds like a downer, but stay with me here. Our specialness makes us special. We like being around people who see it — either because they see what we see, or because they see what we can’t and show it to us. Our talents and gifts exist whether or not they’re seen, but they develop only through recognition — either by us or by someone else. Think about what the world would be like if everyone recognized their own passions and gifts. Then think about what the world would be like if everyone had a fan club. Then think about what your organization would be like if everyone’s manager recognized and encouraged their unique contribution.
In leading and managing, and in working with and training other managers, I’ve worked with others on this over and over again and had so many discussions about how to believe in a person’s potential while still setting clear expectations and holding others accountable. Because what I’ve seen most often is people confusing this belief about a person with expectations about their work product, and they are very, very different things. It’s totally understandable. As a manager or leader who feels accountable for holding others accountable, it can be tempting — or feel natural or automatic — to incorporate that accountability into everything we do. But in my experience, keeping another person’s strengths and areas of genius in mind as an underlying motivation always wins the day.
As a manager, if I need to tell you that your project performance is lacking, I can do that by making sure you walk away understanding what you need to improve. All good. You’re ready to take action. But, if I can have the same conversation with you, and you can walk away understanding not only what needs to improve, but the multiple times I’ve seen you use directly applicable skills, exactly how great I think you are at using those skills, and if in that same conversation I can support you in brainstorming how you might apply your strengths to this particular performance gap . . . boom. Now you’ve developed your own plan based on confidence already built from past experience and experimentation. And hopefully, the idea of leveling up seems like just that. You, a person of strength and talent, are just improving your performance in one area where it’s lacking.
When we, as managers, make the correction about the skill, not the person — and in fact, intentionally and explicitly share our belief in the person when we’re attempting to correct the skill — the other person hears what we’re saying and follows suit.
So whether you’re managing a team through a Tuesday, or discussing a specific gap with one of your direct reports, separating out the who from the what can take you so far. I recommend planning this way. For example, if you need to correct someone’s performance, prepare by first thinking about their strengths, what they bring to the table, the unique contribution they make to your team, the insight or perspective they share. Next, identify the exact skill or performance gap; outline it clearly — what’s the specific problem? Then, spend a few minutes thinking about what strengths are applicable, and about how you want to telegraph your belief in their ability to solve the problem. Because unless we’re talking about an egregious situation or extenuating circumstance, they’ve got this. With your help and support. So, also, you’ve got this. Go see someone’s special and see what happens.
Dig deep, show up, win your day.
If you’re thinking differently than you were before reading this post, and like it, don’t stop now. I offer a limited number of free 30-minute coaching calls each week, and one of them could be yours. All you need is yourself and a desire to see what’s possible. What are you waiting for?