Friday, July 27, 2012

What do you need to improve?

Of all the scenes in films that can be used to portray leadership at its best there is one scene from “Shirley Valentine” that shows exactly what we should not be doing. The pupils in Shirley Valentine’s school are being put through an assembly where they have to answer questions put by the headmistress. Shirley has already been labeled a difficult pupil and has no chance against the class pet, Marjorie.

When the headmistress asks a question, “What was man’s greatest invention?”, that no one—not even Marjorie—answers correctly, Shirley gets a chance. She answers, “Miss, it was the wheel, Miss.” Furious, the headmistress spits out, “Someone must have told you!” No glory and no house points for Shirley. In fact, quite the opposite. The next scene shows Shirley in the schoolyard obviously having given up, smoking a forbidden cigarette, and saying, “It’s crap. It’s all crap.”

I saw this shortly after a coach told me about interpersonal expectancy effects (also known as self-fulfilling prophecies) and this made a particularly big impression on me. My way of incorporating this insight into my leadership style is to use inquiry wherever possible. Instead of assuming that the person who hasn’t delivered is unmotivated and / or incompetent I assume from the beginning that their non-performance has to do with factors I can’t see and I ask them, “What would you need in order to get your part of the project done well and on time?”. And then I listen to the answer. Not only has it, in many situations, kept me from demotivating and alienating someone the way Shirley was alienated. It has the added benefit that I have found out useful information. 

Just two examples: I learned that the laws in new EU member states are still in the process of being harmonised with EU legislation making it more or less impossible for anyone to give a definitive answer to questions about the legal position. I’ve also discovered that the exchange rate from Ukrainian hryvnia fluctuated heavily the day before financial results needed to be reported - in euro - devastating the country manager’s figures. With the real information we were able to work out more appropriate measures for dealing with the uncertainty. Above all, our relationship, and thereby our cooperation, was strengthened rather than damaged.

What does this have to do with Shirley Valentine? 

Think of it this way: what might Shirley have been able to achieve if her teachers, instead of labeling her “difficult” and behaving accordingly, had continually ascribed ability and motivation to her from the beginning and asked what she needed to do a good job? She might have achieved almost anything. That is the kind of power we have over the people we lead.

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