How to empower step changes in team performance

Leadership | 0 comments | by Simon Ricketts

We have all experienced doing homework in our school days (longer ago for some of us…), and many of us will be parents ourselves now. My question is this: what is the best way for a parent to help their child if they see that they could be approaching their homework in a much better way. The problem becomes particularly acute when the child is a teenager – all parents of teenagers know exactly what I mean by this!

Direct advice is at best short-cutting the child’s learning, and at worst risks developing a passivity in the child that they will be given the answers when their work is challenging for them.

A similar conundrum often presents to technical leaders – how can we use our deep experience and intuition to help teams do better work, but without telling them what to do and so disempowering their creativity and expertise. The key to this lies in the subtle use of questioning techniques allied with a results orientation, and the following quote sums up the spirit of this:

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”

Antoine de Saint-Exupery

You want to be able to use your experience to improve performance and help your team to gain the benefits of your experience, but without disempowering them. Neuroscience research tells us that we are all wedded to acting on our own thoughts, and so how can we facilitate the transfer of this expertise from your head to theirs without telling them directly?

It turns out you can have your cake and eat it, and there are 3 key steps to this:

1. Understand the current situation

2. Raise the bar in terms of performance expectations

3. Using coaching questions to help them explore how to meet these higher expectations

Help them feel understood

Your team members need to feel that you understand them before they are likely to respond positively to your thoughts. The first step is therefore to gain a thorough understanding of how the issue is currently being approached through at first open-ended questions, and then more detailed probing around the areas that you are concerned about.

You need to gain a real appreciation of how they are approaching the issue in terms of their thinking to establish where the changes need to be brought about to get the result that you know is possible. Once this is clear to them the way is open to helping them see that something else is possible – before this stage is reached you risk making it you against them in an intellectual tug-of-war.

Moving the bar up a few notches

The next step is to boldly and brashly state that you believe they are capable of creating something of a fundamentally higher performance, and stating clearly what the parameters of this performance level are. It is critical at this stage to keep the focus purely at the results or outcomes level – stay well away from any sense of how these results can be achieved, and especially do not imply any criticism of what has been done so far by the individual or team.
Once they have managed to pick their chin up from the floor, the individual will very quickly start to ask questions about how this level of performance can be achieved. This leads us neatly into the third step.

Let’s think about this for a moment…

Your role as leader at this point becomes to help the person explore the possibilities for greater performance. To do this in a positive and constructive way you need to help them explore new avenues of thinking, by asking questions such as “What would the effect be if we changed this…”, “How could this element be approached differently?”, ” What other options do we have?” or “How could we change the way we are thinking about this?”.

The most important point throughout this process is that you are focusing on how they are thinking about the problem, not on the problem itself. Your task as leader becomes enabling the person to make a breakthrough join their thinking, so that they in turn can produce the breakthrough results that you are looking for.

Don’t forget the line managers

If there are one or more levels of management between you and the person you are helping, make sure that your parting blow is to encourage the individual to collaborate with their manager(s) to find the breakthrough solutions. And of course let the managers know about the conversation you have just had.

Maybe even applying this technique to some teenagers you might know when they are struggling with their homework will enable a breakthrough for them.

Although if they are teenagers, don’t hold your breath.

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