This week I was reminded of a favourite quote: "If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together."
It happened when I was asked to give some 360 degree feedback to a highly successful Director of a household budget supermarket chain. I had worked with this Director on a couple of previous occasions and the feedback came as no surprise to me. The secret to his success so far has been the speed at which he can operate and the amount he can accomplish in the time it would take me to switch on my laptop and phone. It is no surprise that he has been promoted to a very senior position on the record of his past achievements. Proud of his scores on delivery and the comments about his passion we had to pause when we came across an unintended consequence of his pacey style. His team felt stifled by his interference and criticism of their work. In his attempt to help them move at pace he was falling into the age old trap of telling them what to do and “its quicker if I just do it myself”. He was also unable to see the benefits of the diversity in his team, valuing only those operators who had a similar style to himself. As a result, some of the team fed back that they felt vulnerable and at risk. All of the team suggested that he was not getting the best out of them.
As we discussed it, he was clear that he was ‘over achieving’ and that this was having a detrimental impact on the performance of his Directors. There were three fundamental mistakes he was making that I could spot:
Mistake 1: Speeding Everything Up
Working at pace is a necessity in the modern world. Communications systems demand responses immediately, at most, within a working day. This client was on a treadmill and had set off at a quicker pace than most, but with the extra demands of his promotion, instead of slowing down and considering the best approach, had responded instinctively by going faster, then faster and then faster still. His treadmill was at maximum speed and he still couldn’t get everything done. Even he admitted he was now fearful of falling off….
Psychology can help us understand why this approach might not be helping my client. The July 2017 issue of the Psychologist has an article by Eloise Stark called “Is slowness the essence of knowledge?” Her piece brings together writings and research popularised in the Daniel Khaneman book “Thinking Fast and Slow” (2011). His central hypothesis is that we have two thinking systems. System 1 is a fast, instinctive, emotional response to situations. This is the system which might give the entrepreneur ‘a gut feel’ for what will work. This system ultimately ensures our survival against danger. System 2 is a slower more deliberate and logical processing of information. With System 2 we might pause to consider our response from system 1. Here is where the Entrepreneur might pause to reflect on what other information or options might be available before making a final decision.
Humans can only function effectively when we balance the use of these two systems, however with modern pace of life, we skew towards the fast paced system 1. Ultimately this causes us to make mistakes, misinterpret information, miss opportunities and at worst, damage our own health and that of others.
CONCLUSION: Slower, system 2 thinking is essential when processing social, complex or tricky situations.
Mistake 2: Giving Feedback on Everything
Driven by a desire to do everything to the best of his abilities, my client was ensuring that feedback was given in a timely and appropriate way to every piece of work and interaction he came across. Management training had taught him that this was the right way to go and that indeed, this is the only way that his direct reports would learn and improve.
Many of his own 360 feedback comments included “letting go” and “allowing people to find their own way”. As we discussed them, he confessed that as he was now busier, to save time, he often gave feedback via email and in the form of bullet points or lists. In addition, he gave feedback on every point he felt needed commenting on. As someone with high standards I winced when he said this, and he suddenly realised that he was giving A LOT of feedback.
Putting aside, the unmanageable volume of feedback, what he hadn’t realised is that this form of feeding back is fine if you want people to copy or comply, but not when you want them to be high functioning decision makers in their own right. The only way to develop his staff would be to take the slower road of exploring their thinking and intentions, then coaching them to notice other opportunities so that they learn and grow from the experience.
Going back to the Psychologist article on slow thinking, Stark discusses the process of reappraising. This allows us to focus on our immediate response, to evaluate it, consider the facts, come up with more balanced opinions and adaptive solutions. When we ask people to reflect on and learn from mistakes we are in effect carrying out a process aligned to reappraisal. Higher incidents of reappraisal have also been linked to the ability to create longer term healthier responses to emotional life events (Dillon & Labar, 2005) (Ochsner & Gross, 2005). In response to this one might agree with Kringelback (2015), who goes so far as to assert that slowness may be a hallmark of a ‘healthy’ brain.
But let’s be clear here. We are not talking about slowness as the only way forward. We are talking about it as a balance to the skewedness towards fast thinking and acting which currently pervades our everyday working lives. Only through slow thinking can we assess when it is appropriate to be fast and when it is appropriate to be slow.
CONCLUSION: If you give feedback on everything, how will people learn which are the important things. If you give feedback in a ‘fast’ manner; people are less likely to learn how to become independent decision makers for themselves.
Mistake 3: Doing Everything
I guess you know what is coming next. This clients lowest score was in relation to “getting so tied up in day to day deliverables that you lose sight of the priorities and strategic issues.” A direct result of his fast response to speed things up in order to get MORE done, meant that he was not being clear about which were the IMPORTANT things to do. When we get stuck in fast thinking, everything seems to have equal importance. We saw this in his approach to feedback in Mistake 2. All items, no matter how big or small were reduced to a bullet point in an email and conveyed in the same way. How can his direct reports possibly tell which are the most important or essential points being made?
Going fast, meant that he was going alone. His colleagues and direct reports were not aligned with what he was trying to create. No one (including him) had any idea about the strategic priorities which meant that delegation was becoming difficult. Building in time for slow thinking on a weekly basis will dramatically improve purposeful productivity at work. The unintended consequence of staying stuck in fast is the creation of “busy fools”. And yet so often, I hear people complaining they don’t have enough time, their health and family are suffering, and yet when suggested that they take half an hour or an hour a week to slow down and think about strategies and priorities they respond with, “I haven’t got time”. Fast thinking means we are constantly working on emotional responses. It erodes our resilience and our creativity.
I do believe that once we get stuck in fast thinking it becomes addictive. It increases neural activity to 140ms, too fast for us to be consciously aware of it and it happens right in the reward centre of the brain (orbitofrontal cortex). When we slow down thinking, MRI studies show that activity happens in the prefrontal and parietal regions, impacting on the parts of the brain that affect our understanding of meaning and perceptions (Buhle et al, 2014). In effect we can alter the emotional significance of an event, just by thinking about it differently when we use slow thinking.
Helping to create safe, constructive environments, that support slow thinking is the craft of Coaches and Occupational Psychologists. These findings could explain why coaching is so effective at helping address issues such as stress, wellbeing and balance, impact, strategic thinking, prioritising, conflict resolution; as well as deep learning and ‘aha’ moments in workshops and team events. I have often described the value of my intervention as ‘slowing things down in a safe environment’ in order to get rapid results.
CONCLUSION: People who arrive in positions of leadership are often promoted for their fast thinking, is it any surprise that they then spend the first couple of years learning that they now need to think slow, and how to do it? A coach will help accelerate this process and build sustainable skills for leaders.