Photo by Andrew Turner
I am a person who is usually on time. I am just wired like that. I don’t know if it something I picked up at home (my Father is like that, my brother isn’t though). I am also quite a nerd when it comes to school. It is rare for me to miss a class. So to many times in my life I have experienced “the talk”. The professor stands there, usually a few minutes after the class begun and starts preaching about the importance of being on time or of being there at all. And I am left there sitting and thinking to myself: “hey, but I am here! I came on time!”. It is not only that I feel disrespected because I am being lectured about something that I have done correctly, I also get angry because the professor is wasting my valuable time.
I was thinking of this situation today when I was reading Andrew J. Hoffman post on HBR.org Firing Someone: What They Don’t Teach You in B-School. Hoffman tells a story from his early career where he had to fire a number of people in a short period of time. Even thought the actions were justified, Hoffman felt guilty because of how he affected those peoples’ lives. When he confided in a peer and asked him what he thought about it, the friend told him he was totally right. When Hoffman continued to doubt himself the conversation came to this:
“Now wait a minute, Andy,” cautioned Benjamin. “You’re making it sound like your decisions were arbitrary. Were they?”
“Right, you made these decisions for a reason. Don’t you think the guys that got fired know that? And,” he paused, “Don’t you think the guys that are still on the job know that too?”
“Yeah, I guess so. But I wonder what they see?”
“They see someone who’s trying to hold a high standard of work. Stop thinking about the guys you fired and start thinking about the guys you still employ. They’re the ones who deserve your attention.”
In the last few months I wrote a number of times about the idea, explained in detail in the book Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, that sometimes, we need to focus on what is working and not on what is not working. Focusing on the positive. In this case – the people who are on time and present. Or the people who do a great job and are not fired.
I think this is true not only in the business setting, but also in other settings. So much attention goes to weak students, the troublesome soldiers, for those who fail that we forget those who succeeded, those who do everything right and those who are on the verge of excelling. I think, for example, that in any school, there should be at least an equal number of hours and resources spent on the most excellent students as those who go into those who struggle. How many times did you sit in class and felt that you are not being challenged because the teacher was going slower so the weak students could catch up. Now what would have happened if you were challenged?
As managers, parents, teachers, coaches or friends we all have one resource that is scared. Attention time. We have to make choices everyday about who to spend our time with and what to focus our attention on. Human have a tendency to see more of a negative than a positive (from an evolution stand point it makes sense – negative things used to eat us!). So we need to be careful with our intuitive tendencies and make sure we deliberately spend attention on what works. Here is another short paragraph I wrote about this in the past:
Godin got it just right. We ignore those who fit the mold. We let them stay in their mediocrity and put our efforts somewhere else. If you are a cog doing its job, I, the manager, can ignore you. I want peace and quiet. And when employees only get management attention when they are out of line, they start doing everything they can to not be noticed by management – that means no risks, not extraordinary thing. Mediocrity. Management failure.