Do you focus on the right thing?


In both the coaching and consulting environments I am often approached by individuals or organisations to support them in resolving a particular issue confronting them.  A foremost question in my mind is always, “Are they focussed on the right thing?” The tendency is for people to focus on the issue or behaviours that are right in front of them rather than looking deeper to what is the underlying driver for what they see. It seems an obvious thing to do but for many, dare I say most, it clearly isn’t.

In the consulting environment for example, I have been asked to assist organisations struggling with a high level of staff absenteeism or poor staff engagement. I may be told by the manager that they are under pressure from senior management because their branch or division has a high level of absenteeism compared to other parts of the organisation, or similar.  The perception is that the staff have poor work ethic or are lazy, after all they have the same work conditions as others in the organisation so it can only be explained by poor attitude can’t it!.  The focus becomes on performance management, criticising people for poor attitude and actions such declining recreation leave requests because “we cant afford to have even more people away”. The focus is on the absenteeism and poor engagement but typically these things are reactions to or symptoms of more deep seated issues.  The underlying problem may be the way staff are treated by their supervisors or clients, it may be that they feel undervalued, it may be that performance standards imposed on them are unreasonable and so they step away into avoidance rather than stepping up. The way forward is to determine the causal factors of the undesirable behaviours and then tackle those rather than the symptoms.

Another example, in the coaching context, is staff who seem to be unwilling to manage financial budgets and resources properly.  In this scenario the typical response is to move straight into criticising staff for not doing their job.  Sometimes the response might also be to provide technical training such as teaching staff how to run and understand financial reports.  If they can use the tools then of course everything will automatically be better! However, a more common and significant underlying factor at play is that staff are dis-empowered.  They are not being properly engaged in budget setting or not being given sufficient autonomy (are not trusted) to manage their resources.  These underlying issues are the ones that need to be tackled to make a difference.  (I discuss this issue in more detail in my post Everything has a dollar consequence).

The need to look deeper is equally important in dealing with people in a one-on-one basis as a leader or as a coach.

In the coaching space I have at times been asked by supervisors to work with a staff member who is always working late.  The assumption is that the staff member is working inefficiently or doesn’t delegate and so the approach has been to criticise them or exhort them to change those bad behaviours or habits.  The behaviours may need to be addressed through skills training and coaching support but just as frequently there are other issues at play.  For example, there is the person who stays at work because they live alone and prefer the workplace and sense of connection with other people.  Conversely it can be that the person does have family but their home life is not happy and so the workplace becomes a refuge, this is more common than we might like to think. These are the issues with which the individual needs support but first you have to look deeper to identify the real issue.

Another common situation is the person who works hard but can never to seem to quite get to bring the task to completion.  They are always worrying and fretting about getting the finished product just right.  We can see the behaviour and name it and we can tell people to adopt the 80/20 rule or similar but these things do not typically help. It is important to understand the reason why the person exhibits that behaviour.  For example, there is John who would always fret about getting a polished product in everything he did.  He would always put in extraordinary hours on any project and despite that was often late in getting things in.  It was not until we had drilled down, and back through time, to identify that the reason for that behaviour came from the high standards imposed by his parents, each a dux at their schools, that we could isolate where the behaviour stemmed from.  John was hard-wired to feel he must always live up to his parents standards in everything he did.  Having identified the underlying issue for the first time and then by acknowledging that this was in fact a counter productive behaviour, or bad habit, John could start to develop strategies to address his behaviour. (A further post on changing bad habits will follow soon).

Next time you are confronting an issue with team or individual behaviours that needs attention and change, before you react and take action, … take pause … reflect … and ask the question … “Am I focussing on the right thing”

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