Early in my career, I learned a lesson that I carry with me to this day. At the time, I was newly placed at the head of a group that was, in a word, struggling. They fell short of nearly every performance goal, and stood out at the bottom of rankings when stacked up against work groups elsewhere in the company. In an effort to target results, I began getting to know them and made a number of changes in the way information was communicated. We instituted robust coaching and training to target the areas in which we were weak. I worked with the team to set goals and communicated progress regularly. And together with the management team, we took extra hours to work with people one-on-one to focus on work habits to help them hit their target goals. It seemed like we were doing all the right things, but each month when performance measures would come out, I was dismayed to see that our team had made little to no improvement.
Over time we kept at it, trying to improve our results. No improvement. I became discouraged, wondering if the reality was simply that we didn’t have the right people with the necessary skills on the team. It was at this point that I met a colleague who shared with me the power of seeing the potential that lies within each person. She explained that she had to work on her own view of her team and their capabilities, because her thoughts about their potential translated into their belief of their capabilities, which in turn translated into their performance results. In short, she shared that it was my own thoughts about my team’s shortcomings that was leading to our poor performance results.
At first, this was a tough concept to process. I didn’t believe that I was thinking negatively about my team members. And plus, whatever thoughts were in my head had minimal impact because they were just in my head…right? I found that this was not the case. The great neurologist and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl compared this phenomenon to the method of landing an airplane. Using the technique called “crabbing”, a pilot needs to overshoot his landing target in order to land in the right spot in the midst of a crosswind. It is in this same manner, he explains, that we must see the best in people. For if we can see the best parts in others, only then can they truly realize their potential. However, if we see people for what they currently are, they will never be able to reach their full potential. So that was my problem–I was seeing my team for what they currently were. But what I needed to see was the very best parts of each person to see their true potential.
In order for me to see the best in each person, I had to retrain my thoughts. I had to stop focusing on each person’s weakness and work to find what each person’s strengths were. I worked to train my thoughts to think of these strengths and the potential associated with the strengths when I thought of the person. It is true that we needed to improve on the weaknesses in our team, but I learned that the best way to do that was not by focusing on their weaknesses. I needed to focus on their strengths.
The results of this single change in thinking to alter the way that I thought of my team members was astounding. Suddenly people seemed more enthusiastic about their work. Team members were more willing to embrace changes in the office. And most importantly, we started to see the lift in performance we had wanted to see. In fact, that year our sales showed the highest increase out of all the offices countrywide–over 30% sales growth.
The lesson that I learned through this experience was perfectly summed up by Goethe:
The way you see people is the way you treat them, and the way you treat them is what they become.
Leaders have the weighty responsibility of inspiring those around them, and the only way this can be accomplished is if they are able to instill each person with a vision of what can be possible. In this sense, the mindset of a leader needs to be trained to not focus on the present appearence of people’s capabilities, but on what their abilities can yield in the future. Only when this happens can we unlock the potential that lies within each person.