What We Focus On Expands

My client Janine comes on the line, stress palpable in her voice. She’s calling from Washington, DC where she’s a deputy in a research organization under contract to a government agency.

“We’re in the middle of performance reviews and I’m totally overwhelmed,” she says. “I hate this time of year. Not only is there the extra work of writing the reviews and meeting with employees, I don’t like the conversations I have to have with them.”

We begin to explore. “What don’t you like? What do you want to see? What can you do differently to have a different outcome?” Janine is highly competent, intellectually creative, and caring. She likes to look at any question from several sides. She has good answers to these questions. And what we come up with together is all about focus.

What we focus on expands. Consider the possibility of focusing only on what you want to see expand. This means no criticism and no pointing out weaknesses or what’s not working. Even in a performance review. Even when – especially when – the stakes are high. As coaches we hold to this because the more there is at stake, the more we want our clients to get the results they want.

We’ve found that when we and our clients focus on weaknesses, the weaknesses expand. And the more we focus on what we don’t want – whether it’s the scarcity of time, the feeling of overwhelm, or others not doing what we expect of them – the bigger those elements show up. On the other hand, when we focus on the ideas and behaviors we value, they grow. Our clients learn to pay attention to and point out when they see colleagues and employees helping one another, completing tasks thoroughly and on time, or solving problems pro-actively. The results are less time wasted, higher productivity, and greater satisfaction in the workplace.

At the same time, Janine is a manager and a leader. She moves back just a step from the “all encouragement all the time” stance and comes up with a way of doing the reviews that works for her. I support it fully, knowing that she, like all of us, has to find the right fit. Because it is authentic, and because it retains a strong emphasis on focusing on what she wants to expand, her way is powerful.

So what does Janine do? First, she spends more time than she would have acknowledging where her employees are succeeding and where they are shining. Acknowledgment is admitting what’s true. Positive acknowledgment is noticing what’s working then pointing it out. It’s genuine and supportive at the same time.

Second, Janine asks more questions. She has employees focus on what’s working for them and positively acknowledge themselves. She asks them what they have accomplished and how they feel about the work.

Third, Janine communicates what she wants in a direct and honoring way. She speaks in I-statements. Rather than telling employees what they should do, she tells them what she sees. She makes suggestions from her own perspective. She makes requests based on what she sees as important to the overall work. And she decides that a stance of neutrality, not emotional involvement, is helpful.

What we focus on expands. Treat people as individuals of value to an organization, and expand their value to the organization. Find and call attention to what’s working in people and processes, and have more people and processes that work. Get rid of the cheesy compliment sandwich, where the bad news is hidden between two pieces of baloney. Focus on what’s real, what’s true, and what’s working.

Janine and I speak a couple of weeks later in her performance review cycle. She has followed her own plan and is pleased with the kinds of conversations she has had. Not all were easy. Not everyone was happy with her observations. But she feels that every employee truly was heard, each one heard her, and each felt comfortable enough to speak more openly. Most importantly, the success of the organization was the guiding principle in their conversations, keeping everyone pointed in the same direction and giving them all a lift.