Have you ever stopped to consider the direction in which you are focusing someone’s attention, simply by what you say and how you say it?
Recently, I’ve been working with a group of senior leaders who have unconsciously been mis-directing their team’s attention.
The first was telling me how her team were coming up with reasons and excuses for performance rather than specific actions for the coming week and month. As we chatted further, she slapped her forehead and exclaimed “Doh!“
In that ‘Homer Simpson‘ moment, she had realised the form she had helped to design for the team to capture their actions had a comments box titled ‘reasons‘! By simply changing this to ‘actions‘, the attention of the team has been gently pointed to future possibilities as opposed to past excuses.
This unconscious misuse of language carries into whole cultures, too. A retail business I am currently working with has established a strong pattern of reviewing last week’s sales performance against last year, budget, forecast, etc.
When visiting stores, the senior and regional team team will ask something like “what happened yesterday / last week?” This plays out in almost every conversation I’ve been part of and will be familiar to many other people, in many other organisations, too. It is normal, how we have been taught and what we have experienced ourselves, so why wouldn’t we do this?
Well, when you stop to consider this behaviour it becomes clear that attention is constantly directed to past performance, to gathering reasons and excuses. Of course, if you want analysis rather than action, then it is a useful pattern.
But if you want to empower your team to come up with ways of improving business, then there are better ways to say things!
By simply replacing this pattern with one that uses future paced language such as “what are you aiming for this week?” or “to achieve your goal for today, what can you learn from last week?“, leaders can shift the team’s attention away from excuse towards possibility and action.
Make sure the way you say what you say is purposeful. Become a conscious communicator, using your language to direct people’s attention in the direction you want and to support the behaviour you want to observe.