They Won’t Budge

joe —  Sun 13-Mar-11 — 3 Comments
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Fireplace reading
If you can’t help people grow you aren’t likely going to be worth much as a leader.

Unfortunately it is one of the areas that I see managers most often fail. Growth is one of the critical components that separates the two.

Developing people is hard; it often involves taking someone from a place of comfort to a place that is very unfamiliar. It’s like trying to convince someone reading their favorite book in a big comfy chair next to the roaring fireplace that they need to put on a blindfold and go for a car ride in the dead of winter. Why would anyone want to do that?

There are two parts to helping someone grow. First you have to understand the natural loss they will feel leaving the comfort of their chair. Second, you have to convince them that where they are going is of value to them.

One of the reasons people have a hard time moving from one stage to another is that we all have a built in psychological equation that values loss twice as much as gain – this is called loss aversion. In a well known study by Amos Tversky it was shown that people feel twice as much unhappiness from losing $100 as they do joy from winning that same $100.

This is really important to understand as it is at the core of why we are often irrational in giving up what we have to get something that appears to be of greater value. I emphasize “understand” – it is something you must know but really can’t affect, nor should you try.

I once had an engineering manager, Scott, that was technically skilled – it’s the reason he was often seen as the natural leader of his team. Scott soon became the manager of a very fast growing team. In order to help him learn the new skills he was going to need to develop it became clear he was going to now have to trust others to do his old role.

The problem is that while Scott understood this was necessary he had a difficult time actually doing it. First, for some period of time the next person is not going to be as skilled as Scott. Second, the role he was leaving is what made Scott successful. What if he was horrible at this new role? He was focused on what he was losing rather than what he was going to gain.

Scott was being asked to leave his comfortable chair in front of the fireplace. Double the fear of doing that due to loss aversion and it’s easy to understand why this can be a tough request.

Crossing StreamEven though Scott trusted me that a cold winter car ride was what he needed he had a difficult time leaving the role that made him successful. Imagine crossing a crocodile infested stream where one foot is on the future shore and the other on the past. It leaves you very vulnerable. You have to pick up the trailing foot if you want to protect your vital interests.

The problem is not Scott; he is being perfectly, humanly irrational. The challenge was that as a leader I had not taken into consideration the loss aversion equation. Since it will be difficult to do that by convincing him that he really isn’t comfortable where he is now, I had to work on making the destination more attractive.

I think the number one reason that leaders struggle in helping people grow is they aren’t painting a compelling picture of the future, the vision of what a person’s new life will be like and why it is worth giving up what has to date made them very successful.

“Scott, I really like what you’ve done this past year and I think it is time to take another step up the career ladder.”
“Scott I know that it must frustrate you to have all of your great ideas seem to go unnoticed by the executives. I want to put you in a role where you will be part of a new team that will allow all of these great ideas you have to finally reach the executive team directly.”

Which is more likely to convince you to give up your comfy chair?

Back to the crocodiles – if you have a foot on each shore you can solve your vulnerability problem by removing either foot. If someone hasn’t painted a Bob Ross picture of the distant shore you will most often choose to remove the wrong foot.

Bob Ross

To help others grow you have to know how to paint.

So as you look to move someone from where they are to where they need to grow you really can’t do much with the natural loss they will feel. The only real part of the equation you can affect is the picture you paint of the future. Learn to paint. Get comfortable with the idea and then practice it. You will not lead well if you cannot paint.

Remember, Martin Luther King, Jr. never said “I have a plan!”

Today’s Question
How do you convince people to leave their comfy chairs when you know it is in their best interest?

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  • Andrew Fuqua

    Painting a good picture of a possible better future, while worth trying, isn’t that simple. Many engineers just want to do what they do. They wouldn’t want to be noticed by the executives. They would dread it, in fact. They aren’t rewarded and motivated in the same way as are those that tend to go into management. The person painting the picture likely can’t relate. So I’d have to add — know how to paint WELL. Know how to paint pictures that OTHER people like.

    I’ve read in at least a couple books that many people are afraid of success, because success brings new challenges. Getting a new job or a promotion means you’ve got to deliver — you’ve got to prove yourself all over again. So, these paintings of a bright new future can be very scary. Even more scary than the more benign “take another step up the career ladder.” So it has to be made to look comfortable as well as valuable.

    I think you also have to make straddling the fence, or stream, look really really dangerous.

    Joe, in this post you seem to discount the approach of making the comfy couch by the fire seem bad. Yet I often find success by repainting that picture as a loss in order to trigger the loss aversion effect. When someone thinks they are on top of their game, I show them someone better. Then I explain that skill X is a skill the organization really needs. The organization would like to develop that skill internally. If possible, I bring someone in (temporary or permanently) to demonstrate that skill and spread it around. Often, the person who was on the couch now thinks their lunch is about to get eaten. The couch begins to smell. It has a rip. And a stain.

    • Joe Kleinwaechter

      Fully agree, Andrew. Fear can be a great motivator and I think it can work well for certain brief episodes.

      In his book, Waltzing With Bears, Tom DeMarco demonstrates that more work can be done by someone when there is a healthy stress applied. Most of this is caused by fear of missing some goal (date, quality, acceptance). But there is a quick break toward being unproductive when too much is present. The cycle goes the other direction hard and fast.

      I believe that people will naturally create their own healthy level of anxiety and fear naturally and they call it a challenge. Your point about competition is exactly that. I don’t think leaders need to artificially create that. Let them create that naturally then we can focus on the positive. Leaders are basically dealers in hope.

      Great point about painting well. If your employee’s idea of a great painting is Monet, painting one that looks like Picasso may not cut it. It’s back to your comment that you made on last week’s blog, Andrew, you have to know what they value.

  • Andrew Fuqua

    I meant to include the following thought with my point about loss aversion — When an engineer thinks he’s about to loose his status as one of the top-dogs, when he’s afraid he’s about to lose his comfy couch, he’s more likely to do what he needs to avoid the loss, even if it means picking up that new skill.