I’m lucky enough to work with a company that has always had a high cultural diversity amongst its people. I find it interesting how that diversity of backgrounds can influence and broaden thinking. Sometimes it directly influences through solution approaches, other times it is through story telling. I was born in Australia, English is my native language. I have tremendous respect for people who are fluent in multiple languages. I’ve tried learning other languages and really struggled. I was fortunate enough to spend a few days in Paris some years back. At that point I realised that I could learn another language if I had the right motivation. The reason I mention this is because many of the stories that get told are about learning English and trying to communicate as new arrivals. I love these stories because they are told with great enthusiasm and humour. There is always something to think about. A language I take for granted, it’s good sometimes to have a reminder that not everybody has that same grasp.
At work today a young lady I work with used the word “literally” several times. Just messing around I challenged each use of “literally”. While chatting about this it reminded me of a personal story. Many, many years ago I was at college studying to be a primary school teacher (primary school covers a child for the first 7 years of their formal education starting around age 5). Part of the student experience, indeed required professional development, is to go on teaching rounds. These are both exciting, and initially, just a tad nerve-wracking. I guess it is just like any new experience that has real meaning for you.
From memory this was my second teaching round in my first year. This was the first time we were given the opportunity to plan and take classes. It was limited to a handful of 30 minute sessions with feedback from the supervising teacher. At this point the teacher was always in the room with you to lend support if needed. I don’t remember my supervising teachers name (let’s call her Mrs Pleasant) but I do remember her, I can still see her face. She was from the era of teachers that were teaching when I was in primary school. She was very supportive, generous with feedback and able to deliver constructive criticism in a very non confronting way (I discovered on future teaching rounds that this lady possessed a rare skill). The school day closed, I was going home to finalise my preparation for the next days class and Mrs Pleasant says “don’t be alarmed but the school Principal sits in on student classes and he is going to sit in on yours tomorrow. He is very supportive but he doesn’t like the word OK”. I thank her for the heads up knowing that the troublesome “OK” rarely features in my vocabulary.
The Principal was pretty much from the same era as Mrs Pleasant. An old school gentleman. I didn’t see him a lot but I did enjoy our chats when we had them. It was only while thinking about this today that I realised how magnificent it is to find someone with that passion. He had been in the education system for more years than I’d been alive but he still wanted to see the “new blood” and provide input to their growth. That’s a rare and valuable passion, that, given a second chance, would have been better used. Sometimes opportunity slips past you and you just don’t realise it.
Back to the story….Next morning usual routines. We get to first break and my lesson is straight up after the break. I’m prepared and relaxed. So much so that I meander down to the staff room and grab a cup of tea and have a chat. While I’m there Mrs Pleasant comes up to me and provides a reminder “just remember to watch your use of OK”. I nod, smile and thank her. I go back to the classroom, we get the children back inside, the Principal arrives, I start my lesson. I’m amazed how relaxed I feel, I know the lesson plan well and what I want to achieve so am sure the preparation gave me confidence.
Now it gets weird. I noticed that I had said “OK”. I damn near never use that word and not in formal settings. I press on, let’s not use that again. Another “OK” pops out, what?? I think I might have caught one further utterance. Finally the lesson ends, I feel pretty good. The word that shall not be spoken popped out a couple of times but that’s alright (I hope). So the debrief starts. In short pretty good effort, here’s some things to be aware of, etc, etc. And then……”do you realise that you said OK 30 times?”. A this point I might have sought a place to hide, meekly mumbled some weird disclaimer or perhaps thought about lodging an application with the Guinness Book of Records. I do remember a massive feeling of disbelief.
So what the hell happened? It’s a lesson in people getting you to focus on what not to do rather than focusing on what you should do. Good coaches know this and use it when working with people. I remember attending several workshops held by Allan Parker (who is an excellent presenter, very entertaining) where he spoke about this phenomenon. If you focus on what not to do there is a strong chance you will do exactly what you don’t want to do. His example was your average weekend golfer. There is a lake on the left hand side of the fairway. The golfer tees up his golf ball and thinks “don’t go left, don’t go left”. He swings and during the follow through watches his golf ball sail left and make an impressive splash into the water. The pro golfer, in the same situation, tees up his ball, knows there is a lake to the left and then picks a target either centre or right side of the fairway. This golfer is focusing on what target to hit not what to avoid. No guarantees this one won’t mess up his swing and find the water but he has set himself up for success rather than failure avoidance.
How often, at work, do we “tee up the ball” and then focus on not going left? More than we should, I suspect, and possibly more than we know. If there is history of management pointing out errors and focusing on them what is our strategy? It’s hard to focus on a positive target when the message that is constantly running past you is about what you shouldn’t do. We can easily, and unknowingly, make avoiding error our primary driving goal. How de we call this out and change it? Well that’s a case by case consideration and probably another blog on strategy. For all that I’m pretty sure that focusing on “what not to do” is not OK.