Accomplished leaders anticipate success, and that helps them obtain it. Research shows that high expectations lead them to work harder and commit to conquering the challenges ahead. As HP’s chief legal officer, Kim Rivera, describes it: “I go into a situation with my eyes wide open knowing that it may exceed the limits of my intellect, the limits of my emotions, and that sometimes I’ll be exhausted. I expect all that turbulence and still know that I can get there.”
My coaching clients seem to intuitively understand how this mindset has helped them get past bumps in the road and achieve their goals. They want the same results for their team members and often ask, “How do I get them to think this way, too?”
To find some answers, I reflected on my coaching engagements with more than 1,500 people and interviewed 25 senior executives leading teams in Fortune 500 companies. Here are the three most common strategies that emerged. To a large extent, what’s good for individual leaders also works well for the groups they lead.
Reframe the team’s narrative. We tend to process and remember events as stories. These narratives affect how we see the past and how we act in the future. When a setback occurs, team members may get caught up in a story of blame, guilt, or avoidance, which can put a drag on motivation and performance. Often I see people sit too long in a failure, ruminating over where they went wrong. As Priya Anant, global head of vendor operations at Google, explains, “Sometimes team members see a dead end when it’s really just a sharp turn in the road.”
After a setback, help your team members identify what went wrong and ask them what they learned from it. That emphasis on learning will shift their focus away from the failure and toward what’s possible next time. One of my clients (we’ll call him Tom), the president of a North American leasing company, did just that. Tom’s company faced significant challenges when a major competitor, IBM, changed the way it structured contracts. His sales team went from winning 85% of the deals to winning only 20% almost overnight. He brought the team together to identify what they had learned and find new ways to compete. “The magic,” Tom explained, “was when they started to see past this hurdle to the next chapter of our company. You could literally feel the energy shift in the room.” Once the team bought in to their ability to succeed, sales began to turn around.
Shine a light on what’s working. Much like creating a negative narrative, fixating on mistakes undermines confidence — and the reverse is true, too. By providing more positive feedback, you can help the team to envision their success and elevate their performance.
In my interview with Priya Anant at Google, she shared a story about a direct report who was hesitant to take on new projects and second-guessed his own decisions. Priya helped him focus on his strengths and how they were generating positive outcomes. She built up his confidence and competence simultaneously. He overcame his self-doubt and went on to get promoted.
However, my experience has been that leaders struggle to find time to reflect on their team’s efforts. While the week quickly gets booked up in a dead run for results, recognition quietly falls off the calendar.
Time is not the only challenge. Evolutionary psychology has taught us that human beings are hard-wired to over-analyze the negatives. Negative events act like an early warning signal for the brain to quickly assess threats, leading us to process a narrower stream of data. This is the reason I caution leaders against using the “sandwich” approach to feedback (positive, negative, positive). Collapsing praise and criticism into one conversation detracts from the power of appreciation. Instead, it trains people not to trust compliments — they learn from experience to wait for the impending “but.”
Leaders who frequently demonstrate confidence in their teams’ abilities will find that the team members then gain more confidence in themselves. It’s important to schedule weekly reminders to share what’s working and how individual and team contributions are driving those outcomes.
Give your team members more control. We’ve long known that giving employees more of a say in setting goals and figuring out how the work should get done enhances their commitment to achieve. Research has consistently illustrated the benefits of empowering others — one study in particular found it to be the most effective way to increase the productivity of a team.
My observations are consistent with this research. One of my clients, Julie, an executive VP, inherited a group that was hemorrhaging talent. The team had lost about a third of its original members, with others still shopping for different jobs. Julie set the vision for what success would look like, clearly articulating her belief in their ability to succeed. She then stepped back, handed over the reins, and let them define the path for how to get there. “Having them chart their own course was far more powerful than having me dictate it,” Julie explained. A few months later, one of the directors told me that Julie’s belief in the team’s success translated into a renewed sense of drive and ownership: They too began to believe.
To empower your team, you need to establish trust. I often recommend that leaders rate the strength of their relationship with each direct report. The stronger the relationship, the greater the effort and intensity that team member is likely to invest. Any relationship that receives a score of three out of five or lower deserves an action plan for changing the current dynamic.
Even leaders who expect success of themselves — and thus obtain it — often don’t think to foster this mindset in their teams. But these three strategies, as simple as they are, can help them do that. Like individuals, teams stand a greater chance of achieving big things when they believe they will.
About the Author
Christina Curtis is a leadership and executive coach at Ignite Performance Consulting, a boutique firm based in Denver, Colorado. She has provided coaching support for Olympic athletes and executives at Fortune 500 companies.
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