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I spend a lot of time advising leaders and consultants. One theme of these discussions is: how do I help this other person get their act together? I hear involved stories of multiple attempts a leader has made to get a direct report to improve their performance or stop being such a jerk. Consultants wonder if I have other tricks in my bag that can help a client change their behavior. Several things are very striking about each saga. For one the positive intent and commitment of the helper is impressive…along with their frustration. And secondly, no matter what fancy approach is tried the recipient just doesn’t improve.

Which leads me to state my constant refrain. “It seems that you care more about this person’s success than s/he does.”

This usually stops the conversation in its tracks while the helper gasps for air. “Holy shit! That’s exactly what is happening.”

Let’s pick this apart. As a manager or consultant one critical responsibility is bringing out the best in those you serve. Noble aim for sure. And the best practitioners are patient, supportive, take the person where they are, listen well, craft plans, follow up, mentor, coach…everything short of doing the damn work themselves. The thinking goes like this: this person has such potential (or is so smart) but she has these flaws that undermine her success. If only she could…(fill in the blanks) then the sky is the limit. So the manager devotes an unusual amount of time trying to be helpful.

But there was a missed step at the beginning of this process. Was there any exploration of this person’s drive, motivation, commitment and capacity to grow? Frequently there has been a cursory conversation where the employee says all the right stuff. “Thank you for investing so much in my future. I will do anything to succeed.” But that’s not how the story actually unfolds. Instead what happens is the manager pushes the rock up hill. And worse, the frustration and disappointment is more resident in the manager than the employee!

So if you have put in the time, tried multiple approaches and still don’t see growth in your direct report or client it may be time to look in the mirror. Do you care more about this person’s success than s/he does?

Here are some things to consider.

  1. Explore the person’s true desires. Rather than starting with “I see great potential in you” ask “Where would you like to get to? What gets you excited to come to work each day?” Those early discussions need to be filled with questions so you have a deeper, more complete view of what makes this person tick. Blind ambition? Minimal ambition to ascend? No desire to manage others? My point is don’t make any assumptions. Let this employee tell you what they do or don’t want to achieve. Which leads to my next thought…
  2. It’s not about you. Just because you excel at spotting raw talent or want to be known as a great developer of people or your own performance review is dependent on getting this person in line…none of these drivers will ignite the flame in someone else. Those are items on your agenda. I’ve yet to meet the adult who willingly changes or grows because someone else needs that to happen. Just ask your significant others!
  3. Growth, development, change must be planned and implemented by the employee, not the manager. The ideas, the game plan, the attempts and the reflection must be initiated by the employee. The manager or consultant is there to enhance all this, be the safe place to rehearse and a constructive adviser. Unless the employee has primary ownership, little change will occur.
  4. Pay attention to your own stuff. I think most of the time a manager is just trying to do the right thing and doesn’t become aware of the stalemate until the play is already in motion. When you find yourself disappointed or frustrated or even angry (“that ungrateful #&!@”) that is your cue that you care more than the employee does. Once you notice this then you can simply stop doing too much and say, “You don’t seem to be quite ready to make any changes. When you are, come and find me.” And if you dig a bit below your own surface you may discover that some piece of your self definition is tied up with helping others. Just be sure that you are helping those that help themselves.
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