Imagine you were an archer. You fire your arrow and you get feedback immediately; either you hit the target or you don’t. You can adjust your technique and get instant feedback on those adjustments. In time you become better and better as an archer.
Suppose that you can’t see the target; it would be very difficult to hit and you would have no idea of the result. The only way you could tell how well you were doing was if someone, like a coach, told you.
Now suppose that they also can’t see the target – how can they give you feedback? All they could do is share with you some data about how often you fired the arrows or whether your technique looked OK or not. You might tell them how you felt; probably you would be frustrated.
Eventually the coach would stop talking about it because nothing helpful would be happening. In turn you would stop bothering and just fire off arrows in the right direction, probably as fast as possible, to get it over and done with.
Now let’s look at managing and coaching staff. How do you know if you hit the target? You probably try various things and look for feedback through outcomes and whether the member of staff looked happy or not. You might even have a discussion with your manager about how you think it is going.
But not directly paying attention to the member of staff and getting their feedback is as hopeless as firing arrows at a board and not knowing whether they hit or not. Ask your direct reports how well you are doing if you really want to improve as a manager.
Of course, if you don’t care whether you are a good manager, then that is a different problem altogether.
This is something that I have been thinking about for sometime – the way our brains filter information. We notice what we are interested in, sometimes to the detriment of what’s actually true. I’m even doing it writing this post!
It’s helpful, as we can’t deal with all of the information available to us.
However, the down side is that we:
block some of the important information
assume that we have full knowledge about subjects
filter out information that doesn’t meet our world view
Here are a few examples:
“I hear it all the time.”
I heard someone describing how a group of people were talking about themselves and the work that they do. He was shocked by the words they used and how they were talking down their own impact. His theory was that there was a connection between how they spoke and their inability to get to senior people in their organisation. “I hear it all the time” he said. At this point it became clear that he worked with individuals on their communication styles. And I thought “aha, you hear it all the time because you listen out for it.” I wondered whether he “heard” them talking that way because that was his interest. He had a theory and was applying that to this situation by noticing what he was interested in and filtering out anything to the contrary.
“Those handouts were rubbish.”
A number of years ago I attended a workshop on dealing with conflict. The workshop was excellent. However, one of the attendees put in a complaint (and tried to include me in this “class action”.) His complaint was that the handouts were very badly produced. He was right, they were dreadful. However, the content of them was great and it shouldn’t have really undermined the day. But for this person it did. His job? He managed a reprographic department. For him the whole day was ruined because he couldn’t ignore the lack of professionalism over the handouts.
“That word keeps popping up.”
You hear a word or phrase for the first time then hear it 5 times in the following week. Did the universe just make up its mind to keep sharing this with you? No, it’s just that you are filtering for it. I learned the word ambit today. I wonder how long before I hear it again.
“That’s so irritating – how come no-one else notices!”
I train people to use PowerPoint effectively. It isn’t my life’s purpose but it does seem to figure a lot in my work. Consequently, since I notice what interests me, I notice a lot of poor practice. My intention is to ignore it but inevitably find myself making mental notes on how someone has done something wrong; drives me nuts. I’ve tried giving people resources to help them. I’ve even threatened to throw custard; I won’t of course. Well, probably not!
“I knew what they were like as soon as I saw them.”
We quickly make up our minds about a person or situation and then look for the information to back up our position, or alternatively, we ignore information that contradicts our judgement. This is not great when you are map reading. Its terrible if you are making judgements about people in an interview. And its potentially lethal if you are trying to diagnose an illness.
“I hear this all the time.”
Next time you find yourself saying “I hear this all the time” ask yourself why you hear it a lot. Is it because this is what is said, is it because you are listening to a selection of people who are all saying the same thing (and why is that, by the way?) or is it because you are filtering out other voices?
People have their pet theories and then find lots of examples that back these theories up; we notice what we are interested in. I hear it all the time.