leadership incorporated blog

February 11, 2013

How smart leaders unintentionally murder successful outcomes

In the mid-1990s, the murder rate in Minneapolis was higher than New York’s. Things were so bad, people referred to the city as “Murderapolis.”

Today, that rate has dropped by 60%. How did they do this?

They gave high-risk teens an A.

I’m referring to the concept of “Giving an A” described by Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander in The Art of Possibility (Penguin Books, 2002).

The idea is to assume that everyone is an “A student,” — even violent teens in Minnesota. You can see it in the core goals of Minneapolis’ program:

  • Every young person was supported by at least one trusted adult,
  • Intervention at the first sign of risk,
  • Focus on getting kids back on track rather than giving up on them,
  • Recognition that violence is learned; that there is a larger system at work.

This program assumed that every kid was deserving of support, intervention, training, trust and belief.  And it produced a dramatic result.

This same concept can make a big difference in the growth and effectiveness of your organization.

When we approach poor or underperformance from a stance of judgment and blame (the equivalent of assuming people are F students), what happens?

  • We become blind to root causes
  • We repeat the same patterns of poor performance over and over
  • We send discouraging messages to individuals that undermine their ability to recover
  • We send the team a message that blame is an organizational strategy, setting the stage for increasing blame in the place of problem solving
  • We increase costly drama and politics

When take the opportunity to assume that everyone is an “A student” it generally leads to the opposite actions:

  • Looking for root causes and creating more lasting solutions
  • Sending a message of support and expectation to the person that tends to increase effort and commitment
  • Establishing an organizational culture focused on attacking problems and not people, which increases trust, safety and retention
  • Reducing costly drama and politics

Meet Gordon, the VP of R&D in an information technology company.

Gordon lived in a constant state of fury brought on by Joan, one of his project directors. He had no patience for hearing that yet another of Joan’s deadlines had been missed and the raft of excuses that would follow. Their relationship had deteriorated to the point where they were barely communicating. He was ready to issue her a Performance Improvement Plan that would allow him to finally let her go at the end of 60 days.

He was giving Joan an F.

When I was brought in to coach Gordon, the conflict with Joan surfaced as one of his biggest challenges. When I asked Gordon how he would approach the situation if Joan were an “A student,” he realized that in his quickness to assess Joan as a underperformer, he had not once had a straight conversation with her about the challenges she faced.

Gordon uncovered that the issue was not with Joan but with another department Joan’s group was dependent upon for data.

By giving the other department an A in his negotiations with them, Gordon was able to work out realistic deadlines and help them in resolving a bottleneck that was consistently keeping them behind schedule.

Do you want to be right or do you want to be productive?

When I present this concept, I’m often asked, “When can I give someone an ‘F’?”

This question asks, “When can I blame?” My response is “Never!”

Blame never leads to the best possible outcome.

This does not mean you won’t give people honest and constructive feedback. It also doesn’t mean that you won’t hold people to the highest standards. Or even sometimes let an employee go.

You may take the very same actions when giving a person an A as you would have when giving them an F. Yet, the quality of the experience of those actions will be completely different for all concerned — in ways that support rather than undermine growth and success.

The concept of assuming people are “A-students” actually makes it easier for you to effectively hold someone accountable, as well as to support them in creating the outcomes your business needs.

One more distinction: you may be tempted to reframe this as “giving someone the benefit of the doubt.” This takes you halfway there, but still begins with doubt.

Giving someone an “A” begins with trust. And trust leads your organization down a very different and much more productive path.

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