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6 Critical Questions You Should Not Answer

December 17, 2014

Ok, you’re reading this blog, so I’m going to assume that you have been challenged, at least once, by attempting to get people to improve their performance.  Maybe it was a team, maybe direct reports, maybe a vendor, maybe another department that you did or didn’t have much direct control over.

I’m betting at some point in the process you ran into what we could call resistance.  You may have asked for a change, you may have explained, put it in a power point, insisted, forced people to attend meetings so that you could “hold them accountable” or all of the above.  And, let me guess, it wasn’t your favorite experience.  Maybe even something akin to, what’s that phrase, “pushing a rope or wet noodle uphill.” 

What I would like to suggest is that you were operating with one cognitive map, and they were operating with another.  And in the world viewed from within their cognitive map, it wasn’t that critical or important to do what you were requesting.  And until they change their cognitive map, it’s going to be an uphill process.

Frustrating right?  But let me see if I can shed some light on what is happening when you, and I, are in that situation, and give you an alternative.

First of all our cognitive map is a set of expectations about how things work around us, how people should or can be expected to behave, etc.  It’s a set of operational answers to questions when at work that sound like, “What do you have to do to get ahead?” or “What’s good enough?” or “Is it worth it to come up with new ideas… will anyone listen or implement?”  Stuff like that.

Well here’s a thought.  What if you can’t change or rewire someone else’s cognitive map directly?  At least not very easily.  That means you can’t answer those questions for them, no matter how nice your power point is.  Hint: they have to do it.  But of course that doesn’t stop us from trying to when we feel, or are obligated, to be responsible to raise the level of performance… does it?

What if there’s a better way?  I think there is.  Keep reading.

My grandkids were visiting over Thanksgiving and they reminded me of two age appropriate questions, that emerge at ages 2 and 4, and of the fact that we all roughly work on the same questions at different stages of life.  Stay with me, because this directly relates to getting other’s to improve their performance.

You see, I think there are 6 fundamental questions that occur in our life span, and they occur about every time our age doubles.  Check this out.

  • At age 2 we’re asking, ”Who’s in charge… really?”  That’s what the “No” is mostly about.
  • Double that and at age 4 we’re asking, “Why”… maybe multiple times.
  • Double that and at age 8 we’re asking, “Can I do it?” with developing skills and an expanding world to explore.
  • Double that and at age 16 we’re asking, “What’s in it for me?”  Sound familiar?
  • Double that and at age 32 we’re asking, “What needs to get done?” as we’re full swing into being an adult and taking care of business.
  • Double that and at age 64 we’re asking, “What’s the point?”  Because we’re saying where is this all going, and we’re searching for meaning and relevance. 

So here are a couple of things I want you to take away:

  1. When you introduce change, when any of us are impacted by change, including someone asking us to work different, work better, get better results, etc… Those 6 questions all come flooding in. They don’t wait for the years to pass.  They’re right there, right now, rolling around in the heads of the people you are asking to change.  Those questions (and their answers) are bouncing off of their cognitive map, and potentially changing their cognitive map (that’s what you are hoping for).
  2. Here’s the bigger point. You can only partially answer those questions for someone else. Mostly people need to answer those questions for themselves.  The good news is that our brains are “plastic” enough that we are well equipped to come up with new answers, to rewire how we think, if we are given a chance and we’re motivated to do so.
  3. So a big part of your job, when improving performance, is to introduce the challenge and opportunity to help people rewire their brain, re-assemble their cognitive map, in light of the new data you are presenting to them. Remember you can’t rewire their brain, their thinking style for them, at least not very easily, but you can guide the rewiring process by surfacing those 6 questions and helping people walk through them with updated facts that you provide.

Suddenly being a change agent is less about pushing uphill and more about engaging people in a rewiring process that comes about when confronted with “new” realities and data.  You help make new connections.  When the new connections are in place, then the change is going to occur. Hopefully that makes sense and is a bit of relief, if not revolutionary for your thinking and approach.

Bottom Line: We all wrestle with 6 key questions when confronted with change.  Our answers can range from responding with a “No, because I asked myself who was in charge and I decide it wasn’t you.”  To asking “What’s the point of all this… I thought we were doing fine?”  If you want to help people raise their game, raise the questions and help them with the ensuing brain rewiring and cognitive map adjusting process.  You do it by creating a safe, but challenging, environment with compelling new data.  Just remember, avoid the temptation to answer the questions for them, it doesn’t work that well.  Now where is that data anyway?


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