by Daniel Goleman | 12:00 PM December 19, 2013
“If everything worked out perfectly in your life, what would you be doing in ten years?”
Such a question opens us up to fresh possibilities, to reflect on what matters most to us, and even what deep values might guide us through life. This approach gives managers a tool for coaching their teams to get better results.
Contrast that mind-opening query with a conversation about what’s wrong with you, and what you need to do to fix yourself. That line of thinking shuts us down, puts us on the defensive, and narrows our possibilities to rescue operations. Managers should keep this in mind, particularly during performance reviews.
That question about your perfect life in ten years comes from Richard Boyatzis, a professor at the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western, and an old friend and colleague. His recent research on the best approach to coaching has used brain imaging to analyze how coaching affects the brain differently when you focus on dreams instead of failings. These findings have great implications for how to best help someone – or yourself — improve.
As I quoted Boyatzis in my book Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence, “Talking about your positive goals and dreams activates brain centers that open you up to new possibilities. But if you change the conversation to what you should do to fix yourself, it closes you down.”
Working with colleagues at Cleveland Clinic, Boyatzis put people through a positive, dreams-first interview or a negative, problems-focused one while their brains were scanned. The positive interview elicited activity in reward circuitry and areas for good memories and upbeat feelings – a brain signature of the open hopefulness we feel when embracing an inspiring vision. In contrast, the negative interview activated brain circuitry for anxiety, the same areas that activate when we feel sad and worried. In the latter state, the anxiety and defensiveness elicited make it more difficult to focus on the possibilities for improvement.
Of course a manager needs to help people face what’s not working. As Boyatzis put it, “You need the negative focus to survive, but a positive one to thrive. You need both, but in the right ratio.”
Barbara Frederickson, a psychologist at the University of North Carolina, finds that positive feelings enlarge the aperture of our attention to embrace a wider range of possibility and to motivate us to work toward a better future. She finds that people who do well in their private and work lives alike generally have a higher ratio of positive states to negative ones during their day.
Being in the positive mood range activates brain circuits that remind us of how good we will feel when we reach a goal, according to research by Richard Davidson at the University of Wisconsin. That’s the circuit that keeps us working away at the small steps we need to take toward a larger goal – whether finishing a major project or a change in our own behavior.
This brain circuitry — vital for working toward our goals — runs on dopamine, a feel-good brain chemical, along with endogenous opioids like endorphins, the “runner’s high” neurotransmitters. This chemical brew fuels drive and tags it with satisfying dollops of pleasure. That may be why maintaining a positive view pays off for performance, as Frederickson’s research has found: it energizes us, lets us focus better, be more flexible in our thinking, and connect effectively with the people around us.
Managers and coaches can keep this in mind. Boyatzis makes the case that understanding a person’s dreams can open a conversation about what it would take to fulfill those hopes. And that can lead to concrete learning goals. Often those goals are improving capacities like conscientiousness, listening, collaboration and the like – which can yield better performance.
Boyatzis tells of an executive MBA student, a manager who wanted to build better work relationships. The manager had an engineering background; when it came to getting a task done, “all he saw was the task,” says Boyatzis, “not the people he worked with to get it done.”
His learning curve involved tuning in to how other people felt. For a low-risk chance to practice this he took on coaching his son’s soccer team – and making the effort to notice how team members felt as he coached them. That became a habit he took back to work.
By starting with the positive goal he wanted to achieve – richer work relationships – rather than framing it as a personal flaw he wanted to overcome, he made achieving his goal that much easier.
Bottom line: don’t focus on only on weaknesses, but on hopes and dreams. It’s what our brains are wired to do.