Not so long ago, Tom, one of the executives I coach, told me he had a problem with one of his staff members, Alan. (*) In Tom’s perception, Alan had difficulties setting priorities. Not knowing Alan at all, I had to disagree with Tom. What Tom really meant was that Alan’s priorities did not match his.
You can’t function without priorities, you always have to do something first, even if you do nothing at all. So how does this work?
First, in your unconscious rulebook for setting priorities, is your values. Values determine the sequence in which you take action. Unfortunately, most people get values wrong. Often, they have read the wonderful 7 habits book by Stephen Covey, and think they can decide which values to have. That’s not how it works. The values that you choose in those exercises are your noble view on who you would like to be, but the underlying truth is very different. We spend quite some time on our Licensed Master Practitioner training to teach our students how to find out what your real unconscious values are. Values are the first hurdle where things go wrong, because at work we play DJ with no less than 6 potentially different sets of values:
Our own unconscious set of values – who we are
Our preferred set of values – who we want to be
The values our company wants us to have – who the organization wants us to be
The real values of our company – how the organization really behaves
The unconscious set of values of our boss – who our boss really is
The preferred set of values of your boss – who your boss wants to be
No wonder Alan gets confused about his priorities, especially when there are big gaps between those sets of values.
And this is only the first step, priorities are not everything. Alan also needs the skills to execute a particular task, and – equally important – believe that he has this skill and believe that it is possible to do it.
But let’s continue to focus on priorities. There is still another system that can mess up our priorities, and that system is driven by your emotions. If stress or anxiety takes over, values will not help Alan. His priorities will be taken over by the unconscious mechanisms that try to reduce stress. The unconscious falls back to habits that the unconscious believes to be the answer to stress: eating, spending time on Facebook, cleaning out the email inbox, taking a cigarette break etc. To the outside world, it will look like Alan is distracted and wasting time, while Alan is trying to do what is currently most important to his system: reducing stress.
So how can Tom deal with all of this so that he gets Alan to execute his tasks in alignment with the needs and strategy of the company?
First thing is to find out what’s important to Alan in his work. This will give you some information on Alan’s intrinsic values, as well as some indicators on what might potentially stress Alan. I showed Tom some conversation techniques and meta-model questions to use.
Second thing is to make sure that Alan has a grip on his stress. There are two things that Tom can do here. One is to make sure that he does not unnecessarily put high stress on Alan. Second is to provide opportunity to Alan to better manage his stress, e.g. through stress management courses, provide sporting facilities at work etc. It is, however, Alan who needs to gain control over his emotions. This means that when Tom has put everything in place, it is still Alan who needs to take the initiative.
Third thing that Tom can do is to make sure that he is as clear as possible about what it is that he wants to achieve. Identify where he and his team are now with regards to this objective and how exactly Alan can contribute to get the team closer to their goals.
And those 3 things are exactly what Tom did. He had his conversation with Alan so that he had a better understanding of his motives, needs and values. It gave Tom the indirect feedback on how to better manage Alan. Tom also organized several sessions for his team on how to deal with stress and agreed with HR to negotiate a special discount with a local fitness club for all employees of his company. In addition, the company pays half of the subscription fee. Tom also increased his communication efforts towards the whole team. He does spend a lot more time preparing his communications, but according to Tom the effects are worth it.
(*) Names have been changed for reasons of confidentiality.