s Filters on the world - using NLP techniques to notice, rather than seeing what you want to see. Management training blog from Simon Roskrow
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Find what you’re looking for

Sunday, 15 November 2009

A lovely little exercise I often use is one about how we notice things - how we filter our view on the world to pay attention to what we have already decided to look for, with the linked effect of not noticing things that we are not directly looking for.

Very simply, I ask a group to take a few minutes to walk around and see how many red (or blue, or green...) things they can see. On returning, I ask them what they noticed, but then begin to ask them about other things...and, consistently, they only really see what they are looking for.

(I wonder if you now have the tune for “I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For” in your head - it’s been in mine all weekend).

So, if we head out looking for red things, it’s incredible how many we can see, and, equally incredible, how many blue things we fail to see. There are hundreds of potential applications of this beautifully simply finding, but the one I want to look at today is how it impacts our management of other people, particularly in terms of performance management and teamwork.

Before then though, a great example of how this impacts on real decisions, and thanks to Seth Godin for providing this:

One study found that when confronted with a patient with back pain, surgeons prescribed surgery, physical therapists thought that therapy was indicated and yes, acupuncturists were sure needles were the answer. Across the entire universe of patients, the single largest indicator of treatment wasn't symptoms or patient background, it was the background of the doctor.

We see what we are looking for.

In terms of performance management, there are two polar opposites that I’ll use to illustrate where this effect can cause problems.

Everything (s)he does is great

We’ve all come across them - the golden boys and girls in the office who can’t make a coffee without it being the tastiest one ever, or upgrade their phone without it being the smartest possible choice.

I still remember, whilst doing an internship with Shell, giving a list to another intern who I was rather in awe of. He seemed astonishingly confident (something I certainly wasn’t) and very clear about his goals and likely success. We were in north London, and pulled up in a queue at the lights where a guy was selling roses from a bucket. My colleague said, very casually, that he’d give a rose to the attractive woman in the car in front of us, and that is exactly what happened.

That memory has stayed in my mind for many years (whilst many others have quietly slipped away). It supported my assumption that here was a truely insightful, smart, intelligent human being with whom I simply could not compete. What it really did was “prove” me correct in my assumptions, and nothing more than that.

If you look for the good in people (whether it be performance, attitude, or whatever), you’ll see it. This can be very beneficial in relationships, as long as it is balanced with the knowledge that you are simply seeing what you are looking for. If you are managing someone who looks this good, do make sure that you are seeing as much of the picture from as many perspectives as you possibly can.

Everything (s)he does is awful

Perhaps a more common scenario, especially in management, is one where someone can never do anything right. They consistently make mistakes, underperform, underwhelm and disappoint you.

As in the example above, this may simply be a shortcut to proving the very thing that you wanted to prove anyway, so the first step is to challenge your own approach and understand more about why you are taking the position that you are.

The other challenge is to actively seek evidence to “prove” that you are wrong - what does this person do that is actually good. What you may find is that, on spotting something, there is a “yes, but...” response in your head. You may find that you need to look for something, see it, not question it, and then look for more, repeating that three-step cycle over and over again until the self-generated caveats disappear.

In managing others, it’s easy, but dangerous, to make this simplistic assumption, if only for one reason - it is an easy way of you shirking the responsibility of asking why this person is “always” getting “everything” wrong.

NLP Generalisations

These are classic examples of what the Meta Model in NLP calls generalisations - (s)he ALWAYS or NEVER does this, that, or the other. Such perfect consistency is extremely rare, so look out for the exceptions to the rules you’ve created for yourself.

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