When the problem is the solution – taking the counterintuitive path.

Getting the best out of others is not an easy task. Helping your team members to be more effective, more productive, and more engaged is not always as simple as asking them to be so, or equipping them with the skills or support to be so. In fact, sometimes it’s not even about the very problem that’s causing the problem. To be an effective leader of people requires us to be flexible in the way we approach and support our people. Sometimes it even calls on us to allow the problem to get worse before it gets better. 

Let them do what they are already doing

“How do I get my team to read the info pack we prepare for each meeting? No one is doing it and we all waste hours of time preparing the information packs that nobody then reads. It’s frustrating.” 

Obvious approach: Continue in vain to persuade, cajole, or even threaten people to do the pre-reading… to no avail. This sets up a guilt dynamic before people even enter the room. They have already started off on the wrong foot knowing they have not done what they ‘should have’. 

Counter-intuitive approach: Allow them to not read the preparation material by not sending it out in the first place. ‘How will that help?’ I hear you say. Let me explain. There is obviously something else more important that they are doing with their time instead, or they wouldn't be avoiding the task. Or they don't do it because, in their mind, it doesn't add any value to the meeting itself. Their resistance to do the pre-reading is worth investigating, as it’s often a sign of other issues.  

Instead of trying to solve the ‘why wont they read the pre-reading?’ problem, Instead, ask the questions:  

‘What would happen if we stopped sending out pre-reading?’  

‘Do we even need the pre-reading?’  

‘What actual purpose is it serving?’  

‘What could we do instead?’  

‘What would people be willing to do, and why?’ 

Then explore where the most value is in the meeting and do more of that and less of everything else. In my experience, if people aren’t reading the prep materials, it’s usually because they know someone will just repeat everything that is in them in the meeting anyway. So why should they waste their time reading what will be shared with them again anyway? So redefine the value of the meeting. Decide the real purpose and design the surrounding activities to support it.  

One of my clients took this very approach, ditched the prep work and decided their executive meetings were going to shift from information exchanges and updates, to decision forums only. This meant that any pre-reading had a relevant and important purpose: to allow everyone to be prepared and ready to discuss their decision with all the background information to hand. It cut down their prep time AND increased the value of their meetings. Win/win! 

So next time you are presented with a behaviour you want to stop, try the counter-intuitive approach. Shift from stopping it to accepting it, and investigate the hidden value in the existing behaviour. Delve a little deeper into why it’s working for people. What’s the message the existing behaviour is sending to you? What’s the value of that activity? Instead of pushing against the behaviour, embrace it and go deeper. This will give you access to the less obvious, more sustainable solution. 

Need to improve your leadership brand? Contact Anneli today to discuss how working one on one with a communication expert can help you reach your leadership goals. 

Anneli is an author, speaker and communication expert (a.k.a professional People Whisperer), who helps her clients improve their influence, engagement and impact. She’s obsessed with decoding people dynamics for improved performance and specialises in interpersonal intelligence - the ability to understand and navigate the people dynamics in a given situation.  

Anneli is the co-author of Developing Direct Reports: Taking the guesswork out of leading leaders.