Goal Focus

Every once in a while, I have a conversation with my four year old that goes something like this:

Me: Do you want to go to the playground?
Him: YES!
Me: No you don’t.
Him: I don’t?
Me: No, right now you want to lie on the floor, kicking at everything around you.
Him (genuinely curious): I do?
Me: Because if you really wanted to go to the playground, you’d get up and put your shoes on, instead of lying on floor kicking at everything around you.

I mention this not to demonstrate my amazing parenting technique (this doesn’t actually help, though it does give me a somewhat perverse sense of satisfaction), but rather to make a point – when emotions, habit, or surprise take over, it’s easy to lose track of your actual goals and let yourself react on auto-pilot. This is unfortunate, since your auto-pilot is almost never programmed for a response that makes sense, unless you’re trying to escape a sabertooth tiger. And the worst thing about it is that we do it all the time.

You know how every once in a while you hear a name, learn a word, or see a sign, then start seeing it everywhere? That’s been happening to me lately. It feels like every time I pick up a management book these days, there’s a big section in bold telling me to wait a second, take a step back, take a deep breath, and ask myself, “what do I really want to happen here? What are my goals? And if that’s really what I’m trying to accomplish, what should I be doing?”

Mostly, this has been in the context of interpersonal interaction. As an example, let’s say a direct report comes in with a problem, but you don’t have much time before an important meeting – what’s your goal? To get to the meeting on time? To make your direct report feel good by spending time you don’t have? Is it to “fix” the problem by suggesting an obvious solution? To tell her what to do? To help her to fix it on her own? To listen? To encourage? To probe for a deeper issue? To prove how smart you are? To make her feel bad for bringing the problem to you? There are lots of options, many of them bad, and if you don’t stop to think, it’s all too easy to fall into whatever fits the random stream of emotions, stressors, and blood sugar level you happen to be experiencing, not the actual situation.

The lesson, these books suggest, is to stop, really think through your goals, and ask yourself what you would do if that’s really what you wanted. Really? You’re going to say that? Is that going to advance your goals? You’re going to send that email? Are you trying to help the project succeed, or to win the argument at any cost? What would you do if you really wanted to solve the problem?

Doing this is surprisingly hard. Even if you can stop yourself in the moment, ask the question, and come up with a meaningful answer, behavior modification is one of the toughest things you can do. It’s the equivalent of being on a diet, looking at an open box of donuts, asking yourself, “what would I do if I really wanted to lose weight?” – and walking away. We like to think of ourselves as rational creatures, but much of the time only the second part seems to be true.

It’s easy to be calm and rational when you’re working with highly motivated, easygoing, high-caliber coworkers with aligned goals. You don’t get any points for that. The key is figuring out how to be effective in crises. Being able to focus on actual goals (ship the project) instead of having reactive ego-driven responses (kill the messenger, win at any cost, etc.), is perhaps the most critical, foundational skill for solving life’s hairiest problems.

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