Playground Perspectives: Behavioral Cues (October 2011)

It's a lesson every parent learns. I imagine most of us bat .300 during the 18 seasons our children live full-time under our roofs. That might be generous in my case.

Improving your batting average is important, whether you're raising children or leading a team. Feedback is onetool that is both misunderstood and misapplied in most organizations. At its best, feedback is information. At its worst, it's a distraction from the real levers of change. I learned this particular lesson from Charlie and Edie Seashore, who have been in the thick of organizational change work since the 1940s.

"Feedback," Charlie challenged a group of us several years ago, "is the least effective way to change someone else's behavior."

He waited for that to sink in, and then he repeated himself.

"Feedback," Charlie continued, "is the least effective way to change someone else's behavior. Changing your behavior is the most effective way to change someone else's behavior."

Do as I do. Walk the walk. Model the behavior you want to see. There are a dozen ways to slice it, but each of us have people in our lives who look to us for cues to guide their own behavior.

What's interesting to me is how the cues change over time.

Thea started by watching what her mom and I do, and mimicking and reflecting us. But I've noticed lately that she's charging ahead with her own life, driven by her own impulses. More often than not, when she looks to us now, it's over her shoulder -- and she's looking for subtle cues of permission, approval or dismay. What she sees when she looks back at us has an immediate impact on her behavior.

That sort of makes it important that Nikole and I both manage our emotions appropriately. When we misstep, she stumbles.

I can be pretty terrible at this -- especially after a long week of "being on" at work. When I get home tired, I stop leading with my self-awareness and my core values, and my personality style and emotions jump to the front of the train. I get hijacked faster, and the signals Thea receives trigger her faster -- on bad days, I suspect Nikole wishes I had just stayed at work.

Nikole plays in this space much better than I do. She's more empathetic, and she slows down to be engaged in the moments where I am accelerating. On good days -- and Nikole has more good days than I do -- we can all feel it hum.

Psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi calls that hum "flow". I call it relaxing. My family, my team and my clients all deserve a higher batting average. How's your swing?