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When You Can See Down the River

As we’ve explored last time, when we don’t rescue our people, we enable them to have a learning experience. These experiences, especially when novel or new, create additional knowledge that really sticks and moves a person forward forever. 


One of the fun games I like to play with my three boys is the game, “How have I ruined your life forever?” Typing that sounds harsh but this game gets us giggling and able to reflect on how we were thinking then and how we are thinking now. (Yes, it’s a trick to get my teenagers to have deep conversations and talk about the growth mindset.) One of the stories that comes up about every year or so is about a time when I took Dillon and Tyler to Big Rock Park in Glen Rose, Texas. This is an out-of-the-way, hidden place that literally has dozens of big rocks that the boys love to jump and climb on. There is also a shallow river that when flowing, is just the right balance between safety and adventure. A five-year-old can float down and then easily stand up and walk back up the river to do it again.


Just before the safe, shallow part of the river, there is a dam and a short, six-foot angled spillway. On this particular day, we walked up to the edge of the dam, where the boys, who were two and five at the time, threw rocks and sticks. The edges of the dam were slanted concrete, so five-year-old Tyler could wade in a few inches or so and still feel comfortable. After a few minutes, he got a little too confident, miscalculated and slipped into the deep part of the dam and was swept down the river. I still remember the look of terror on his face as he looked up to me, needing a rescue. As is often the case when parents are faced with danger, I quickly calculated the situation. Many details jumped to my mind all at once. Tyler, although only five, was a great swimmer. Dillon, a toddler, standing two feet to the side of me, was not. If I jumped in to save Tyler, would Dillon follow me and be in worse danger? Could I really pull both of them out of the river if that were the case? From my perch on the bank, I also estimated that Tyler was only about 20 feet away from the shallow spillway. I could see that as soon as he got to that point, he could just let his body slide down the spillway to where he’d land in the 12 inches of water in the safer part of the river. So that’s what I did. I chose not to jump in to save him but instead, I hustled alongside the bank with Dillon and shouted instructions to Tyler of my plan and what was ahead. The problem was that from Tyler’s point of view, he was being swept down a river and his mother was not coming to rescue him. From his angle, he couldn’t see that safety was only seconds away and he felt deserted. The story is now known in our family as “The Day Mom Let Tyler Drown.”


As bosses, we often are able to see further ahead, further downriver than our people. We can calculate a little faster, see the risks and rewards a little clearer. Our people often have a different perspective and may feel deserted when we won’t give them an answer right away or if we let them struggle with something before offering help. We know that they’ll be ok and even better off because of the struggle. Be aware that when you don’t rescue your people, as I didn’t rescue Tyler, they may at first resist, get discouraged and feel pain. This is all part of the process. When you can see that the learning they are about to experience can benefit them more than the risk involved if they fail, it's time to let the learning begin. And let’s remind ourselves that the learning that happens when you don’t rescue is enabled because you have strong teaching and coaching in place. 


Here are some strategies that you can try when you want to take charge of your brain and make rescuing a habit of the past! 

  1. Co-create: Being part of the solution helps you have confidence in its outcome and creates a space where an agreement can be made. This is in contrast to just a direct order from you or the team just going with the first idea presented. 

  2. Role play: If you are nervous or if they are nervous, spend some time role playing using the 80% Approach™. The 80% Approach (developed by Dan Sullivan) states that the first time you do anything, the best it can ever be is 80% awesome. Do that same thing again and you can get closer to 96%. Do that same thing a third time and you can get as close to perfect as possible (99.2%). So, if you role play three times, the major mistakes will usually happen during the first and second tries. This will give you and the person you are coaching more confidence to follow through with the co-created action. 

  3. Do the action with them: I’ve seen this approach work really well, especially when people are in Teaching Mode and a technical skill is involved. Think back to our previous scenario, when Sam was about to have a conversation with the client. This principle prescribes that both Sam and his boss would be on the call. Sam would do most of the talking, but the boss may interject a few thoughts. This is actually my favorite way to learn a new skill. When my boys are teaching me to play a new game, I’ll often ask if I can watch them do it first, then I want to try it myself with them very close by. Once I get the basics, I want them to go easy on me the first few rounds as my opponent, and I always appreciate their coaching as I increase my skills. 


In summary, when your company is functioning with the Thinking Advantage, you’ll have managers and co-workers who engage in less rescuing! Great managers learn to let their people fail a bit so they can learn from experience and know what to do differently next time. Great managers often assign surprisingly substantial projects to their direct reports to help them stretch and grow. They know that if the team member fails to get results from the growth task, all is not lost, in fact, much knowledge is gained because actual thinking was involved. Great managers know that success is a poor teacher, but to F.A.I.L. just means “the First Attempt In Learning.” This is a powerful and true human learning and development concept. This is why we need a great plan to not rescue our people.

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