The following is an excerpt from Daniel Goleman's new book, "Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence."
Here’s a question: If everything worked out perfectly in your life, what would you be doing in ten years? That query invites us to dream a little, to consider what really matters to us and how that might guide our lives. Pursuing this simple exercise encourages openness to new possibilities.
"Talking about your positive goals and dreams activates brain centers that open you up to new possibilities. But if you change the conversation to what you should do to fix yourself, it closes you down," says Richard Boyatzis, a psychologist at the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve (and a friend and colleague since we met in graduate school).
His research has explored these contrasting effects in coaching.
Boyatzis and colleagues scanned the brains of college students being interviewed. For some, the interview focused on positives like that question about what they’d love to be doing in ten years, and what they hoped to gain from their college years. The brain scans revealed that during the positively focused interviews there was greater activity in the brain’s reward circuitry and areas for good feeling and happy memories. Think of this as a neural signature of the openness we feel when we are inspired by a vision.
For others the focus was more negative: how demanding they found their schedule and their assignments, difficulties making friends and fears about their performance. As the students wrestled with the more negative questions their brain activated areas generated anxiety, mental conflict, sadness.
A focus on our strengths, Boyatzis argues, urges us toward a desired future, and stimulates openness to new ideas, people, and plans. In contrast, spotlighting our weaknesses elicits a defensive sense of obligation and guilt, closing us down to.
The positive lens keeps the joy in practice and learning – the reason even the most seasoned athletes and performers still enjoy rehearsing their moves. “You need the negative focus to survive, but a positive one to thrive,” says Boyatzis. “You need both, but in the right ratio.”
Boyatzis makes the case that this positivity bias applies as well to coaching – whether by a teacher, parent, boss, or an executive coach. A conversation that starts with a person’s dreams and hopes can lead to a learning “path” – a joyful series of activities leading to that vision. This conversation might extract some concrete goals from the general vision, then look at what it would take to accomplish those goals – and what capacities we might want to work on improving to get there.
That contrasts with a more common approach that focuses on a person’s weaknesses – whether bad grades or missing quarterly targets - and what to do to remedy them. The conversation focuses us on what’s wrong with us – our failings and what we have to do to “fix” ourselves – and all the feelings of guilt, fear and the like that go along. One of the worst versions of this approach: when parents punish a child for bad grades until he improves – the anxiety of being punished actually hampers the child’s prefrontal cortex while trying to concentrate and learn, creating further impediment to improvement.
In the courses he teaches at Case for MBA students and mid-career executives, Boyatzis has been applying dreams-first coaching for many years. To be sure, dreams alone are not enough: you have to practice the new behavior at every naturally occurring opportunity. In a given day that might mean anything from zero to a dozen chances to give the routine you’re trying to master a trial. Those moments add up.
One manager, an executive MBA student, wanted to build better relationships. “He had an engineering background,” Boyatzis told me. “Give him a task and all he saw was the task, not the people he worked with to get it done.”
So his learning plan became “spend time thinking about how the other person feels.” To get regular, low-risk opportunities for this practice outside his work and the habits he had there, he helped coach his son’s soccer team and tried to focus on the player’s feelings while he coached.
To get data on how well this works, Boyatzis does systematic ratings of those going through the course. Co-workers or others who know them well anonymously rate the students on dozen of specific behaviors that display one or another of the intelligence competencies typical of high-performers (for example: “Understands others by listening attentively.”). Then he tracks the students down years later, and has them rated again by those who now work with them.
“By now we’ve done 26 separate longitudinal studies, tracking people down wherever they work now,” Boyatzis tells me. “We’ve found that the improvements students make in their first round hold up as long as seven years later.”
From "Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence." Copyright 2013 Daniel Goleman. Reprinted with permission from HarperCollns Publishers.