The insight below prompted spontaneous applause during a keynote talk I saw at a recent conference. The speaker, whose work brings him sometimes to the White House, was talking about principles of teaching, but you’ll see it applies to managing and leading too.
He said he was talking to a teacher about creating assignments and test questions. Teachers perennially face challenges of creating problems that the students haven’t seen before and can’t game. They often resort to abstract problems. Abstract problems address those challenges, but at the cost of relevancy to the students’ lives, which leads students to disengage, to ask questions like “How will I use this in my life,” devalue institutionalized education, and devalue that teacher.
The speaker asked the audience:
We have so many problems in the world. Why are we making up fake problems?
We choose to make ourselves irrelevant if we choose to focus on issues irrelevant to people we lead—students, colleagues, kids, etc.
We can make ourselves relevant instead. How do you know what’s relevant to people we lead? You can start by asking. Actually, you can start by caring about them as people more than about the task you need doing.
I recommend the technique in my post, “How to make someone feel understood: the Confirmation Cycle.”
But at least recognize they care about what they care about before they care about what you assign them. Putting their values before yours, at least when you’re trying to motivate them, forces you into caring about them. Then you know how to make yourself relevant.