It’s a thin line

It’s a thin line between love and hate. This is a great quote to underscore the inherent challenge of delivering excellence or managing to very high quality standards. Recall this great song by Annie Lennox in case you need a soundtrack in your head while reading this.  It’s easy to point out what’s wrong with something, but a much bigger challenge to make it better.

Walking the Tightrope, source: unknown

It’s like walking a tight rope… if you believe high quality is essential to achieving your goal.  On the one hand, you can take the demanding boss or snooty patron approach and simply demand better/more.  This might get you an immediate response, but often elicits such a negative reaction from the people around you that you lose their authentic trust, loyalty, and commitment.

One the other hand, if you tip towards forgiveness and understanding, you actually get less in the moment and hope that next time things will be better.  This might engender fonder feelings from those around you, but fails to set a higher bar, push the envelope, surprise and delight.  It is simply fine (given the circumstances).  Unfortunately, over time, “simply fine” leads to mediocrity.  Eeew.

It’s a difficult competing commitment: be a kind generous human being (like Jesus Christ) or be an innovative bearer of high standards (like Steve Jobs).  Can’t you be both? Sure, and to do so, vision, vigilance, and veracity come to mind.  Introducing the V-3 method of leading for quality!  It helps you walk the line of pushing for mo’ betta, while accepting the inevitable influence of variables, unexpected interruptions, and, well reality taking things back to the lowest common denominator.

  1. Vision: paint a compelling picture of what could be, so others are inspired to act.  In fact, paint is insufficient, you must craft it in Technicolor, no THX.  Yeah, that’s the ticket.  Powerful imagery has proven impact on individual motivation by “priming” people with impressions about what is possible and how it will make a difference.  More importantly, a great vision helps clarify a choice and “allows” others to achieve versus forcing them to respond to a command.  A clear and compelling vision attracts people who desire the same things as you, making achievement at very high levels of quality more sustainable.
  2. Vigilance: don’t let there be exceptions and don’t let there be distractions from the highest priority aspects of your quality mission.  Allowing exceptions and distractions lets people off the hook before they achieve mastery, and may negatively effect their desire to try next time. See more on this concept in Why Chinese Mothers are Superior by Amy Chua.
  3. Veracity: use facts and present them in ways that inspire continued efforts to try harder.  Providing feedback on progress is essential in support of persistance and high achievement.  But the facts must be relevant and presented in appropriate scales.  One study on goal achievement compared weight loss on a wide scale of 25 pounds versus a narrow scale of 5 pounds and found that participants needing to lose 4 pounds were more likely to slack off in the wide scale (because 4 is small compared to 25 while it’s huge compared to 5).

It’s a thin line between engagement and overwhelm.  One last tip:  if you tell someone something is “not good enough” the next action on your part is to pitch in and help make the situation better.  This is a doubly-good thing because mimicry is a powerful social motivator and it’s energizing to have fresh legs in the face of a difficult challenge!

Get some grit

“Setbacks don’t discourage me” is the best single sentence I’ve read in a long time to describe why people succeed.  This quote comes from an article about Angela Duckworth, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania who is studying grit. It comes from extensive research exploring traits other than intelligence that are good predictors of future success.  Despite much evidence to the contrary, we are culturally stuck on the idea that intelligence is critical to success (it’s not really that important!).

I don’t know about you, but I associate the word grit with John Wayne, and the movie True Grit.  Grit, according to the University of Pennsylvania “grit study” is defined as passion and perseverance for long term goals. Gritty individuals have consistent interests over time and pursue goals even in the face of failure.  I guess the long term goal in the movie was justice, but John Wayne is surely the epitome of “set backs don’t discourage me.”

The persona of grit

The popular persona of grit

Grit isn’t just about stubborn perseverance – it’s also about finding a goal that can sustain your interest for years at a time.  According to the UPenn study, grittier people are more satisfied with their lives. The article mentioned above goes on to connect grit with the work of Carol Dweck describing the importance of a growth mindset versus a fixed mindset as it relates to one’s own talent.

After many years fumbling around with leadership development, learning & development, organization development, and early childhood development, I can say that I’m pretty comfortable with the idea that growth is a critical component of success. Growth is not magic, it’s a process that takes time, energy, and support.

Keys to Grit:

  • Commitment to clear, long-term goals/vision/future state.
  • Constant connection with other people for ideas/input (to overcome setbacks).  That’s right we’re back to feedback again!