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The Rough Notes Company Inc.



May 31
09:00 2017

Management by Coaching

Small changes that can make a huge difference

In a world where we’re constantly in search of the next big thing, it’s easy to miss the little changes that can have a cumulative and stunning impact on our work, relationships, and ultimate success. Consider this example reported in The New England Journal of Medicine. It turns out that asking people to introduce themselves and describe their function in the operating theater before the surgery begins has a significant impact on the operation’s outcome. This requirement, which was part of a simple checklist adopted by surgical teams at eight hospitals, reduced these teams’ death rates by 40% and their rate of complications by almost a third. The list, viewed by all as small changes in existing behaviors, required no investment in people or technology to implement.

Today I’d like to challenge you to think small with ten tiny behavioral tweaks that can significantly improve performance.

  1. Practice the two-second rule. Every experienced professional knows the value of the 24-hour rule. When you’re angry, upset, feeling defensive, or have something to say that could be controversial, let it sit for 24 hours before reacting. What about those situations when you feel pressure to respond in real time and don’t have 24 hours to let your inner wisdom prevail? That’s when you need to apply the two-second rule. When you feel your emotions kicking in, use the two-second rule. Say to yourself: “Think before you speak.” On the count of one, breathe in, and on the count of two breathe out slowly. By taking this brief pause, you calm the mind and think before you speak, rather than just reacting. That two seconds you spend on the front end can save you countless hours of damage control on the back end.
  2. Tune up your emotional intelligence radar. A growing body of research shows that people in positions of power are less sensitive to the emotional needs of others than those with little power. This tuning out has been observed, for instance, with strangers in a five-minute get-acquainted session, where the more powerful person shows fewer signals of paying attention, like nodding or laughing. Higher-status people are also more likely to express disregard through facial expressions and are more likely to take over the conversation and interrupt or look past the other speaker. Increasing your awareness of how you express your emotions and your sensitivity to the emotions of others will do wonders for your interpersonal relationships.
  3. Talk less, listen more. If you’re like most leaders, listening is a challenge, and chances are you overestimate your skills. Research shows that it takes all of 18 seconds for the average leader to interrupt the person with whom he or she is speaking. That’s because, for many leaders, listening is a passive, compliant act—something that other people do, but not them. They believe that talk is power; when they have the floor they are in control. Ironically, the reverse is often true. The true power lies in learning. We can’t learn if we’re doing all the talking. Pay close attention to how much you talk, how much you listen, and how often you interrupt. As a rule of thumb, strive for listening 75% of the time and talking 25% of the time.
  4. Swap constructive criticism for constructive direction. Regardless of what we’ve been conditioned to believe, there is no such thing as constructive criticism. Criticism is deficiency-based and concentrates on judging past events negatively. Let’s face it: Being judged deficient doesn’t feel good. Even when you are tactful, people see through you. It drains their energy, wears them down, and in the long run undermines confidence and performance. Replace constructive criticism with constructive direction. Rather than focusing
    on what’s wrong with the person’s behavior, focus on creating a clear picture of your desired end result. Work with the person to build a shared understanding of what that end result is and plan for how you’re going to get there. Stay centered on the present and the future. Constructive direction addresses the issues that need to be addressed. It succeeds by giving people clear targets to hit instead of dismantling their guns. It gives you a way to practice results-oriented and supportive communication.
  5. Use an enhanced to-do list. Increase the power of your to-do list by adding two items: an “Absolute Yes List” and your “Core Values.”

Your “Absolute Yes List” is what is most important to you professionally and personally.

It addresses the leverage points that will advance your business or career and personal life. The list focuses on questions such as the aspects of your job that you love and want to do more of and the ones you long to eliminate. What kinds of clients do you want to work with? What kinds of relationships do you want to create? How do you want to be viewed by your clients and co-workers? What do you want to make more time for in your life—whether it’s family, fun, sleep, community service, learning a new skill or pursuing a hobby? If you’ve done this before, you may want to do it again. Chances are your priorities have changed.

Once you’ve written down the priorities, put the list away. In the upcoming week, keep track of how you actually spend your time—not just appointments and meetings, but how you actually spend 24 hours (including sleep, meals, talking to friends, driving to appointments, etc.). If you’re thinking, “I don’t have time to track my time,” please give this exercise the benefit of the doubt. This is one of the best investments of time you can make.

At the end of the week, pull out your “Absolute Yes List” and compare it to how you spent your time during the week. How does your day-to-day use of time stack up against your priorities? If you are like most people, you will see that the things you say are most important often get the smallest amount of your attention. This exercise is usually an eye-opener.

Now write down your core beliefs. While you may never have written them down, you inevitably have core beliefs that guide you. Take the time to articulate them. When your day-to-day actions are in sync with your priorities and core values, your energy, power to achieve and level of satisfaction will increase exponentially. When they are out of sync, a significant amount of stress is added to your life.

Whatever form you use for your to-do list, be sure it includes your “Absolute Yes List” and “Core Values.” Keeping these two items top of mind as you plan your day will help you stop reacting to life and start taking more control over what gets your time and attention.

  1. Focus on managing your energy, not just your time. You probably use a variety of tools and techniques to manage your time effectively—but what about your energy? Time is finite. No matter what you do, there are only 24 hours in the day. Your energy, on the other hand, can be systematically expanded and regularly renewed.

Think of your energy supply as a fuel tank. Some actions fill the tank, whereas others drain it. The reality is, you simply can’t do good work and build quality business relationships if you’re running on empty. Having the fuel you need to stay focused, take action and live life fully means knowing what gives you energy and what depletes you. It is critical information that we lose sight of because of the rapid pace of daily life. During your workday, watch for what gives energy and what pulls you down. Look for ways to eliminate or reduce the activities that drain you and increase the ones that energize you.

  1. Overestimate what it takes to get your message through. I’ve worked with hundreds of insurance organizations and conducted an equal number of employee satisfaction surveys. I’ve never seen a company that was guilty of over-communicating. (Don’t confuse good communication
    with distributing information.) The fact is that most leaders underestimate what it takes to get their message through and inspire people to take action.

Getting through to people takes time, the right message, repetition, and constant reinforcement. Sending emails and memos is not enough. People are drowning in information. The result is that a growing percentage of your audience doesn’t read what you send. Think of it this way. Last night your 16-year-old son rolled in at three o’clock in the morning and you definitely smelled alcohol on his breath. This behavior is unacceptable to you. Are you going to send him an email? Probably not. If your message is important, initiate face-to-face communication.

  1. Choose something you need to stop doing. In the quest for personal development, we’re always looking for ways to improve our less-than-desirable behaviors. Substituting a new behavior for a deeply ingrained one is a complex psychological process—one that our brains are programmed to resist. Instead of working to adopt a new behavior, simply stop the offending behavior. That bad behavior is what’s getting you into trouble. Think of it this way: If you’re a rough, tough, no-nonsense manager, don’t try to become a “Mr. or Ms. Nice Guy”—just stop being a jerk. Instead of trying to be more tactful in getting your point across, stop making so many points. Next time you start to say something, stop, take a breath, and ask yourself if what you are going to say is really necessary. Will it add to the conversation? You will be amazed at how often the smartest thing you can do is to say nothing.
  2. Protect your peak performance time. Research shows that we have about two peak-performing hours a day. Don’t squander this precious time on routine tasks like answering email and weekly department meetings. For most people, the first two hours of the day are when we are at our best, but it’s different for everyone. Know when your peak performance time is and save it for your highest priorities or most difficult tasks.
  3. Shake it up. Biologically, we are programmed to maintain the status quo. Practically speaking, this means that the things we do most often every day are the things we will continue to do even if we no longer want to do them. Giving into the force of habit is a great way to increase our level of boredom and decrease our competitive edge. The easiest way to overcome inertia is to break your pattern. Start by changing something easy. Go to a different restaurant for lunch, drive an alternate route to the office, or take a bike ride instead of a morning jog—anything that breaks your routine. Once you embrace one change, you’ll open yourself up to a host of new possibilities.

The 21-day challenge

Try testing the power of a tiny tweak for yourself and see what happens. Choose one tweak and focus on implementing it consistently over a period of 21 days. Limiting yourself to one change and trying it consistently over three weeks will dramatically increase your likelihood of success. At the end of 21 days, assess how the change is working for you. If you like what you see, keep working that tweak until it becomes your default behavior. At that point, you’re ready for the next tweak.

The author

Kimberly Paterson, CEC and Certified Energy Leadership Coach, is president of CIM (, a marketing and consulting firm that works with property and casualty agencies and company clients. She can be reached at

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