When my sister gave me Tina Fey’s book “Bossypants” a couple of years ago for my birthday, all in jest of course, it reminded me of the forces that shape us and how difficult it is to change a habit. As the eldest, I took life far too seriously. To this day, my sisters frequently kid me about my relentless messaging to them. In my view, they always seemed to be fooling around, slacking off. “Work hard”, I told them, so they could take care of themselves as adults, not depend on a man for their well-being.
Not surprisingly I have made a career out of the value (or not) of working hard. It’s much more nuanced than I imagined. Good coaching has many facets and lecturing is not necessarily an effective strategy. Maybe it works temporarily to change behaviour quickly in a risky situation. For the long-term though and to encourage self-momentum, it has diminishing returns.
Lately the power of a single question when problem-solving with others has reminded me of a way to shed the “bossy pants” habit. “What do you think?” is one major personal transformation theme I hear when I follow up with managers who have graduated from our leadership development programs. They don’t jump in to provide the answers, as was their habit too often. Although difficult to withhold their opinions, the managers are amazed at the creativity and enthusiasm that follows.
But does such a simple question make a real difference in achieving results? Anson Dorrance is a university soccer coach legend, having led his women’s soccer team at the University of North Carolina to 21 national championships over 33 seasons. According to Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, who have written a fascinating book on the science of winning and losing (“Top Dog), Dorrance learned not to berate or lecture the women after a game played poorly. He simply asked, “What do you think?” The women capably provided the answers.
Fortunately for me my sisters knew that I was just looking out for them. They have both done well. Their playful feedback resonates though. I continue to work on letting go of my “bossy pants” persona to allow the “What do you think?” me to emerge.