Improving Performance: There’s A Proven Method Successful Leaders Use

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Are you a person who’s responsible for helping other people to succeed? A teacher or coach? A mom or a dad? A CEO or supervisor? In your leadership role you have two basic approaches for trying to get someone to improve their performance: command or collaborate.

People with power can tell others what to do and then hold them accountable by rewarding or punishing them. Or leaders can collaborate with those who actually have to do the work to make the change happen.

Numerous studies show that people who are the most successful in achieving positive outcomes with others are able to do two things: 1) jointly develop a precise picture of the result that is desired and 2) engage everyone involved in achieving that outcome in conversations designed to get their input as to the best way to achieve success.

The “The Heart and Soul of Change” describes a meta-analysis of all the psychological studies that had ever been conducted to determine the most effective ingredients of the improvement process:

40% of what determines a positive outcome is what the person who needs to make the change believes is necessary to occur in order to achieve success.

30% of achieving success consists of creating good relationships with a team of people who’ll provide support in working toward the positive outcome.

15% of getting good results involves people remaining optimistic that a positive outcome is possible when they encounter setbacks.

15% of what contributes to success is the expertise of the person who is leading the improvement initiative.

When put together, 85% of what contributes to creating a successful outcome is contingent on those who are actually responsible for implementing the new activities. The people who lead change contribute only 15% to achieving the actual result. When put in that context, it’s clear that leaders should spend less time advocating their point of view versus spending time trying to understand and support what’s going on with the people who’ll be doing the majority of the work.

Here’s the catch: researchers summarizing their work in a July 25, 2015 New York Times Gray Matter article discovered that people in a position of power “are less able to adopt the visual, cognitive or emotional perspective of other people.” Michael Inzlicht and Sukhvinder Obhi found that “when people experience power, their brains fundamentally change how sensitive they are to the actions of others.”

The human brain has a ‘mirror system’ that is becomes active when observing someone performing an action or describing a situation. Our brains resonate with what we’re seeing or hearing so that we can comprehend it and even have a micro-experience of it ourselves. This process is what allows us to understand and empathize with others.

The cognitive neuroscientists conducting the research report that “for those participants who were induced to experience feelings of power, their brains showed virtually no resonance with the actions of others; conversely, for those participants who were induced to experience feelings of powerlessness, their brains resonated quite a bit. In short, the brains of powerful people did not mirror the actions of other people.”

If you’re someone who wants to help others succeed, be aware of the human tendency to think you know everything that other’s need to do. Instead, start asking a few fundamental questions. First, what does the other person believe a positive outcome would look like and why do they believe it’s important? Second, who’s available to support them while they’re struggling to succeed? Third, what potential obstacles might the individual see standing in their way?

Once you understand what the person making the change believes is necessary to be successful, you’ll want to support them in their efforts to achieve the goal. That involves knowing their strengths and consistently encouraging them to be at their best by using their unique talents and capabilities as they take steps toward the goal. Have the individual (and this includes teenagers) take the free VIA Character Strengths test ( to identify the top traits they can use to enable their success.

When they get stuck, it will be essential for you to remind them that they’ve been able to overcome obstacles in the past. Ask them how they think they could apply what they learned when facing past challenges to their current situation.

Finally, be their biggest fan as they make progress toward the goal to send the message that you have the utmost respect and admiration for all of the efforts that they’re making.