We are in a feedback and coaching boom. Most people agree that if your goal is to change behavior, feedback and coaching are more useful than screaming and criticizing. Indeed, some managers have become so committed to feedback and coaching that they avoid giving directions at all. Their rationale is that they don’t want to interfere with the natural learning process of the person whose performance and development they are trying to guide. While this commitment to enabling people to learn and deliver results on their own is laudable, the hesitation to provide clear directions and set clear expectations may be misguided.
I am a great fan of self-driven work and learning, but I am also a fan of efficient work and learning. If you (as a manager, coach or parent) have a clear idea of what you are looking for, it probably makes sense to just describe it. For one thing, when it comes time to evaluate the work and progress of the learner, your expectations will inevitably – though possibly unconsciously – color your judgment of what the learner has actually done and produced. If (as a learner or worker) you’ve ever left a feedback meeting thinking “If that’s how you wanted me to do it, why didn’t you just tell me before I wasted my time doing all that work?” you know what I mean. In the absence of clear expectations and directions, feedback and coaching can feel like manipulation or even a passive form of coercion.
Clear directions are often the most effective way to set expectations before launching a self-driven learner on the journey toward growth and performance. The problem is that giving clear directions isn’t as easy as it sounds. Sometimes when we think we are giving clear directions, we are actually creating confusion.
Depending on how you frame and when you deliver them, your directions can have a very positive or negative impact on others’ learning and performance. In the absence of clear expectations, coaching and feedback can even induce a state of what psychologists refer to as learned helplessness that undermines others’ attempts to do what you need them to do so they can deliver what you expect them to deliver.
“Don’t pull your elbow up!”
I played tennis as a kid and like a lot of other kids, I dreamed of making it to the pros. I had a pretty good game too…if I’d only had a better backhand…
The backhand did not come naturally to me. As a beginner, I got into the habit of pulling my elbow up before I made contact with the ball. This is a common, but sometimes debilitating habit for beginners. My coach wanted to help me eliminate this undesirable behavior and replace it with a desirable one, so he did his best to make me aware of what I was doing wrong. Our lessons fell into a pattern:
- My coach would show me what a proper backhand looked like and tell me to remember NOT TO pull up my elbow midway through the shot.
- He would feed a ball to me.
- I would concentrate on NOT pulling my elbow up.
- My elbow would pull up as I hit the ball.
- The ball would sail out.
- My coach would look at me and say, ”I told you NOT TO pull your _____ _____ elbow up!”
- I would say I wasn’t doing it on purpose.
- He would feed me another ball.
- I would focus HARDER on NOT pulling my elbow up.
- My elbow would once again pull up as I hit the ball.
- We both would become frustrated.
I’m pretty sure my coach didn’t think he was framing things negatively, and I am absolutely sure his intent was to help me. Truth be told, though, the only thing I learned from this ritual was that I was doing something wrong and my attempts to fix the problem were failing.
Our brains are NOT very good at remembering NOT TO DO something
While it is often the first approach that comes to mind, telling someone NOT TO DO something is generally not a great way to help that person stop doing that thing. As a steward of someone else’s learning and performance (manager, teacher parent or coach), you have access to two important pieces of information that make a necessary change obvious to you:
1) You know what the learner should do.
2) You know what the learner is doing but should NOT be doing.
With these two pieces of information it is easy for you to assume that telling learners what they are doing wrong will enable them to stop doing it and start doing the right thing instead. With time, it is true that learners can often figure out the right behavior for themselves and sometimes this self-driven development process leads to great discoveries. Sometimes, though, it can be difficult for learners to even start the exploration process. If they have NOT yet experienced what it feels like to do it right, they may have no idea where to start. Without a few clues to get them started on the right path, they can waste a lot of energy worrying about getting it wrong again. To make matters worse, when emotionally-charged, negatively-framed instructions are delivered in an positive experience vacuum, they can have perverse effects on the brain of the learner.
The ‘remember NOT TO’ approach puts unnecessary strain on the brain.
Remembering TO DO something entails storing one piece of information. Remembering NOT TO DO something entails storing two pieces of information: 1) the action and 2) the instruction NOT to do that action. It takes extra energy for the brain to store the “not” part, and the brain often declines the extra work. Even when the brain does elect to store a direction NOT TO DO something, this lowers blood glucose levels, depleting resources required to “install” a clear image of what the learner should do.
The complicated relationship between emotion and memory
Emotionally-charged, negatively-framed directions can be particularly ineffective for changing behavior. Strong emotional states strengthen memory, but the content of that memory may not be what you are hoping for. When we receive emotionally-charged, negatively-framed directions, our brains tend to save whatever is most closely associated with those strong feelings. In the case of my backhand, I had associated the action of pulling my elbow up with the ritual of my coach trying to teach me NOT TO pull my elbow up. Somehow, despite his and my best intentions, I ended up repeating the exact action my coach wanted me to avoid.
Emotionally-charged, negatively-framed directions can be a perversely powerful tool for reinforcing bad habits.
In effect, my coach’s attempts to get me to stop pulling my elbow up may have conditioned me to pull my elbow up, feel bad about pulling my elbow up, and feel hopeless about my ability to do anything about it. Since the movements and associations had become automated, the harder I tried NOT TO pull my elbow up, the more ingrained the habit became.
“Keep the racket head over your wrist”
Later, I had the good fortune to work with a coach who took a different approach to changing behavior. Bill had coached Chuck McKinley, Jimmy Connors and a number of other world-class players. Though I never approached these stars’ level of play, I did experience how Bill had helped to accelerate their progress toward greatness. When he saw me trying to hit backhands, Bill quickly realized that I was caught in a self-reinforcing feedback loop of negative imagery, emotion and execution and he used a simple technique to help me break the loop.
He gave me one simple direction: “Keep the racket head over your wrist.” He then walked me through a set of clear steps that I came to associate with the desired motions for a slice backhand. It turned out to be very hard for me to raise my elbow while simultaneously keeping the racket head over my wrist. Bill had provided me with a positively-framed clear direction that enabled me to focus on doing the right thing in a way that naturally decreased the likelihood that I would accidentally do the wrong thing.
Over the years, I was able to “install” these directions and associations so that I was able to execute the shot with confidence. Rather than seeing each backhand as an impending disaster, I came to see it as an opportunity to either disrupt the rhythm of a harder hitting opponent or approach the net where I could finish the point with a volley or overhead.
I learned a lot from Bill about how to make learning a positive and efficient experience, but his use of directions made a particularly big impression on me. Rather than using negatively-framed directions to alert me to what I was doing wrong, Bill used positively-framed directions to start me on the path to experiencing doing something right.
My experience with these two coaches and a fair bit of research provide a few hints about how directions can be used to change behavior:
- When a learner is struggling, if you know the right thing TO DO, it is often best to just provide simple, clear directions to get the learner started. If you are trying to get someone to change a behavior, try to provide a clear picture or description of the RIGHT behavior rather than focusing on getting them to NOT DO the WRONG behavior. This will probably be more effective than questions or feedback (though feedback and coaching may be useful for developing other skills requiring self-reflection). Simple, clear, positively-framed directions will certainly be more effective than berating or criticizing most learners.
- Even after they have a clear image, most learners still need to “install” the new habit through repetition. Even after learners have internalized the formula for successful action, they still need to “install” it. Repetition is the key. Repetition stimulates the creation of new synapses and chemical interactions reinforcing and automating the action until it is installed as habit or muscle memory. We tend to use the term muscle memory only in relation to sports, but we need to build up muscle memory to support interpersonal skills, work skills and virtually everything else we do. Consciously focusing on doing the right thing over and over again eventually enables you to do it without thinking about it. The skills you develop through this kind of practice may eventually become even stronger than the skills that come easily to you. After all, the more mental and physical energy you devote to the process, the more robust the resulting synaptic network becomes.
- Giving a bad habit special attention (especially negative attention) can actually make it worse by installing undesired associations. The harder you try to break a learner’s bad habit, the more entrenched it may become. If you allow yourself to fall into the trap of using emotionally-charged, negatively-framed directions, you may even end up unintentionally strengthening the synaptic networks associated with the bad habit, making it even harder for that person to uninstall it. The learner can end up spinning their wheels in a self-reinforcing feedback loop of failure.
- Even if you help learners succeed in uninstalling an undesirable behavior, they still need to install directions for the desired behavior. Since neither the teacher not the learner can simply make the synaptic network supporting the undesirable behavior disappear, it is sometimes more efficient to skip the unlearning process and move straight to focusing on building up the muscle memory and associations supporting the desired action. Once a new behavior and new associations have been installed, learners can trigger the new behavior for themselves by remembering words or images associated with it. The more successful repetitions, the greater the likelihood that the desired behavior will replace the undesired behavior.
- After you have successfully changed your behavior, you need to have a strategy for diverting your attention back to the desired behavior when the old habit comes back to haunt you. Old habits don’t die, they just fade away, and sometimes they come back. I still occasionally find myself struggling to produce the slice backhand as it was taught to me by Bill. Over the years, though, I have developed conscious strategies for restoring the desired behavior quickly. Rather than berating myself for making the same old mistake, I just repeat Bill’s directions to keep my racket head above my wrist. This triggers positive associations that pull me back toward execution of the shot I want to hit.
Simply put, starting with clear directions sets the stage for faster learning. Clear expectations and directions serve as guideposts that can be referred back to when you provide feedback and coaching to people after they take action. When learners have a clear understanding of what is expected of them and a few hints as to how to get started, they can often figure out the rest for themselves. When working alone without clear expectations and directions, though, they are at risk of wasting a lot of time just figuring out where to start.
Clear directions should NOT become a hammer looking for a nail.
“Start with the bat on your shoulder!”
I once witnessed an interaction between a coach and a baseball player that illustrates a situation in which clear directions may not have been just what the doctor ordered. Over a 6-month period the player had maintained the best batting average on his team. During one streak he got on base in 17 consecutive at-bats against pitchers that the rest of his teammates were struggling to hit. This player was on a roll.
Then, one day a coach who had never worked with this player walked by as the player was in the batting cage and he gave him a single clear instruction: “Start with the bat on your shoulder!” This coach’s words were just as magical as Bill’s, but unfortunately the magic was black. The player tried to implement the coach’s directions, but he had no experience successfully starting in this stance. He was also confused as to why he had to change a swing that was producing better results than anyone else on the team. Moreover, unlike Bill, this coach did not follow up with step-by-step instructions or positive reinforcement. He just gave the instruction and left the player to figure out the rest on his own. Eventually, the player lost confidence and his batting average plummeted. The coach’s intentions may have been good and his instructions may have been clear, but this particular instruction doesn’t seem to have been appropriate to the learner or the situation.
When something is not broken, don’t try to fix it. When a learner is getting good results with their current approach, especially one that they developed on their own, that is probably not the right time to tell them to change their approach. If the player had been struggling, the coach’s advice might have been useful. However, in this case, the player wasn’t struggling. He was getting great results with an approach he had come up with on his own, and he had already developed supporting behaviors and synaptic networks (muscle memory) that helped him get results with that approach.
Managers often make a similar mistake. They think that if they are not providing direction, they are somehow not fulfilling an obligation to their followers. When you are charged with managing the performance and development of someone at work, on a team or at home, it is always wise to consider whether the direction you are about to give is the right direction for this learner at this time or indeed if any direction is needed at all.
When people try to change their behavior, there will always be a learning curve. Have you set that learner up with proper expectations and do you plan to provide the appropriate support to help them get past the learning curve so that they experience the growth and performance you are looking for?
Sometimes the best thing you can do is say, “You’re doing great!” or say nothing at all. Later, if the learner’s results decline, the learner will be much more open to listening to your clear positively-framed directions, and with your support you may be able to help them develop their way through the learning curve to even higher levels of performance.
Another time to not try to give clear directions is when you are not sure what directions to give. There are times when you don’t know the right way to do something or even what result to aim for. At those times, it may be best to abandon directing and just join the learner in a collaborative search for solutions. Oddly enough, telling the learner that you don’t know the right goal or approach can actually serve as a higher form of expectation setting. After you set a clear expectation that you plan to explore the issue together, you might even be able to follow up by giving a few clear directions to the learner about how to start the exploration process.
The brain never gets tired of learning, so you shouldn’t either.
Whether you are trying to teach something totally new or trying to break an old habit, you are in luck. For many years, it was common sense that the brain did not develop new neurons after a certain age. Experts extrapolated that there must be limits on what we can learn. It turns out, though, that our brains create new neurons and develop new synaptic networks throughout our lives. The important thing is to know how to work with the brain rather than against it.
Don’t waste time and energy trying to break learners’ bad habits with negatively-framed directions, criticism or yelling. Instead, help them get started on installing new habits by providing them with clear, positively-framed directions, then help them get started practicing. Once they’ve got a clear picture of what to do, with repetition and your feedback and coaching, they can often install the right experiences and associations in their brains until the right habit is formed.
For illustrations of a very simple method of combining clear instructions with minimally-invasive, maximally-effective feedback, listen to: “Hidden Brain, Clicker Training for Humans: The Power of Judgment-free Learning” @ https://www.npr.org/transcripts/802422904
For examples of how negative communication can undermine the process of development of positive habits, listen to section starting from minute 8 of Hidden Brain interview with Wendy Wood at: https://www.npr.org/2019/12/11/787160734/creatures-of-habit-how-habits-shape-who-we-are-and-who-we-become
For illustrations of how pervasive negative framing can be and simple positive narrative reframing techniques see: TED Talk -Alison Ledgerwood: “A simple trick to improve positive thinking.”
“No Spanking, No Time-Out, No Problems”; Olga Khazan, www.theatlantic.com, March 28, 2016
“How to Build a Happier Brain”: Julie Beck, www.theatlantic.com, October 23rd 2013
The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg
Talent is Overrated, Geoff Colvin (The 10,000-hour rule is disputed, but the examples are still interesting)
The Mind & The Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force, Jeffrey M. Schwartz, M.D. and Sharon Begley
The Power of Full Engagement, Jim Loehr and Tony Schwarz
“Why the Imp in Your Brain Gets Out”; Benedict Carey, www.nyt.com, July 6, 2009
“How to Boost Your Willpower”; Tara Parker-Pope, www.nyt.com, December 6, 2007
© Dana Cogan 2009, 2018-2021, all rights reserved.