I’m learning to drive. Yes, I’m 35 years old. Don’t judge me. The point is that I am in the unusual situation of being a 35 year old man undergoing formal, practical education. And with that comes an interesting insight, one that I may not have achieved had I done this in my early twenties; teachers teach too much.
My instructor, who I will call Mr. B, is a very competent and personable man. What I am about to say is not to disparage him in the slightest but rather to point out a general truth in the way we tend to teach and why that can be a problem. I’ll begin with an anecdote.
Just the other day, while approaching a roundabout, I made a mistake. Instead of continuing as there was no traffic coming from my right I chose to stop. My instructor urged me to continue and in that moment of confusion and indecision I stalled the car. When we were safely away from the roundabout Mr. B asked me “why did you do that?”
I’m a coach so I’m well versed in digging into motivations. I was able, after some thought, to explain what seemed the most likely reason for what I did. I had a very limited view of the road to the left and although I knew I had the right of way I was afraid that someone might be coming from that direction and that this person might not see me and might carry on. This was a fear response, a threat was sensed and I did something based on that. It wasn’t rational. It wasn’t a sign that I didn’t know what I was supposed to do. And, in the end, my answer wasn’t helpful. Knowing that I knew what I was supposed to do and that I did the wrong thing anyway didn’t give Mr. B any really useful data. Worse, however, is that most people wouldn’t have been able to answer the question at all.
Our acting mind and our reflecting mind often disagree on why we do what we do; especially when that thing is a mistake. In that situation, someone with less experience of analysing deeper motives would likely have come up with an untrue but more self affirming rationalisation or simply said “I don’t know, I guess I’m not very good at roundabouts.” leading to a dip in confidence.
Another example that comes to mind came at the start of a lesson. It had been a week and I’d gotten a little rusty. My first few gear changes were bad, I’d been too heavy on the brakes. Each small error compounding to make the entire first ten minutes feel really poor. I felt really poor. I knew what I was doing wrong just as most people, given the chance to reflect without fear of judgement, know what they are doing wrong. But teachers gotta teach, right? So when we had a moment Mr. B said:
“OK, so, your steering has been good but your gear changes, braking, and checking mirrors has been atrocious.”
Then he added:
“I’ve got some tests coming up so I really can’t afford damage to the car.”
Ouch. So now not only did I know I’d done badly, but I had to sit through someone telling me how badly I’d done, and on top of that I felt the pressure to make fewer mistakes in order to avoid problems with the car!
This is, unfortunately, pretty standard. When we teach people, when we are in a position of expertise while someone else is a novice, we have a common tendency to over teach. Doing something feels better than holding back and waiting for the learner to self correct. We also generally make the mistake of believing that all errors come from incorrect thinking – that if only someone knew what to do that person would not make the mistake.
So, as a coach, how might I have handled these situations? Simple; I’d have encouraged the learner to do it again.
When you watch sports coaches drill their players you’ll notice something odd; they do very little teaching. In fact, you’ll hear phrases like this:
“Great, now do it again.”
“Do ten more of those, focus on your footwork.”
“Slow down and try again.”
Only after a lot of this might one of the coaches walk up to a particular player, give him or her a little one on one attention, and then instruct the group to go again.
I’ll share here again another of my favourite phrases – a phrase I would like to hear all creative leaders use.
“Excellent. Now do another one.”
When someone comes to you with an idea – do another. When someone shows you a prototype – do another. A sales pitch – another! Enthusiasm and being encouraged to keep going is the key to self correction.
You may know the old anecdote about Henry Kissinger who, when presented with a draft of some document or other would send it back with the phrase “is this the best you can do?” written on it. He would repeat this until the exasperated underling replied “Yes, that’s the best I can do.” only after which would he actually read the work.
While I don’t think that’s the perfect leadership technique I am convinced he was on the right track. He didn’t worry about correcting trivial errors and trusted that, given enough time and encouragement, his staff would do that themselves.
You are probably in a position to lead people. You probably coach people. You almost certainly try to teach people. And if that is true I would encourage you to try a little experiment; teach less.
If you have an employee who is making the same mistake again and again despite your best efforts to correct them you may reflect that it is not only the employee who seems unable to learn! After all, aren’t you the idiot who keeps attempting the same solution to the problem while expecting different results?
So teach less. This is true for driving instructors and National Security Advisors, as well as everyone in between.