Unlocking Greatness: Removing the Obstacles That Keep Employees Down

HR can help workers unleash their talent by shifting their focus

By Natalie Kroc Jun 20, 2016
2016 Annual Conference & Exposition
2016 Annual Conference & Exposition
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Alan Fine learned a lot about human behavior from many years of teaching tennis, but his most important lesson came when he was cajoled into giving private lessons to a 9-year-old whose own mother described her as “really uncoordinated.”

This assessment proved to be accurate, Fine said: “She could swing her racket through any area of space, except for where the ball was.”

Fine decided the only strategy was to keep the lessons as simple as possible. Still, after six sessions, “I’m throwing the ball into this little girl’s racket, and the most she can hit is five shots in a row.”

So for the seventh lesson, he tried an experiment: Just for that day, he told her, he didn’t care how she held the racket or where she placed her feet. The only thing he wanted her to do was to say “Bounce” whenever the ball hit the ground and to say “Hit” every time the ball hit the racket.

The girl hit 53 shots in a row. After the first 15, he said, he wasn’t even making it easy for her. By the end of the lesson, the girl and her mother had big grins on their faces, but Fine was “somewhere between frustrated and angry. I’m witnessing the biggest breakthrough I’ve ever seen, and I have no way to explain it and no way to replicate it.”

Fine spoke at a Sunday Session on June 19 at the Society for Human Resource Management 2016 Annual Conference & Exposition about what he’s learned since to explain that breakthrough—and others. The New York Times best-selling author of You Already Know How to Be Great (Piatkus Books, 2011), Fine has served as an executive coach and consultant and is the founder and president of InsideOut Development, a professional training and coaching company that promotes an “inside-out approach” to personal development.

Developing Performance from the Inside Out

Many times, “there’s a gap between the results that you’re getting and the results you know are possible,” he said. That’s when HR professionals need to step back and figure out why.

There are four key elements to performance:

  • Knowledge of how to do something.

  • Faith—what we believe about ourselves and about others.

  • Fire—energy and effort.

  • Focus.

Organizations and HR departments tend to zero in on the first element, thinking that problems can be solved by increasing employees’ knowledge through training and other developmental programs. This is the “outside-in approach,” Fine explained.

But the problem is rarely that workers lack knowledge, he said. It’s that they’re lacking one of the other three elements. When workers lack faith, they show insecurity. When workers lack fire, they demonstrate indifference. When workers lack focus, that leads to inconsistency.

Focus is the element that drives all the others and is therefore what can unlock a person’s greatness. A person’s ability to choose what he or she focuses on—over and over again—has a powerful effect on performance, Fine explained. “That choice of focus drives everything that we do. It shows up in all aspects of our lives,” he added. It’s also “one of the few things we have complete control over.”

Sometimes, a person can be blocked by just the idea of a task. In these cases, shifting the focus can have a dramatic impact. Fine showed a video of one of his tennis lessons from years ago, this time with an adult student. The student wanted to reliably hit backhand shots but was only hitting about 2 or 3 out of 10. So Fine altered the man’s focus by asking “What do you see when you’re hitting the ball?” The student described how he could see the seam of the ball as it spun through the air. Fine then asked him to rate the speed of each ball on a scale of 1 to 10. When the student did this—freed from the blocks in his own mind about the difficulty of the task at hand—he managed to hit almost every ball.

If people are overwhelmed by a task or responsibility or feel they don’t have the skills required, they become anxious; however, if a task lacks challenge, they become bored. The goal is to get “in the zone,” Fine said, where a person doesn’t have to try too hard or think too much and where the task comes relatively easily.

Interference Blocks Greatness

When trying to access workers’ best selves, HR professionals should ask themselves “Am I raising interference or reducing it?”

Fine said developmental psychologists have discovered that people learn about half of what they will learn in their lives by age 5 or 6—the age that children first go to school. At school, children learn that their thoughts and actions will meet with either approval or disapproval, as indicated by letter grades or even pass/fail determinations.

Facing the possibility of being judged, their defenses go up—that’s interference. Suddenly, the curiosity so natural to children has been hindered; in its place is fear, anxiety and a life lived in “watch-out mode,” Fine explained. They are suddenly less open to data and experiences coming in, and “so, of course, learning slows down.”

It’s not just learning that is affected; fear and anxiety have a way of lowering performance, even for top performers. Because of this, it’s critical for HR professionals to try to “reduce the amount of watch-out mode that others go into.”

When looking at an employee, it’s important to remember that once, that person was a child full of unstoppable curiosity, bursting to learn, Fine said. But the person now has 30, 40, 50 years of “emotional defenses that have been built up.”

So if there is fear or anxiety, start by changing the focus. “From then on, you pay attention to the world a little differently,” Fine said. “That’s how the learning starts. That’s how the breakthroughs happen.”


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