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Be Your Word

“The world we live in is made up of different communities around us each of which has a

“The world we live in is made up of different communities around us each of which has a listening of its own.”

‘Can you submit the monthly MIS report by the end of the day?’ I asked Subbu. He nodded with a synchronous ‘yes sir’. I took his affirmation for granted and didn’t check with him on the progress even once during the day. Not finding the report on my table when I was about to wind up for the day, I thought I’d check with Subbu. His colleague, who shared his intercom, answered my call saying that Subbu had left for the day. I was angry for a moment. Things could have been different. Had I been in my previous company, I wouldn’t have put up with this sort of behaviour. But being new to this company, I thought I should not mess it up and miss the lesson, if any, the incident could offer.

The next morning, the first thing I did was to summon Subbu to my cabin. As he entered my office, I found myself uttering. ‘I didn’t expect this from you Subbu!’ Despite all my conscious effort to control my emotions, the puzzled what-has-gone-wrong look on his face annoyed me even more and I could not help the rising decibel level of my voice. I had to literally remind him of the report he promised to deliver by yesterday evening. He immediately trotted out a ‘sorry sir’, which sounded the same as his ‘yes sir’ the previous day, and went on to give me an explanation. The more I persisted in making him admit his mistake, the more reasons and justifications he came up with.

In the end, I was left bemused by the incongruence between what one says and what one does, and my listening to the person altered for ever. I have translated what I heard in terms of how I would listen to the person henceforth. ‘Sorry sir’: I have got my reasons and will not mind repeating it in future; ‘I didn’t know it was important’: I don’t take whatever you say as important. When I asked, ‘then why did you say “yes” when I asked you for the report by eod?’ his reply was ‘How can I say “no” to you sir?’: I say “yes” so as not to displease you; beyond that, my “yes” doesn’t mean anything; ‘you didn’t ask for the progress later during the day’: if it is important you should follow up and not merely rely on what I say; ‘the super boss won’t ask for these reports’: nor do I take what you ask seriously, unless the super boss wants it.

You would probably remember the story of the shepherd boy who cried wolf and was devoured by his own lies. Beyond the simple moral that once a liar, always a liar or rather, always seen a liar, the deeper insight I get now is that the world listens to me in a way that I occur to them. The world we live in is made up of different communities around us, each of which has a listening of its own. And how I occur to each community will be a function of the community’s past experience with me. There are occasions I do not stand by the commitments I make to the people around; yet I expect them to believe I would stick to my promises next time around. The saying ‘what you are shouts so loudly into my ears that I cannot hear what you say’ slaps me in my face. But how can I alter the way the world listens to me? It can happen only when I establish a complete congruence between what I say and what I do. If you stand fully committed to fulfilling every expectation that arises from your spoken words, your world starts relating to you as your word. Or to put it simpler, honour your word as yourself. Steve Zaffron and Dave Logan, in their book ‘The Three Laws of Performance’ have lucidly spelt out three laws that have the power to rewrite your future. Along the way, you’ll likely see and transform much of what is holding you back, both professionally and personally. Zaffron and Logan’s approach to leadership is to turn conversations upside down and dig beyond the words that are said to get to what’s really going on.

Here are their three laws that have the power to rewrite the future of your organisation:

  • How people perform correlates to how situations occur to them;
  • How a situation occurs arises in language;
  • Future-based language transforms how situations occur to people.

Let’s delve a little deeper into these laws.

How people perform correlates to how situations occur to them. Another way of saying this is: “There’s what happens and what you make it mean.” It’s never what happens  that upsets us – it’s how we perceive what happens and how we judge what happens. It’s the conversations we have with ourselves about what that means. For example, let’s say that you’re sitting in a room and someone gets up, leaves the room and slams the door. You might think that the person left the room in anger. What happened? He left the room. The door slammed. What did you make out of it? He was angry. But see, he could have gone in a hurry to attend to something urgent or it could be anything else other than anger. And that’s where communication and perception breakdowns create a mess that no amount of skilled leadership could solve, unless you know how to manage that. The only way to change behaviour is to change the perception in the mind and the heart.

How a situation occurs arises in language. The second law is about the language we use: How the world occurs to us is a direct function of the language we use and how we view the world around us. If someone is introduced to you as a friendly person, you listen to him with great attention; if someone is introduced to you as an offensive person, you try to protect yourself from him. Thus, how we think and act is based on linguistic description – we don’t know whether a person is friendly or offensive. So if we can change our words, we can change our behavior. The best way to understand this concept is with the example from the book by Helen Keller. Helen describes how she thought with her body, how she cried without understanding the emotions behind the tears. Once she learned to communicate, a whole new world was open to her. The world literally occurred differently for her because she could now name and communicate emotions around it. Future-based language transforms how situations occur to people. The third rule is about focusing on the future. If one’s thinking is locked in the past, one cannot move into the future. We can think and analyze the past, but more importantly we have to think about how we will create the future. The things to build our future are very different from the past because conditions and people change. It is language that generates something new – a new future – a different experience.

The Three Laws of Performance is a not just another must-read for every leader but a book for having organisational conversations around. When the Three Laws in this book are applied, performance transforms to a level far beyond what most people think is possible and it can happen so momentarily, as individuals and organisations rewrite their future.

For Further Reading:

The Three Laws of Performance: Rewriting the Future of Your Organization and Your Life by Steve Zaffron and Dave Logan.

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