Sometimes the only thing missing is a little push.
Once upon a time, many years ago in a small rural town the time had come for the spring fair.
It was an annual event, a celebration of both the end of winter and the coming of the growing season, with its long days and heavy labor. The spring fair had everything that you typically associate with a spring fair; there were games, there was good food and cool drinks; iced tea, lemonade, and perhaps even an ice cold beer if you knew who to ask. The fair was held in a meadow on the bank of the large river that flowed by the town.
On the day of the fair people began arriving early. There were tables to set, tents to pitch and games to organize, but mostly there was time to renew old acquaintances and revel in the glory of the spring; a spring that seemed especially beautiful, as the winter had been long and cold.
The weather was perfect. It was a day not unlike those that we remember from our childhood – a warm breeze, a bright sun in a sky of robin-egg blue, a few wisps of clouds but none that threatened rain. The only reminder of the winter was the river.
Normally it was peaceful, but the winter’s snow had been heavy and spring was late. The run off was considerable that year, and the calm river was now full of currents and rapids. The river was angry, and mothers and fathers warned their children away from the river. But as the day wore on the watchful eyes of the parents were distracted, and the wonders of bluebells and frogs and turtles called to the children; for some the siren song was just too loud to ignore. It wasn’t long before a few of them were scrambling along the river bank in search of whatever treasures they could find when suddenly a young girl named Rebecca lost her footing and fell in. She was immediately swept away in the icy flow. Her mother (or maybe it was her sister, I can’t remember) screamed “Rebecca’s in the river!” and all the townspeople rushed towards the riverbank. It was chaos, yelling, screaming; only those right beside the riverbank were able to see. There was no doubt it was Rebecca – her long blond hair could be seen clearly in the dark, cold, swirling water. You would think someone would go in after her but that was not the case. Very few people in the town knew how to swim; it was a skill that wasn’t really required by a farming life. You could see the frustration, fear and impotence etched on their faces as they stood there, transfixed by what was happening.
Then there was another splash; a young man was swimming out into the river! A few people recognized him; his name was Tom, a farmhand who came to help with last fall’s harvest and stayed over the winter, doing odd jobs in the community. Not many knew him well, as he was quiet and reserved and generally kept to himself. But now he was the center of attention. He swam like an Olympian, cutting through the heavy current, reaching the girl in seconds. Grabbing her with one hand, he made his way back to the shore with the girl safely in tow. He reached the riverbank, passed Rebecca into the arms of the onlookers, and collapsed, exhausted. The crowd went crazy! What courage! What bravery! What selflessness! Had the townspeople held an election he would have been acclaimed mayor. Slowly the young man, shivering and covered with mud, raised himself up onto his knees and looked up into the crowd. They all went quiet in anticipation of what he was about to say. He cleared his throat and gasped, “All right, who in the hell pushed me!”
An excellent question. But here are two better ones: why did Tom need to be pushed, and why did the person who pushed chose Tom?
Why do people need a push? I’ve thought about this question for a long time; at first glance there seems to be a whole host of why reasons why individuals remain passive when what is required is decisive action, why they defer instead of deciding, why they procrastinate instead of moving forward. But when you start to separate the symptoms from the root cause if becomes clear that the reason people choose not to act is a simple one.
And I think it’s fear at a very primal level. It’s not necessarily goal-related; it’s not just the failure of achieving the objective. It’s what our family and friends (and enemies) are going think when our failure becomes common knowledge. It’s what the failure will do to our self-image. It’s trying to figure out how we could possibly cope with the failure and deciding that that version future is too bleak to imagine.
We do a risk versus reward calculation in our heads and the answer we get is that it’s too risky. The issue is that we misperceive the risk; we ask ourselves what could go wrong and we enumerate all the ways we can fail and tally up the consequences. This is not a bad thing to do; it would be foolish to proceed in virtually any venture without some assessment of the risk. Looking both ways before you cross the street a reasonable, pragmatic precaution to take. The problem arises with our assessment of the likelihood of the risk. We almost always overestimate the chances of the risk actually occurring; to paraphrase Winston Churchill, we become a hostage to the ‘sum of all our fears’. In the end, we let fear win and we chose not to act; we remain passive and let our future be decided by the vagaries of fate instead of by our own actions. When fear paralyzes us we become catatonic and unable to move. Like Tom, we stand on the riverbank knowing that we could be the difference but are unwilling to commit. And our opportunity flows downstream until it disappears from sight.
We need a push.
We need someone to help us overcome our fear, break our immobility and move us forward.
Look at the people with whom you work. Is there anybody in stuck in a rut? Anyone capable of more than they are delivering? Do you see anyone in need of a push?
And what is a push, exactly? It is this: It is giving someone the opportunity to be successful and then helping them succeed. It’s removing the fear that’s holding them back. It’s being their safety net. And it’s easier than you would imagine.
Four Prerequisites for an Effective Push
There are four simple prerequisites that need to be in place before you can give someone an effective push.
The first is aptitude. Make sure the individual has the innate skills and talents to do what is required. This isn’t a training concern; it’s a question of making sure that the opportunity matches their talents. It’s unfair to put someone in a position where they have no familiarity with the job at hand.
The second is attitude. The individual must want the opportunity, and they need to believe that with your help they can be successful. They don’t necessarily need to recognize that they need a push (but it helps). They need to acknowledge, or at least hope, that they are capable of bigger and better things. The recognition is key; they need to possess a desire for growth and achievement.
The third is availability. This is simple but it can be easily overlooked. They need to have time in their day to address the opportunity. If someone is already working 40 hours a week the chance that they’ll be enthused at the prospect of working another 30 or 40 hours on a special opportunity is pretty slim. Allow them to focus a significant portion of their time on the opportunity at hand – reassign some of their current tasks or put the tasks aside for the time being. Demonstrate that you consider them an asset and that you (and the organization) are willing to make an investment.
The forth is also is availability: yours. For a push to work you need to be able to coach and mentor the individual. Sometimes it’s as simple as listening and giving advice. (Sometimes it’s as hard as listening and not giving advice!) This is where the ‘safety net’ aspect of the relationship comes into play. Give them as much independence as they can handle while continuing to hold them accountable for the outcome. It’s a lot like helping your child learn to ride a bicycle; knowing how fast they can progress is an art, not a science. It takes some trial and error but eventually you both get the hang of it. Soon they’ll be off riding on their own through the neighborhood (and you’ll have a whole new set of worries!).
With any luck they will succeed in the endeavor. Celebrate their success. If despite everyone’s best efforts the endeavor does not succeed, learn from the failure and recognize their efforts. And if the effort was not there, accept that your judgment was flawed and you picked the wrong person. Learn from it and move on.
Pushing works. Try it – show someone that you have faith in them and then give them the opportunity prove you right. Be prepared to be amazed at the results.
And what became of Tom, the reluctant hero who needed a push?
After reading a draft of this post a cynical friend of mine remarked that no good deed goes unpunished, and that Tom probably caught a chill from the cold water, developed pneumonia and died. I prefer to think that things worked out a little bit better than that.
Tom’s reluctant heroism caught the eye of a young lady whose father happened to own the local bank. Her name was Margaret. She was smart, pretty and determined; Margaret and Tom wed the following summer. Her father took his new son-in-law under his wing and taught him the banking business, giving him his lead most of the time and a gentle push when he need it. Tom started at the bottom and learned as he went, and after a number of years became the manager, and eventually the owner. He always treated his customers fairly and honestly, and in time was widely regarded as the best banker in both the town and all the surrounding counties.
No one ever owned up to pushing Tom. As for Rebecca, her ordeal was quickly forgotten and she grew up straight and strong and true.
And they all lived happily ever after.