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To Grow Professionally, Find a Swim Buddy

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I prefer to thin-slice professional development down to single and simple controllable actions in the moment. Instead of worrying about the entire portfolio of issues and behaviors holding you back, focus on one at a time and work on perfecting or strengthening it.

This thin-slicing as I describe it tends to run counter to our institutional preoccupation with annual performance objectives and evaluations and longer-range professional development thinking. My perspective: the future is out there somewhere, and we’ll get there eventually, one action at a time. As for the past, well, there are no time machines, just lessons to learn from our histories.

The best formula for professional growth is striving to strengthen, cultivate, or eliminate a discrete behavior in real time.

Of course, identifying those behaviors is not as easy as it seems. You need a steady flow of meaningful, observed, behavioral, business-focused feedback. Sadly, high-quality feedback is often in short supply in our workplaces. Instead, you need to jump-start the flow of feedback.

A competent coach is one answer. A coach can be a valuable asset in helping you identify behaviors in need of strengthening (or elimination) and cultivating strategies to make the needed changes. However, not everyone has access to a coach. Instead, ask a swim buddy for help.

Who’s Your Swim Buddy?

The Swim Buddy approach is a core part of Navy Seal training, where every recruit is assigned someone responsible for supporting them unfailingly through the trials and tribulations of their rigorous training program.

The corporate equivalent is someone who is committed to observing and sharing unvarnished feedback on your performance.

While it is challenging to think about trusting someone in the workplace to have your back, I’ve yet to encounter a client unable to recruit a swim buddy. Often, the recruiting pitch involves reciprocity. Gain a swim buddy by becoming one for that person.

Keys to Success

Instead of asking for random feedback, I encourage people to focus on the following issues with each other:

  • How do you perceive I am impacting others through my words and actions?
  • What are the outcomes of my words and actions?
  • What do I do that positively impacts others?
  • What in your opinion could I have done better (in a specific situation) to improve the outcome?

I like these narrow, slightly redundant questions as tools to help each party identify specifics and avoid talking in generalities, or worse, attempting to psychoanalyze each other.

The key to success with this program is cultivating the trust necessary for each party to share observations without watering them down or qualifying them. Like anything else in life, cultivating an active, competent swim buddy relationship takes time and effort.

The benefit of success is a continuous flow of valuable crude content capable of being refined into strengthened performance. In other words, a great swim buddy relationship is priceless.

Once the flow of feedback starts, your biggest challenge is focusing on one behavior. Listen for common themes in the feedback and distill the input down to a single or small set of related behaviors.

The Case of the Mercurial Manager

One individual—a smart, talented manager—had developed a reputation as someone you didn’t want to disappoint. He was viewed as someone with both bark and bite, and as a result, people walked softly around him, fearful of attracting his attention.

His up-line manager was preoccupied with the dearth of innovative ideals flowing from the group and began to wonder if the issue was an overall lack of critical thinking ability. “I became concerned that this manager did not have the requisite gray matter to get the job done, but I wasn’t certain,” he offered when I interviewed him. “I was considering a variety of options ranging from sending him to outside training to replacing him,” he added.

To the up-line manager’s credit, instead of over-reacting, he took the bold step of doing nothing for the moment except assigning a swim buddy to observe and help his manager.

It was ultimately the swim buddy who dared to suggest the issue wasn’t a lack of critical thinking ability, but instead, it was how this manager’s passion for performance and his response to setbacks were introducing toxicity into the working environment.

In simple terms, people were afraid of disappointing the manager. They didn’t want to be on the receiving end of his bark or bite. When confronted with this, the manager had almost no awareness of how his passion for his work was impacting everyone around him.

While there’s no cure for a personality and no real reason to challenge someone to eliminate the passion from their work, the manager and swim buddy worked out a system to begin to modify behavior in the moment. They wanted the manager’s passion to fuel exploration, not to drive them to ground.

The manager and swim buddy worked to implement a few essential behavior changes:

  • When a situation threatened to spill over into something negative the swim buddy signaled the manager to extract himself by scheduling a follow-on later in the day. This cooling off period helped the manager compose himself and his thoughts.
  • Ensuring that the manager asked questions that didn’t sound like indictments.
  • When confronted with a situation where the solution was obvious to the manager, he learned to stop barking orders and focus instead on helping individuals describe their ideas and approaches.
  • Channelling the manager’s passion for the work into delivering more positive feedback for accomplishments and creating opportunities to celebrate successes.

The impact of the manager’s behavior change was akin to opening a window and letting fresh air into a stuffy, stale room. Fear dissipated, fresh ideas began to flow, and individual accountability for ideas and outcomes ultimately flourished.

Learn to Find the Thin-Slice

I see examples similar to the one described above all of the time. Too often, instead of looking for discrete behaviors, we lob a metaphorical hand grenade, hoping for a good outcome. Leadership training is one of those metaphorical hand grenades. It’s a reflex action and check-box approach that is the antithesis of thin-slicing.

As an individual, you need input on what’s working and what’s not. A swim buddy is a robust, inexpensive approach, although, not every swim buddy will work out as nicely as the one described above. Nonetheless, it’s worth the risk and the time investment to both recruit and serve as a swim buddy.

As a manager, you have two immediate and effective choices:

  1. Increase your direct observation of your team members and give specific, behavioral, business-focused feedback. Help your charges identify a thin-slice and then support them as they strive to strengthen or eliminate the requisite behaviors.
  2. Develop a team-wide Swim Buddy program and start the flow of feedback.

Ultimately, all of us need actionable input to improve. Suggesting you need to develop as a leader or strategist or manager is interesting but not actionable. Gaining insights into individual behaviors and then striving to strengthen or eliminate those behaviors is essential. It’s time to start thin-slicing and focusing on specific, actionable, meaningful behaviors.

Art Petty is a coach and consultant working with executives and management teams to unlock business and human potential. He writes the Leadership Caffeine blog.

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