What Leaders Should Learn from Fiction Writers
BY John Baldoni
Managing employees has a lot more in common with the way writers develop fiction characters than you might have thought.
Techniques fiction writers employ to develop characters can provide insight into how managers develop their employees.
One of the reasons we like good fiction is because it explores inner workings of a character's mind. We discover the why of a character—the intention and motive—that propels him to act.
In an essay for The Wall Street Journal, novelist Ellis Avery cites the questions she asks herself when developing fictional characters. Two of these questions (slightly adapted) are relevant to leaders and, although rooted in fiction, can give managers real-world insight into how they can help their employees succeed.
What does my employee want? Consider this the motive question. What gets your employee up in the morning? Is she motivated by recognition (most of us are)? Toward that end, what does she do to enable herself to succeed?
What holds my employee back? This gets to the heart of what holds all of us back: our blind spots. It may be poor communication, the inability to delegate, or to prioritize workflow. Or maybe your employee comes unglued when workload increases. Identify these obstacles and talk about overcoming them.
What should I do to help my employee? This question does not apply to fiction but naturally follows the one that day. Sometimes you should do nothing to help an employees; other times, everything. First, you never do your employee's work. But you must always be there to support good effort. You sometimes cheerlead, other times cajole. Very often your role is to challenge in order to get your employee to do better for himself, and for the team.
Asking questions is a first step. The other big step is listening. Never assume you know the answers. You may think you do, but many times you may not. For example, if you think an employee is motivated by a paycheck only you may discover to your surprise that he is going to night school to get a degree. Or, if you think that your employee is only phoning it in, you may learn that he is doing his best work, but others in his team are not pulling their weight.
Coaching employees is essential to development, both theirs and yours. When you coach an employee you are investing yourself in helping her become better at her job. You are also learning something about yourself, as a teacher who shares lessons but also a boss who can seek to guide.
One rule to keep in mind about coaching is that it is conversational. Make time for it. Do not ambush folks in the hallway and unload with a critique. Schedule time. Plan ahead. And always open with an affirmative.
Successful organizations do well because people are productive and engaged in their work. Manager to employee coaching—even with a cue from fictional character development—can be the enabler that helps this occur.