Managers should nudge, not push, new experiences

Help employees develop new skills with kindness and grace

Grace wasn’t about to be shown up by our house guest, Sammy, who was oblivious to any problems on the road that has frightened her. She moved along as if she was showing him the way, but I know this wasn’t easy for her. Reaching outside your own comfort zone can create anxiety, but also provides benefits that are long-lasting.

Sometimes you just need a gentle nudge to do something that you wouldn’t do otherwise. And afterwards, you’re grateful for that push.

Grace was evidence of this lesson the other day, when she was led down a frightening path, but found it safe and happy after all. To her credit, she bravely moved outside her comfort zone, but the nudge made the difference. A push, however, would not have yielded these same results.

We’ve been dog-sitting for a friend for the last week. Sammy is an adorable, pudgy, cuddly boy. He’s not burdened with the same insecurities that Grace has. His goofy, happy face is indicative of his easy-going nature. This dog is low-maintenance, only requiring your attention when he confidently hops in your lap cheerfully asking for your love. On walks, he trots along, somewhat slowly, but meandering along in his own world, as if he doesn’t have a care in the world.

That’s just the attitude one must have when the walking path takes you by our neighbor’s target shooting, a situation that sends poor Grace into a tizzy. Recognizing that Sammy may be able to do what we couldn’t do (get Grace down the street), my husband and I took advantage of the opportunity at hand.

We invited both dogs for a walk with us.

Grace had mixed feelings. You could just see it in her eyes. She was a bit nervous but there was no way she was going to be left behind. And our hope was that with Sammy’s calm demeanor, and our encouragement, she would ease along and find some enjoyment in the experience. And she did.

These two are finding great fascination and enjoyment from the scents along the walk, very important things for dogs. Grace has been missing this and I’m sure she enjoyed being back in her territory, thanks to Sammy’s lead, which to her credit, she followed.

Yes, we goaded Grace into doing something uncomfortable. I wouldn’t have made her go if she had been adamant in resisting (there was certainly no benefit in scaring her further), but I know that she loves this walk. Sammy’s kindred dog-spirit helped her face the scary noises. Sometimes we need a simple reassurance to help us overcome an obstacle.

Moving an employee to a new level of performance requires some changes. But the way in which it is done will dramatically effect the outcome. One way to get Grace down the road would have been to hook up a leash and drag her down the road, no matter what she felt or was trying to communicate. I imagine some employees often feel like they are getting dragged down a path.

Maybe a manager pushes because she feels that the task should be easy. Or that it’s just something that is expected in her role. Whatever the reason, it won’t change the fact that best results happen when someone feels a part of the process, not dictated to. If an employee is having a hard time accomplishing something, there is a reason for it. It’s your job as the manager to uncover the reason(s) and help the employee deal with it.

Those types of open conversations will help you build a trusting relationship, where you find the right way to nudge someone outside their comfort zone. If you try to barrel through otherwise, you’ll end up with diminished loyalty, lack of commitment, and inferior quality of work from employees. It just doesn’t pay to force someone to do something that they aren’t comfortable doing.

It’s important for a manager to nudge within the boundaries that are acceptable to the employee. And also critical for the employee to be open to accepting the challenge. There are many ways to address this.

If the relationship has a strong foundation, both parties can openly discuss what is needed and find a path that works for both. That’s when top performance becomes a walk in the park.

What situations have you seen where a manager pushes, perhaps with good intentions, but was not conducive for the best outcomes? I’d love to hear your stories!

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