Awaken the Inner Toddler & Get Ferocious Competence

You may not remember this, but you had ferocious drive for competence when you were a toddler. I got reminded of this today while reading a wonderful book, Executive Coaching with Backbone and Heart. I still do many things with ferocious drive, but not quite like when I was a toddler, “Distractions be gone!” I handled them by tantrum! 

“NO!” As I pulled my hand out of my mom’s because I want to walk on my own.
“SCREAM!” As I pushed mom’s or dad’s hands away when they tried to help me stack the blocks.
“IRRITATED FACE!” As I grabbed the spoon from mom or dad, then missed half my mouth.

No, I’m not recommending that we should deal with distractions by throwing a tantrum.  Let’s leave the tantrum thing aside (tantrum’s simply screw up organizations- and NO! tantrums don’t equal passion). I hate it when someone says, “oh, he’s just passionate.” No! He’s a jerk. So, let’s focus on our inner toddler’s “ferocious drive for competence.” 

Hey! I'll feed myself! So I missed a little. (Image by aolivas)

I love Mary Beth A. O'Neill’s description of a toddler's drive:

“When infants are on the verge of becoming toddlers and learning to walk, they have a ferocious drive for competence. Very little distracts them from the goal to walk. How many times have you seen babies endlessly work to get themselves up to stand, then take a step, then tumble and fall, and then start the whole process over again?
Mary Beth A. O'Neill (Executive Coaching with Backbone and Heart).

We all had this drive at one time. I wanted to walk, stack blocks and eat on my own, and, I didn’t care how many times I messed up. The risk and the failure were simply part of the progress.  Yeah, I said progress, not process.  I’m pretty sure I didn’t see mistakes as a bad thing or wrong. They were frustrating for sure. But, there is no walking without falling. Walking doesn’t turn into running without skinned hands and knees, and occasional stitches in the chin.

Funny thing, the environment that supports this drive happens naturally

This guy is forking awesome now! (Image by aolivas)

Our parents, with love and care, and towards their own peril, would push us and encourage us with high-pitched happy voices to achieve as high as competence as possible.

Walking: despite our many falls, they didn’t just encourage us to walk and stumble along, they helped us get up and cheered us on, to walk more fluidly all over the place and across the room. And then, they regretted every minute afterwards, as they chased us all over. We persisted until we were awesome at walking!

Stacking blocks: they didn’t settle for us to place just one block on top of another, they showed us how, and encouraged and pushed us to use all the blocks, to get as high a tower as possible. We worked on it over and over until we used all the blocks and then demanded more!

Using a spoon: while this was adorably comical and fun to see us as toddlers, smearing food all over our faces, they extended grueling patience to us, so that we would become self-sufficient. We mastered the spoon and said, “I want the fork!”

Our mistakes and failures were part of our progress in our competency drive.

Imagine if our parents punished us at each failure or mistake? Or didn’t show that they cared that we can succeed? Or, if they picked us up every time and carried us, stacked the blocks for us, or spoon fed us?  It would’ve killed our innate and ferocious toddler desire for competency.

But not Supported in our organizations- Work’s Hot Stoves tame the drive for competency

So, why the heck are we doing this to our people in our organizations?  We’ve created so many hot stoves, it’s no wonder that the desire for being competent fades away.

Failing at a task or making a mistake isn’t a hot stove. The hot stove is when we get burned by a punishing manager or coworker, because we missed something or made a mistake. The hot stove is the disinterested manager who didn’t care how high and wonderfully in line we stacked our blocks. The hot stove is the manager or coworker who did my job for me so I didn’t have to own the problem.

How many times have you touched a hot stove? Exactly! 

We’re focused on the wrong thing.  A recent Korn Ferry report points this out, most CEOs (64%) view their employees only as a bottom line costs, not top line value generators. And organizations follow their CEO's, they focus primarily on the bottom line, and with that, what’s not in focus is loving or caring for people.  In turn, most companies react to mistakes as long-term losses instead of the short-term hits during growth. Then we punish our people with poor reviews, firings and or reprimands. Our people stop pushing themselves towards a naturally higher level because the part of the natural progress in gaining higher competency, making mistakes, or rather the response to them, has been turned into a very hot burner.  Now, our people will do the job, yes, but with a repressed toddler drive.  Now, when making a mistake our people slow down to a crawl. There’s some real expensive irony here. Companies that take care of their people dramatically outperform (have better bottom lines than) those that don’t.

The fix: mistakes are part of the progress, so bring back the love and guidance

When we we’re dealing with our toddlers, we cared and were focused on doing whatever we could to help them achieve competency.  And look what happened, they became masters.  They grew, their ferocious drive continued, and they wanted to become smarter, better, faster and stronger.  It’s time to change our organizations so that we awaken our inner ferocious toddler drive. The pursuit of competency is a matter of the heart. It’s a desire. We can bring back the environment that made us successful as toddlers.

Adding it all up- Our organizations must:

  • care for our people first
  • view and treat making a mistake as of part of the progress so they're safe
  • coach to celebrate mistakes and grow through them
  • value responding to mistakes as learning moments to spur higher competency
  • focus on and appreciate progress, not perfection
  • show patience as people make progress

Extreme competency, well, that doesn’t happen without mistakes. In the long game, our people will be more competent because they want to be, and your bottom line will be better served.