Doubt Really Messes Up Performance

By on June 28, 2016
Doubt Really Messes Up Performance

I was seated with eight friends for an early morning breakfast in St. Louis’s Central West End. We’ve been coming to this restaurant for many months and week after week we’ve had the same waiter. When we gave our orders, our waiter, Jeff, studiously wrote down what we wanted. Jeff almost always got our orders right.

This time it was different. We had a new waiter who introduced himself as Reggie and said that this was his first day at work. He asked us if we needed a menu and we assured him we didn’t. It was when we started ordering that I noticed something unusual. Reggie wasn’t writing anything down. Some of our orders were, as usual, a bit eccentric and off-menu like “I’d like an omelet but no peppers and extra cheese” and “I’d like your ‘Fast Choice’ breakfast but only one egg rather than two and leave off the potatoes and give me sausage rather than bacon and please toast the muffin dark.

I thought to myself, how in the world is Reggie going to remember what we’ve ordered?

After taking all our orders he asked if we needed any coffee refills and one person said, “Yes, we’d like some more coffee.” With an air of total confidence Reggie walked to the kitchen with our order.

As he came back with the coffee one person in our party said to Reggie, “I don’t see how it’s possible for you to remember all the details of our eight orders.” Reggie smiled and said, “I’ve got a good memory.

Moments later he returned to our table. With a sheepish look on his face he said that he wanted to check to make sure he got our orders right. With that he made the rounds of the table telling each one of us exactly what we’d ordered.

And then came a comment that really caught my attention. Reggie said, “You know I’ve taken orders like this thousands of time but when one of you said that you didn’t see how I could possibly do this, well, I began to doubt that I could do it. I began to doubt that I’d gotten your orders right.

Our doubt hurt Reggie’s performance. Sound familiar? Quite possibly you’ve had personal experiences like this. I know I have. I was on the verge of not making it in USAF Flight Training until I got a supremely confident instructor pilot who made me believe beyond a shadow of a doubt that I would become a USAF pilot. My first instructor was so lacking in confidence in his own abilities that he transferred his doubts to his students.

It’s easy to transfer doubt like this and when it happens it really messes up performance.

This is exactly what happened with Reggie. Some of us voiced our doubt in his ability to remember all of our orders. And, no surprise, he came to doubt this himself.

Of course, what we really doubted was our ability to do what Reggie could do. And beyond this we were engaging in a bit of stereotyping. Reggie’s a new waiter. New waiters couldn’t possibly do what Reggie’s claiming he can do. We were projecting our own doubts onto Reggie.

Projection and stereotyping are extremely effective and very destructive inhibitors of performance, in any work setting.

I’ve seen them at work hundreds of times on the floors of factories, in laboratories, and in corporate conference rooms.

Jenny comes up with an idea about how to improve work flow in her area and share’s it with her supervisor who responds, “That’s not a good idea. It’d never work.

Tanisha in a corporate accounting department notices a problem in the way accounts receivable are processed. She shares her observation with the department manager who says, “Don’t worry about that. Just do your job.

Bill, a press operator with over twenty years of experience, watches as the plant engineer makes some repairs on his press. He realizes that what’s being done won’t take care of the problem they’re having and suggests to the engineer that they try a different approach. The engineer replies, “Just keep quiet. We pay you to work, not to think.

Destructive behaviors like these are difficult to eliminate. But when managers and supervisors get together and engage in totally candid discussions about the degree to which their behaviors either inhibit or encourage high levels of performance on the part of all employees, a beginning will have been made.

From this beginning they can use Lean thinking and work processes to gradually create work environments characterized by:

  • Making full use of the creativity, intelligence, and knowledge of all employees.
  • Showing trust, respect, and candor in all interactions between employees.
  • Listening to all employees and responding to their ideas.
  • Consistently showing confidence in the abilities of employees to solve problems, to improve work processes, to eliminate waste.

As a starter, I’d recommend Mike Rother’s award winning book, Toyota KATA, as a good book to read and discuss in depth. Why do I suggest this? For one primary reason. The “KATA” process of structured, scientific thinking, replaces doubt with confidence, confidence in one’s ability to overcome impediments to continuous improvement. It’s a perfect antidote to doubt. Please read my blog article about Mike’s book.

Next week, before we order breakfast, I’m going to suggest to my friends that they can have full confidence in Reggie’s ability to remember their orders. I know he can do it. I’m looking forward to seeing him in action. Great performance is always a pleasure to watch.

About George Friesen

George Friesen serves as Business Practice Leader - Lean Manufacturing for the Workforce Solutions Group of St. Louis Community College. He has led the College's Lean business practice area since 2000. Prior to joining the College, George worked for Maritz Performance Improvement Company. Over the past 35 years, he has served a wide variety of Fortune 500 companies, specializing during the past eleven years in Lean Manufacturing, focusing especially on the 5S System, Lean leadership and thinking processes, Value Stream Mapping, and Lean team building. George is a graduate of Washington University (AB), Webster University (MA), and United States Air Force Flight Training.

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