Building great leaders and high-performing teams is more than an exercise of recruiting people with the right credentials and experience for success.
And, it takes more than just assembling a laundry list of attributes that you expect your team to demonstrate — resilience, drive, vision, persistence in the face of obstacles, and so forth. While all of these capabilities are important for leading an organization to success, large-scale scientific studies have shown that it’s the way in which individuals focus on their goals that determines the likelihood of them being realized.
The same principles revealed in these studies can be applied to how your team envisions business success and how you develop true leadership athletes for your organization.
In her groundbreaking book, “Rethinking Positive Thinking,” New York University professor Gabriele Oettingen introduces the concept of “mental contrasting” as a vehicle for visualizing the future and the manifestation of your goals. Oettingen’s work suggests that an essential attribute in all individuals, (and this is especially true for elite leaders) is the capacity to envision the outcomes they desire with precision and specificity.
This is particularly applicable when the outcomes relate to better performance or the ability to negotiate more effectively.
To visualize the future outcome we want, Oettingen shows through numerous studies that applying a process called mental contrasting is key. Mental contrasting is the mechanism by which we build the mental links between our desires and the obstacles that may prevent us from achieving them. This enables us to make choices or take actions to remove obstacles from our path to success.
We, in essence, create “mental flags” that let us know when we encounter an obstacle what desire it will derail. This empowers us to implement a plan to address that obstacle.
Practicing mental contrasting requires stillness and focus in order to imagine the goals that you most want to achieve and reveals the obstacles that might preclude you from doing so. “Simple,” you might say. “I do that all the time.” Like most busy professionals, you may feel that, if you review your goals and make a plan for the day, your goals will be realized.
But research now shows us that how we engage in this process makes all the difference. Mentally inhabiting our goals in a structured way is essential.
One proven technique for leveraging mental contrasting is supported by a four-step process called WOOP: wish, outcome, obstacle, plan. Leaders and teams that use this process consistently increase their likelihood of improving performance and gaining a competitive advantage. Best of all, investing just five minutes of daily uninterrupted quiet time to practice the WOOP steps can up your game significantly.
The first step in the WOOP technique is designed to foster clarity around what you most desire. To engage in this on a team level, encourage members to individually examine an established goal. For example, perhaps you’ve predetermined that your annual goal is to achieve a 5% growth in revenue. For that goal to be better realized, each member of the team should apply the first step of WOOP to identify what the goal means to them personally and how they will act on it.
By taking 30 seconds to a minute to think about the goal, examine what you have to invest in order to achieve it and begin to generate passion for the goal. Then ask: “What do I really want to do today to advance this goal?” Through this personal searching process, you should then formulate three or four words that describe your intentions. Keep those words top of mind before moving forward.
This next step of the process is designed to help us inhabit the goals we’ve identified by exploring how achieving it will make us feel. By imagining the outcomes that will be experienced when the goal is accomplished, your team members develop greater attachment to the goal and their contributions to the outcome.
Again, the key is to devote 30-60 seconds to developing three or four words that describe the imagined outcome and keep them top of mind. Full disclosure: Research shows that doing the Outcome step before the Obstacle step is critical. It produces a greater record of successful goal achievement. Do not switch the steps by moving quickly into obstacles without first defining the outcomes.
This part of the process challenges you to think about the obstacles to achieving a goal, with one important caveat. The obstacles you are looking to identify first are those that are internal — the inner obstacles that can get us off track when pursuing a goal. Then, expand the process to considering external obstacles that may preclude goal achievement.
Again, these should be phrased in three or four words that describe the obstacles. Without clarity here, you cannot progress to developing a plan to address the obstacles, so spending sufficient time to get this correct is worth it.
The objective of the Plan step is to establish a way to surmount the obstacles. Here, formulate a simple if/then plan that identifies how you will act on each obstacle if it is encountered. (If I encounter X situation, I will take Y action to address it.) Practicing the WOOP technique helps to cement mental contrasting which is what creates within us the associative links between a wish and an outcome, and a wish and an obstacle. These mental links are needed to trigger the non-conscious cognitive process that enables us to swiftly act on our plan so that goals are achieved rather than derailed.
Numerous studies show the importance of reflection as a leadership practice. Developing rigor around the cognitive processes that help you embrace your goals and identify the obstacles to them is the path to becoming an elite leader. Applying the WOOP technique during reflection may strengthen your own capabilities, help you develop stronger leaders on your team and achieve better business outcomes.
That’s certainly worth five minutes of your day.
This article was first published in SmartBrief on Leadership, September 2020.