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Change Work March 2007

It takes all sorts!

One of the things that makes management interesting, and often baffling, is trying to understand why people behave as they do.  By "why" I really mean "how" because the key is to look for the mechanism rather than the purpose.

Look at these words:

Do the labels in this list, progressing (regressing?) from complimentary to derogatory, describe different "kinds of" people?  Or are they all alternative descriptions of the same person?

Compare these descriptors:

Again, are these all the same person viewed from different perspectives?

All of the terms in the first list could describe someone whose primary direction of motivation is "away from".  I.e., someone who is most likely to act to get away from an undesired or unpleasant situation.  And to want to preserve a comfortable situation.

The second list describes an individual who is "towards" motivated.  I.e., most likely to act in pursuit of a goal or other desired outcome.  They will be interested in changing things.

"Towards-Away" is an example of the dozen or so thinking styles ("Meta Programs" in NLP) that have been described.  Each relates to a different dimension of thinking and is named according to its opposite extremes.  (A few other examples are given at the end of this article.)

Now, the interesting thing is that although we are all capable of any style of thinking, we habitually tend to prefer to stay close to one end of the spectrum in each of the meta-programs.

If you prefer the "Away From" end of this particular range, then you may well choose one of the terms from the top of the first list, above, to describe yourself ("reliable", "problem solver").  You might also tend to describe a "Towards" person using terms from the bottom of the other list, e.g. "dreamer".

Likewise, if you are "Towards" motivated then you're likely to see yourself as "visionary" or "results oriented".  And you might think of an "Away From" motivated person as "negative" or "obstructive".

Neither is right or wrong, only appropriate or inappropriate for particular roles or tasks.  A team needs a "Towards" leader to set the goals and inspire everyone else.  They tend to work best if untroubled by potential obstacles and pitfalls, confident that problems will be overcome when necessary.

The team also needs "Away From" thinkers to make it actually work.  They will be less concerned about the goals but will immediately begin to look for problems.  They get their satisfaction from solving problems.

In any kind of project, or organisational change, these different styles are needed.  They are also very likely to come into conflict - perhaps of a very bitter and personal kind.  The organisation can provide training and coaching to help team members recognise and appreciate each others' different strengths and limitations.  Diversity is a great asset.

What are the implications for the recruitment process - particularly the interview?  As discussed in earlier articles, we are in rapport with people we perceive as being like us so it's likely we'll prefer them to others.  This is a really powerful reason for having more than one interviewer.  And for choosing them for their different thinking styles!

And, as I indicated in the introduction, these preferred thinking styles are not inflexible.  We can all use any of them if we choose to - although practice will probably be needed to loosen our deeply embedded habits.  In fact I'd suggest that one of the most valuable goals of personal development is to develop a range of thinking styles.

So, who do you value the most and reward the most generously?  The results-oriented leader or the conservative problem solver?

Let me know what you think.

Here are a few other meta-programs:

Big Picture
Likes to deal with large chunks of information.  Will usually "chunk up" in conversation, e.g. "These are all examples of ..."
Small Picture
Pays attention to details.  Often can't see beyond them.
Will usually "chunk down", e.g. "Another example of that is ..."
Decides for themselves based on internal standards.
Follows others' standards and needs direction.
Wants lots of choice and develops alternatives.
Good at following set procedures.  Looks for a process that works rather than choices.
Notices similarities in a comparison.

Notices differences.

Have fun spotting these!