by Peter Bregman
Julie, the head of a division of a retail company I work with, was at risk of getting fired. Here’s the crazy thing: she was a top performer. She had done more for the brand in the past year than any of her predecessors had in five years. The problem was that she was a bear to work with. She would often lose her temper when others wouldn’t put in the same herculean effort she did. She also was competitive and territorial; wanting the final say on all decisions even when her peers technically had the authority to make a decision. She wasn’t good at listening or empowering others on the team. And, though she was working all hours, things were falling through the cracks.

But the real problem was that she didn’t think she had a problem. I was asked to work with her, and my first step was to interview everyone with whom she worked. When I shared the feedback, her response surprised me. “I didn’t know it was that bad,” she said, “but it doesn’t surprise me.” I asked her why. “This is the same feedback I received at my previous company,” she said, “It’s why I left.” We could look at Julie and laugh at her unwillingness to look at her failures and, as a result, repeat them. But the laugh would be a nervous one. Because many of us—and this includes me—do the same thing.

I’m often amazed at how many times something has to happen to me before I figure it out. Most of us get smarter as we get older, but somehow we often make the same mistakes. On the flip side—but no less comforting—we often do many things right and then fail to repeat them. There’s a simple reason for it: we rarely take the time to pause, breathe, and think about what’s working and what’s not.

I was once asked: if an organization could teach only one thing to its employees, what single thing would have the most impact? My answer was immediate and clear: teach people how to learn. How to look at their past behavior, figure out what worked, and repeat it while admitting honestly what didn’t and change it. If a person can do that well, everything else takes care of itself. That’s how people become life-long learners. And it’s how companies become learning organizations.

It requires confidence, openness, and letting go of defenses. But here’s what it doesn’t require: much time. It only takes a few minutes. About five actually. A brief pause at the end of the day to consider what worked and what didn’t. Here’s what I propose: Every day, before leaving the office, save a few minutes to think about what just happened. Look at your calendar and compare what actually happened — the meetings you attended, the work you got done, the conversations you had, the people with whom you interacted, even the breaks you took — with your plan for what you wanted to have happen. Then ask yourself three sets of questions: 
  • How did the day go?
  • What success did I experience?
  • What challenges did I endure? 
  • About others?
  • What do I plan to do— differently or the same—tomorrow? to update? Thank? Ask a question? Share feedback? 
This last set of questions is invaluable in terms of maintaining and growing relationships. It takes just a few short minutes to shoot off an email—or three—to share your appreciation for a kindness someone extended, to ask someone a question, or to keep someone in the loop on a project. If we don’t pause to think about it, we are apt to overlook these kinds of communications. And we often do. But in a world where we depend on others to achieve anything in life, they are essential.

After several long conversations, Julie came to appreciate the efficiency of slowing down enough to see the others around her. Over time and with great discipline, she began to change. And, slowly, people began to notice. I knew things were going to be OK when I left her a message expecting a call back in several weeks, if at all, but she called me back that evening. “Hi Peter,” she said, “I just wanted to let you know I got your call and I appreciate you reaching out to me. I’m heading out with the team for some drinks. I’ll try you again in a few days.” And, sure enough, she did.