teachable moment

10 Telltale Teachable Moments Leaders Must Recognize

One of our greatest responsibilities as leaders is to help others become better versions of themselves. We do this through a tireless commitment to teaching, coaching, and investing in those around us. Great leaders are always on the lookout for opportunities to ply this trade. What follows is some “advance scout” help, a set of eyes on the front lines of daily work life if you will. What exactly are we on the lookout for?

Tell-tale teachable moments – When you spot one, don’t pass up the opportunity to invest. Here are some of the most commonly seen moments where your investment can equal their betterment:  

When Reality Doesn’t Match Expectations

I really believe in a simple formula: Happiness = Reality – Expectations. Unhappiness in the manager/employee relationship can come when, as a leader, your expectations aren’t being met in reality, or when their expectations were never aligned to yours in the first place (either too low or too high). Any of these scenarios presents an opportunity to dig in and understand the cause of the gap. Do so and you’ll be sure to excavate useful learning and enable some realignment.

When They’re Seeing Things from Just Their Side During Conflicts/Tension

I’ve found that when it comes to interpretations of a conflict between two sides, the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. A classic tell-tale teachable moment resides when one of the parties can only see things from “the far left” – i.e. their point of view.

Future (and current) leaders need to be astute enough to step back and openly and objectively consider the opposing point of view. Often this strengthens the outcome, resolves conflict faster, and expands the debating parties’ worldview. This poor vision and lack of flexibility can also show up as not ramping up to see the bigger picture, or being myopic in general on an issue, whether or not a conflicting party is involved. All of this represents a deep reflecting pool to dive into for improvement.

When the “A” Game Is Not Present in an “A” Situation

“A” situations can include big meetings, pivotal points in a project’s life, or a crisis, just to name a few. The lack of “A” game might show up as a highly flawed recommendation, a lack of anticipating questions or pushbacks, poor delivery of key messages, a lack of urgency or proactivity, or any other number of ways in which less-than-optimal performance showed up in high stakes situations. Don’t miss the chance to instruct here on a very visceral, teachable moment.

When Someone Falls Short on a Risk Taken

Proceed carefully here, teachers-in-waiting. The point is not to discourage risk-taking, but to encourage more of it. Help the risk-taker learn where they went wrong, what they could have done better to avoid the outcome, or what will make the next venture more successful – and do so in an uplifting, encouraging manner. A study conducted by Blessing White found that 41 percent of employees said their manager never encouraged them to take risks, while another 33 percent said their manager only sometimes encouraged them to take risks.

When Someone’s Not Aware of the Impression They’re Leaving

Occasionally, we all need a mirror held up in front of ourselves. Note this is a teachable moment, not a preachable moment. The idea is not to lecture them on being more like you, or to have perfect behavior in all situations. This is merely a powerful opportunity to give someone the gift of insight through introspection. Help them understand how they are being perceived, and then help them connect the dots to the impression they want to create. Too many would rather complain about the net impact of someone’s behavior than help them see the impact that behavior has on its recipients.  

When You Spot Opportunities Peeking Out from the Shadow of Strengths

When I coach others on how to help their employees improve, I talk about the importance of pinpointing what needs to be improved. It can sometimes be very tricky to articulate exactly what someone needs to improve on – but you know it’s there.

The first place to look for someone’s opportunities is in the shadows of their strengths. For example, those skilled at big picture envisioning can often be less adept at rolling up their sleeves and making things happen. Those who are known to be great collaborators can sometimes struggle with decisiveness. And so on. The point is to keep an eye out for instances when these opportunities creep out from within the shadows of one’s strengths. Knowing this framework can help you spot these teachable moments.

When You Have the Chance to Share the View from the Window Seat

Teachable moments don’t only present themselves through the behaviors and outcomes of the coachee – such moments also arise when you have an applicable experience to share. Are you coming back fresh from a leadership summit where something interesting, important, and relevant happened? Take the time to download the experience with your team. Just spent time with the CEO and got the chance to see how they think, feel, and act? Share your observations with your direct reports. Sharing the view from the window seat helps people to see “what it’s like” and presents a great learning opportunity.

When You Can Highlight Gaps in Preparation or Thinking

As good, responsible managers, when we spot gaps we often instinctively just fill them in. But doing so too quickly can mean a teachable moment is bypassed, especially when it comes to gaps in preparation or thinking. Such times present a great opportunity to enroll the individuals perpetrating the shortfall and help them see what still needs to be done or thought through, and why. This gap-filling exercise provides a contrast and context for the coachee that will be remembered and improves the completeness of their efforts moving forward.

When You Can Spell Out the Difference Between Good and Great

This is closely related to aligning on expectations, but deserves its own point. Quite often, people don’t deliver great, simply because they don’t know what it looks like. I’ve found it to be an incredibly powerful teaching moment when you sit down with the coachee and literally spell out the difference between good and great. Create a simple grid with three columns. The first column contains the performance vectors that count most (such as thinking and problem solving, vision, initiative and follow through – whatever performance variables are most important for your business).

In the second column, you spell out, in writing, what good performance might look like for each performance variable.

In the third column, you spell out, in writing, what great performance looks like for each variable. Investing the time to talk it through with your coachees will lead to many powerful moments of learning and improved performance. After all, very few people aren’t interested in being great, especially when they clearly understand what that looks like.

When Tempers Are Lost or Excuses Are Made

Finally, teachable moments lie in the times when we don’t “own the moment” in which we react poorly – particularly when we lose our temper or make excuses. While there may be plenty of instances where losing one’s temper is justified, it is rarely productive and presents an opportunity for reflection. What was at the root cause of the outburst? How much of it can the coachee own to prevent such tension in the future? Likewise with excuse-making. The coachee can benefit from seeing how unbecoming it is, and in being honest with themselves about how much of the outcome they own – thus learning, improving, and preventing the need for excuses in the future.


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Scott Mautz is an award winning inspirational key note speaker, course instructor, consultant, and 20+ year executive at Procter & Gamble (where he currently runs a 3 billion dollar business). He is also author of Make it Matter: How Managers Can Motivate by Creating Meaning, a book named to the “Best of 2015” list by Soundview Business Books. In Make It Matter, Scott shows that the key to winning back the disengaged (and keeping the engaged, engaged) is to foster meaning at work, that is, give work a greater sense of personal significance, and thus, make work matter. Scott has been a passionate student and practitioner of creating fully energized, fulfilling work environments rich with meaning that ultimately lead to sustained elevated performance and that transform organizational health & satisfaction scores along the way. In seminars and course instruction, and via his book, he has deployed dozens of time-tested and proven practical tools to help managers craft such a meaning-rich ecosystem. Scott was born in New York and has an undergraduate degree from Binghamton University (1991) and an MBA from Indiana University (1994). He lives in Cincinnati with his wife and daughter.

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