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David’s Leadership Articles

When you wonder what they were thinking – dig deeper.

Has this happened to you? You walk by your team and see something different. Not, “Oh-that’s-cool” different, but “What were they thinking?” different.

What do you do?

When I was twelve years old, I found myself on the receiving end of “What were you thinking?”

I was a Boy Scout on a camping trip. My friends and I had carefully planned a menu and bought groceries, but now we were struggling to cook breakfast.

That’s when Bud, our adult leader, walked by. He stopped, looked at our frying pan, arched an eyebrow, and asked, “What are you making?”

We held up the pan of blue-green gelatinous charred mess. “Blueberry pancakes?”

I’ve never forgotten what Bud did next.

He crouched down next to the fire with us. “Well, let’s see what we have here.”

We explained our concoction. It was autumn and blueberries weren’t in season. So, we’d bought the next best alternative: blueberry pie filling.

We substituted a cup of pie filling for a cup of fresh blueberries.

It doesn’t work that way. The pie filling added more liquid and sugar to the batter than plain blueberries. Not knowing any better, we mixed it up, poured it in the pan, and watched it burn as we poked it with a spatula.

what were they thinking campfire

Bud saw what had happened, explained the problem, and asked, “So if you’ve got too much liquid in your batter, what do you need to do?”

He coached us through adding more dry ingredients until we had the right consistency. Then he helped us cook the resulting “pancake.” The texture still wasn’t right. They didn’t make nice neat circles. And they turned a strange color–somewhere between forest green and steel gray.

But the taste–heavenly! No syrup required.

With Bud’s help, we’d invented a new breakfast delicacy: The Slimer.

For years to come, Slimers were a staple of our camping trips – even when fresh blueberries came back in season, we stuck with our version. As an adult, I’ve even made them a few times on family camping trips.

When You Wonder “What Were They Thinking?”

When you see something that makes little sense, it’s normal to feel frustrated, concerned, or even angry. Your team should know better, right?

But that moment of exasperation is also an opportunity.

What you saw could be:

  • A cool new micro-innovation
  • A good idea that needs refinement
  • A lack of understanding
  • Ignorance of critical rules or process
  • They weren’t thinking at all

These are opportunities to improve. Your people can learn. You can improve your processes. You can leverage new ideas.

But it’s easy to miss these opportunities if you react with frustration. If Bud had shaken his head at our slimy mess and told us to cook eggs like the other kids, we would have missed out on Slimers.

What To Do When “What Were They Thinking?”

To take advantage of these moments and identify the opportunity, use Bud’s curiosity. Approach the team with, “Well, let’s see what we have here?”

A common reason people make “What were they thinking?” mistakes is lack of clarity. They don’t know where procedures are mandatory or where they should make their own decisions. Your genuine curiosity will uncover these gaps. Now you can fix your training or communication.

They may not know how to implement a good idea. You can use the 9 What’s Coaching method to help them identify goals and potential solutions.

If they weren’t thinking at all, now you know. Is this an opportunity to help your team member grow or a sign that the person is a poor fit for this role?

And often, “What were they thinking?” moments reveal a new approach.

Take the time to understand why they did what they did and you might just uncover the key to better customer service or employee engagement. Help them refine the idea and think about how they can share it with other teams.

Your Turn

The next time you wonder “What were they thinking?” take a moment to find out. The answer will always help you move your team forward.

Leave us a comment and share one of your favorite “What were they thinking?” moments or a leadership approach that works well for you when you see something you don’t understand.

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Creative commons Facepalm by Alex E. Proimos

Creative commons Campfire Coffee by jcmelonif

David Dye helps human-centered leaders find clarity in uncertainty, drive innovation, and achieve breakthrough results.  He’s the President of Let’s Grow Leaders, an international leadership development and training firm known for practical tools and leadership development programs that stick. He’s the award-winning authors of four books including Courageous Cultures: How to Build Teams of Micro-Innovators, Problem Solvers, and Customer Advocates and Winning Well: A Manager’s Guide to Getting Results-Without Losing Your Soul and hosts the popular Leadership without Losing Your Soul podcast. David is a former executive and elected official. David and his wife and business partner, Karin Hurt, are committed to their philanthropic initiative, Winning Wells – building clean water wells for the people of Cambodia.

2 Comments

  1. John Heinrich

    It’s better to ask them straight out, with no hint of scorn or condescension, what in fact they WERE thinking. The defacto leader of the team (you’re the chart leader, at least) will probably speak out and tell you. If no one speaks up that’s probably not good, and you might have to ask that question.
    One way or another, you want to dialogue with your team.

    Reply
    • David Dye

      John, I love your characterization – no scorn, no condescension. It’s amazing what a little calm curiosity can do.

      Reply

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