Making people successful

Perhaps I’m a bit optimistic, but I am inherently convinced that anyone can be successful given the right attitude and circumstances.

Two small test tubes held in spring clamps

Photo credit: Wikipedia

I think I came to this conclusion in college.  During my junior and senior years, I was a lab TA for the intro biology lab at MIT (7.02). This class had four major experiments (that I’ll call units), and the TAs would rotate between groups of students for each unit.  During my junior year’s class, one group of students had a 3-person team (all others were 2) that was known as being a complete disaster.  They had no idea what they were doing, and the other TAs would be constantly frustrated by getting them to work successfully on their experiments.

I’ve always been a bit rebellious, so when I rotated to this group on the third rotation, I decided that I wasn’t going to let the other TAs’ frustrations influence me.  I spent the first day of that rotation watching and listening to them.  I discovered that they were struggling to take the protocols designed for two people and expand them to three without being confused.  I started working with them to try to more effectively divide and conquer each day’s tasks (and I had the advantage of having the best teacher for this myself – my lab partner the previous year had been SO GOOD at strategizing in the lab that I had learned some amazing ways to do it).  At the end of that unit, when it came time to grade them, I was able to grade each of them a full letter grade higher than anyone had been able to during the first two units.

My experience with the “disaster” team convinced me that setting up the right circumstances could help pretty much anyone be successful. It (along with my experiences later) taught me that, to make people successful, I needed to:

  1. Watch and learn. Had I not taken the time to watch the “disaster” team to find out what was going wrong, I never would have been able to figure out how to fix it.
  2. Identify the real problem or challenge. And I don’t mean identify the problem that I thought existed before going into the situation . With the “disaster” team, we honestly just assumed they weren’t very good at biology lab. It turned out that their real problem was struggling with logistics.
  3. Communicate. Quite frankly, the “disaster” team knew that they were pretty disastrous.  By talking to them about what I’d observed and the problems I’d identified, I got their buy-in to try to fix the problem together.
  4. Change the circumstances. Once we decided to try to fix the problem together , the “disaster” team and I talked every day about ways to solve it. As time went by, they felt more comfortable proposing their own solutions and asking me questions.

I’m not saying that my “disaster” team all pulled their grades up to As.  But they definitely improved because we were working together to create successful circumstances for them.

In the business world, I’ve learned that successful circumstances don’t always include the current role for someone. The strategies I’ve used to address that (after I’ve exhausted the above) include giving negative feedback and, eventually, terminating the person. Luckily, however, I’ve found that more often I can (with the help of the person) create an environment that helps make him or her successful.