Sequential thinking is the ability to see that saying or doing one thing will lead to a certain reaction, which leads to another situation, and then creates a predictable problem.
Q: I’m wondering if my co-workers are stupid or self-destructive. It’s obvious to me that the way they behave will create problems, but they continue to make bad choices. How can they not see how their behavior is connected to the problems they whine about?
A: Your co-workers are neither stupid nor self-destructive, but they have not learned what I call “sequential thinking.” Sequential thinking is the ability to see that saying or doing one thing will lead to a certain reaction, which leads to another situation, and then creates a predictable problem.
Many people are limited to thinking about what they want now without considering the future trajectory of their choices. Your co-worker may think, “No one invited me to that important meeting, thus I’m going to pout by not communicating, and everyone will feel bad today!”
It may be logical to assume that just making your co-workers feel bad will not have a happy ending for you, either, but you have to consider future consequences to see that problem.
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My clients who have learned to do sequential thinking are amazed and frustrated with the many people in their workplace who don’t or can’t. At some point, my clients figure out that they either help co-workers learn this skill or suffer.
Start by assuming the person you’re dealing with is not thinking about the future. Don’t tell co-workers what to do in an exasperated tone. Teaching your co-workers to fish will have bigger benefits than handing them a fish. Furthermore, most people inherently dislike any fish handed to them by someone else.
Even if you’re exasperated, attempt to appear patient and verbally walk through the different choices in front of your co-worker. It’s critical you don’t use a condescending tone or body language.
For example, you may have a co-worker who is chronically late with team projects. If you walked him through his future choices, you might say: “I can see you have a lot on your plate and turning projects in within deadlines may not be possible. I wanted to see whether it would work better to ask our boss to assign another team member or whether you’ll have time to meet deadlines on the next project.”
Notice that this approach respects the rights of your co-workers to choose what they want to happen at work. However, both choices you offer work for you: Either another team member does the work or your co-worker delivers on time.
The beauty of teaching your co-workers sequential thinking is that people in your workplace will be motivated to shape up by consequences that matter to them. For the few who can’t be motivated even by self-preservation, you can get out of the way and let reality be their educator.
The last word(s)
Q: My boss has a favorite, which is hugely unfair to the rest of the team. How do I even the playing field?
A: You grieve that the workplace isn’t fair and figure out what you want next. Now consider how to get what you want on an uneven field.
Daneen Skube, Ph.D., is an executive coach, trainer, therapist, speaker and author. She can be reached at 1420 N.W. Gilman Blvd., No. 2845, Issaquah, WA 98027-7001; by e-mail at email@example.com