September 2, 2008
Observe, Don’t Explain
“Show, don’t tell.” That advice has been given to writers as often as laptops have been turned on. Robert McKee repeats the advice in Story, his classic text on writing screenplays. Following Aristotle's advice in Poetics, he says, “Why a man does a thing is of little interest once we see the thing he does. . . . Once the deed is done his reasons why begin to dissolve into irrelevancy” (pp. 376-77).
Action is much more fascinating and usually a more helpful window into a character for readers or viewers than thought, which often shows limited perspective or self-deception. The same is true for managers dealing with those they supervise. Why did she ignore protocol? Why was his report so critical? Why is she always talking about herself?
Trying to figure out the motives of people at work is like trying to understand what cats think. We simply can’t know. And when we guess, we often assume a single cause when complex factors are at work. People are not one-dimensional. We are selfish and generous, courageous and fearful, content and angry, loving and spiteful.
Fiction writers and supervisors both go wrong when they fail to recognize this. As McKee says, “Do not reduce characters to case studies (an episode of child abuse is the cliché in vogue at the moment), for in truth there are no definitive explanations for anyone’s behavior. Generally, the more the writer nails motivation to specific causes, the more he diminishes the character” (p. 377, his emphasis).
When talking to an employee, as I’ve said before here, “discuss measurable, observable behaviors, not personality traits, motivation or attitudes. (Inappropriate comments are measurable behavior.)” It is pointless to talk about why someone is sullen or antagonistic or lazy or devious. Rather, identify clearly the behaviors that you and others see that are problematic and need to be changed. Then raise the problem behaviors directly with the employee and explain concretely what is expected instead.
If someone shows up on time, does quality work in a quality way without disrupting the work of others, does it really matter what’s going on inside their heads? Well, yes, it matters—but not to a supervisor.
So to “show, don’t tell,” we can add, “observe, don’t explain.”