09 Oct Target fixation – Losing sight of your goal
I’m on the twisty roads in the Smokey Mountains outside of Asheville, North Carolina. As I lean into a tight curve, I catch myself looking at the truck coming in the other direction instead of the turn.
In that split second, the motorcycle heads towards the truck instead of following the line of the turn.
My brain is locked in target fixation. The truck has hijacked my brain and instead of looking where I need to go, I’m focused on the truck and heading straight for it. On a motorcycle your bike will go where you are looking so if you tense up and get focused on the wrong thing, you won’t make it through the turn.
I am now focused on an obstacle instead of my true objective.
This is very similar to leading other people. As a leader or manager, we may fixate on a specific behaviour or situation that triggers us. We are fixed on a problem or issue rather than where we want to go – classic target fixation. Triggers can be a report submitted late for the 8th time, an incident of disrespectful or inappropriate behaviour in a meeting, or our reports making the same mistakes during presentations week after week. Leading and managing others is a mind field of situations that can trigger us, and we become laser focused on the poor behaviour versus the person we manage and the desired outcome.
hen we are target fixated, we are in fight or flight mode and from experience, we know that is a bad place to be to make decisions. We observe the employee’s behavior and immediately want to react to correct it. “Peter, this is the last time I will accept this report late! I’m putting you on notice!” or “Godammit Karen, you can’t say that in a meeting!”. Whether we have said these things or something similar, they are coming from a purely emotional reactive place. We are fixated on the person or the behavior as opposed to what would be best for everyone. It might even come from a place where our ego is threatened as a leader. You might have thoughts like “I can’t be a good leader if my people are behaving like this.”
So how do we stop focusing on the obstacle and instead look at our true objective?
The first thing is to create a buffer or a micro-moment where you can pause and reflect. Some people count to three while others take a deep breath. Whatever you need to do to stop yourself from reacting quickly and give yourself time to reflect.
You need to reflect to ask yourself two questions. What do I really want for both this person and myself in the long run? The second question should assess if you are acting in a way that moves you closer to that objective. To do this, you need to get curious.
Get curious about what is going on with this person. What are the underlying issues that is leading to this behaviour? How can I support a different behaviour that develops the person and moves us closer to our shared objectives? Secondly, you need to get curious about yourself. Why am I getting triggered by this person? Is there some wound in your past that this person is touching without realizing it? What do you need to do to address that for yourself?
Target fixation is a temporary and manageable thing. The first step is to become aware of it in the moment, the second it to look where you need to go.