Sharpening the Saw

Over the last month I’ve been reminded regularly about one of Stephen Covey’s 7-Habits of Highly Effective People:  Sharpen the saw.  A full description of it, read by Stephen himself, is here:

The story to explain the habit runs (approximately) like this.  A man is working extremely hard cutting down a tree – imagine heavy effort, perspiration and fatigue.  When he’s asked by someone why he doesn’t stop to sharpen his saw, the man replies ‘Don’t be silly! I’m far too busy cutting down the tree!’.

The core of the ‘Sharpen the saw’ habit is that making sure that your tools (skills) are sharp, and are kept sharp, will make you perform better.  In other words, never neglect the importance of self-development and improvement; you are, after all, the only person over which you have total authority and ability to influence.

I regularly take training, read papers, books and ideas and learn from challenges I receive – I certainly maintain the position that I’m not ‘finished’ and that I believe that I’m a better performer now than I have been previously because of that.

But what methods can you use to help people who believe that they don’t have time to get better?  What about those people that believe their saw is already perfectly sharp?  Can either be influenced?

My approach with these people is normally in stages, and totally depends on the style/type of person, but some general thoughts –

If a person believes they don’t have time to develop their skills, then

  • Is there an external example (sports coaching, say) that I can pivot from?  What examples do they already have where this has worked?
  • What scope do you have to (politely) point out that they have missed an opportunity or wasted time by approaching something in a poor way?
  • What opportunity do you have for them to see other people, performing similar tasks, but getting different results?
  • Is there an option to ‘force’ them out to an event, customer, competitor, whatever as an ‘away-day’ to see what else is out there?

If a person thinks that they’re already finished (‘I don’t need training/coaching’), that’s definitely harder –

  • If they’re in your team, maybe there’s an easy way – direct some time for learning and follow up
  • Do you have opportunity to (politely) point out that they have missed an opportunity?  (without any kind of public shaming/loss of face)
  • Can you share ideas or case studies where people behaving ‘well’ have got great results?
  • If the person isn’t unique in role, can you openly reward other people demonstrating better performance?

What do you do if you’re faced with this kind of a challenge?  Have you found a way of approaching this kind of challenge reliably/successfully? Would love to hear from you.

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