Progress-Focused Directing

Progress-focused directing is a technique which we developed around 2005. It can sometimes be quite useful for managers, teachers, and parents. It can be used in situations in which individuals have to conform to certain rules or have to accomplish goals. The approach is intended to help individuals understand what the rule or goal is and why it is important and to activate them to start finding their own ways to make progress in the desired direction.

When do you use it? This type of providing direction fulfills two kinds of functions: (1) clarifying expectations, (2) setting limits. Clarifying expectations is an important part of managing, teaching and raising kids. Anyone who is part of a social system (a society, an organization, a school, a family) has to adapt to and to some degree conform to certain expectations in order to function and develop well and to make a valuable contribution.

Citizens have to pay taxes whether they like it or not. Employees have to fulfill roles which somehow contribute to the achievement of organizational goals. Students have to make an active contribution in the class. Children are also confronted with all kinds of expectations such as to clean up their rooms, share their toys, and go to school. In addition to these expectations we all have to conform to certain rules and limits. The legitimate function of such rules and limits is to avoid damage to the social system as a whole or to individual members of the system.

Two conditions: Before explaining the core of the technique it is important to note two important things which are part of the approach: (1) Directive conversations work best when done in a respectful and constructive manner. What we aim for is to be as friendly and understanding as we are clear. The better we succeed in combining friendliness with clarity, the more likely it is that the conversation will be successful. Whenever we become unfriendly or impatient we make it harder for the other person to listen openly to us. (2) Progress-focused directing works best when we have thought carefully about what the content of the expectations and rules/limitations is. The more the goals and rules will be in accordance with the needs and motivations of the individuals that have to conform to them, the more likely it is that they will agree with them. Whenever there is a chance to have individual members of a social system to help formulate goals and rules, the more likely it is that the goals will be agreed with.

Directive questions are central tools in progress-focused directing. They consist of two parts: (1) the WHAT: what is precisely expected of the individual?, (2) WHY: what is the rationale for the expectation? The expectation is clarified in specific and positive terms which helps the individual to understand better what is expected and which makes it less likely that he or she will react defensively. The rationale for the expectation, the reason why it is important, is also explain in specific and positive terms. By providing a clear and positive rational it becomes more likely that the individual understands why something is expected. It also becomes more likely that he or she will accept it and agree with it (Reeve et al., 2002). Here are a few examples of directive questions:
  • How could you ... so that ...? 
  • In your job it is important to ... because ....  Do you have any ideas about how you might accomplish this? 
  • How might you ....? That would help to ...
  • What could you do to  ... so that ...? 
Here is an example:

Meeting with a contractor
A manager working at a housing association, Robert, who was dissatisfied with a contractor who worked for him, sent this email about how he had dealt with this situation. He had carefully prepared his meeting with the contractor so that he would manage to remain both clear about his expectation and friendly. Apparently he succeeded. Here is his e-mail.
"As a manager of the department Daily Maintenance, I have to deal with several contractors who do repair work for us. One of these contractors, a plumbing company, frequently did not deliver their work according to the agreements. Several conversations with the supervisor and with the director of that company had failed to lead to improvement. Sometimes, things were better for a week, but then they fell back into their old bad habits. After multiple failures to work according to agreement I invited the director (John) of the plumbing company for a meeting. Before the meeting I had thought well about what my goal should be. In the past, I tended to get emotional in these kinds of situations. Now, I was determined to remain cool and focused on my goal. John arrived on time for our meeting and I gave him a tour through our entrance hall which had just been rebuilt. After that, I quickly got down to business. I started off as follows: “John, I want very much to keep on working with your company. To make our collaboration successful it will be necessary for you to stick to your agreements with our tenants. How can you take care that in the future you will stick to the agreements?" He said that he would really like to continue to work for us and that he would specifically tell his employees what our expectations are and how important it is for us that they be met. He would discuss this right away with his employees and he was determined to no longer tolerate any excuses from his him. He assured me that it would not happen again and we agreed that there would be no more complaints from tenants at all this year about not sticking to agreements. We shook hands and ended the conversation. After the conversation, I felt good about it because I had never before been able to get these kinds of promises from him. Often, in the past, he would have beaten about the bush and would cleverly have used my emotions against me. Two weeks after our meeting John had had a conversation with my director and he passed along compliments to about with how I had done the conversation. He told her the meeting had been brief, clear and to the point and that he really appreciated this. Until now we have not had any complaints of tenants anymore!"