Diagnosing sounds very medical, as in “I’m here to diagnose that strange looking mole on your shoulder,” but it’s actually one of our most powerful leadership tools.

Mechanics run diagnostics on engines to understand why the engine lights are on and what that strange smell is coming from under the hood.   Quality control guru’s diagnose processes to understand where to eliminate waste and improve efficiency.

Leaders diagnose in order to adapt.

Diagnosing means paying attention to other people, using our internal antennae to pick up signals about what other people are thinking, how they are feeling, what’s important to them, what they value, and what they need from us.  As human beings, we all have antennas—although some of us have better antennas than others.  We don’t always pay attention to the signals they are picking up, or sometimes other things interfere with the strength of those signals, but for the most part, our antennas are always on.

To give you an example:  You meet your best friend for lunch. She looks unsettled.  She looks tense, her face is more pinched than usual, and she speaks in a clipped way. Her energy seems off, and she seems distracted.

In this case, your antenna is picking up signals of how your friend is thinking and feeling.  You can ignore the signals, you can act on the signals, or you can turn up the power on your antenna and pay even more attention to get a better read on your friend.

Diagnosing is reflecting on the signals you are picking up, while adapting means choosing a course of action.

Let’s go back to your friend.   Typically, you would assume she’s had a bad day at work, and would try to cheer her up.  Instead, you adapt by sharing your observation and asking a question:  You seem upset; would you like to talk about it?

You can diagnose an individual, a team, or even a large auditorium filled with people.  By paying attention to the signals your antenna is picking up, you can make more informed, and likely more effective choices about how to adapt your behavior.

You could ignore the signals your antenna picks up, much in the way I ignore the signals my wife sends out that she is less than pleased with me, but do so at your peril.  We wouldn’t fly without radar, so why would we lead without using all the information at our disposal?



Tom Epperson

Tom Epperson

Dr. Tom Epperson is the President of InnerWill, and an instructor in Virginia Commonwealth University’s Executive MBA program. Tom is a certified business coach and has a Doctorate in Leadership from The George Washington University. Tom works with clients on cultural transformation, leadership development, executive coaching, and igniting individual and organizational potential. Previously, Tom served as the HR Director for Luck Companies, and played a significant role as one of the architects of Luck Companies’ cultural transformation.

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