by Marshall Goldsmith
My coaching clients are either the CEOs or potential CEOs of multi-billion dollar corporations. Most are men; most are older and most are, by any normal standards, rich.
There is a common assumption that old rich men don’t really care about losing small amounts of money.
From my experience, most old rich men don’t like to lose any money.
It is not the amount of money that matters. It is the losing that they hate.
Have you ever watched a group of executives play competitive golf for wagers involving small amounts of money? It is amazing how serious and animated they become. Wagers at the race track are another example. One of my friends laughed as he described collecting his two dollar bet after the horse he picked won by a nose. Jumping up and down in his excitement, he spilled his Coke and ruined his hundred-dollar shirt!
As a coach, I use small amounts of money to help executives change behavior. It is astonishing how well this works! For example, if my clients are perceived as stubborn and opinionated, and they want to become more open-minded listeners, I ‘fine’ them every time they begin a sentence with the words ‘no,’ ‘but,’ or ‘however.’ All of the money that I collect from my fines is donated to the charity of my client’s choice. Over the past 30 years, I have raised over $300,000 for great charities by playing this game with my clients.
Why fines for ‘no,’ ‘but,’ or ‘however’?
The word ‘no’ means ‘you are wrong,’ and the words ‘but’ and ‘however’ mean ‘disregard everything that came before this word.’ A friend once described these as ‘eraser words.’
As I was reviewing a 360-degree feedback report with one of my clients, his first words were, “But, Marshall …” I smiled and replied, “That one is free. If I ever try to give you advice again, and you begin a sentence with ‘no,’ ‘but,’ or ‘however,’ I am going to fine you twenty dollars!”
“But,” he replied, “that’s not …”
“That’s twenty!” I laughed.
“No, I don’t …” he refuted.
“That’s forty!” I continued.
“No, no, no!” he protested.
“That’s sixty, eighty, one hundred dollars for charity!” I gleefully exclaimed.
Within an hour, he was down $420. It took another couple of hours before he finally got the point and said, “Thank you. I did that 21 times with you bringing it to my attention. You annoyed me so much that I would rather have died than paid you the money. The words kept coming out of my mouth anyway. How many times would I have done this if you had not brought it to my attention? Fifty? One hundred? No wonder people think I am stubborn. The first thing I do when people try to talk with me is to prove that they are wrong!”
The positive change in this executive, who was then the COO and is now the CEO of the company, was amazing. Within a couple of years, he was perceived as much more open and receptive to new ideas – and much less stubborn and opinionated – by all of his direct reports, his co-workers, and even his family members.
I also fine my clients when they say, “That’s great, but …” or “That’s great, however …” These eraser words end up destroying the value of recognition. They make sure that the receiver knows that the ‘great’ part doesn’t count for much.
A few years ago, I was teaching a class at the headquarters of a major telecom company. I mentioned the ‘That’s great, but …’ problem and my use of fines to change behavior. I predicted that many members of the class would continue to say these words – even after hearing my lecture, and even knowing that I was going to fine them.
One of the men in my class mocked me when I made these statements. He thought that such a simple behavioral request would be easy for him. He was so sure of himself that he offered to donate $100 to charity every time he did this – and boasted that he would never have to make a donation.
I made a point of sitting next to him at lunch. When I asked him where he was from, he told me that he lived in Singapore.
“Singapore?” I said. “That’s a great city.”
“Yeah,” he replied, “it’s great, but …”
He gave me a very chagrined look, chuckled and paid the money.
The next time you want to help your clients change minor behavioral ‘tics’ that are annoying everyone around them, try fining them small amounts of money, and then give the money to a great cause.
It may create a win for your clients – and, at the same time, it will create a win for the world!