THE BLOG

Teach Someone to Prioritize Using Psychological Distance

03/26/2015 03:21 pm ET | Updated May 26, 2015

You may be tempted to write off some team members as never being able to manage themselves. They may be great at execution, but the level of handholding they need about what actually has to get done is frustrating. It would be ideal if there were a way to get everyone on a work team to be thinking about the big picture. Ultimately, we want anyone on a team to be able to prioritize appropriately for the many inevitable moments and decisions when their managers simply can't be around.

To coach these people to prioritize better, help them take a step back to see the bigger picture. Stepping back is more than just a turn of phrase, in this case. We want to create something called "psychological distance."

Creating psychological distance can be accomplished in four ways. All four have the same consequences of elevating someone's thinking to bigger picture, more abstract concerns. They all allow a person to get out of the weeds. You can create psychological distance by doing any of the following:

• Imagine physical distance
• Imagine separation in time
• Imagine it is not you involved, but a stranger
• Imagine the outcome is uncertain

Brain scientists have found that the more distance we imagine, the less activity we see in regions of the brain associated with thinking about ourselves, and the more activity we see in regions of the brain connected with abstract thinking and thinking about other people. From this, neuroscience supports what psychologists had theorized - that the more metaphoric forms of distance (e.g. social distance) may be just as important to the idea of psychological distance as the more tangible forms of distance (e.g. physical).

In practice, it might look something like this. Suppose you have a team member who coordinates marketing events. He may be great with the detail stuff, like printing a schedule, making sure materials and AV are ready, and that catering arrives. But he may routinely miss things like thinking about what key influencers or stakeholders might need to know about the event. He might fail to anticipate some of the needs of the team because of not thinking about the big picture - where the event fits within the organization's goals, and how it is relevant to different people in the organization.

Before the next event, coach him to imagine the event with one or more of the forms of psychological distance. For example, ask him to imagine the event were happening in another country, in a year's time, that someone else he doesn't know were coordinating it, or that it is only a proposed hypothetical event.

The coordinator should be more likely to see the abstract, bigger picture, issues when taking one or more of these perspectives. He is more likely to recognize that success would mean things like using the event to connect people in the organization with key influencers, to position the organization as an industry leader, to nurture the organization's network, and so on.

He may, as a result, consider seating core team members near key influencers. He may reach out to more people internally who need to know about the event in order to prepare or get it on their schedules, and see how he can help. In short, his bigger picture focus, can actually help him keep things from falling through the cracks, because he is more likely to see what matters and thus be able to prioritize the right tasks.

Recognizing these aims for the event are critical to the event coordinator seeing what really needs prioritizing. Key to prioritizing is seeing the big picture aims in a situation and working accordingly. With psychological distance, the event coordinator is more likely to think about what will make the event a success for the organization and not just a success in terms of completing what was specifically asked of him.

Before you write people off as being incapable of seeing the forest for the trees, take advantage of these psychological tools to build a workforce with the ability to prioritize.

Josh Davis, PhD, is the author of Two Awesome Hours: Science-Based Strategies to Harness Your Best Time and Get Your Most Important Work Done, coming May 5, 2015. He is the Director of Research and Lead Professor at the NeuroLeadership Institute. You can connect with him on Twitter: @joshdavisphd