I heard a college educator reminiscing the other night about the old saying that is popular at his university, and might still be. It’s the “look to your right, look to your left, one of you won’t be here by the end of the year” speech.  It was really popular as a point of pride by universities. The implication was that the school did not water down its courses and curricula to accommodate weak students who may have gotten in due to much lower admission standards. The statement was to put students who, though their high school records barely indicated college-readiness, had found it easy to get into many colleges, but they really needed to turn around their motivation and study habits to succeed in college. It was the sink or swim mentality. I thought to myself, as someone who grew up in business in the late 80s and 90s that the business world held some of this mentality and while there may be some merit to it, what I’ve learned is there’s a better way.

I’m not talking about the “everyone’s a winner” mentality either. America’s “everyone gets a trophy” syndrome has become a national joke.  We’ve set a lot of our nation’s children up for failure by not giving them realistic expectations. We do not prepare them for healthy criticism, and we haven’t given them the space to determine their gifts and abilities. By telling them that they can do whatever they want, they never have the chance to figure out what they are good at and what they are not good at. Working to develop well-rounded and confident children is a good thing; tell our children that they are going to be the very best at everything they set out to do is really bad. Ever wonder why the audition lines are so long for American Idol? Other than the weird camera shots, I think it’s because somebody’s momma didn’t tell them they “can’t” sing!

But I do believe and the research shows that a little “look to your left, look to your right,” has some merit in the workplace albeit limited if looked at with a “sink or swim” mentality. I suggest it has great value when trying to build effective teams. By saying “look to your left, look to your right,” now, how quickly can you assess and how quickly can you find the talent within the person to get the job done. Who do you want on your team for the project at hand, whether it’s a big hairy one or a simple one? So the key is your skill. Your ability to look right, look left and pick the team members that are best suited for the job at hand. The skill to do this has to be learned and constantly honed. There is a lot of material everywhere you look, be it books, magazines or the web, about honing one’s social skills and yes, you should study what you can. But the key to learning the people assessing skill is the ability of asking open ended questions in as many social situations as you can.  Not just in the workplace. Be curious. Curious all the time. If being curious about people becomes a habit, the skill will set you up to have people want to be on your team and therefore your assessment can be more focused on the specific skills the various team members bring to the situation at hand.

So look right, look left because we all remember from childhood the kid who picked the best, typically won the game of kickball!