Knowing Your Interests

Thanks to Henry Mintzberg, we know that managers’ worlds are a series of “moments” – short episodes and interruptions through which they must accomplish their work. But, many managers I work with bounce from moment to moment in a reactive mode, rarely stopping to reflect on what they want to get out of a given episode – to reflect, in other words, on their interests. As the old expression goes, “If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll probably end up somewhere else.”


Why Are Managers So Often Unclear About Their Own Interests?

Here are a few reasons:

  • Managers live in a world that values action over reflection. They are told, “Just do it!” Management writers argue that great organizations have a “bias for action.”
  • Managers themselves value action over reflection.  There are too many things to do, and reflection is a luxury they feel they can’t afford.
  • Focusing on inner wants and needs is seen as selfish. Managers should be focused on organizational goals, not personal needs, shouldn’t they?
  • Interests are often not rational or logical, but rather subjective – which contributes to the notion that interests are, somehow, not legitimate.  For example, a manager will say his only interest is the “right” answer. But underneath that manager’s definition of “right” is his interests – his personal definition of right.
  •  In problem solving, managers are trained to move quickly to what, in their classic book Getting to Yes, authors Fisher and Ury call “positions.” Don’t bring me a problem, bring me a solution! The interests driving those positions sometimes get skipped over so quickly that a manager’s not even conscious of what they are.

The consequence is, managers become addicted to activity, to fire-fighting, which becomes a vicious cycle from which they can’t escape. And though they are busy – indeed, swamped – they may not feel they are making the progress they’d hoped to on important goals.


What Are Interests?

Interests are not solutions. Interests are the criteria by which you will assess potential solutions.  The question to ask yourself is, what are all the conditions that need to be satisfied, in order to feel you were successful/productive/had a good outcome in this particular interaction?

It’s often helpful to brainstorm your interests in terms of the following categories:







Needs and boundaries are most important to identify, as those are non-negotiable – if you don’t get your needs met, or if your boundaries are violated, then the outcome will be unacceptable to you.

As you are identifying items in these categories, it’s also important to unpack loaded words. Often we leave ambiguity in describing what we want. We want someone to behave with “respect.” We want a proposal that is “strategic.”  But, if part of the value of knowing your interests is to be able to share these with other people, you want the word to be concrete enough that it means the same thing to others that it does to you.

Let’s say Cassie is going into a meeting where she knows she’s about to be offered a role on a big project. She spends five minutes identifying her major interests.

Wants – the opportunity to work with Mary, the project leader, whom Cassie admires; training in a particular new technology

Needs – to know a dedicated project manager will be assigned

Concerns – does senior management see this project as a priority?

Boundaries – not willing to work evenings and weekends

Now it’s more likely that she will make a choice that will work for her – and by extension, for the organization.

It’s simple to pause a minute before – or at the beginning of – any significant interaction or action, to identify your key interests.  But is it really worth the effort?


Benefits Of Understanding Your Interests

  • Being clear on your interests gives you a filter for determining what activities and projects to get involved in – and which not to. Without this filter you are likely to default to your own interpersonal tendencies.  Being more intentional about where you involve yourself will result in your being less swamped, less prone to knee-jerk reactions such as jumping in and rescuing others, and more likely to have an impact on the things you truly care about.
  • Resolving conflicts becomes easier. Usually, when people get stuck in conflict, they are “stuck” on positions. If both parties can back up and identify their interests, it becomes much easier to identify a solution that satisfies the most important interests of both of them.
  • Laying out your interests at the beginning of a conversation can provide a shared framework or purpose for the conversation, where everyone understands what you are hoping to accomplish (and not accomplish). You also have the opportunity to find out if others have any additional interests they’d like to see addressed – which makes the conversation a true collaboration.
  •  Perhaps ironically, honoring your personal and subjective interests makes you better able to look at organizational needs and “right” solutions, because you can publicly negotiate the shared criteria for “right.”
  • Putting your interests on the table does not make them a mandate. You may not get what you want. But if others understand what you want, they can choose whether they are willing to engage with you, and you are less likely to be frustrated by un-satisfied expectations that you haven’t verbalized.
  •  Managers report that identifying and sharing interests is valuable in personal life as well. For example, each member of a couple may identify their interests in relation to a decision they must make. For many couples, this becomes a lifelong discipline.
  •  Knowing your interests, and being able to have the dialogue about your interests and others’, is one component of emotional intelligence. The side effect is that it helps you form clearer emotional boundaries between yourself and others. So you become less likely to feel responsible for meeting others’ needs, and less likely to make others responsible for meeting your needs.

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