Book Summary: Three Laws of Performance by Steve Zaffron and Dave Logan

Everyone thinks of changing the world but no one thinks of changing himself.

The words of Leo Tolstoy still echo loudly as we live in a world that requires so much change but so little of it seems to happen.

In the bestselling book, The Three Laws of performance Zafron and Logan explored just how we can create change in situations that seem not only unlikely but impossible.

Warren Bennis said that this book may be one of the most important written in many years and I agree. But here is a prediction and challenge:

Your mindset at this very moment will determine your success when it comes to applying these ideas. It's the difference between having your world changed or leading a life that was always predictable.

I will ask you, just this once to chuck whatever thoughts you might have about what you hear in the next ten minutes out the door, and truly try on these ideas for size! In doing so, you might just– literally– rewrite your future. Here we go...

Law #1: How people perform correlates to how situations occur to them.

The male boss gives his co-worker a 5 star as she has done a wonderful job and sees every pressure brings new opportunities.

Consider this - when you do something, it always makes complete sense to you. On the other hand, you might often find yourself thinking “Why the hell are they doing it like that, it doesn’t make any sense!”

Here is an example that we will use throughout the episode:

Consider that your company CEO just got shown the door by the board of directors. In her place comes a young hotshot from a smaller but innovative company.

Bill, your co-worker, somebody who has been in the trenches with that CEO and firmly believed in her vision, thinks that this is a dramatic step backward for your company, and it might even doom it to failure.

On the other hand, you, someone who is 10 years younger than Bill, look at this new CEO and sees a bright future filled with new opportunities.

These two interpretations are how the situation occurred to you and Bill. Consider how your performance under this new leader will differ depending upon your interpretations of the facts.

And all of this occurs before the new CEO even speaks a word to you. If you think of this for a second, you start to see something profound.

Both interpretations of the facts are valid interpretations, right?

But these interpretations are colored with so many things - our upbringing, our social status, our gender, our culture, and a multitude of other factors.

The problem is we don’t treat them as interpretations of the facts, we treat them as the facts themselves. For Bill, that the company is doomed to failure is not an interpretation of the facts, that’s just the way it is.

As soon as we have decided that, we have written our future in such a way that we will do anything we can to make sure it comes true. The authors state a corollary to this law - that the leader has a say and should give others a say in how situations occur.

This is a tough one to swallow as it puts complete responsibility for how a situation occurs to others directly on your shoulders.

If you accept this, then you now have the responsibility not only for your actions but how other people interpret your actions. This is a large responsibility to take on but one that can produce results beyond what you can imagine today.

Ask yourself these questions as you wrestle with the idea. How can I interact with others so that situations occur more empowering to them? What processes, dialogue, or meetings can I arrange so that people feel like that they are co-authors of a new future not merely recipients of other's decisions?

Law #2: How a situation occurs, arises in language.

1 male and female having a conversation showing that a situation starts with a conversation. As leaders, we must master the conversational environment, using the right words to empower; not complain, and create a better future for the company.

Let's go back to our example. The facts are that the CEO got fired and somebody else took their place. The thing that brought your interpretation of the facts to life was language.

Consider the example of Helen Keller, who before she learned how to use sign language at the age of 8, knew only knew life with darkness and stillness.

She said that “my life was without past or future.” As the authors say she saw language for what it is - a force that makes us human, that gives us a past and a future, allows us to dream, to plan, to set and realize goals.

Keller made this dramatic shift when she was only 8 years old, an age that was old enough to remember forever.

For the rest of us, language is just something that has been always with us, so we don’t pay attention to its presence and we don’t realize the true power our words and conversations have in the world, until now.

A lot of these conversations that we have with ourselves or others the authors call is a racket. There are 4 elements to a racket.

First, there is a persistent complaint. The constant complaint in this situation might be “he is not leading the way the old CEO did.” Remember, Bill will be looking for all the ways the new CEO differed from the old one, so this shouldn’t be surprising.

The second element is the fixed way of behaving, which for Bill might be resigned, sad, isolated, and detached.

Third, there is a payoff. The payoff for Bill in this situation might be that he gets to be right and gets to make that new hotshot CEO wrong. In fact, he probably will have a folder for all the stupid mistakes the CEO made since he took over.

Have you ever felt like proving somebody wrong? It feels good right? Well, that’s the payoff.

The last element of the racket is the cost. The cost in this situation should be obvious. Bill’s effectiveness and drive will plummet and he will probably drag down others in the department in the process.

The overall effect is disastrous for Bill. He will probably get fired and your company will suffer for as long as people like Bill are kept around.

Do you see any constant complaints in your life or in your organization?

The corollary to this law states that the leaders master the conversational environment. This means as a leader, you realize anything and everything that happens in your company begins as a conversation.

Mastering these conversations so that they do not focus on persistent complaints but instead help you to create a new future brings us to law number 3.

Law #3: A future based language that transforms how situations occur to people

A male boss preach his speech that will completely and wholly replace the future of the company with his words, known as a future based language.

Consider this. People - including you - live into the future they see coming at them.

For Bill future is bleak and hopeless, for you, the future is bright and full of opportunities. Bill’s future is just as real to him as yours is to you. The authors call this the default future and we all have one.

We live into that default future every single day of our lives until we change that default future and create a new one.

How we do that is through future-based language. This doesn’t really modify the default future; it completely and wholly replaces it.

This type of language is responsible for turning points in history like Churchill’s fight them on the beaches speech that replaces the default future of death and destruction and Martin Luther King’s "I have a dream" speech that displaces the default future of racial segregation.

Before we create a new future we have to get rid of the old one that we have created. For instance, you and Bill would have to give up the futures you created when you heard that there was a new Sheriff in town.

There are 3 dimensions to doing something that we call blanking the canvas.

First, we need to see what binds and constrains us isn’t the facts, it’s language. In particular, this descriptive language merely states interpretation as facts. For Bill, it is pretty clear he is constrained by this language.

The second step is to articulate the default future and ask - “do we really want this as our future?” For Bill, this would be a powerful question to ask.

Lastly to create a blank space we need to take on the most powerful and difficult subject - completing issues from the past. This means that you clean up any messes that your racket has created.

For Bill, it might need to reach out to the members of his team and addressing the reason for his aloof and detached behavior, and take whatever action necessary to give up the racket.

Now you are ready to create a new future.

There are 3 principles that exist in generating a new future: (1) they inspire action, (2) they speak to everyone in the process - and this means your entire company - and (3) they exist in the moment speaking.

Like we talked about earlier, everything exists in language and conversations. Here is the question you need to ask if you going to create a future that inspires action. What conversations in the organization are missing, that if created and implemented will lead people with new pathways for action?

As you are starting to have these conversations, your new future will start to generate itself. As you start to pick up steam, you will encounter people like Bill who are still resigned to a default future of failure and it seems like nothing you say will make a difference to him.

So instead of trying to keep inspiring him ask him this question, what is your counter-proposal?

Your job as a leader is to keep on working until the entire organization says “this speaks to me” and they commit to this new future.


A male co-worker motivating his female co-worker with motivational words, so his female co-worker will continue doing the best she can.

Remember, how people perform correlates to how situations occur to them and you are responsible for that. How the situation occurs arises in the language and leaders master the conversation environment. And lastly, future-based language transforms how situations occur to people.

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