Want a better team? Consider content vs context


John Nieuwenburg

John Nieuwenburg has been a professional business coach since 2004. Prior to becoming a coach, he held executive positions with Tip Top Tailors and BC Liquor Stores. In 2019, MacKay CEO Forums awarded him with Canada’s CEO Trusted Advisor Award in the Small Business category. Since becoming a coach, John has worked with over 350 clients, taking them through a systematic process that helps them feel organized, confident and in control of their businesses.

When it comes to developing a great team – the overall mission is to get the right people doing the right things right.

This sounds really simple in a clever statement – but can be challenging to implement.

One thing that will make a big difference to your success is understanding the difference between context and content.

The content might be an object, or a behaviour, or a reaction, or the words that are spoken.

The context is the situation.

We often try to solve problems with content alone – when what we need to do is stop and figure out the *context* first

Steven Covey told a great story in the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People that illustrates this distinction.

I remember a mini-paradigm shift I experienced one Sunday morning on a subway in New York. People were sitting quietly – some reading newspapers, some lost in thought, some resting with their eyes closed. It was a calm, peaceful scene.

Then suddenly, a man and his children entered the subway car. The children were so loud and rambunctious that instantly the whole climate changed.

The man sat down next to me and closed his eyes, apparently oblivious to the situation. The children were yelling back and forth, throwing things, even grabbing people’s papers. It was very disturbing. And yet, the man sitting next to me did nothing.

It was difficult not to feel irritated. I could not believe that he could be so insensitive as to let his children run wild like that and do nothing about it, taking no responsibility at all. It was easy to see that everyone else on the subway felt irritated, too.

So finally, with what I felt like was unusual patience and restraint, I turned to him and said, “Sir, your children are really disturbing a lot of people. I wonder if you couldn’t control them a little more?”

The man lifted his gaze as if to come to a consciousness of the situation for the first time and said softly, “Oh, you’re right. I guess I should do something about it. We just came from the hospital where their mother died about an hour ago. I don’t know what do think, and I guess they don’t know who to handle it either.”

Can you see that by understanding the context, your perspective would change from one of being annoyed to that of being considerate and sympathetic?

Despite the fact that the content (in this case the children’s’ behaviour) remains the same?

Here’s an example I use all the time…

Which is more important for wine appreciation: the wine or the glass?

Before you answer that, consider this scenario.

Say you are going out for dinner to celebrate an achievement in life.  A promotion, birthday, or anniversary.

Because it is such a momentous occasion, you order the most expensive bottle on the menu.

The wine arrives and with great fanfare the server pours a little into the glass.

You are about to taste the wine and before you bring the glass to your lips you notice the glass is dirty.

Not just dirty but filthy!

What would you expect the server and the restaurant to do next?

Is it OK to replace the glass with a clean one and pour you another sample from the same bottle?

Most people answer that the restaurant should not only replace the glass but also replace the BOTTLE of very expensive wine.

So while the wine was fabulous (content) because the glass was dirty (context) the quality of the wine was irrelevant.

When it comes to business, context is your culture.

Being able to skate, pass, and shoot are content when it comes to the game of hockey.

Knowing the rules of the game is context.

Would you expect that someone who had great skills as a skater, stick handler, passer, and shooter to be great at the game of hockey before anyone explained the rules?

Too often, business owners expect their team members to be great at performing their jobs (content) without establishing the “rules of the game” (context)

In the workplace, “context” would look like job descriptions, organizational charts, written systems, and procedures.

And most important of all: written vision, mission and culture statements.

If  your team is not performing as well as you’d like, perhaps it is because the context has not been established.

Establishing both content and context makes you a better leader – which in turn, gives you a better team.

Want some help improving your business?

Business coaching provides both content (tools and processes to help you become a better owner) and context (an outside perspective to help you identify solutions faster)

The fastest way to learn if coaching is right for you is to book 15 minutes on my calendar to discuss. You can do that here: time with John

The Ultimate Guide to Scaling Your Business

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How to grow your business without sacrificing time freedom

This post is part of my Ultimate Guide to Scaling Your Business. Visit the guide homepage to get my best advice and coaching exercises to help you:

  • Develop systems and processes to free up your time
  • Hire and manage a great team to run your business (mostly) without you
  • Make the mindset changes that enable you to grow your business bigger - faster than you dreamed possible