Many of you have probably seen the original Terminator (1984) movie. In it, Arnold Schwarzenegger plays a cyborg that has come back in time to kill the future savior of the world. In one scene, the cyborg is in a rundown hotel room tending to some pretty nasty wounds when the hotel manager knocks on the door (wanting to know what the smell is that is coming from the room) and asks him whether he has a dead animal in his room.

The audience sees the cyborg scan a drop-down menu from which he can choose a response to the manager’s inquiry.  The drop-down menu of responses looked like this:

Possible Response 



    Go away

    Please come back later

    F^@& You A#&hole

Our cyborg chooses the last option and we all hear his response.  Suffice it to say, the manager leaves.  The movie, while definitely worth a watch, is not the point of this post; instead, we want to talk about the concept of the personal drop-down menu.

In our work as coaches and consultants, we have realized that each of us is working from our own set of drop-down menus.  Most of us operate quite successfully with the drop-down menus that we have developed over the years.

Each of us has a series of drop-down menus that were influenced by the family we grew up in, our academic experiences, and what we were interested in and felt comfortable doing. We all have drop-down menus and we all continue to add and remove items regularly.

But how does this relate to work?

Imagine for a moment that your boss asks you a question on a topic you know well.  Fairly quickly, probably without even realizing it, you will scan through the various ways you might respond and land on an appropriate response and take the appropriate action.

Now imagine you’re asked a question about something you know nothing about – say Nuclear Physics.  It is unlikely that you will have a drop-down menu that relates to this question and you will probably feel quite stuck about how to respond.

No drop-down menu, no action.

No matter how hard you think or how passionately you focus, you cannot move forward if you have no drop-down menu to guide your actions.

In our work with managers and leaders, we often see the frustrations they feel when they direct their staff to do something, take on a project, or respond to a problem and it doesn’t get done as they had hoped. Generally, at the time, the manager gets angry and does what we have all been known to do – gives the exact same directions again, in the same way, and . . . expects a different outcome.

As their frustration mounts, they begin to think that the staff member’s lack of effectiveness is somehow personal. They think to themselves “I was clear, I know what I want and they just won’t do it.” And, of course, that is the way it looks.

Yet, one possibility we encourage managers to explore is whether the staff member that they are working with has a relevant drop-down menu to guide their actions.

Many times, a staff member will hear the manager’s request, believe they should know what to do, and then as they’re trying to execute they realize they have no idea what to do (because they have no drop-down menu).

So, they’ll either get busy with those things that they’re confident about (where they possess a very complete drop-down menu), they’ll improvise to cover their lack of knowledge (they apply a drop-down menu that is unrelated to the current issue), or they’ll ask for help or seek out new learning (but only if their drop-down menu contains an option such as:  “when unclear: ask for help.”

As you think about those individuals in your life who don’t follow through and do what you ask . . . from a staff member to your child . . . consider whether they have a relevant drop-down menu to guide their actions.

If you think they’re missing a drop-down menu on this topic, talk with them in a new way – by giving them multiple-choice options and helping them explore their selection.  By offering multiple-choice options you give people ideas for how to move forward, some much-needed parameters to guide them when they’re stuck, and the opportunity to develop a drop-down menu in this area so that the next time you ask, they can take action.