Friday, October 9, 2009

What do you want?

“What do you want?”

I sat for a minute contemplating that question. I was sitting in front of 7 other people, most of them strangers on the first night of a Coaching Tools for Leaders class I had signed up for. I wanted to know what coaching was so I could more effectively market the program. I had volunteered to be coached the first night. I was now regretting that decision. "What do you want?" was a tough question because it was asked in such an unbounded way. It was not: “what do you want for dinner?” or “what do you want to do about the credit card bill?” or even “what do you want for your birthday?” it was open ended. “What do you want?”

My thoughts raced around. I felt as though I was trying to grab each thought off of a fast moving merry-go-round and I couldn’t move fast enough to get them articulated before they flew away only to be replaced by something else. As I started to clumsily list things I thought I wanted the instructor/coach begin giving me feedback. In a matter of minutes I had achieved something called “clarity.” Out of everything that bubbled up and over in response to that question we had identified one thing that was very important. Even though the session was ended prematurely I had a new understanding about myself. I had uncovered a need.

Over the coming weeks I coached and was coached in the class and I found myself asking “what do I want?” Is this the life I want? As I contemplated that question I came up with an interesting illustration that describes my life right now. Imagine there is a train. You really want to get on the train and to get a ticket you must do a certain thing. You complete this task or reach the goal and are allowed on the train, in the very back car. You are thrilled. You’re on the train. Sure it’s just the back car, but who cares? Turns out, you do. You go up to the front of that rearmost car and peer through the window into the next car and you see the next car up is even nicer than the one you are in now. It’s so much better in there. You decide you want in that car. The conductor tells you what you must do to get into the next car. And you set off working thinking that you will be happy once you’re in the next car without realizing that in front of the next car is an even better car and you’re stuck in a viscous cycle of sacrificing your ability to enjoy life in the present for the possibility of enjoying life in the future.

Six years ago I met a man who has become one of my dear friends at a coffee gathering. Shortly after I met him his life began to reorganize. At first the pace was almost glacial. As the years progressed this process of reorganization began to pick up momentum. Until he packed everything he could in his car and headed out across the country in what I could only call a pilgrimage. Those were dark days. He was mired in uncertainty and experiencing the pain of seeing the things he held as important ripped away. In the end he was left with an opportunity to start from scratch.

Now his life is almost unrecognizable from what it once was. Through his journey he was able to find what is most important to him and let the rest go. He is now pursuing the life that is far more rewarding. What’s different? I think he has organized his life around things that are actually rewarding and fulfilling to him, as opposed to an idea that he thinks will be rewarding.

You see, I believe that if we are not following our passion then at some point we reach a barrier. We go as far as we can go on our quest to pursue something we’re not passionate about and then, in a last ditch effort we over extend ourselves and we end up putting enormous amounts of energy into maintaining a lifestyle that just is not worth it.

At some point we run out of energy and like a plane that is flying too high and too slow, we stall out and begin to fall back to the ground. The fall is scary. Often times we crash leaving our life in a heap of wreckage. In that moment of destruction we are given an amazing gift: the opportunity to start from scratch. And like my friend we are able to pay close attention to the things that bring us joy and the things that do not. We have the chance to only bring those things into our lives that are enjoyable.

What if we caught ourselves before we stalled? What if we recognized the indicators early? Pilots are trained to recognize the early signs of a stall (the moment when the weight of the plane exceeds the amount of lift provided by the wings and the plane begins to lose altitude). In order to recover they point the nose down. As the plane loses altitude it picks up speed and as it picks up speed it regains lift and the pilot is able to recover without crashing.

What are the warning signs of an impending stall? For me my number one indicator is lack of motivation to do things I do not want to do. If I am living a life that is rewarding I can handle doing things I do not want to do to a certain extent. Yet if my life is not rewarding then those things I do not want to do become impossible tasks. When I get to this point I know it’s time to start taking a look at my life.

Don’t wait until you’re life is a heap of burning wreckage. If you feel like the effort required to get what you think you want exceeds the possible enjoyment it’s time to step back. Look at each piece of your life and ask yourself, “does this add value?” If it doesn’t you need to make a strong case to keep it.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Pillow Talk

This story has been told many different ways. I’m going to tell it the way I know it:

A mother found that her daughter was engaging in gossip with her friends and other family members. She decided to teach her daughter a lesson. One day she gave the daughter a feather pillow and said, “take this feather pillow, rip it open and pour all the feathers out of the second floor window of the house. When you’re done come and see me.”

The daughter went upstairs, ripped open the feather pillow and shook out the feathers from the second floor window of her house. She told her mother she had done as instructed. The mother then said, “now go and collect all of the feathers and stuff them back into the pillow.”

The daughter searched for hours trying to find each and every feather. She came back to her mother and said, “I tried to collect them all but I can not.” The mother sent the daughter back out telling her she must find every feather. The daughter searched until it grew dark and came in with tears in her eyes and said, “I just can’t find them all, I have tried and tried they just scattered to far.” The mother looked at the daughter with her half full pillow and she said, “every time you gossip it is like cutting open a feather pillow and shaking it in the wind.”

I love the way this story illustrates one of the truths about gossip. Gossip is a virus and once you speak it into existence it takes on a life of its own. It is also the first step on the road to becoming a subversive employee. Subversive employees are a serious issue in any organization. They are not just underperforming they are recruiting others to their way of thinking. When it comes to preventing subversion keeping gossip from taking a foothold is the ounce of prevention that will save you a pound of cure.

So how do you stop gossip in its tracks? Do not worry, it does not involve having staff members cut open feather pillows and then scrounging around trying to pick the feathers up all day. There is a much easier method that can be employed by anyone, regardless of whether you are a front-line with no direct reports or the CEO.

Each of us has a powerful tool at our disposal that we can wield to affect the behavior of others around us. It’s called “validation.” We do it all the time in our relations with others. Validation is a powerful motivation of human behavior. As social creatures we want to see that we are operating within the social norms of the groups we interact with. When we get validated we gain input on how our behavior is perceived. Validation, in this context, is attention in the form of feedback. When someone laughs at a joke you tell or tells you that your point of view is not correct you are being validated. You are receiving feedback. Gossip thrives on validation and is often engaged in by people as a means of receiving validation (hint hint).

Validation, as a feedback mechanism not only sends powerful messages when it is received, it also sends powerful messages when it withheld. I would imagine that many of us do not realize when we are withholding validation, yet we do it all the time. When someone says something to you and you just shrug it off and move on in the conversation you are withholding validation. Becoming conscious of when you validate and do not validate is a powerful tool that can be used to affect people’s behavior.

Withholding validation is the most effective way to kill gossip. If you recognize gossip and refuse to give it your attention the gossip will stop coming to you. In a leadership position this can send a powerful message to your group. If you are not in a leadership position it can send a powerful message to those around you that are. Either way you are affecting the environment around you in a positive way.

This is easy to do when the gossip isn’t about you or someone you know. When you’re being told something about yourself, it can be very hard not to validate it. I still say withholding validation is the most effective tool, yet if you must validate do so wisely.

To deal with gossip wisely you have to attempt to extract the element that makes something gossip, hearsay. Questions like, “what happened specifically?” or “Did you see this for yourself?” are powerful tools for removing hearsay from a story, especially when followed up with “what are you hoping will happen by telling me about this?”

There are times when simply ignoring gossip will not stop it. There are times when leaders must give the problem attention. The first step most organizations take is having a meeting with the senior leadership and talking about how they must squash the gossip coming from their departments. This leads to sharply worded “zero tolerance” memos which are about as effective as trying to put air in a tire with a ceiling fan. There is a much easier way. Tune in next week to find out how to kill gossip at the organizational level.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

iPod Intervention

First, I am sorry that my weekly blog entries stopped without notice or explanation. I have recently started the journey back from the land of I Should Know Better; more on that later.

Along with my doing something I knew I shouldn’t mid-July to the beginning of September are always very intense times in our offices. The fiscal year is closing, the final performance numbers for our adult education programs come in for the year, we’re pushing to get fall marketing started and we find out what the budget for the next fiscal year is going to look like. This year the forces of lower revenues due to lack luster attendance, a re-alignment of the budget priorities of the university and some projects that grossly exceeded their deadlines and budget all combined to create a perfect storm. In the midst of which, I began to hate my job.

I chose the word hate with a full grasp of its true meaning. As the summer wore on the things I enjoyed about my job slowly eroded away. I found myself stuck in the milieu of a project that seemed destined to drag on for eternity. Getting students into our classes was like up-rooting trees, by hand. Finally, we were given the news that there would be no raises, even for those who were found to have exceeded their measurable targets for the year. However, a small one-time bonus would be awarded to employees making under a certain amount a year (it smarts to even type that). So pretty much the message is “your performance doesn’t matter.” I found myself sitting at my desk wondering why I spent my summer pouring my life into this job and driving my team to do the same.

Then came an unexpected intervention from an unlikely source, my iPod. I was driving to my parent’s farm to help my mother set up a Facebook account. I had my iPod on “shuffle” and was just letting it roam through the songs without skipping forward (as I usually do.) Out of some dark corner this song popped up:

Look, I know it’s dorky and cheesy and it has been played ad nauseum at senior talent shows while power points slides with pictures of all the seniors as babies rolled by with star-wipe transitions, but hear me out. I sort-of listened to it. Then this morning I was jogging and it popped up again.

This time I listened. And yes, while I must again admit that the song is cheesy it lead me to a realization: hating my job is my problem. Holy crap! I realized I had broken one of my own rules: work is what you do after you take care of all the important stuff. What’s the important stuff? For me the list is pretty short:
1. Not waking up to an alarm clock
2. Getting in my daily exercise (jogging and weight lifting)
3. Don’t sweat the small stuff (everything at work is small stuff) and don’t pet the sweaty stuff
4. Eating right
5. Being there for the people who are important to me

I used to hold that list in a sacred position in my life. On Tuesday and Thursday mornings I went to the gym before going to work, if that meant I couldn’t make a morning meeting, so-be-it. I didn’t sweat the small stuff (and everything at work is small). That’s not to say that I didn’t care about my job or want to do good work. I tried my hardest and then accepted that the results of that effort may be affected by forces beyond my control. I did not let work stress me out. I ate right and I was there for the people who are important to me.

However, starting in January of this year I slowly started to let go of items on my list and by default, they were replaced with other work related items. In the end, I was expecting the same reward I get from taking care of myself first and work later. Instead the reward for that switch in priorities was nothing that ultimately matters to me.

I don’t know about you, but in my case, hating my job was my fault. I found myself seeking something I should generate internally from external sources and that will always leave one thirsty.

Do you have a list? Are you making the things that are truly rewarding to you a priority?

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

How to Get a Raise (Or $how me the money)

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How long has it been since your had a significant change (greater than 3%) in compensation? I know someone who has earned exactly the same amount of money for over 2 years. While his paycheck has stayed the same, the cost of living continues to creep upwards. So in one way he is earning less. I don’t think I have ever heard someone say “you know I would really rather not have a raise.” While most people wouldn’t turn a raise down, many of those same people have never asked for a raise, much less thought about how to go about determining if they deserve one. The overwhelming view on raises is that they are something your boss gives you when they see fit. I believed the same thing too until I spent 9 months as a recruiter. Our main selling point when we were recruiting was the money. Our business thrived on people who would not ask for and companies who would not give their employees regular and equitable raises. Though I was not cut out to be a recruiter (only job I was ever fired from) I learned a lot that has helped me in my own professional life.

Many people have ruled out the possibility of a raise due to the current economic climate. In fact, in several industries, wages are being pushed down. What if I told you that there are people who, regardless of economic conditions, earnings reports, and all other external conditions consistently get raises? What if I told you they did not work in the financial sector? Well I am telling you that and I am going to tell you how many of them do it.

1. Always be ready to interview

Often times we treat job hunting like car buying. It’s a rarely used skill set that is only used when necessary. I think this is a mistake. The best time to open yourself up to new opportunities is when you are already employed.

Interviewing regularly is a great way to kill several birds with one stone. First, you get an opportunity to practice interviewing while working in your current job. Second, it gives you an incentive to keep your résumé dusted off. Third it keeps you knowledgeable about what other opportunities may be available to you and with what types of organizations. And finally, if you get an offer, you can have a good idea of your worth. But, often times you don’t even need an offer. You can look at ranges in the job posting or use tools like or to see how you compare. Oh and it gives you a reason to keep your wardrobe updated. If your interviewing suit is a pastel color, it’s been too long.

2. Be Honest with Yourself

Taking time to honestly appraise your work quality is a crucial step to determining your value to your organization. Do you meet your objectives? How is your work quality? Chances are if you’re just “getting by” your boss is not going to be motivated to give you a raise. She can find someone else to “just get by” easily. However, if you meet your objectives, do quality work, and are eager to take on new responsibilities your boss will probably want to keep you and will be willing to make the case to keep you. Remember, when it comes to high performing people “it’s cheaper to keep ‘em”

After you have appraised your work quality spend some time writing down your major job duties. Note how you spend your time. What tasks are you doing? How has this changed in the last year? Are you supervising more people? Handling more projects or larger projects? Specifically you want to identify ways in which you have increased your ownership of processes (work tasks that you can do with little input or guidance from your boss). Note the changes. When you’re last compensation level was set you were doing x and that has now increased to y. Spell it out in quantifiable terms. If there has not been any change, then you may not want to bring up a raise. If there has been change, and more importantly if that change is significant, then I would say it’s time to talk about a raise.

3. Make some decisions

So you have determined that you could possibly earn more outside of your organization. You have determined that your work quality is valuable to the organization and that you have taken on new responsibilities. Now it’s time to put the rubber to the road. Before you set up that meeting with your boss you need to have a meeting with yourself. You have to decide several things:

I. What do you want?
a. How much money would you like?
b. How much will you accept?
c. What is not enough?
This is important. You should have a clear idea of what you want. Remember to think in terms of over all compensation, not just take home pay. Set those three benchmarks. Ask for a, hope for b and worry about c only if it happens. Be sure that what you would like is reasonable and not too far away from market. Make sure that what you will accept is what you believe you could reasonably make at a similar organization type (meaning if you’re in government or in corporate). Finally, keep b and c to yourself.

II. What are you going to do?
Decide BEFORE you even ask for a meeting. If you get your “a” well then you will most likely be happy and head off to pick out a new car. But there is more. Are you willing to accept “a” along with more responsibility? You have to decide; the same goes for “b.” Finally, for “c” you have to decide that as well.

4. Make your pitch

You know what you’re worth and you know what you want. Now, how do you get it? You get it by giving your boss pitches he can throw at whomever he is going to have to convince to approve your raise. Remember, she probably has to make your case to someone else. Make it easy for her.
I. Begin with gratitude. Express your gratitude for the job you have and the organization you work for. Be sincere.
II. Talk about the parts of your job you enjoy and future projects you are excited about.
III. Start from your last compensation negotiation and explain how you have grown and added value to the company in quantifiable terms. Express your desires for future growth.
IV. Express how you desire an equitable relationship between the organization and yourself.
V. Ask for guidance/advice
VI. Shut up.
VII. If asked, name your desired number.

Avoid doing any of the following:
• Talking about other job offers
• Hypothesizing about leaving the company if you don’t get a raise
• Talk about your tenure as rational for a raise (you can cover this by explaining your growth)
• Ask for a raise in terms of a counter-offer

It’s the big day. You’re having your meeting with your boss. You listened to “Eye of the Tiger” 40 times on your commute in. You’re ready. You make your pitch and one of three things happens:

Scenario 1:
Your boss agrees with you and tells you that he is going to help you pursue a raise at an amount you find agreeable.

Express more gratitude. Ask them in what ways you can help. Ask them about the process going forward. Ask for a date when the raise will be considered.

Scenario 2:
Your boss agrees with you and tells you that they will try, but they are not s

Express more gratitude. Ask them in what ways you can help. Ask them about the process going forward. Ask for a date when they can let you know one way or the other. Depending on what happens see scenario 1 or 3.

Scenario 3:
Your boss flat refuses to give you raise citing economic conditions, wage freezes, the price of eggs in China, etc.

Express more gratitude. Express understanding. Make no threats. Ask for guidance on how you could increase your value to the company, take notes. Exit the meeting and decide if it’s time to find another job or stay where you are. If you find another job I would advise against accepting any counter offer. If it takes the threat of leaving to get what you should have been paid in the first place, is that somewhere you really want to work?

Monday, July 27, 2009

Practice makes permanent

This blog is the second and concluding entry on why we must fail (you can find the first entry here.) Before I get into how to fail successfully I wanted to share a video that Jeff Bezos, CEO of did as a means of introducing himself and his company to the employees of Zappos, which his company plans on acquiring. He is explaining the culture at and in that explanation he has interesting things to say about failure.

What is interesting to me about this video is that Jeff seems to wear the failure as a badge of honor, or a medal. He talks about it with pride. Why? Well, short of being able to ask Jeff himself, I think it is safe to say that he sees those failures as having incredible value to Amazon and a key factor in making Amazon the company it is today.

As I typed in the last sentence in the previous paragraph the voice of my internal skeptic/cynic was booming loud and clear. “Easy to say when you’re sitting on top of a successful company.” “Of course CEO’s like to talk about their valuable failures but when it was happening they weren’t so hippy-dippy about it.” I bring this up not to make myself appear crazy, but to point out something we all must come to grips with about failure. It’s not a fun experience and people do not usually applaud us when we do it.

So, let’s review:

Failure is a crucial ingredient to success.
Failure is not fun.
Failure causes people to not like you (including your boss).

Wow. If in order to be successful I have to fail then why try? I would answer that by saying that not trying is its own form of failure. So how do we fail without turning our lives into a country western song about losing everything?

Practice. At some point in our lives most of us have performed in some way, either in sports, performing arts, or academics. The purpose of practice is to find the bumps of failure and smooth them out. We are often able to correct many of the failures through repition. Yet practice also serves another valuable function, we learn to manage the failures we cannot correct in such a way that we can contain them so that they have a minimal impact. I call this “failure under the radar.”

When we “fail under the radar” we are simply failing in way that does not make itself apparent to the observer. We may be very aware of it. Yet the observer is not.. How do we translate this skill from the practice of preparing for a performance to work? By breaking it down.

Think of something that you want to do but wont because of fear of failure. It can be work related or personal. What are the opportunities for failure(they can be new and novel parts of the task or something you’ve tried before and failed at)? Now, is there any way to construct a pathway to completing that objective that would allow you to approach each of the perceived opportunities for failure individually? Is there a way that you can approach the objective that will allow you to keep failure under the radar?

I will illustrate with an example from my own life:

I want to go to graduate school and get my doctorate. My undergraduate transcript is spotty. I made some bad grades and some good grades. I do not have the best track record when it comes to school, yet, I believe I can do it. So, what are my choices? I can apply for grad school, if I get accepted then I quit my job and dive in and sink or swim. This is the “all in” option. If I fail then I will have interrupted my career and spent a lot of money on something that I was unable to complete. Now, if I step back and ask what my opportunities for failure are I come up with the following:
A. I will not be able to “hack it” in graduate level classes.
B. I am not making the right choice for my field of study.
I could go on, but for the sake of this entry I’ll stop with these two. Now I look at each one and explore the possibility of examining each of those individually.
Item A: I can take graduate courses that I can apply towards a degree without being accepted into a program. This will give me the chance to see if I can “hack it” or not.
Item B: I can take said courses in the field that I think am interested in.

I can do both of these without leaving my current job and with minimal investment (when compared to the cost of an entire graduate degree program). I am sure that I will struggle and fail in many ways as I attempt this, but the failures can be contained and learned from before they grow into something monumental.

Think about what is holding you back as not one thing, but a bag holding many things. Unpack the bag and examine each new and novel part as well as opportunities for failure based on past experiences. How much of what is holding you back can be approached individually? Take those items and make a plan. You may fail and you may succeed. Remember the failure is a learning opportunity. See it as being one step closer to getting it right and try again. Once you succeed you will find that your perception of what is possible expands exponentially. Once you learn to view failure not as the end but as the pathway you will find your paralyzing fear gives way to a healthy fear which motivates you through the failure.

And finally if you do fail in a huge way, apologize. (My blog entry on apologies).

Friday, July 17, 2009

Failure must be an Option

Can you imagine being told in an interview that you haven’t been enough of a failure? We see failure as such a negative and feared thing. I think that we need to relearn the way we think of failure as a valuable resource and that we should be concerned if failure did not occur on our path to success. Failure isn’t the problem; it is our response to it that creates problems.

A few weeks ago I was speaking someone who used to be a regional manager at Weight Watchers and she was telling me what she looked for in a meeting leader. She told me that, of course, they should have successfully completed the program. Then she went on to define that success, in her mind was someone that had fallen off the wagon a few times and then got back on. She was more interested in someone who had failed and THEN been successful than someone who had just been successful. When I asked her why, her answer was illuminating, “We are all going to fail at weight loss at some point or another, I can’t risk brining someone on who has not failed yet. I need people who have proven they can fail and recover.”

I believe that there are many people who mistakenly view failure and defeat as the same thing. I say that they are not. Failure can be limited to a singular event in time. Defeat is when we stop trying because we believe that all future attempts would also lead to the same failure. Or more succinctly defeat is when you let failure get the best of you. What is even worse is when we assume defeat as the only outcome and therefore do not even give ourselves the chance to fail. To quote Twyla Tharp, that is “failure by erosion.” It’s true. If you are truly trying something for the first time or creating something new and expect that failure will not play a role then you are not being realistic. Furthermore, not only should we accept that failure plays a role we should embrace it. In a work culture that is trending towards considering the ability to innovate as a keystone of high performance fear of failure is disabling and can lead to a stagnated career or worse, termination.

Reading that, it can be easy to feel damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Mattison Grey, one of our faculty members in the EmPower program and a professional coach, says it best in her blog, some of which I’ll repost below.

Recently I went to a Cirque du Soleil show—not my first, but the first I’ve seen with my high-performance-coaching eyes. What I saw, besides an incredibly entertaining show and story with amazing tricks, choreography, and acrobatics, was a bunch of mistakes—failures, if you will. I suspect very few in the audience noticed the mistakes, but I did, and it got me thinking about failure, and its value in high performance.

Each of those performers has failed so many times in practice, if they are going to fail during the performance, they know when and how it will happen. They know this because it has already happened hundreds, thousands of times. It happens in practice, in rehearsal, even in the shows.

One performer, a clown-like character, was doing gymnastics and tricks on a ladder. In addition to doing the tricks, he had to keep the ladder on its two feet. To begin any trick, he had to balance and climb the ladder. Three times he got part or most of the way up and slid back down, as if that were part of the show. Truth was, he was failing. He had lost control of the ladder and needed to start over.

(Read the rest of Mattison’s entry here)

Those of us who have had to perform in front of others in some way at some point in our lives learn this early on. I had a piano teacher who once told me “without failure how would you know what you needed to work on?” Her words were true. The first time I played in public was a disaster. In the midst of disaster I received valuable information on what I needed to work on and I was able to grow.

So how do you manage failure? We will talk more about that next week.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Know Thyself, then know thy others

So have you been smiling more lately?

Have you been focusing on sourcing your responses and interactions with others from a place of authenticity?

If yes, then great! You’re well on your way to being a social genius! Just remember this is a thousand mile journey that takes most of us our entire lives. In my third and final entry on social intelligence (If you are just finding this blog check out the previous two entries here and here) I am going to give you some key components of social intelligence as defined by Goleman, et al that you can use to get a quick picture of your level of social intelligence and areas you may want to work. I’m also going to give you some ideas for ways you can begin improving.

It seems that many of the people and groups I interact with struggle to see how the topics social intelligence, leadership and high performers are relevant in the current economic crisis. I believe that they have never been more relevant. We are all facing strains and stresses that, unchecked, can have an affect on our work product. I know I am at my office.

We walked into this crisis with a new program launch and a major overhaul of our business model. We were planning for a rough year even before the crisis hit. Our business relies mostly on providing corporate training. Which is often the first thing that is cut when hard times hit. Many are worried about their jobs, stressed because their salary doesn’t cover as much of their costs of living as it used to; combine that with a wage and hiring freeze and we just aren’t seeing much of a tangible reward for our hard work. Yet my boss continues to reinforce that she sees how hard we are working, she knows we are trying to make the best of a bad situation and that she knows we’re going to have a bad year and she is not upset. In fact, she is thrilled that we have used this time to rebuild our organization and she is authentically excited about the future. That, my friends, is social intelligence deployed through leadership and in times of crisis it is often the only tool in a leader’s pocket to keep their teams motivated and bought-in.

So, how can we measure social intelligence for ourselves? Daniel Goleman lists several metrics, which you can find in his original article. I’m going to list what I believe are the top 3 here:

1. Empathy: Do you understand what motivates other people, even those from different backgrounds? Are you sensitive to their needs?
This cornerstone of social intelligence can be the most difficult to achieve. It requires us to move beyond our own agenda and needs and focus on those of others. In most cases they will return the favor without you asking and you’ll have created the first step towards building a strong bond.
2. Attunement: Do you listen attentively and think about how others feel? Are you attuned to other’s moods?
I have to admit, this one is difficult for me. I often find myself formulating a response before the person that is speaking to me is even halfway through their statement. It can be hard to shut off our brains and keep them from leaping to conclusions yet it is important. As you listen remember to empathize. Try to imagine what the person is going through. What lead them to formulate their ideas? Ask them to confirm your assumptions to see if they are true. You’ll have some misses at first, but you will get better with practice.
3. Organizational Awareness: Do you appreciate the culture and values of the group or organization? Do you understand social networks and know their unspoken norms?
I am a loud person who tends to dominate any conversation I am a part of without much regard for others. I received some sage advice once from a mentor of mine. “Force yourself to observe first, then once you understand the group, act.” Give it a try, even if you’re shy. Purpose yourself to actively observe the group. What are their roles? Does one-person build consensus, another make the final decision, does another tend to the feelings of others? Watch these things in your groups at work. Learn how each person works. Once you understand them you’ll be able to connect with them in a much more authentic way.

From the list above it seems that the pathway to social intelligence is somewhat counter-intuitive. In my first entry I wrote how the key to social intelligence is authenticity and the key to authenticity is self-knowledge. Yet, here we see that measures of social intelligence seem to be less about how well you know yourself and how well you know others. So which is it? Both! I think a story about my adorable niece will help illustrate this point (and give me a chance to show her off).

My niece recently started walking. She improves every time I see her. Yet when she first started it required her total concentration. Walking was so complex to her that it required all of her mental resources. No carrying toys and even keeping in mind where she was going. She was totally focused on walking. A few weeks and lots of practice and now she can manage everything but going down the stairs. She carries her toys around and even calls our names as she walks around.

It’s the same with social intelligence. You cannot really work on the external elements until you get a handle on the internal stuff. Until you know yourself well enough to know that your responses are authentic (do you just spring load to yes or no when someone asks you to do something?) you can’t focus externally. Like my niece, you have to focus inside and get the self-knowledge to a level of awareness of unconscious competence (remember the levels of awareness from a few weeks back?) before you can start to focus your concentration on others. To say it Suze Orman style: “Self-knowledge first, then empathy/attunement/awareness, then success!”

Friday, June 26, 2009

How to Win Brains and Influence Motor Neurons (or Star Wars Leadership)

A note before we proceed: A few of my friends who read my previous entry on this topic suggested that I was a bit too academic for most blog readers (and long winded). In response I would like to announce that for the purposes of this blog I’ll attempt to exchange the stereo-typcial tweed jacket with elbow patches of the academic for a more appropriate t-shirt with a catchy phrase.

If you have aspirations of upward mobility then at some point on your upward journey you’re going to learn that your value to the organization draws less from functional expertise (how to do the job of the people who work for you) and more from social intelligence (how you interact with the people who work for you). Leaders with high social intelligence are often seen as chameleons who can go into any organization and begin engaging their teams regardless of their knowledge of the work they do. If you have your eye on a C-suite then you should be looking at your social skills.

So, brilliant widget designer who is not allowed to talk to clients directly because you piss them off, accounting wizard who has the power to bring others to tears in a single email, engineer who can force others into a comatose state as you describe a flange, and any other person who feels their social interactions with others are forced and uncomfortable, this entry is for you!

Remember in Episode IV of Star Wars when Luke Skywalker was about to blow up the death star and he hears the voice of Obi wan Kenobi telling him to stop thinking and use the force? Turns out his advice was actually pretty applicable to all of us when it comes to social intelligence (if you have a lot of this you are a mirror neuron master); just replace “the force” with “intuition.”

Research into social intelligence and leadership shows that leaders who are highly effective at engaging others through authenticity and sincerity do so intuitively. So does that mean the rest of us are screwed? Absolutely not! Intuition, in many ways, is simply learning to do something so well that it is second nature and happens at an unconscious level.

In the first day of our Leadership Fundamentals program at the University of Houston we talk about levels of awareness. I won’t go into them here but intuition and second nature level knowledge is at the top. It’s what you know how to do but can’t easily explain to someone else. For example, you know how to breath, but you don’t know what muscles are involved or how you determine the rate of inhaling and exhaling you just do it. Socially intelligent people are the same way when it comes to engaging others and guess what? They learned it. You know what that means braniac? You can learn it too. Yes, it comes more easily to some people than others, but it can be learned.

Where do you start? Start with smiling and laughter, they are the abc's of engagement. I know, I know you’ve always heard “you should smile more.” I hear that too. Guess what? Turns out there are a bunch of mirror neurons that light up when we see someone smile, and when they smile at us. A smile really is contagious. So try to smile more, especially if someone makes eye contact with you. You do not have to know them or need to speak with them, just smile. Start there. Next will come laughter. You may not be a comedian, but you can appreciate humor and doing so openly and authentically with a big laugh, giggle or snort may make you feel a little silly but I promise those around you will be tickled too and they’ll make a connection with you in the process.

Remember, when you force a response or mold your authentic reaction into something different for the sake of acceptability you are using a different part of your brain and others will sense it. I once heard Dr. Phil tell David Letterman something on his show that stuck with me, “You wouldn’t care so much about what people thought of you if you knew how often they really did.” I believe that’s true. Start with smiling, you’ll be surprised. Once that becomes second nature go a little further. You may feel silly at first, do not fear, that is a sign that you’re on the right path. And if Dr. Phil is right (may be one of the few instances) other people won't even think negatively of you.

Let me say this, authenticity is not the same as “telling it like it is.” Authenticity goes deeper than that. Calling someone names because they pissed you off is not authenticity. Authenticity is telling that person how their actions affected you. Not creatively using adjectives that you feel describe them. We see this logic used all to often in society. "Look I tell it like it is so if you're a _____ I'm going to say it." That's not telling it like it is, that's giving an opinion and it's not based on anything but a need to defend a fragile self image.

To win brains and influence motor neurons you have to make authenticity second nature. Expanding social intelligence really is a thousand mild journey. One that you can start today with a single step, in this case it can be as simple as a smile.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Neuron See Neuron Do

Have you ever commented or heard someone say "that person really means what they say." or "you can really tell they walk the walk." Turns out these feelings are more than just a gut reaction. They are significant at a neurological level in ways that, until recently could not be imagined. In today’s entry and several following I want to discuss an article I recently came across by Daniel Goleman and Richard Boyatzis in the Harvard Business Review titled “Social Intelligence and the Biology of Leadership.” The article presents some rather astounding information. The seven page article requires a subscription to read all the way through (a subscription I think is well worth the money for anyone interested in organization thought). I have taken, what I consider to be, some of the most important items and will discuss them in this and the next few consecutive entries.

In the article Daniel Goleman presents findings from various research studies in the nascent field of neuropsychology that are producing evidence that interactions between individuals are significant at a neurological level in a way that we have yet to understand.

Neuro-physiology 101: The central nervous system is a network of neurons of various kinds that carry out various functions within the body. The brain functions by creating and attending to neural connections that create neural networks. Basically, from some points of view, our brains are highly complex networks where associations are maintained by the firing of neurons.

With that in mind, it was often believed that the brain was a closed system which only responded to external stimuli in a “perceive and process” mode. Data comes to the brain via the way of stimulation of one of our 5 sensory systems (touch, taste, olfactory, eyesight, auditory) is processed in different areas of the brain and tied to some perceptive knowledge and then stowed away.
Recently researchers in France were working with monkeys trying to isolate neurons that were involved in the monkey raising its arm. They were attempting to find the specific neural set involved in this action. One day a researcher was eating an ice cream cone in front of a monkey who was connected to electrodes and when he raised his arm to bring the ice cream cone to his mouth the same neurons that had been observed to be involved in the monkey raising its arm(along with a few others nearby) fired in the monkey’s brain. The monkey was not raising its arm it was only observing someone else, who it had a relationship with raise their arm. Further study revealed these “mirror neurons” as they have come to be known are scattered through out the brains of monkeys AND humans. The authors describes these mirror neurons as a “neurological wifi” that not only mimic movements, they also sense and mimic emotions of others. This is a significant finding. We do not only perceive the emotions and actions of others, we are mimicking them in our brains and therefore, at some level, experiencing them as well. Suddenly the statement, “I can not imagine how you are feeling right now” is not true. Not only can we imagine how someone is feeling we can experience it on some level as our brains react to the outward indicators of someone’s emotional state.

“What does all this science mumbo jumbo have to do with me and the people I work with?” you ask. Well, in one word, everything. This finding has opened a floodgate of research into how our nervous system responds to other people. One study looked at how effective leaders affect individuals they lead. Guess what? When effective leaders interact with people those mirror neurons are going crazy. People feel the passion the leader has for his or her vision, they feel the enthusiasm, the excitement and the energy. When the effective leader speaks to them personally about their work it is the same powerful experience. It affects change at a neurological level.

So what’s the secret? What is the magic pill that gives these people the power to turn mirror neurons into Mexican Jumping Beans?

Do not mistake sincerity for authenticity. As Peter Berger says, “sincerity is all to often the process of believing the lie you’re telling.” Whichever way it is used, sincerity can be sensed and it makes an impression on us. I’m reminded of a clip from the movie Office Space.

While that is an extreme example I am sure you can think of interactions with people in your life that are uncomfortable because they are based on a foundation of insincerity. Your brain isn’t going to buy it. Guess what, no one’s brain buys it.

If you feel like your interactions with those around you are lacking give sincerity a try. Take a close look at your interactions with others. When you communicate with sincerity you will find that others recognize and respond to it. They’ll value your opinion and they will want to be around you because they will sense that you are authentic.

We found this out for ourselves at the University of Houston. Our old Leadership and Management Certificate program had modules about negotiation and “coaching” which were centered on the idea that if you just phrase things a certain way or manipulate the circumstances then people will respond to your way of thinking. We had left out one thing, it’s really hard to do that sincerely. You may get people to do what you want, but they won’t be happy about it. When we created our new program we felt that it was crucial to create a program that was centered around knowing yourself and being authentic. That’s why we chose the name “EmPower: Leadership to the Power of You” because it clearly illustrates our core philosophy. Self-knowledge is the key to authenticity and the beginning of any leadership journey. Authenticity, by its very nature is sincere.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Are you a hostage of 24/7 Connectivity?

Before reading this entry take the following quiz:

1. Do you check your phone or send texts during a movie?

2. Have you ever gone to a computer display in an electronics store to check your email?

3. Do you fall asleep with greater ease if you’ve checked your voicemail/email before going to sleep?

4. Can you get through a meal without looking at your phone?

5. Do you ever turn off your phone?

If you answered yes to 2 or more of these questions then you may be a hostage of 24/7 connectivity. And if you answered yes to number 1 then you are my nemesis. I don’t care who you are, no one is THAT important that they need to check their phone every 20 seconds in a movie. TRUST me your friends/girlfriend/boyfriend or whoever can live without you texting them for 2 hours or so.

Stew Friedman, faculty member at Wharton College of Business and author of “Total Leadership” asserts that the idea of “life/work balance” has gone the way of Maslow’s “Pyramid of Hierarchical Needs.” That is to say, the idea of having a distinct demarcated border between life (that which we do outside of work) and work (that which we do outside of life) is no longer possible. The idea of “closing the briefcase” when we leave the office is becoming increasingly difficult.

Convenience and access are swords that cut both ways. The easier it is for us to access resources and people the easier it is for people and resources to access us. This has created a blending of work life and home life. The borders between the two worlds are no longer enforced by the limits of technology. If you’re a hostage of 24/7 connectivity it means that you never disengage from work.

So how do we handle this new world? I have a few ideas that have worked well for me.

1. Let Voicemail Be Your Gatekeeper

When my phone rings I ask myself two questions before I decide to take the call. First, do I know who is calling me? Second, if I know who it is do I know why they are calling? If I do not know who it is I do not answer. If I know who it is, but I don’t know why they are calling (there are exceptions such as close friends, etc) I do not answer. It is not that I am not interested; it is simply that I am rarely sitting around waiting for my phone to ring. Rather than stop what I’m doing, I let the calls go to voicemail. Once they leave a voicemail I check it and then decide how to respond.

I recognize this goes against normal expectations to some degree; however, I find that by simply setting expectations for people you can avoid frustration. So, whenever I give someone my mobile number, I predicate with the following statement, “I prefer if you email me, I’ll see it on my phone. However, if you need to call me don’t worry if you get my voicemail. I check it often and will call you back.” When I do respond I use my second rule.

2. Consider the best response

So you’re at dinner with someone special and you get a phone call, email, text message. It’s someone at work that needs some information. What do you do? I used to get up from the table, go outside and deal with the situation. I think this is the wrong response. Now, if I feel like I should get back to the person, I excuse myself from the table (I think it is terribly rude to have a phone conversation at the table) and respond with questions. “Jim, I got your voicemail and I’m aware of what is going on. I am not at a place where I can talk right now, would it be all right if I called you in two hours?” Unless the situation is a dire emergency, the answer is usually yes. This works because you are satisfying the underlying need. Most often, people simply want to know that you are aware that they are trying to reach you. They assume that by not responding you are not aware. So, rather than taking 20-30 minutes to address a problem, you take 2-3 minutes to let someone know you’ve received their message and then you establish when you will call them back. This works for email and text message too.

3. Make “disconnecting” a routine

This has been especially hard for me. Yet, it gets easier with time. When I’m at a movie or a play I shut off the phone. Not silence it or put it on vibrate, turn it off. Then at intermission or after the movie, I turn it back on. When I go to dinner with my partner or a friend, I leave my phone in the car.

Melinda Stallings teaches for our EmPower Leadership Fundamentals Certificate Program. In her first class, she asks a powerful question. She asks the students how many of them, by show of hands, have taken 15 minutes in the last six months which were uninterrupted by outside stimuli to think. Less than 10% of the class will raise their hand. It just does not happen naturally in our world. Yet, it is a valuable exercise.

The same goes for “disconnecting.” I think that our ability to remain connected is only going to increase for the time being. Soon even airplanes (once the haven of being disconnected) will be providing connectivity on flights.

Don’t get me wrong, I think this technological revolution that has opened the door to so many ways to stay in touch is amazing. Written correspondence was nearly dead until email came along. Instant messaging and text messages allow me to keep up with what is happening with others while at work without being interrupted by a phone call, and I like knowing what is happening at work when I’m not there by simply checking my email via my phone. There is a fine line between utilizing this technology and being ruled by it. The “rules” I listed above are part of the way I try to keep from being ruled by connectivity. I would challenge you to take a look at your own life. If you catch yourself having to look at your phone or take calls when you’re at lunch with a friend or at a movie, stop and ask yourself why you’re doing it. Are you simply responding to the phone or email like Pavlov’s dogs to his bell? If so, you may want to consider setting some boundaries. You’ll have a richer life, feel more in control and have a clearer grasp of your priorities.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

The Power of an Apology

Imagine this scene:
It’s Saturday morning, after a long work week and a big Friday deadline you hit the hay early with plans on sleeping in. The sun is peeking through the windows as you slowly wake up. You reach over to the nightstand and grab your phone and at first glance your stress levels jump. On your phone are missed calls, text messages and emails from your boss and other team members. You do not even have to check them before you know that something must have gone very wrong. After you read the first email, check the first voicemail, or text message you know, you screwed up. What do you do?

I don’t know if something like this has happened to you before, it certainly has happened to me. We all make mistakes and sometimes those mistakes have big, far-reaching consequences. We tried our best, thought we had all of our bases covered and then out of nowhere we get a surprise pie in the face. We have all had to work through these mistakes be they our fault or not. Minimizing damage and getting back on track are crucial to recovering from mistakes of any size. Often times this process can be de-railed by moving the focus towards blame rather than repair. Yet this trap can be avoided and recovery can begin much faster with one simple act.

An apology. I took this piece of advice from my father a long time ago. Say you’re sorry and start working on a solution. Do it immediately. Sounds easy, right? So why is this crucial and easy action avoided? I believe we avoid apologizing for two reasons.

Many of us have created an unsustainable image of ourselves as the perfect employee who never makes mistakes, especially big ones. We mistakenly tie this to integrity. Often times we can make the mistake of believing that are sole value to the organization we work for is this one thing. While consciousness and quality are key to a good work product trying to wave off responsibility for an error does much more damage to our integrity than simply owning up to the mistake. Yet we see it time and time again. We try and blame a supplier, upper management, or technology; anything but us. Nothing gives birth to a pink elephant in the conference room faster than when the person who everyone knows screwed up does everything but admit it.

It Really is not Your Fault
One of the hardest lessons I learned when I moved into a supervisory role is that if one of my team members make a mistake that affects the unit then as their supervisor it is my mistake. Playing hot potato with the blame does not solve the problem and usually annoys leadership. Always keep in mind that your boss is most likely going to have to take responsibility for the error with his or her boss.

In either case I would assert that a direct and immediate apology can go a long way towards moving beyond the blame game and getting down to fixing the problem. It also shows leadership and that you are more concerned about the organization than yourself.

What is a good apology?
A good apology is very simple statement.
“I am sorry that I ___________.”
That’s it. Notice what is missing from that statement. The words, “if”, “but”, “however”, or “you think that” and other similar statements are all words that turn a direct apology into a conditional statement. I would assert that a real apology never contains those words.
“I am sorry I missed the deadline.”
As opposed to:
“I am sorry I missed the deadline, however, it was due to circumstances beyond my control.”

“I am sorry that I lost that client.”
As opposed to:
“I am sorry if you feel like it is my actions that caused us to lose that client.”
Authentic apologies do not come with disclaimers. Also notice that there is no statement attempting to spread culpability.
“I am sorry that I sent out that report with grammatical errors.”
“I am sorry that report went out with errors. I had Cindy proof-read it, I guess I’ll have to get someone else next time.”
Once you have apologized offer a solution or steps to correct the issue, show that you’re engaged in correcting the problem even if you think your boss may hand it to someone else. There will be time to work out the why and wherefore later, after the fall-out has been dealt with.

So next time you or someone in your group makes a mistake give this a try. You might be surprised at the reaction of those you work with. I believe strongly that taking the blame right away allows the entire team to focus on a solution and move forward. It also speaks volumes about who you are as a person.