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.