by renita kalhorn
Last month, I was in Tokyo, Japan to speak at Pioneers Asia, a tech event for entrepreneurs and investors. Even before I left on the 14-hour flight, my brain was in overdrive: deciding what part of town to AirBnB in, figuring out the best way to get from the airport into the city, and deciphering the fare system for the myriad train and subway lines.
Not to mention preparing for my talk (yep, how to get a mental six-pack), strategizing how to connect with the other participants and finding a gym. Most of the time, I daresay, we’re pretty lax about directing our thinking. But when we’ve got a lot on our plate or the pressure’s on, we don’t have the luxury of wasting mental energy – we need to optimize how we use every ounce of brainpower. Here are three distinctions to keep in mind:
Use your brain for processing, not storing. Dr. Sian Beilock, a psychologist and expert in performing under pressure, explains that working memory is like “a mental scratch pad. It allows you to hold information in mind and work with that information whether you’re trying to figure out the solution to a problem or taking a test or even trying to present what you’re going to say next, and we have a limited amount of it. We can only do and attend to so many things at once.”
So instead of using your brain to remember information – stuff to do, ideas to flesh out, problems to solve — capture it in writing (tapping it out digitally works but writing it down on paper is better). Bullet point the three things you want to say in that client conversation, map out a structure for the partnership. The more you’ve got going on, the more you should be writing down. You’ll free up your brain to synthesize and make connections, not be distracted with worry that things are falling through the cracks.
Use your brain for functional, not emotional, thinking. If you notice that you’re out of milk (and you make a note of it, right?) or you’re calculating the salary for the new CTO hire, that’s functional thinking. If, however, you think “What’s wrong with me, I was just at the store, why didn’t I get it then?” or “This isn’t fair, why is this guy getting paid more than I am?” those opinions and judgments have an emotional charge that can create a redundant and unproductive thought loop.
The first step is to simply start making the distinction between the two. Then, be vigilant: When you catch yourself in a redundant thought loop — like I did in Tokyo, when I found myself ruminating over a missed opportunity to connect with a fellow speaker that I admired — train yourself to interrupt the pattern. Grab a pen and pinpoint what’s really bothering you. Ask yourself: Am I investing mental energy or spending it? Is this going to lead to action?
Use your brain for digesting, not (just) ingesting. The amount of information we’re being inundated with at this point is ridiculous: thousands of emails, nonstop updates in our social media feeds, advertising everywhere. We need to turn off the avalanche and take time to synthesize. This means, says Shane Parrish at Farnam Street, “sifting through information, filtering the bunk and connecting it to a framework that you can use” so we’re not just walking around broadcasting other people’s opinions. Or, it can simply mean taking a moment to sit and let our mind wander.
Something to think about…
by renita kalhorn
“I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious.” ~ Albert Einstein.
My dad likes to tell this story from my childhood: I was five or six, we were eating dinner and my mom chastised me for chewing with my mouth open, saying “That’s how pigs eat.” My immediate response: “Do cows do it too?” Apparently, I’ve always been curious about behavior, bovine and otherwise.
Over the years, living in Japan and Europe and working in diverse company cultures, I’ve developed an endless fascination with understanding why humans behave the way they do and it’s a powerful tool in helping my clients when they get mired in a fixed perspective.
One client is a rock star in business development, bringing in high-profile, $20M+ deals for the firm. She was already managing two major projects and when she took on a third, a senior colleague made it clear that he thought she was biting off more than she could chew. “There’s no way you can take on a third project,” he said, “it’s too much, it’s too much.” She took his reaction personally, and assumed he was trying to thwart her success. Me, I had an alternative take: he was threatened by her abilities and rapid promotion in the company, in a panic wondering how he could keep up.
Anyone can be curious when something novel or unexpected happens: you know, if someone walks into the office dressed like a centaur. Genuine curiosity, however, means being able to bring an open, receptive mindset to even the most familiar of situations — buying coffee at Starbucks every morning, seeing the same characters in the weekly team meeting — and engage in finding subtle differences from the previous 100 times.
Curiosity is powerful, like a turbocharger for our mental muscles. It helps us build confidence, perform better under pressure, influence others and be happier. Here are three magic phrases to remind you to take a curious stance:
“Isn’t that interesting?” Not the first thing we might think to ask, but in that moment when we flub up the data in an investor pitch or go blank fielding a question from the CEO, asking ourselves: “Isn’t it interesting that I’m screwing this up?” or “Isn’t it interesting that I’m having this reaction?” is an advanced curiosity move. It allows us, says psychologist Pamela Enders, “to create a little distance, a little objectivity so that we’re feeling a little above or outside of it.” Zooming out downplays the fight-or flight reaction of our amygdala or the emotional part of the brain and allows us to access and connect with the thinking part of the brain.
“I wonder if…” Most people don’t respond well to being told pointblank what to do differently, says Alana Winter, founder of MI6 Academy, who’s facilitated personal development and leadership training for hundreds of entrepreneur CEOs around the world. And you don’t really know with absolute certainty what will work for someone else anyway. So coming from a place of curious ’not-knowing,’ and asking “I wonder if you tried…” or “Have you thought about doing [this]…” (instead of a presumptive “you should…”) can be a subtle but powerful way to get someone to be receptive to a different behavior.
“What are three things that are intriguing?” No matter how exciting our long-term goals, the daily routine can be kind of tedious or mundane. Todd Kashdan PhD, author of Curious? Discover the Missing Ingredient to A Fulfilling Life, suggests instead of trying to stay positive, we stay intrigued. “Look for three things about this moment that are happening. It could be the thought process you’re having, it could be an unusual mole that somebody has. It could be the idea of how fast and fluid I am, I rarely write on a piece of paper, I’m so used to the computer, and my handwriting is so fast and so horrible, like a penmanship paper from kindergarten. Those kinds of little strategies keep you focused and attentive to what’s happening. It might not be positive but you’re intrigued and that’s going to keep you going during mundane tasks.”
The side effect, however, might be greater happiness. In a 2007 study, Kashdan and Colorado State psychologist Michael Steger found that when participants monitored their daily activities and emotions over 21 days, those who frequently felt curious on a given day also experienced the most satisfaction with their life—and engaged in the highest number of happiness-inducing activities, such as expressing gratitude to a colleague or volunteering to help others.
Another bonus of curiosity: it helps us be compassionate. Once my client realized that her colleague’s behavior was likely more about his insecurity than it was about her, she could feel less animosity towards him and come up with multiple options for managing their relationship.
How’s it going with the New Year’s resolutions? Or maybe, knowing the less than 39% success rate, you decided not to make any.
Still, who’s not familiar with the unsatisfying cycle of behavioral change?
Step 1: Decide to start a new habit.
Step 2: Do it once, a few times, a whole week.
Step 3: Get sidetracked with stressful work situation and totally forget about it.
Step 4: Be reminded of it by a friend, spouse, CNN and/or Oprah.
Step 5: Feel disappointed in yourself as a human being and vow to have more willpower.
Good news: You’re doing what humans do. And you don’t need more willpower.
As you probably know, the brain is all about efficiency. It loves being on autopilot, doing the same things the same way we always have so we don’t have to exert energy making decisions. In fact, our subconscious programs are running the show 95% (or more!) of the time. So when we want to do things differently – to manage stress better, to wake up earlier, to be more present in conversations — it doesn’t like that we’re trying to interrupt the usual programming, and puts up resistance.
That’s why when you think about making a change, you hear that little voice saying, “You need more sleep.” “Let’s just take a quick look at Facebook/Twitter/Instagram first.” “You can start tomorrow.” “There’s not enough time.” (This is a good one because it sounds virtuous; don’t fall for it. Interrupting your autopilot will, by definition, be inefficient — so plan for it.)
In the same way you’d think, “That’s so not me” if someone gave you a sequin-laced jacket and you’re an eco-friendly, Vibram-wearing minimalist, your brain wants to reinforce the message that “it’s not like you, anne, to be doing this [new habit].” The beliefs you have about yourself, your self-identity, drive everything you do and your behavior will only change if it’s aligned with your self-image.
So how do we change our self-image? Grab a post-it or index card and write down this statement: “I am someone who _____.” Fill in the blank with the new behavior you want to adopt: I am someone who exercises in the morning, for example, or: gives people the benefit of the doubt, runs efficient meetings, stays poised under pressure, sets firm boundaries, wears bright-colored fitness tights (my sisters will get that reference).
Start with one thing. Keep the card somewhere where you can see and read it several times a day, like the bathroom or your wallet.
Give it 10 days. Either you’ll read it regularly — or you won’t. If you do, you’ll start to notice subtle changes in your behavior. You’ll find that you’re not that interested in a second glass of wine, for example, or you’re willing to try a yoga class with a Crossfit buddy.
And if you don’t read it, you’ll know you started in a place that was too far from what is “like you.” Tweak the behavior so it feels more believable and try again, no self-flagellation required.
Rinse and repeat.
“This feels too nice and polite to come from a ‘mental toughness coach,’” was my coach’s feedback when I asked him to review an email I had sent introducing myself to a high-profile entrepreneur.
“Well, yes,” I thought. “I am asking for his time and attention, I want to be respectful.” In fact, I was reaching out with an offer to help and, in the process, I was tripped up by what Jean Tang describes in “Sorry, Not Sorry,” as women’s “age-old, primitive drive to avoid taking up space: in physicality, in intellect, in will, in complication.” My obsequious attempt to minimize the “intrusion” was a subtle (and insidious) form of people-pleasing .
(Men do it too, of course: “John Cleese once told me I would never be happy unless I stopped “being so f***ing polite all the time,” British actor Stephen Fry has said. “I have spent much of my life trying to please people, trying to be what they wanted me to be rather than what I actually wanted to be.”)
As usual, it stems from biology and societal conditioning. In the days of our cavemen ancestors, displeasing others could mean being thrown out of the tribe. And as children, reliant on our parents/caregivers for survival, we instinctively have the same fear — and do what it takes to get smiles, not frowns.
So we learn not to disturb the status quo. To avoid doing what might offend or disappoint.
Jerry Hicks tells a story from his days of being a circus acrobat. One afternoon, he walked by the lion’s cage and, sticking his hand inside, began petting the lion on the back of the neck. The lion purred and reveled in the attention. After a few moments, however, wanting to get on with his day, Jerry realized his dilemma: the lion was not going to be happy when the petting stopped. In the same way, we create a conditional relationship with others: as long as I maintain the conditions that please you, you’ll approve of me.
So we don’t speak our truth. We’re apologetic when we haven’t done any harm. And we don’t live the life that we really want.
How can you wean yourself off people-pleasing?
– Ask yourself, “What’s the payoff?” Because no matter how much we think we dislike a situation, if we’re choosing to let it continue, there’s something we’re getting out of it. One of my clients, a CFO, had her hands full managing a high-profile organization, a growing team and her husband’s serious health condition. And yet she couldn’t say “no” to the neighbor’s request to take care of his cat while he was on a business trip. When she thought about it, she realized the payoff was the gratification of being needed — of being the one to come to the rescue.
– Pinpoint the “moment of dread.” Is it seeing someone frown, their expression of disappointment? Is it the feeling of conflict when someone tries to talk you into doing something? Identify the specific moment — when I was selling health insurance, it was seeing the look of annoyance when I said “health insurance” —and have a plan for what you’ll do when it happens. For me, it was a matter of understanding it wasn’t personal and habituating myself to it. Acknowledging someone’s feelings is also powerful: “You seem disappointed,” you can say, without caving in or reverting to people-pleasing mode.
– Find out what they really want. One start-up entrepreneur asked me for advice on how to handle his parents’ opposition to him starting his own software company. They were not happy he had left a high-paying job at Airbus – something they reminded him of by posting his last pay stub on the refrigerator — and he was torn between honoring their wishes and pursuing his own dream. I suggested he start by trying to understand where his mother was coming from: what were her real fears and concerns? Once she felt heard, they could begin to have a more productive conversation.
Pleasing others is a conditional game. If it means constantly putting aside your own desires and self-expression, the price is too high.
by anne lueneburger
Gut based decisions have their limit unless you are chess master Kasparov who is drawing on a lifetime of training. For example, studies have found that only half of us feel the need to take medications as they are prescribed. Such lack of compliance is the major cause of hospital admissions. And it’s entirely preventable. When we read these stories we find ourselves perplexed: “Wait-what?”
Analytic approaches to decision making are equally flawed. A Harvard study shows that 83 percent of -carefully researched- mergers fail to increase shareholder value and half actually destroy it. No matter where we look, it is easy to be appalled at how bad we are at making good decisions.
So its not guts or brains alone that get us to a desirable outcome. And of course, we are not talking about everyday decisions as to what to have for lunch. We are concerned about those agonizing, hand wringing, clenching your teeth type decisions. Getting it right matters. Based on McKinsey led research, we increase our odds of making a good decision six fold if we follow a process.
Bestseller authors Chip and Dan Heath identified four villains that sabotage good decision-making. They developed brilliant (favorite word ever since I moved to the UK!) WRAP process that lets us overcome our blind spots:
Villain #1: Narrow focus. Solution: W as in Widen your options.
Many of us think in Whether-Or terms when it comes to making decisions. As a result we remain unaware of alternative choices and limit ourselves. Teenagers are notorious for falling into this trap (Should I date him or not?), but so are senior business leaders. As are organizations: only 29% of organizations consider more than one alternative (versus 30% of teens). Toss out that Pro & Con list. If you start out this list with limited options you are most likely wasting your time.
Three tips on how you can escape a narrow frame:
Start with an And Ask yourself: I can do option A, B, and…? The point is not to develop endless options, shoot for 4 or 5.
- Imagine your current options are no longer available. What else could you do?
- Find someone who’s already been there and solved your problem. What did they do? Google your problem, what are best practice solutions out there that inspire you?
- Getting out of a black and white thinking mindset can be hard but it sets you up for making good decisions: if you develop more than two options you are almost twice as likely to achieve an optimal outcome.
Villain #2: Confirmation bias. Solution : R as in Reality-test your assumptions.
Once we have invested time/resources/emotions, we are more than twice as likely to favor confirming information over disconfirming information. (You really want your new hire to succeed and downplay that she has an anger management issue…).
Three tips to manage confirmation bias:
- Play Devil’s advocate (or have someone on your team who takes that role). Probe and look for loopholes in the options you have developed. Also ask: What would have to be true for option x to be the very best choice?
- Zoom out – get an evaluation of what happens “on average”. Ask yourself: where can I find out how things generally develop in situations like mine?
- We are terrible at predicting the future, so construct small experiments to test your hypothesis. Interviews are less predictive of job performance than work samples or peer ratings. Even a simple IQ test is more predictive than an interview.
Villain#3: Short-term emotional perspective. Solution: A as in Attain distance before deciding.
When we face a difficult decision, we get derailed by our changing emotions. Even if no new information surfaces, we find ourselves going around in circles. What contributes is that we inherently favor what we know. And we are afraid of change and loss (did you know losses are experienced 4x stronger than gains?).
Three tips to get distance to our short-term emotional voice at the table:
- Use the 10/10/10 approach: how will you feel about your decision in 10 minutes/10 months/10 years from now?
- When we think of ourselves, we let complexity intrude. Instead, think of what you would say to your best friend if you were to advise on this situation.
- Recall your core priorities. What matters to you most? And every hour, have a beeper that goes off and ask yourself: am I doing what I most need/want to be doing right now? Create a stop doing list, what you need to give up, to help you focus on your priorities.
Villain#4: Overconfidence in knowing what the future will bring. Solution: P as in Prepare a tripwire.
Don’t go into autopilot. While the process steps are sequential, sometimes we have to go back to the drawing board. Think about situations where you might want to reconsider your decision. Don’t leave decisions unquestioned. Tripwires create a safe space and cap risk. We tend to escalate our commitment to choices. Cookie example: if we get 30 unwrapped cookies we eat them in 6 days – if they are individually wrapped it takes us 24 days to finish them off.
Three tips to prepare your tripwire:
- Set deadlines or milestones (I will act when… or) to re-evaluate where you are and where you should be. It is like mentally rehearsing how to respond in difficult interpersonal situations.
- Assume that you are like the rest of humans among us and overconfident in your projected outcome. Give yourself a margin of error. We tend to underestimate the problems we might encounter along the way. We are also bad at estimating a best-case scenario and tend to make the margins to narrow. What if an incredible success comes of this, are we prepared to handle the future (i.e. someone likes your cupcakes, can you deliver?). Our future is not a point but a continuum. When we think about the extremes, we stretch our sense as to what is possible and better reflects reality.
- Play with these bad outcome/amazing outcome lets you get ready along the way. Dire scenario, rosy scenario.
Think this sounds too involved? As part of living in a business reality of rapid change, we need to add a fifth villain, the urge of making decisions as quickly as possible. There is a beautiful folktale of a little girl holding two apples. Her mother asks her for one of the apples. The girl takes a bite of one apple, then the other. Her mother looks upset at her daughter’s selfishness. Then the little girl gives one of her bitten apples to her mother, and says: “Mom, here you are. This is the sweeter one.”
A strong leader must be calm, confident in her choices, and not rush to judgment. And sometimes this means taking the more involved route to success.
It’s a WRAP!
by anne lueneburger
In 1859, the Brit Thomas Austin released 24 wild rabbits that he had brought to Australia, assuming that “the introduction of a few rabbits could do little harm and might provide a touch of home, in addition to a spot of hunting.” A subsequent rabbit population explosion led to a significant species loss and serious erosion problems that plagued the continent for almost 100 years.
In 2009, US Airways Flight 1549 was disabled, right after take off from New York’s La Guardia Airport, after striking a flock of Canada geese. Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger’s successfully executed an emergency water landing on the Hudson River, saving all of the 155 passengers and crew aboard.
Both Austin and Sullenberger are what we consider “decisive”. They made judgment calls quickly, firmly, and with little input from others. And as the previous examples illustrate, being decisive can be a vice or a virtue. It all depends on the context. In times of a crisis we look for decisive action that gets us back into safe territory. Thankfully, 99 percent of the time in corporate reality we operate outside of that emergency zone.
In addition to a decisive approach, there are three more basic decision-making styles that we can resort to, hierarchic, flexible, and integrative (click on the graph to enlarge the visual):
According to a Korn Ferry study of 120,000 managers and executives, for the most successful group, decision-making styles changed over time: the more senior, the more they dropped the attachment to a hard-edged decisive style of leadership in favor of a more inclusive flexible and integrative approach.
McKinsey developed a comprehensive list of 20 distinct leadership skills and surveyed 189,000 people in 81 organizations globally to determine which ones are most closely related with leadership effectiveness. “Seeking different perspectives” and paying attention to stakeholder concerns, was among the top four.
Despite of such overwhelming evidence, in our work with leaders we find that, far more often than not, they jump to conclusions prematurely, at times to the detriment of their and their team’s ability to maximize impact. And these are smart, educated individuals. Where does their bias towards “flying solo” and action come from?
Here are some of the more common thinking traps our executive clients have shared with us:
- “Everything is urgent.”
Even if it is not a matter of “life or death”, many of us are quick to label a challenge as an emergency. And tight deadlines (real or perceived) raise a sense of urgency resulting in stress levels that limit our ability to think outside the box and solve problems effectively.
Organizations expect their leaders to be strong decision-makers for 40 hours per week. Executives report an average of 4 hours per week when they experience peak problem solving. In fact, 90 percent of us do our best thinking outside of work where we can escape the pressure of time (ever noticed that when you jump into the shower your brain is “on creativity”?). Leaders who learn how to prioritize and block off time chunks in their calendars, however, have an edge over their peers when it comes to slowing down and thinking strategically at work.
- ”I can trust my gut.”
Automatic judgments that stem from associations stored in memory are critical to survival. Decision-making becomes faster and simpler. However, we tend to be über-confident when it comes to knowing how the future will unfold based on our past experiences (aka “gut”). Have you ever gotten a scary medical prognosis? A study showed that even when doctors are completely certain about a diagnosis, they are wrong 40 percent of the time!
Our natural bias as humans is to give too much weight to the information that is right in front of us, rather than consider information that escapes the spotlight. As we move up through the corporate ranks, the farther away we get from the action. Keeping the information pipeline open and adding data to intuition, is key for not loosing touch with reality.
- “Being decisive brings success.”
We live in a “VUCA” (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) world that favors -at first glance- the person “who gets stuff done”. Being decisive is often used as a synonym for being effective. As Harvard Business School Professor Francesca Gino puts it: “It’s very difficult when you think you have the right answer not to put it out there.” In its extreme form, leaders become pulpit bullies à la Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glen Ross.
Effective leaders balance their results orientation with empowering others. After all, what is leadership with no followers? Just imagine trying to score a goal in a soccer match without the support of a team. According to research, the top 20 percent of leaders have a sense of humility about their own relative power, welcome input, and invest time and energy to bring others along.
- “I know best.”
Are you a genius like Stephen Hawking? Well, then, maybe…For us regular mortals, by working together, we can create more value than if we work individually. Yet, moving from being a sole contributor to managing people is one of the most challenging hurdles in an executive’s career.
Newly minted leaders are often reluctant to delegate as they lack confidence in other’s ability to deliver results. Or they may be uncertain on how to grow and develop their teams. For too long has it been their default mode to solve problems single-handedly. However, what got them here won’t get them there. As a result, many struggle. Adopting a growth mind set, one where we focus on learning and development (rather than fear of failure) as a leader, fosters a broader view of possibility.
There are a myriad of additional reasons why we default to quick decision-making. What are some of your triggers? As you think about your kind of work, how often do you have simple rules and a single solution for the problems you are looking to solve? And how might you benefit from sharing some of the weight on your shoulders and involve others in your thinking?
Asking questions, learning from those around us, is when we gain valuable insights that can inform our decisions. Bringing a mindset of inclusiveness to the table also communicates that as a leader we are sincerely interested in what those around her think and need – a strong motivational lever. If you are a leader, it is your responsibility to engage and inspire those around you. It’s in your job description.