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):

decision making styles 2

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[1]. “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[2] (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[3], 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.

[1] McKinsey Quarterly, January 2015
[2] Source: David Rock, NeuroLeadership Institute, in The Wall Street Journal
[3] Source: Kenneth R. Brousseau et al, The Seasoned Executive’s Decision-Making Style, Harvard Business Review

london new york

After eight years of serving clients globally out of our New York location, this summer we are opening a second office in London. As a global team of coaches and 30+ affiliates in the US, Europe, and Asia, we are committed to offering our global perspective and to partnering locally.

As we make this transition, we will take the month of July and August off from writing our blog and look forward to seeing you back in September. Thank you for your support and loyal readership.

Have a fantastic summer!

by robyn mcleod


We’ve all been there. A new initiative is announced and you’re tapped for the project team that will handle planning and implementation. You may be excited about it or dreading it. And some of that may relate to whether you raised your hand for the opportunity or were “volun-told” to take on this extra responsibility. Either way, working on a project team usually means taking on work in addition to your regular job duties and working with people that you may not regularly interact with. Getting off to a good start with clear expectations and a commitment to working well as a team can shape the experience in a positive way.

Recently a client shared with me her frustrations working on a special project team that was floundering. Their meetings were dragging on and little progress was being made. Dynamics among the team members was problematic and there were emails circulating among some on the team about the toxic team members who seemed to be holding the group back. My client feared that her association with this poor-performing team would negatively impact her reputation and possibly affect her performance review. While she wanted off the team, she knew that the best course of action would be to address the issues the group was facing so that they could move forward and get the job done.

We discussed some of the individual and team behaviors that were getting in the way and looked at how best to address some of the difficult personalities on the team. By naming the toxic behavior that was negatively impacting the team’s performance, we were able to come up with ways to combat the behavior and get back on track. You may recognize some of the toxic team members outlined below. Here are a few ways to deal effectively with them when you encounter them on your next project team:

The Know-It-All – The person who thinks he has all the answers can be hard to handle. Often he will shut down creativity as he pushes through his ideas and argues strongly for his opinions. One way to deal with the know-it-all team member is to have the group work in pairs or trios to come up with ideas and solutions. This allows everyone to weigh in and gives the team the opportunity to hear multiple strategies and ideas.

The Chatterbox – One big energy drainer on a team is the person who goes on and on when they have the floor. He takes 10 minutes to say what can be said in two – and drives everyone else crazy. If you have one of these difficult personalities on your team, you’ll have to agree to some ground rules and processes for the group. Assigning someone to the role of facilitator for the meeting can help keep the conversation moving and gives permission to interject and open up the floor to other team members.

The Naysayer – This project team member can also squash creativity and stifle team interaction. Often proud to be the self-proscribed “devil’s advocate,” she has a reason why every solution won’t work, how every idea has been tried already, and why the work of the team won’t be appreciated. Having the group agree to ask questions for clarification rather than responding with a reason why something can’t be done creates an environment where the group learns more about an idea and focuses on understanding instead of shooting down.

The Absentee – Progress on a team can be severely hampered by the person who regularly shows up late or misses meetings. Often the group will find itself revisiting past decisions and conversations because the absentee is not aware of what went on before. Again, a team agreement about consistent participation can help. Early on, the group should decide whether it’s OK to send a representative in your absence and how absent members will be informed of what took place. Ultimately, the absentee team member may have to be replaced or asked to leave the team.

The Whiteboard Hog – It can be almost comical to watch this toxic team member jump up, grab a marker, and take their position at the whiteboard. Often this is a tactic to control the conversation. Using a whiteboard to visually capture a concept or record ideas during brainstorming is essential to the project team process. And some people are particularly good at that. If you have someone on your team who does that well, then encourage her to step up to the whiteboard. Make it clear that you’ll take turns at that role and set ground rules for ensuring that all ideas are captured during brainstorming.

Toxic team members can spell disaster for any team – and particularly for cross-functional teams brought together for a specific project. Taking the time upfront to launch and orient the team properly, set ground rules and team agreements, and define roles and responsibilities will help ensure a successful outcome.

by renita kalhorn


Here we were, closing in on the end of April and I was thinking, “Slow down, 2015! You’re going too fast.

It’s natural to adopt scarcity thinking towards time when the weeks and months seem to go by in a blur. But what if we could adopt an attitude of abundance instead? In Repacking Your Bags, authors Richard Leider and David Shapiro ask why do we imagine ourselves living in the top half of the hourglass where time is always running out? Why don’t we see ourselves in the bottom half, where every minute is another minute streaming in, where every hour is followed by another hour, and each day is the first of more to come.

One minute is always 60 seconds, a day always 24 hours – the only thing you can change is your perception of time. Consciously enjoying each moment as it arrives gives each day a fullness that counteracts the sense that time is slipping away.

How else can we change our perception of time?

Just. Stop. Oh, I know, you can’t stop, you’ve got too much to do. But doesn’t all the frantic multi-tasking leave you feeling frazzled and out of control? And are you really getting things done or just worrying about how much you have to do? As personal efficiency expert Kerry Gleeson points out, “This constant, unproductive preoccupation with all the things we have to do is the single largest consumer of time and energy.”

Get sensory with it. Caught up in the relentless drive to get things done, we shift into automatic pilot, going through the motions and feeling disconnected from our lives. To snap out of it, use your body – specifically, your senses – to ground you in the present moment. Get tactile with the most mundane of activities, like washing dishes: feel the warmth of the water on your hands while you listen to your favorite music and smell the scent of the detergent.

Protect your time. Time is our most precious commodity — it is, after all, most literally your life. As Matthieu Ricard says in Happiness, A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill: “Despite its great value, time has no way of protecting itself, like a child that can be led away by any bystander.”

You have the power of choice – you’re not obligated to stay out for hours with friends who are constantly checking their phones. Because if you don’t guard your time from being kidnapped, who will?

by anne lueneburger

To enter Frankford High School, located in a Northeast Philly neighborhood, students have to pass a metal detector. That is if they show up. One out of four students is absent on any given day. Frankford High with its poor socio-economic fabric is rich in hard-luck stories reflected in a 40% dropout rate. Not so for Wilma Stephenson, Frankford High’s culinary art teacher and resident game changer: 100% of her students graduate and find their place in colleges and culinary institutions around the country.

Stephenson demands excellence. She barks out instructions and has her students come in at 5.30 in the morning to peel potatoes for hours until they resemble the perfect “torpedo” shape. The image of a drill sergeant comes to mind (not best practice in giving feedback!). How does she get away with it? One of the reasons students commit is certainly that Stephenson has a track record of teaching those kids to cook well enough to win big scholarship money at the citywide cooking competition every year: close to $1,000,000. But acquiring useful skills or promising outcomes does not fully explain why most students continue to show up for class.

What motivates Stephenson’s students to accept her high standards is that they know her feedback is rooted in one thing. She deeply cares about each and every one of them. She puts in long hours for her students, gets to know them as individuals and will not shy away from standing up for them even in personally challenging situations. Stephenson’s students sense that her “I love you” comes from a profoundly honest place. She bridges her student’s tension of wanting to learn and grow and being accepted for who they are. As Tabeka, one of her students, sums it up: “To me she is a hero.”

We all need feedback, it’s essential. That’s how we get better. But it’s not easy to hear that we screwed up or fell short of our potential. Likewise, it’s uncomfortable to tell someone that he needs to “course correct.”


A recent study showed that over half of feedback received is perceived as unfair and inaccurate. To give good feedback, we must understand what makes it so hard to receive it in the first place. According to Harvard’s negotiation gurus Sheila Heen and Douglas Stone, there are three triggers that cause us to reject feedback:

  1. Content triggers: We see the advice or assessment as unhelpful, if not untrue.
  2. Identity triggers: We see our values and who we are as a person come under attack (regardless if the feedback is “right” or “wrong”).
  3. Relationship triggers: We do not feel connected with the giver, for a myriad of reasons (i.e. perceived lack of competence, goodwill, respect).

There are proven methods such as the Situation-Behavior-Impact approach that can help a feedback giver avoid some of the content and identity triggers that might trip us up. It’s trickier when it comes to the relationship itself. Often, we make assumptions about the recipient of our feedback and bring this bias into the mix. The recipient may have made our life difficult and our frustrations and personal annoyances negatively impact the conversation.

Or we may want to avoid giving feedback and let ourselves off the hook when it comes to having these difficult conversations (often under the pretense that we do not want to hurt someone else’s feelings). Just the other day I caught myself again picking up the clothes after my teenager rather than ask her to do this herself (sigh!). Why? Because it was easier…for me!

Whenever there is a disconnect (between actions, values, or personalities), it will feel like feedback in a boxing ring – for both parties. However, giving feedback is a major developmental tool for leaders. And it is a leader’s responsibility to not rob those under her care of this opportunity.

The good news is that we can avoid relationship triggers and build a sense of connection with our recipients. Ideally, we have already built a rapport long before we have a feedback session. But even in these circumstances, we need to suspend our own agenda first. We have to put ourselves into the other persons’ shoes. What will most likely be their state of mind? How have they reacted to feedback in the past? What might be a particular trigger for them and why?

Then comes the real stretch assignment for the majority of us. And the most important one. Until we feel a sense of true caring and compassion for our recipient, we are not ready to give feedback. Period. Full stop.

So how then can you develop this caring, positive attitude towards someone who may have challenged you in every possible way? Here are 5+1 ideas you might want to try to get yourself into the right state of mind before you start a difficult conversation:

1. Think 3:1.

From research we know that relationships that flourish have a 3:1 feedback ratio. Write down three positives for every piece of criticism you are going to share.

2. Adopt a growth mindset (as opposed to a fixed mindset).

Assume that people can change. In this light, be sure to supplement evaluative comments that you prepare (i.e. “your rating is average on commercial orientation”) with coaching questions (“what do you think you can do to improve?”) and advice (“here is what I can suggest”).

3. Leverage strengths.

Take the top three signature strengths of your recipient and explore together with her how she might apply them to develop and evolve. (Don’t know her strengths? Invite her to take the VIA Pro Strengths assessment and leverage the results as part of your feedback session).

4. Keep it real.

Reflect on your own biases. Where might they come from? How can you make sure to stay in a place of thinking in the best interest of the recipient? How can you give yourself reminders not to get tripped up and suffer from amygdala hijacks?

5. Breathe deeply.

Put your hand on your upper chest. Take a breath, then exhale with the feeling and sound of a sigh of relief:”aahhhh.” Notice how your chest softens downward under your hand as air flows out. Do this a couple of more times and think about your lungs releasing toxins and stale air, creating more space for fresh air. Then inhale, and on the exhale whisper, “La, la, la, la…” for the length of the exhale (this helps carry air out of your body.). Let each inhale come naturally, whenever it arrives, allowing your abdomen to soften each time. Repeat until you feel your whole body softening.

+1. Hold a warm cup of tea (or coffee) in your hands.

Say what?!? Yes, that’s right. Warmth dramatically improves our ability to become more caring. Many studies support this finding. Recent research out of Yale showed that a mere 25% of study participants that were holding a cold pad chose a gift for a friend, compared to 54% of those handling a hot pad. And while physical warmth can cause us to be warmer, it also makes us see others as warmer people. So we suggest you also offer your recipient a warm cup of tea.

Caring about our recipients significantly raises our chances to give impactful feedback. It might motivate to know that seeing a world of possibilities also makes us smarter. In a 2009 study, Adam Anderson of the University of Toronto proved that positive emotions literally change how the brain works. Positivity broadens our awareness and we are better at seeing the big picture and connecting the dots. A positive state of mind also makes us more resilient and prepares us for bouncing back from difficult conversations, according to Barbara Fredrikson’s research. An asset for both feedback giver and recipient.

Wilma Stephenson intuitively gets the most essential part of giving feedback right. She breaks many rules on what we know about giving effective feedback, be it raising her voice or publicly scolding her disciples. But what makes her ultimately successful is that she is the number one cheerleader of her students. Her tight ship is founded on a deep sense of caring and love.

So yes, you can learn the skills to give effective feedback. In fact, we are happy to email you a complimentary copy of our North of Neutral feedback guide if you send us a note to But it is only if you engage with the heart that your feedback will fall on fertile grounds and bear fruit.

by pamela welling

see the future 2

It’s a fact of career life – sometimes the most important decisions and conversations about our trajectory happen when we are not in the room. If you keep getting out promoted by the new kids on the block, it’s time to think about creating internal champions who are willing to spend their hard won political capital on your behalf. Here are some tips you can deploy to get you started:

Connect the dots: Our career lives would be so much easier if management could just pull a Tom Cruise, read our mind and see what we see when we think of ourselves at work. Your manager is not a pre-cog, unfortunately so if you do see a future with your firm/team/boss- articulate it. Let your boss know why and link your vision with her strategy, your unit’s strategy and if possible, the strategy of the firm. Connecting the dots in this way evidences that you are willing to do the leg work it takes to get your promotion, while making sure that your firm will reap rewards too.

Have a marketing plan: Don’t be afraid to self promote, even just a little bit. It’s not necessary to be a bold faced wunderkind, but it is OK and perfectly reasonable to ask peers, reports, seniors and vendors to send you an email outlining how you did a good job and the skills sets you used to perform them. Not only does this help you build self-efficacy, it also builds the business case for your promotion with the key decision makers in your chain of command. If those colleagues CC your boss on that email- well even better. Re-reading those emails will also keep you sane on those days at the Mozzeralla farm where the Water Buffalo are just refusing to play nice.

You. Incorporated: Build the business case for You. Inc. This is a tactic I recommend to everyone, not just those thinking about a promotion. Evidence how you understand what your firm needs and wants, and how you already have the experience and skills to deliver. If there are gaps- which there should be- identify the stretch projects that could help you bridge them, and where your current skills can be deployed to high impact on said project as you learn.

You should start to see the fruits of your labor within about six to eight months, and be sure to flag your efforts in your annual review. If you still don’t see movement from your chain of command, then know you are well positioned to platform into a firm that will better value your work and give you that promotion you deserve.


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