Welcome All!

If you do not adapt, if you do not learn, you will wither, you will die.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

What Are You Writing? A Case For Constructive Thinking

Positive thinkers live healthier and longer lives than people who do not think positively. Many studies show that positive thinkers are better at reaching their goals and dealing with adversity than less positive thinkers. From the renowned Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota to professor Tal Ben-Shahar who teaches the largest course at Harvard on “Positive Psychology”. From the work by Dr. Laura Carstensen at  Stanford (author of the book A Long Bright Future) to many of the researches mentioned in the World Book of Happiness, they all conclude that one of the distinguishing factors between healthy, happy people and less happy people is their thinking, their outlook on themselves and on life, and the way they view and interpret themselves, others, and situations. 

From early on in my career as a coach, therapist, and trainer I have used cognitive restructuring techniques and constructive thinking as one of the tools available to assist people in leading more productive, happier, fuller lives. In this post I share with you two ways to shift to more constructive thinking.

First, see the distinction between an external event (such as a heated discussion with a colleague) and your tension at the team meeting afterwards. Your colleague nor the discussion caused your tension. That might be a disappointment and a shock, because many people believe that outside events and other people cause their emotions. “He makes me so mad!” is something you here everywhere.  But it’s not the person making you mad. It’s your beliefs and thoughts about your colleague, your beliefs and thoughts about what he/she says and does, and about the way it was said, that cause your tension.
Why should this help you think more constructively and live heathier? Because you have more influence on your own beliefs and thinking than on the other person. It helps you not to feel and act like a victim. It helps you take responsibility and take action such as examining your beliefs and your thinking patterns. In many cases you might still conclude that the encounter with your colleague had a negative effect on you. In other cases you might conclude that your own beliefs and thoughts caused your tension, such as “No one should say something like that, it’s an outrage!” even though you know your colleague did nothing illegal  and that people, at least some of them, at times behave this way. Getting all worked up because someone doesn’t stick to our “This is the way it should be” – rule isn’t going to get you anywhere except for in an upset mood where clear thinking turns difficult. Rather than believing people shouldn’t act like this and thinking this is a outrage, you can remind yourself that some people think and act this way. You don’t like it, certainly not, but it’s not the end of the world by any means. This will leave you with less extreme emotions and tensions.

In brief the conclusion should not be: My colleague is causing my tension and it makes me raving mad, totally frustrated, and this should not be happening this way – this is unfair! The conclusion could sound like: I don’t like what my colleague just did, but it doesn’t qualify as a major disaster. If I keep my beliefs and thoughts in order I’m just not happy with the way it went. But that’s life and I can try and discuss it or just ignore it. Worse things happen.
Second, practice positive thinking and positive self-talk. Sounds easy? Sounds shallow? Well, it sure is easy and it sure isn’t shallow. Your attitude toward yourself and how you talk to yourself greatly influences your view of yourself, your view of the world, your outlook on life and how you deal with potentially stressful situations. Your answer to the old question “Is your glass half empty or half full?” can greatly affect your health and your well-being.  Positive thinking and positive self-talk does not mean that you’re an ostrich keeping your head in the sand to ignore and deny life’s unpleasant situations. Positive thinking and positive self-talk merely means that you approach the often unavoidable unpleasant encounters in life in a more constructive, productive, yes, positive way.

For positive self-talk to be increased you first have to become aware of the endless stream of thoughts and messages about yourself that go through your head on a daily basis. If these thoughts are mostly negative, your outlook on life is more pessimistic thereby negatively impacting your choices, actions, results, and feelings. If your thoughts are mostly positive, you will likely feel more in control, try different approaches, get support, feel good about yourself, see the possibility in a challenge etc.
Most people know whether they lean more towards positive or towards negative self-talk, but some really don’t. Some common forms of negative self-talk are

-         Exaggerating and catastrophizing – almost automatically expecting the worst, seeing only the negatives and blowing them up to unreal proportions that start leading their own lives. If you exaggerate, catastrophize and fail to laugh and see the big picture, a difficult start of the day with a nagging child, spilled coffee, and un unexpected traffic jam will automatically lead to a horrible day. Everything that happens that day will be viewed in light of “this horrible day, I knew it”.

-         Perfectionism and filtering – looking only or mostly at that one thing that did not go right, filtering out the negatives and ignoring the positives of the situation or the day. This skews your judgment of the situation and of your day and thereby causes stress.

-         Negative attribution and personalizing – attributing mistakes only to yourself and attributing good results to luck or factors outside yourself provides you with a somber view of yourself. In personalizing, you automatically blame yourself when something bad occurs. Holding accountability high as a key attribute of healthy and effective functioning, blaming yourself is not part of effective accountability.

-         Black-and-white thinking or polarizing – you see things only as either black or white, as either good or bad, no grey or middle ground possible. One of the more harmful results is that you have to be perfect, otherwise you’re a failure.

If you tend to be a negative thinker you can learn to practice positive thinking. It’s not complicated but it does take time, effort, and perseverance. It starts with becoming aware of your thoughts, identifying areas to change (such as how you think about something that went wrong), using humor to look at yourself (and others), asking others for feedback, surrounding yourself with positive thinkers, and literally practicing positive self-talk.  Rather than thinking “I’ve never done that, this is impossible” you can say to yourself “I’ve never done that. I can learn something here.” Rather than saying to yourself “No one ever informs me” – which is the victim-attitude – you can switch to “I’ll see if I can open up the channels of communication.” Rather than deciding that something is too complicated to handle you can decide that this complicated matter provides you with an opportunity to look at the situation from many different angles in which you involve other people’s perspectives. Rather than dramatizing that you will never get the hang of something you can tell yourself you’ll give it another try, ask others for ideas, and look closely at why you might not be succeeding yet.
I could continue the examples but I’m sure you get the idea. This is no rocket science, just a new way of believing and thinking which includes awareness of where you are right now, ideas on how to switch to more constructive beliefs and thoughts, and which asks you to mobilize the energy and perseverance needed to succeed in changing your thinking habits.
I’d like to leave you with my belief that we all play the lead role in our own life story, but we also write it ourselves. What are you writing?

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

CEO Courage

This blog on Leadership, Change Management, and Personal Development is created out of my desire to spread, inspire, challenge, share, and, truth be told, to act upon my love for writing. And that took some courage, because now my writing is out there for everyone to see and judge – but that’s not the topic for this post.

With most of the articles on this blog being my own creations I am always happy to share other people’s beliefs, practices, wisdom, and perspectives. Today I want to quote Jeffrey Pfeffer who writes about courage – a topic I’ve touched upon in several earlier posts.
The best companies and the best leaders understand the real drivers of business success: a long-term perspective which focuses on customer and employee relationships as the sources of competitive advantage and an emphasis on values and ethics as guides to decision making. What separates these CEOs from the pack is not just a more sophisticated and empirically accurate understanding of individual behavior and the sources of organizational success but also the courage to implement these insights even when, or particularly when, they seem to defy conventional wisdom.”

Jeffrey Pfeffer is the Thomas D. Dee II Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Graduate School of Business, Stanford University, where he has taught since 1979.
For Pfeffer’s full article see the Harvard Business Review Blog at http://blogs.hbr.org/cs/2011/09/ceos_need_courage.html

Shifting your Focus

Struggling on changing a habit, managing a transformation, switching jobs, acquiring new skills, juggling too many accounts … you fill in the blank, challenges abound. Just to be clear right from the start, I too believe that every situation, every person, and every challenge is unique and has it’s specifics. I also don’t believe in golden bullets. So this post is about reminding you of something you already know, but what might have been pushed to your background while digging into your challenge deeper and deeper:

Changing your focus can provide you with new perspectives, shed light on some of your blind spots, create a different mindset, positively influence your attitude, and point towards coping strategies otherwise gone unnoticed.

I present you with nine questions that can aid you in shifting your focus. Try them out and see which ones work for you in what types of challenges.

1.    Are you listening to yourself? Many different aspects of yourself such as the language you use, the places where tension builds up in your body, the stories you create in your own mind etc. can give you clues to your beliefs, your strengths and weaknesses, your thought processes, your attitude, and more.

2.    What are the consequences of staying in the status quo, or: What happens if you don’t change? Have you asked yourself this question lately? What’s keeping you from moving, growing, taking risks, charting new territory?

3.    Are you taking full advantage of what you are already doing right? Of course, figuring out what’s not going right provides you with important information. But solely focusing on the ‘wrongs’ will affect your (and others) attitude negatively and it misses out on the opportunity to make it a two-track process including building on strengths, skills, accomplishments, present knowledge, and gifts.

4.    Are you using multiple perspectives from within and outside ‘your circle’? I’ve mentioned the value of approaching people who think unlike you in previous articles so I’ll leave at this.

5.    Are you using metaphors such as a classroom, a football team, a group of sailors, a tutoring situation, a herd of deer, or a scientist working on a medicine to look at your challenge?

6.    Have you grown complacent or do you lean more towards frantically running from one goal or challenge to the next? What are you putting on your plate and what are you allowing others to put on your plate? What is driving you to act complacently or frantically?

7.    Have you acted as your own advisor and coach lately? I refer to the old technique used in therapy, training, and coaching where you act as your own advisor by pretending that a good friend or colleague approaches you with your challenge and asks you for advice. Or a different version: You are a 20 year older ‘you’, wise from life’s experiences and you write a letter of advice to your younger (current) ‘you’.

8.    Have you lately played with what’s in your foreground and what’s in your background? At times we get so tangled up in a situation and in our set beliefs and ways of thinking that we do not realize we are doing ourselves a disservice by what’s on our screen and what we neglect to pay attention to. We don’t even differentiate between the two.

9.    Have you gone so deep into your personal comfort zone that changing is simply too much of an effort and that staying where you are and being part of the pack is just fine? And if it really is just fine or even great with you, then you’re good to go: stay in your comfort zone and be part of the pack. But if you keep yourself from moving towards your purpose, your values, your passion, and your goals, and if you know and feel that you honestly aren’t happy with the way things are, than get off that seat and mobilize support, tools, confidence, and energy.

Shift your focus, open new doors, and above all, see with different eyes.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Where The Heck Are They? A Leadership Crisis?

European debt crisis, slumbering world economy, failing companies, deteriorating schools. It seems very popular to say that we are in a time of leadership crisis. Many of today’s leaders do not measure up to their tasks, their responsibilities, the various pressures, and certainly not to our expectations it seems. I hear the reference to bad or weak leadership everywhere: among parents, in businesses, in politics, on leadership blogs, and in publications of renowned research institutions.  

At the Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) in Cambridge a survey from 2010 concludes that 68% of Americans believe that there is a leadership crisis in the country. The confidence of Americans in the country’s leaders remains below-average for the third consecutive year as assessed by the HKS and the Merriman River Group in their National Leadership Index poll. The study revealed that only four out of thirteen sectors scored favorable on ‘inspiring above confidence’. Those sectors are the military, the Supreme Court, non-profits, and medical institutions. I leave the theorizing and concluding to you, but I do see the need for strong, passionate, honest, humble, courageous, and wise leaders everywhere. I briefly want to mention three factors that seem to make effective leadership ever so challenging. First, the velocity and volume of issues that our present and future leaders are confronted with in this increasingly interconnected and complicated world are substantial. Second, many leaders seem either overly concerned or pretty oblivious to the reactions of their stakeholders. Neither generally does their leadership much good. Third, it seems most comfortable for many of us to be pointing at leadership in times of chronic underperformance, raging wars, economic downturn, and our persistent inability to feed and water the world. I can safely conclude that leadership is definitely not a leisurely walk in the park. But is leadership all there is to it?

As I recently tweeted, I certainly do not have all the answers, not by any means on anything, but I sure do like to question my own reasoning and acting and I love to pose questions. In regards to failing leadership I ask you and myself the following two questions, that will point more to you and me than to our country’s and our organizations’ leaders:

è Could there be a correlation between below standard leadership and below standard followership? Of the increasing number of people bringing followership to our attention I’d like to quote Dr. John Pitron (Lockheed Martin, University of Phoenix, University of Florida), who states that “followership is leadership, and leadership should be viewed as it is: multidimensional and system thinking.” No leadership without decent followership, no followership without decent leadership. The two are intertwined in intriguing ways, and rather than focusing on what comes first – which is too linear and would not be a system approach – I will list the  15 attributes that, according to R.E. Kelley in The power of followership: How to create leaders people want to follow and followers who lead themselves (1992), define exemplary followership:

1. Think for themselves

2. Go above and beyond the job

3. Support the team and the leader

4. Focus on the goal

5. Do an exceptional job on critical path activities related to the goal

6. Take initiative on increasing their value to the organization

7. Realize they add value by being who they are, their experiences and ideals

8. Structure their daily work and day-to-day activities

9. See clearly how their job relates to the enterprise

10. Put themselves on the critical path toward accomplishment

11. Make sure the tasks they are to perform are on the critical path

12. Review their progress daily or weekly

13. Increase their scope of critical path activities

14. Develop additional expertise

15. Champion new ideas.

And of course the big question to myself and to you: on which of these points can I improve my followership, and thereby, improve leadership?

è How much do all of use our influence (i.e. use our personal leadership qualities, unrelated to whether we have positional power or not) on ourselves, on the people we collaborate with, on the people we report to, on the people we lead, and on the people that might use us as role  models? In this respect I was recently heartened listening to former Medtronic CEO and author Bill George who shared his belief that the present and future generations will be better developed leaders with more heart, courage, and emotional intelligence. Back to the question: Do I lead in everyday life? Do I lead by example? Do I know and live my values and my purpose? Do you?

According to David Gergen (public service professor of public leadership at HKS) the survey represents yet another cry from the American public for more effective leadership in many fields.  If I think about this it’s kind of ironic considering the fact that more money than ever seems to have been spent on leadership development (the business that I also happen to be in) in the last two decades. So this all being said, I’d rather look at my own influence and that of the people close to me first. Sure, I do believe that we need more capable leaders (or better: we need more “bad weather leaders”). But we can complain and engage in wishful thinking all we want, I believe leadership is a matter for everyone. Just like tiny genetic switches create big differences so does every person, whether in an official leadership position or not, whether leading a soccer team or a Fortune 500 company, even though the stakes and responsibilities are incomparable, of course. So rather than to keep asking: Where are the inspiring leaders like Gandhi, M.L. King, J.F. Kennedy and others, I can make sure I do what I can to increase my personal leadership and instill the right values and beliefs. I can consciously work to model the right skills, choices, and attitudes to our children and anyone else willing to be influenced. That’s my passion and my plan, and at the same time, sure, leaders need to look at their daunting jobs and how to better prepare and perform.


The poll surveyed a demographically representative sample of 1,029 U.S. citizens with a margin of error of approximately 3.1 percent. The complete report is available online at: www.hks.harvard.edu/leadership

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Inspiration from the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra

Recently I reread parts of the book Leadership Ensemble – Lessons in Collaborative Management from the World’s Only Conductorless Orchestra, and I remain to be intrigued.

In the world of traditional orchestras, where the board of trustees, administrative management, and of course the conductor play key roles in determining strategic direction, project selection, and resource allocation, the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra has arranged things a little different  and it sure performs differently. The musicians of Orpheus participate in all areas of organizational decision making. The structure of Orpheus reflects the power of musicians. The structure of Orpheus also reflects principles like passionate dedication to mission, shared and rotated leadership, and clarity of roles which all have proven very fruitful.

Orpheus was founded in 1972 by cellist Julian Fifer and fellow musicians. They all aspired to perform a diverse orchestral repertoire using chamber music ensemble techniques and self-governing techniques. Orpheus is one of the few self-governing ensembles playing today.

Orpheus performs without the usually all-powerful conductor and rotates musical leadership roles for each work. The Orchestra strives to empower its musicians by integrating them into almost every facet of the organization, literally changing the way the world thinks about musicians, conductors, and orchestras. And, about leadership.

The orchestra’s success is founded on eight principles that I will briefly mention and that are meant to help you contemplate, and if necessary re-think and revise your leadership beliefs and practices:

Principle 1: Put power in the hands of the people doing the work. Key words: power, decision-making authority and realizing people’s full potential.

Principle 2: Encourage individual responsibility. Key is that every individual takes the initiative to resolve issues.

Principle 3: Create clarity of roles and functions. Key is: avoiding employee conflict, wasted effort, poor morale, and poor products and services.

Principle 4: Share and rotate leadership. Key is valuing and using everyone’s contribution and benefiting from unique skills and experience.

Principle 5: Foster horizontal teamwork. Key words: optimizing personal expertise and individual responsibility.

Principle 6:  Learn to listen, learn to talk. Key is listening actively and intently and speaking directly and honestly.

Principle 7: Seek consensus. Key is that no organization or group can move forward unless its members agree to move together in the same direction at the same time.

Principle 8: Dedicate passionately to your mission. Key is: member-owned mission and passion drives focus, energy, determination, decision, and results.

For more information and inspiration I recommend the book by Harvey Seifter and Peter Economy.  

Lesson from Buddhism

Living in the now is one of the premises of Buddhism. The secret for health of body and mind, is not to mourn for the past, nor to worry about the future, but to live the present moment wisely.

Living the present moment wisely surely includes learning from the past and anticipating the future in order to live and enjoy this day and be resilient and resourceful if this is what tomorrow asks for.

Anything up for revision, improvement, or reinforcement in your beliefs, thinking, attitude, or approach to life? 

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Presentation Paradox

Stage fright is one of the most common fears experienced by people. A fear that is mostly fueled by your own striving for perfection. Now there’s, of course, nothing wrong with striving for a superb presentation that will convince, motivate, inform, or inspire your audience, as long as you realize you can’t control everything all the time. As longs as you realize that your striving for perfection could turn into a self-imposed straight jacket, leaving you little room for flexibly responding to whatever occurs, whether it be an unexpected power outage, unanticipated responses from your audience, or any other unforeseen situation.

You might be selling a new business concept, managing a change project, leading a steering meeting on a high-profile project, or presenting the company’s facts and figures. Whatever the specifics of your presentation or your audience, there is likely to be tension between wanting to appear totally in control and on top of things and wanting to appear natural, personable, and connected to your audience.

Uncertainty is still being called the monster in any business and any endeavor, not just when referring to the financial market or consumer confidence. But varying levels of uncertainty are a fact of life no matter where you are and what you do. Obviously, the advice of a well-prepared and practiced presentation still stands, as it always has. It increases predictability and rules out much unnecessary uncertainty, but here is where the paradox comes into play: You want to do all you can to perform at your very best, but in order to do so, you also have to show yourself human, vulnerable, and fallible. When the unexpected happens you are generally best off to let go of the original plan, sheet, or statement and respond from the heart, right there and then, connecting and moving with that which appears. That is not to say that you throw your presentation out the window and disregard your preparation. It merely implies that you are capable and willing to side step as much as is needed to keep the connection, credibility, and the atmosphere moving in the right direction, and thereby to keep working towards your objectives of informing, convincing, inspiring, or motivating.  

For most topics and audiences, the more you dare to show yourself, the more you will touch people and leave a lasting impression. Presenting from your heart, whether it concerns facts and figures or not, makes your presentation warm and personable. Presenting from the heart and with passion, as opposed to presenting as a perfect robot, makes your presentation feel more familiar, close to home, and trustworthy. To accomplish this type of presenting, I advise you to:

o   Speak from the heart and use language that is geared towards your specific audience. Stand with and in front of your audience, not above them.

o   Use slides the way they were meant: as a supportive tool rather than the one and only focus of your presentation.

o   Remember that your relationship with your audience is more important than a perfect presentation, if that were feasible at all. People rather feel true contact than being overloaded with facts and knowledge and seeing someone perform who resembles a machine more than a human being.

o   Be true, truthful, and congruent, which instills confidence and respect. Your credibility increases if you dare to show yourself in full, including possible mistakes and limitations.

o   Use humor to deal with small and bigger glitches. It releases some of your possible tension and is welcomed by most people.

o   Realize that nothing beats real emotions and true life stories. Research has repeatedly shown that emotions are very powerful in helping people retain information and in convincing them.

o   Strengthen certain presentation skills and simultaneously stay close enough to your natural style so as to remain personable and authentic - the last paradox I’d like to bring to your attention. Just as is the case with physical exercise, stretching is fine, forcing is not – it’s counter-productive and causes damage. If something is not you, then don’t force or fake it. Some of my best presentation performances where the ones where I was true to myself and where I shared my beliefs and passion. Which presentations do you recall as leaving a lasting impression? 

And to top it all off, much is in your mind. “If you think you will deliver a poor presentation the odds are you will.” is a statement by Arnold Sanow that I agree with. It reminds me of Henry Ford’s famous statement: “Whether you believe you can, or you can’t, either way you’re right” which emphasizes the power of beliefs. Your beliefs and your thinking greatly influence your choices and the results you create. For an interesting article on presenting by Sanow, certified speaking professional, trainer, facilitator, and coach, see: http://www.leadersbeacon.com/12-most-common-mistakes-presenters-make/

As so many things in life, presenting has paradoxical aspects that invite you to walk a fine line, use common sense, and be real.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Sound Decision Making

The credit for the idea for this post goes to this morning’s “Management Tip of the Day” of the Harvard Business Review titled: “Avoid 3 Common Decision-Traps.”

Whether you’re a consultant advising your client on the best strategy to implement a change, a physician having to decide on the best treatment for your patient, a parent looking into a good high school for your teenager, or a leader concerned about how to keep your decreased workforce engaged and functioning up to their potential, decisions are made daily, or better, hourly. Decision making is critical in life and in business and all of us should be concerned with the quality of our decision making processes. It’s your choices, your decisions, and thereby your actions that create your results.
There are many decision – making models to choose from so that deciding what model to use turns into its own decision making process. In this post I will not favor one model over another. Most of them make sense and are useful. They provide practical information on the different stages of decision making, whether it be 5, 7, 9 or any other number of stages. Stages that occur in most models are defining the situation, identifying objectives, identifying and evaluating options, and budgeting resources like time and energy.

What follows here is emphasis on aspects that often seem underrepresented – aspects that help assure sound decision making:

1.    Know yourself! This might not be the first one that comes to mind when talking about decisions, but it sure is one of the foundations of sound decision making: What are your tendencies in and outside the realm of decision making? Do you tend to put more weight on the first information that comes in or not, on the big picture or on details? Which are your blind spots? What lessons have you learned from earlier decisions? And the list of questions goes on and seems covered by what I heard Harvard Business School Professor and former Medtronic CEO Bill George recently discuss under the heading of the all important Emotional Intelligence during a Leadership Conversation at the University of Minnesota.

2.    Make sure to take multiple perspectives and to be your own devil’s advocate. Do not just consult ‘think-alike’ minds but gather information from different people, groups, theories, models etc. Dare to challenge your own assumptions, views, and all that is known to you and use insights and ideas from different fields of expertise.

3.    Business ethics and conduct is under heightened scrutiny with the increase of insider trading, contractor scandals, and different types of power abuse. Or just think of increasing uncertainty in the world of business with multiple and often conflicting stakeholders, interests, and values. Corporations have established or revised their codes of ethics, business schools might be increasing their focus on business ethics, but it all begins with you: with your ethics and your sense of accountability. Which ethical standards do you adhere to during your decision making (and implementation!) process and how is this related to your company’s codes of ethics?

4.    Emotions and values are not necessarily disruptive; they have positive functions if they are known, understood, shared or at least openly discussed. But how to deal with a situation in which an executive is faced with the dilemma of whether to improve the poor working conditions for which the company has been criticized, or to invest in new production facilities in order to remain competitive? No easy answers and a situation in which ethical considerations, emotions, values, multiple perspectives and knowing yourself and your company all come together.  

Opening Doors – It’s a Whole New Week

“It’s Monday, it’s a whole new week” was the first thing I heard an elderly lady state cheerfully and convincingly at the local Audi dealer just a few hours ago. And even earlier today, I noticed a sign saying: “Open a new door every day” during a meeting at Caribou Coffee. These two phrases stuck with me and coincide with my intention to write a piece on opening new doors or in this case: opening a new door on this Monday morning. So here it is.

You can open new doors and keep opening the ones that are working for you, by contemplating and deciding on:

è Seriously considering your assumptions, beliefs, judgments, and hang-ups. They are yours to have or yours to change.

è Inviting others to help you get to know your blind spots.

è Focusing on content and process rather than just the packaging and just the end result.

è Moving from “playing safe because making mistakes means failing” to “daring to take risks because making mistakes means learning.”

è Doing a little bit more trusting and appreciating and a little less hesitating and feeling dissatisfied.

è Quitting to constantly compare yourself with others.

è Being really present in the here-and-now, paying attention and really seeing.

è Letting go of the over-importance of what others think of you.

è Moving from always wanting to be right to being able and willing to acknowledge you’re wrong.

è Doing a little less judging and a little more appreciating differences and benefiting from them.

è Moving from what all of us do at times, which is blaming, finger-pointing, hiding, and denying to acknowledging, acting accountable, and giving credit.

A tribute to that lady. I’m sure she’d love all those new doors and journeys. Make sure you do too!

Saturday, September 3, 2011

The Marshmallow Experiment or Taking Control

Taking control of your change project, your stress level, your career, your habits. Who wouldn’t want that? In 1972, legendary psychologist Walter Mischel conducted a study on deferred gratification which is now known as one of the most successful behavioral experiments, one that gained great insights into the psychology of self-control. Mischel demonstrated that kids who could sit down with a marshmallow in front of them and not eat it for a full 15 minutes (and being promised a second one at the end of the 15 minutes) did better in almost every area of life than more impulsive kids who scooped up the treat and ate it right away – in spite of the fact that they were all instructed to wait. As Mischel followed his research subjects for the next two decades, he learned that children who delayed gratification eventually scored hundreds of points higher on standardized school tests. They also had stronger relationships, were promoted more often, and were happier. Mischel showed that the capacity to delay gratification is, indeed, a big deal. But don’t conclude that it’s just willpower that played a role in refraining from eating the marshmallow. We owe it to Mischel and Albert Bandura that what appears will might in fact be more a function of skill. Children in later experiments were taught skills like using distraction and distance to influence their own behavior and refrain from eating whatever treat was offered to them.

As Patterson, Grenny, Maxfield, McMillan, and Switzler describe in their 2010 book Change Anything –The new science of personal success, the willpower traps keeps you in a depressing cycle that begins with heroic commitment to change, which is followed by eroding motivation and terminated inevitably by relapse into old habits. Mastering temptations is not solely a function of personal motivation. When it comes to changing our behavior, skills play an important role. So, in order to take control, one of your steps is to improve, increase, strengthen your skills. Here’s my take on taking control.

If you want to take control of your life, you better take control of your beliefs.

It’s not people or situations that upset us but our beliefs and thinking about these people and events. This is what Epictetus stated long ago and what forms the foundation for the widely       used cognitive approach to life like Albert Ellis’s Rational Emotive Training (RET) which hooks into the next one, controlling your thinking.

If you want to take control of your life, you better take control of your thinking patterns.
Increase your self-knowledge on your general thinking style and patterns. Are you a black-and-white thinker, are you a positive thinker, are you a nuance-thinker, are you a doom thinker, anything else or any combination thereof? Before there is any mention of behaving or acting there is perception, interpretation, judging, categorizing, concluding, thinking. Consider psychologist/philosopher William James who stated that many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices. I’ve never met anyone who wasn’t guilty of this at some point in time. The good news: anything related to your beliefs and your thinking can be brought under conscious attention, can be turned from blind spots to self-knowledge, and, if desirable, can be trained to be changed.

If you want to take control of your life, you better take control of your awareness level.

Without awareness of yourself, other people, and your wider environment there is little(self) knowledge, understanding, or connection and cooperation. You can read my earlier posts on awareness called Managing Mindfully and How are you doing as a Leader? but in brief: it’s important to be aware and to turn this awareness into useful action. Your awareness and self awareness form the basis for the use of self as an instrument of change – the most important instrument of change and of taking control! Awareness provides the potential for one’s presence to have a high impact. It is a growing consciousness or comprehension and it’s a basic process that goes on continually, including choosing what to focus on.

If you want to take control of your life, you better take control of your choices.

Before anything happens, there is a choice you make, whether you are aware of that choice or not. These choices are based on your beliefs, your thinking, your priorities, and your purpose and goals, but it remains a choice. If we would all grasp this and act accordingly, the world of responsibility and accountability would look differently, whether we are talking about the economy at large, our personal financial situation, the quality of our relationships or any other topic. You can only hold yourself accountable if you fully live according to the fact that every behavior is a choice, including not acting, and that you are the sole person responsible for that choice. I like to quote psychiatrist and concentration camp survivor Viktor Frankl in this context who stated that we always have a choice, in every circumstance including a camp. This choice is the choice of attitude towards a person or situation, a choice which, in turn, guides your actions. This belief is described beautifully in Frankl’s book Men’s Search for Meaning.

If you want to take control of your life, you better take control of your surroundings.
With surroundings I refer to people as well as ‘things’. First, who do you surround yourself with? Do these people provide you with support and with honest feedback even if it’s not in line with the ever-happy-you’re-so-great? Are they people who provide you with energy, or do they drain you? Do they support your efforts and endeavors but at the same time provide new perspectives? There are so many questions to be asked when it comes to the people around you, but don’t get me wrong: relationships are there to enjoy and not be part of a totally written out script and plan. Just make sure you feel balance, inspiration, honesty etc. in your circle of relationships. Second, what does your environment look like in terms of stimulation, distractions, relaxation,  structure, inspiration? I think these are self explanatory in regards to change and taking control.

For anything to change, someone has to start acting differently and therefore think and choose differently, whether we’re talking about change management at a telecom company, beating a personal addiction, changing a non-effective habit, or societal change by activists. In order to start acting differently, you have to start believing and thinking differently, relating differently, organizing differently, and choosing differently. Put otherwise: You have to take control and keep your hands off that marshmallow - a skill that can be trained.