Welcome All!

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

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Assertive Rights

A late night reminder, that is in Minnesota time, of our assertive rights.  

1. You have the right to judge yourself on your thoughts, choices, actions, and feelings.

2. You  have the right to not give an excuse or explanation for you choices.

3. You have the right to decide for yourself whether you want to find a solution for someone else’s problem.

4. You have the right to change your mind.

5. You have the right to make mistakes and bear responsibility for them yourself.

6. You have the right to say “I don’t know”.

7. You have the right not to be liked.

8. You have the right to be illogical.

9. You have the right to say “I don’t understand”.     

10. You have the right to say “I don’t want this”.

Some notes on these rights.

The assertive rights stated here do not imply that you should always change your mind, or never give an explanation for your choices and actions, or that you should try and avoid to help people solve their problems. On the contrary, if it doesn’t get your balance, your work, or you health in trouble, you probably should. It makes this world a much nicer place to roam around in. These rights merely remind you of the fact that you do not have to be perfect, you do not have to take the whole world upon your shoulders, and you are better off being honest with yourself and your environment. In the long run, no one benefits from you if you persistently ingnore your own needs, health, and boundaries. And to be clear, all these rights, all these choices, have consequences for you and your environment no matter which way your choice will lean. Consequences that you have to accept as part of the deal.

Making Stress Work for You

Inspired by today’s Harvard Business Review’s Management Tip of the Day, on August 31, I’d like to elaborate on making stress work for you.

As the saying goes: Too much of a thing is seldom good, whether it be a good thing like exercise or a bad thing like fatty foods. The same goes for stress. Too much can and eventually will wreck your mind and your body as many studies over the past decades have shown. But stress is unavoidable, stress isn’t always bad, and stress certainly does not have to be damaging. You can make it work for you, because a certain amount of stress can help you improve your health, your results, your relationships, and life in general. In small doses, stress can help you perform under pressure and motivate you to do your best. However, when you’re constantly on high alert, when you’re running in emergency mode, when you frequently feel overwhelmed, put differently: when your stress is out of control, it will wear you out. Your mind and body will pay a high price.  

Before I go into how you can make stress work for you, I want to take a closer look at the concept of stress and define this widely used (and misused) word. I’ll give you several ‘definitions’ of stress that I feel, altogether, capture this mechanism:

-       Stress is pressure or tension exerted on a material object or a person.
-       Stress is bodily or mental tension resulting from factors that tend to alter an existent equilibrium.
-       Stress can be described as the feeling you get when your shoulders have to carry more than they can handle.
-       Stress is a normal physical response to events that make you feel threatened or that upset your balance in some way.
-       The stress response is the body’s way of protecting you. When working properly, it helps you stay focused, energetic, and alert. In emergency situations, stress can save your life It will give you extra strength to defend yourself or help you slam on the brake to avoid crashing into that car in front of you.

The above should provide you with a good picture of what stress is. I do not intend to provide you with the perfect definition of stress nor with an all-encompassing article on the workings of the nervous system or all the possible causes, factors, symptoms, responses, and remedies related to stress. I will take a big leap and jump to the part of this post that readers are likely most interested in: some of the things you can do to make stress work for you!

Suggestions for effectively dealing with inevitable stress and for avoiding unnecessary stress:

1.    Catch it while it is still small. Anything small is so much easier to deal with than anything big. Having said that, it’s also more difficult to notice, to see it for what it is and what it can become, and to take stress seriously while it is still small. But, again, if you let it linger and become big it is so much more difficult to return to a healthy balance.

2.    Know your personal stress signs, whether it be irritability, changing sleep patterns, eating more or less than usual, moodiness, chest pains, or any other sign. Learn to recognize what precedes increasing stress for you so you can act timely and restore the balance that is lost when under stress.

3.    Make sure you have a supportive network that works for you. A strong network of supportive friends and family members is an enormous buffer against life’s stressors. Knowing you have somebody to turn to can bring significant relief and some great ideas and perspectives!

4.    Work on your ‘sense of control”. If you have confidence in yourself and your ability to influence events (in jargon: internal locus of control) and persevere through challenges, it’s easier to deal with stress than for people who are vulnerable to stress and who tend to feel like things are out of their control.  

5.    Recognize stress for what it is. Stress is a feeling, a temporary condition (post-traumatic stress disorder and other long-term and severe conditions excluded, of course) and not a sign of dysfunction. When you start to worry, realize it's an indication that you care about something and an indication that your balance sheet is in danger. No need to panic if you recognize your symptoms and causes and act accordingly.

6.    Focus on what you can control. Too many people feel bad about things they simply can't change which is useless and increases your sense of ‘no control’ (victim behavior). Remember what you can affect and what you can't.

7.    Be mindful of your attitude and your outlook on life. Stress-hardy or resilient people have an optimistic, can-do, and will try-attitude. They tend to embrace challenges, have a strong sense of humor, are able to put things into perspective, and they accept that change and uncertainty is a part of life. Just one area in which this is widely researched and proven is recovery time for patients.

8.    Increase your ability to deal with your emotions. You’re extremely vulnerable to stress if you don’t know how to calm and soothe yourself when you’re feeling sad, angry, or afraid, or worse, if you don’t even know what you are feeling. The ability to bring your emotions into balance helps you bounce back from adversity.

9.    Increase your knowledge and prepare better. The more you know about a stressful situation, including how long it will last, how it pushes which of your buttons, and what to expect, the easier it is to cope with that situation. For example, if you go into surgery with a realistic picture of what to expect post-op, a painful recovery will be less traumatic than if you were expecting to bounce back immediately.

10.  Increase your assertiveness by learning to say ‘no’, by learning to ask for help, by learning to stand up for your needs and wishes, and by learning to prioritize.

11.  And least but not least, some suggestions for quick stress relief that we hear off so often and tend to utilize so little: deep breathing, relaxing your muscles, a brief walk around the house/neighborhood/office, getting someone else’s perspective, enjoying music, nature, or children to put your mind to something else, and visualizing something that makes you feel happy and relaxed just to name a few.

Some of the above advice will apply to you, some of it won’t, and chances are that some specific ways for you to increase your stress-resilience are not listed here. There are many digitalized and old-fashioned resources to consult, please do so and be your own stress consultant or contact your physician or psychologist.

With the practical part of the ‘how to’ out of the way, I want to refer back to being knowledgeable and being able to prepare better. To become more knowledgeable and better prepared, you need to be able to recognize stress in order to respond timely. Therefore it is crucial that you know how to recognize stress warning signs and symptoms of which I will list the most common ones. And remember: The more signs and symptoms you notice, the closer you may be to stress overload.

Examples of cognitive symptoms are memory problems, inability to concentrate, poor judgment, seeing only the negative, anxious or racing thoughts, and constant worrying. Of course, any one of these can be a warning sign of problems other than stress. Examples of emotional symptoms are feeling overwhelmed, a sense of loneliness and isolation, depression or general unhappiness, irritability, agitation, and an inability to relax. Again, these symptoms can be caused by so much more than just stress. Examples of physical symptoms are aches and pains, diarrhea or constipation, nausea, dizziness, chest pain, rapid heartbeat, loss of sex drive, and frequent colds. Last but not least, examples of behavioral symptoms are sleeping too much or too little, eating more or less, isolating yourself from others, procrastinating or neglecting responsibilities, using alcohol, cigarettes, or drugs to relax and nervous habits like nail biting or pacing. Since every person is unique, you might recognize symptoms like nail biting, easy constipation, or racing thoughts without experiencing any stress. Also, many symptoms can be caused by other psychological challenges or by one of many diseases so I again stress that you consult a physician whenever in doubt.

Another prerequisite to be able to prepare yourself best is that you need to have a good idea of what kind of situations and pressures cause stress, in particular, that cause stress for you. People generally think of stressors (as the causes of stress are generally referred to) as being negative, such as an exhausting work schedule, loss of a loved one, or a rocky relationship. However, anything that puts high demands on you or forces you to adjust can be stressful. This includes positive events such as moving abroad, committing to a long-term relationship, buying a house, going to college, or receiving a promotion. What causes stress depends, at least in part, on your perception of the situation, yourself, and the world around you. Something that's stressful to you may not be to someone else. Your neighbor might even enjoy the very things that cause you stress.

Having said that, stress can be caused by external factors or be self-generated. Here are some examples: major life changes, financial problems, work, relationship difficulties, being too busy, not being busy enough, children and family, pessimism, perfectionism, lack of assertiveness, inability to accept uncertainty (a crucial one in these times), negative self-talk, long-term illness, long-term unemployment etc. What's most important is to create a list with what is stressful for you, which, again, is often quite different from what is stressful for someone else. Peter might enjoy an unstructured environment and perform best under these chaotic conditions while John gets completely stressed out without structure, discipline, and clarity. Jessica may love to speak in front of large groups and thrive when taking the spotlight while Christine is terrified of performing before large crowds even though she might have a much better understanding of the topic than Jessica.

In order to avoid this post from turning into half a book, I’ll move to the recap: If kept under control – your control – the stress response can help protect you, help create better results, and help you meet challenges. Stress is what keeps you on your toes during a presentation at work. Stress is what sharpens your concentration during an examination. Stress is what motivates you to play some more tennis in order to perform at the highest possible level during the tournament. And to prevent stress from causing major damage to your health, your mood, your productivity, your relationships, and your quality of life, you need to know yourself, be honest in your evaluations, be prepared to take small and bigger actions, and remember that you need to be in control of your stress. You can protect yourself by learning how to recognize the signs and symptoms that cause you too much stress and by taking timely and personalized steps to reduce its harmful effects.

The HBR post that inspired this article is called Turning Stress into an Asset.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Leadership and Maya – Creative Power or Magic

This blog is about spreading ideas, views, and inspiration. Today, I share with you my admiration for Esther Duflo, one of the many people who inspire me.

MIT economist Esther Duflo analyzes poverty worldwide. Duflo has won numerous prizes like the MacArthur “genius award” (2009), for bringing the scientific method to development work. Duflo seems to live for understanding and fixing poverty. In Rajasthan, India’s desert state with a per capita income that averages around $ 1.77 per day, Duflo explores whether incentives might help get more young children vaccinated. Just to get an idea, the immunization rate in countries like the U.S. is more than 90%. In all of India it’s 44%, in Rajasthan it’s 22% and in Duflo’s study area near the city of Udaipur it was less than 2%.

Duflo and her team started the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab that has conducted 240 randomized, controlled trials of specific ways to help the poor. At this lab she tests poverty solutions the way medical researchers test new drugs and she tried out some simple solutions to increase the immunization rate. The most important premises were:
-       Make it easy.
-       Give a reason to act today as opposed to waiting another day.

The results of making shots more available (an increase of immunizations from 2 to 18%) and working with incentives (jumping to 38%) are amazing. Resistance like “How can you be so patronizing” to “The poor need to behave responsible so you shouldn’t provide handouts” to “You’re bribing the poor with incentives” is daily life for Duflo and her team, but she remains undaunted and determined to not give up. She describes her day job as identifying good ideas and her night job as convincing policy makers that they are good ideas.

The biggest lesson of all, according to Duflo: “If we really want to make change, we have to discard our “cartoon visions” of the poor. Doing good means engaging with what people really need and getting it to them by any means necessary”.

For me, Duflo is exemplary leadership. Leadership of the kind that is based on courage, creative power, determination, vision, patience, and teamwork.

For an informative review of the book Poor Economics – A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty by Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo, you can go to this link: http://nicspaull.wordpress.com/2011/06/02/poor-economics-review/

You may ask yourself “What’s with the title of this post?” The word ‘maya’ is Sanskrit for magic or creative power, which I believe is exactly what Esther Duflo represents and creates.

With thanks to Fast Company Magazine for drawing my attention to Esther Duflo.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

A dichotomized and classified world

“Do you like this shirt or that shirt better, mom?”

“Who do you think is the best player, A or B?”

“Should I go there or not, what do you think, dad?”

Children, especially young children, live in a dichotomized world. It helps them make sense of the world and choose from the many different options that are available, just like they make sense of their lives and world by playing things out in their own fantasy world. They dress up and act like adults and how they perceive us (which can be a shocking eye-opener), they play kitchen or office, they mimic grown-ups and what not.

Yes or no, good or bad... the notion that there are always opposites in all things and that each cannot exist without the other is at least as old as Taoism. My 'yes' means nothing if I didn't have the option of 'no'. We wouldn’t and couldn’t know beauty without knowing ugliness. We wouldn’t know large without small, there is no high without low, no good without evil. So in that respect, the dichotomy is not just a given, it also works well for us.

By dividing their world in black and white, in yes and no, in this or that, children, but too often adults are included, simplify and at times over-simplify (this mostly goes for adults) their world. By doing this, we often do life, business, politics, and many other areas injustice. If you exclude certain crisis situations and the world of agreed upon rules and regulations like traffic, then you’ll find there is more grey – and numerous shades of grey for that matter – than there is black and white.

As adults we’ve had enough experience with life as to not need to simplify things by dichotomizing, or do we? We all classify in order to answer the question: “What is it?”
Let’s look at dichotomies and classifications in the world of business. For a manager or business leader, the question is not so much whether you focus more on relationships or more on tasks, but whether you are aware of your preferences and whether you control your emphasis depending on what the situation requires. Are you in charge? Do you consciously choose? Are your choices based on values and goals? For a manager or business leader, the question is not so much whether you do more asking or more telling, the real issue is whether you know which to do when and for what purpose. The real question is whether you have learned the value of both, and whether you have learned to perform whichever was represented less in your original tool box. But the biggest question of all, way above how to classify you into what category of leadership, might be: Are you willing and capable of receiving (and asking!) feedback on your style, your behaviors, and your choices to continuously improve for the benefit of your business, and for the benefit of your own growth and the satisfaction derived there from.

You can learn a lot from children. You can learn from their relentless questioning, from their timeless play, from their (sometimes brutal) honesty, from their eagerness to discover and learn, but in most cases you are better off staying away from all that dichotomizing and classifying business and life. Go for the nuances, the shades of grey, for creating options rather than stalemates, and above all, for the challenge of questioning yourself and learning from experience, feedback, and the many people around you. 

Monday, August 22, 2011

Monday Morning Reminders

The start of a new week, for many of us in a safe and free environment. Are we making the most of our fortunate circumstances? You may ask yourself: Do I always have to make the most of everything? No, you certainly don't, that's up to you. However, free of dictatorship and suffering, we are in all cases responsible for our own results, our own happiness, our own week. Whether you dive into another jam-packed week at work or whether you are looking for a job, as too many people unfortunately still are, I'd like to share with you my ten commandments of mental health, inspired by my own beliefs and life, by many professionals, by the people I encounter, and by Dora Guorun Guomundsdottir, psychologist in Reykjavik and former director of the National Institute of Health in Iceland:

1. Think positive and think possibilities.
2. Laugh about yourself, don't take you too seriously.
3. Cherish the ones you love and spend time on and with friends.
4. Be a life long learner, be curious, ask questions, learn something new.
5. Use the power and joy of play, which remains so underused by many adults.
6. Use your body, exercise, walk, or engage in any other physical activity.
7. Discover and feed your talents, and go where your passion takes you.
8. Learn from mistakes, others and your own. Don't be embarrassed - use them to your advantage.
9. Keep your life simple, don't complicate things (and relationships!) unnecessarily.
10. Persevere, do not give up, practice that determination muscle, strengthen your resilience. It's a main factor in health and in reaching your goals.

Enjoy a resilient, healthy week in which you are in control!

Friday, August 19, 2011

Creating More by Switching Off

In his book Wise Mind, Open Mind Ron Alexander describes meditation for busy minds. Mindfulness and mediation have become popular, they have become buzz words, and for some, they have become a source of irritation. No matter which of the three applies to you, what I’d like to borrow from Alexander, therapist and meditation teacher, is the belief that the mind is one big muscle that requires exercising. Grounded in neuroscience and stem-cell research he builds on the notion that we are not doomed to work with whatever we were given at birth. Many studies have shown that if we work on a certain skill, the part of the brain associated with that skill grows too. Depending on many health and other factors and on how we exercise our brains we can increase our brain cells throughout our life. This is quite a relief, if you ask me, from the old notion that brain cells slowly but gradually (if we’re lucky) cease to exist as we grow older, or start to glue together thereby creating many brain related problems.

Another belief I share with Alexander is the benefits of quiet time and switching off for which mindfulness training is only one example of the many possibly ways to do so. Mindfulness training is said to increase the ability to shield yourself from irrelevant information and to clear your mind from distractions. Who wouldn’t want that in this ever overloading world with all the benefits and downturns from technological tools and constant access and availability. It also helps you focus intently on what you perceive to be relevant input. There are researches who claim to have shown that an 8 week mindfulness meditation course  Recent research has shown that an 8 week mindfulness meditation class can lead to structural brain changes including increased grey-matter density in the hippocampus, known to be important for learning and memory, and in structures associated with self-awareness, compassion and introspection. Recent research has shown that an 8 week mindfulness meditation class can lead to structural brain changes including increased grey-matter density in the hippocampus, known to be important for learning and memory, and in structures associated with self-awareness, compassion and introspection.can lead to structural brain changes including increased grey matter density in the hippocampus known to be important for learning and memory and in structures associated with self-awareness, introspection, and compassion. Recent research has shown that an 8 week mindfulness meditation class can lead to structural brain changes including increased grey-matter density in the hippocampus, known to be important for learning and memory, and in structures associated with self-awareness, compassion and introspecResearch in this area is piling up, results are coming in, but most importantly, it’s supporting what many Eastern cultures have known and practiced successfully for so long: strengthening the mind by quiet time, contemplation, meditation, and letting go can be very successful.

For locals reading this post, the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction Program of the Center for Spirituality and Healing of the University of Minnesota, which is in its seventh year, is receiving very good reviews – just in case you’d like to go this route. This program is developed by renowned practitioner and author Jon Kabat-Zinn who has been a leader in this field for 30 years. If you do not want to ‘go mindfulness’, there are many ways leading to more balance, focus, and switching from the challenges demands of your professional life only to rejuvenate and return to that professional life with more energy and focus.

Mindfulness is closely related to awareness, a topic which has been covered before on this blog. See for example the articles Managing Mindfully, The Real Risks of Leadership, and How are you doing as a Leader? When talking about awareness I refer to awareness of yourself: your style, preferences, values, purpose, blind spots, challenges, ego strength, and of your drives and motivations. I also refer to awareness of where you stand on the many polarities that life and leadership presents to you on a daily basis. And of course I refer to a strong awareness of your environment consisting of the three C’s: customers, competitors, and colleagues, and everyone and everything you can learn from. Reflection, contemplation, being present in the here-and-now, and feedback are your tools for continuous awareness and I suggest you use them wisely.

Increasing your awareness increases your ability to notice (and appreciate and enjoy!). If you just stop and take notice, you see so much more and often accomplish so much more. Learning to be more mindful and more aware can do wonders for your well-being in basically all areas of life - like your travels to work, the way you eat, your cooperation with colleagues, or your relationships. It helps you get in tune with your feelings and stops you dwelling on the past or worrying about the future in order to get more out of the day-to-day.

Whether you wish to gain creativity, IQ, intuition, or just more piece of mind in busy, often tumultuous and fearful times, some common sense concludes this post:

1.    No one can rush from one meeting into the next, from one overscheduled day (or week) into the next, without having to sacrifice focus, sharpness, creativity, balance, or patience and thereby results.

2.    Whether you call it meditation or some other mindfulness technique (and don’t get me wrong, there are great differences in method and in results), it basically comes down to the notion that you do good by taking time to switch off, to rejuvenate, to come to peace, and to clear your mind. For some it’s music, for others its nature or a good night out with friends, maybe a motorcycle ride or a book on the patio. Find your own way, but do find a way to train that muscle called ‘the mind’, by practicing focus and by regularly switching off and regaining balance.

And as far as I'm concerned, presidents and other high-profile officials are no exception to the need to reload, switch off, and relax in order to create more focus, energy, balance, and perseverance.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Brainwashing turned useful

If sect leaders, lover boys, and religious groups and the likes can influence you in such a way that you seem and act brainwashed and adhere to the leader’s rules and governance, even if this harms your personal interests, it should be possible to transform the techniques used by the people controlling you into techniques you can use in your own best interest, say, to accomplish something challenging or to exercise self-control in a difficult area.

In her book Brainwashing, the Science of Thought Control  researcher Kathleen Taylor from the University of Oxford explains that brainwashing is nothing more than the application of certain psychological techniques for convincing others, which, if applied in extremes, result in  the person believing in a different reality.
I will briefly go into the different steps and techniques used in brainwashing to transform them into techniques you can use to your advantage:

1.     The first phase is the infatuation stage, intended to convince potential members of a sect or group to join. You will be overwhelmed with attention, friendliness, compliments and the like in order for you to feel very welcome and special, attracting you to the group. This technique can be used by yourself by taking good care of yourself with positive attention, living in and appreciating the moment, and good self-care. This will make you feel so much better about yourself as opposed to quickly or constantly criticizing yourself and focusing on the negatives. This can be continued until you wish to never let go of this good feeling, which, in the case of the sect, means you are entering dangerous territory, and in the case of self-care it means you are in for an addiction to self-affirmation, one of the better addictions in life.

2.     The next step for the manipulator is isolating you. Isolation from your family and friends in order to envelop you more and more into the group and its doctrine with less and less influence from your old circles and world. The manipulator might convince you that your friends and family keep you from fully developing yourself and leading a happy, independent life. We also see this isolation on a much larger scale where a people of a country is isolated from real information, denied access to multiple sources, and is only provided with government–controlled information and news. Translating this isolation technique into a tool for effective self-care and reaching your goals, you can start with isolating yourself from bad habits and from negative views of yourself.  You can train yourself to focus on what you can do, on what you’re proud of, on what gives you energy, and on what is close to your passion. Just like the manipulator you can gain more and more control over what you think and do and thereby how you feel. But we all know how hard it can be to change habits. In this regard I recommend a Harvard Business Review article by Peter Bregman titled How to Stay Focused on the Important Things. In this post Bregman emphasizes the importance of changing your environment in order to help sustain a change like a new habit: http://blogs.hbr.org/bregman/2011/07/how-to-stay-focused-on-the-rig.html

3.     Control is obviously an important if not the most important aspect of brainwashing. In addition to isolation, reinforcing and punishing all behavior can serve as a great tool for control. In most sects, if you show doubts or divert from the beliefs and practices of your group and especially of its leader, you will be ignored or openly punished. As long as you do exactly as the sect prescribes you’ll be in heaven and reinforced with so-called love, attention, and compliments. But the next minute, as you doubt or divert, you can be trampled to death with scolding, humiliation, and other punishments. This has proven a very effective way to control people especially when combined with emotional blackmail in order to make you feel guilty about your doubts. Now it should be clear that none of this is recommended for self-control or reaching the moon. The lesson in all this is to reinforce all accomplishments in your challenge to whatever goal you have set for yourself, and to reinforce all steps and efforts in the right direction even if these efforts did not result in the desired outcome, or not yet.  Reinforcements can come in many forms like complimenting yourself, keeping track of reaching subgoals and celebrating whenever a new step has been reached, sharing accomplishments and efforts with others so they can provide you with constructive feedback and encouragement etc.

4.     Undermining your self-image is unfortunately another tool regularly used in certain sects, for example in an exercise where everyone has to share all the things he or she has done wrong during the past week. If you convert this to the opposite, i.e. being aware and appreciative of all the thoughts and actions that are heading in the right direction and of everything that went well this day or week, your self-image will strengthen and you will get a better sense of which actions but also thoughts might help you master your challenge and which ones are keeping your from success.

5.     Manipulation of language is the last aspect I’d like to mention. In the case of a sect, members of the sect are often called ‘family’. In the case of a loverboy whose actions where documented, after beating, raping, and locking up one of his girls, he repeated, over and over again “I will help you do what I need you to do”. These are examples of the language - game being played in the worst possible way. Our language is influenced by what we belief and think, but in turn, language also affects our beliefs and thinking. The more we here someone tell us we’re great (or terrible) the more we start believing it, as many cognitive, linguistic, and child rearing experts have proven. The way I suggest you use your language is the way I use it in my coaching practice: I make people aware of patterns in their language, of certain words or phrases they tend to use when talking about themselves, when describing situations at home, or when discussing problems at work. Next, I help them discover which beliefs are behind these language patterns and whether these beliefs are beneficial to them. If not we work on those beliefs, mainly through the Rational Emotive Training developed by Albert Ellis and based on wisdom dating as far back as Epictetus. At the same time, I encourage my clients to replace words like ‘terrible’ with ‘not good’, or ‘never’ with ‘it’ll be difficult’ knowing that the language you use persistently, influences your beliefs. You can do the same thing and be your own coach.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Empathy and Selfishness in Leaders

There was a time (or is there still?) when empathy was by some considered soft stuff that didn’t bring about any results, profits, or successful strategies. It was reserved for women, for softies, and for certain fields of business at the best. I believe that most people now, whether in business or in private, are aware of the importance of empathy. The word empathy stems from Greek, referring to passion and emotion. Empathy can be described as the ability to identify with another’s feelings, to emotionally put yourself in the place of someone else. I assume it’s quite clear how empathy makes the world go round smoother. What would a parent be without empathy for her sick child (or better: what would that child be?). What would a teacher be without empathy for the student that failed his test? What would a boy be without empathy for his friend who is being bullied? And, it of course doesn’t just apply to emotions that are considered negative. What would it be like if your friends would not be empathetic to your joy about a new career, a new love, a negative cancer screening, or the birth of your child?

Empathy in everyday life seems pretty clear cut, even though not everyone is equally well equipped or willing to feel and show it. How about empathy in business? How about empathy at the leadership level? I’m happy to say that more and more business authors write about matters like empathy on the work floor and in the board room and that more and more leaders understand the significance of these and related concepts and skills. The notion of the tough business leader has been replaced by a business leader who adds interpersonal skills and a high emotional intelligence to the more traditional business insights, skills, and attitude.

In that light I’d like to share part of an interview relating to empathy in leaders. David Kovacovich, organizational strategist for Michael C Fina, certified coach, and blogger interviewed Dan Pink, author of four provocative bestselling books about the changing world of work. Here is what Dan Pink said about the importance of empathy for leaders:

“Empathy is hugely important. It’s very hard to lead without being able to see the world through the eyes of those you’re leading. That’s especially true for creative teams. And it’s doubly true for the growing ranks of people who are leaders but who don’t have much formal authority — and therefore must rely on influence rather than command. There’s also some recent research, led by Adam Galinsky at Northwestern University that shows that as people accumulate power, they’re less likely to see the world from another’s perspective, which can often hamper their abilities to get others to go along with them. Leadership turns out to be a very delicate balance between action-orientation and perspective-taking. Too much of one rarely works”.

A lack of empathy can easily result in selfishness, although there are more roads to selfishness as well as more consequences of a lack of empathy. Unfortunately but not surprisingly, people, profits, and possibilities are killed by selfishness. And add to selfishness the wrong kind of pride and it drives denial, avoidance, blindness, blaming, and cover-ups until it's too late to act effectively.

Need I say more?

Lao Tzu on Leadership

Go to the people
Learn from them
Love them
Start with what they know
Build on what they have
But of the best leaders
When their task is accomplished
Their work is done
The people will remark:
"We have done it ourselves."

Friday, August 12, 2011

The Best Use of Your Energy

During our home leave in the Netherlands the question of time, energy, and balance presented itself on a daily basis, as it does every year. It’s always a wonderful time with family and friends. And it’s a busy, restless, and tiring time. It raises the question of how to best make use of every day whether it be cramping it with yet another visit or safeguarding family time and me-time. One thing is clear, the old time-management practice of spending your time more efficiently has been kicked of its throne by the practice of using your energy wiser.

Americans Tony Schwartz and Jim Loehr of the Energy Project assist employees of many companies amongst which the big ones, to optimally perform. They argue for better managing your energy supply. It’s just like money: once it’s spent, it’s gone. If you don’t watch, it the more you have the more you seem to need it (or think you need it), and, still, just like with money, even with a small supply you get pretty far by using it wisely. In their book “The Power of Full Engagement” Schwartz and Loehr explain that managing your time efficiently does not in any way guarantee that you’ll feel energetic enough to do what you have to do or choose to do. How effective is a meeting if your thoughts keep wandering off? How effective is it to read a report if you don’t know what you’re reading because you’re tired? What sense does it make to spend time with friends if you can’t really listen to what they’re saying because you feel exhausted or because you are fretting about organizational issues?
Four common sense, useful tips for more energy:

1.       One piece of advice is to live like a sprinter, not like a marathon runner. It doesn’t matter how intense sprinting is, the finish line is visible. According to Schwartz and Loehr the best thing is to totally give yourself for something and to then fully relax so as to rejuvenate until you decide to give yourself fully for the next challenge awaiting you. Put otherwise: it’s essential to regularly reload your battery. Nothing shocking, nothing new, but is this how you lead your life? A practical way to get closer to life as a marathon runner: reserve a few minutes of personal time in the morning. Whether it is some lines from a poem or an inspirational book, breakfast with the family, a walk, some music, or whatever it is that relaxes and reloads you, use it to start off your day and use it in between the sprints. Make it a ritual, make it a habit, something you do without giving it much thought. That’s the best guarantee that a great idea and good intention is not set aside within 3 days.

2.       Make good use of your energy peaks. In his book “Calm Energy” psychologist Robert Thayer of the California State University states that our energy level is not even during the day, something we all know from experience. Examples of low energy periods are right after getting up in the morning and after lunch, whereas the late morning and early afternoon are generally high energy periods. There is obviously considerable individual variation so the point is to get to know yourself better: which are your high and low energy periods and how can you best adjust your agenda and activities to this knowledge? Also awareness of daily variation, depending on your health situation, the kind of week you had, and on your moods. Also remember that problems can seem insurmountable in low energy periods, so know when to worry about challenging situations.

3.       Feed your basic psychological needs just like you take care of your body with food, water, and clothes. Richard Ryan and Edward Deci from the University of Rochester list three major psychological needs: autonomy, belonging or connectedness (being in contact and feeling loved), and feeling competent (doing things we’re good at and succeeding). Ryan’s and Deci’s research shows that your energy level goes up when you satisfy these three psychological needs. If you don’t, you will eventually feel exhausted. The most ideal situation is to have these needs met in your personal and your work life, but if it is (hopefully temporarily) missing in one major area of your life do all you can to assure the satisfaction of these needs in other important areas.

4.     Watch out for activities and people that drain your energy. Again no rocket science, but how well do you reflect on energy providers and energy drainers and how well do you intervene, even if it means disappointing someone?  How much time do you spend with people that drain your energy for whatever reason? Whenever you need to assert self-control (which is generally the case with energy drainers) you take from your supply of energy. Psychologist Roy Baumeister from the Florida State University writes in his book “The Curse of the Self”: “Every time you control yourself, your self control is temporarily weakened because you’ve taken from your stock. Any next situation before you were able to reload and that asks for self-control is more difficult to deal with. An example: a father who gave all his energy and self-control on the job will have few psychological sources left for handling frustrations and exercising control once at home. Empty is empty, even when you try very hard. The practical implications? Do not attempt to quit smoking, lose weight, and start a sport you don’t like at the same time. Avoid an attempt to master a long, boring file after an emotionally draining conversation. If you have an important meeting with top executives planned attempt to plan less draining activities before and after. Of course, this isn’t always possible, but your awareness of your energy, your schedule, and your obligations can help you avoid bad planning of draining or difficult activities wherever possible.

All common sense stuff, so let me indulge in another one in this category: Stay out of the kitchen cabinets. It’s generally not an effective energy or mood enhancer to raid the candy jar or to start eating when you’re feeling depleted. Even though it might sound and feel counter intuitive it is more effective to take a ten minute walk, do some exercises at home or create any other opportunity for physical activity after which you will feel so much more energetic and after which it is perfectly okay to eat or snack, of course, as long as it’s healthy.
Returning from our home leaf I realize once again how easy it is to forget that too much of a good thing is still too much, and how easy it is to over-schedule.  In the meantime, we cherish our home leaves.