Monday, August 27, 2012
Studies of multitasking suggest that individuals experience interruptions around every 4 to 11 minutes. As you can probably guess, many of these interruptions are self-initiated. Self-interruptions are those moments where you choose, even if you’re not fully aware of this choice, to discontinue a task before it’s completed or before you’ve reached the goal that you had set and without being prompted by an external event. And this is significant, because these days all the talking and writing about the numerous interruptions and the increasing problems related to focus and attention seems to concentrate on our constantly beeping, blinking, bugging smartphones, i-pads, twitter accounts and, in an old fashioned way, people walking into your office. I think there is more to it.
Much of your daily interruptions and much of your troubles with focus and with finishing tasks before starting a different one is caused by you and me rather than it being a function of technology, of other people, or of the rapidly changing and intruding information environment. I am sorry to be ruining your comfortable victim-role, but it’s just not the complete picture.
It is not the complete picture from yet another perspective either. I’d like to make a business case for allowing, creating, and optimally using interruptions, whether caused by others or yourself, rather than writing them off as just causing concentration and focus problems and decreasing efficiency. As stated in Imagine by Jacob Tudor Baruch, “The number one skill of creativity is the ability to view things from multiple perspectives. As an example, when Einstein was bored during his physics class, he transported himself from where he was sitting (in a classroom chair) to another time and place. Specifically, Einstein used thought experiments to transport himself to where he would be sitting on top of a photon in from of a beam light”. You’re getting the picture, I am sure. I offer you this perspective - one where (self) interruptions can generate new impulses and energy levels, introduce a different framework, and present you with choices and alternatives. I am talking about combining principles from multiple fields and about letting ideas from a totally different context flow freely by starting a new task while you’re brain is still, at least partly, munching on that other task that you’ve just abandoned. This is where interruptions come in more than handy: interruptions can take your thinking out of confinement, whether you are working on solving a personnel issue, writing a business plan, editing a blog post, reflecting on your proposal for a new client or any other activity. Interruptions can and often will take you out of your box, they will unlock your creativity, they will take you out of your limitations and out of your jammed thinking, and they will help you exploit possibilities in ways that are novel and often effective. Ever experienced this ‘aha’ moment where you found a way out off a difficult situation while you were not even working on solving the problem, or that’s what you thought, because the subconscious processes apparently did continue their work?
Before you tune out: Yes, it is a fact of life that interruptions can seriously impede productivity. Sometimes it’s important to marinade in your own thoughts and to work on a task un-interrupted and with full focus even if it is merely because of a deadline. Yes, social media, technological tools, co-workers and bosses, spouses and pets, all of the above and much more can cause unwanted interruptions. So go cold-turkey and turn off your smart phone, close your door, resist whatever is more interesting or satisfying than what you’re working on and do whatever you need to do. Increase your awareness of those instances where you allow or seek out interruptions to postpone, procrastinate, and flee from tasks for whatever reason. Having said all this, I urge you to realize that there are times when interruptions will help you entertain novel perspectives, find new ways of seeing old issues, provide you with energy, and help you create approaches or solutions that might not be so obvious but that can turn out to be very effective.
To conclude: Self-interruption is a result of your own habit or routine, and of your individual state and choices this day, this moment. Your motives for seeking or allowing these interruptions is key to deciding whether they are useful interruptions or not. Quite a bit of your daily interruptions is within your span of control – don’t waste it! Increase your awareness of the amount and kind of interruptions as well as what prompted them and what they resulted in. Of course you aim to minimize the (self) interruptions that seem to serve no positive purpose. You also want to differentiate them from useful (self) interruptions that can steer you in directions you otherwise might not go. Use your awareness to, one moment regain focus and the next moment benefit more fully from the creative process that can result from (self) interruptions. Establish effective habits and procedures to protect yourself from the ever growing amount of information coming your way and from other people interrupting your focus, and at the same time know when and how to use the different levels of energy and the new topics and insights that people bring to your awareness when they walk into your office, text you, tweet you, or call you. And, maybe most importantly: Remain honest. It’s one thing to deal with people who interrupt you; it’s another thing to deal with your own tendency to interrupt and deceive yourself.
Any thoughts, experiences, ideas you want to share?
Saturday, August 18, 2012
Living and working in what is called the “Minnesota Nice” state creates an interesting challenge for me. My clients perceive me to be direct and confrontational, among many other things, which I think is a correct assessment of my style and my underlying beliefs. It is partly who I grew up to be and who I developed to be, of which being Dutch is likely a big piece. And it is partly who and above all ‘how’ I want to be, from a personal and a professional point of view. This style reflects my beliefs about human nature and about creating lasting change and growth.
In my job as a coach, mentor, trainer, and psychologist I want people to move forward effectively. That’s obviously not just what I want, that’s what my customers hire and pay me for. Each and every one of my clients needs to start moving differently for a variety of reasons. They need to move forward in the right direction and it is my belief that they are better off doing this with vigor, perseverance, courage, and speed. I do not wish to take the leisurely stroll, I prefer a deep dive and a fast paced run. My goal with any coaching project, workshop, or training is to generate in the client effective beliefs, attitudes, and skills that are self-sustaining, self-correcting, and directly supportive of the expected performance results, in such a way that they become their own best coaches – independent from an outside expert. My goal is to make myself redundant at the earliest possible opportunity.
The best way for me to accomplish these goals is by being bluntly, and of course respectfully, candid with my clients, from the very first contact, whether it be in person or on the phone. I can give you examples of prospects who contacted me and, during our phone call, I sensed they weren’t charmed by my direct comments and my provocative questions. I wasn’t sure whether they were really ready and willing to do what it takes to create change and growth. They wanted change all right, but rather from the back seat and with an emphasis on venting and playing the victim of colleagues, of the system, of management, of economic circumstances or whatever people come up with to avoid the critical and sometimes painful introspection and self-assessment.
Such change, of course, isn’t real change, or at least not the way I see necessary to increase awareness, insights, resilience, and true accountability. Quiet a few of my clients seemed to be looking for someone to howl with them, for someone to feel sorry for them, and for someone to dump their load without looking at the real dynamics and their own role and responsibility in it all. I don’t even think this is really what they wanted, but that’s how they presented themselves, this is what they were used to doing. And so I discuss these thoughts and concerns with them, in the first meeting or during the first phone call.
Generally, by the time I finish my intake conversation with a prospect, whether it be for individual coaching or for teamwork, they will have experienced my style with candid feedback and provocative questions, all practiced with great care and respect for each individual, so they have some sense of what they are getting themselves in to. And I will ask them whether they are willing to be told the unspoken and whether they are willing to face different and sometimes painful perspectives. If the answer is yes, we’re good to go. We are good to take the road to discovery, confrontation, self-awareness, falling and getting up, and of course of support and expert advice.
I have turned down clients in that first phone call or during the intake session, most of them eventually contacting me again, this time with a different attitude. In some cases I was still not convinced that they were willing to work smart and hard to make the changes necessary to reach their objectives, but at least with a better sense of my style and beliefs and with an increased awareness of their wishes, needs, and fears and of their tendency to act as a victim, we would agree to two sessions in which I assess the change-readiness and the change-willingness as I call it, while immediately starting the work towards the agreed objectives.
In many ways, it doesn’t have to be different for you in your role of colleague, manager, business owner, or leader. So let me ask you: Are you hesitant to confront and be direct? Do you fear the possibility of people disliking you or disagreeing with you? Do you fear stirring up emotions? Are you locked up in an upbringing and training that falsely taught you that respect equals keeping quiet about what you really see and think? That respect equals avoiding doing and saying anything that might upset someone? That’s a pity, because in the end, people usually respect the direct peer, coach, or leader better and, more importantly, they get much farther with them because they know they can trust them and gain real insights and support from them. Direct and candid people, if practiced with a good sense of timing and respect, of course, are generally very well respected. They are transparent and trustworthy. They really add value by revealing blind spots and speaking the unspoken. At a top executive level it’s the same story. CEO’s and their counterparts have fewer and fewer people around them who are willing and daring enough to say what they really see, suspect, think, and belief.
If you remember one thing from this post, than let it be this: It is the direct person who is clear, candid, and open who is often preferred above the one who softsoaps, beats around the bush, avoids, postpones, and talks in disguised terms. What would you prefer yourself?
Tuesday, August 14, 2012
You will fail at some point and, likely, at different points in your life. It's inevitable that human beings make mistakes. It’s inevitable that you, at times, base decisions on misinterpretations and misjudgments, that circumstances change unexpectedly and you don’t cope well, that you overlook certain aspects… the list goes on. The failure, some prefer to call it setback, may be small such as making a mistake on a client engagement. Or the failure may be huge, like losing a multi-million dollar project or losing a job you greatly valued or needed. And then there is the reality of mistakes made by others that report to you or who collaborate with you while you are responsible for the end result. How you handle these setbacks and failures raises or lowers the risks of failing again. How you handle them influences your future effectiveness and success. How you handle them influences others and how they perceive you. How you handle them shapes you as a person and as a leader.
People differ greatly on many dimensions. That’s a good thing, because one of the ways we add to this world is by our differences. We definitely differ in how we handle setbacks and failure. You might be one of those people who handle them remarkably well, bouncing back quickly and sharply, taking the learnings to the next step, the next project, the next job. Or you might belong to the group that handle them not so well to say the least. You might have coped well at some times in your life and not at all in others. That’s life, that’s reality, but are you willing to see it as it is and to learn from it?
In my work as organizational coach, mentor, trainer, and speaker I have observed what appear to be common themes among those leaders who tend to cope effectively with the inescapable – with setbacks and failure. I will discuss four of these themes.
1. Acknowledge, accept, and put it in perspective.
It’s a no-brainer, it makes so much sense, it’s beyond logical but also often the first derailer when dealing with failure. You can't begin to learn, grow, or bounce back from a mistake if you don't admit you've made one, let alone that you can be an respected, trusted, and effective colleague or leader. It's clearly not always easy to acknowledge your failure, judging from how often mistakes are denied, brushed away, or blamed on others. Some people go through great lengths to deny their mistakes and avoid accountability. I’m sure you know one or two people that fit this description. Owning up to your mistakes is a key factor distinguishing between people who do and people who don’t handle failure well, between people who are trusted and respected role models whom others like to follow and collaborate with and those who are avoided and distrusted. Acknowledging your mistakes usually stems from a deep-seated desire, or better, a core value pertaining to what’s right and to act with integrity.
One of my clients, a senior manager at a manufacturing company, put all his energy in passing on the blame. He focused on saving his reputation rather than saving the project and of course, he was damaging his reputation more than he imagined. He invested much of his time in hiding the consequences from the board of directors which put other managers in a bad light. My client could have chosen to do the opposite: Acknowledge his mistakes, accept responsibility, and take steps to fix the problem and so demonstrate his integrity, his accountability, and his problem solving capabilities. It took my client two coaching sessions with painful confrontations to see things as they really were, to see the bigger picture and the long-term consequences of his choices, to assess the damage he had already done, and to take on the hard task of owning up to all involved. He confided in me this was the most difficult time in his life and one of the most shaping life experiences that changed him as a manager, as a husband, and as a father. He was now able to truly live the values that he had always said were at the heart of his leadership, and he was now able to see the bigger picture. In regards to that bigger picture, one simple and easy technique to use is asking yourself the question: What difference will it make in 10 years? How might I feel about this 6 months from now? What’s the very worst that can happen because of this mistake and will I be able to survive that?
2. Look for causes and solutions, not for cover-ups and blame.
Dealing with mistakes is obviously not about blaming circumstances or people nor is it about justifying the mistake in any other way. If you have caused a problem, the good news is that you likely have at least some control over that cause, and thereby over the solution or at least over a way out. By focusing on finding the cause (and future solutions) rather than assigning blame you take control. You move to prevent similar failures from happening again. Simultaneously you are modeling that in many situations it is not just about having to prevent mistakes from happening. Such an objective could lead to unhealthy risk-avoidance and putting the brakes on innovation and growth. It’s also not about covering up in order to appear perfect which, as everyone knows, is impossible anyway. If you adopt an “I can learn and improve from this” mindset you avoid victim attitudes and behaviors and you avoid the detrimental attitude of helplessness.
Now many of my clients initially tell me that the above is all good and well in an organization such as Jack Welch’s GE, but in their company, you get killed for big mistakes. They tell me all the talk about owning up and about accountability is not working within their company and with their organization’s leadership. Of course, every company is different. There is great variety in values, leadership, management practices and the like. But isn’t it all too easy to hide behind that and not try and open up the organization towards healthier mistake-management and risk-management? With most of my clients we were able to learn to better navigate the specific political and leadership climate in their organization and to increase accountability and failure-management, at their individual level and often beyond.
3. Create some distance, take a break.
Unless you are dealing with a crisis that requires immediate action, you want to create distance between you and the situation, between you and your failure, and especially between you and your emotions. You want to distance yourself from intense emotions that blur your vision and that limit your perspectives. You literally need to take a break and get away from the task or difficulty at hand. You want to allow yourself to see different perspectives and you want to allow your brain to refocus. Confronted with failure you might find it hard to stop thinking and worrying about what's happened. You fret, you feel exposed, you feel embarrassed, and you might feel worried about your reputation and your performance review. All typical worries, of course. It might feel counter-intuitive, but the last thing you should do is keep a laser focus on the situation and on the problem. It will likely blind you, exhaust you, and discourage you. Again, if you’re not facing a crisis that needs instant action, getting some rest and physical activity are a plus and not just due to the positive effects of endorphins on brain activity. The main point is to let your mind wander. This facilitates connections to be made that you won’t make when you keep focused on the one failure, regardless how big it is. Creative combinations, integrative thinking, and borrowing from other fields of expertise is so much easier when you take a break from your problem and from your worries and emotions.
No matter what I write and how I present it, failing isn’t fun and your first response might always remain to want to deny, cover up, and divert. Increase your awareness so that you know your tendencies and pitfalls. We all have to face difficulty and failure some time. If you prepare yourself, and know how you will deal with it when you do fail, you'll be able to bounce back that much faster, and especially smarter.
4. Modeling failure management when subordinates have failed
People need to know they can trust you as a boss or a peer, no matter the situation. Do you support your colleagues or direct reports when they’ve made a mistake. Do you combine standing up for them with providing them the necessary insights and feedback to learn from their mistakes? Or do you condemn them or solve the problem for them? It is generally very demoralizing and insulting if someone tells you your work is inadequate or they tell you that you have failed, and next thing you know is that they exclude you from rectifying and solving the issue. My advice: avoid the tendency to go and fix the problem yourself. Also, while discussing the mistake, make sure to criticize the mistake, not the person but remain candid about what you see as contributing factors and what you see as the person’s role in it all. So play the ball, play the problem and not the person. If you attack, abandon, or criticize the person you have to be ready for frustration, resentment, and hiding. Next time something goes wrong it will probably be hidden from you or blamed on someone or something.
I will leave you with the following thought:
It is a reflection of your self-worth and your integrity in how you treat mistakes.
Thursday, August 2, 2012
Language shapes organizations, families, societies – it shapes every group, every institution, and every person. I think most of us know that it matters which words we choose and use in our attempts to motivate, guide, and inform our children. We know that teachers can greatly influence their students with their attitude and style, which is most prominently shown in the language they use when addressing their students. Yet often we use words and phrases that are just short of the opposite from what we are aiming to achieve whether it be in the home, the office, or at school: they are perceived as demotivating, confusing, negative, discouraging, hesitant. We talk about what we don’t want to see rather than what we do want to see. We focus on old incidents thereby steering away from our main point. We focus on problems and blame rather than causes and solutions. We go on and on, losing attention and influence every second we continue on this nagging path. And, as you would want it to be, people listen to the language you use, to the themes you focus on, and to the words you choose. People around you interpret your words and your themes and act upon those interpretations, whether they do it consciously or not. Taking it even a step further, you can shape people’s beliefs (and your own) with your words and your themes.
I’m sad to say that what happens in organizations is often not that much different from what happens in families and in private life. There is a fair amount of negative, nagging, and numbing communication going around in organizations. Ineffective communication abound in the business arena, from silence, vague or mixed messages, hearing things "after the fact," distorted information, to receiving information overload. In the business setting, knowing what and how much to communicate, how to communicate it, to whom to communicate, when to communicate, and through what language comes only through a well thought out plan – the communication plan that defines and controls (or at least that’s the intention) the messages a company conveys to its customers, employees, stockholders, and to the general public. A communication plan should include objectives, strategies to achieve those objectives, clarity on who will deliver the messages and by what means, as well as the anticipated outcome of the efforts and how the results will be measured and evaluated. But it shouldn’t stop there, because with the best communication plan in the world, if front-line employees, leaders, and anyone and everyone in your organization is not fully aware and mindful of their spoken language and it’s effects, much of your influence is out of control. The spoken and written language is a big part of your organizational culture, just as it is a big part for societies and countries. For most politicians and for some business people, the words they speak are carefully crafted, but for many of us, in leading and in following positions, we do not consciously consider the words we use and the effects they will likely have on others. And that is because we don’t choose the words that we use. And we often don’t seem to understand how much our words and phrases are a result of the very beliefs and thinking patterns that they also help shape.
In my 22 year career as a business and leadership coach, I have used the language of my clients as one of the entry points to their belief system and thinking patterns. I have used their language to help them understand how they define themselves, others, and their relationships by the language they utter. We have used language as one of the available tools to increase their effectiveness. I feed back to them from our very first meeting what I hear them say and what strikes me in their use of words. We discuss the beliefs underlying their choice of words as well as the possible effects of their words on themselves (and not just in the case of self-descriptions) and on others. One of my clients 20 years ago spoke in terms of “I think I am rather well-liked, in general,….” and “They say I’m kind of good at technology, I guess.” The hesitance in this person’s language could have different causes, such as truly doubting his own abilities and strengths or the belief that he shouldn’t be bragging about himself. There are other possible dynamics at play, but the main point is that this client had started to believe his own words. He was reinforcing his underlying beliefs by building a vocab of hesitance and underestimation. Another example is war-language. I remain to be stunned by the many clients who use phrases such as “We’ll make sure we’ll get those bastards” (talking about a different department), or “The best way to get somewhere is to fight your way to the top in this company” – you get the picture, you’ve heard it yourself I’m sure. Many clients will tell me that it’s “just the way we talk about things here – don’t worry too much about that”, but it’s much more than that, with beliefs, assumptions, expectations, and thinking patterns to be discovered and influenced. Equally important, of course, I point it out when clients use positive, confident language or language that is inclusive and geared towards win-win situations.
Communication experts, from Thomas Gordon with his active listening and I-messages, to Paul Watzlawick with his axioms that you cannot not communicate and that communication is always content plus relationship, to Bert Decker, with his belief that you have to be believed to be heard, there has been much attention given to communication: How to communicate when discussions turn heated, how to deliver a perfectly informative and interesting speech, how to adjust your style of communication to different audiences, how to persuade a potential customer, or how to keep a longwinded colleague in line so as not to drag on the meeting once again. These are important aspects of communication, no denying that. I urge you, however, to start with the obvious. I urge you to look and listen to your daily comments, before and after the official meeting. I urge you to look and listen to remarks you make in the hallway or at lunchtime. I urge you to look and listen to your tone of voice, to the strength with which you declare something, to the words that you choose, and to the effects they might have on others. Are you convincing, are you passionate, are you respectful, are you clear, are you positive in what you say and how you say it? Are you aware of the beliefs that underlie your language? Are you aware of the beliefs that you are expressing with the language that you choose?