Welcome All!

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

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Your margin of error

In the world of polling and in the world of scientific research and statistical analyses, the term ‘margin of error’ is commonplace.

According to the online business dictionary, the margin of error is an analytical technique that accounts for the number of acceptable errors in an experiment. This number of acceptable errors helps us review results and then determine the level of accuracy of the experiment by taking this + or – margin of error into consideration.

On www.talkingpointsmemo.com the margin of error is explained as follows: “In public opinion surveying, the margin of error refers to the expected range of variation in a poll, if it were to be conducted multiple times under the same procedures. This is not necessarily indicative of a true result, but establishes a statistical average within which most polls will line up.”

If we make the leap to the world of business, the margin of error concept seems almost non-existing. In the world of business, measuring outcomes is valued so much higher than introspection, than pausing, than questioning oneself and others with the objective to gain additional insights and alternative perspectives and to discover possible group think and personal blind spots. This is just plain undervalued, in most organizations and by most leaders.

Questioning and self-doubt are considered a weakness much more so than a demonstration of an open-mind, an inquisitive nature, and a learning organism. If we continue to measure effectiveness solely or mostly by the ability to demonstrate strength and confidence we do effectiveness a huge disservice.

Whether you are in sales, in admin, in information technology, in marketing, in human resources, or in any other field, whether you are a leader or someone on the floor, chances are that you are pretty convinced of yourself. And wherever you are not, you are likely to do all you can to safe face by deploying self-defense and self-preservation mechanisms. Bottom line: We generally do not take a ‘personal margin of error’ into account. Most of us seem to do so when it comes to financial decisions, so why not translate this mindset to the world of business?

I ask you to apply the ‘margin of error’ to your own assumptions, to your thinking patterns, to your conclusions, and to your choices and actions. I am convinced it will increase collaboration, effectiveness, authenticity, and influence.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Overload, Productivity, Perfectionism, and Assertiveness

Too few hours in a day.
Too many tasks and projects waiting for your time and attention each day.
No one can change that for you except you!

As my title suggests, I see a strong link between overload, productivity (or the lack thereof), perfectionism, and assertiveness.

Here are some of my thoughts:

Focus on being adaptable and resilient, not on being perfect. Yes, we all wish to prevent mistakes from happening. That’s a good thing and lets keep working on that. At the same time I urge you to work on the other side of the equation: acknowledging mistakes to learn from them and to move on – to move on wiser, more adaptable, and more resilient than before. If you really need to be perfect, than become perfect at learning from your mistakes and at strengthening your adaptability. Not everything can be completed to perfection. Not everything has to. Distinguish, choose, and adapt or die.

What captures your attention controls your day. What’s controlling your day today? Who is in control of your time and energy today? What do you focus on? What do you allow to grab your attention and distract you? Is it a welcome distraction, helping you pause and refuel, helping you take a step back, relax, and open up creativity? Or is it a distraction that clogs up your already crowded agenda and mind? Is it a distraction tied to procrastination, denial, risk-avoidance or other interesting but often disastrous dynamics?

Don’t over-think when you have to make decisions. Sure, you want to and need to look at the pros and cons of a diversity of alternatives, but in all this analysis don’t forget to learn to be comfortable with the fact that any of your options can lead to failure. Know when enough thinking is enough thinking.

Practice not just to delegate but also to ignore, whether for the time being or completely. Every day there are tasks and odd jobs that cease to be a task or job after I ignored it for a while. They either get done by someone else who couldn’t ignore it, they can be combined with other tasks, or they cease to exist because life and work changes constantly. How often have you helped a loved one find something, spending quite some time on it, to only find out they didn’t need it after all? How often have you prepared a document or resent something that the recipient later found or didn’t need after all. Make sure to find out how important and urgent a request is.

Yes, I love the open-door principle, and I love the closed-door lets be clear about when not to interrupt me principle. And it doesn’t stop with the door, of course. My smart phone and laptop are there to benefit me, not to continuously and needlessly interrupt and distract me. It’s okay to not answer the phone immediately. Anyone remember the days when a telephone was a heavy device standing on a table or hanging on a wall with a long cord – If you weren’t nearby you wouldn’t hear it ringing and you couldn’t pick it up? Sounds like good old days? Just don’t pick it up if you’re focused on something that you made a priority. Just don’t be tempted to respond to the sound alerting you to a new text or e-mail. Let it be, it will be there in an hour or at the end of the day. Of course you can check who it is, especially applicable for working parents who want to assure their children aren’t calling in some state of great distress, or for people on-call in critical stages of whatever business process. Just know when to resist the temptation.

Last and most importantly, practice your assertiveness. Learn to say “No, not now – it’s not urgent. I will work on that at x pm”. Learn to say “No, that is not important although I’d love to spend time on this if I wasn’t so busy”. Learn to say “I’m sorry, I miscalculated that. I have to give this task back to you or to someone else” (or: I have to postpone this to a later time). I’m sure you can think of variations to this theme of assertiveness.

Only so much can get done in 24 hours, and hopefully sleep and relaxation with loved ones is part of this time frame. Tame your perfectionism, practice the skill of ignoring, know and influence what grabs your attention, become more productive by being unreachable, and assert yourself – no one else can do it for you!

Any thoughts you want to add? 

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Metacognition – What’s So New About It Guys?

I was just about to put the finishing touch on a blog post when I allowed myself to be sidetracked by a post on Harvard Business Review Blog Network. The article is by professor of leadership and of psychology at Columbia Business School and Columbia University, Michael W. Morris. The article is called: Metacognition: The Skill Every Global Leader Needs”  (Oct. 17, 2012) and dives into the importance of metacognition, in particular cultural metacognition for global leaders. The article includes research supporting this premise and Michael seems an insightful, wise, and accomplished man for sure. However, I’d like to change this title into:

Metacognition: The skill that has always been and will always be crucial in business and in life, for everyone, leader or not, global or not.

Okay, I admit. My title is too long to be catching and all that. But really, it strikes me as odd, very odd, that it takes increasing globalization and the NeuroLeadership Summit in New York this week for us to realize the importance of metacognition. Metacognition has been around for thousands of years, because it is inherent to people: We are the only animals with the capability to extensively and intelligently think about our thinking, which is what metacognition is all about.

I specifically wrote ‘capability’ because we may wonder: Do we do it enough and do we do it in a wise and successful manner? That is questionable but we do have the capability and it’s up to each individual to use it and to train it. But whether we are talking about business owners, global leaders, local leaders, teams with members from a variety of cultures, it doesn’t matter that much: Thinking about your own and about other people’s thinking is not only the best way to improve relationships and collaborations, it’s an absolute necessity for a healthy and productive life and business.

As stated, it’s nothing new and in my view important at any level in our organizations. Awareness and knowledge of cognition and how it affects our perception, thinking, acting, and thereby our results dates back a long time. Just to give you one example: It was Epictetus who stated that it’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters. One of my favorites by this Greek philosopher and in line with the previous statement, Epictetus declared: People are not disturbed by things, but by the view which they take of them. This stoic philosopher is said to have lived AD 55 – AD 135. Shouldn’t we by now realize and act upon the crucially important assumptions and thinking patterns that we and people around us operate upon?

When I started my career in coaching, workshops, and training 22 years ago I worked in different parts of the Netherlands and in Germany, just across the border with the Netherlands. About fifty percent of what I did (and do) with my clients is focused on thinking about our thinking, which is, again, exactly what metacognition is all about (and most of the other fifty percent that my clients work on relates to increasing awareness and other elements of what is now termed Emotional Intelligence).  

My focus on thinking about our thinking originates from my conviction that our actions and feelings are triggered by our beliefs about ourselves, about others, and about the world. They are triggered by the thinking patterns - and thinking ‘mistakes’ - that stem from these beliefs and assumptions. The field supporting this approach, which has brought my clients much success, is called cognitive psychology with American psychiatrist and professor emeritus Aaron Beck as one of the founding fathers. While working with depressed clients Beck theorized that in order to change the symptoms of his clients, he must change their distorted thinking. This belief led to the development of the talking approach called cognitive behavioral therapy or CBT.

When working on my master’s thesis for Clinical Psychology I researched the role of beliefs and thought patterns in depressed elderly people (and that role was substantial), which later drew me to Albert Ellis’s Rational Emotive Therapy (RET), also known as Rational Effectiveness Training to better appeal to the world of business. In my early career as a coach and trainer I was trained and certified in the practical application of the RET, with the ABCDE model at its core. The A stands for Activating Event or Adversity. The B refers to Beliefs about event or adversity. The C are the emotional Consequences. In D you have discussions and disputations to challenge the irrational beliefs. And E represents Effective new beliefs that replace the irrational ones.

So this leads us back to Epictetus who stated that it’s not people or events that upset us (the A), but the view which we take of them, which is precisely what the B in this model is all about: your beliefs and thoughts about the person or event.

Another area in psychology related to cognition is attribution theory, in which things are explained by indicating a cause. Attribution theory goes into the question: What do you attribute success and failure of yourself and others to? According to Albert Ellis, some people make very dismal and hopeless interpretations of everything. I think we are all guilty at times. Cognitive therapy/training and application of the ABCDE model of Ellis allows you to better understand the logic, or the absence thereof, of your thoughts and to positively influence your thought processes, thereby minimizing distortions and misconceptions, regardless of whether you’re dealing with people from different cultures or not.

Back to the article that drew my attention earlier today. The advise for global leaders given by Michael Morris is to:
- Take positions and assignments in other countries and keep a journal of successes, failures and surprises in adapting to a new culture.
- Develop a checklist of questions to answer before a first meeting with a new contact.
- Use web based tools such as Culture Navigator to test you knowledge about different cultures.

These tools absolutely will increase your metacognition and your ability to effectively collaborate with people from other cultures. But guess what, not everyone is as fortunate, as eager or in a position to live as ex-pats like my family and I have done. Many people will not be moved around with assignments in new cultures but are still facing colleagues, clients, or other business partners from different cultures, whether it be a totally different culture or a different sub culture from the same home country. Enough people who have not had the experience of living and working in a different culture are still faced with leading a company that has branches, suppliers, alliances, or customers or all of the above in several countries. So let’s take the importance of metacognition out of the bubble where many of the privileged global leaders reside, and let’s take a common-sense look at how to increase your metacognition insights and skills, regardless your level of global-ness and regardless of your relocation-rate.

My simple yet not always easy suggestions are as follows:

1.    Develop awareness of your own beliefs and of your thinking patterns and pitfalls. Black-and-white thinking, filtering, self-blaming, mind reading, exaggerating, and over-generalizing are some of the most common thinking errors that we make. Of course it shouldn’t stop with the awareness. The ABCDE model can help you turn thinking errors and irrational thoughts into healthier ones.

2.    Develop an intense non-judgmental curiosity about people, whether they are born and raised in the same area as you are, or whether they just transferred from Sweden or Swaziland. Be curious about their assumptions, their habits and rituals, and what they strive to accomplish – what’s their purpose in life and business? Knowing your own is a prerequisite for course.

3.    For this curiosity to really blossom, perfect yourself in the artful skill of questioning. Yes, there is some art to it, and it’s above all a skill you can learn. Ask questions about what makes other people light up, what and who is in their allergy zone, which assumptions do they operate on, what values form the basis of their thinking and acting, what’s their purpose in business and life… And of course it pays off to know your own assumptions, beliefs, values, purpose etc. so the logical thing to do is start asking yourself these questions.

4.    Train yourself in RET or seek some professional coaching or training to accomplish a solid understanding of your own belief and thinking system and how to make it more rational and effective.

5.    Last but not least, increase your awareness of the fact that your line of thinking, your assumptions and thinking patterns, no matter how healthy they might be according to Ellis’s standards or any other standard, it is just your logic, no more no less. Someone else’s logic, healthy or not, might conflict with yours, creating confusion and tension that can be alleviated by increasing your awareness of your own beliefs and thinking patterns and those of others. An open, candid discussion with genuine interest and with questions that help explore will get you a long way.

Truth be told, yes, my family and I not only greatly enjoy living in different cultures but we also eagerly reap the benefits from extended exposure to cultures that are different from our original one. It’s just not everyone’s world and situation, and it sure doesn’t have to be in order to improve your metacognition. I know too many people who have traveled and lived the world far beyond our few experiences, and who remain to be in the dark about how to effectively use metacognition to positively impact their own performance and their relationships, collaborations, and jobs. A sad situation if you ask me.

Friday, October 5, 2012

The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the often harsh and brutal truth

Can you imagine quality advice and brutal honesty anywhere being more important than in the executive chambers of our organizations? I can’t.

The executives that we rely on to run our profits and nonprofits decide, most importantly, on the strategy and the culture of the company and thereby they decide on the health of the organization, on the guarantee of income for their employees, on the survival of our companies, and ultimately on the prosperity of our communities.

These top executives don’t operate in a vacuum and they don’t decide on their own, or at least they shouldn’t. Executives require sound and candid advice and feedback that they can rely on, but they are at the same time the very people who find it hardest to obtain, researchers say. There is so much at stake when advising your executive, with your own future within the company at the top of the list. How is he or she going to respond when I share my inconvenient truth and my unpopular perspective? Will the messenger be killed before the message is out there? Whether the dangers of speaking up and standing out are real or perceived, this dynamic is a reality, a fear-based reality as well as a reality born out of habits. We, or at least the majority of people, are simply not accustomed to providing others with candid feedback, no matter the industry, context, or level you operate at. That’s a very sad situation directly linked to accountability and transparency. Research shows the more senior a business leader, the more they attract flatterers and yes-men instead of people capable and daring enough to tell them all truths, including the tough and uncomfortable ones. "My advice would be to remember that the higher you are, the more likely you are to be ingratiated, and therefore you should make sure you get advice from people who do not depend on you," says Kellogg School of Management assistant professor Ithai Stern. Stern has studied the effects of flattery, opinion conformity, and ingratiation on corporate leaders for a decade and states:

“Our theory suggests how high levels of flattery and opinion conformity can increase CEOs’ overconfidence in their strategic judgment and leadership capability, which results in biased strategic decision making” Stern writes this in one of his studies, co-authored by Sun Hyun Park, a graduate student at the University of Michigan, and James D. Westphal, a professor at the University of Michigan.

So in addition to the self-deception with blind spots and psychological protection mechanisms that is rampant in many of us, executives are deceived by the people that surround them as well. I’ll pick it up where Stern leaves it: What to do about this phenomenon? There are many different perspectives and numerous routes to take. I will stick to two of them:

-       Become a member of an executive group such as a True North Group (book by Bill George and Doug Baker) in which confidentiality, transparency, and honesty form the pillars of your group. True North Groups have only one goal as far as I’m concerned: Profound personal and leadership development through transparency and brutal honesty. They are groups where members from different companies and industries increase each other’s and their own emotional intelligence, where members openly share their mistakes and embarrassments, and where members learn through and with each other, knowing that the failing and the learning will never end.

-       Invest in creating a climate of trust and candid feedback within your organization, with the executive taking the first steps. It is top management that needs to realize that despite their level and standing in the organization, they are human too. It might be shocking, but they will be mistaken at times and they might not be (and generally are not) the most knowledgeable in a certain area. If the executive requires compliments and reinforcements for ego-saving purposes, for securing self-esteem and maintaining confidence and respect, then all is lost. If the executive is willing and daring (because capable we all are) to hold himself openly accountable for misjudgments and failings, then there is hope.

Not knowing the full extent of risk-taking and failure management within Google I have heard that Google employees are allowed to spend 20% of their time, a full day per week, on risk-taking and on working on things that they want to explore, even if it leads to failure. This is apparently how many improvements and inventions were born but, most importantly, it is one piece in the puzzle of stepping away from the often strongly risk-avoiding and honest feedback evading culture so dominant in many of our organizations.

A friend from my business network called me a week ago and volunteered that there was one thing that really stood out about me, and that was the word ‘provocative’. He suggested I call myself “The Provocative Coach” and I’m chewing on that suggestion. Quite a few of my intervention techniques are provocative indeed. However, many of them are interventions and feedback that is only perceived as provocative, but it really just abides by my rule of telling the truth, whether it’s an easy, comforting truth or a harsh and brutal truth. Knowing how easily politics, timing and other excuses are used to justify not telling the truth, my conclusion is: The requirement of telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, should not be limited to the court of law.

For one of the articles on Stern’s research and theory: http://insight.kellogg.northwestern.edu/index.php/Kellogg/article/flatterys_dark_side