Sometimes the oldest, simplest, “everyone already knows that” tools turn out to have the biggest impact on a group.
Everyone knows Stephen Covey’s “circle of influence,” a tool for distinguishing between the concerns that you can do something about and those that you can’t. Once in a while I’ll pull it out with a group that is having trouble staying focused because they just want to vent about the things going wrong within the organization. The other day during a team building class with a federal agency group, I took a timeout and drew concentric circles on a flipchart labeled “circle of concern” and “circle of influence.” Then we listed all the complaints we could think of and divided them into those that could be influenced at the organizational level of the participants, and those that we needed to let go. At the end of the class, many of the participants said it was their greatest takeaway from the class; and it wasn’t even part of the material!
As facilitators we often take for granted that people want the latest and greatest organizational or personal development tools and don’t want to revisit what we might think of as tired old models that everyone already knows. When we do that we’re making the classic mistake of being stuck in our own frame of reference and failing to see things from the perspective of others. Federal employees are dealing with tough times right now, and they need simple tools to help them cut through the gloom and see the upside ahead. We need to give them those tools, even when it means throwing the course book aside and going in an unplanned direction.
The “power of positive thinking” has become almost a joke these days; the phrase conjures images of dorky motivational speakers wearing plaid suits and self-help books with Hallmark card covers that we wouldn’t be caught dead reading. But while reading Daniel Pink’s new book this week, To Sell is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others, I came across statistics from a study that are simply impossible to be condescending about (from Fredrickson and Losada, “Positive Affect”). The researchers asked a group of participants to record their positive and negative emotions every day for four weeks, and then compared the results with a thirty-three item measurement of their overall well-being. They found that those with an equal (one to one) balance of positive to negative thoughts didn’t score any higher in well-being than those who had more negative emotions than positive. But once that balance hit a certain ratio, about three positive emotions to one negative emotion, their well-being scores shot up significantly.
They also found there was an upward limit. When the ratio of positive to negative reached about 11 to 1, positive emotions began to do more harm than good: “…life becomes a festival of Panglossian cluelessness, where self-delusion suffocates self-improvement.”
Pink’s interest is in how that helps him make the case for “buoyancy”as a necessary quality for success in persuading others. But of course the concept has broad applicability and puts some real science behind the tired old motivational phrases about positivity.
I’ve been thinking about how easy it is to become trapped in a vicious cycle with one’s thinking. When life throws a few curve balls and you begin dwelling on what’s going wrong, it’s easy for your positive-to-negative thought ratio to drop below three to one. Then because your sense of well-being decreases, you naturally have more negative thoughts and emotions. This can escalate in a never-ending cycle of negative reinforcement that’s nearly impossible to get out of without making a drastic change to your situation. In other words, there comes a point when you can’t fix it by forcing yourself to “think positive”—you have to find a way to make your life better, or at least different, in a tangible way.
Organizations can become trapped in that same cycle. Take the organization that has done a poor job of managing change; a recent restructure was not communicated skillfully or thoroughly to the employees, and has begun to seem like an arbitrary and cruel form of punishment to those employees. They are complaining to each other, and the swarm of negative emotion begins to circle back on itself in a self-reinforcing loop. The employee who dares to have a positive thought—”maybe something good will come from our new team structure”—is ridiculed and is no longer part of the “in” crowd. Positive thoughts have lost their ability to restore any balance, and a manager cannot mandate a reversal of the trend; in fact, any “mandating” of any sort by management just adds to the negative emotions of the team members. At that point only a drastic change in context, such as a new leader with a fresh vision, or a major turnover of team members, is likely to break the team out of the vicious cycle.
It’s hard not to think about this just about any time you visit a federal agency these days. Agency employees are submerged in an incredibly negative environment, subjected to intense public scrutiny and criticism and the need to step up performance while cutting back on labor and spending at the same time. Finding a public employee who has managed to maintain any sense of optimism is nearly impossible, and I can only hope there will be a change in context for them soon. In the meantime, consultants like me might as well don the plaid suit, because our positive thoughts sound merely like cheesy, useless platitudes to federal employees caught in the cycle of negativity.
When the outlandish conspiracy theories about the Boston Marathon bombings began to circulate, naturally I thought back to last week’s post about the storytelling habits of the human mind. It’s only natural that we want immediate answers to the questions, who did this and why? So in the absence of real explanatory information our left brains begin to pick up clues, both real and imagined, and weave them into a coherent narrative. For some, what counts as coherent is a little further “out there” than for others.
Good storytelling things happened too though. We sought and told individual stories of the victim’s personal tragedy and loss, an endeavor which promotes compassion and acts of charity; and we sought and told stories of the heroism of first responders and civilian bystanders, which highlights the courage and resiliency of the human spirit.
I finished Jonathan Gottschall’s The Storytelling Animal this week, and fortunately Gottschall does not leave us with the idea of our minds as paranoid creators of conspiracy theories for his final thesis. He goes on to trace the usefulness of several features of our storytelling minds:
- The stories we create about religious beliefs often cause us to act more charitably toward each other, and to bind us together in communities of belief.
- Our stories are almost always moral in some way. There are bad guys who do bad things, but they usually get their comeuppance in one way or another, and we learn from that. “Fiction virtually always puts us in a position to judge wrongdoing, and we do so with gusto.” Thus story binds us together by reinforcing common values.
- Stories can change the world for better or worse. Uncle Tom’s Cabin had a tremendous positive influence on American culture; Adolf Hitler credited Richard Wagner’s opera Rienzi with inspiring him to fulfill what he considered to be his destiny. Stories can change our beliefs and maybe even our personalities, and that can have a tremendous impact on society.
- Our tendency to re-make memory and current reality in the service of our own life stories serves a critical function; it keep us from despair. We imbue our lives with meaning in order to keep moving forward. The alternative might be to sink into the notion that we are insignificant dots in the universe with short, pointless lives.
Gottschall concludes that writers who lament the so-called death of story are missing the point. Story is not dying; on the contrary, we need it more than ever. Some story formats might be dying, e.g. written poetry, but only to be replaced by others, e.g. song. The future will bring us story more intensely than ever. Instead of being readers and observers of fiction, we will become participants in it, through new interactive fiction media like reality shows and virtual reality games on the internet. “The real threat isn’t that story will fade out of human life in the future; it’s that story will take it over completely.”
The message is to embrace our storytelling nature, but to do so cautiously, with eyes wide open to the dangers of excess and naivete. We should continue to seek the stories of heroism in Boston, and of course, to seek the truth about who did this terrible thing. But we should also critically evaluate the stories we hear and read and see, and guard against those stories that lead us to destructive paranoia.
One of my favorite topics for a team building session or a leadership class is “interpersonal mush,” Gervase Bush’s label for what happens when we create stories to explain what our teammates are doing and why, and then fail to check out the accuracy of our stories. As sense-making creatures, Bush says, we cannot help but try and fill in the gaps in our knowledge to create a coherent story about the things we see going on around us. The problem comes in when we create a story about a colleague’s actions or intentions and neglect to sit down and talk with that colleague to fact-check our interpretation. I’ve theorized in the past that this is the true source of troublesome office gossip.
This week I started reading Jonathan Gottschall’s excellent book The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human. Gottschall takes on the worthy task of figuring out why the human brain is a natural storyteller, not only when it comes to interpreting the behavior of others, but in nearly every aspect of our lives. We read fiction, we watch movies, we pay more attention in class when the teacher tells a story and we tell stories when we’re trying to make a point—we even tell stories while we’re sleeping, through our dreams. The question is, why? Does it serve a purpose in our evolutionary history?
I haven’t read far enough yet to get an answer to this ultimate question, but Gottschall traces the background of how this storytelling phenomena happens in the first place. The left hemisphere of the brain, which is responsible for tasks such as speaking, thinking and generating hypotheses, has specialized circuitry “that is responsible for making sense of the torrent of information that the brain is always receiving from the environment. The job of this set of neural circuits is to detect order and meaning in that flow, and to organize it into a coherent account of a person’s experience…” In other words, to tell stories. In a series of experiments with patients whose left and right hemispheres had been severed from communication with each other, scientists found that if they fed an image to the right brain, the left brain would fabricate a logical story to explain where this image had come from. The story was completely false, but the subject clearly believed it. As long as the story is logical and coherent enough to form an explanation that the left brain finds plausible, we buy it. Gottschall calls this the “Sherlock Holmes syndrome.”
The Sherlock Holmes syndrome, unfortunately, takes many of us way beyond office politics. It’s responsible for conspiracy theories believed by masses of people, from the theory that the U.S. government was behind the 9/11 attacks (which a 2006 poll found a shocking 36% of Americans believed) all the way up to the paranormal explanations for crop circles and alien abductions and the like. Gottschall says we should be wary of thinking that conspiracy theories are a harmless form of storytelling; take for example the African conspiracy theory that says AIDS is a racist hoax designed to terrify black people into abstinence or condom use and thus to wipe out the race, a theory that is killing lots of Africans. “Bad things do not happen because of a wildly complex swirl of abstract historical and social variables,” Gottschall concludes. “They happen because bad men live to stalk our happiness. And you can fight, and possibly even defeat, bad men. If you can read the hidden story.”
We can’t stop making up stories that explain our experience. But we can question those stories and take steps to check them out. The first step is to understand and accept that our brains work in this manner; the next step is to learn to ask good questions and to actively listen to others. Stay tuned for more.
One day a guy named Charlie Todd orchestrated a “no pants” subway ride. Seven friends stationed themselves at different subway stops in New York City, and one by one they boarded the same subway car, wearing boxer shorts and no pants on a cold January day. They pretended not to know each other. At the eighth stop, a woman boarded the train with a large canvas bag and announced she had pants for sale, and each of the seven men bought a pair, saying something like, “Thank you, that’s exactly what I needed today.” A hidden camera records the hilarious reactions of some of the passengers on the car that day.
Todd’s Ted talk video goes on to showcase several more absurd and entertaining public stunts by his group “Improv Everywhere,” including 70 orchestrated dancers in shop windows, people dressed like ghost busters running through the NY public library, and 50 people dressed in blue polo shirts and khaki pants standing silently around a Best Buy store. The point is that these random acts of nonsense become bonding experiences when they are shared by strangers; in a huge, anonymous city they bring people together for a laugh, and that’s a powerful thing.
The talk inspired me to begin looking for and watching other Ted talks labeled as “absurd.” Frank Warren’s talk “Half a Million Secrets” details the year he handed out postcards to strangers asking them to share a secret they had never told anyone before. He started a website to post the anonymous secrets, and as the idea spread virally, he began to receive thousands of secrets from people all over the world.
Kees Moeliker, in his talk “How a Dead Duck Changed My Life,” gives us an experience of absurdity that thwarts audience expectation. He is an ornithologist, so when he tells us he witnessed an act of “homosexual necrophilia” in ducks one day we expect that he will report an important research finding from this observation. He doesn’t. Instead, he goes on to talk about the letters he received from others about similar observations in different species, and then the Ig Noble award he received; an award for research findings that “first make people laugh and then make them think.” He shows photos of animals doing bizarre things, like a moose trying to copulate with a bronze statue of a bison, or a bird that flies repeatedly against the same glass door for a period of six years. Moeliker wraps up his talk by passing around the stuffed homosexual duck and inviting everyone to his annual “dead duck day” in the Neatherlands in which scientists talk about ways to prevent birds from killing themselves by flying into windows, and then they go to a Chinese restaurant and eat a six course duck dinner. The audience laughs in yet another shared experience of absurdity.
Derek Sivers, in “How to Start a Movement,” shows a shirtless man dancing wildly by himself on a ski slope who inspires a crowd to join him, one by one. “The first follower,” Sivers points out, “is the one who transforms a lone nut into a leader.” And thus leadership is overrated; we should glorify the first follower instead, the one who makes nonsense into a shared experience.
Acts of random, absurd human (or animal) behavior, Charlie Todd says, can be scary when we experience them alone. But when they become shared experiences, they also become funny, and even poignant. This got me thinking, how can we harness this power as trainers and consultants?
It has always intrigued me, ever since college, that when you are inspired by a new idea or a new field of study you begin to see references to it and related ideas all around you, everywhere you look; ideas and references that were there all along but have suddenly moved from the realm of the invisible to the realm of “in your face.”
I had a brand new experience last week: I attended a meditation retreat in Peru. I learned about transforming fields of energy, both within me and around me, in order to lead a healthier, happier, more enlightened and more caring kind of life. Suddenly everything I read, even about business, seems to connect to what the retreat taught me. Case in point: in the Harvard Business Review blogs from last week, there are two great articles that reinforce my new perspective.
1. Can Light Make You More Honest at Work? by Francesca Gino explores studies done on the impact of more light on criminals and workers. Gino began by examining university studies of the impact of daylight savings time on crime rates; the studies found that crime rates reduced drastically during daylight savings time, presumably because the chances of being witnessed and caught during daylight hours increased. She ran her own studies to see if these findings would extend to workers placed in well-lit and dimly-lit rooms who were given the opportunity to cheat in scoring a math test, and she got similar results. But she was curious; was it the actual lighting, or the perception of light? She ran another series of tests using dark sunglasses and clear glasses, and found that it was the perception of light that mattered. Her results give real teeth to the pursuit of light, both actual and metaphorical, that I was taught to engage in during my meditation retreat. Seek the light and you shall be inspired to do good things, for yourself and for those around you. Stay in darkness and you may inadvertently do just the opposite. Gino concludes, “…we should probably pay more attention to the many ways in which we are in the dark. Our work life is full of such situations: we may feel anonymous when we communicate via e-mail, when we post information online without revealing our identity (hello, internet trolls!), or when we work remotely rather than in the office.”
2. A Simple Ritual for Harried Managers (and Popes), by Chris Lowney, explores a Jesuit concept called the “examen,” which means to examine your day and take stock. Lowney suggests that for busy managers, a five-minute, twice-daily examen should involve three things:
- Remind yourself why you are grateful as a human being
- Remember your purpose and the values you stand for
- Review the last few hours and extract any insights you might gain from them
During the meditation sessions on my retreat, we were always asked to start by reconnecting with our purpose and expressing our intention for the session. Then it was hoped that during the meditation, we would find ourselves reinvigorated with insights about our current lives, and a sense of love and gratitude for what we have. A successful session was one in which we deepened our self-awareness and became more present in the moment. I came home from the retreat feeling completely re-energized by what I felt during those meditations.
Lowney sums up the business benefits of a daily examen thus:
“The genius of this simple practice becomes obvious when we consider the environments that executives (or Popes, or parents) must navigate every day: we surf a tide of emails, texts, meetings, calls, day-to-day problems, and distractions. We never find time to step back. The fallout is obvious: I’m stressed about a bad meeting an hour ago and end up lashing out at a subordinate who had nothing to do with it; I finish the work day without attacking my number one priority, because I was swept along by lesser day-to-day concerns; I never focus my best thinking in a concentrated fashion on any one issue, because three or four issues are always rambling around my head; or, we slowly drift into an ethical mess of a transaction because I never stopped along the way to ask myself, “Hang on, is this the kind of thing we really should be doing?” The Jesuit tradition is giving us (and the Pope) a very simple tool to cope with these varied business problems, which all happen to be rooted in self-awareness lapses.”
The logical Western mind does not have to struggle with elusive Eastern concepts, but instead can translate those concepts into more accessible (for our left-brained society) language. For me the message of these articles is to infuse your work day with more light and more self-examination and you will have a better day. It’s really just that simple.
Lots of people have written about Marissa Mayer’s startling decision to ban telecommuting at Yahoo over the past few weeks. I think the best articles are the ones that defend her decision. Here are my two favorites:
Marissa Mayer Is No Fool, by Michael Schrage
Yahoo kills telecommuting. Three cheers for Marissa Mayer! by Penelope Trunk
The former HR director in me wants to log a small protest in the name of flexible work-life programs and their role in employee happiness. But Schrage and Trunk make some excellent points. Schrage says he has no doubt that Mayer’s decision was data-driven; she looked at what telecommuting was doing to productivity and decided it was a practice that wasn’t working for Yahoo. And Trunk adds that we have always known that teams collaborate better when they are face-to-face and everyone is just too afraid to say so. A common theme in Trunk’s blogs is that you can’t really have work-life balance and also be a top performer with a big career. You have to choose, and Mayer has chosen a big career; it’s only fair, Trunk says, for Mayer to demand that she work with others who have made the same choice.
The fascinating research of Alex “Sandy” Pentland, which I have blogged about before, bears this out. Pentland is the director of MIT’s Human Dynamics Laboratory and you can read about his many research projects on his web page. Pentland’s group studied team communication patterns by placing little sensor badges on team members across many industries and collecting data for a period of weeks. They correlated certain communication patterns with performance metrics, including:
- Energy: the number and measure of exchanges between team members, with face-to-face exchanges measuring highest in quality (over phone and electronic)
- Engagement: the distribution of energy between team members. “If all members of a team have relatively equal and reasonably high energy with all other members, engagement is extremely strong. Teams that have clusters of members who engage in high-energy communication while other members do not participate don’t perform as well. ”
Obviously what this research tells us is that teams who are co-located and spend lots of time together perform better. And really, didn’t we know that already? I agree with Trunk, who says that Mayer is just having the guts to mandate what we already know will work. It’s not that there isn’t a place in this world for people who need more balance; it’s just that companies have the right to say whether they will be that place or not.
Several years ago I blogged about work-life balance and said that everyone has a different idea of what it really means. Actually, it was a rant about how annoyed I get when others try to impose their definitions on me.
This week I read a great blog by Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic called Embrace Work-Life Imbalance and I thought, ah ha! That’s really what it is. Forget about different definitions and call it what it is; something that everyone assumes is bad but it isn’t necessarily so.
Chamorro-Premuzic’s point is simple. It isn’t that overworking is bad in and of itself, he says; it’s only bad when you don’t love your work. People who are passionate about what they do, on the other hand, tend to work all the time and be energized rather than drained by it. In other words, the discussion is really about engagement and meaningful work—the stuff we are (or should be) focused on as trainers and consultants.
In Chamorro-Premuzic’s words, “According to one urban legend, based on 1950s pop psychology, workaholics are greedy and selfish people who are bound to die from a heart attack. Not really. As the great David Ogilvy once said: ‘Men die of boredom, psychological conflict, and disease. They do not die of hard work.’ This is especially true if your work is meaningful…Engagement is the difference between the bright and dark side of workaholism.”
People responded in the comments that Chamorro-Premuzic had failed to address where family fits in. Well, think about the bios of famous people who achieved great things and were obsessed with their work, having little desire to find some elusive concept called balance. Didn’t many of them have spouses and partners that became part of their achievement, by understanding the obsession and acting as a support system? Sure, there were also children who felt neglected by one parent, but to suggest that there is no price to pay for great achievement is perhaps naive. We all make choices and sacrifices, we all accept trade-offs in life.
And so once again, for me it all comes down to the idea that we each make our own definitions of balance and meaningfulness in our lives. Don’t tell me what mine should be, and I won’t tell you about yours.
A recent Wall Street Journal column by Bruce Feiler, Family Inc., lists some great examples of families taking workplace team building and productivity models and using them to improve their home lives.
I imagine there are many people who might read that opening statement and feel an immediate wave of dislike, or even disgust at the idea. Work is already creeping into our home and family lives at a pace we abhor, and for many of us, the answer is to try and draw a sharper line between our two worlds.
For me, however, Feiler’s column immediately resonated. My opening for a team building skills class is often to talk about how the communication and conflict resolution skills we’ll be building in the class will help participants just as much in their personal lives as in their professional lives. I usually go on to ask participants to describe their best team experience, and many of them talk about their families as teams.
Tools like weekly or daily meetings, message boards, family mission statements, communal calendars, conflict debriefings and progress charts can help families improve their communication, set group goals and track progress toward them, and coordinate activities more smoothly. Talking about what went well and what needs to be improved each week can help families learn together. And empowering the children to make decisions about what work needs to get done and how to do it helps the kids build confidence and start putting together the tool box they will need to successfully hit the real workplace in a few years.
I don’t have children myself, but I think about my own childhood. I grew up in a family business, so work and family life were always mixed and continue to be even today. But we have always lacked the perspective of putting workplace tools to use in our home lives, perhaps because with the exception of me, everyone in my family has always been self-employed and lived in a decidedly non-corporate world. If anyone was going to introduce tools from the organizational development world, it would have had to be me, and I fear it may be too late for that. But perhaps someday I’ll become an aunt and get a second chance. As Feiler says, today we have more knowledge than ever before to help make the work of family life easier, much of it from America’s leading organizations. It’s time to find ways of using it.
My topic today is a little out of the norm for me: travel advice for my fellow business travelers. Over the past year, I have discovered some fantastic deals out there when you look for a vacation home to rent instead of a hotel room. Last spring while working for the Forest Service in the White Mountain region of New Hampshire, I found weekly rates on beautiful vacation homes that were cheaper than the hotels because it was their off-season. And even if the homes had not been cheaper than a hotel, I saved money by having a kitchen and not having to eat out for every meal.
After that I started looking for houses to rent for my other business, New England Crane School. When the crane school holds an operator class we typically need lodging for four people: my trainer for a full week, myself for at least a couple nights, and our two exam proctors for one or two nights. I found that I could rent a three or four bedroom house and put everyone up for far less than the hotel rooms would have cost, and now we have a comfortable living room and kitchen in which to hold business meetings over dinner in the evenings. Last fall we rented a three-bedroom house near a lake in Vermont that cost only $600 for the week because it was in its off-season. This winter we are renting ski houses in high season, so it’s going to cost a bit more but I will still save money overall and we’ll stay in some nice places.
I haven’t yet run into a house that didn’t have high speed wireless internet, and while some may not have a desk, there is always a kitchen or dining room table to work at. There is often also Netflix or movie channels and/or a DVD player, and if you’re in ski country, you might even get a hot tub or a house that comes with club membership so you have access to a gym and a pool. And I’ve had no trouble finding pet-friendly houses; as long as I’m driving to the job, I like to bring my dog with me.
Here are some websites that list vacation homes for rent:
You can also try searching for a state-specific site; for example, in Vermont there’s a site called vermontproperty.com. And if you’re traveling near a ski area or some other type of resort, the resort might have its own website for condo and home rentals.
If you’re a frequent business traveler you can imagine what the best benefit of renting homes is, beyond the extra amenities you might have or the money you might save. It’s feeling like you’re at home instead of living out of a suitcase. Suite hotels can claim to offer that experience, but it really isn’t the same in my opinion. Suite hotels still have the sterile, impersonal feel of a hotel. When you rent someone’s vacation home it really does feel like a home.