Leadership Insights Blog with Shelley Row

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BiasEveryone has biases. The only thing worse than having a bias is not realizing that you do. It is in the knowing that there is opportunity to manage unintended bias.

Humans are designed to crave relatedness. Millions of years ago your tribe was key to survival. Quickly recognizing those in or out of your tribe had life and death consequences. The wiring to recognize in-groups and out-groups is still in the brain. Neuroscience provides insights into bias, how it impacts behavior; and what can be done to manage it.

When you are with your in-group, your brain responds favorably.

• Others in the group remind you of yourself (the vmPFC – in your brain – activates);
• If a positive event happens to an in-group member, your brain’s reward region activates;
• If a painful event happens to an in-group member, your brain’s pain region is activated.

In a study with happy couples, one person watched as their partner received a mild shock. The brain of the watching partner activated to a similar degree as the shocked partner.

In short, your brain is wired to empathize with in-group members.

The opposite happens for out-group members. If a painful or positive event happens to an out-group member, your brain is not activated. The brain is not wired to empathize with the out-group. This in-group/out-group activation happens seamlessly and with minimal effort.

The implications at work are far-reaching as in-groups and out-groups form easily. Consider:

• Companies with offices in separate locations where employees rarely relate in person;
• Companies in a merger particularly if they were former competitors (definitely an out-group); or
• Technical staff attempting to persuade politicians through logic alone with no relationship.

Of course, there are the in and out groups that form around ethnicity, gender, age and status (employee/manager).

For example, consider technical fields where women are a minority (an out-group). From the research, we see that men naturally and unconsciously relate more easily to other men. General similarities in background, expectations and interests reinforce the in-group wiring. If a member of the male in-group receives an award or gets a promotion, it activates reward circuits in other in-group members. Not so if an out-group member (a woman in this example) receives an award or promotion.

Researchers for Harvard Business School’s Gender Initiative note that, more men than women tend to be managers in technical fields, and more men than women tend to be promoted into management. They found when a female employee clocks out before the work-culturally acceptable time, her colleagues are more likely to think: “She’s probably off to pick up her kids.” If a male employee checks out early, they may think: “He’s off to meet clients.*” Due to brain wiring, men are less likely to empathize with the women. Further, men (and women) naturally incline to hire/promote/want to work with in-group members.

What can be done? Are we doomed to be a slave to the brain’s inclinations? No. Here are four ways to counteract unintended bias.

1. Common interests. Find similar interests such as a home state, common university, kids of the same age, or a sports team. If you make the effort, you will find a foundation for a connection.

2. Shared goals and projects. The brain responds well to a common goal and the rewards that come with achieving it. I worked on transportation projects in Atlanta for the 1996 Olympics. That common goal forged a highly connected team that endures to this day.

3. Fun and laughs. Throw an office party (and don’t talk about work). See a funny movie together. Work on a common volunteer effort. Giving back to the community activates the reward center and creates a shared feel-good experience.

4. Gratitude. Research shows that expressing gratitude engenders relatedness for both the giver and receiver. It doesn’t get any easier than that.

It is easy to relate to in-group members but relatedness can also happen with out-group members. It just takes energy and effort. Individual and organizational success makes it worth the effort. Plus, it’s more fun.

*Paquette, Danielle, Mothers likelier to be judged at work, Washington Post, June 11, 2015.

It was a perfect, sunny day on Aberdeen Creek just off the Chesapeake Bay.  There, in front of me, floating placidly, was a stand-up paddleboard. This was my first experience with a stand-up paddleboard. It looked unassuming but I was suspicious.  How do I approach the paddleboard? Can I really stand, paddle and propel myself across the water on this…board? The answer was yes. While it generally went well, in hindsight, the approach to the paddleboard was the same approach as tackling a new project, new office or new staff.

  1. Find stability first.
  2. Test it out.
  3. Fall off, laugh, get back on, try again.

Find stability first. Hmmm. How do I step onto this floating board without tumping (that’s a Texas term) myself into the Creek? Cautiously, I put both feet onto the board, spread them wide for a stable base, pushed off from the boat and just stood there. How did it feel? What stability did I notice? How precarious was I? For a few moments, just stand and observe.

It’s the same at the start of a new project.  You need to find your base at the start.  Do you understand the lay of the land? Have you met the key players and staff? Have you surveyed your environment? Do you understand the basics of the task? It’s only after you have a solid appreciation of the people, the situation and the work that you are ready to move forward.  First, create stability through understanding.

Test it out. After finding stability, I cautiously experimented with paddling. How do I go forward; how do I turn; how do I account for the wind; how do I get more speed? I tried this and that while gauging my progress down and around the creek.

Once you are oriented with your new project, then you start testing.  What approaches result in the most motivated staff? How do you build support with stakeholders? When you encounter resistance like the wind, what is the most effective way to manage that resistance? Over time, build a repertoire of techniques to use in heavy wind, light wind, and waves that hit you broadside. Also develop techniques to speed you forward when the waters are calm.  It takes practice, experimenting, and observation of the dos and don’ts that work in each situation.

Fall off, laugh, get back on and try again. It was going well. I felt stable; was making good progress; and was gaining confidence. That’s when I needed to turn. I tried a new technique (back paddling) and back paddled my way off the back of the board into the Creek. That gave me the opportunity to learn the skill of climbing back on board, regaining stability, standing and paddling again.

It is inevitable that some techniques and approaches that you try will not work.  The staff won’t respond well; the stakeholders revolt; progress goes backwards instead of forwards. That’s when you have a choice. I could have concluded that stand-up paddleboarding isn’t for me or I could try again.  You have the same choice.  Instead of reaching for the towel, you can say, “Well, THAT didn’t go well!  What could I have done differently? What have I learned?” Then you regain your bearings and chart a new course for the work. And it’s even better if you laugh at your mistake. After all, we all fall in the creek sometime.

Photo credit: epicstockmedia / 123RF Stock Photo

croissantIt was a few weeks before my husband, Mike, died. He woke from his nap snickering.  “What is it, Sweetie?”  He smiled and said he’d had a funny dream, “I was in a fight with a priest over my croissant.”

At the time, Mike was barely eating. I could coax him to eat a few bits of an almond croissant from the local bakery.  It wasn’t surprising that he would dream about eating a croissant.

“The priest was trying to steal my croissant,” he laughed.  Immediately, I came up with a story about the dream. I think – “Wow, that’s complex. The priest could be a symbol of the next life and the croissant a symbol of sustenance or even his soul. It seemed obvious and powerful to me.”

“Sweetie, that’s remarkable. Who won the fight?”

“I did,” he grinned and his eyes twinkled.

“Well, that’s good. What do you think the croissant represents?”

He was quiet, thoughtful and then, shrugging his shoulders dismissively he said, “Nothing in particular. It’s just a croissant.”

Have you ever made more of something than the situation warranted like I did with the croissant? All too frequently, we take a simple event and create something big out of it.

Maybe you are left out of a key meeting. You think, “Wow, why didn’t they invite me to that meeting?  They must not think I’m relevant to the discussion. Don’t they know that I’ve done all the background work on this? This really bothers me!” And before long, we have created a story that’s bigger than the real situation.

Maybe your boss seems disinterested and you are convinced that she doesn’t like you; doesn’t think your work is good; will never consider you for that promotion and on and on.

Or maybe a co-worker makes a comment that hits you the wrong way.  All too quickly, you think: “That was rude, he doesn’t like me, he is inconsiderate” or any number of attributes that you ascribe to the comment.

As we make the “croissant” into something bigger than it is, we fail to consider that the comment may have meant nothing at all. Maybe that co-worker’s dog chewed up the new rug that morning, their kid brought home a disappointing report card, or they didn’t sleep well the night before. Anything could contribute to their comment but we quickly develop a story around it about us.

The process in our head goes like this:

  1. We take a situation and create a story.
  2. Then we imbue those in our story with characteristics that we’ve created to fit the story.
  3. And, we believe that we are right.

Before long we create a deep, complex, unflattering story when it was just a croissant. Instead,

  1. Consider all the possibilities for the situation. We all have many factors in our life that contribute to tone, word choice and attitude. Pause long enough before you create the story to take in the range of possibilities.
  2. Consider what you know about that person. How likely is it that they are truly being rude or inconsiderate? How likely is it that you’re really doing a bad job and your boss is dissatisfied? If there isn’t a pattern, then don’t create a story when it doesn’t fit.
  3. It’s not about you. We are each the centerpiece of the story in our heads but we are not likely to be the centerpiece of the story in other people’s heads, particularly in the workplace.

What are you making more of than needed? How can you look at the situation in a different light that gives people the benefit of the doubt? Remember, the croissant is probably just a croissant.


Photo Credit:  annete / 123RF Stock Photo

Stay calmIt’s going to be a tough meeting. The topic is controversial and you feel strongly about the outcome.  Plus, there’s a person in the meeting who routinely unnerves you. It’s the kind of situation that could easily cause you to over-react and not behave at your best.  If you let the situation get the best of you, you are unlikely to achieve the outcome that you wish. What steps can you take to resource yourself to remain calm and in control of your emotions?

Recognize the Situation in Advance.  To manage yourself in situations that are challenging, it helps to know in advance when you will be in that situation.  It’s not that hard to do as triggering events are repeatable.  Think about it. Who regularly gets on your nerves at work? What situations annoy you every time? Maybe it’s when people show up unprepared despite your efforts to provide materials in advance. Or those people who just don’t care and you do. The more you can identify the types of situations and the people that knock you off center the more likely you can prepare in advance.

Make a Plan. Before the meeting, take a break to clear your thinking and make a plan.

Understand your Communication Style. What is your natural communication style: direct, engaging, hands-off? Consider the people in the meeting. How do they typically communicate and will they react constructively to your style? How will you adapt your approach to enable them to be at their best?

Prime Yourself. Priming is a technique where you feed your brain positive information so that it is in that mindset. Because of the mind/body connection, priming the brain results in subtle but powerful shifts in behavior. For example, before the big meeting you choose the story to tell your brain. “I dread this meeting. Brian is always so difficult in meetings and I’m concerned that the meeting won’t go the way I want.”  Or, “This will be a good meeting. I’m capable of managing my reactions and I’ll exhibit calm strength if others over-react. And, we’ll accomplish our objectives.” Priming with the second option is much more likely to yield the outcome you wish.

Use If/Then Planning. Consider examples of how the meeting could unfold and the actions you’ll take to manage any problems.  Examples could be: If Brian starts interrupting everyone and dominating the meeting, then I will calmly ask that he allow others to offer their ideas. If Brian takes the meeting off-track, then I will restate the objective and re-focus the discussion. If the discussion begins to go in a direction with which I don’t agree, then I will make an effort to be open to new ideas and objectively consider the best option.

Work the plan. You’ve primed yourself with positive information and you have a plan. Now, pay attention to yourself and others to stick with your plan. Notice your level of agitation. Is Brian getting to you? If so, notice your tension and consciously think about slowing your breathing; relax your jaw. These simple techniques help to rebalance the nervous system.  Also, attend to the level of agitation in others. Intervene if you notice someone getting anxious. Listen to and validate their comment and redirect the discussion so that the agitated person has a chance to settle their nervous system. Summarize the discussion frequently to make progress.

With a little preparation, you can transform a damaging situation into a productive one and you remain calm instead of becoming testy. Testy helps no one; calm helps everyone.

tea kettleThere it is – a tea kettle. Shiny and copper.  It sits quietly until the heat is on. Suddenly, unexpectedly, it erupts, “Eeeeeeeeee!”

There you are. Sitting quietly at home or at work doing what you’re doing.  Something happens – a cross word, a sideways glance, an awkward situation – and you erupt. It may not be a loud “Eeeeeee” (Or maybe it is. I won’t judge.), but you over-react and your reaction doesn’t serve you or the situation. What can you learn from the tea kettle that will reframe an over-reaction to a considered response?  Three things:

The Fire – Your Triggers

The tea kettle is quiet and calm until an external event –in this case, a fire – adds energy to its system.  That energy ignites changes inside the tea kettle.  Similarly, you exist calmly in your world as a manager, leader, mom or employee until an external stimulus trips your trigger, or punches your hot buttons. Like the tea kettle, that event adds energy to your system and starts reactions inside your nervous system.  To prevent an over-reaction you must know what lights your fire and trips your triggers.  To identify triggers, start with identifying situations where you over-react.  For most people, an over-reaction causes a fight, flight, freeze or appease response. A fight reaction incites you to confront; flight draws you inside and away; freeze stops you in your tracks; and appease, well, don’t we all just want to get along? Whatever your reaction, it is out of scale for the situation. Someone makes a glancing comment; you hear it as a jab; triggering you to withdraw from the discussion. Someone explains the rationale behind a decision; you hear a threat to your values; and you verbally lash out. Whatever it is – a situation, a comment, or a person – it pays to recognize your triggers. Think back to times when you over-reacted.  What happened? What started the fire under your tea kettle?

The Water – Your Sensations

As the fire adds energy to the tea kettle, changes begin to happen. The tea kettle grows warm, the water inside agitates and rumbles. Both are indicators that something is happening inside that precedes the eruption.  You, too, have indicators, sensations in your body, that are early warning signs that a triggered reaction is on its way. The trigger ignites your sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) sending alarms through your body.  Your body reacts first; your brain, well, it’s the last to know. With attentive awareness, you can learn to recognize the signs that your nervous system, like the water in the tea kettle, is registering an upset.  Perhaps you get a knot in your stomach, or your breathing becomes shallow, or your jaw clenches, or palms sweat.  We have this language:  Hot under the collar, steam coming out the ears, chills running up your spine, blood boiling. The skill is to recognize these initial the bodily sensations. When you consider your over-reactions, see if you can recall your feelings in that moment.  What sensations occurred first and where did they surface – gut, hands, chest? The next time you are hit with a triggering event, notice the sensation. If you can, you have a chance to intercept the over-reaction before it happens.

The Whistle – Your Response

Left on the heat, the tea kettle sends out its piercing “eeeeeee”.  Without intervention, you erupt with an over-reaction that doesn’t help you or anyone else. How do you give yourself other options that are more considered?

To stop the tea kettle’s whistle remove it from the heat or turn the heat down. You have the same two options. In some cases you may be able to remove yourself from the situation. Can you stop the meeting and reconvene tomorrow? Or take a break for a few minutes? Any type of complete break will take you off the heat while your nervous system calms and your brain catches up to the action.  If the situation doesn’t allow you to stop, there are techniques that turn down the heat and activate the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and repose).

  • Relax your jaw and the area around your eyes;
  • Deeply and slowly exhale;
  • Breathe consciously from your belly;
  • Count to ten…slowly;
  • Scan your body and consciously relax tense areas;
  • Ground yourself to the floor, sit up straight and imagine tension draining away.

Each of these techniques can be used without calling attention to yourself.  They help to calm the disruption in your body and gives you a gap in which to bring your awareness to the situation.  In that slight gap, you recognize the trigger, notice the over-reaction building, and realize that you have the opportunity to choose a different response.  Now, reframe the over-reaction into a considered response.

It takes practice, but don’t worry, there are plenty of opportunities for practice! Learn the three tips from a tea kettle: know your triggers, watch for body sensations and manage your responses.  It’s your choice.

DecisionsI’m intrigued but not surprised. The a-ha moment happened as I discussed the pitfalls of over-thinking with a group of 70 transportation leaders. It could have been any group of leaders. Perhaps it is evident: Leaders develop good and bad decision-making habits and so do organizations. I work with individual leaders to develop their capacity for balanced decision-making.  But, organizations also develop habits – ways of relating or responding – that may be productive or not.  The organizational decision-making pattern is learned or influenced in part by the leader.

I see two implications:

  • The same principles for balanced decision-making apply to organizations as to individuals.  Like an individual, organizations can practice and reinforce productive decision-making until the collective “brain” of the organization is rewired.
  • The leader’s impact extends beyond the immediate decision. The leader is the decision-making model for the organization. Over-think it and a message is sent. Have a knee-jerk reaction and another message is sent. Exhibit balanced decision-making and a model is created that reinforces optimal behavior.

Let’s consider, for example, a tendency to over-think decisions. Over-thinking is characterized by delayed decisions, a relentless need for more information, and analysis paralysis. Over-thinking wastes time, causes missed opportunities and reduces ROI. And while it may be a characteristic attributed to a leader, an over-thinking organization moves at a slow, slogging pace.

An over-thinking organization creates a culture of caution that permeates its collective thinking. Early warning signs of an over-thinking organization include constant striving for more data and analysis, reluctance to make a recommendation, and bumping the decision to a higher level. Cautiousness grinds progress to a halt.  Rather than decide and move on, the organizational unit studies and vets and studies even more. As with an individual the way out is to first notice the hesitancy and then to probe the organizational discomfort.  What is the underlying feeling within the group? Why is there fear of moving forward?  What repercussions lurk – either real or imagined – that color the forward progress of the group? Once those intangible issues are surfaced and articulated, there is a chance for the group to choose a different path.  But an organization is more complex than an individual.  Although difficult, deeply ingrained organizational habits can be changed.  As with an individual, that change comes as a result of practice, reinforcement and focused attention. Did I mention practice?  Did I mention reinforcement?  This is hard and it requires determination. It is the practice and focused attention that will ultimately rewire the organization’s collective brain.  Members of the organization, managers and leaders must stay vigilant to the ease with which decision-making can slide into old, familiar patterns. As in an individual’s brain, habitual responses are easier, faster, and comforting for the organization.  But they may not be productive.

The leader’s role is even more crucial. It’s important for a leader to develop good decision-making practices as part of her skill set and it is even more important to be an example of productive decision-making. The leader’s decision-making approach is mimicked and modeled – perhaps more subconsciously that consciously.

When a leader gets lost in over-thinking, that behavior trains the rest of the office. An over-thinking leader creates a culture of restraint with overly-cautious team members who are risk averse and who have an avoidance mentality. Unhelpful behaviors exemplified by the leader are passed along to the staff perpetuating suboptimal decision-making. It’s a huge price to pay.

Conversely, a leader who models balanced decision-making that uses both cognition and intuition grows a staff with deep awareness and capability. This type of decision-making also takes individual practice and persistence.  However, the ROI is significant.  The organization benefits from sound leadership decisions and staff become receptive and capable with the depth to choose well-balanced responses. It cultivates a healthier organization and positions individuals to grow into insightful leaders. When the leader cultivates balanced decision-making patterns, it permeates the organization like a breath of fresh air.

So what about you and your organization? Are you as a leader, developing balanced and insightful decision-making patterns?  Have you looked at the decision-making patterns of your office? As you develop yourself, you feed them.  It’s worth the practice and persistence.


Alarm Clock

It was a beautiful Texas afternoon and I decided to take a short walk along the street where my mother lives.  Walking, I passed a short, old woman slowly ambling along out for her afternoon walk and carrying her cane. We smiled and acknowledged each other as our paths crossed.  As I returned, there she was again still carrying her cane.  This time she paused and remarking on her walk, “I’m like the little engine. I think I can. I think I can.” She continued on her way with a smile.

It made me think about all the tasks on my to-do list that make me cringe; the ones that require attention and focus but aren’t so fun.  It takes a lot of energy to get to these sometimes.  Here are three steps that work for me. Hopefully, they’ll also work for you.

Set aside the time. Schedule the time on your calendar and don’t let anything else encroach on it. Maybe it’s an hour or two or a half to full day.  Identify a time and block it off. Keep your resolve and don’t schedule anything else that could take up even a sliver of that time block. If you are like me, when that appointed time comes, you straighten the desk and get your resources together.  Do all that before the time block so that you are ready to hit the ground running (as my mother would say) and take full advantage of your day.

Keep it distraction free. Just before (not during) the time block, turn off the ringer on the phone, set it out of reach and disable email, text message or social media popups. Tell work colleagues that you will be out of pocket for this time period. Ask them to respect your time and to wait on any interruptions until after you finish – unless it’s an emergency. The idea is to give yourself uninterrupted time.  Each interruption drains your mental energy and it takes precious time to get back to where your thought process was prior to the interruption.

Engage in positive thinking. Now, feed yourself positive thoughts like:

  • I can get this done;
  • I’m going to finish this task and get it off my list;
  • I’m perfectly capable of accomplishing this.

The brain responds well to positive input and you will set yourself up for a productive work period. Start the positive thinking the day before the scheduled time so that your brain is revved up and in gear when the appropriate time comes.

Find your version of “I think I can” whatever it is for you. Think of the little engine that could and just get it done!


Photo credit:  Isantilli/ 123RF Stock Photo