Leadership Insights Blog with Shelley Row

Latest "Business Skills" Posts

Do you remember what it was like to fold a paper airplane? You fold the corners in on an angle so that there is a pointy end; fold the sides down into wings and there it is. A sheet of paper transformed into an airplane. And it flew! Well,…mostly.

Now, unfold the airplane and what do you see? The paper no longer lays flat; it retains the creases. Then, using the same paper, fold a new airplane but with the pointy end on the other side. You’ll find that the creases work against you. The paper fights your efforts because it already has a shape and it wants to keep its original shape. That’s the dilemma with habits from the perspective of the brain.

Think of your office. What habits are embedded in the organization that are no longer serving the organization?  The habits will show up as processes, routines (formal or informal) and ways of doing business. The organization has folded its own paper airplane and the creases in the paper are pronounced. For example, a team I managed years ago, learned over the years to put every new roadway sign or pavement marking through a long, arduous process guaranteed to take years. The individual and organizational brain was folded into a specific paper airplane and the creases were deeply formed. If we were to introduce innovation in the process, we had to unfold the old airplane and refold a new plane on top of the old one. Just as with the paper, the brain resists new folds.  So, what’s an insightful manager to do? Think like a paper airplane.

Commit. To develop a new habit, commit to it.  Refold the paper airplane with conviction; otherwise, the paper defaults into the hold pattern. You must be clear and specific about the behavior you wish to see. Make it as easy as possible for their brains to take the new pathways because the brain prefers the old paths – just as the paper more easily falls into the original folds. In my example, the team talked at length about a new streamlined process: how it would look, what steps were included; what decisions would be made along the way. Commit to the new habit.

Focus. You can’t remake every habit so focus on a high impact one. Remaking a habit is hard work. It requires considerable brain energy to use new pathways. Consequently, you are more likely to be successful if you focus on one change at a time. This allows the brain to use all available energy to remember the new approach and choose it.

Repeat and reward. Creating new habits requires effort and repetition.  If you refold a paper airplane in a new way, you may run a fingernail along the new creases so that the paper more easily follows the new path. It’s the same for creating new habits with your staff. Reinforce, reward, and repeat the new habits over and over and over until you’re tired of hearing yourself talk it. Then you may be getting through. You, as the astute leader, must maintain the vision and constantly talk about the new approach.

So, go ahead. Grab a piece of paper and make a paper airplane. You know you want to!  As you do, think about a new habit that would benefit your organization. With each fold of the paper, consider the behavior do you want to see. Can you articulate it? How will you reinforce it every day for months and years? It takes commitment, focus, repetition and reward to bring about the new habit.  But once you have it – you’ll fly!

 

Copyright: nnudoo / 123RF Stock Photo

HikingThe Isle of Skye in Scotland is laced with hiking trails. Some run through heather-covered rolling moors; some are technical climbs that scale tops of peaks; others drop to the sea along sheer cliffs. If you were setting off on a hike along one of the trails, would you do it blindly and hope that you had the equipment needed or would you consult resources to prepare appropriately?  Chances are you would read about the trail on the web, read hiking books, look at topographic maps and talk to others.  It’s a no-brainer and yet we frequently don’t leverage the resources at hand when tackling a tough task at work.

Do your homework. While on Skye, we wanted a challenging hike for our skill level. After a internet search, we found a website that categorized the hikes by difficulty and provided a description and map of the hike.  Rubna Hunish was our selection. The description included directions to the trail head, descriptions of each stage, and a topographic map of the trail. This provided an overview of the hike for general planning.

Let’s say that you face a tough task or are in a new job where every task is a bit mysterious. Rather than jumping in, start with basic research on the task, job or process.  As with the hike, you benefit from an overview of the overall the project. This allows you to plan appropriately, identify needed resources and skills; and confirm time frames for the work.  We could have gotten into a predicament without an overview of the hike. You, too, can find yourself in a predicament without proper background work.

Use other’s experience. As we began our hike, we noticed three hikers a short distance ahead. Their attire, equipment and confident manner indicated experienced hikers.  We were not. After a trek through flat, boggy, sheep-dotted land, we came to gate at the top of a steep rock cliff. “Ah,” I thought. “What a lovely over-look. I wonder where the trail went?” About then, we noticed the three hikers headed briskly through the gate. We stopped them and asked about the trail. “It’s here – down the rock to the bottom. But don’t worry, it’s not as bad as it looks. Just go slowly.” And with that they clamored down the rock face. The tops of their heads were out of sight in a flash leaving us stunned and worried.

Who do you know that has tackled this task or one like it before?  Who in your office has experience that could provide insight? Perhaps they had your job previously. Talk to them and take in their experience. Yes, that seems obvious but too often, we convince ourselves that our project is unique and the experience of others isn’t relevant. Maybe it’s pride, self-reliance, or the fear of appearing unknowledgeable that holds us back from seeking insight from others. On the hiking trail, it would have been foolish to proceed without information from books, maps and especially the experienced hikers.

Look outside your industry. If there is no one in your office with experiences similar to the challenges you face, you can leverage experience outside the organization. Associations, mastermind groups, professional friendships, or mentors are excellent resources for bouncing around ideas and approaches to a difficult task.  Have you looked to others for insight and tips for tackling your task?  A few inquiries can save time, resources and stress.

We stepped through the gate and surveyed the precipitous drop, the peninsula dotted with sheep and ocean below. One wrong step and there was no recovery.  “It’s not as bad as it looks,” the hikers had told us. Without that bit of information, we would have turned around and missed an amazing experience. One step here; another step there; a pole planted for balance; a hand on the rock and one step more. And sure enough, it wasn’t as bad as it looked.

You might not literally tumble down a cliff, but you can make your task easier and more likely to succeed by talking to others and learning from their experience. It’s the smart move.  It’s not as bad as it looks.

 

If you’ve read my blog for long, you won’t be surprised to hear that travel is very important to me. I find that time spent in other environments, cultures and fresh activities expands my thinking, allows me to reconnect to my values, and put into expanded practice the healthy habits I encourage my readers and clients to use.

I’ve had a full and rich season of speaking, consulting and business travel over the last few months. Most recently, I so enjoyed conducting the webinar on the role of motivation in management and using brain-friendly techniques to lead our teams well.

I am now turning my attention to a two-week vacation, and some “down time,” in Scotland. I plan to fully embrace this opportunity.  Because of my trip, there won’t be a blog post or newsletter for a couple of weeks, although I expect plenty of inspiration for future posts!

I encourage you to carve out time for a break for yourself soon, too. It will help you treat your brain well, and ready you for insightful decision-making without overthinking.

‘Til next time,

Shelley

InfotuitionOne-and-two-and-three-and-four… My dad sat next to me counting out the beats as I practiced the clarinet. Night after night he taught and I learned. I was good but was never going to be the next Bennie Goodman. Nonetheless, I read and play music and appreciate the true virtuosos. My life is enriched by my knowledge.

Today my work is in helping others discover how to use both cognition and intuition in complex decision-making when data alone is not enough. I call it infotuition – the intersection of business pragmatics with gut feel. Frequently I hear, “You can’t teach an intuitive business sense. You have to be born with it.” Au-contraire. I firmly believe you can enhance your infotuitive skill because I’ve done it. To be clear, I’m not talking about gazing into a crystal ball or reading tarot cards. Infotuition is accessing the wisdom stored in both the cognitive and intuitive part of your brain for use in a business environment.

Decisions that swim in uncertainty and ambiguity can’t be made by using the cognitive part of your brain alone. You must tap into gut feel. It’s real and it’s valuable. Like learning music or another skill, you must want to learn. Here are five tips.

1. Value it. You must place value in infotuition. Of 75 leaders I interviewed, 74 of them attest to the value of their intuition or gut feel. They learned from trial and error that the nagging feeling provided wisdom that warranted their attention. Neuroscience shows that we store information in parts of our brain that communicate through feeling. Further, your gut has the same neurotransmitters found in the brain. But the gut and the intuitive brain do not access language. Nagging feelings are their communication tools.

2. Apply yourself. Let’s say that you’re the analytical type (like me). You cultivated, developed and value logical, rational thought. The logical part of your brain is skilled and it feels good to use it. Great. Hold on to that information and balance it with intuitive wisdom. It’s as though you go to the gym and only exercised your left arm. It’s strong but the right arm is neglected. You must commit to exercising both the left and right arms. It’s the same with your brain – which is a muscle. If you apply yourself you can develop the intuitive part of your brain and use it in a skilled way. Neuroscience tells us that we develop new behaviors and skills through intentional focus. It’s called self-directed neuroplasticity.

3. Start early. The brain is plastic particularly early in life. That’s why it’s easier to learn new skills – like music – early in life. Start early in your career to engage in diverse activities that build a storehouse of experiences in your brain. And I don’t mean just work activities. Your brain draws on lessons from all aspects of life. Put yourself is positions where you must make decisions. Look for opportunities that allow you to take some risk. Then consider both fact and feeling as you decide. Notice the nagging voice and give it a name. Naming the feeling makes it more tangible and allows you to work with it. With each decision you develop experience…and your brain.

4. Start now. Okay, so you’re not early in your career. You can still cultivate infotuitive skills because the brain retains some plasticity throughout your life. It’s not too late! Plant reminders to prompt you to think, “What am I feeling about this issue? What’s bugging me about the decision?” Pay attention to your answers. Those prompts will surface additional information to inform your decision.

5. Practice. Whether early or late in your career, practice cultivates your infotuitive sense – your gut feel. You don’t have to find the time because you are always practicing every minute of every day. Are you practicing behaviors that serve you? Do you practice noticing the nagging feeling? Practice plus intentional focus will teach your brain new tricks. In time, infotuition will become a habit. It’s takes effort and, to end at the beginning, you have to want it.

Sure, some people have a knack for sensing the intricacies of a complex situation. They intuitively sense how others will respond and how a scenario will play out. They are the virtuosos. Just because they are virtuosos doesn’t mean you can’t develop your own skill to a new level of competence. My musical ability will never rival Shakira’s, but I learned enough to enjoy playing, appreciate the great artists and enrich my life. You can do the same with infotuition.

“Just the facts: they speak for themselves.” That’s the approach many take when they want to persuade someone to their point of view.

But do they speak for themselves? Not so much.

From my technical background, I have observed a fact-based approach to persuasion many times but rarely successfully. It’s no wonder. The brain isn’t designed to respond to facts alone. Analytical people are responsive to reasoned arguments more often than others are; however, even they need to be motivated to pay attention. A logical argument takes a lot of energy and is less likely to work for most people

Thankfully, there are other persuasive techniques that are more promising. (Kevin Dutton’s work provides excellent insights into persuasion). After all, when persuading someone, the goal is to get to “yes,” you see (YES, UC).

1. You-focused. “What interests you about this issue?” And, “We want to address your questions first.” The word “you” is powerful. It is immediately relevant and it is always about our favorite subject. However, all too often, we are so preoccupied with our view that we think too little about theirs.

Before starting the persuasive argument, consider how the issue looks from their perspective. Why is it of interest to them? Given their background, what viewpoint are they likely to have and why? (This presumes that you did the research to know their background and preferences.) How can you put their interests in the forefront of the discussion? When you figure that out, start the discussion with that point of view. The first point can be the most influential.

2. Empathetic. People are more easily persuaded if they have a sense of relatedness, which leads to empathy. A lack of empathy can have the opposite effect. A 2002 study of doctors found that those with a less empathetic tone of voice were sued more often. Empathy counts a lot. Before beginning a persuasive discussion, take stock of the ways you connect with this person – schools, sports teams, background, and hobbies. Use examples or analogies based on these connections that reinforce your persuasive points. This is a step toward establishing empathy.

We like people better if we feel an empathetic connection. Mirror neurons help if we allow ourselves to notice the expressions, postures and feel of the other person. We start to feel what they feel. But we don’t pick up these subtle clues if we are thinking about a practical argument and push aside feelings. Relax so that you pick up on feeling clues.

3. Simple. A leader once told me, “If I can’t explain it, I can’t sell it.” Exactly. A pile of detailed, convoluted data rarely sells the idea. Neither will a barrage of multiple points. Make it easy for them to grasp and remember. What is the one thing you want them to remember, do, or agree to? Is it simple, clear and unambiguous? The reasoning part of the brain (prefrontal cortex) is energy intensive. It is easily derailed by fatigue, distraction or emotion. If you catch the person when they are tired or stressed, their ability to focus on detailed arguments is reduced. Keep it simple; include factual and emotional appeals; state the main point first and throughout. Repetition sticks. Repetition sticks.

4. Unexpected. We tend to be captivated by and remember the unexpected. Brain research shows that the emotion center in the brain (amygdala) is more sensitive to unexpected stimuli whether positive or negative. In a study, diners were divided into three groups. At the end of the meal, one group received a single candy; the second group received two candies; the third group received one candy but the server stopped as though having a change of heart, returned and gave an additional candy. The increased tip amounts (compared to the control group) for each group were 3.3%, 14.1% and a whopping 23% for the last group. The unexpected nice treatment caused a positive emotional reaction.

A friend of mine tried to persuade a company to hire her. She happened to be traveling to Maine after her interview. She mailed them a live lobster with a thank you note, and shortly afterward she got the job. Is there an unexpected twist you can add to your argument – something visual, tactile, or humorous? The unexpected turn will be more persuasive.

5. Confident. Confident and credible people are more persuasive. Walk in straight and tall; look them in the eye; have a firm handshake, and speak with confidence. A truly confident person doesn’t need to be a bully because they exude an air of self-assurance. A confident person is also open to hearing others’ concerns. If you sense concern, acknowledge it. Negative feelings come from a threat response in the brain. The threat response is reduced when the feeling is acknowledged. “I’m picking up that this topic is uncomfortable/not resonating/disagreeable for you. Tell me more about that.” There is no defensiveness but rather a confident interest in understanding fully.

Facts alone rarely lead to persuasion. Improve your persuasive approach by focusing on “you” statements, creating an empathetic connection, keeping the message simple, using an unexpected twist and exuding a quiet, confidence. YES, UC will make a difference. You’ll see.

 

PaintingSix little girls about eight-years old, a mom with her small son, and me and my friend, Patti. We were at Painting With a Twist in South Austin. A blank, white canvas and a paper plate (a perfect substitute for a palette) with puddles of paint in vibrant colors was in front of each of us. In the front of the room, the instructor stood with a microphone to give instructions as she demonstrated each step.

Just start. With confidence she said, “Take a big scoop of dark blue paint and paint a line across the canvas.” Easy for her to say!  We all stared at the dollops of paint and the pristine white canvas and paused. It felt a bit intimidating.  Have you ever felt that way before starting a big project? There is a hurdle of inertia to clear just to begin. Sometimes we procrastinate so it’s key to just start.  Do anything to take that first step. Take a big gulp of courage, dip in the brush and boldly, as though you know what you’re doing, paint a bright blue line across the whiteness. There, now. You’re underway.

Plan ahead. We were painting a Van Gogh-like design of a beach with a “Starry Night” motif. The instructor showed us where to paint the sun and the wind but she said to plan ahead as there were dashes to be painted around the sun. If we weren’t careful, there wouldn’t be room for all the other features.  It’s the same with our work.  The successful manager is always planning ahead. What are the next steps? What factors need to be anticipated? Is the schedule designed to accommodate the unexpected?  The unexpected should be expected

Give it time. At a couple of intervals during our painting session, we paused to let the first layer of paint dry so we could paint over the top of it with another color. As we waited, the little girls grew restless and fidgety. But if we rushed and tackled the next step too soon, the colors would swirl together and the design would be lost.  Many times, we rush the next steps.  There’s much to be said for carefully pacing work and allowing time for each step to be socialized.  “Waiting for paint to dry” might include discussing your project with those from whom you need support. It might be collaborating with those involved in the next step. It might simply be giving yourself and others a break from the onslaught of work. Whatever it is, give it time so that the next step isn’t rushed.

Go with what you’ve got. As we finished our paintings, around the room we heard: “My tree is too big!” “My beach ball is lopsided!” “My leaves ran off the edge of the canvas!” Even Patti and I grimaced, “My coconuts don’t look right.” But when we stepped back and looked around the room, we were surrounded by happy smiles and brightly painted canvases.  Yes, there were some ….hmmm, irregularities, but we each had more right than wrong. And, again, there’s a parallel with our work. We tend to quickly identify the irregularities without noticing the color, design and vibrancy. We fixate on what’s wrong and miss the majority of things that are right.

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