The Voice for Insightful Leadership with Shelley Row, P.E.

Your Search for purpose

DanubeOnce upon a time, we sat together on our piano bench listening to a recording of Johann Strauss’ Blue Danube Waltz. The music floated along – pretty, but unremarkable to my school-girl ears. My dad, a school band director, explained to me that the music represented the Danube River in Europe. He pulled out a worn volume of the encyclopedia Britannica and found a map showing the Danube cutting through Germany, Austria, Hungary, Czechoslovakia (at that time) and more. The far-away places seemed exotic and the music more interesting. Something clicked in my brain. Strauss was writing about a real place. “Someday, maybe I will see those places,” I thought to myself.

Fast forward 40+ years. My husband and I are in Vienna, Austria and planning a day-trip to Bratislava. We have two choices: travel by bus or by boat. The bus was cheaper and faster which made the decision obvious. However, the boat ride was along the Danube. Ahhh….now music played in my head; my dad was telling me about the waltz; and my love of new travel experiences kicked in. We took the boat.

Bus versus boat was a small, low-risk decision – but still a decision. The dynamic that played out in this decision also plays out in bigger decisions. Like the three beats in a waltz, three factors, story, purpose and information, dance together in the decision-making process. Let’s look at each and how you can apply them for decision-making.

Information: We collected the information we needed for our travel decision. The boat was three times more expensive than the bus and took 20 minutes longer. Both had convenient departure locations. That was the basic information we needed.

Now consider a decision you face. What information do you need and what can you get within the timeframe available? This is likely the easiest part of the decision-making process. Facts, logic and rational thought are necessary for sound decision-making. Gather up all the relevant information that is reasonably possible. Factual information connects in the newest part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex. This is where the executive control function resides that integrates information for decision-making. The language comprehension center is also activated. And that’s about it. Notice that factual information is heady and sterile.

Some decisions can appropriately be made with facts alone; however, as humans, there are likely to be other motivators. In our case, the boat trip was not the most practical or economical decision but the decision derived from its connection to story and purpose. So many times we try to make decisions only based on the facts and we disregard the power of feelings in decision-making. Don’t get me wrong, the facts are essential, but we lose effectiveness when that’s the only thing we consider.

Story: From the moment we learned there was an option to travel along the Danube from Vienna to Bratislava, I thought of my dad and the music. I remembered how he taught me to listen for the slight hesitation after the downbeat before the ba-ba of the waltz. My brain sent a cascade of good feelings. Why is that?

The brain is designed to connect with stories. We make a mistake if we believe that a decision will be made by fact alone. Far better to recognize the power of a story that is activated in your brain. Consider the research behind stories and the brain. Whereas facts activate a couple of brain regions, stories activate up to seven areas in the brain, depending on the nature of the story. These areas might include movement, scent, touch, language, sound, colors and shapes. The Danube memory activated movement, language, sound, and color (blue) at a minimum. Stories, particularly those with multiple dimensions capture the attention of the brain and they are more easily remembered than straight facts.

Test it out yourself. The chances are good that you can recall the backstory about someone or a situation more easily that that statistics. Perhaps you know your boss is an amateur photographer because of a story she shared about photographing her kid’s soccer match. You are more likely to remember this tidbit because of the story. The story connects your boss with you. Maybe you have kids or played soccer or like photography. The story brings up images of soccer fields, the smell of grass, the feel of sun and the joy of kids at play. Stories are more memorable.

Research indicates that people accept ideas more readily when in story mode than in fact mode. Stories captivate the listener (or reader), connect at an emotional level, and transport you across the narrative. Consider a 2007 study by Vanderbilt researcher, Jennifer Edson Escalas, who found that people responded more positively to advertisements in story form than in straightforward fact form. Additionally, if the listener/reader is familiar with or relates to the story, they feel connected and more inclined toward empathy. Connection has been shown to activate the reward center in the brain, which promotes good feeling. Many of us are more inclined toward a decision that feels good than one that feels bad.

When I worked for the U.S. Department of Transportation, we had a significant project that needed a decision from the Secretary. Before the briefing, those who knew him best told me, “Just tell him a story.” We did. We told a story about transportation safety, the number of people killed each year, and opportunity technology held to save lives. We backed the story up with facts and analysis but we led with the story.

Purpose: My dad frequently told me stories about foreign lands. He captivated my imagination and instilled a desire for new and different experiences which became part of my value system. Never having seen the Danube, the opportunity to boat down it resonated with an important part of my life.

It’s not just me. In interviews with leaders, most expressed the important role their value system plays in decision-making. People instinctually resonate with decisions in sync with the values, principles or purpose that make them tick. It’s what Simon Sinek calls your “why.” For the Secretary, safety was a major initiative for his administration and, more importantly, a topic he cared personally about. It was part of his purpose. Our project connected with the stated strategic plan for the Department and it connected to his personal motivator.

As you consider your next big decision why do you care about the decision? What makes you interested in the issue? What gets you excited about the decision? Keep asking “why” until you sense where it links up with your values. That’s when you find a key motivator behind the decision. If you must persuade a decision-maker, ask yourself why they care? How can you connect the decision with a core motivator for them? If you don’t know what motivates them, ask around and see what you uncover.

The next time you face a decision, don’t stop with information alone. Facts are rarely sufficient by themselves. Consider the dance between information, story and purpose. Notice the senses that activate in your brain from stories behind the decision. Take time to understand how the decision connects with your purpose.
Information, story and purpose flow together at the moment of decision just like the three beats in the Blue Danube Waltz.

 

i.www.slideshare.net/ethos3/the-neuroscience-of-storytelling-for-presentations
ii.Hsu, Jeremy, The Secrets of Storytelling, Scientific American, August/September 2008.

 

Once upon a time, we sat together on our piano bench listening to a recording of Johann Strauss’ Blue Danube Waltz. The music floated along – pretty, but unremarkable to my school-girl ears. My dad, a school band director, explained to me that the music represented the Danube River in Europe. He pulled out a worn volume of the encyclopedia Britannica and found a map showing the Danube cutting through Germany, Austria, Hungary, Czechoslovakia (at that time) and more. The far-away places seemed exotic and the music more interesting. Something clicked in my brain. Strauss was writing about a real place. “Someday, maybe I will see those places,” I thought to myself.

Fast forward 40+ years. My husband and I are in Vienna, Austria and planning a day-trip to Bratislava. We have two choices: travel by bus or by boat. The bus was cheaper and faster which made the decision obvious. However, the boat ride was along the Danube. Ahhh….now music played in my head; my dad was telling me about the waltz; and my love of new travel experiences kicked in. We took the boat.

Bus versus boat was a small, low-risk decision – but still a decision. The dynamic that played out in this decision also plays out in bigger decisions. Like the three beats in a waltz, three factors, story, purpose and information, dance together in the decision-making process. Let’s look at each and how you can apply them for decision-making.

Information: We collected the information we needed for our travel decision. The boat was three times more expensive than the bus and took 20 minutes longer. Both had convenient departure locations. That was the basic information we needed.

Now consider a decision you face. What information do you need and what can you get within the timeframe available? This is likely the easiest part of the decision-making process. Facts, logic and rational thought are necessary for sound decision-making. Gather up all the relevant information that is reasonably possible. Factual information connects in the newest part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex. This is where the executive control function resides that integrates information for decision-making. The language comprehension center is also activated. And that’s about it. Notice that factual information is heady and sterile.

Some decisions can appropriately be made with facts alone; however, as humans, there are likely to be other motivators. In our case, the boat trip was not the most practical or economical decision but the decision derived from its connection to story and purpose. So many times we try to make decisions only based on the facts and we disregard the power of feelings in decision-making. Don’t get me wrong, the facts are essential, but we lose effectiveness when that’s the only thing we consider.

Story: From the moment we learned there was an option to travel along the Danube from Vienna to Bratislava, I thought of my dad and the music. I remembered how he taught me to listen for the slight hesitation after the downbeat before the ba-ba of the waltz. My brain sent a cascade of good feelings. Why is that?

The brain is designed to connect with stories. We make a mistake if we believe that a decision will be made by fact alone. Far better to recognize the power of a story that is activated in your brain. Consider the research behind stories and the brain. Whereas facts activate a couple of brain regions, stories activate up to seven areas in the brain, depending on the nature of the story. These areas might include movement, scent, touch, language, sound, colors and shapes. The Danube memory activated movement, language, sound, and color (blue) at a minimum. Stories, particularly those with multiple dimensions capture the attention of the brain and they are more easily remembered than straight facts.

Test it out yourself. The chances are good that you can recall the backstory about someone or a situation more easily that that statistics. Perhaps you know your boss is an amateur photographer because of a story she shared about photographing her kid’s soccer match. You are more likely to remember this tidbit because of the story. The story connects your boss with you. Maybe you have kids or played soccer or like photography. The story brings up images of soccer fields, the smell of grass, the feel of sun and the joy of kids at play. Stories are more memorable.

Research indicates that people accept ideas more readily when in story mode than in fact mode. Stories captivate the listener (or reader), connect at an emotional level, and transport you across the narrative. Consider a 2007 study by Vanderbilt researcher, Jennifer Edson Escalas, who found that people responded more positively to advertisements in story form than in straightforward fact form. Additionally, if the listener/reader is familiar with or relates to the story, they feel connected and more inclined toward empathy. Connection has been shown to activate the reward center in the brain, which promotes good feeling. Many of us are more inclined toward a decision that feels good than one that feels bad.

When I worked for the U.S. Department of Transportation, we had a significant project that needed a decision from the Secretary. Before the briefing, those who knew him best told me, “Just tell him a story.” We did. We told a story about transportation safety, the number of people killed each year, and opportunity technology held to save lives. We backed the story up with facts and analysis but we led with the story.

 
Purpose: My dad frequently told me stories about foreign lands. He captivated my imagination and instilled a desire for new and different experiences which became part of my value system. Never having seen the Danube, the opportunity to boat down it resonated with an important part of my life.

It’s not just me. In interviews with leaders, most expressed the important role their value system plays in decision-making. People instinctually resonate with decisions in sync with the values, principles or purpose that make them tick. It’s what Simon Sinek calls your “why.” For the Secretary, safety was a major initiative for his administration and, more importantly, a topic he cared personally about. It was part of his purpose. Our project connected with the stated strategic plan for the Department and it connected to his personal motivator.

As you consider your next big decision why do you care about the decision? What makes you interested in the issue? What gets you excited about the decision? Keep asking “why” until you sense where it links up with your values. That’s when you find a key motivator behind the decision. If you must persuade a decision-maker, ask yourself why they care? How can you connect the decision with a core motivator for them? If you don’t know what motivates them, ask around and see what you uncover.

The next time you face a decision, don’t stop with information alone. Facts are rarely sufficient by themselves. Consider the dance between information, story and purpose. Notice the senses that activate in your brain from stories behind the decision. Take time to understand how the decision connects with your purpose.
Information, story and purpose flow together at the moment of decision just like the three beats in the Blue Danube Waltz.

i. www.slideshare.net/ethos3/the-neuroscience-of-storytelling-for-presentations
ii. Hsu, Jeremy, The Secrets of Storytelling, Scientific American, August/September 2008.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We were having dinner at a friend’s house and admiring his family memorabilia neatly arrayed in the bookshelves. There were the kid’s sailing trophies, family photos, delicate antique demitasse cups and a bright blue tube. A bright blue tube? “What’s that?” I asked. “Oh….it’s a kaleidoscope,” my friend replied. “Here, try it.” As I turned the tube, colors swirled and twirled. Each small movement altered the view and each view was as lovely as the other.

Why can’t we bring a kaleidoscopic view of the world into our workplace and into our leadership? When it comes to new perspectives, your brain works against you. It’s easier on the brain to see the world, to see a person or to see a decision as you’ve always seen it. But, with a little effort, other views – just as relevant – become visible. It’s as though you slightly turn the kaleidoscope.

Here are three areas where a kaleidoscopic world view is particularly valuable to your leadership and life.

See personnel situations from several perspectives – A disgruntled employee complains to you about his co-worker who they “just can’t work with,” and the list of grievances starts. In that moment, their argument sounds reasonable and valid. But, when you ‘turn the kaleidoscope’, you can likely see opportunities for misunderstanding, miscommunication and differing opinions. There are at least two sides to every story. It’s best to, first, seek out other perspectives; second, help the employee see beyond their singular view, and perhaps facilitate a conversation that highlights varied views of the situation.

See options for big decisions –When faced with a big decision, the brain prefers familiar solutions because, for the brain, the familiar is a short cut that feels effortless. However, big decisions benefit from a kaleidoscopic view. Here’s a technique that I discovered in a Harvard Business Review. As you debate a big decision and your team comes up with the expected approach, ask, “Let’s pretend that this option is not available to us. If not this approach, then what could we do?” This is a simple and effective way to force a shifted perspective. It’s as though you turn the kaleidoscope. Plus, you can use the same question repeatedly until you have a range of options upon which to base the decision.

See that it’s not always personal – Whether it’s with family, friends or co-workers, situations inevitably arise where feelings get hurt or questions arise in your mind. An offhand comment makes you feel peeved and you think, “That was an insensitive remark.” Or, maybe you’re left out of a meeting and you wonder, “Did they leave me out on purpose? Is the boss trying to tell me something?” In those moments, turn the kaleidoscope to see another perspective. In my experience, these situations are almost always explained away when viewed from a different viewpoint. Before letting your mind run away with your first interpretation, shift your outlook to find a different interpretation – one that doesn’t have you at the center.

Kaleidoscopes remind us that there’s always another way to see the world. Even a small rotation shifts the image, shifts the interpretation, and shifts the options. As an insightful leader, you must see a variety of views. And maybe you’ll discover that, like the kaleidoscope, each view is beautiful in its own way.

You’ve been there: a dull presentation; a pointless meeting; a boring training program. And, maybe you’ve given a tedious presentation, presided over an unenthusiastic meeting or provided training when no one seemed engaged.  It doesn’t have to be that way and the fix is surprisingly easy. Here are four steps to creating engagement and retention in your audience.

  1. Purpose. In my experience, far too little time is spent clarifying purpose. For a meeting, what is the one action you want from the meeting or the participants?  For a presentation, what difference have you made for the audience one week or one month later?  For training, what difference have you made for the audience one year later? Maybe they leave with their perspective shifted in a meaningful way, or they behave differently, or they conduct their work in a new way. Whatever it is, the key to successful engagement is clarity on the outcome.
  2. Knowledge. Once you’re clear on the purpose, what knowledge does the participant need to achieve the purpose? They may require specific education, awareness of key facts or development of core skills. Identify the essential elements of learning they need to achieve the purpose.
  3. Application. Here’s the one big difference between what you did in the past and this new approach. For each element of knowledge from step 2, how can you help the participants (whether in a meeting, presentation or training) apply it in their work world? What questions can you ask to pique their interest? What discussion can you engage in that will cause them to think about application? When you present or run a meeting, it’s easy to think that you are the key person; however, the action is in the heads of the participants.  Your job is to get them to think. Learning happens in their heads when they apply the new idea to their world. Retention comes from application.
  4. Reflection. It seems counterintuitive but an excellent way to increase engagement and retention is to provide a few minutes of quiet time at the end of the presentation, meeting or training. Don’t misunderstand. This is not nap time or time to check emails. This is intentional time for the participant to think about their new understanding. Questions may include: What does this new knowledge mean to your work? What will you do differently? What new realization do you have about yourself or your world view? These questions make your content personal to them. When it’s personal to them, they care, and they remember.

The next time you have an important meeting, presentation or training, try these steps.  It is guaranteed to create engagement and retention because they do the thinking and that means they remember.

Taking the temperature of the room doesn’t mean too hot or too cold. It means taking the emotional temperature of the people in the room. Taking the emotional temperature gives you an edge to enhance productivity. Here’s an example.

It was an exhausting meeting, but we knew it would be exhausting. The strategic planning discussion would set the future direction and tone for the organization.

We started by taking the temperature in the room. “Before we begin, let’s check in. How do you feel as we start this strategic discussion?” Around the room we heard: “optimistic, guarded, enthusiastic, hopeful, anxious”.

We took the emotional temperature again at the end of the meeting. “As we wrap up the discussion, how do you feel about where our strategic discussion ended?” This time… “Satisfied, overwhelmed, encouraged, worried, energized.”

How is it helpful to take the emotional temperature?

All meetings and conversations have an emotional component. It’s the way we are designed as humans. We feel first and think second. The emotional state of the people in the room impacts the nature of their participation, the outcome of the discussion and future productivity. You can either gain intelligence about the emotional state in the room or find out about it (or not) outside of the room from hallway conversations. It’s best to know it in the moment so that you can manage more effectively.

In a well-planned meeting, you thought through the purpose, you have an agenda and you manage the discussion. But, all meetings and conversations have an emotional undertone which we often overlook. Just as you would get facts on the table, it’s best to get emotional content on the table, too.  It’s not hard to do.  The simple question that I offered in my strategic planning meeting does the trick. Stating the emotional state of mind up front and at the end serves two functions.

For individuals. The emotional state of each participant is at work under the surface. That emotion colors participants’ decision-making, engagement level and their motivation during and after the discussion. When you ask them to voice their emotional state it brings the emotion into focus for them. When they state it out loud, it validates the feeling and lessens the impact. (Research shows that validation of feeling reduces the brain’s threat response.)

For leaders. As the meeting leader, when you take the emotional temperature at the beginning of a meeting, you gain critical information that allows you to more adeptly manage the meeting. When I hear someone say “enthusiastic,” I know to engage them so that their enthusiasm impacts others. When I hear, “concern,” I know to listen closely to understand more. At the end of the meeting, if I still hear “concern” or “overwhelm,” I know to follow up and learn more so that we are more likely to attain the objective.

Try taking the temperature before and after your next important meeting. Notice the additional information it gives you to more effectively manage the meeting. It’s a simple and powerful technique. Let me know how it goes!

Photo by Vladischern

It was a beautiful fall day in Keystone, Colorado. The aspen were gold and the sun highlighted the crevasses in the mountains that guarded the lake. It was a perfect time to rent a kayak and paddle around under the blue sky. My friend is an experienced kayaker. I am not.  But…how hard can it be? It’s a kayak.

Truthfully, it wasn’t hard to paddle around. It was just difficult to get to a specific point on the lake – just as it can be difficult to reach the goal that you set in your organization. Here are three points gleaned from paddling on a Colorado lake that can help you reach your organizational goals.

  1. Set a clear goal. “Let’s paddle to that grove of trees on the point,” my friend said. I replied, “Which grove of trees on which point?” It took discussion and lots of pointing to clarify which grove of trees on which point of land.  It’s the same in your organization.  The goal may seem crystal clear to you. It’s unlikely to be that clear to others. Talk about the goal with your staff and team. Engage them in discussion. What behavior will you all see when the goal is achieved? What specific outcome will be realized and how will you know?  This is the only way to ensure that everyone is working toward the same end.
  2. Adjust constantly. Off we went toward our grove of trees. But it wasn’t that easy. We negotiated how we would paddle together without knocking each other’s paddle. Plus, the light breeze blew the kayak away from the point of land.  We were constantly compensating for the breeze and an occasional boat wake. Similarly, how will your team work together and not get in each other’s way? It’s not that easy. Personality conflicts, incomplete communication and busy schedules get in the way of coordinated work. I’ve seen it first hand in my organization and in those organizations with whom I work. Busy staff don’t talk to co-workers – even briefly – to discover that they are doing the same work or that they are working at cross-purposes. It takes constant communication to make course corrections. In my office, each project had a detailed road map to guide the work. Even with the road map, it was essential that we read the “breeze” in the organization and adjust. As your work progresses, what do you know today that you didn’t know when you started? What course corrections are called for? Become an observer of the staff and their communication styles.  Who is working well together and who continues to paddle at cross-purposes? An adjustment in staff roles can better align natural communication styles for more productive work.
  3. Anticipate. As we paddled, it looked like we were on track – heading straight for the point – but with one extra paddle stroke, we’d gone too far. I didn’t anticipate the momentum of the kayak and adjust my paddling in time. It took more time and effort to reach the point. Are you reading the situation and anticipating the next steps? Every office has momentum – work flows that are set in motion, processes that are half completed. You must anticipate where the momentum takes you and adjust in advance before the need is obvious. This is the work of the insightful leader. Are you a keen observer of the work flow, the patterns in the office and the external influences? It’s only then that you can anticipate the trajectory and course correct before others realize it’s needed.

We made it to the point – eventually. I learned that I have a lot to learn about kayaking. On the surface, it looks easy, but the art of kayaking takes skill and intentional thought. Providing wise leadership is the same. Data isn’t enough. You must be an astute observer of the people and work to stay on course.

 

Copyright: wavebreakmediamicro / 123RF Stock Photo

brain wiring

You’re wired to see what you already believe. It’s a simple statement but the implications for decision-making are complex. What you already believe is built layer upon layer from your experiences which create a filter through which you see the world. Good decision-making relies on understanding how your brain’s filter colors perception and influences interpretation.

The brain is designed to be efficient and make good use of its energy.  The most energy efficient approach is for the brain to take in information around you and make it fit into your personal filter system. It may not be 100% correct, but it is efficient.  Take for example what happened to me last Christmas.

First, a word about my filter. My dad was a band director in the local high school in our small Texas town which was not a hot-bed of culture.  In our household, talk was not of cattle and farm equipment but of music.  I was the only 4th grader in town who could pick out an oboe by sight or sound.  Now fast-forward to last Christmas. I was driving past our local Salvation Army building.  Think about the Salvation Army particularly around the holidays. On this cold morning, there was a sign outside their local headquarters that read, “Bell ringers needed.”

“Wow.” I thought. “I didn’t know the Salvation Army had a bell choir! That sounds like fun.  I wonder when they meet?” I was a mile down the road before my brain began to register, “….Wait a minute. Bell ringers? Salvation Army? Oh….not a bell choir.”   My brain was wired to see what it already believed.

Now take that characteristic of the brain into decision-making.   Your brain is designed to create meaning from what it experiences based on your history. For example, if you interview someone who grew up in an environment similar to yours, your brain will naturally endow them with attributes from your experience which may not reflect their reality. You may also interview someone from a different background or culture. Your brain naturally doesn’t connect with them as easily. It may feel more effortful.

As a leader who makes tough decisions, you must be aware of and vigilant to this natural tendency. If not, you will only hire people you relate to, you can underestimate key trends that your brain doesn’t register, and you may ignore input from staff you if you don’t relate to them.

So how do you counteract your brain’s predisposition to see what you already believe.

  1. Seek out information from those with differing backgrounds. A male leader I interviewed said that he purposefully seeks input from women leaders because they “connect the dots better than men. They see things relationally where I don’t.” He forces his brain to see a situation differently. You can gather input across gender, race, and cultural differences as ways to broaden perspective. Also, talk with those who come from a different career path or different industry. This opens up new habits of thinking.
  2. Challenge your assumptions. Your brain is constantly making assumptions in order to be efficient. Get into the practice of noticing and challenging your assumptions.  This is good practice for your staff, too. Calling out assumptions forces them and you to think more deeply about the connections the brain is making about a situation. How can you make the phrase, “challenge the assumption,” a standard part of discussion?
  3. Force consideration of a different solution. When making a decision, ask yourself what would you do if your preferred approach was not available?  The preferred approach is likely aligned with your brain’s history. Take that option off the table for the sake of discussion and exploration.  Once again, you force the brain to look beyond its own filters for options that it discarded because they don’t fit the pattern.

Your brain is designed to quickly and easily match patterns and create meaning. That serves you well in many cases. In fact, we couldn’t function if we had to reevaluate every situation during the day.  However, leaders and managers need to be aware that their brain is wired to see what it already believes.  For key decisions, take the extra time, use the additional energy and force the brain to look beyond its historical boundaries. Decision-making will improve, and your brain will be broadened for the next time.

FilterYou’re wired to see what you already believe. It’s a simple statement but the implications for decision-making are complex. What you already believe is built layer upon layer from your experiences which create a filter through which you see the world. Good decision-making relies on understanding how your brain’s filter colors perception and influences interpretation.

The brain is designed to be efficient and make good use of its energy.  The most energy efficient approach is for the brain to take in information around you and make it fit into your personal filter system. It may not be 100% correct, but it is efficient.  Take for example what happened to me last Christmas.

First, a word about my filter. My dad was a band director in the local high school in our small Texas town which was not a hot-bed of culture.  In our household, talk was not of cattle and farm equipment but of music.  I was the only 4th grader in town who could pick out an oboe by sight or sound.  Now fast-forward to last Christmas. I was driving past our local Salvation Army building.  Think about the Salvation Army particularly around the holidays. On this cold morning, there was a sign outside their local headquarters that read, “Bell ringers needed.”

“Wow.” I thought. “I didn’t know the Salvation Army had a bell choir! That sounds like fun.  I wonder when they meet?” I was a mile down the road before my brain began to register, “….Wait a minute. Bell ringers? Salvation Army? Oh….not a bell choir.”   My brain was wired to see what it already believed.

Now take that characteristic of the brain into decision-making.   Your brain is designed to create meaning from what it experiences based on your history. For example, if you interview someone who grew up in an environment similar to yours, your brain will naturally endow them with attributes from your experience which may not reflect their reality. You may also interview someone from a different background or culture. Your brain naturally doesn’t connect with them as easily. It may feel more effortful.

As a leader who makes tough decisions, you must be aware of and vigilant to this natural tendency. If not, you will only hire people you relate to, you can underestimate key trends that your brain doesn’t register, and you may ignore input from staff you if you don’t relate to them.

So how do you counteract your brain’s predisposition to see what you already believe.

  1. Seek out information from those with differing backgrounds. A male leader I interviewed said that he purposefully seeks input from women leaders because they “connect the dots better than men. They see things relationally where I don’t.” He forces his brain to see a situation differently. You can gather input across gender, race, and cultural differences as ways to broaden perspective. Also, talk with those who come from a different career path or different industry. This opens up new habits of thinking.
  2. Challenge your assumptions. Your brain is constantly making assumptions in order to be efficient. Get into the practice of noticing and challenging your assumptions.  This is good practice for your staff, too. Calling out assumptions forces them and you to think more deeply about the connections the brain is making about a situation. How can you make the phrase, “challenge the assumption,” a standard part of discussion?
  3. Force consideration of a different solution. When making a decision, ask yourself what would you do if your preferred approach was not available?  The preferred approach is likely aligned with your brain’s history. Take that option off the table for the sake of discussion and exploration.  Once again, you force the brain to look beyond its own filters for options that it discarded because they don’t fit the pattern.

Your brain is designed to quickly and easily match patterns and create meaning. That serves you well in many cases. In fact, we couldn’t function if we had to reevaluate every situation during the day.  However, leaders and managers need to be aware that their brain is wired to see what it already believes.  For key decisions, take the extra time, use the additional energy and force the brain to look beyond its historical boundaries. Decision-making will improve, and your brain will be broadened for the next time.

The rain was steady as I waited in Starbucks. We planned to meet over coffee and talk about collaborating. As usual, I anticipated a busy day working through my to-do list – the one that stretched to infinity. Each day it felt like the list grew longer, and I hung on by my fingernails. My mind raced. Follow up on leads prepare for my upcoming programs; write the next blog and more. Somewhere in there was life. That’s when Tony Diekemper walked in.

Tony is the CEO of Skyline Technology Solutions. He and I had connected through a business associate. Skyline is unlike most companies. It has a culture of integrity that employees live and practice every day. Between Tony and founder, Brian Holsonbake, they provide inspired leadership. Continue reading

Still. Quiet. It is 7am on Thanksgiving morning and not a creature is stirring. Well, that’s not completely accurate. Overhead, a seagull squawks and there’s a woop, woop of wings beating against the air as a flock of smaller birds zip past. I’m running along the waterfront in Beaufort, NC. No one else is around on this sunny, cool early morning. It’s the perfect time to give thanks.
Perhaps it’s the time of the year that causes me to pause and consider gratitude at a more leisurely pace. On a regular, jam-packed day I sense the power of being thankful but I don’t think about what it is that makes it so powerful. Today, I realize three things about gratitude.
Grounding. Explicitly acknowledging gratitude, particularly in the morning is like sinking roots into the day. Gratitude anchors me and provides strength and purpose to whatever comes the rest of that day. For me there’s a ritual. Each morning starts with affirmations and I say to myself, “I’m thankful for this day.” Next is the list – the sun, my health, the russet trees of autumn, my friends and family, the graceful, soaring pelicans – whatever strikes me in that moment. It’s an acknowledgement of the miracle of this specific day. Not tomorrow; not next week. This day. Try it yourself. Give thanks each morning for a week and notice the grounding that gratitude creates.
Openness. I don’t know why it works; I just know that it does. When I ground myself in gratitude it makes me more open and gracious to others. There’s plenty of gratitude to go around and if I let mine shine through perhaps a drop will be left behind. Whoever you run across during the ins and outs of your day, look them in the eye, smile and be grateful. It may be the person making your complicated coffee drink, the clerk at the bank, the geek squad person patiently helping you understand the new phone/tablet/laptop/all-in-one thingy, the person patiently switching over your cell-phone plan, or the check-out person who helps you and the next person and the next all day. All of those people could use a drop of gratitude. Who can you share yours with?
Not a cure all. On most days, gratitude is like a magic elixir but not on all days. There are times when worry consumes my thoughts – a health scare, financial stress, family upset. Even when I focus on gratitude it doesn’t always calm the ravaging thoughts. It reminds me of the small oak trees near the shore. They have the same hard, oval leaves as those back home in Texas but these lean away from the shore, sculpted by decades of coastal wind that blows them backward. The wind is like those worries. There are days that the wind of worry blows forcefully and pushes you backward. While gratitude doesn’t stop the worry, it does anchor you – like the roots of the oak trees. We are sculpted by hardship, unfortunate events and worry but we aren’t uprooted when grounded in gratitude.
Yes, this is a good time of year to reflect on gratitude and its power. It’s such a simple and powerful thing – to express gratitude explicitly. It changes the way you relate to others, it provides roots when things go wrong and it sets the tone for the day. Let’s pause for a moment to be grateful for today – even before we’ve experienced it – is a great way to begin. Still. Quiet. Grateful.