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

Your Search for decision making

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.



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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

IntuitionYou run the numbers, debate the pros and cons, talk to others, and now it’s time to make the decision. It should be obvious but something holds you back. There’s a tug in your gut as you struggle with an intangible feeling that there’s more to this decision than meets the eye. What do you do? Do you rationalize the facts and plow forward? Or, do you give in to the gut feel and look for the source of your unease?

Of the 77 executives and leaders I interviewed about intuition in a decision-making process, many struggled with this scenario, but most ultimately went with their gut. Continue reading

Whew! What a year it’s been. There’s nothing like a world-wide pandemic to put a spotlight on good (and bad) leadership. Here’s my list of 2020 leadership lessons and observations. How do yours stack up?

2020 leadership lessons

  • Be ready to pivot. Each day I’m impressed by the creativity we’ve seen from workplaces, restaurants, hospitals, schools, and families. We found workarounds in ways that were unimaginable a few months ago. Conferences have gone on, birthdays have been celebrated, work has been accomplished and businesses have adapted. We CAN dig deep for creativity. Let’s remember that.
  • Prove yourself wrong. Before COVID, I maintained that my speaking and training programs HAD to be in person. They were too interactive to be done virtually. I proved myself wrong. What belief did you hold before this that you proved yourself wrong? We can do a lot more than we think we can when we must.
  • Use the data. Science and data matter. They provide a foundation for decision-making. If you know my work on intuition, you may find statement surprising. However, we’ve seen the devastation when we don’t consider the science. Listening to the gut is also important but gut feel requires examination. Science, data, and gut feel are all inputs to a decision. None should be trusted blindly but all should be considered.
  • Words matter. In my work we talk about the importance of “tone at the top.” An individual can overlook that a single voice can sway an organization or jurisdiction, but, indeed, it does and always has. The words of those in authority positions validate us, educate us, inspire us, and move us to action. The words and tone coming from the top matter.
  • Communicate over and over. During periods of uncertainty, over-communicating is key. The brain’s threat response has a hair trigger and, in the absence of information, quickly weaves a negative story. We’ve seen leaders who communicate frequently and calmly. When there’s nothing new to say, they say, “There’s nothing new to say.” The lesson for leaders: Communicate over and over. When you think you’re done, start over.
  • Human connection matters. As an introvert, I confess that I’ve enjoyed working from home without the hassle of business travel. However, for me, human connection has always been within reach. For many employees, the remoteness over these months feels isolating. The top leaders I work with make a concerted effort to connect with their staff. Even with Zoom, Teams, Slack, people need to feel.
  • Appreciate the full ecosystem. Over and over, I’ve been amazed at the spider web of linkages that we share. Never had I considered the impact of a remote workforce on, well, everyone. The shoe repair person in the basement of the now-empty office building, the small take-out lunch counters, the food trucks, the security people, the toilet paper that’s no longer needed in offices but in homes. It goes on and on. No matter the area, our ecosystems are woven so tightly that small ripples impact many. “Supply chain” doesn’t do it justice. It’s more like a “supply web.” Let’s appreciate the effect of our interconnectedness.

2020 will be a year for the history books. Let’s learn from this year and keep the leadership lessons that will serve us for years to come.

What 2020 lessons in leadership did you learn this year?

What is the “whole brain approach?”

What a year it’s been! With the new year approaching perhaps you are looking for, have applied for, or are considering a new job. That can be stressful and anxiety-producing, and you can find yourself over-thinking it. (Believe me, I know!) When working with coaching clients, I encourage a whole brain approach for stress reduction and sound decision-making. When considering job opportunities with the whole brain you’ll ask yourself:

  • What do I think?
  • How do I feel?
  • What’s the long view?

Here’s a practical way to put this approach into action.

How to use the whole brain approach when job-seeking

Gather information. First, you gather the facts and fundamentals about the job.

  • What are the job responsibilities?
  • What skills are needed and how do they match up with mine? (Nothing job is a perfect fit. The job roles that are a good fit will come easily. Don’t underestimate the roles that aren’t a natural fit for your skills. They take more energy. Consider the amount of time you will be working against your natural skills.)
  • What authority does the position have?
  • What is the relationship within the organizational structure? What parts of the organization would you interface with and how?
  • To whom do you report? What do you know (or can find out) about that person? What’s their management approach? What’s their reputation in the office and in the industry?
  • What is the organizational culture?
  • Where is the organizational power (formal and informal)? How are decisions made and what role would you have in those decisions?
  • What support is provided for personal growth and development?
  • What is the pay and other benefits?

With this information, engage the neocortex (the thinking part of the brain). What do you think about the position? Is it a good fit for your skills and career path? Is the work intellectually engaging?

Check-in with your feelings. It can be easy to discount the feeling of a position. For engineers and other technically-oriented people, we are particularly prone to over-estimate the factual information and under-estimate the feel. Both, however, are essential to productive and fulfilling work. After gathering information, get quiet and consider how you feel about all you learned.

Consider the work environment that fills your energy and enables your best work. What are the characteristics of that environment? With that in mind, ask yourself:

  • How well does this position match your ideal environment?
  • How do you feel about the conversations you had with staff and others?
  • What sense did you get about the people in authority?
  • How did the culture feel?
  • What was the atmosphere like? Exciting, engaging, high energy, introspective, quiet, thoughtful, serious?
  • Is there a nagging feeling inside like a mini red flag? Don’t ignore this! Question yourself. What’s behind that feeling? Was it something said, unsaid, a tone? This is a good topic for a follow-up discussion.

Here you tap into the limbic brain (emotional center). It picks up on undercurrents that will be missed by the neocortex when it’s busy thinking. There is wisdom here that should not be ignored. Notice if you are excited and enthusiastic or a bit hesitant. No amount of factual information overcomes the feeling (or lack of feeling). The feeling you have for the position is AS IMPORTANT as the information you gathered.

Gain perspective. It’s not unusual at this point, that people get stuck. The brain over-thinks. What if it’s not what I expected? What if I don’t like it? What if they don’t follow through with the promises? There are a thousand “what ifs.” At this point, it’s time to take perspective. Remember, this is not a forever decision. Yes, your job choice impacts your career and your life. Each position you hold gives you experience and background that will always be a resource for you. However, it’s rare that you’re stuck. If the position doesn’t go as planned, make a change. If you outgrow the position, make a change.

Making the right employment decision

I don’t advocate jumping from job to job, but I do advocate for your personal power. Often in my coaching practice, a client agonizes over a job decision too long. All you can do (all any of us can do) is make the best decision you can in this moment based on the best information you have in this moment. Sometimes, you will misread the information or realize that relevant information was missing. That happens. In that moment, you make another decision that is the best one you can make in that moment.

With each position, you add to your repository of experience. Every day in your career and life feeds you. This is the foundation from which you build judgment, depth, and wisdom whether you lead thousands or yourself.

Do your research. Gather information, check-in with your feelings, remember that it’s not a forever decision and THEN make the best decision you can in this moment. That’s using the whole brain.

 

Remember back in early March, when every single decision and idea we had was met with fear and doubt, because none of us knew for certain what to expect, or how bad things were going to get? Now, after several months of settling in to so many “new normals,” perhaps it’s time to reflect on what we learned and give consideration to what strategies worked best for us in the face of adversity.

I’m fortunate enough to have spent a lot of time on the water.  While COVID-19 may have been my first time ever in a pandemic, it was not the first time I’ve been tossed around by a violent storm and lived to tell about it – I mean this figuratively and literally. The good news is, bad storms can give us perspective. They help us to see what really matters and they force us to make better decisions. Here are four important things I learned…

It was supposed to be an easy cruise. That’s what they told me.  The  47’ Morris sailboat, sailed the Newport to Bermuda race and finished second in her class. We were part of the crew sailing her back to Newport.  And, it was my first sailing trip. To say that the trip didn’t go as planned is an understatement if there ever was one. We made it back safe and sound because of the quality of the boat and the experience of the crew – except for me. When we left I still didn’t know a jib from a halyard or port from starboard.

The trip, expected to be a little more than three days, took five due to adverse weather. The only thing calm was the crew. The seas were rough almost from the start and became even rougher when we crossed the Gulf Stream. The evening we hit the Gulf Stream, we encountered three 50-knot squalls in quick succession with 10’ to 12’ seas. Due to the rough weather, the boat had a series of issues. The auto pilot stopped working on day one, the engine stopped on day two, during the storm the reef line on the mainsail broke, the halyard on the jib broke, the furler jammed, the tack of the spinnaker let go and, later, the spinnaker artfully wrapped itself around the forestay. During the worst of the storm, lines fell into the water and promptly wound themselves around the propeller shaft. I’m told that none of this is unusual but to have them all happen on one voyage was remarkable. By the time we arrived in Newport, everything I brought to wear was wet. The quick-dry fabric never dried.  Collectively, we smelled like a 50’ wet tennis shoe. Are we having fun yet?

As I lay in the narrow bunk, heeled 30 degrees, I listening to the storm tear at the boat and sails. And, I listened to the crew tackle each adversity calmly, collaboratively, decisively and transparently. Do you do the same when adversity hits your organization?

Calm. It was one problem after another in quick succession in rough weather. It would have been unnerving except for the calm of the captain. With each calamity, he talked to the crew – no raised voice, panic, or exasperation. The intensity of the situation stood in clear contrast to his calm demeanor.  As an insightful leader, how do you manage stress and outwardly demonstrate calm?

Collaborate. When a problem was solved, something else broke. Each time, the captain collaborated with the crew. What happened? What are the pros/cons of each option? This was no dictatorship. Neither was it a democracy. It was informed leadership. How do you collaborate under stress to capture and objectively weigh all options? Our captain based his decisions on crew input. Do you truly listen to others?

Decisive. The conversations between the captain and crew were quick, succinct and decisive. The captain listened, made a decision, and that was that. Other ideas were dropped, and action was taken. Are your decisions crisp, clear and strong? Once you decide, don’t waiver. There’s time later to evaluate and adjust. For now, give staff clear directions to follow.

Transparent. We were in a tough spot. Some of us were not experienced sailors and the situation was a wee bit unnerving (to say the least). It would have been easy for the captain to sugar-coat our predicament under the pretense of not alarming us.  Instead, he was honest and transparent. In a matter-of-fact manner, he shared the realities of each situation and decision. The transparency was reassuring and created trust. Are you being transparent with your staff about difficult situations? Yes, some topics can’t be discussed openly, and it is not constructive to publicly debate every option.  However, once a decision is made, it is helpful to share the decision, the rationale behind the decision and the implications. People understand that not everything goes as expected, but people don’t like to be in the dark. That creates suspicion and erodes trust. Transparency does the opposite.

I confess that I’m not ready for another cruise like this one, but I’m grateful for the crew and for the lessons: be calm, collaborate, be decisive and transparent.

Have you been able to weather the storms that hit you both professionally and personally, this year? What about your finances or your relationships? The good news is, bad storms can give us perspective. They help us to see what really matters and they force us to make better decisions.

Next time you’re dealing with the raging winds and powerful waves of the storms surrounding your business or your personal life, keep these four anchors in mind!

Use This Checklist to Evaluate Your Program! (agency)

Trust is the currency of public agencies. You need trust to work effectively with elected leaders, to successfully argue for your agency’s funding, and to build relationships with citizens who pass judgment on your performance. While it is essential to have technically proficient staff and technically sound recommendations, it is equally or even more important to have staff who listen with empathy, speak succinctly and clearly, and make the boss/citizen/politician feel that they “get” them. These are the skills that staff use to create trust. These are the skills that need your professional development investment now.

The current environment foreshadows a future for public agencies with tighter revenue, constrained travel, and stressed staff. When belt-tightening the budget, professional development is often the first line item cut. That’s a really bad idea. Here are ways to effectively make the case to keep those funds in your budget.

  1. Stressed staff don’t create satisfied customers. When uncertainty abounds and resources are constrained, staff can feel stressed while trying to provide essential services to citizens. Stressed staff will not be exceptional public servants. Now more than ever your staff needs to know that you care about them and believe in their professional development.
  2. Listening is calming. Uncertainty activates the threat response in the brain. That’s why you see over-reactive bosses, citizens and elected officials. Listening and empathy sooth the brain’s threat reaction. Powerful interpersonal skills like listening and empathy can be a game-changer when dealing with an agitated community leader. That community leader wants to feel heard and know that staff can put themselves in their shoes.
  3. Technical data needs clear, concise communicators. During this unprecedented time, you want your leaders making decisions using available data. To do that, you need staff who can articulate technically-sound recommendations without sounding condescending or spouting mind-numbing data laced with jargon.
  4. Read between the lines and adapt. There is always a message under the spoken message. To be effective, staff need to see beyond the data and adapt to the unspoken messages. The most technically-sound argument can go down in flames if the staff person doesn’t pick up on subtle clues and adjust immediately.

These points can help you make the case for your professional development funding provided that it grows self-aware, high-functioning communicators. 

If you already have a professional development program, use this checklist to assess how it’s working for you.

✓ Is your professional development program designed specifically to meet your goals with engaging and interactive material?

✓ Does it use science-based content to transform touch-feely interpersonal issues into practical, logical technique?

✓ Does it convert number-crunching engineers into high-functioning communicators who write and speak like pros?

✓ Is the program designed to use neuroscientific learning principles like engagement, experiential learning and reminders to enhance retention?

✓ Is the program designed and conducted by a professional who led an engineering organization rather than someone who just talks about the theory?

✓ Is the training leader technically proficient AND a certified speaking professional™ (CSP) with the skills to maintain participants’ interest through real-life examples rather than a series of lectures with word-filled slides?

✓ Do you see tangible results that lead to practical, real-world applications?

 


 

If you are not getting the results you expect, now’s the time to make changes. There’s too much at stake. A sub-optimal professional development program leads to sub-optimal results. Is that what your citizens expect?

If you don’t currently have a professional development program, look for one with the attributes above because this is what your staff and clients deserve and what today’s environment requires.

Above all, keep the funding in the budget! Invest more now and you’ll be the agency who comes out of this on top.

At Shelley Row Associates we meet all the requirements above and more. Shelley is a professional engineer, former USDOT executive and a Certified Speaking Professional. Here’s what clients have to say about the impact of her custom-designed programs for public agency staff.

“Excellent presenter. Got me to think about a different way to approach how we present materials to the decision makers.”
Jon Fitzkee, Lebanon County Planning Department

“Excellent! Perhaps the best and most valuable presentation I’ve heard in four years of elected office.”
Mary Ann Gill, Woodford County Fiscal Court

 

Talk to Shelley now about your custom professional development program.

Other Resources:

Top Management Skills for Technical Managers: A Ten-Part Webinar Series

The Over-Thinkers’ Guide to Working from Home Effectively

Photo credit: Aleksandr Davydov

 

This is the fourth newsletter based on the Over-Thinkers Guide to Working at Home Effectively. You can find the original guide here. Each week, we’ve written more information on one of the topics in the guide. This week’s virtual work topic is on the effective use of email. 

Email is More Important Than Ever. Learn Four Tips to Make Your Emails More Effective

Our virtual work environment is creating a heavier-than-ever reliance on email. There’s no more walking around the corner to discuss an issue with a colleague. Our inclination is to zip off a quick email. Zipping off an email is rarely a good idea and that’s even more true now. With fewer opportunities to connect in person, we rely on email even more. Now’s the time to learn tips that enhance your email writing skills. And, let’s face it, we need this skill no matter our work location. 

Tip 1. Use clear language. We dash off a quick email without much thought. We type a response in the last minutes of the day or while rushing to the car. We send off instructions without rereading them. Then, we are perplexed that there is miscommunication. Email is not fast. It is crafted and careful.

  • Remove ambiguous words. Words like “it,” “that,” “this,” “those,” and “them” leave room for ambiguity. Search for those words and replace them with the noun to which it/that/this/those/them refers. 
  • Assess acronyms. Will all readers understand the acronyms? If not, spell them out.
  • Reread the email for clarity. Will someone less familiar with the situation understand the nuances? Since the reader can’t read your mind, how could the email be interpreted differently? Adjust your text to ensure clarity. 

Tip 2. Structure for easy reading. Have you ever received a long email with big, rambling paragraphs? You feel overwhelmed before you start reading. Instead of rambling, structure the body of the email so that the reader isn’t intimidated. Plus, the structure allows you to cater to the communication styles of different people. Some want a summary; others need background. For important emails, you can provide both with good structure. 

  • Prioritize the messages. Start with the most important and work your way to the least important. 
  • Put the action step first. What action step do you want from the reader? Do you want their input on a big decision, participation on a doodle poll, or to send an update on the project status? And, when do you want their action? Make the action the first part of the email.
  • Use bold, italics, underline and highlight to focus attention. Visually identify the key points or sections in the email using bold, italics, underline and highlight. These visual tools allow the reader to quickly skim the email and find the most important bits of information. I know…you don’t want them to “skim” the email. But they will. Make sure they pick up the key messages by making those points obvious to their eye.
  • Provide a bulleted summary. Bulleted points are also useful to visually identify key points and provide white space in the email. White space gives the brain a break and allows it to more easily process information. The summary allows the person short on time to glean the information she requires immediately. 
  • Provide details below. Following the summary points, add detail for those who crave detail. Detail may include the background of the issue at hand, the research that supports the points, the factors that contribute to the decision. Providing details serves those who crave research and data and it documents the rationale behind your thinking.
  • Reread the email for ease of reading. Before you hit Send, take another look at the email. For those who skim, can your eye easily pick out the main points? Is there a clear organizing structure?

Tip 3. Tone. Unless you are writing to someone you know well – very well – strike a professional tone. No sarcasm, no dry humor, no witty comeback as this writing style is heavily dependent on the readers’ interpretation. Plus, email is an official document. Always consider that someone else may read it. Be professional.

  • Consider the reader. What tone do you “hear” in their emails? Is it light and friendly, serious, to the point, formal? Match that tone in your response. What do you know about the sender’s situation? If they have a sick child at home with COVID-19, that’s not the time for, “Hey! Don’t you love working from home!?!” 
  • Weigh the use of exclamation points. An exclamation point can convey lightheartedness (Are you as stir crazy as me?!). Sometimes I see an exclamation point used to convey urgency such as, “We need this proposal finished now!” Personally, I shy away from the latter as it comes across like yelling. If there is a problem with timely performance, that’s the time to pick up the phone. 
  • Prohibit emojis in a professional email. When in doubt, skip the emoji particularly if the email is to a key person (client, boss, elected leader) or the email will be shared widely. However, if the email is to a close friend or is unlikely to be shared with others, an emoji may be fine. (FYI. There is no consensus on the plural. It can be either emoji or emojis. I checked.) 
  • Reread the email for tone. Go back and read for tone. How does the language come across? Is it too cutesy, too stiff, too familiar, too businesslike? Is the tone appropriate for the receiver’s situation? If you don’t know his/her situation, tread even more carefully. Almost everyone is impacted in some way by the pandemic. Be sensitive to the possibility that all may not be well.

Tip 4. Details. Details matter with email. Have you ever hit Reply All when you meant to hit Reply? I’ve seen terrible situations result from a Reply/Reply All mistake. Take a few moments to scroll down to reread and recheck everything before hitting Send. 

  • Review the entire thread. Check the people and conversation on the entire email thread before you forward it.  Otherwise, you risk sending information that was not intended for the bigger audience. 
  • Review all the names in the To and CC lines. Before hitting Reply All or Forward review the names on the receiving end. Are your comments and all comments throughout the chain appropriate for everyone on the email?
  • Review for email overload. Think about the relevance of your message to everyone on the email. Do they all need to see your response? They do if: your comment adds substantive information to the conversation; you want others to see your participation; you want to register your agreement or disagreement with the group, They don’t if: there is no added value to the group (such as cc’ing everyone only to say “Thank you”); there is nothing in your response that furthers the discussion (such as “Received”). We all receive plenty of emails. Don’t copy everyone if it isn’t necessary. 
  • Reread the email for the details. It is no coincidence that each of these four tips concludes with “reread the email.” That practice is worth learning and using every day. Think of it this way. The time it takes to reread the email and make adjustments is small when compared to the time it takes to unravel a misunderstanding due to a poorly worded email.

We are in unusual times and everyone is adapting to the temporary situation. Even after the COVID-19 threat recedes, we will likely see an uptick in virtual work and the use of virtual meeting platforms. Be the manager who is on top of this shift and create the skills for you and your team to be both productive and connected. Learn effective email techniques. And, remember, email is not a fast-medium. To use it well requires thought.


Shelley Row, P.E. explains why NOW is probably the best time for technical managers to work on improving their leadership skills (and earn PDH credits!).
Registration & more info -> https://ilinstitute.teachable.com/ 

photo credit: rawpixel

 

The world has shifted and here we are – at home – working. Having worked out of my home office for years now, I can say with assurance that there is a difference between working at home for a couple of days a week and working at home for an extended period.  Extended periods at home offer two challenges: productivity and connection with colleagues. Particularly for technical professionals like me, working from home is a chance to dive into those project details that require uninterrupted time. But don’t underestimate the need for connection (and people who feel connected are more likely to be productive). While our current situation is driven by the response to COVID-19, we are likely to see long-term shifts in our work patterns. Start now to develop the habits you will need to work productively from home and keep connections alive and well.

 

Here are four areas to master to remain productive and connected when working from home.

Manage Distractions at Home

Drop-in a load of laundry, pick up the Amazon package, make a grocery list, put the laundry in the dryer, order an item from Amazon, pay a bill online, do a quick check on social media (okay…so that wasn’t so quick), plan dinner, and, in your spare time, entertain your kids. Before you know it, the day is chopped into bits and productivity disintegrates. Instead, bundle the day into productivity pockets that give you focused spurts for designated tasks. It takes will power but you will be rewarded with that good feeling of a day well spent. Use these bundling tactics to your own productivity pockets.

  • Identify the key tasks that need to be accomplished today. What is the task and what is the outcome for each? Approximately how much time will each take?
  • Align the tasks with your energy. If a task requires significant focus, slot it into your high energy period. For choppy tasks, like emails or phone calls or checking in on staff (see below), slot these into lower-energy parts of the day.
  • Balance work tasks with home tasks. Inevitably there are a few tasks around the house that I want to weave into the day. Identify them, too. Slot them into the space between your productivity pockets. For me, that momentary break is a reward for achieving the task goal. Yes, unloading the dishwasher is a reward. Not because I love unloading the dishwasher but because it’s a brief brain break that allows my mind to rest. Use these personal chores strategically in the day. Otherwise, you break concentration, lose your train of thought and spend more time getting back into the groove.

Set yourself up for success by clarifying expectations for response times.

  • Clarify the expected response times with your boss. We tend to believe that responses are needed faster than they really are. Discuss this with your boss to negotiate reasonable response times that balance promptness with productivity.
  • Clarify your expectations on response times with your team or staff. They probably think you expect an immediate response when that may not be necessary. You should think through the same balance between promptness and productivity. Every time you ask them to break away to email, Zoom or call you, they are distracted from other work. What’s most important?
  • Be transparent about your productivity pockets. Tell your boss and staff that you expect to be focused on THE big project from 10 am until noon. You will be off your phone and off email. You’ll check messages at the end of the window. If need be, coordinate with another person to cover for you during that time so that you alternate productivity pockets.

Once you define your productivity pockets, protect that time from the time vampires that suck away the day moment by moment.

  • Turn off the sound on your computer and phone. Turn off the sound. (Caveat: you may have a family situation like a sick child or elderly parent with whom you need to always be available.)
  • Turn off popups. Every time that tiny envelop popups up that indicates a new email in your inbox, your brain is momentarily distracted. It breaks your focus and time drains away as you regain your focus. Simply turn off the popups.
  • Move the phone outside of view. I confess. To truly focus during my productivity pocket, I do best if I move the phone physically out of the room. It’s simply too easy to pick up the phone to check the time, the weather, text messages, Messenger and more. My level of productivity soars when the phone is out of sight.
  • Execute the plan. Sure, something unexpected may happen (actually, something unexpected will happen). When it does, deal with it and get back on your plan and protect your productivity pockets.

Stay connected to employees

It’s tempting to take a deep dive into focused project work; however, as a manager, your staff need your attention now more than ever. Even if you supervise highly technical people who enjoy working alone, they are human and they need a connection. If you have high social people on your staff, they definitely need connection. How will you help them feel connected when everyone is sequestered in their homes away from the watercooler chitchat?

Touch base just because. Call your staff or team members. If need be, put these calls on your to-do list. Plan them into your day as a productivity pocket. I know…this doesn’t feel productive to those of us who go-go-go. But, bodies of research show that you increase productivity when people feel engaged and cared for. When you place these calls, you are actively contributing to productivity.  Call (not email) to inquire about them (not the project). Ask the impact this pandemic situation is having their life with kids, older parents, and canceled vacation plans. Show interest in their personal well-being. That matters to an isolated person with limited contact.

Offer your support. Whether on a phone call, FaceTime or on a virtual meeting platform, ask how you can help them be more productive.  What would make the experience better for them? What do they struggle with? What is it like for them to work from home? How can you help? Ask how you can help them stay connected to you, staff and the organization. Don’t forget to thank them for adapting to this strange environment.

Weekly summaries of meetings. Consider sharing a brief weekly summary of the status of work across units. It shouldn’t be long. Bulleted points are enough. The goal is to keep everyone in sync with the big picture and each other. You can also request that a short summary of status be sent to you weekly. This keeps you up to date on the work of your dispersed office and conveys your interest in their work.

Connect visually. Use video conferencing services for visual connection. Adding the visual component immediately makes discussions feel more alive and real.  Leverage the visual element by providing a virtual “tour” of your home office or the view from your window. Have you noticed that it helps you feel connected when you have a visual image of someone in their home or office? Give your staff a visual context of you at work in your home office. Plan to connect visually on a regular basis to fight the sense of isolation.

Conduct effective virtual meetings

You’ve probably had more virtual meetings in the last couple of weeks than in the last month. Virtual meeting platforms (I use Zoom) are remarkably good at simulating an in-person meeting environment. But, they are not the same. To get the most from your virtual meetings you need a different approach. Take advantage of this unique opportunity to hone your virtual meeting skills and train your team in the protocols that make a virtual meeting most productive.

Follow good meeting protocol. Virtual meetings like a “real” meeting benefit from the same principles. Have an agenda with defined times. Identify the specific goal for the meeting (“By the end of this meeting we will….”). Review action items, the responsible party, and due dates. As in an in-person meeting, you want to be aware of the communication preferences for each of your team members and adapt your style accordingly.

Engage everyone. Virtual meetings, more so than an in-person meeting, benefit from pre-defined roles. Set expectations for their engagement upfront (Keisha will discuss the project x update and Jose Luis will discuss program y). Giving everyone a role also ensures their attention throughout the meeting.

Test technology. Don’t waste the start of the meeting with technology that doesn’t work correctly. Test the link, the webcam, the sound quality, and the connection well in advance. If needed, have participants download the software before the meeting. Make sure that you, as the host, know how to mute/unmute, raise electronic hands, manage a chat function, use the whiteboard, record if needed and share your screen. It’s not hard. Learn these skills in advance, not in front of busy staff.

Set virtual meeting guidelines. You need clear, explicit guidelines to get the most from your virtual meeting. The guidelines may vary based on the size of the meeting. Small meetings of 4 to 6 people have more flexibility. As the number grows, you need more structured interaction. Use this checklist to develop your own guidelines.

  • Everyone uses their camera. This increases the feeling of connection and it discourages multitasking during the meeting since everyone can see each other.
  • Mute everyone on entry into the meeting and keep them muted except when speaking. This is particularly important with large virtual meetings. But even small virtual meetings are disrupted when the dog barks, doors slam, or the lawnmower starts up.
  • Raise your hand (visually or on the platform) when someone wants to speak. This allows you to moderate the discussion and ensure that everyone has a chance to speak. Unlike a real meeting, this method ensures that people don’t interrupt or talk over each other. It also means that the meeting may take longer.
  • Mute cell phones and no multi-tasking. Be clear that phones are not to be used during the meeting. Attention is expected to be on the discussion in the virtual meeting. Participants are not to walk out of the room during the meeting.
  • Introduce everyone. Request that everyone login under their own name so that it appears on the screen. If there’s no video and people are on the phone, request that they state their name before talking.
  • Have a good connection. Ask that everyone be in the best location they can for Wi-Fi or cellular reception or hardwire into Wi-Fi.

Write clear emails

Clear communication is a challenge, particularly when working virtually. Email is heavily used (too heavily?) communication medium on a “regular” day in the office. With staff isolated in their homes, email becomes an even more important communication tool. And, email is routinely handled badly. Now’s the time to enhance email writing skills. And, let’s face it, we need this skill no matter our work location.

Clear language. We zip off a quick email without much thought. We type a response in the last minutes of the day or while rushing to the car. We dash off instructions without rereading them. And, then, we are perplexed by miscommunication. An important email is not fast. It is crafted and careful.

  • Reread the email for clarity. Will someone less familiar with the situation understand the nuances? Since the reader can’t read your mind, how could the email be interpreted differently? Make adjustments to ensure clarity.
  • Remove ambiguous words. Words like “it,” “that,” “this,” “those,” and “them” leave room for ambiguity. Search for those words and replace them with the noun to which it/that/this/those/them refers.
  • Assess acronyms. Will all readers understand the acronyms?

Structured for easy reading. Have you ever received a long email with big, rambling paragraphs? You feel exhausted before you even start reading. Instead of rambling, structure the body of the email so that the reader isn’t overwhelmed. Plus, the structure allows you to cater to the communication styles of different people. Some want the summary; others need background. Provide both for important emails.

  • Prioritize the messages in the email. Start with the most important and work your way to the least important.
  • Put the action first. What action do you want from the reader? When do you want their action? Make the action the first part of the email.
  • Use bold, italics and highlight to focus the readers’ attention. Visually identify the key points or sections in the email using bold, italics and highlighting. These visual tools allow the reader to quickly skim the email and find the most important bits of information. I know…you don’t want them to “skim” the email. But, they will. Make sure they pick up the points you intend by making those points obvious to their eye.
  • Provide a bulleted summary of key information. Bulleted points are also useful to visually identify key points and provide white space in the email. White space gives the brain a break and allows it to more easily process information. The summary allows the person short on time to glean the information she requires immediately.
  • Provide details below. Following the summary points, add detail for those who crave detail. Detail may be the background of the issue at hand. Detail may be research that supports the points. Detail may be factors that contribute to the decision. Providing details serve those who crave research and data and it documents the rationale behind your thinking.

Tone. Unless you are writing to someone you know well – very well – strike a professional tone. No sarcasm, no dry humor, no witty comeback as this writing style is heavily dependent on the readers’ interpretation. Plus, email is an official document. Always consider that someone else may read it. Be professional.

  • Reread the email for tone.
  • No emojis in a professional email (FYI. There is no consensus on the plural. It can be either emoji or emojis. I checked.)

Details. Details matter with email. Have you ever hit Reply All when you meant to hit Reply? I’ve seen terrible situations result from a Reply/Reply All mistakes. Take a few moments to reread and recheck everything before hitting Send. Email is not a fast-medium. To use it well requires thought.

  • Reread the email for the details.
  • Check the people and conversation on the entire email thread before you forwarded it.
  • Imagine that the email was forwarded to someone else without your knowledge. Would it be received in a professional way?
  • Review all the names in the To and CC lines before hitting Reply All or Forward Are your comments and the comments throughout the chain appropriate for everyone on the email?
  • Think about the relevance of your message to everyone on the email. Do they all need to see your response? They do if your comment adds substantive information to the conversation if you want others to see your participation if you want to register your agreement or disagreement with the group, They don’t if there is no added value such as cc’ing everyone only to say “Thank you.”

We are in unusual times and everyone is adapting to the temporary situation. Even after the COVID-19 threat recedes, I believe we will see an uptick in virtual work and the use of virtual meeting platforms. Be the manager who is on top of this shift and create the skills for you and your team to be both productive and connected.


Shelley Row, P.E. explains why NOW is probably the best time for technical managers to work on improving their leadership skills (and earn PDH credits!).
Registration & more info -> https://ilinstitute.teachable.com/