In "Bouncing Back," a profoundly thought-provoking book that draws upon concepts from philosophy, psychology and neuroscience to promote resilience and well being, therapist Linda Graham relates the following story from Buddhist tradition:
A master monk is meditating in a temple with other monks. Suddenly a fierce bandit storms into the temple, threatening to kill everybody. The other monks flee, but the master monk remains, calmly meditating. Enraged, the bandit shouts, "Don't you understand? I could run you through with my sword and not bat an eye!" The monk calmly replies, "Don't you understand? I could be run through by your sword and not bat an eye." [p 229]
I see a connection here with my recent HBR post, which emphasizes the importance of ignoring the unimportant in order to focus our time and attention on those people and issues that truly matter. We often approach this process as an intellectual task of prioritization, but it's a fundamentally emotional experience. The choice to ignore certain people and issues in favor of others stirs up a complex range of emotions--particularly anxiety, fear and guilt--that can be difficult to manage and can easily cause us to make decisions that aren't in our best interests.
Graham's master monk is an exemplar of emotion management who points the way for mere mortals like the rest of us. In the face of a bandit's sword, he values devotion to his meditative practice above all else. He chooses where to focus his time and attention, and even the threat of losing his life isn't sufficient to deter him from the pursuit of his goals. Being distracted by fear and allowing the bandit to determine where he should focus his attention would be the greater loss.
I'm not suggesting that we should be suicidally cavalier when confronted with legitimate threats. But I do believe that we often see sword-wielding bandits where there are none, and when we do, we scatter like so many lesser monks, allowing the perceived threat to determine our course of action.
So what can we do? There's no single step to automatically enhance our capacity for emotion management, but there are many ways we can begin the process, as I noted in my HBR post:
Adjust our mental models to reflect emotions' importance and the role they play in rational thought and decision-making. Our beliefs shape our experience.
Take better care of ourselves physically. Regular exercise and sufficient sleep demonstrably improve our ability to both perceive and regulate emotion.
Engage in some form of mindfulness routine. Meditation, journaling and other reflective practices enhance our ability to direct our thoughts, helping us sense emotion more acutely, and provide a new perspective on our experiences, helping us make sense of those emotions.
Expand our emotional vocabulary—literally. Having a wider range of words to describe what we’re feeling not only helps us communicate better with others, but also helps us to more accurately understand ourselves.
A specific practice that's relevant here, which Graham discusses in her chapter on "Developing Somatic Intelligence," is priming our brains to remain calm in a crisis. As Graham notes, "Priming simply means preparing the brain to feel a certain emotion or a physiological state that could be adaptive in an anticipated situation." She recommends three specific versions of priming: 1) begin each day with some form of loving, physical connection--hug someone, even ourselves; 2) also begin each day by recalling a memory or a hoped-for future experience that evokes a sense of well-being, and 3) train ourselves to recognize when we're agitated and have lost our equanimity, and then take a moment to breathe, feel our heart beating, and calm ourselves before proceeding. (Graham discusses some of the research behind this process, and neuroscientist Richard Davidson's "The Emotional Life of Your Brain," goes much further in explaining the neurological impact of similar mindfulness practices.)
Here are three additional practices aimed specifically at the work of prioritizing and triage:
Triage under optimal conditions: Determining what we should pay attention to (and what we should ignore) is a mentally and emotionally taxing task, and we should undertake it when our reserves of mental and emotional control are at their highest. Too often we tackle this important work when we're already stressed--do it early in the day or after a break instead.
Reflect on the benefits: Our natural negativity bias is enhanced under stress, and when we choose to ignore demands for our time and attention, we fixate on the disadvantages and things that might go wrong. But freeing up our time and attention for truly important people and issues inevitably yields benefits--the return on our investment of those precious resources is greater when we spend them accordingly. Spending a few minutes reflecting on the benefits we expect to realize by dedicating ourselves to our most important tasks can strengthen our resolve.
Challenge our threat response: Our brains and bodies can respond to certain interpersonal experiences just as if we were facing a physical attack, a phenomenon known as social threat. But when we experience any form of threat response--also known as a "fight, flight or freeze response"--our cognitive abilities are substantially diminished. It's important to recognize the telltale signs of our own threat response, which can range from a racing heart and sweaty palms to feelings of aggression or defensiveness, and to arrest the process as early as possible. Sometimes what looks like a sword-wielding bandit is just a shadow or a wisp of smoke.
Video still from Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai courtesy of The Criterion Collection.
Last week I conducted a workshop in San Francisco on Team Effectiveness with a group of senior managers at a technology company. They were able to acknowledge right from the start that their communication as a team could be improved, and in my experience that's always a positive (and important) sign.
The condensed deck above includes the slides covering the various concepts we discussed, but the slides related to the exercises we conducted have been removed. Thanks to everyone who participated--I felt privileged to be there.
My latest post at HBR: The Most Productive People Know Who to Ignore
A coaching client of mine is managing partner at a very large law firm, and one of the issues we’ve been working on is how to cope more effectively with the intense demands on his time—clients who expect him to be available, firm partners and other employees who want him to address their concerns and resolve disputes, an inbox overflowing with messages from these same (and still other!) people, and an endless to-do list. Compounding this challenge, of course, is the importance of making time for loved one and friends, exercise, and other personal needs.
When faced with potentially overwhelming demands on our time, we’re often advised to “Prioritize!” as if that’s some sort of spell that will magically solve the problem. But what I’ve learned in the process of helping people cope with and manage their workflow is that prioritizing accomplishes relatively little, in part because it’s so easy to do... Read the rest at HBR.
Much of my work as a coach involves helping leaders determine how they can most effectively wield power to best meet the needs of their organizations. And note that by power I mean not only the directive authority invested in their roles, but also the many forms of influence at their disposal. I often refer clients to the articles below, so I've compiled them here for easier access:
McClelland and Burnham on Power and Management: A post of mine on McClelland's theory.
Photo by Jamie Jamieson. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.
My latest post at HBR: Make Getting Feedback Less Stressful
Much of my work as an executive coach and an instructor at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business involves helping people improve their abilities to deliver feedback more effectively. It’s a critical skill, particularly for both leaders in flat organizations where giving orders is generally counter-productive and for anyone who needs to manage up or across by influencing their bosses or peers. And it’s a topic on which I’ve written extensively, not only in posts on my site and at HBR.org, but also in the HBR Guide to Coaching Your Employees.
But a recent exchange with my colleague and former Stanford student Anamaria Nino-Murcia made me realize that I’ve been neglecting the other half of this equation: How to receive feedback more effectively... Read the rest at HBR.
Brené Brown is a research professor at the University of Houston's Graduate School of Social Work, and she's dedicated her career to the study of such topics as vulnerability, empathy, courage and shame. Her 2010 TEDxHouston talk on The Power of Vulnerability has over 16 million views as of this writing, and even though I've seen it myself nearly a dozen times I continue to find it inspiring and insightful.
While Brown's message resonates with such a large audience because of the universality of her themes, she talks about vulnerability and empathy in a way that I believe has specific relevance for leaders, which is why I often make use of her work with my coaching clients and MBA students at Stanford. Here's the key passage in Brown's 2010 talk, in which she describes findings from her research on the extent to which different people feel love and belonging in their lives:
[Something that people who have a strong sense of love and belonging] had in common was this: They fully embraced vulnerability. They believed that what made them vulnerable made them beautiful. They didn't talk about vulnerability being comfortable, nor did they really talk about it being excruciating... They just talked about it being necessary...
The problem is--and I learned this from the research--that you cannot selectively numb emotion. You can't say, here's the bad stuff. Here's vulnerability, here's grief, here's shame, here's fear, here's disappointment. I don't want to feel these. I'm going to have a couple of beers and a banana nut muffin. (Laughter) I don't want to feel these... You can't numb those hard feelings without numbing the other affects, our emotions. You cannot selectively numb. So when we numb those, we numb joy, we numb gratitude, we numb happiness. And then we are miserable, and we are looking for purpose and meaning, and then we feel vulnerable, so then we have a couple of beers and a banana nut muffin. And it becomes this dangerous cycle.
So to fully experience positive emotions, we have to be open to our negative emotions. We have to resist the urge to numb ourselves and cultivate the ability to be vulnerable without feeling compelled to protect ourselves. We have to develop a sense of comfort with our discomfort.
These concepts are of critical importance to leaders, who must not only manage their own emotions, but who also have a significant impact on the emotions of everyone around them (for better and for worse). Emotions are literally contagious--we sense them in others, pick them up and pass them on--and we're even more sensitive to the emotions of leaders and others we view as having high status.
A leader who can leverage this dynamic effectively has a tremendous competitive advantage. They can acknowledge negative emotions (both their own and others) and manage or make use of them in a way that's healthy and productive, rather than A) seeking to repress or ignore them or B) letting them spiral out of control. And they can also more fully sense and express positive emotions (both their own and others), which can be a powerful source of influence and motivation.
Brown's work on empathy is equally relevant here. Brown defines shame as "the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging," but empathy, she notes, is "the antidote to shame,” and in a discussion in 2007, she explores this relationship further:
If you think about connection on a continuum...anchoring [one] end of of that continuum is empathy. It is what moves us toward deep, meaningful relationship. On the other side of the continuum is shame. It absolutely unravels our relationships and our connections with other people... Empathy is about being vulnerable with people in their vulnerability.
Again, a leader who can harness these dynamics enjoys a powerful advantage. We all experience some form of shame on a regular basis in organizational life, ranging from mild embarrassment to more profound remorse to true feelings of deep shame, and all of these emotions leave us feeling vulnerable. A leader who can meet vulnerability with empathy, who can feel compassion for themselves and for others in the wake of setbacks and mistakes, will be able to build connections and improve their working relationships at the most difficult moments and turn crises into learning experiences.
I'm not suggesting that leaders should fail to hold themselves and others accountable when things go wrong, but our discomfort with shame and the vulnerability it generates often lead us to respond to setbacks in ways that actually undermine accountability--we distance ourselves from failures or hide the evidence or deny that anything's wrong at all. Leaders who truly want to learn from mistakes and hold themselves and others accountable must respond to vulnerability and shame with empathy and compassion.
And yet a fundamental dilemma is that leadership roles constantly generate feelings of vulnerability, but we typically condition leaders to hide their vulnerabilities at all costs. This is why I believe it's so important that Stanford's new MBA curriculum emphasizes leadership development through experiential learning and emotional intelligence, it's why I talk so much about emotions with leaders in my coaching practice, and it's why I try to step more fully into my own vulnerability, even--especially--when I don't want to.
I'm realistic about the difficulty of creating organizations that embrace vulnerability and meet setbacks with empathy. But my experience with hundreds of leaders and Stanford MBAs over the past eight years has convinced me that "the juice is worth the squeeze," as my Dad is fond of saying, so I remain optimistic that these concepts will ultimately shape business culture for the better, and I'm grateful for the opportunity to participate in that work in my practice and at Stanford.
Thanks to Brené Brown for her research, which has had a significant impact on my approach to executive coaching. Here's Brown's 2007 talk on shame and empathy:
And thanks to TED for providing a complete transcript of Brown's 2010 talk on vulnerability.
Last week I volunteered to facilitate the fourth workshop in an ongoing series on Startup Communication aimed at helping co-founders 1) communicate more effectively with each other, 2) establish group norms in the company that support better communication and 3) model better communication with their employees.
Eighteen co-founders from nine ventures participated, and, as always, I was grateful to be involved. It's a privilege to invite people to have more meaningful, intimate conversations with each other and to have them accept the offer, and I ended the day feeling a lot of gratitude for the opportunity to work with these individuals and to do what I do as a coach and experiential educator.
The event was organized by Joe Greenstein, Semira Rahemtulla and Hannah Knapp, and I'm incredibly appreciative of the time and effort they invest to ensure not only that these events happen at all but that they run so smoothly. Thanks to everyone who participated.
A recent conversation with my GSB colleague Collins Dobbs helped clarify my thoughts on how we teach leadership at Stanford and why, and it motivated me to lay out that philosophy more explicitly--to plant a flag, so to speak. I'm not speaking for the school, just for myself, and as an executive coach rather than a an academic researcher I have a distinct (and biased) perspective on management education. But I've been an Instructor and Leadership Coach at the GSB since January 2007, and my work with hundreds of MBAs in that time has both immersed me in the school's approach and convinced me that we're doing something right.
1. Leadership can't be taught, but it can be learned.
In 2007 Charlie Rose interviewed Bill George, the former CEO of Medtronic who's taught at Harvard Business School since 2004:
Charlie Rose: [Leadership] can be taught and learned?
Bill George: Learned. I teach now, and I don't think you can teach leadership, I think you can learn about it. I think you can learn about yourself. It comes from within, from who are you inside and what makes you tick, and what are those tapes playing in your head about what you want to be and what your limitations are.
We don't come right out and say this anywhere at the GSB, but it's fundamentally embedded in our approach. We deliberately don't offer students a "guide to good leadership" or a set of "top tips from great leaders." Several years ago we did provide a "road map" in our Leadership Labs course but decided to scrap it because it threatened to turn into a document like this.
This isn't to say that we don't have a point of view on leadership or that we don't teach specific skills that leaders use. We believe leadership can make a difference (although avoiding bad leaders may be more important than finding great ones.) And we do teach skills such as giving and receiving feedback.
But for the most part we put our students in challenging situations, from role plays to exercises to team projects, and allow them to use these experiences to better understand themselves and their unique leadership abilities, strengths and weaknesses. Our students then decide for themselves why they want to lead, what kind of leader they want to be, how to maximize their current abilities, and what they can do to be more effective.
2. Influence > positional power.
Some of these challenging situations involve students assuming a differentiated authority role, but most don't. In part this is simply a matter of logistics--designating a "leader" means everyone else is a "follower," and with nearly 400 students in each MBA class it takes a lot of time and effort to give everyone a turn.
But this also reflects a belief that everyone in an organization will be called upon to lead at various times, not just the people at the top of the org chart, as well as a recognition that much leadership in today's flatter orgs and more dynamic teams takes the form of leading one's superiors and peers, in addition to direct reports and subordinates.
This isn't to say that we don't expect our students to take on formal leadership positions in which they will wield substantial amounts of positional power--of course we do. But even in those positions many, if not most, of our students will be operating in an environment in which simply giving orders will be counter-cultural, counter-productive and, quite possibly, career-limiting.
As a result we put a great deal of emphasis on the process of influence, which involves critical reasoning as well as the less cognitive, more emotional processes of dealing with one's own feelings about power, building relationships, making people feel heard and understood, advocating a point of view and earning others' trust and commitment.
An aspect of this dynamic is the use of coaching as a form of leadership. The GSB's Leadership Fellows, a select cohort of 68 second-year students who guide groups of first-years through the Leadership Labs course, are trained in coaching tools and techniques in order to ensure that their students feel both well-supported and free to make decisions for themselves without being directed by their Fellow. I work closely with the Fellows and am confident that this intensive program helps them become better leaders, but my hope is that this exposure to coaching as a methodology helps all of our alumni feel better prepared to coach their employees and lead through influence rather than simply relying on positional power.
3. Leadership starts with self-awareness.
So many factors undermine a leader's self-awareness: subordinates' reluctance to provide candid feedback, the disinhibition of power [PDF], even a distorted sense of time. The power and status that accompany leadership create a reality-distortion field that make it tempting for even the most self-effacing leader to believe that they really are as brilliant and gifted as everyone around them seems to think.
Given these dynamics, our leadership development courses at the GSB put a premium on developing a sense of self-awareness. This comes through regular doses of candid interpersonal feedback, as well as a commitment to the practice of regular reflection. The feedback starts in our Leadership Labs course and continues in numerous other classes and programs, most notably Interpersonal Dynamics, aka Touchy Feely. Initially much of this feedback takes the form of well-intentioned but ineffective advice. Some of that advice sticks, much of it doesn't, but over time students learn through trial and error how to give feedback more likely to positively affect others' behavior. And even the poorly-delivered feedback provides a mirror in which students can see themselves through the eyes of their classmates, an experience that inevitably contains both welcome and unwelcome surprises.
The practice of reflection is cultivated primarily by compelling students to write extensively about their lived experience. Almost all of the written work in the courses in which I'm involved takes the form of a "reflection journal" of some sort, in which students step back from their daily lives, surface and articulate their thoughts and feelings, sift through the feedback they've received, apply various concepts and frameworks from lectures and readings, and integrate these components into a personal set of generalizable principles.
I'm not suggesting that all students avail themselves fully of this opportunity to reflect--many do not, and I've read plenty of mediocre papers over the last eight years. But in my experience most students take this work seriously enough to get some value out of it--no surprise, in light of the research on journaling.
I don't expect people to be as actively engaged in these processes after leaving business school and returning to the real world. But I know a number of alumni who've continued to journal in one form or another and who have regular (and very real) feedback conversations with classmates and colleagues. And in my ongoing discussions with alumni and in my private coaching practice with senior leaders, it's readily apparent that the ability to step outside ourselves--to assess, appreciate and eventually understand ourselves more fully--is a critical leadership capability.
While we're doing good work at the GSB, we can always do more. My personal area of focus at the moment has grown out of my work with senior leaders, which has convinced me of the importance of what we might call self-coaching. I use this broad term to encompass such topics as managing our emotions and finding healthy ways to relieve stress; directing our focused attention most productively; motivating ourselves; caring for ourselves physically, emotionally and mentally; and ultimately, feeling compassion toward ourselves and accepting ourselves, even as we're striving to improve.
I don't know anyone who's mastered all these skills, but the most effective leaders I've worked with recognize their importance and devote meaningful amounts of effort and energy to getting better at them. And while I certainly don't have the answers, I'll have an opportunity to teach a new course next year called The Art of Self-Coaching, in which I hope to ask some useful questions.
Many thanks to my GSB colleagues Andrea Corney, Carole Robin, Collins Dobbs, Gary Dexter, Hugh Keelan, John Cronkite, Lara Tiedens, Paul Mattish, Richard Francisco, Ricki Frankel, Scott Bristol, Shannon Birk Jibaja and Yifat Sharabi-Levine, who put in countless hours throughout the year making everything I describe above possible.
Photo by David. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.
On Friday I facilitated a workshop on Startup Communication aimed at helping an early-stage company's employees work together more effectively.
I feel privileged to work with all my clients, but in this case it's fair to say that it was particularly rewarding to work with a company whose mission I hold in such high regard.
Thank you to the 22 people who made it such a special afternoon, and particular thanks to the team at Flixster for making us feel so welcome.
My latest post at HBR: The Art of Saying a Professional Goodbye
Saying "goodbye" is one of those activities that seems so simple it hardly requires advance thought--and so endings creep up on us and catch us unprepared. We tend to default to our habitual responses whether or not they’ve been effective in the past. As a result we often miss opportunities to enjoy truly meaningful endings--instead they’re rushed and poorly planned--or we skip over them entirely, casting the old aside as we race toward the new... Read the rest at HBR.
Photo courtesy of HBR Blog Network.
Today I volunteered to facilitate the third workshop in an ongoing series on Startup Communication aimed at helping co-founders 1) communicate more effectively with each other, 2) establish group norms in the company that support better communication and 3) model better communication with their employees.
Twenty co-founders from 10 ventures participated, and I felt privileged and grateful to be involved. It's always a privilege to invite people to have more meaningful, intimate conversations with each other and to have them accept the offer--and I certainly walked away feeling a lot of gratitude for the opportunity to work with this particular group (and simply to do what I do as a coach and experiential educator.)
The event was organized by Joe Greenstein and Hannah Knapp, two people who mean a lot to me, and it was especially fun to see them work together as a team in this setting. Thank you to Joe and Hannah and everyone else who was there.
What happens when we learn new skills that take us out of our comfort zone? When we're striving to be authentic, is it OK when we act with intention and forethought?
The Conscious Competence model, developed by Martin Broadwell in the late 1960s, offers a useful framework to address these questions.
In most areas where we face a challenge, we start out in Unconscious Incompetence (quadrant #1 above): We're screwing up, and we don't even know it. In the context of my work with coaching clients and MBA students, this usually involves difficulties in working relationships and interpersonal situations. We believe our behavior is having the desired effect on others, but it's not--and we don't even realize it.
But these mistakes accumulate, and their consequences heighten our awareness, and we find ourselves in Conscious Incompetence (quadrant #2): We know we're screwing up, and we may even know what we need to do differently, but we haven't yet figured out how to do it. Here's where we need to paddle like hell and catch that wave--and this is where we often fall short. We know we need to adopt some new behaviors to be more effective in these relationships and situations, but our heightened awareness becomes self-consciousness, and we find ourselves paralyzed by awkwardness or by a fear of inauthenticity.
As for the awkwardness, one of the most common themes in my work with coaching clients and MBA students is increasing our comfort with discomfort. We need to expand our capacity to tolerate discomfort to ensure that when we experience it we can manage the resulting emotions and avoid any reflexive responses that might be counterproductive. One of the ways we can pursue this goal is by retraining our response to awkwardness and other forms of discomfort; rather than allowing ourselves to be governed by our aversion to these feelings, we can simply note them, reframe the situation as a learning opportunity, and continue experimenting with new behaviors even in the face of these feelings.
As for the inauthenticity, Scott Bristol, a Lecturer at Stanford with whom I've worked closely over the years, offers this perspective: If we view authenticity as something to be discovered, as an innate state of being that precedes our consciousness, then we experience the feelings of awkwardness that inevitably accompany new behaviors as signs of inauthenticity. But if instead we view authenticity as something to be created, as a state of being that evolves over time through our conscious intervention, then we're free to be both awkward and authentic; the two aren't mutually exclusive.
All of this is easy to write about and very difficult to put into practice--and yet persistent effort can change our relationship to these feelings and to any new behaviors we're attempting that give rise to them. The University of Washington psychologist John Gottman has discussed the concept of meta-emotion--the feelings and thoughts we have about our own emotions (and he notes that parents who have a less negative response to emotion appear to raise children who are better able to manage and express their own emotions.) My experience as a coach suggests that we can influence our meta-emotional state over time; by repeatedly exposing ourselves to emotions such as awkwardness and embarrassment, we feel less negatively about them, and we can change how we respond to them. We become more comfortable with discomfort.
When this happens we're able to cross over into Conscious Competence (quadrant #3) and begin the process of refining any new behaviors and determining which ones we'll integrate into our permanent repertoire. We're acting intentionally with increasingly positive effect, and with continued practice these newly adopted behaviors become second nature, and we slip into Unconscious Competence (quadrant #4).
Our trajectory from this point forward depends on our circumstances. Occasionally our expanded behavioral repertoire is sufficient to allow us to continue on, highly competent and blissfully unaware. We devote little active thought to our interactions in certain relationships and situations, and yet we continue to meet with success. But the dynamic nature of most interpersonal experiences means that we usually wind up back where we started, in quadrant #1, unconsciously incompetent and unaware that our current behavior isn't meeting our goals. And the cycle begins again.
Photo by Tsuyoshi Uda. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.
A few weeks ago I conducted a 1-hour webinar for HBR on Coaching Your Employees, and an archived video of my talk is now available. HBR has also produced a well-written 7-page summary of my comments [PDF, 480KB], and you can view my slides separately.
Thanks again to Angelia Herrin for inviting me to participate, to Lisa McMullen for her tremendous help and support, and to all their colleagues at HBR and Citrix/GoToWebinar who made it happen.
Two further notes of appreciation: First, my slides conclude with a section on Resources, linking to the authors I mentioned in my talk; if you're interested in the topics noted below, these works are a great place to start:
- Post-heroic leadership: Power Up by David Bradford and Allan Cohen
- Leadership roles: Scrum Master as Team Coach by Pierluigi Pugliese
- Fixed and growth mindsets: Mindset by Carol Dweck
- A coaching mindset: The Coaching Manager by James Hunt and Joseph Weintraub
- Inquiry and coaching traps: Helping by Edgar Schein
- More on inquiry: Humble Inquiry by Edgar Schein
- The role of emotion: Descartes' Error by Antonio Damasio
- Emotion in organizations: Building the Emotional Intelligence of Groups by Vanessa Druskatt and Steven Wolff
I'd also like to thank Mary Ann Huckabay, Carole Robin, and my colleagues on the Stanford GSB coaching staff, with whom I've worked closely since 2007 in the school's Leadership Fellows program and the former Leadership Coaching course. All of these people have had an immense impact on my approach to coaching, and I'm deeply grateful for their influence.
Fernando Blat recently tweeted a pic of a slide describing how Spotify builds a product (which I've re-posted below.)
The essence of the slide is that Spotify does not build by painstakingly crafting a perfect product that's not functional until it's fully assembled. They iterate in stages, developing a functional but rudimentary product at first and improving it at each step along the way.
In the visual language of the slide, Spotify isn't building a car, starting with a wheel, adding a chassis, then a body, and only then adding a windshield and controls that allow a user to start traveling. Rather, Spotify is providing transport, starting with a ratty skateboard, and then progressing through steps from a scooter to a bicycle to a motorcycle and then, finally, to a car.
The point is that users don't have to wait until the car is perfected to begin their journey--they can jump on that skateboard and get going now. Just as important, Spotify doesn't have to wait until their development process is over to get feedback from users on how they like the car--they can ask them how they like the skateboard now.
I'm not a software developer (although I coach quite a few), and you probably aren't either, but I think this concept is relevant to almost all of us no matter what we do. Whatever our actual goals, let's imagine that we're in the transportation business, like the little figures on the Spotify slide. We can start building the perfect vehicle from the outset--but it's going to take a long time to create value for anyone. Or we can create some type of minimum viable product and share it with the world today. In other words, make more skateboards.
Photo of skateboarders by Michael Coghlan. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.
We all have accomplishments we're striving for, milestones we hope to reach, behaviors we want to do more of (or less of)--and setting goals can help motivate us along the way. But research shows that goals have complex (and sometimes counterproductive) effects--while they can help us to get started and persist in our efforts, they can also diminish our sense of fulfillment and leave us demoralized.
One way to manage this challenge is to distinguish between a long-term goal--a large target at which we're aiming over time--and the smaller-scale, day-to-day experience of our pursuit of that goal. Let's call the latter a micro-goal. For example, staying active is an important goal of mine, as it is for many of my coaching clients (most of whom, like me, find it difficult to make time to exercise because we're happy workaholics.) But "Be active" is too large and abstract to serve as an effective goal for me. What does it mean? How do I put it into practice? Further, how does it help me when I'm not active for a certain period of time? It doesn't--and it's actually a demotivator, leaving me feeling guilty and disappointed in myself.
Do I exercise every day? I wish. But not only do I exercise more often because I pursue this micro-goal, because I track my data I'm also able to go back and look at periods in my life when I was more (or less) active and understand what factors were sustaining me (or were getting in my way.) This approach is applicable to any goal that can be broken down into activities we want to pursue (or avoid) on a regular basis. The key is paying just enough attention to the large-scale goal to help us get started and then ignoring it in favor of our micro-goals, the smaller daily events that constitute our lived experience.
This isn't necessarily an easy process. Focused attention is a form of mental control that can be quite difficult, and one reason goals are so powerful (and can have such negative consequences) is their ability to readily capture our attention even when we want to direct it elsewhere. In fact, this difficulty is one reason why I keep trying to meditate: I experience meditation not as a form of relaxation but as a workout in directing my attention. Eventually I meditated almost daily for 18 months, until I blew out a disk in my back, and the pain knocked me out of my exercise and mindfulness routines. A year later I'm finally back to regular exercise, but still trying to return to a regular meditation practice. Baby steps and micro-goals.
More on goal-tracking services: There's an entertaining story behind about Don't Break the Chain. It's a free service, but you can donate (as I have) to avoid seeing any ads. As much as I love DBTC, I have to say that the iOS app is terrible--when I'm using my phone I just visit the site via my browser. There are a number of other services along these lines. I tried Lift (mobile-only) for several months, and while I liked a number of its features, the inability to filter community visibility was problematic (although others may find it an advantage.) I've also just learned about Chains, which seems intriguing.
Thanks to Dorie Clark for the inspiration.
Photo by JD Hancock. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.
This morning I conducted a webinar for Harvard Business Review on Coaching Your Employees, and while a full recording of the presentation will be posted within a few days at HBR's Events page, here's a copy of my slides.
I'm told we had over 4,000 people registered, and I'm really grateful for the opportunity to talk to such a large audience on a topic that I believe is so important for today's leaders and managers (and which has had a profound impact on my own professional life.)
Many thanks to Angelia Herrin for inviting me to participate, to Lisa McMullen for her tremendous help and support, and to all their colleagues at HBR and Citrix/GoToWebinar who made it happen!
HBR has invited me to do a 1-hour webinar on Coaching Your Employees, and it's scheduled for this Thursday, March 20, 9am Pacific / Noon Eastern. Registration is free.
Topics will include Leadership roles, When coaching works (and when it doesn't), Coaching tools, Coaching traps, and Putting it into practice.
I'll build not only on my experiences with clients and in Stanford's Leadership Fellows program and former Leadership Coaching course, but also on the HBR Guide to Coaching Your Employees, which I co-authored last year.
As someone who first became a coaching client in 2001--an experience that changed my professional life--and who's been writing about coaching since 2005, I'm really honored to have been asked to share my perspective on this work, and I hope you can join us.
We're generally intelligent people...so why do we do such dumb things?
One of the best ways to explain our counterproductive behavior is the Ladder of Inference. This elegant model was first developed by Chris Argyris, building on the work of S.I. Hayakawa and Alford Korzybski, and articulated further by William Isaacs and Rick Ross. Start at the bottom and work your way up:
Selection: Our starting point in any experience is the process of identifying and selecting certain data from the sum total of all observable data.
Interpretation: We interpret the data we select and invest it with meaning, a process that occurs at the cultural and personal levels. Argyris describes "culturally understood meanings" as interpretations "that individuals with different views...would agree were communicated." [Overcoming Organizational Defenses, p 88] (The "culture" in question may range from a nationality to an organization to a two-person relationship, but whatever its scope, certain meanings will be commonly understood by all members.) At the personal level, individuals from the same culture may interpret the same data differently, depending on their particular perspective.
Conceptualization: As we select and intepret data over time, we develop a set of theories and beliefs that explain our interpretations. These theories and beliefs--which Argyris and Chris Schön called "mental maps" and "mental models"--help us make sense of not only of specific individuals, relationships, groups and situations but also of how people generally operate in organizations and the world at large.
Action: Finally, we take action on the basis of these theories and beliefs, which provide us with a set of behavioral algorithms--habitual responses to certain circumstances that kick in when a given mental model is triggered.
The key to the Ladder of Inference (and its value in helping us to understand our counterproductive behavior) is to note the tremendous potential for misunderstanding at each stage of the process:
Selection (Where We Go Wrong): Because it's impossible to take in all the observable data in a given experience, we rely upon cognitive biases and heuristics (of which there are a staggering number) to help us focus our attention on the data that (we believe) matters most. Although this process is essential in allowing us to function efficiently, it's also subject to significant error, particularly when we're under stress. So it's worth asking: Are we truly focusing on the most important data, or are our biases and heuristics causing us to fixate on certain data while ignoring others?
Interpretation (Where We Go Wrong): The meanings we impose upon the data we select are highly subjective, seen through the lenses of both the surrounding culture and our personal experience. This isn't to suggest that all our interpretations are suspect; we've evolved a keen ability to rapidly and accurately interpret massive amounts of data. And yet our overall effectiveness in this process means that we rarely stop to question our interpretations; we automatically assume that meaning is inherent in the data itself, rather than something we actively construct. So it's worth asking: Does a given piece of data mean what we think it does, or might our cultural or personal lenses be causing some distortion?
Conceptualization (Where We Go Wrong): Once again, the quest for cognitive efficiency that leads us to further condense our interpretations into a set of conceptual theories and beliefs serves an important purpose but also threatens to lead us astray on a regular basis. As we refine our experiences from perceptions (observed data) to conceptions (abstract theories and beliefs), by necessity we leave out vast amounts of potentially crucial information as we streamline and simplify. So it's worth asking: How might our theories and beliefs fail to fully account for what's happening right now?
Action (Where We Go Wrong): By the time we've reached the top rung of the Ladder, we're executing our behavioral sub-routines like clockwork. But that consistency in part reflects our resistance to any form of cognitive dissonance that might threaten to disrupt the process; as I wrote in 2010, "when our attitude and our behavior are inconsistent, we experience discomfort and even distress, and we modify either our attitude or our behavior to reduce the inconsistency"--and research suggests that we tend to change our theories and beliefs in order to bring them in line with our preferred course of action. So it's worth asking: Are we truly taking thoughtful action, or are we on autopilot?
One further, systemic source of error is the Reflexive Loop, first noted by William Isaacs: Our theories and beliefs affect the data we select, typically resulting in the selection of data that reinforce those theories and beliefs. As David Bradford says, "Whoops--I'm right again!"
The fundamental problem here is that the Ladder carries us rapidly away from our actual, lived experience into a cloud of abstraction, where it can be extremely difficult for reality to penetrate. As Argyris writes, "This ladder of inference shows...that the evaluations or judgments people make automatically are not concrete or obvious. They are abstract and highly inferential. Individuals treat them as if they were concrete because they produce them so automatically that they do not even think that their judgments are highly inferential." [Overcoming Organizational Defenses, pp 88-89]
But we shouldn't give up hope, as Rick Ross notes: "You can't live your life without adding meaning or drawing conclusions. It would be an inefficient, tedious way to live. But you can improve your communications...by using the ladder of inference in three ways:
Becoming more aware of your thinking and reasoning (reflection);
Making your thinking and reasoning more visible to others (advocacy);
Inquiring into others' thinking and reasoning (inquiry)." [The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook, p 245]
An even simpler way to use the Ladder is to determine what rung we're on, pause, and drop down a step (or two):
- If we're taking action, pause, and ask ourselves what theories and beliefs are driving our action.
- If we're formulating theories and beliefs, pause, and clarify the meaning we're imposing upon the data at hand.
- If we're interpreting data, pause, and determine just what data we've selected.
- And if we're selecting data, pause, and check to see what other data might be out there.
Postscript: The Ladder and Emotion Regulation
Argyris, who died in 2013, developed the Ladder decades ago without the benefit of contemporary neurological and psychological research, but we can certainly view it as a tool to support emotion regulation, more specifically the process of cognitive reappraisal, which Columbia University psychologist Jason Buhle describes as "a strategy that involves changing the way one thinks about a stimulus in order to change its affective impact." David Rock, who's written extensively on the implications of neuroscience for coaching and organizational life, notes that "when we pull apart the difference between an event and our interpretations of it, we are setting the stage for reappraisal,"[Coaching with the Brain in Mind, p 360] which is a concise description of how to use not only the Ladder but also Rock's own SCARF model for deconstructing perceived social threats.
But this highlights the difficulty of "pausing" at the various rungs on the Ladder, as advised above, because the entire cycle of selecting and interpreting data, fitting our interpretation into a set of theories and beliefs, and taking action can be completed in just fractions of a second. This is where our capacity for mental control and emotional management are critical. Comprehending the Ladder is just the first step; to put it into practice in real life we have to continually develop our abilities to intervene in our cognitive and emotional processes, direct our attention toward certain stimuli (and away from others), and learn to regulate our thoughts and emotions without suppressing them. And that's much harder work.
The most commonly-cited discussion of the Ladder can be found in the outstanding Fifth Discipline Fieldbook, by Peter Senge et al. The Ladder chapter [pp 242-246] is by Rick Ross, and while it provides a concise and useful description of the concept, I find the illustration (by Martie Holmer) unhelpful. It includes seven (!) steps in the process and refers to"meanings," "assumptions," and "conclusions" without offering any substantive distinctions among those terms.
I prefer Argyris' discussion in Overcoming Organizational Defenses [pp 88-89]; it's simpler and more straightforward, although--Argyris being Argyris--it's densely written and requires some understanding of other concepts in his framework. (I've heard that the Ladder is discussed more extensively in Argyris' Reasoning, Learning and Action, but I haven't yet read it.)
My framework above is a hybrid of Argyris' original and the Ross/Senge version. The former treats "Culturally understood meanings" and "Meanings imposed by us" as separate rungs--I've collapsed them--and omits a step from theories/beliefs to action. The latter, as I've noted, has seven (!) steps, which is just way too many.
Thanks to my Stanford colleagues Carole Robin (who introduced me to the Ladder) and Hugh Keelan (who teaches an informative and highly-entertaining segment on the Ladder each year to our Leadership Fellows).
For serious nerds only: According to William Isaacs, a colleague of Senge and the author of Dialogue: The Art of Thinking Together, Argyris' work on the Ladder is "based on a theory of abstraction by Alford Korzybski," a Polish intellectual from the early 20th century [Dialogue, p 408]. Korzybski is best known today for the line "A map is not the territory it represents," although the book from which this concept derives, Science and Sanity, isn't widely read (I've just skimmed online excerpts), and people interested in his theories are generally referred to the more coherent and accessible Language in Thought and Action, by S.I. Hayakawa (which I highly recommend). In the preface to the 5th edition of "Language...", Hayakawa cites Korzybski as his primary influence. Isaacs refers the even more diligent researcher to Samuel Bois' The Art of Awareness, a book so obscure that even Amazon has almost nothing to say about it, and which I have no intention of pursing further.
Photo by Robert Couse-Baker. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.
It's been an unusual year. There have been some very high highs: I believe I'm doing the best work I've ever done with my clients and students; my brother David realized a long-held dream and opened a bar; I began writing for HBR; I stepped into a new role with Stanford T-groups; and I realized how much I have to be thankful for.
And there have been some very low lows: I failed at an important project; I blew out a disk and was in pain for months; I'm no longer in pain, but I'm still struggling to exercise regularly (and to meditate at all); I wrote almost nothing from March through August; and I was reminded (several times) of one of my greatest weaknesses.
There is nothing the busy man is less busied with than living: there is nothing that is harder to learn. It takes the whole of life to learn how to live, and...it takes the whole of life to learn how to die... [I]t takes a great man and one who has risen far above human weaknesses not to allow any of his time to be stolen from him, and it follows that the life of such a man is very long because he has devoted wholly to himself whatever time he has had. None of it lay neglected and idle; none of it was under the control of another, for, guarding it most grudgingly, he found nothing that was worthy to be taken in exchange for his time. [Ch. 7]
I'm a long way from living up to that standard, but I'm closer than I've ever been, and that's something.
Tonight Amy and I walked along West Cliff Drive in Santa Cruz and watched the sun set; it was a good way to end a year. See you in 2014.
Although the clients in my coaching practice come from a wide range of professions and work in organizations of all sizes, I see a large number of startup founders and other leaders from early-stage companies. And my work with these clients--as well as my own experience as the first employee at three nonprofit ventures--has led me to view startups as distinct human systems. There's no one-size-fits-all template to describe how these systems operate, nor are the interpersonal principles in startups fundamentally different from those in other organizations. But there are some tendencies that I see in my startup clients' companies on a consistent basis:
1. Complex Group Dynamics
This point underpins all the others below: Startups are deceptively complex organizations. The small number of employees and, often, the shared background of the founding team can give the impression that the company's interpersonal dynamics will be simple and easy to manage.
But by definition a startup is in the process of establishing its culture, the set of informal norms and formal practices that determine how people interact with each other in a given system. A startup's culture can change rapidly, sometimes with the arrival or departure of a single person. And while some founders are intensely deliberate about the culture they're creating, the pressure to tackle today's to-do list can make it easy to think of culture as something to be dealt with later. (As Joel Peterson has said, every organization has a distinct culture--the question is whether it develops "inadvertently or with some planning and forethought.")
When the surrounding culture is subject to dramatic change--and when leaders may lack the capacity to step back and consider the cultural impact of their actions--group dynamics are inevitably complex. This complexity may become apparent only at key inflection points in the company's development--the first non-founder employees, a move to new space, the first firing, the departure of a founder--but effective startup leaders recognize this complexity well in advance of these critical junctures.
2. Communication = Survival
The efficient flow of information in a startup is critical to its health and success. Established organizations can survive inefficiencies, requiring multiple conversations to accurately transmit a message and get it to stick; they won't thrive, but they'll survive, sometimes for extended periods of time. Startups will die.
The presumption of simplicity noted above can fool startup leaders into thinking that good communication is a natural by-product of interactions within the company: We talk when we need to talk, and we meet when we need to meet. And if we're meeting and talking, we must be communicating.
But truly accurate and meaningful communication takes effort. We need to work at being clear and direct, because what we say isn't necessarily what the other party hears. And we need to work at active listening, because even if we've absorbed the other party's message they may not truly feel heard. Effective startup leaders see communication as critical to survival and work to improve communication practices in the company at both the individual and group levels.
3. Feedback = Learning
A corollary to the point above: Just as startups depend on efficient communication to survive, they depend on effective feedback to drive learning. (Note that good feedback doesn't simply mean honest criticism of counterproductive behavior; it also means heartfelt praise that acknowledges and rewards useful behavior.) But just as we assume that our interactions with others naturally result in meaningful communication, we tend to operate under the belief that simply sharing our responses to others' behavior is all we need to do for our feedback to have the desired effect.
But even more than other forms of communication, truly effective feedback is the result of hard work and dedicated effort. In part this is because giving and receiving feedback is stressful--even when it's positive--and when we're under stress we're much less effective communicators. We absorb and process information less efficiently, we're less creative at solving problems, and we fixate on perceived solutions without testing alternatives--in short, perfect conditions for feedback that doesn't stick.
Organizations seeking to maximize learning must counter these effects by building a feedback-rich culture in which a heightened sense of safety and trust makes truly candid feedback possible. And effective startup leaders establish these conditions early and reinforce them often.
4. Relationships Matter
Interpersonal relationships in startups tend to matter even more than they do in established organizations. One dysfunctional relationship can affect the entire company, especially if a founder is involved. And a single person with poor interpersonal skills can undermine every working relationship around them--again, especially if it's a founder.
But relationship difficulties in startups can often be masked or go unaddressed. Leaders may assume that the founding team's pre-existing friendships or shared background automatically translate into healthy working relationships. When founders themselves lack interpersonal skills, co-founders and early employees are typically reluctant to confront them. And the pressure to deliver results often leaves little time to discuss interpersonal issues.
Yet my clients' experiences demonstrate the importance of interpersonal factors in a startup. The single issue I discuss most frequently with founders is how to better manage difficulties in their working relationships with co-founders, senior employees and investors. Note that this work doesn't just involve building stronger personal connections--it also deals with exerting more effective control when necessary. Effective startup leaders make time to reflect on their key relationships and attend to difficulties early.
5. Leaders As Levers
Much of the discussion above has focused on the challenges faced by founders that derive from startups' scale and stage of development, but I also want to highlight an advantage: startup leaders enjoy a tremendous amount of personal leverage to drive positive change and make mid-course corrections when necessary.
All leaders striving for change must work within an existing culture. In established organizations this is a slow, painstaking and failure-prone process, and even the most highly effective individual leaders can struggle as they attempt to indirectly influence parts of the organization that are well beyond their personal reach. But in the context of a startup's small scale and evolving culture, founders and other senior leaders have many more opportunities to connect directly with every employee, allowing them to have a significant impact through their personal example.
This leverage has a flipside, of course: When startup leaders fail to live up to the principles they espouse or prove untrustworthy in some other way, it's obvious to everyone in the company and rapidly undermines employees' loyalty and commitment. Effective startup leaders realize that their leverage comes at a price, and they will be expected to walk their talk every day.
Photo by Heisenberg Media. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.