“Will this be on the test?” Students would ask me, during my days as a university assistant professor. My stock answer was that if it was important enough to include in my lessons, it could be on the test. It was definitely worth learning.
We do live in a world of just in time learning. We want to know when we need to know. That approach also means we are in a state of stress (a.k.a. internal conflict) when we realize something is in jeopardy because of our ignorance. OMG!! I DON’T KNOW HOW. PLEASE, SOMEONE SHOW ME HOW!!!!!
Just in time learning–really now
Most of the training I have done in my career has been that kind–just in time before things get out of hand, and just enough–but no more–than absolutely necessary. I’ve lost count of how many times a company asked me to change a lifetime of employee bad habits in a two hour block. Sorry. Won’t happen. But I’ve tried.
There’s another problem with that.
When we are in stress, our ability to think and learn is inhibited. The stress hormones pulsing through our bodies get in the way of rational thinking. Taking time to learn ahead of the need is more effective, and the learning has time to find its way into our long term memory. That’s also why studying a little every day is more effective than cramming the night before an exam.
Why take time to learn when you can just Google it?
Remember Chesley Sullenberger, “Sully,” the commercial pilot who safely crash landed his Airbus A320 in the Hudson River after being struck by a flock of birds and losing both engines?
He didn’t have time to Google how to crash land a jetliner when both engines go out. All those passengers walked away because Sully had spent hundreds of hours learning how to handle that situation just in case. He wanted to know so that if, and when, he needed to know, he would not have to deal with the added stress of learning and applying a new skill in the moment of crisis.
A positive stress
When you want to know, you might put yourself in uncomfortable situations. The difference is that you choose to do so on your terms. The life-long learner does just that. They seek new information and new experiences to satisfy their own curiosity and to prepare themselves for the unpredictable. There is actually joy in that experience, and it fosters self-confidence. Who knows; it might show up as heroic someday.
Look for ways to grow your learning zone by pushing the boundaries of your comfort zone just a little at a time. You will grow, and be more
Think about the way you think–the process of thinking. Just because you have a brain no more guarantees you can think than having a mouth guarantees you can communicate.
I got tired of being misled by those who smiled at me while saying, “Trust me.”
So, as a matter of rational self-defense, I began studying the process of thinking rationally.
Conclusion: most people do not think rationally at all. They confuse rationalizing with being rational. And those two processes are polar opposites, even though they sound like the same thing.
A big difference that determines who is in control of your mind
Rationalizing: making up your mind first, then looking for information that supports what you want to believe (or others want you to believe without thinking about it).
Rational: gathering information, then processing it systematically to guide you to what you should believe about it. You are in control or your decisions.
What causes us to rationalize?
I’ve been studying the thinking process for over twenty-five years. Why? I felt that I had been misled by the biases and belief systems of others who merely adopted what they had been taught without any rational investigation into why they believed as they did.
No blame intended. They were well intentioned and just wanted me to believe the right things, according to what they had always been taught by other well intentioned people as the right things.
So I did the natural thing. I bought into their beliefs. It seemed like the rational thing to do.
Until . . . I discovered information counter to what I had been told to believe. And it troubled me.
I found out there is a term for that feeling–cognitive dissonance. The feeling you get when you realize you hold a belief that is not supported by the information you gathered, but you continue to hold that belief anyway.
I didn’t like that feeling. The quest began.
I had to come to an understanding of why I believed what I did.
As I embarked, I was astounded that so few were with me on that journey. When I told them what I was doing, some patronized me, “Good luck, and I hope you find yourself.” Others stared back blankly as if they did not understand the concept. And others outright ridiculed me as a liberal elite.
I did not know what a liberal elite was, and come to find out neither did my critics. The best I could determine was that a liberal elite is what they called anyone who contradicted their opinions.
Why bother with rational information to support what you believe when hurling derogatory insults is good enough?
There’s nothing new about that tactic. There’s even a term for it–epithet. The tactic places a derogatory label (a.k.a. name calling) on a person, an idea, a point of view, a way of doing something, or an institution, to make listeners biased against it.
The speaker is trying to get you to believe him by calling his opponents names that you would also find reprehensible. In other words, when you don’t have a rational argument to back up what you are saying, start calling your opponent names or belittling them or slurring them.
The labeling tactic pretty much works every time on people who are in rationalizing mode.
I’m assuming you do want to think for yourself. You can learn to listen to all sides of a position, educate yourself on a broad range of facts and perspectives, understand the context in which the facts exist, apply a critical thinking process, and come to an informed conclusion. Think rationally.
You’ll risk being called a liberal elite. But it’s worth it.
Take back control of your mind, and be more
Our mind plays tricks on us, and our eyes and ears are unwitting co-conspirators. They continually get us in trouble. It’s a WYSINWII kind of thing (What You See Is Not What It Is).
Remember Benjamin Franklin’s advice, “Believe none of what you hear, and only half of what you see.”
Perception is the process of interpreting sensory stimuli. So, in a literal sense, touch, taste, and smell get in on the game, too. Our sensory organs take in information from our surroundings and feed it into the brain where it is interpreted into our reality. IIWISII (It Is What I Say It Is)–EOD (End Of Discussion).
Every one of us has experienced a situation in which we were absolutely certain we had our objective facts correct, only to find out that we had been fooled again. Drats.
Misperception is the root of all kinds of unintended conflicts.
And here’s the danger zone: our misperceptions–misinterpretation–becomes our reality, and we act on it. Then, someone perceives our intentions and reacts to our actions. Then, we react to the reaction, and the vicious cycle takes on a life of its own.
What we have here is a failure to communicate: the other person obviously doesn’t understand. After all, how could I possibly be wrong about what I saw with my own eyes and heard with my own ears?
Been there? Done that? I have.
How, then, can we avoid getting fooled?
I have not found a failsafe workaround. But I have been able to come up with a few rules of thumb that help keep me balanced. Maybe they will work for you, too.
- Everyone is always right in their own mind, at any point in time. Think about it. Why would anyone intentionally be wrong? I Accept that everyone has his or her understanding of events, and they are as legitimate to them as mine are to me.
- Never tell anyone they are wrong. Allow their perceptions. Seek to understand the underlying information and how they worked through it to arrive at their understanding. Have a conversation, not an argument.
- I like myself more when I admit that I could be wrong about something without damaging my self-esteem. Always having to be right is too big a burden to bear. Being wrong does not mean I’m incompetent or inadequate–just human.
- Do a double-take. Most things are not quite as they initially seemed. After my initial knee-jerk reaction, which I cannot prevent because the fight or flight system hijacks me, I stop and reflect on what is happening. Reserve judgment about right-wrong, good-bad, and take another look at the situation. Focusing on different aspects of the information might result in a different interpretation of it.
- Change perspective. I shift my point of view to that of the others involved. I try to envision how I would see the situation through their eyes and experience. This also helps me to be more empathetic, and even compassionate; thus, potentially altering my response.
I have never been more embarrassed than
when I was so certain of my opinion
and told everyone so.
Your ability to more accurately perceive the reality you create
will help you to be more
And others will perceive that, too.
No one likes to admit he or she is wrong because of the stigma attached to it. But most often, the right thing to do is fess up. The problem with that is, even though confession is good for the soul, it goes against our nature.
However, once we admit the error of our ways, we can get on with setting things straight–improving, learning, and growing.
There are two things working against making meaningful personal change: blind spots and self-justification.
We have a physical blind spot in our visual field–that place on the retina where there are no photoreceptors. Anytime the eye lens focuses an image on that spot where the optic nerve exits the back of the retina, objects disappear right before our eyes.
We also have intellectual blind spots–those places in our mindset that are simply unreceptive to any ideas or points of view that are contrary to the way we have learned to see the world and position ourselves in it. Our idea receptors are missing. Because we cannot see any other variations on our reality, we cannot fathom that our view of the world could use any adjustment.
By the way, our blind spots cleverly delude us to believe we don’t have any, although everyone else seems to.
Such a blind spot can cause some vexing ethical problems. In their book, Blind Spots: Why we fail to do what’s right and what to do about it, Max Bazerman and Ann Tenbrunsel write, “Ethics interventions have failed and will continue to fail because they are predicated on a false assumption: that individuals recognize an ethical dilemma when it is presented to them.”
It does not occur to us that we could have intentionally been wrong, irresponsible, or corrupt. After all, we are good people with good intentions. Bazerman and Tenbrunsel contend that ethical judgments are based on factors outside of our awareness. In other words, they manifest from our intellectual and ethical blind spots. How could we have possibly been wrong?
Blind spot fixes
Step one: admit that blind spots exist. We can physically find the blind spot in our vision field. Finding them in our intellectual and ethical field is more difficult. Just the awareness that we are susceptible to them will put us on guard and open us up to those who try to help us see what we are missing.
Step two: aggressively seek other points of view so we can see issues from many perspectives. We can expand the field of view by expanding our sources for information.
Step three: accept the idea that everyone’s view of the world is real and legitimate to them. It is no more or no less real to them than ours is to us.
I have come to believe that everyone, in his or her own mind, at any point in time, is always exactly right.
If we end up with two ideas in mind that contradict each other, we are experiencing cognitive dissonance. This creates a psychological tension that throws us in disequilibrium. It must be resolved so we can find internal balance and feel good about ourselves again.
Psychologists Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson explore self-justification in depth in Mistakes Were Made (but not by me). They explain the connection with blind spots. “(D)issonance theory is a theory of blind spots–of how and why people intentionally blind themselves so they can fail to notice vital events and information that might make them question their behaviors or their convictions,” (p. 42).
The goal of self-justification is to tell our stories to ourselves so that we always come out OK. We are always the hero of our own story, never the villain.
The notion that one might be mistaken never enters their mind. If it does, it quickly evaporates. No change required.
Self-justification manifests in debates of all types: religion, politics, whose version of an incident is correct, personality conflicts, customer complaints, employee disputes, and on and on. Usually neither party is willing to accept blame, and all parties want to be vindicated.
I repeat, everyone, in his or her own mind, at any point in time, is always exactly right.
But what if one said, “You know, I might have been wrong about that”?
Step one: as with blind spots, admit that this happens and that we all are guilty of doing it.
Step two according to Tavris and Aronson: find a few trusted naysayers who will help us avoid operating in a hall of mirrors, “in which all we see are distorted reflections of our own desires and convictions,” (p. 66). Their job is to keep us honest with ourselves.
Step three: find new explanations that take into account honest appraisals of situations that lead us to more constructive solutions. If our need is to maintain self esteem, wouldn’t our self esteem be strengthened by knowing that through self reflection we can come out wiser, more inclusive, more balanced, more aware, and more able to deal with the complexities of our world?
Now, that’s a self I can justify.
That’s a self that is
Critics can be harsh and insensitive. When they are, their criticisms are met with resistance and defensiveness, because they forget the single most important objective–to help someone feel good about improving.
I remember sitting across the desk from a manager in his office as he proudly told me that he did not hesitate to tell others the brutal truth about their performance. But when I listened to those who answered to him, they said his criticism was seldom truthful–factual–but always brutal.
He continually squandered his opportunity to make things better by being a bully.
Criticism is evaluating current performance to a standard, then, giving praise for excellence as well as drawing attention to that which could be improved.
Compassionate criticism is offered in service to excellence. Compassion is taking the other person’s frame of reference and seeking to understand and feel what they are going through.
Here are some suggestions for making your criticism more helpful and compassionate.
Tell your truth kindly.
Ask how you would like to receive criticism. Probably, the last thing you want is to be humiliated, verbally abused, or demeaned. So don’t do it to anyone else–even out of frustration.
What would helpful criticism do for you? Think about how good you feel when you accomplish a difficult task or overcome an obstacle that has been dogging you.
We’ve all experienced times when someone kindly offered helpful advice and insights to get us pointed in the right direction or to get us over an obstacle.
We can, in fact, be truthful without being brutal.
Seek first to understand.
Listen to their backstory. Think of it as context, not whining or excuses. What is trivial to you might be significant to them. What comes easy for you might be very difficult for them. What is obvious to you might never have occurred to them.
Others are more likely to take your criticism seriously when they know you care about them as a person. They need to trust that you have their best interest at heart. Understanding the issue from their perspective is the first step.
Before telling them anything, ask about everything.
Think about what opens you up to receiving critical suggestions? I know I’m more open to listening when I feel safe.
I know when someone starts in on me saying, “You need to . . . You need to . . .” I tend to get defensive. However, when they ask me how what I’m doing helps me get to the result I want, we start discussing ways to improve. I feel like they are on my side, and I’m more receptive to their observations and critical feedback.
Seek the easiest early win.
As you discuss making improvements, focus first on the easiest fix that gets the most results with the highest prospect for success.
The compassionate critic understands that the more competent one is, the better they feel about themselves. As they ease in to the conversation, a compassionate critic keeps in mind, how can I help this person grow from the experience? They look for the quick successes to build confidence before going on to the more complicated improvements.
The compassionate critic is not content to point out flaws and walk away. They stay available to help with more advice, insight, and support.
For me, listening to criticism means I’m open to improving. I’m more likely to accept criticism from those who I know are going to stay around and help me through the change. I believe from their continual engagement that they care about me as a person.
One of my tenets of an INPowering leader admonishes us to, “Be excellent to yourself and to others.” One aspect of that is to, Tell your truth kindly.
Showing compassion as a critic will foster more trust. Staying engaged to help make things better for others will make you a more stable partner in the growth process and help others be more hopeful about their success.
As a compassionate critic,
you will be more
We hate change because it disrupts our comfort zone. The greater the disruption, the more we hate it. But the cost of not changing might be catastrophic, even fatal.
However, I have to admit that where I am today in my comfort world once was uncomfortable until I got through the change cycle that made my current comfort state possible. Growing pains are inevitable, and we make it through.
Here is my simplified understanding of all change cycles:
1. Things are good, until they are not.
2. Then, things get progressively worse, until one day . . .
3. We decide we must fix what has now become a problem.
4. During the fix, things often get even worse, and we wonder what we were thinking that caused us to disrupt our comfort world. We might even pine for the happy days when things were sublime, even though they really were not that great. We remember that the comfort world had become uncomfortable; hence, the temporary disruption.
5. Finally, we make it through the change process, and everything is much better–even wonderful. We are thankful we persevered through the change, until one day we notice things are not as good as they once were.
6. The cycle repeats.
Admit it. I’m right about this.
During this process there is an escalating cost of doing nothing. When should we intervene and set the change process in motion?
I have learned there are three thresholds when we consider making a change. These thresholds are progressively dire.
Threshold 1: You are not getting what you want from something.
There are early signs that what once worked no longer is. Everything is a little off. The quality of the relationship is growing stale. A product no longer works consistently or reliably. A work process does not yield the returns it once did. Sales are down.
During this stage it’s easy to discount the glitches as an aberration. But they persist and become chronic. Yet, because they are not serious, you let them pass . . . until.
Threshold 2: The pain of keeping the status quo becomes progressively less bearable.
The issues go from bad to worse. What once was a mild irritation or inconvenience becomes a nagging pain. It occupies your attention until it interferes with daily routines and becomes always on your mind. You think to yourself that you really need to do something about it.
Threshold 3: It’s time to do (something different) or die.
You either have a significant life-threatening event (a heart attack, a foreclosure, a bankruptcy) or become debilitated in some way. Life as you knew it ceases to exist. That which began as a mild symptom and progressed into a nagging pain, now threatens your life. Drastic measures are necessary. Everything else stops until the issue is resolved. Sometimes, you don’t make it.
Ben Franklin had it right. “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
By helping others understand the intensity of the situation requiring change and guiding them through the process sooner than later,
you will be showing why you are
I remember watching the monitor during my echocardiogram and thinking, “that doesn’t look right.” The cardiologist confirmed my observation. She explained that I might need bypass surgery.
One week later, the surgery happened.
The surgery was successful, and the recovery went better than I expected.
It was the week in between the diagnosis and surgery that was touch-and-go physically and emotionally. My most extreme life’s-lesson in resilience began at the moment the cardiologist said, “bypass surgery.”
Looking back on it, I realize I took three actions that helped me bounce back. They can be used by anyone facing any kind of adversity, life threatening or otherwise.
1. Get real about the situation.
Admiral James Stockdale, said of his experience as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam, “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end – which you can never afford to lose – with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”
We call this framing the situation, an exercise that calls into play the serenity prayer, “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
My first thought at hearing the diagnosis was the impact that being laid up for several weeks and the months of rehab on the back end would have on my business. I would not be able to travel and train, which was the way I earned an income.
The reality was, without the surgery, I would die sooner than later. When that hit me, I was all in. I would do whatever it took to recover first; restarting my business would be secondary.
2. Recall and draw on your strengths.
I didn’t realize how much of an optimist I was until that week. Never underestimate the healing properties of optimism, a strength I did not know I had. Once I accepted the situation, I was free to begin planning the recovery.
My family and friends were another source of strength. They surrounded me and encouraged me. In adversity, let those who are close to you, and who care about you, show it. It’s good for everyone.
Another strength is my love of learning and my curiosity. I realized that I could use the recovery time to develop some ideas for my courses that I had been putting off.
We all have qualities that make up our personal go to corner after a tough round of going toe-to-toe with life.
3. Do something positive and constructive
I took full advantage of the cardio rehab available after the surgery. In addition to being helpful in my physical recovery, the rehab gave me something tangible to do that allowed me to see the progress I was making. I also met others who were a lot worse off than I: another dose of reality.
The activity kept me focused on moving forward rather than succumbing to the self-pity of idleness. No sitting around and feeling sorry for myself.
Do the work of recovering from adversity. I decided to love myself enough to put myself to the discipline of showing up every day and doing what was necessary that day to get a little better.
I took that lesson with me: finish the day a little better off than you begin it. No matter how small the improvement, it’s a step forward.
From that experience I formed my definition of the INPowered that I use and teach today.
Develop your resilience,
for your own well being and as an example to others,
and you will be
Even though we expect leaders to help us go places we cannot or will not go by ourselves, that does not mean they will have all the answers up front. What INPowering leaders do have is the ability to connect and improvise and synthesize ideas from all sectors to help people find the solutions that fit their unique circumstances.
Leaders do not have all the answers.
As a consultant I tell my prospective clients, “If a consultant tells you they have the answers to your problems, run from them as fast as you can. But if they tell you they will help you find your answers to your problems, they might be worth listening to.”
That reminds me of a sales presentation I made to a local chamber of commerce committee that was looking for someone to lead a project to revitalize community spirit and generate more tourism interest for their city. The gist of my pitch was to develop a community driven project that would let the ideas for tourism opportunities bubble up from the interests and talents of the citizens. I explained that would also generate structures for volunteerism and sustainability. I believed the the improvisations, synchronicity, and serendipity of the journey was as important as the destination.
The chairman of the project listened to my pitch, then said, “I’m not interested in any of that self-help crap. I want someone to come in here and tell us what to do.”
They retained a consultant who promised they could deliver on that. The whole project died within four months for lack of participation and interest.
INPowering leaders help others learn how to find their own way. There simply are never any pat answers.
Improv is a leadership talent
Improvisation is the skill of thinking on your feet, connecting with others, and helping everyone interact at a higher level.
Actor Alan Alda conducts inprov workshops for students, scientists, and other groups to stimulate interaction and communication. He pointed out that improv is a method of connecting and interacting so that your own performance flows from being absorbed in the story. You must accept what the other actors give you and work with it. Improv is relating and responding, not just delivering memorized lines.
Improvisational leadership is relating and responding to lift the level of engagement among all participants. It isn’t hogging the show or upstaging others.
Our current political climate is like watching actors on stage compete for lines and the spotlight. No one is listening to the others. Everyone is just spouting his or her rehearsed talking points.
That’s why I am so uninspired by our current political environment at all levels. And it’s also why I’m optimistic that a new breed of leader, seeing the banality of what’s going on now, will come onto the scene with a whole different approach to leading.
My objective with INPowered2 LEAD is to promote a fresher approach to leading in which leaders learn to connect and interact. However, this style of leadership is not just shooting from the hip. Great artists in all disciplines are first, and foremost, excellent technicians of their craft. INPowering leadership is no exception.
“The more you know, the more you can improvise. You do have to know what you are doing, but once you have the skills, you can make it up as you go along.” Charles Reid, American watercolor artist
We are hungry for this type of improvisational leader who desires to take on the task of setting a new standard for leaders. They will be leaders who connect and interact with each other and with their communities to elevate the quality of solution finding and community building.
These improvisational leaders
have the skill and the flexibility
to show everyone how to be