Monday, August 01, 2016

The Rage of Bias and the Hard Work to Tame It

What does it take to be a great leader?

I have been fascinated with this question since my teen years. But, I had no clue about the origins of greatness and how one becomes “great”.  I knew intuitively though that some people well-known and unsung rose above the fray to lend morale support and guidance during good times and bad times. How come?

During the start of my career as a clinical dietitian and public health nutritionist, the mystery deepened because I could not understand why some people enthusiastically and diligently scooped up my expert advice on lifestyle change, but most did not. Was there a connection to my enduring question about greatness? This time though it was about me. My efforts were hit and miss. My quest became more serious. The “eye of the beholder” mystery deepened.

Warmth Matters as a Start

An experience in one of my leadership development classes illustrates our collective struggle at recognizing greatness. The task was to rate various leaders on “warmth” and “competence”. Across most cultures, but not all, we are drawn to “warm” leaders, like a moth attracted to light. Such leaders connect well with people, we intuitively trust them. “Competence” stills matters such as appropriate expertise, follow through and getting things done. According to Harvard’s Amy Cuddy and others, warmth is the “conduit of influence”.

As I passed one group wrestling with Justin Trudeau’s warmth level, a female millennial made a face and exclaimed, “I can’t stand Justin Trudeau”! She could give me no reason. That’s how she felt, full stop. This was a visceral response that surprised me as her classmates overall gave Mr. Trudeau a seven to eight out of 10 for warmth. On competence, Prime Minister Trudeau faired less favourably because his track record is still in the making. But, not surprisingly, she and her group, as well as the class as a whole, gave Nelson Mandela top marks for warmth and competence. Was it because we know more about Mandela, his struggles and eventual redemption - the whole story?

Warmth and Competence Matter in the Long-Run

Stories are still in the making during the marathon race for becoming the next president of the United States. The debate around the world is palpable. Hillary Clinton, despite her considerable track record of achievement (competence), elicits vitriolic loathing among a sizeable portion of Americans, many with legitimate concerns about their well-being opportunities. Her likeability level (warmth) is more or less tied with Donald Trump’s – both low. Why? Well, “she’s cold”, “can’t trust her” and so on.  When asked to explain, people’s voices trail off or they name the recent email scandal or some other situation about which she was investigated for the nth time in her lengthy career. 

For many, the jury’s out on Trump too, particularly his competence. His extreme views on how to govern a liberal democracy and his tendency to be self-aggrandizing are concerning in a world where collaboration more than ever before is required. Throughout history great discoveries and innovations have almost always resulted from a process of working together. Winning wars too depends on a network of partnerships. “Liking” each other” is not always possible. The shared goal though is what matters.

Bias Can Mess Us Up or Grow Leadership Greatness

What’s going on?  It’s complicated. It’s always in the eye of the beholder. Many factors come into play, typically below our awareness:

It’s a social, it’s about survival – when we view another as “warm”, that can mean he or she cares about us, has our back, pays attention to the issues that are holding us back, will keep us safe, make our lives better. Trump seems to be hitting that note with his supporters. But so is Hillary among hers. The lines are blurred here. The truth is elusive.

It’s tribal like in-group/out-group – we effortlessly relate to people like us. It is harder to embrace and include someone we don’t know, who is different, who challenges our beliefs, what we think we know. That elicits fear for our well-being and can be an affront to our identity. 

It’s linked to family upbringing – political ideology, and the values it espouses, is strongly influenced by our parents, grandparents, teachers, and where we grew up.  

It’s an automatic emotional response – instead of treating ourselves as ongoing growing experiments, we default to just “believing” what we think and “know”. A person, data or a situation generates a response, negative or positive, outside the context of critical thinking. We made a decision a long time ago about these and they have been encoded in our minds as reaction recipes. While many of these recipes help us navigate life on a daily basis, thus are helpful and good, with the changing world, others are in need of scrutiny. Not all of us embrace the rigor of challenging what we know as do, for example, scientists and others undertaking research.

Openness Can Tame Blind Bias

Then, how do we square reality a bit better instead of staying stuck, even if we are not researchers? How do we get beyond “the rage of bias”? How do we tame it so we don’t block progress in our personal greatness journey?

There is one way that can give greatness a boost toward fact-checking what we automatically see. Dale Carnegie’s book on “How to Win Friends and Influence People” alludes to it – "be interested rather than interesting". 

MIT’s Alex “Sandy” Pentland and many collaborators have corroborated Carnegie’s observations naming the concept as “social physics” and the top skill as “social sensitivity”. High performing teams are very good at this. The personality trait individually and collectively is “openness”. The process is one of respectful, equal opportunity debate that challenges us to examine our assumptions.

Taming the rage of blind bias is hard work. Without feedback from others, blindness can persist. With others who see reality through a different lens, we can test out the validity of what we know and believe. We can open our minds and mindsets to an information flow that might shed more light on reality.

When We Know Another Better, Blind Bias Has Less of a Chance to Rage

Globally, we are witnessing the difficulty of the hard work of reality-checking as the United States’ electorate ponders the nation’s next commander-in-chief.  People are working out their thinking, their views of each candidate to lead nationally and internationally. They are becoming more aware of Senator Clinton’s and Donald Trump’s personal and professional stories past and current. As a result, voters’ clarity of judgment has a chance to emerge with a more nuanced foundation. In turn, seeing greatness in a new light may have a chance.  

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

What the Marshmallow Test Teaches Us About Following Through on New Year’s Resolutions

Self-control is the master empathy ability – build it and your life improves

If you could imagine what you were like as a four-year-old, would you have resisted the temptation to eat two marshmallows on the table in front of you for about 15 minutes? In the 1960s at Stanford University’s Bing Nursery School, some, not all, pre-schoolers were able to exercise enough self-restraint to wait for two marshmallows instead of one right away. They used all kinds of distractions to extend their ability to put off instant gratification.

Over the ensuing longitudinal study by Stanford through various life stages the high will power four-year-olds as adolescents, for example, thought ahead more, were goal-focussed, not easily side-tracked by setbacks and when under stress did not go to pieces as much as low delayers did.  Follow up brain scans of adult alumni confirmed that high delayers more actively used their “cool” executive functioning (EF) centres. The low delayers activated parts of their brains related to desire, pleasure and addictions. Scores of other researchers have confirmed these findings.

So it seems that if we find ways to improve our self-control, we are by association building our executive functioning. We are developing our higher order thinking skills. In turn, by improving our self-control we are in effect gaining ground on our thoughts and feelings about ourselves and others in a positive way. That shows up in less reactive, more measured behaviour, leaving more room for mutual creativity and problem solving.

You are not doomed by your social or biological history

So are you doomed if you were a low delayer four-year-old? No, you are not. Fortunately the high delayers have provided us with bountiful ideas for strengthening our will power, thereby decreasing or protecting us from our vulnerabilities while increasing confidence. Walter Mischel eloquently describes in his book, The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-Control, that there is hope for us all.

You can learn to turn the on switch to your cooler self when faced with hot moments or triggers that may take you down the wrong path in relationships, stressful situations and when faced with non-technical decisions that have no clear answers. Meditation is a classic way to build such capability. But if that is not your thing, then the “if, then” or “when, then” strategy is worth a try. It’s a great mind tool for bringing New Year’s resolutions into reality.

The key is to plan ahead how you will deal with specific “hot” situations

Here’s how it works – prepare an implementation plan in advance for a hot stimulus situation that stands in the way of a better habit. For example, “If I feel myself becoming impatient in the grocery checkout line (the hot stimulus context), then I will take a few deep breaths and scan the magazines (the cool stimuli).” Another example – “When the dessert menu is offered, I will not order the chocolate cake; instead I will order the sorbets and share with my dinner partner.” Or, in the work situation context, “if so-and so snaps back at me during a team meeting, then I will ask open-ended, neutral questions to explore further her point-of-view, to better understand where she is coming from.” These examples might seem frivolous; however, the self-control strength building from particularly vexing and specific contexts expands to other areas simultaneously. The benefits snow ball. The key is to choose the times and places or cues that trigger your hot responses and then to implement your cooling down, self-control plan.

The lesson for all of us is that self-control is more than determination or an annual resolution. It needs an infrastructure – a plan or strategies – to thrive. The lessons learned as the “If, then” or “When, then” plans are executed reinforce or add new ideas for the new habit-building journey. It is the essence of deliberate practice used by those aspiring to elite status in their respective fields of endeavour. Eventually the new habit becomes automatic. There is no going back to the way we were, for the most part. In this era of many distractions fueled by technology, the insights from the marshmallow and related experiments may be just the antidote for us to recapture the present moment and sustain our grit. 

Sunday, February 01, 2015

Billie Beane 'got it' - the behaviours that lead to desired outcomes. Any lessons here for the rest of us?

In the late 1990s, the Oakland Athletics baseball team startled the baseball world.  It was the poorest team in baseball. Yet, the Oakland As won more regular season games than all but one of the other twenty-nine teams, the Atlanta Braves. The baseball commissioner chalked it up to “an aberration”. But, it was not. Two men with Bill as their first names changed the course of baseball history.

Some 40 years ago or so, Bill James was an aspiring 20ish writer who loved baseball. In his spare time as a security guard for a pork and beans cannery, he began laying down his ideas. 

James liked to pose questions:

“Which pitchers and catchers allow runners to steal the most bases?”

He demonstrated the fallacy of many measurements used by the baseball industry to assess the talent of players. Historical measures related to speed and contact such as stolen bases, runs batted in and batting average were the norm. On the other hand, measures of offensive success appeared to fare better in predicting “wins”. They included on-base percentage and slugging percentage.

Bill James developed quite a following among baseball stats 'geeks' by presenting his data and analysis with great wit, insight and frequency. His method described as “Sabermetrics” in reference to the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) aroused the attention of many gaining momentum far and wide. He was onto something.

His abstracts, full of in-depth statistics compiled from his study of box scores from the preceding season, were coveted in the 1980s by a huge number of like-minded baseball fans. With James, they debated and challenged each other, in essence forming a kind of Wikipedia on baseball performance. Despite his efforts, James could not convince the baseball league owners and managers that his analysis had merit for gauging and guiding performance.

Meanwhile, around 1997, the new GM of the Oakland As, Billy Beane, set about looking for ways to make his team more efficient. He re-examined everything from the market price of foot speed to the difference between the average major league player and the superior Triple-A one. Sabermetrics was part of his tool kit.

In around 2000 the well-known journalist Michael Lewis decided to investigate. His book called Moneyball was subsequently made into the 2011 movie of the same name starring Brad Pit as Billy Beane. As Brad Pitt says to his young data-mining protégé, “We are going to change the game” and so they did.

More recently Harvard and Stanford examined this “disruptive innovation” in a case study spanning the accomplishments of the major baseball leagues from 1998 to 2013. The Oakland Athletics won hands down for increasing wins while decreasing the cost of the wins. The New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox did quite well with wins but were stuck in the expensive realm.

So what are the takeaways for us not in sports but in a range of organizations where we want to progress, be competitive within our industries or domains and when all is said and done – survive?!

Hans Rosling, the “jedi-master” of animating data, provides some clues in his quest to rid us of our incorrect assumptions about the world. In his November 2013 spirited video presentation, Don’t Panic which can be viewed in full on , he demonstrates imaginatively and persuasively that a poor family having a bicycle is a critical tool to lift it out of extreme poverty from $1 to $2 per day toward $10 - a significant difference. Granted access to education, clean water, health care and sanitation are vital too. But what if all of those are there but tough to access?

The poor family aided by a bicycle yields insight into where to zoom in to make progress when there are many priorities. Access to transportation enables the family’s daily routines to take less time, such as travelling miles for water, formerly done on foot, leaving more for other creative endeavours.  In metrics terms, from $1 to $10 is the lag indicator (target) and owning a bicycle is the lead indicator (contributes to reaching the target). Put another way, the latter measure (having a bicycle) captures an action that leads to a significant outcome (more money for the family). It compares to on-base percentage in baseball (more people on base increases the probability of home runs).

To arrive at a leading indicator however requires considerable exploration of reality versus the big goals. If achieved, the indicator and its attendant strategies would make a significant difference. Many business authors have written extensively on how to develop “scorecards”. Harvard’s Robert S. Kaplan is one of the most prolific and well-known.

But what if you need a little more hand-holding to sort the wheat from the chaff and not spend a fortune on developing and monitoring a big scorecard?  The 4 Disciplines of Execution by Chris McChesney and Sean Covey is a user-friendly alternative, coaching the reader step-by-step.

The failure to execute strategy well is a chronic problem. But if teams can get their heads around the “how to” via an engaging and inclusive process (taking the high level corporate strategy to the realm of front line in a concrete way), then there is hope to up the gains and lower the failures. 

The magic in the process is to narrow focus and choose only one or two stretch goals while “the whirlwind” of the daily business goes on. Then, create the “yellow brick road” with built in accountability and tracking which everyone excitedly walks. It’s much more manageable and certain than all those spreadsheets with every single goal and objective noted over multi-years. It’s a great way of “busting” silos too and recognizes the iterative or winding journey of plans. We can only imagine and think so far in advance before unexpected change reaches in to disrupt our ideas.

Friday, July 04, 2014

How Come We Humans are Biased?

Bias has a negative connotation as if we should not have any. But what if there’s an upside? Has it helped to get us where we are? On the other hand, what do you do if a bias (that you are don’t know you have) is interfering with your relationships and your success at solving problems?

You and I are on this earth because our ancestors strategically adapted to changing circumstances in their lives and the surrounding environment in which they lived. They fought ferociously to survive. Along the way, they decided why certain events happened, whether true or not, based on the best available knowledge at the time.

It seems we humans have a natural tendency to create order out of chaos and in so doing attribute a cause to a happening. We are pattern-seekers and as many phenomena do have discernible, deterministic causes, the system we developed and encoded served us well most of the time. When there is not a clear cause we make up a reason anyway and hence little errors of judgment.

The birth of biases!! Our tightly interconnected brain, with no boss, many options and made up of thousands of specialized modules, spurs the biases along. Advances in neuroscience have helped us understand why - what fires together wires together because the architecture of our brains (a complex system like the weather or the Internet) enables the links. Emotions get mixed in. No five-star general is in control. In the absence of no team members or peers with whom to argue, our free-wheeling thoughts about an event (an interpretation) will be checked against what we know, fit in accordingly and put into our memories as connected. Under similar circumstances later, they will be retrieved automatically. Hence non-conscious biases!

Like our ancestors, we are still wrestling with what is real. We constantly update our perceived reality through a mixture of new evidence true or not, and a made-up former narrative that fits in with what we know and with which we feel comfortable. Like our ancestors, we are forced to adapt to current circumstances in order to survive and thrive. Climate change, the weather, new technologies, financial crises, gridlock, joblessness, pandemics and much more threaten our safety and security. The human spirit seldom gives up. We try to figure it out increasingly on a global, local and personal basis. Our brains (the conscious parts) decide. We believe.

Trial and error works more or less because we have to argue our beliefs (positive or negative biases) usually with others in a team or on a larger scale.  We challenge assumptions. We ask for and look for the evidence. We then may take a second look at our points-of-view. Eventually collective intelligence mitigates the errors. The mounting evidence on the reality of climate change is one example.

The culprit behind bias creation is primarily our left hemisphere, according to Daniel Kahneman, Iain McGilchrist, Michael S. Gazzaniga and many others who study and write about how we make decisions. It is the great interpreter. It does not like chaos. It tries to fit everything into a story – events with context. It dislikes and has little faith in randomness. The left hemisphere does not operate in real time but rather in post-hoc- time (explanations and observations) trying to make sense out of scattered “facts”.  A little bit of fudging here and there arises to create a story that makes sense. It is a slow thinking process, but one that is essential to our growing understanding of how the world works and how we can make it a better place for all.

Our left hemisphere, while having a module or more specializing in interpretation, is hindered. The quality of its thinking is only as good as the information it accesses. It engages with the information to sift and sort things out. This is where the right hemisphere comes in.

The right hemisphere lives a literal life in present time like a meditator or a good listener. The right hemisphere works fast because it does not interpret but it does pay attention to things and relationships. Always on. Always observing. It is the ultimate explorer. If we let it. When the left hemisphere strays too far from reality, the “explorer” might rein the “interpreter” in because of what it “knows”.

The two hemispheres are complementary, acting like a smart partnership, of different capabilities, when we humans choose to take advantage of their respective specialties. What helps the partnership along? Here are some practices:

An overriding stretch goal that inspires people to join and contribute

A cause bigger than ourselves around which many can rally despite opposing viewpoints

Tapping into the wisdom of the crowd by allowing all involved to think for themselves before sharing opinions

Equal turn-taking and listening in a team as Alex Pentland from MIT and author of Social Physics has discovered is fundamental to team innovation and productivity

Introducing more fun into the workplace which activates the right hemisphere’s explorer mode and the brain’s depth of knowledge

Creating a positive culture of acceptance and celebration of everyone’s strengths and contributions

Starting with “I don’t know”, the standard self-talk of top notch investigators tackling complex problems with no obvious solutions. 

The bottom line: There’s a reason for our biases. We are evolving.  We are learning. Neuroscientist David Linden describes the evolution of the brain as a progressive accumulation of “kludges” or “quick and dirty fixes” struggling to make sense of who we are and how to deal with our changing social, economic, technological and political environment.

Sometimes the environment is glaringly out-of-step with our capabilities. For example, skunks when faced with a rapidly approaching vehicle have been known to hold their ground, perform a 180 degree manoeuver, lift their tails and spray the oncoming vehicle.

Nevertheless, we are becoming more conscious and collectively smart. But the process is sluggish to give us time to adapt. Skirmishes and set-backs happen. Different places on this earth progress at different speeds. Opposing viewpoints cause us to debate endlessly. Our global connectedness fueled by technology helps us to collaborate quickly and richly to discover creative solutions and make corrections. A little at a time, we are “busting out” of our out-of-date biases in the pursuit of common ground. We are shaping a more progressive, democratic world in which we have the pleasure of ongoing survival.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Are You More Like an Orchid or a Dandelion in Your Working Environment?

Why do some kids from really tough backgrounds manage to rise above the fray and survive while others wilt? Do these kids show up in the workplace as grown adults who manage the stresses well while others don’t?

Researchers Thomas Boyce (University of British Columbia) and Bruce Ellis (University of Arizona) coined an orchid-dandelion hypothesis based on the Swedish term “dandelion children”. Such children seem to be able to grow up in almost any environment unscathed. Boyce and Ellis added the term “orchid children” who blossom under good care but wilt when the environment lacks caring support.  Parental behaviour matters. Then, does organizational/leadership care matter? We know it does for everyone, yet for some it may be that which makes or breaks their motivation, engagement, happiness and overall productivity.

But hold on. The orchid kids might just have “heightened attention” to a new or ambiguous situation as Elaine Aron (State University of New York) posits. Their response might appear as “anxious inaction” when in fact they are “pausing to read cues and await opportunity.” It is somewhat akin to people who consider themselves “diverger” learners, generating options and taking a 360 view first. This “highly sensitive” response might be an evolutionary one from way back to our hunter-gatherer days when caution was a matter of life or death.

Steven Pinker (Harvard University) in his seminal book How the Mind Works points out that our minds are “designed by natural selection to solve the kinds of problems our ancestors faced in their foraging way of life…understanding and out-maneuvering objects, animals, plants, and other people”. He contends that we are not especially well-adapted yet to the modern world. We have “complex genetic recipes” that are working ever so slowly to adapt well in a non-hunter-gatherer world. The aim as always is to problem-solve through complex issues with survival as a key outcome!

Nevertheless, some of us, according to the orchid-dandelion view are more highly sensitive than others to the social environment and the stresses related to it. For example, we know that introverts easily become overloaded in social environments whereas extroverts generally thrive on the social stimuli.

Ernest Hartman from Tufts University prefers to characterize the differences as “boundaries” in the way we operate in the world. Some of us are thick-skinned, others thin-skinned. We “keep out” or “let in” stimuli according to our tolerance for handling the “energy of feelings”.  In his Boundary Questionnaire (BQ) Hartman has found that women score thinner than men. But if we look at this through an evolutionary lens, both are adaptive skills for survival.

In the workplace, therefore, we can conclude that both are strengths that only manifest if leaders and the infrastructure of the organization support the different tolerances for social stimuli. You can’t go wrong if you are a high emotionally intelligent leader. Walk in the shoes of others. Lend a helping hand. Unconditionally support. Take obstacles out of the way that impede getting the job done. Magical!  

Monday, August 05, 2013

What do you think?

When my sister gave me Tina Fey’s book “Bossypants” a couple of years ago for my birthday, all in jest of course, it reminded me of the forces that shape us and how difficult it is to change a habit. As the eldest, I took life far too seriously. To this day, my sisters frequently kid me about my relentless messaging to them. In my view, they always seemed to be fooling around, slacking off. “Work hard”, I told them, so they could take care of themselves as adults, not depend on a man for their well-being.

Not surprisingly I have made a career out of the value (or not) of working hard. It’s much more nuanced than I imagined. Good coaching has many facets and lecturing is not necessarily an effective strategy. Maybe it works temporarily to change behaviour quickly in a risky situation. For the long-term though and to encourage self-momentum, it has diminishing returns.

Lately the power of a single question when problem-solving with others has reminded me of a way to shed the “bossy pants” habit. “What do you think?” is one major personal transformation theme I hear when I follow up with managers who have graduated from our leadership development programs. They don’t jump in to provide the answers, as was their habit too often. Although difficult to withhold their opinions, the managers are amazed at the creativity and enthusiasm that follows.

But does such a simple question make a real difference in achieving results? Anson Dorrance is a university soccer coach legend, having led his women’s soccer team at the University of North Carolina to 21 national championships over 33 seasons. According to Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, who have written a fascinating book on the science of winning and losing (“Top Dog), Dorrance learned not to berate or lecture the women after a game played poorly. He simply asked, “What do you think?” The women capably provided the answers.

Fortunately for me my sisters knew that I was just looking out for them. They have both done well. Their playful feedback resonates though. I continue to work on letting go of my “bossy pants” persona to allow the “What do you think?” me to emerge.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Beyond our natural default setting

When I take a walk around any university campus, I calm down. There is something magical about the winding, irregular paths, the trees and vast green spaces, the beauty of the well-designed original fifty-year plus buildings and the hustle and bustle of students, faculty, staff and visitors traversing the grounds in every direction. It’s a cocoon, a little enclave in the midst of that unpredictable, often uninviting world out there.

Memories past spring up when all I had to worry about was being a student. It was a glorious time and a stressful time. But little did I know how peaceful it really was in comparison to what was ahead. The journey of life is a series of pilot tests offering an opportunity to learn or fume.
Fuming seems to be an easier route to take because it’s easier. Something annoying happens. We react. Simple! To not get irritated requires effort.  To be calm means I have to stop, see the situation in a more benign light, let go of being ticked off and revel in a more positive world. Too many steps! It can be exhausting when life is a constant series of irritations!

Yet, with a bit of practice the switch to seeing others and the prickly situations in a better light can speed up reducing the drain on my brain. A bonus is having the pleasure of going down pathways that may never have been explored and enjoyed otherwise; thus, my motivation to be more “type B” in nature in the face of life’s pilot tests.

What better place to pick up on the “learn or fume” challenge than a commencement address? It may go in one ear and out the other in the moment but with the fullness of time it resonates. David Foster Wallace captured the story poignantly in his address to the 2005 graduating class of Kenyon College. I wish he had won the battle as he passed away in 2008 but his messages live on to inspire us to keep pushing the flywheel.