Monday, December 21, 2009

Stop Writing Notes at Meetings to Develop Your Compassionate Brain: An Evolutionary and Managerial Advantage

Why does Abbas Jahangiri, who owns a bar and restaurant in Toronto, hand out cookies, sandwiches, blankets, clothing and tea almost every night starting at 2:00 am, as described in the December 20, 2009 Toronto Star, 24 hours of kindness? Evolutionary biologists might speculate that his ancestors have wired him to be compassionate or that he has transformed himself willingly.

Our feelings are millions of years older than reasoning. They travel several times faster in brain time engaging in “an emotional tango”, as Daniel Goleman explains in Social Intelligence. We are wired to connect, to care, to be kind and compassionate.

Apparently, such wiring has helped us survive in the face of peril and upheaval. Those who cooperate and collaborate and do good works have a better chance of living long enough to pass on their genes and/or to inspire others to get involved. Pragmatically, it is in our best interests, both for our families and our work environments, to cultivate our compassionate brains.

The nature: nurture debate is no longer one about a static balance. The gifts of our ancestors and what we do with them influence how we present ourselves to the world. The consensus is that our genes are significantly influenced by our environment, including our mental environment.

The exciting part is that we can consciously become more compassionate, more socially intelligent. Neuroscientists, such as Richard Davidson at the University of Wisconsin, Michigan, have demonstrated that contemplative compassionate “training” can make our brains and our bodies healthier. In effect, we can train the executive functioning part of our brains, which is newer in evolutionary terms, to work in a more sophisticated way with our older limbic/emotional system.

In the context of leadership and management, becoming a more compassionate person is a “no-brainer”. In The Political Brain, author Drew Westen meticulously documents that we are moved by leaders with whom we resonate emotionally. “Irrational emotional commitment to rationality” generally fails to inspire people to engage, to act, to go the extra mile.

The evidence so far is compelling. Emotional intelligence does contribute in important ways to personal success in life and as a leader. So, how can we work on building our compassionate side on the job?

Here are some tips from Travis Bradberry and Jean Graves in Emotional Intelligence 2.0:
1. Breath right: focus on taking slow, deep breaths;
2. Create an emotion vs. reason list: the list will clear your mind to assess the role of both in affecting your judgment;
3. Don’t take notes at meetings. Spend your time instead observing people and making eye contact to help you engage, listen attentively and pick up on subtle meanings;
4. Remember the little things that pack a punch: “Please”, “thank you” and “I’m sorry”.
5. Always have a back-pocket question: “What do you think about….?”

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

A Prodigy's Mid-Life Crisis: The Tiger Effect Re-Visited

Imagine growing up as a child prodigy where everyone “Oohs and awes” around you? Then, unlike many child prodigies, you grow up and become one as an adult. Through your eyes you look out into the world and what do you see? Lesser mortals? Fawning adults? Beautiful women falling all over you? Fearful competitors? The next mountain to climb? I can do it better?

Whatever you see, that’s what you believe whether it’s true or not. Then, you shape and conduct your life accordingly. While “can-do” optimism in principle is good, it can be downright dangerous if you have not walked over hot coals like most mere mortals along the way. With the ability to recognize red flags underdeveloped and a big well of confidence over-riding danger zones, you risk falling into traps.

And into a trap Tiger Woods fell. Somewhere along the line, Tiger made certain decisions that have come back to haunt him. He has no roadmap for dealing with significant personal failure. Failure has never been an option as he has until his fateful middle of the night car accident controlled the avoidance of it superbly. But, this time, with his father who was his guidepost gone, Tiger lost his bearings. Opportunity to repair the damage lurks but it’s going to be Tiger’s most difficult “tournament”.

We have seen this often in business: Martha Stewart, Conrad Black, the Enron, Eatons and Nortel folks, the 2008 financial melt-down and so on. Adult-onset prodigy development can be more dangerous than in childhood. Especially if wealth and power are added to the mix.

We mere mortals are subject to this too. Our judgment can become skewed if we are not on the alert to challenge our assumptions, debate and discuss them with others and send out some trial balloons. That’s the value of real team work in this all too complex society in which we live.

Much has been written about the challenge of good judgment and strategic decision-making of late. For example, Michael Roberto in Why Great Leaders Don’t Take Yes for an Answer asserts that “differences in mental horsepower seldom distinguish success from failure” in smart decision-making amidst complexity. Adding to the “why” of this conundrum, Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert Sutton in Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths and Total Nonsense conclude that managers routinely ignore or reject solid evidence” that “damage careers and companies over and over again”. Our brains, that is, our minds, are both friends and foes.

Where was Tiger’s team? Who challenged his judgment? Some likely did. It appears from the current fall-out that Tiger paid little heed. Child prodigies are according to the literature “extreme specialists” who are finely attuned to a particular field of knowledge and who demonstrate “effortless mastery”. The caveat is that such mastery is not demonstrated “across the board”. Aye, here’s the rub for Tiger. What a shock for him and his entire ecosystem.

This is a character challenge for Tiger and for those who support him. Character, according to Manfred Kets de Vries in The Leader on the Couch, is the “sum of deeply ingrained patterns of behaviour that define an individual” from the Greek word meaning “engraving”. How will Tiger re-engrave all that goes into shaping his behaviour? What behaviours (driven by values) will his supporters from the “Tiger they knew before the downfall” use to either help Tiger or set him loose to fend for himself?

The way ahead like so much of life these days is not clear. In the months ahead, we will either be inspired or dismayed by Tiger’s and others’ actions.

As the Accenture ad featuring Tiger intoned, “It’s what you do next that counts”.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Michael Ignatieff is Appealing to the Wrong Part of Our Brains

If the media reports are any indication, the “get rid of Michael Ignatieff” sounds are becoming louder within the Liberal party. Bring in Bob Rae is the refrain. Will this fix the Liberals dismal showing in the polls?

In that Bob Rae is more “warm and cuddly” than Michael Ignatieff, this might work. Our brains prefer such warmth. But the cost to the Liberal party could be worse. Changing leadership three times in as many years does not sit well with the electorate (“Do these guys know what they are doing?”).

A better strategy would be to work on Ignatieff’s emotional messaging before giving up the ship. He’s not tugging at our hearts enough. That stern look and holding the government accountable for a report card don’t appeal to issues that are at the heart of our evolution like survival, the care of our children and extended families and the well-being of our local communities.

Too much reason from Michael Ignatieff, not enough emotion. He’s little different from Stephen Harper who, in fact, is warming up his image and delivery and distancing himself further from the opposition. We now have a strong image of Harper “letting his hair down” playing a Beatles song on the piano with some decent singing. The Liberals have been outmaneuvered by the Conservatives on reaching the right part of our brains first---that which appeals to our emotions.

From an evolutionary perspective, we reason with our emotions first then make choices based on facts, and figures. “Emotions provide a compass that leads us toward or away from things” as psychologist Drew Westen explains in The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation.

“Feelings” according to Westen are millions of years older than “reason” or conscious thought processes. They are hard-wired into human brains across all cultures. The evolution of our species has predisposed us to being moved by leaders with whom we feel “an emotional resonance”.

There is a caveat. We can easily become turned off by “bad” governance---again an emotional action supported by evidence (or quasi-evidence). The morality of not having the electorate’s best interests in mind eventually costs a political leader. So too in any organization.