Saturday, December 17, 2011

The Semicolons in Our Lives are Doing Battle with Our Twitter Brains

Evolution has hardwired us to read but there is no genetic map for it. The “expert reading brain” comes into being through parents, teachers and self-study. Its thickly branched and interconnected cells are the result of deep, focused attention and concentration on the pages of a non-networked book or article. According to Nicholas Carr (The Shallows) and a chorus of neuroscientists, hyperlinked reading triages our attention inviting multi-tasking and the potential for a “techno-brain” less able to deal with complexity.

Should we be worried? Yes, because the problems we face are “swampier”. These “semi-colon” situations have no technical recipe upon which we can draw. We have to learn as we go and that requires a deep thinker type of brain and skill.

Our workplaces past and present have never been very friendly to slow, concentrated thinking. Packed agendas and back-to back meetings in a hurry up, make-a-decision-fast atmosphere, most often create too much noise for creative thought. In the not-too-distant past, holidays, evenings and weekends offered some respite for re-charging and reflection. But, now the 24/7 social media tsunami is escalating the battle with our evolutionary need to concentrate to survive. Or is it?

We are evolving as did our ancestors. How we do so might be more the point.

Personally I am a Twitter and blog fan. I find those media stimulating and information-rich. I am learning more because of my interconnections with others. These links are not distracting. They instead spark all kinds of ideas which I record. They lead to research pathways I might never have discovered. Put simply – I have added to not subtracted from my thinking brain.

However, I do follow a structure which helps my “expert reading brain” to stay alive:

1. I seldom click on hyperlinks until I have read the whole article;

2. I take notes highlighting key points and then adding my own thoughts about their meaning for my habits and challenges;

3. If I don’t have time to concentrate when I encounter the new information, I set aside time in the evening or morning – about an hour every day – to review and focus on the ideas flowing through Twitter and other sources;

4. Although I have a Kobo, I plan to mix reading “regular” with e-books. Apparently the hands-on nature of a “real” book, like handwriting, is a more efficient and possibly meaningful route to our brains.

Nicholas Christakis, professor of medicine and sociology at Harvard University, claims that we are in the very early stages of the new biosocial science. It is helping us to understand why we behave for better or worse.

At the heart of the matter is wisdom. Without it, we are only left with information. To quote Confucius:

Wisdom can be learned by reflection, the noblest; imitation, the easiest and experience, the bitterest.

We need all three.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Shocked Out of Creativity as Kids?

Although I haven’t read Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman’s book Nurture Shock about child development, the title sparked a thought: Are we shocked out of creativity when we are growing up?

We do know that adults ask fewer questions, laugh a whole lot less than kids and certainly don’t play as much with some exceptions. Those include people such as comedians, clowns, magicians and jazz musicians and employees who are part of organizations that encourage fun like IDEO, Zappos, Southwest Airlines and many software companies. But, for the majority of adults, working life at least is far too serious and the idea of fun is often viewed as flaky.

The scarcity of questions, laughing, fun and play may go way back to the settling in of “judgment” when we were growing up - self-consciousness from how we were taught to react to mistakes, problems and uncertainty. Play is a safe harbor for facing challenging and hostile environments – experimenting without suffering dire consequences. Fun and laughter allow us to let go, reduce the noise level thereby allowing weak signals in our brains where insights reside to be detected. But, we also lose control temporarily. Questions take us out of our comfort zone because they stir the pot and introduce uncertainty. All of these factors battle with judgment for mind and body space.

After a screw up, we have about 500 milliseconds to react with awareness: ignore the mistake and brush it aside for the sake of our self-confidence or investigate the error and learn from it. Let the judgment mindset in? Or, take more of a growth mindset?

What can we do? Young children and students who are praised for their efforts, not their "smarts", typically demonstrate significant self-improvement. They are encouraged to challenge themselves, learn from their mistakes. We can do this for ourselves to bury the judgment factor and soften the bruising of our egos. Who knows what wonderful ideas may emerge when our more open minds are simply wandering around?

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Want to Make Progress on a Tough Challenge? Take Some Cues From Golf

Until most individuals recognize that sustained training and effort is a prerequisite for reaching expert levels of performance, they will continue to misattribute lesser achievement to the lack of natural gifts, and will thus fail to reach their own potential.
- K. Anders Ericsson

We humans have always marveled at the accomplishments of athletes or for that matter anyone who pushes the limits of mastery no matter the skill to be conquered. Golf provides a special window into the journey because we witness the ups and downs of professional golfers of all ages publicly, Tiger Woods for one. Their stories in many ways mimic working life, particularly the managing stress and personal development parts. That’s where we can tune in for some tips.

Karl Morris who is mental coach to Darren Clarke, Charl Schwartzel and Graeme McDowell, picks up on the importance of “deliberate” practice popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers. As K. Anders Ericsson explains – the academic guru on the topic – this is not mindless practice. Athletes and any other persons wanting to better their best focus on incrementally stretching beyond their comfort zones, not unlike what we all had to do during our elementary, high school and college or university studies. Plus athletes have expert coaches who, like teachers in our younger years, are a must to provide feedback, guidance and encouragement.

In golf or any domain for that matter, deliberate practice requires work, lots of it. That means attention, concentration, reflection and managing emotions with each shot, each action and reaction.

So, here are three tips from Morris and the researchers on whom he draws:

1. Attend only to one task at a time, one ball at a time until you get it right. So multiple goals and tactics are out.

2. Write down your score. Keep track so you have hard data feedback. This “immunizes you against pressure” in the future.

3. Attach positive emotions to shots even when they are less than your expectations. Even a smile despite a disappointment can shift your opportunity for future success.

Tip # 3 is probably the hardest to do. Rick Hanson in Just One Thing: Developing a Buddha Brain One Simple Practice at a Time breaks it down into three simple steps that are easy to remember:

Let Be: Acknowledge how you are feeling, your “inner dialogue”.

Let Go: Breathe deeply. Say goodbye to those feelings if negative.

Let In: Replace what you released with something better, like feeling grateful for… (you fill it in). Call it the “silver lining response”.

Note that “mere experience” and “everyday skills” do not qualify as deliberate practice. The latter is akin to the mental demands of complex problem-solving. But, according to Ericsson, too many people default to their everyday skills and as such suffer from “arrested development”!

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Have we gone too far with thing and things?

In analyzing Agatha Christie’s writing over her lifetime, linguists concluded that her more extensive use of the word thing in her later years was an indicator of her mental decline. That observation barely registered for me at the time. But something must have stuck. I can no longer ignore that at work, in our personal lives, in books and in the media we use thing and things indiscriminately. Are we dumbing down our discourse?

The first inkling that thing and things was getting to me occurred when I was addressing an audience. I became hyper-aware that I was about to use one of the words in a sentence and then struggled for a micro-second to replace thing with the proper word. So far so good but it requires a ton of mental energy.

The next phase was in books, articles and media - it’s everywhere phase. My train of thought is increasingly disrupted by thing and things popping up no matter where I turn. They are well-entrenched in all that I read and hear, scholarly or otherwise. I am astonished at the extent to which we have fallen into a thingy world.

Was Agatha Christie ahead of her time in reflecting a normal evolution of our language? Or, was her mental capability less sharp? What do you think?

My take: a thingy world doesn’t look good on us.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Why growing talent from within is a smart rule of thumb

Succession planning is a very big deal these days. Put another way: growing and keeping talent for rainy days and beyond. But what I have always found puzzling is the tendency for many organizations to look outward rather than inward, thereby ticking off a lot of people. Why is the “devil you don’t know better than the one you do” in so many recruiting efforts?

Maybe it’s the quick fix approach in search of the Holy Grail. That shiny new person, full of energy, exuberance and efficiency tools will shake things up a bit. Get people moving. Save some costs. And above all improve productivity.

If it were only so simple. Organizations must refresh with new hires but not at the expense of ignoring those within. If everyone is counted in instead of being counted out via a “high potential” selection process upfront, the organizational culture has a greater chance to flourish.

There are plenty of studies showing that superstars don’t contribute as much as you think to organizational success. A superstar is one member of a team. All other members play different, yet important roles in getting the job done. If the superstar is an outsider, that person has a distinct disadvantage - not having a deep knowledge of the business. If the powers that be signal that an outsider is the best choice, the lines harden internally making the job of the new recruit almost impossible. Besides, like any economy, all “classes” are needed to contribute to growth and robustness. The worker bees do good!

But, what about the value of recruiting outside CEOs? Joseph Bower at the Harvard Business School has analyzed 1,800 successions and written about them in his book The CEO Within: Why Insider-Outsiders are the Key to Succession. Bower’s findings confirm that an organization’s performance financially is “significantly better” when persons who are insiders move up to the top job. This flies in the face of the conventional wisdom of boards.

In Bower’s words, “it takes hard work to grow talent”. That’s why human resources departments are vitally important for guiding the talent strategy and setting up the right supports and systems for many to flourish. Nature does well with diversity. So can we.

Thursday, September 01, 2011

Want more engagement in your workplace? Try the water cooler.

Socializing and socialism are two words that don’t get enough respect. Managers who are under the gun to produce more efficiencies and revenues per worker have limited tolerance for too much informal socializing. Governments faced with too little revenue and huge deficits often see “red” with anything approaching so-called socialism as it brings up negative images of “the welfare state”, laziness, entitlement and most importantly --- high costs. The gyrating economic environment doesn’t help.

But can’t we have it both ways, at least in the work environment? Let’s call it “work hard” and “play hard”.

Evolutionary biologists are absolutely certain about one aspect of survival: we need each other to adapt and thrive in uncertain times. It means interacting in messy, informal ways to share tools, tips and re-energize. It means keeping an eye on the “needs” of individuals in order to generate group prosperity.

Darwin’s “survival of the fittest” is ultimately about group success although you wouldn’t know it from today’s reality TV shows. They prefer the entertainment value of pitting individuals against each other. But, such shows have limited application in today’s more complex and highly volatile environment. Bottom line: if we connect and share more, our chance of survival and economic success goes up not down. Talking helps.

So, back to the water cooler. It’s a simple social place. Yet powerful. It’s a smart managerial tool to achieve cost reductions and revenue ideas. Water coolers and the like keep the information flowing feeding into the creative and innovations streams. They help off-set health and productivity issues from the emotional toll when people don’t feel supported at work.

The leaders of Google, Apple, Zappos, Steelcase and other dynamic "go to" organizations know this.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Can You Improve Your Personality? Yes, and...

I am often asked about the nature of personality. What is it? Am I stuck with it? Can I change it if I want to? By association, can leaders and managers make improvements in their personalities? That is, can a terrible boss become a wonderful boss? Well, that might be asking for too much unless the boss has an epiphany…and…there is some wiggle room for improvement.

I like Manfred Kets de Vries take on personality in his book, The Leader on the Couch:

Personality is the same as character, the sum of deeply engrained patterns of behavior. It’s the stamp impressed on us by nature and nurture, a composite of habits we choose and develop and that gradually drive us. It is central to the way we perceive and present ourselves. Personality (character) shapes ideals, values, beliefs, patterns of information-processing, moral compass and leadership style.

Whew! Rather all-encompassing. This is going to take some work to change.

De Vries is quite optimistic in this regard. You can de-script the unhelpful parts of your “inner theatre”. You can change your perceptions and habits from both your genetic inheritance and early experiences. You can liberate yourself somewhat from the confines of your “programmed” personality, if you wish to.

Twin studies confirm de Vries research. You can seize the opportunity for personal growth because personality has a large “nurture” component. Although how smart you are is significantly determined by the genes from your parents, personality is only about 45% heritable, according to Robert Plomin, Professor of Behavioural Genetics at King’s College, London. You can become smarter in your relationships, beliefs, how you assess information, your ethics and your habits overall. In short, you tweak your personality in good ways.

You can become more conscious. That’s the really good news. Just takes some work at thinking about your thinking and then practicing new habits until they stick.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Be Interested. Works Wonders

A long time ago I took a pile of personal growth courses. Most of what I learned is a blur to this day but a few ideas stuck. One of them is to be interested rather than interesting. Now many moons later, the phrase keeps cropping up in various articles, books and videos as one antidote to the dangers of narcissism, rugged individualism, self-delusion and poor decision-making.

In the context of leadership, it’s a no-brainer. Bill Taylor in a June 6, 2011 Harvard Business Review blog quoting Randy Nelson, former dean of Pixar University, puts it this way:

It’s no trick for talented people to be interesting. But, it’s a gift to be interested – interested in big problems, interested in the talents and struggles of your colleagues, interested in the enduring mission of an enterprise and in new ways of bringing that mission to life.

But how many bosses and team-mates are this way? It takes a lot of work to get outside of our own concerns and achievements to focus on another.

If you manage to be interested it’s a sign of respect for the value of another human being. Respect is something we all want. I hear this over and over again from people at the front line and up no matter what the business of an organization. When I ask people what they mean by “respect”, they invariably describe it as others listening to them, helping them with their problems and showing they care in some way.

Maybe “caring” is the message of “being interested”. It affirms us. It levels the playing field across titles and roles. It says: “You count”. Powerful.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Power and Empathy: Not Easy "Bedfellows"

What fires together, wires together, as neuroscientists tell us. In The Shallows, author Nicholas Carr uses a water analogy to illustrate his lament on the impact of the Internet in changing the very structure of our minds, potentially short-circuiting our deep thinking:

Flowing water hollows out a channel which grows broader and deeper. When it flows again, it follows the path traced by itself before.

This reality about how out thoughts and habits “train” our minds structurally, explains what power can do when unleashed without the daily discipline of self-control. If power, due to a leader’s position, goes to his head, it can have grave consequences hollowing out a channel that ultimately can literally trip him (or her) up! It appears to be the case with Dominic Strauss-Kahn.

What is interesting with the commentary on Mr. Strauss-Kahn’s situation is that empathy goes down as power bewitches a person. He or she loses the ability to sense or read accurately another’s emotions and to take constructive actions as a result. The shadow side of the leader takes over weakening more and more the very skills and character qualities that enabled his rise to power.

This paradox is a real and present danger for any leader-manager anywhere in the hierarchy of an organization. It takes work to understand another, daily work. Not surprisingly, the closer a person is to the front line, the greater the empathy for another. A grounded life keeps one grounded.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

When You're Feeling Micro-Managed, What's One Way to Change Up the Situation?

The best managers define the right outcomes rather than the right steps then get out of the way, as the Gallup Organization confirmed in its massive 25 year study in the late 1990s. This finding still stands, particularly among the upcoming younger generations who seek autonomy, purpose and mastery, according to Daniel Pink’s research and documented in his book Drive.

In reality, best managers are in short supply. Micro-managing is a frequent workplace complaint whether you are a front line worker or a middle manager. So, if you are feeling micro-managed, a not uncommon predicament, how can you shift the relationship with your manager in a positive direction using the Gallup and Pink knowledge?

In First Break All the Rules, which describes the Gallup results, authors Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman like to quote Oscar Wilde to illustrate the interpersonal challenges we face generally in life, let alone in organizations:

A truth ceases to be a truth as soon as two people perceive it.

If the only truth is your own, it’s easy to understand why reality is a moving target. In the case of a micro-managing manager, the truth can indeed be elusive as it appears in many guises in any given day. How do you catch the truth and make it work for both of you?

Do the obvious: Get yourself out of the perpetual cycle of uncertainty and frustration by digging deeper for the “truth” --- that which is in your manager’s head. Use the “right outcomes <> right steps” framework as your guide. Shape your own working life instead of letting your manager shape it for you. In essence, go on a search and discovery mission to draw out more clearly what your manager has in mind.

These steps help change up the situation. Talk with your manager in real time to:

1. Clarify the outcomes, in detail, including the assumptions behind them (Use open-ended questions that start with “what”, “how” and “in what ways”).

2. Negotiate improvements to the outcomes, based on your own wisdom and experience.

3. Take the opportunity to bargain for the right resources, if appropriate.

4. Explore and sign off on the next check in time and the nature of the deliverable.

In some circles, this is called “managing up”. Others might name it “project chartering” with your manager. At its most fundamental, sharing “truths” is the bridge.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Want to Build Your Confidence? Preparation is the Key.

“Fake it until you make it”, an expression popularized by Mary Kay Ash, always sticks in my mind for building confidence. It’s a good sound byte if you’re in the in the glare of the media, leading a team, running an organization or performing in front of an audience. We all squirm if a person shows discomfort, doesn’t recover graciously from a faux pas or whines without offering a positive way forward. But, it’s only a coping strategy, with little long-lasting effect unless coupled with the real builders of confidence.

After witnessing Patrick Chan wow the world with his gold medal performance at the 2011 World Figure Skating Championships, it’s clear that more than a mental mantra works. A number of media stories before the Worlds reported Patrick’s exhaustive preparation, especially for the quad jump which has not been his strength.

“Preparation equals security equals positive emotion equals better performance” as Tony Schwartz author of Be Excellent at Anything puts it. It’s that “deliberate practice” focus, 10,000 hours or more, documented by researchers such as K. Anders Ericsson, that makes the difference. Scientists, artists, athletes, people in the military and related professions, doctors, etc. know this well.

The manifestation of confidence is best seen when we’re under pressure. Do we fold or rise to the occasion? It’s hard to do if you haven’t practiced, if you are not prepared, as Justin Menkes asserts in his Better Under Pressure and a recent HBR Idea Cast. He describes three ways for top CEOs to become better prepared and thus build confidence:

1. Be realistically optimistic: no one likes to hang around a pessimist

2. Be subservient to purpose: that’s what fires people up

3. Find order in chaos: there is always a way through complexity

You don’t have to be a top CEO for these to apply!

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

While Rory McIlroy Had "Stack Attack", I Washed Floors

The father of the 2011 Masters winner Charl Schwartzel usually takes a pill and goes to sleep instead of watching his son battle it out in the last round of a tournament. “Wake me up when it’s over” he tells his wife who has no problem with the uncertainty and the tension. I can identify with the father. I felt so badly for 21 year-old McIlroy at the tenth hole and thereafter that I had to channel my emotions elsewhere (washing floors).

After a brilliant three rounds and being atop the leaderboard each day, to topple to a final round 80 to a tie for 15th is excruciating. Young McIlroy must have felt the weight of Northern Ireland on his shoulders when the wheels started to fall off.

Sports psychologists understand the phenomenon and how to treat it. The unpredictable event (which most athletes fear) triggers a chain of events because the athlete gets distracted with negative thoughts. That, in turn, causes loss of confidence, shallow breathing, emotional anxiety and a tightening of all the muscles. Not ideal for a fluid golf swing. The good news is that the “yips”, “meltdown” or “paralysis” can be prevented at best and managed before a “death spiral” ensues. No doubt, Rory will become a keen learner of avoiding this scary phenomenon and will be better for it.

But, this can happen to anyone in the workplace too when the pressure is on to perform and the situation is not totally controllable. That is, it depends on many variables and sound decision-making along the way.

What are some of the tips for working through situations when you are thrown a curve?

1. Prepare for each inevitability. Have a game plan;

2. Practice deep breathing and meditate daily (even for 10 minutes a day) as they develop frontal lobe resilience in the face of adversity;

3. Turn a negative thought about the situation into “what is the silver lining here?” thought. Optimism generates mindfulness (and clarity about the next action) whereas pessimism causes mindlessness (and confusion).

4. Use the time gaps in-between having to perform to stay in the present and not dwell on what just happened. For example, if we simply tune into our surroundings (sights, smells, sounds), we automatically remain in the present. Better still to view nature as it calms all of us down.

Positive psychology researchers have a mantra: emotions drive thoughts and thoughts drive motion. What we can control is our thoughts: what we think when an event is not to our liking occurs. It takes practice but eventually becomes ingrained (to change our thoughts into more positive and productive ideas).

Neuroscientists also have a mantra: What we pay attention to grows (more connections in our brains) with the corollary that our brains know how to start something (a new neural network), not stop (untangle a dense network). That means, we can change the automatic pathways in our brains (eventually) in reaction to challenges: when we work on starting something new (or improving a thought process), the new grows and the old wastes away.

Ironically, the military understands this as men and women subjected to their boot camps and who make it through the various stages typically become “mentally tougher”. I’ve been reading about the Green Berets’ training in Masters of Chaos: The Secret History of the Special Forces by Linda Robinson. The grueling conditions under which men and women are subjected and the practice for any imagined possibility builds confidence and adaptability.

In ordinary life, anything that makes us stretch has a similar effect: marathons, tri-athlons, iron mans, meditation, yoga, goal-setting, journaling, learning a new language, etc.

“Educating our emotions” is a life-long process. Rory found that out the hard way, very publically at the 75th Masters tournament. He has the money and the maturity to obtain good coaching and practice new ways. But, money is not needed to toughen a mind nor is it necessary to join the military or run marathons. The basis requirement is the resolve to do so and the belief that it works.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Inside the mind of the motivated: Five factors re-visited

The upheaval in the Middle East (out with the dictators!) reminds people everywhere: we are no longer going to put up with being viewed as monkeys or dogs who are trained to respond to the “carrot or the stick”, a form of behavior modification. Social media and other sophisticated technologies have re-awakened the human spirit because they relieve us from the routine and bring us more equally into a rich, shared world of information. Now we can use our minds to the fullest, focusing on the interesting and complex. Or can we?

Much has been written of late about “drive”, engagement and humans’ inherent tendency to seek novelty and challenge. We like to explore and learn. We get excited about a cause or purpose beyond making money. In that we are social beings, group problem-solving generates energy, positive emotions and feelings of pride in having cracked the puzzle. But, we are still having difficulty in organizations understanding the subtleties of enabling people from the inside-out rather than outside-in.

Let’s look at the newer twist on five common “motivating” factors to cut through some of the fog:

Praise for hard work, persistence and working through difficulty appeals to our inner motivations. Less so for what we have accomplished. Praise for results tends to short-circuit the decision-making process, potentially cutting off creativity. Hard (and smart) work is within our control and we like it that way. In that the intended results often have to change because of the journey toward them (unexpected shifts in the environment), how we adapt is a much better measure of “success”.

Similarly, for non-routine jobs, pay-for-performance and other related rewards tend to narrow people’s focus on the results, which encourages short-term thinking. Fair wages are better. It seems that pay-for-performance works best for non-routine jobs to make the drudgery worthwhile. But, that approach can actually do more harm than good for more complex assignments, reducing the success of the desired outcomes.

Interpersonal Support
Feelings and compassion for and understanding the other, otherwise known as emotional intelligence or educating emotion, fuel this factor. Sure constructive feedback still works but it should be to help individuals find the right roles that build on their strengths first and foremost. If we are square pegs in round holes and those we report to only focus on our weaknesses, we retreat and defend. There is little energy left for innovation. For managers: be interested rather than interesting!

Clear Goals
Goal-setting is vital in any circumstance to frame issues and provide the impetus to work toward something beyond the present. Our brains respond well to images of a new horizon, an improvement on our current circumstances. However, particularly in non-routine jobs in which the problems are well-known but not the solutions, people are more successful in finding good solutions if they set and adjust the goals themselves. Goals imposed by others (read: managers and the top leadership) tend to yield dangerous side-effects such as unethical, short-term behavior. Better to share in the goal-setting (called “buy-in” in the old behavioural world).

Support in Making Progress
This is the most powerful motivator: being in an environment where managers provide the right resources, take down the roadblocks and creatively facilitate the journey. Any progress sparks emotions that are the most positive and a drive to succeed that is in high gear. In essence the manager’s responsibility is to create a coaching culture wherein people have the opportunity to reach for their best.

We are all “tinkerers” at heart, so those who study evolution contend. We get great joy out of inventing often from “spare parts”. We do our high fives when the seemingly unsolvable has been solved. We love to celebrate together. It’s the only way to go. Finally.

Saturday, February 05, 2011

Soul Force Rising

Sometimes I wish I had a much broader liberal arts education. The events in Egypt have opened another awareness door bringing bits of knowledge about the world from the background to the foreground. But what’s the real story? How did it come to this where young people are risking life and limb for the sake of a better life?

Back in the 1920s, Gandhi called it “soul force” or power devoted to justice and truth. When people are not treated with respect and dignity, when a leader’s moral authority no longer is directed to the interests and needs of ordinary people, the soul force rises. It is ingrained in our beings.

There is typically a spark that unleashes the energy of the simmering soul force. For Gandhi and many other Indian leaders it was April 10, 1919 when 379 demonstrators were massacred in an enclosed public square in Amritsar, India by a British General, Reginald Dyer. An estimated ten thousand had gathered in Jallianwala Bagh square to hear pro-Gandhi speakers.

In the background, the city was in chaos, with groups of Hindus and Muslims together burning buildings and tearing up railroad tracks in defiance of the rule of the “Raj”. Meanwhile Dyer, incensed that people had ignored his banning of all large public gatherings, barked an order to open fire (for ten minutes) directly into the densely packed crowd in Jallianwala Bagh. Screaming men, women and children ran for safety but there was nowhere to go in a space no larger than Trafalgar square. The narrow streets quickly became clogged bottlenecks.

Churchill’s sense of justice was shaken as was Gandhi’s. But Dyer was never held to account for his actions. The subsequent investigations concluded that martial law was justified and blamed Gandhi’s movement for undermining the rule of law. Although Churchill, who was not a fan of Gandhi's tactics and philosophy, tried every angle to see Dyer punished, the culture of the military won the day.

But, the spark of the soul force was struck. Gandhi so sympathized with the victims of Amritsar that he decided to call an end to his “splendid isolation” and join mainstream Indian politics.

It appears this is what is happening in Egypt. Too many injustices have piled up. The spark of Tunisia plus the kindling of social media ignited a firestorm.

As in society, can this happen in an organization? You bet. The difference is that the organization simply dies---goes bankrupt due to management malfeasance. Or, it languishes in mediocrity, increasing its numbers of beaten up employees while the courageous and the young people flee the premises.

We are all connected by the soul force. It is potent. When enabled for the sake of “the good society”, a concept espoused by the former Professor of Economics Emeritus at Harvard, John Kenneth Galbraith, it spreads as a powerful and positive force for change for the benefit of many.

Today, we have a powerful enabler: social media.

Arthur Herman, Gandhi & Churchill: The Epic Rivalry that Destroyed an Empire and Forged an Age.

John Kenneth Galbraith, The Good Society: The Humane Agenda.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Are You the Salad Bowl or the Salad?

Finally brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, let your mind dwell on those things.

---Philippians 4:8

In Daniel Amen, Change Your Brain, Change Your Life

I was introduced to the salad bowl/salad concept many moons ago when immersed in an intense personal growth exploration phase. It goes like this:

When confronted with an issue or a conflict which provokes emotionally-charged views, do you get right in there and fight with the cucumbers and tomatoes or do you take the role of the salad bowl, holding the entire salad in place for the sake of all?

The Tucson, Arizona shooting rampage reminded me of the significant role of any leader and any person in setting and managing the emotional tone of each and every difference of opinion. This is the least we should expect from our political leaders. Better to be the salad bowl with the aim of making everything work than inciting riots among the salad ingredients.

Our deep limbic system, the seat of our emotions, is much older than our rational brain. It generates our first reaction to all that goes on around us. At the same time, it is directly connected to our executive brain, the pre-frontal cortex which helps us with judgment, sifting and sorting information, thinking about our thinking and ultimately with good (or bad) decision-making. But when the deep limbic system is in overdrive, reason goes out the window. We know from our family environments, that one upset leads to another at times spiraling our of control. The opposite is true too. So is the case in an organization or a nation.

Leaders do set the emotional tone. Each of us sets the emotional tone. Will it be rhetoric twisting the truth to bash those with whom we differ?Or, will it be issue-focused, not person-focused, with the aim of finding good solutions to shared, vexxing problems with no obvious solutions?

Dacher Keltner, author of Born to be Good emphasizes that self-interest, competition and vigilance have been built into our evolutionary makeup to survive. But, he explains that these tendencies are only half the story. "Homo reciprocans" is a more apt description of our social nature with emotions as the glue that binds. Emotions trump facts and figures. They are infectious, especially positive ones which open minds up to possibilities. Fear or negativity makes for more closed minds, reducing novel approaches to intractable problems. How does a leader deal with this responsibly to bring about change for the whole, critics and supporters alike? 

The "Jen ratio" is a tool that can help us cultivate being the salad bowl holding the whole rather than being one piece of the salad having no impact or inciting riots with other pieces, so to speak. "Jen" means "humane". The numerator (the salad bowl) refers to acts of kindness, compassion, awe, love and gratitude. It implies, "I am responsible" for the process and the results. The denominator (the salad) embodies the "bad" action when establishing one's character in relation to others. Such a person, who is "in the salad" is disdainful, critical, condescending and contemptuous. Each of us can track our "Jen ratio" and make improvements consciously.

So can leaders of nations. Keltner further explains in his book that "nations whose citizens bring out the good in others thrive because it generates trust". Trust facilitates "economic exchange with fewer transaction costs, adversarial settlements, discrimination and economic inequality."

Americans are united in grief now over the attack on Congressman Gabrielle Giffords and many other innocent people. But they are not united in responsibility. Time will tell. If politicians and pundits alike can choose the salad bowl as a stance for action, rather than the salad only and a positive Jen ratio as a continuous goal, always in need of calibration, issue by issue, conversation by conversation, the emotional tone in America might shift for the betterment of all.