How Many Exclamation Points Does It Take?

I was spending some time with a colleague in her home office. As we chatted, an email popped up on her screen with an exclamation point in the subject line. She glanced at it and then went back to talking with me.

“Aren’t you going to pay attention to that?” I asked. “It looks important. It’s got an exclamation point.”

“Oh,” she said. “I don’t take messages seriously until they get up around three or more exclamation points.”

“Tell me more,” I said.

“Well,” she said, “It’s like a priority system. One is normal communication. Two is probably something you should respond to. Three is, ‘Hey, this is important.’ Four and five are critical. Drop what you’re doing. And six or more is usually someone just pissed off about something.”

“How did this get started?” I asked.

“You see,” she said,” we had a manager who seemed to think that everything she sent was critical because she was the boss. So, everything she sent had one or more exclamation points. But after a while we all figured that out most of what she sent out wasn’t all that critical or timely. A few people started mocking her by sending out emails with exclamation points as well. It became kind of a joke and we all adapted.”

“Is she still in charge?” I asked. “Did she ever catch on?”

“Oh, no!” my colleague said. “She’s long gone and no, she never figured it out.”

“So why still do it?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” she said. “Maybe it’s because we all think it’s a bit of fun. You just have to learn that if you come to work with us, you shouldn’t take anything seriously unless it has at least three exclamation points.”

So, what are the take-ways from all this? In a way, it’s like the boy who cried “wolf” so much that nobody took him seriously when there was a wolf. Or maybe the person who yelled “fire” in a crowded theater as a joke and scared the crap out of people. Neither is a good thing to do. The same thing can happen in the workplace. Sadly, the lack of professional maturity on the part of this previous leader unknowingly incited this practice and impaired the communication of the unit until people adapted to her beliefs and practices.

At the same time, this example demonstrates people’s ability to adapt to and read others. When everything is promoted as critical, nothing will be taken as critical. But this team took a step back and adjusted to this leader’s behavior. As a result, they rebalanced communication on their own. On top of this, they also found a bit of humor and perspective in what happened.

What can you learn from this example that will help you lead your team?

The Future is Unknowable – Risk is Measurable

“Congratulations! You’ve won a package of sky-diving lessons.” Just the thought of this sends shivers down the spines of some people. A little informal research tells me that skydiving is five times as safe as flying commercially, which is five times as safe as driving a car, which is five times as safe as crossing the street in a big city. But for many, even the infinitesimal possibility of hitting the ground at 120mph overwhelms any thought of the experience being safe and exhilarating.

Economist Frank Knight observed that, “The future is unknowable, but risk is measurable.” In other words, it is best to ask “What are the chances?” when contemplating any decision of significance. By taking time to logically consider the risk of possible outcomes, we are able to manage the emotional discomfort that can distort our thinking.

As we come of age and mature through life, we are constantly influenced by those around us along with our experiences with success and failure. When something goes wrong, those around us help to interpret these consequences. Many times, unfortunately, these comments begin with sentences like, “I had a feeling this would happen,” or “That should teach you not to try something like that again.”

Listening to these laments engenders a fear of the unknown. When considering future opportunities, purchases, and relationships, these words of caution can come flooding into our minds and overwhelm any thoughts of excitement, anticipation and positive outcomes. Sadly, this cycle becomes a reinforcing expectation for most people. This results in their assuming the worst when considering opportunities. If they surround themselves with others who think this way, they begin to settle for certainty, even if it means sacrificing better jobs, better incomes, better relationships and a host of other opportunities. Even when they want to consider these endeavors, they are counseled by these risk-adverse friends to be careful and the cycle is reinforced.

So, how can someone break out of this rhythm? Here’s a good way to begin. Make a practice of asking yourself, “What are the chances” when considering decisions and opportunities. Then go about quantifying and qualifying the probability of each possible outcome. Next, ask yourself, “What’s the worst that could happen?” and “If the worst was to happen, would I be able to manage it?” Finally, ask, “Does the value of the positive outcome outweigh the possible loss of the negative outcome? If it does, proceed. Logic is the great mitigator of fear. As the saying goes, feel the fear and do it anyway.

 

Why New Year’s Resolutions Don’t Work

Are you one of the millions who will sit down later this month and layout your resolutions for the new year? I sure hope not. We value all kinds of traditions here in the United States. But this is one that should be abolished. Why? Because it doesn’t work and never will.

Here the simple reason. The brain hates change and uncertainty. Your brain’s first job is to keep you safe. Every time it perceives a possible threat to your well-being, it responds in two ways: 1) It introduces two stressor hormones into your nervous system, adrenaline and cortisol. This focuses your attention and prepares you for what it perceives as the threat. That’s why cortisol has been called “nature’s alarm clock. 2) Using systems neurologists still don’t understand, the brain brings to your attention all ways this perceived threat could harm you. (Granted, this is an oversimplified explanation.)

Here’s the problem. Your brain can’t tell the difference between a perceived physical threat and a perceived emotional threat. If a foul ball is barreling toward you, the brain is remarkably good at calling your attention to it so you can get out of the way. That’s a good thing. But when you’re faced with emotional unknown such as approaching a stranger, initiating a difficult conversation or making a presentation, it reacts the same way. It floods your nervous system with adrenaline and cortisol and calls to the front of your mind all the ways emotional catastrophe could strike.

The same thing is true of initiating a change of routine or habit. Routines and habits are predictable, even if some of them are harmful, such as smoking, eating too much and a dozen others we might list. But once a habit or routine is well established, the brain takes comfort in these predictable outcomes and sensations. Eating a quart of ice cream when you’re upset is not good for you, but it provides relief for the moment and that’s what the brain craves. That’s why they call it comfort food. So, if you attempt to resist these temptations, the brain actually increases the thoughts of these cravings to keep you focused on your desire for safety and comfort. You’re also surrounded, of course, by environmental triggers such as ice cream advertisements and the fact that they place ice cream right next to the frozen tofu in the freezer aisle.

The same thing is true if you try to initiate a new routine or habit. The brain says, “I don’t know. This could be a threat. So I’ll make you uncomfortable and compel you to think about all the ways you might feel bad if you try this new practice.” (Again, an oversimplification.)

This is the reason why new year’s resolutions don’t work. The average person sits down on December 31st and says, “Okay, I’m going to change the following six things. But on January 1st, what you’ve done is introduce six new sources of discomfort into your daily life all at the same time.

Is it any wonder that the average person gives up on their new year’s resolutions within a week or two? It’s better to start out with one and practice it and establish it for 30 days. Once you’ve established that practice, go on to the next habit you want to change. Doing this with six habits or routines over six months is much better strategy. Starting them all at once just initiates six new sources of stress into your life all on the first day of the year. Why would anyone do that?

Rather than sitting down later this month and listing all the routines and habits you’re going to change or establish beginning January first, list these habits and routines. Then prioritize them and schedule them for implementation throughout 2021. Your brain will still resist these attempts, but you’ll be able to overcome this resistance when you’re establishing these changes, one at a time.

The Perfect Time to Act Doesn’t Exist

I am fond of reminding those in my audiences that decisions don’t have answers. They have outcomes. In most cases, these outcomes will not be exactly what you are expecting. Even if you watch the sandwich artist make your cold cut combo at Subway, for instance, you may still end up with too much mayo or not enough mustard. When it comes to bigger decisions, the outcomes can vary so much more. But regardless of these risks, it is still better to make a decision than to hesitate until one is made for you.

Have you ever had the perfect used car snapped up before you could say yes, for instance? You might have thought, “That’s not fair!” But fairness had nothing to do with it. It was all about another person making a faster decision than you. Perhaps you waited for the perfect moment to ask for a sale, only to watch a more assertive competitor close the deal while you were “getting ready.” Maybe it was that date for the prom so many years ago, who was “stolen” from you by somebody else. You might still wince when you think of that. But what did you learn?

Every decision we make, large or small is made through the lens of our emotions. If we let those dominate our logic, we will hesitate until the opportunity is lost. If we try to make the perfect decision, the decision made be made for us because other people couldn’t wait. So, we have to find the balance between listening to that little voice that says, “Wait, and our logic that says, “stop getting ready to decide and take action.”

In a previous post, I wrote about conducting a “pre-mortem” before a big decision. Coined by psychologist Gary Klein, a pre-mortem is thinking about all the ways the decision could go wrong and preparing to deal with those outcomes

In the case of the used car, a simple fix for this dilemma would have been to develop a prioritized list of what was important to you in any car. Then, when the first car was snapped up, you could take comfort in the fact there are lots of other cars out there that will meet your criteria. In the case of the lost sale, you might once again have a list of what you need to qualify the prospect. Once that list is complete, ask for the sale as soon as possible. No matter what you do, you’ll never make the perfect pitch. When it comes the stolen prom date, I can’t really help you. Sorry.

Hesitation before making a decision, is in most cases a product of procrastination. Procrastination is a product of fear. Fear is overcome by preparing to the best of your ability and then having the faith that whatever decide you will be able to deal with the outcome. So, think of a decision you’ve been struggling with and act on it right now. There’s not going to be a perfect time.

“Leave If You Don’t Like It” . . . So They Did

A nationwide firm, which I will not name, conducted an employee survey recently. As with most endeavors of this nature, the results were a mix of positive and not-so-positive responses. After these results had been discussed at the highest level, the CEO called an all-hands virtual meeting. He reported results to everyone and expressed his displeasure about those whom had expressed their unhappiness. Then he did an extraordinary thing. He said, “If there are people in this organization who do not like working here, feel free to leave.” Twenty people took him up on that suggestion and resigned that day. I know this for a fact because the spouse of one of my colleagues was on the call.

Arguably, this one comment probably will cost the organization hundreds of thousands of dollars in employee replacement costs and business disruption. He has also fostered the creation of at least 20 evangelists who are now telling their friends, “Don’t work for ___________.” If stories of this incident hit employment sites like, glassdoor.com, the company will struggle to recruit top talent. Finally, the CEO has left an impression on those remaining with the organization that they are not appreciated and are “free to leave” if they become unhappy.

After reading all this, your first thought might have been, “Who on earth does something like that in this day and age?” My first thought was, “Here is yet another example of the struggle between emotion and logic where emotion wins.” It is easy to assume that once people reach a certain level of leadership and responsibility, they will have matured past this type of behavior. Unfortunately, that is not always the case.

We all, at times, lose momentary control of our emotions. Thankfully, the stakes are not this high, most of the time. But just the same, allowing emotion to overtake our logic can be a recipe for disaster no matter where you are in the organization. You never know who is observing how you act and what you say.

I, for instance, have written a number of angry letters over the years to individuals or organizations who I believe have treated me unjustly. But I’ve had the common sense to sleep on them before dropping them in the mailbox. The next morning all them have ended up in the trash, with a couple of exceptions.

We are increasingly living in a world where emotions are raw. We take everything personally. Others’ opinions are wrong unless they agree with ours. Hopefully, we will all step back from the edge over time. But in the meantime, take a breath!

 

How Does This Place Make Money? Part Two

In the last post, I illustrated the value of asking the question, “How does this place make money?” But exactly how can you do that without breaking the bank or disrupting normal business function? The strategies I’m going to recommend are remarkably simple and can be accomplished with a smart-phone and a bit of money spent on editing and design. In fact, you probably have employees who would welcome the opportunity to work on projects like these and will bring their creativity and hidden skills to the effort. In no particular order:

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Commission infographics – These one-page illustrations can summarize company functions and processes in a colorful and entertaining way. An on-line graphic artist would be happy create one for a  hundred bucks. Then give it to everyone. Better still, make a list of the 15 or 20 things every employee should know about the firm. Then commission an infographic for each one.

Host a series of podcasts – On any given day, most people have no idea what the firm’s leadership does and the decisions they make. Why not create a series of thirty-minute podcasts allowing those in senior leadership to explain their roles, how they make decisions, and a bit about how they got to where they are? Employees can listen to them during their commute or even on the job as they work.  As with infographics, the cost for implementation is minimal.

Explain the process and economics of typical projects and functions – Ask functional managers to take a few minutes during staff meetings to breakout the costs and steps involved of the work typically performed by the organization or division. I have been surprised countless times by what people do not know about the functions they depend upon daily. When they know more, they will make suggestions for improvement. Those suggestions can be invaluable.

Promote inter-team collaboration – Give those in functions that interact with each other periodic opportunities to interact with each other socially. Throw periodic pizza parties and the like during lunch time. You don’t need to provide a formal structure. It’s been my experience that the people who have questions and concerns will find each other and discuss what needs to be discussed. The relationships and trust this engenders can be invaluable.

Have people trade jobs for a day – Years ago, there was a British tradition in which the bosses switched positions with the front-liners for the day after Christmas every year. While now a little recognized effort, implementing a modified version of this idea would provide those involved with insights into the challenges and decisions of those with whom they work, not to mention a bit of humor as everyone gains more empathy for other roles.

These are just a few of the ways you can answer the question, “How does this place make money?” If you know of others, pass them along. I’ll include them in a future post. From the person who started last Monday to the twenty-year veteran, everyone benefits from being better informed about the firm for which they work. And so will the firm itself.

Getting to Neutral

“Often, I lie in wait in meetings, like a hunter looking for his prey, ready to spring out at the first moment of silence. My gun is loaded with preestablished thoughts. I take aim and fire, the context irrelevant, my bullet and its release are all that matter to me.” William Isaacs, Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together – MIT Professor

This quote reminds me of how often I want to leap into response mode when having a conversation with someone. I know I’m supposed to wait for them to complete their thought. But it’s just so tempting to finish their thought for them or offer an opposing point because I think I know what they’re going to say. I hate it when someone does this to me. So, I try not to do it to someone else.

The same thing is true of making decisions. Our lives are full of perceptions and biases. We leap to conclusions without having the entire picture. We think we know the answer. Perhaps someone is pushing us to act. Maybe we want to be the leader because the leaders are the ones who make the decisions. In essence, our impatience and desire for control get the better of us. Then we feel regret when the outcome is not what we expected. The reason for this is that we’re missing a step in our rush to make the decision. We need to get to neutral, first.

Getting to neutral means taking time to make sure we clearly understand the decision to be made before rushing to act. It means asking two questions: 1) What’s the real decision that needs to be made and; 2) What biases do I have about the situation and people involved that may misguide my thinking?  Too often, we think we know what decision needs to be made in a particular situation because we’ve been in that situation before. But is it really? Taking to clarify this can make the difference between a good decision and a bad one. We also need to consider how past experiences and perception may color our thinking. This doesn’t mean making a big list necessarily. It could mean simply taking a step back to consider the feelings and thoughts that could be distorting your logic.

You might ask, “Where does this intersect with intuition? After all, intuition is based on past experiences and our biases and perceptions are a product of experience and what we’ve heard from others.” Yes, intuition is something the best decision makers rely on all the time. But they also take time to approach decisions with clarity and awareness about any personal influences they may be bringing to the process. No one can eliminate these influences. Acknowledging them is generally enough. (If you can’t do that, maybe you should recuse yourself from making the decision.)

Getting to neutral doesn’t take a lot of time. But having the presence of mind to do it before making decisions will save you and others the heartburn of misguided decisions.

 “I’m Sorry” – The Great Absolution

A woman cut me off in traffic the other day. When we ended up side-by-side, as inevitably happens, she looked over mouthed “Sorry.” I guess that was better than flipping me the bird. But it didn’t excuse the poor decision she had made and she knew it.

I’m not one for preaching and moralizing. But, sadly, this kind of behavior has become normalized and not just in traffic. A colleague misses an appointment. A team member is late with a project. A friend never shows up on time for the occasional lunch, but always has a story about why he’s late. We stew. We fume. We learn to adjust. They say, “I’m sorry.” We say, “That’s all right,” when it really isn’t.

Some argue that busy people deserve some slack because they’re busy people. But that’s not true. There have been US presidents who have been punctual and held those around them to that standard. There are also been US presidents whose staff learned over time to move every appointment back 45 minutes to accommodate constant tardiness. There are times, of course, when “stuff” happens. We all get that. But when “stuff” becomes the consistent theme, I would argue this is a lack of respect for colleagues, friends and the strangers with whom we inevitably interact.

The people I admire most and try to spend time with, are those who simply follow through on commitments in a timely way and are thoughtful of others, whether stranger or friend. Interestingly, all those people seem to find each other amidst those who can’t seem to respect our time and extend common courtesy.  When I’m checking references, asking for help, or looking for ideas, they are the first people I turn to. They are generally the most willing to step up when needed. They know that I will do the same for them. We recognize that each other’s time is valuable and possess the empathy to act respectfully.

As we begin the new year, why not make a commitment to reduce the “I’m sorrys” in your life. Trust me. Your effort will be reciprocated by the best people around you.

How the Best Decision Makers Avoid Multitasking

In the last post, I explained how multitasking is impossible, referencing the research of those in neuro-science. But I left you with the question, “How do the best decision makers get so much done if they don’t multitask? Over a couple of decades of interviewing and observing them, here’s what I’ve discovered:

First, they manage their energy – How much you get accomplished and how well you make decisions is directly affected by the glucose supply to which your brain has access. Too much (those two donuts with coffee), overloads your system. Too little (“I never eat breakfast.”), deprives your brain of the glucose it needs to concentrate. Physical exercise, or lack thereof, has a similar impact. I am not an expert on nutrition. Neither are most great decision makers. But they are aware of the impact certain foods and levels of exercise have on their metabolism, especially as they age. Most maintain a diet and exercise routine they have honed over time. This produces the energy they need for the busy and demanding days they work through. The next time you come in contact with someone you consider a consistently good decision-maker, ask about their diet and exercise. Listen to what they say.

Second, they have a “don’t do” list – Over the years the best decision makers have taken stock of the distractions and time wasters draining their energy and leading to the temptation to focus more than one thing at once. For most, this not a list they’ve written down. It’s more like a regimen of habits they’ve developed to deal with the environmental distractions and temptations we all face. Remember, the only way to break a bad habit is by replacing it with a more positive alternative. For instance, what’s a time suck in your life that should be replaced by something more productive? The time you save will relieve some of the pressure you feel to multitask.

Third, they say “no” more often – This is not “buzz off.” Instead, they find diplomatic ways of declining tasks, meetings, and other activities they find less that a good use of time and attention. This does not mean they are completely focused on themselves. In addition to being high achievers on the job, many are also those who contribute generously to their community. They just maintain a high expectation about time, investment and outcome. They’d rather lead the endeavor, for instance, than serve under someone who is a less-than-adequate manager.

Fourth, they put a “clock” to it – In other words, they chunk their time. Rather than simply starting a project, they consider how long the project should take to complete and then work toward that timeline. Rather than simply attending a meeting, they determine their role and work to minimize their time commitment. Rather than inviting you to sit down in their office, they’ll come to you and remain standing while the conversation takes place. As a result, they accomplish more in shorter periods of time and lessen the probability that they’ll have to double up to catch up.

Fifth, they ask, “What does a successful outcome look like?” when making decisions – In many cases, there can be more than one successful solution to an obstacle or problem. The best decision makers are careful not to get hung up on one specific outcome, if there are others just as good. They also recognize there are lots of times when good enough is good enough. Spending unnecessary time on perfection drains mental energy and wastes time. Consider a project you are working on right now or a decision you’re facing. Have you asked yourself what success will look like? Is there room for more than one successful outcome? Are you spending time perfecting something where “good enough” is solve the problem or satisfy the stakeholders involved?

Sixth, they set aside time for personal balance and recovery – During a recent interview with a business owner, the conversation turned toward balance. Her strategy? “Airplanes are my escape zone,” she said. “I read fun books. I watch a movie. I catch up on personal relationships. I chat with the person next to me. Sometimes I just sit and stare at the seat in front of me and let my thoughts take me where they will. When I deplane, I’m refreshed.” What’s your strategy for balance?

As I mentioned in the last post, all of this takes self-discipline, even enforcing time for recovery. Multitasking is not a solution. It is an obstacle to becoming the decision maker you know you can be.