Bagels and the Science of Self-Discipline

It had become a ritual for me to begin my day in a coffee shop writing blog posts like this. I would buy a bottomless cup of coffee along with a bagel and cream cheese. The staff at several different shops knew me by name. It was a deeply ingrained habit if there ever was one. Of course, a bagel with cream cheese 250 times a year catches up with you. If you’ve been doing this for more than 30 years, like I have, your metabolism starts to punish you by draining your energy and focus by 10AM.

This is not unlike the other habits we all develop over time, out of convenience, desire, or wanting to belong. (“Everybody else does it.”) The brain, of course, develops a well ingrained neuropathway for each one of these habits that reminds you to do it every day at a particular time and in a particular way. In fact, it creates a sense of discomfort if you don’t complete this task. Develop enough of these neuropathways, and you become a victim of this jumble of habits, most of which cost money, drain energy and waste time.

So how do you break this costly momentum? By doing three essential things: 1) Replace the old with the new, 2) Change your self-talk and 3) Change your surroundings. Ironically, in my case, it was the third strategy that came first. When every coffee shop in the world shut down abruptly this year, I had no choice but to change my surroundings. I didn’t eliminate bagels from my diet, but I did eliminate cream cheese. Did you know a dry bagel’s not bad once you’ve had a few. I also started telling friends and colleagues that I limit myself to a dry bagel and a banana between breakfast and lunch. When you say something like that enough, you begin to reprogram your thinking and, as a result, your habits. (This worked well with, “I love salads,” a number of years ago.)

Now, you might be thinking, “I know all this. I can change if I want to.” Okay, I’ll stipulate that. But what costly habits have you actually succeeded in changing? Go ahead, I’ll wait for you to list them. Lest you think I’m being preachy, I face the same challenge. Like you, I can be really good at listing the reasons why I should be doing this or that right now. But then time slips away and it’s suddenly the next year.

So, what’s one habit you can replace over the next thirty days with something more productive? Remember, limit your plan to one habit at a time, otherwise the stress of doing so will defeat your efforts. Anticipate the initial discomfort you’ll experience and reframe it. It will diminish over time. And change your surroundings. It is environmental cues that subtly remind us of these destructive routines. Finally, spread the word. Tell your friends and family what you’re doing and ask them to hold you accountable. Offer to do the same for them some time. We all need the support.

The Attributes of an Empowered Employee

Every day, each employee you supervise makes hundred decisions to order to resolve problems and complete tasks. Most are routine and have been executed many times before. This repetition becomes the mastery that’s necessary to navigate the daily work. Then there are those unexpected obstacles that can disrupt your momentum. We all fear making a wrong decision at times, even though we pretty much knew what to react. Most of us possess the confidence move on to a successful solution.

Some people, however, struggle to adapt. Some of this apprehension can be attributed to a lack of confidence to solve problems and make decisions. So, how can you help these individuals develop this confidence? The effort comes down to one word — empower.

The best performers in any work environment exude confidence. They fully believe they are capable of dealing with whatever issue comes up. What does it mean to feel empowered? First, it’s the ability to discern. This means examining the elements of a situation, evaluating what needs to be accomplished and determining the necessary steps. The ability to discern evolves over time as the result of trial and error.

Second, feeling empowered is the ability to manage uncertainty. Uncertainty produces discomfort. Top performers become comfortable with being uncomfortable. Any significant decision involves some uncertainty.

Third, people who feel empowered possess the confidence to recover from what goes wrong. Some decisions don’t work out. Top performers accept that you don’t go through life making the perfect decision every time. When things go wrong, they take a step back, evaluate what happened, and come up with an alternative.

Fourth, empowerment is the confidence to act independently. The best decision-makers take the initiative without asking for permission. They examine the environment for what needs to be done. They think three and four steps ahead. Because of this, they are more likely to be rewarded with positive outcomes. They have a sense of perspective in situations that others may find overwhelming.

The element that connects all of these attributes is confidence. More of society is focusing on blame these days when something goes wrong. As a result, more people hesitate before making decisions They don’t want to suffer embarrassment if a decision goes wrong. In the process, they seek permission before acting, even if they are clear on what to do. This is especially true of those just entering workplace.  So, how can you help people feel empowered? Here are three tactics to try:

Begin by providing clear parameters – Each time you delegate a responsibility, ask the person to explain the instructions back to you. While they’ll get most of it right, you’ll probably find gaps in their understanding. Go back and review what they missed. Reinforce the concept with a bit of practical application. This encourages them to ask questions. Remember, asking “What questions do you have?” is more effective than asking, “Do you have any questions?” Asking “what” lets them know that questions are expected.

Provide the authority – Sometimes, we delegate responsibility and just assume the person understands the parameters about spending money, making exceptions and so forth. Then we become frustrated when they ask lots of questions. Instead, express authority using these three steps:

  • First, explain that they may feel some uncertainty about making these decisions, at least initially. You might say something like, “You’re probably going to feel a little uncomfortable making these decisions at first. I know I did. But don’t worry, I’ve got your back.” This will ease their concern.
  • Second, provide examples of the decisions where they may hesitate. Show them the process for resolving them. If you have worked this job in the past, make a list of the typical decisions you made and explain how you made them. Create a matrix or cheat sheet they can consult when they’re working independently.
  • Third, step back and watch what happens. It is a natural urge to jump in when you see someone about to make a mistake. Resist that temptation. If they begin to believe that someone will save them every time something is about to go wrong, they will become fearful of acting or become careless.

Reinforce the process – Rehearsing and reinforcement are critical. Some people will embrace these principles right away. Others will take more time. This is generally more about emotion than intellect. In other words, they understand what they’re supposed to do, but uncertainty is holding them back. How do you get them to do this? Try these tactics:

  • Tell them that you understand their apprehension. Everybody’s been there. Reinforce that you’ve got their back. If something goes wrong, you’ll work together with them to resolve the situation.
  • Work with them on each of the processes they need to master. A good way to do this is by posing situations and case studies, based on their experiences and your experiences.
  • Observe as they start to implement. Check in periodically, but be careful not to make the decision. It is a good sign when they start pushing you away, because they have built the confidence to act on their own.

When the people around you feel empowered, they will make smarter decisions and feel inspired to work confidently and independently.

 

Managing Decision Fatigue: Sources – Symptoms – Solutions

You probably know the feeling – it’s mid-afternoon and you’re just tired of thinking. Or maybe you’re in the middle of a meeting and you’re beginning to zone out. Perhaps you’re in the sixth virtual conversation of the day and you’re paying more attention to everyone’s background than you are to the decisions being discussed. Maybe you’re in the supermarket staring at the toothpaste and wondering why all these choices are necessary.

Decision fatigue has become the new drain on today’s daily performance. Truth is, decision fatigue has always been around because it is the result of what happens when glucose levels in the brain become depleted. But in recent years, the impact of this mental drain has become so much more intense because of the number of decisions we are compelled to make every waking minute.

Can you can you successfully manage the decision fatigue draining your energy and impairing your thinking?  Yes! To do so, however, it helps to examine both the sources and symptoms first. Only then can we discuss solutions. Allow me to do so using a three-step framework: Sources – Symptoms – Solutions.

The Sources of Decision Fatigue

Every time you make a decision, your brain consumes a bit of the blood glucose (sugar energy) produced by the body from the foods you eat. Deciding whether to turn left or right in the parking lot consumes little glucose. Analyzing data and producing a report consumes a lot more. This is why you feel drained after doing so. It’s also why you shouldn’t make significant purchasing decisions after focusing on an important task. Your brain won’t have the glucose energy to maintain proper focus to make a disciplined choice. The sources of decision fatigue fall into five categories:

First, there is work, which is composed of all the decisions you make during the day. This includes everything from significant choices to nuisance decisions such as navigating phone menus, clicking out of browser pop-ups, declining “convenience” options built into software applications and endless updates that developers promise will improve our user experience. (yeah, right!) On top of this, the pace of work, for many, has become more pressure-filled because of our 24/7/365 society. The same is true because of globalization and the endless demands for instant outcomes. Mix in the general competition for attention from social media and other forms of digital messaging and the brain has trouble processing this constant procession of decisions, both large and small.

Second, there are consumer sources. This consists of everything you buy, from food and personal care products to Netflix packages, apparel, big screen TVs and the car or truck you drive. Frankly, it’s business’ job to sell you the products and separate you from your money. The number of ways they attempt to do this, however, has exploded over the past few years. Research indicates that consumers don’t like too many choices, but it also shows people buy more when they’re confused. This is why your head hurts when attempting to purchase complex items like a cable subscription.

Third, there is social media. This includes all the platforms most of us use daily to connect with each other and keep up on what they have to say. These applications have become such an integral part of life for so many, they deserve their own category. Millions have been invested in making sure that users remain continually engaged, whether it is the never-ending scroll feature or the continual pop-ups that offer assistance, advertisements or the diversions we have come to know as click-bait. Add to this a design that ensures you will never see the same page display a second time, and these companies have created billions of users afraid to close the app. Each one of these sessions, of course, includes hundreds of decisions about what to read, what to click, and how to respond.

Fourth, there is news and entertainment. These have blended together so much that they really fall into the same category. As much as entertainment should be a source of relaxation, research has shown that the overwhelming number of choices confuses viewers resulting a sort of mental surrender for many. When it comes to news, it is important to remember that CNN, FOX, print media and the others are NOT in the business of keeping us informed. They are in the business of making money. Hence, the long-time industry motto, “if it bleeds, it leads.” Bad news, polarization and stories with manipulated narratives stress readers and viewers resulting in decision fatigue. At the same time, there is a sense of being left out if you don’t keep up.

Finally, there’s You and Others, or relationships. This category includes family, friends, colleagues and everyone else with whom you relate on a regular basis. Each of these relationships requires its own set of decisions based on how you interact, along with past experience. Each one of these decisions requires the brain to consider dozens of factors, consuming boatloads of glucose, especially for those relationships you find more challenging. Just as a large report or presentation can consume a lot of sugar energy, the same is true with the lengthy or intense conversations you have with one or more people over a beer. At the end, you feel tired of thinking because your brain has had to pay attention while developing what to say in response, based on your past experience with these individuals.

As mentioned before, many of these decisions have been a part of life since the dawn of time. But in recent years we have added social media, the options that come with menu-driven software, and an explosion of consumer choices in pretty much every product category. According to research from Roberts Wesleyan College, adults are now making an average of 35,000 decisions per day. As a result, there are five symptoms that hinder our thinking and impair our daily performance.

The Symptoms of Decision Fatigue

First, there is continuous partial attention, which forces our minds to constantly dart back and forth from micro-decision to micro-decision, each one costing us a bit of glucose energy. This darting becomes cumulative over time and the reason why we wonder what happened to the productivity of the day. Have you ever said to yourself, “I know I made a lot of decisions, but I didn’t really accomplish anything?” When the brain is not given a change to replenish itself, glucose levels become so depleted that you can actually feel your thinking shutting down.

Safe Decision Syndrome is the fear of making any decision that might result in a mistake, an unfortunate outcome, or perhaps correction or discipline by a supervisor. With the number of decisions we are required to make these days, the possibility of this happening has gone way up. Those who have been “burned” by one or more of these situations become overly cautious about making any decision that is even tinged with uncertainty. Most times, they just stop unless they have explicit permission to act.

Third, there is menu-driven thinking, which is an over-dependence on digital cues. The advent of computer software has brought with it increasingly sophisticated ways of guiding, some would say manipulating, our thinking and choices.  Whether it is telephone menus, airline reservation sites, or the screen in your car’s dashboard, we are thinking less and being led more. Some might argue that menu-driven thinking reduces the need to think, thereby saving mental energy. The price of this, however, is a deficit in creative and critical thinking especially among many of those coming of age in this digital society. When they are compelled to make decisions with an uncertain outcome, the associated stress of doing so consumes a tremendous amount of glucose.

Fourth, there is the Fear of Missing Out (FOMO). This has become a juggernaut in both social media and marketing. The fact that a sizeable number of people interrupt their sleep to check their mobile devices illustrates the way FOMO has become a major factor in fostering decision fatigue. As with any other digital interaction, the fear of missing out requires dozens of decisions throughout the day, each one consuming a bit of the blood glucose so essential for attention and concentration.

Finally, there is the sense of manipulation we develop when we feel like we’re being led to a particular outcome, even though we’re being told we have complete control. Sadly, this has become pervasive throughout society because of digital technology. As a result, we expend more blood glucose trying to game the systems that are trying to maneuver us into pre-ordained choices. Having to anticipate these processes for even simple purchases or decisions draws our focus and energy away for more significant issues. Feeling like you’re settling or surrendering results in an underlying sense of distrust in all these systems.

The Solutions to Decision Fatigue

Over the past several years, I’ve identified more than 30 strategies for battling decision fatigue and continue to discover more as I interview effective decision-makers. Here are three to get you started.

First, begin each day with something that will you give a sense of completion. Admiral William McRaven has become known for his ten rules learned during Navy Seal training. The first of these is “make your bed,” a simple task but a good way to start the day. For me, it’s posting an inspiring thought on Linked-In. Others with whom I have spoken have a ritual that helps center their thinking before diving into what needs to be done. What do you do every morning to top off your energy before commencing the work at hand?

Second, work at eliminating unnecessary decisions. I spoke to an executive who told me of assuming the leadership of a manufacturing plant. Being a first-time plant manager, he dutifully studied all the reports that arrived in his in-box, sometimes late into the night. But one day it dawned on him that no one ever asked about these reports. He started asking those generating them about their purpose. He was told that his predecessor was a “numbers guy” and couldn’t seem to get enough data to analyze. So, this manager sat down one morning considered the value of each report. Then he eliminated all but two, saving him a couple of hours of work a week. Effective decision-makers are constantly looking for ways to consolidate, delegate or eliminate decisions for both themselves and those with whom they work. How about you?

Finally, chunk your time. I’ve interviewed several executives who divide their time into 15- or 30-minute segments. Then they assign the decisions they need to make to those segments. This is especially useful if their days is filled with requests from others. Not only does it compel those asking the questions to better organize their time, it forces the decision-maker to act, rather allowing the issue to drag on or be postponed. Even if you cannot do this for the entire day, simply dedicating time chucks every morning or afternoon will enable you to focus without the endless distractions. Don’t worry. The people around you will get used to it. If you have a boss that wants you available at every whim, sell him or her on how you can get more done if you compartmentalize some of your time.

When battling decision fatigue, the goal is NOT to better manage the 35,000 decisions we might face every day. It is to REDUCE the number of decisions we make. In other words, fewer decisions equals less blood glucose consumed. This leaves more sugar energy for focus on the most important issues.

The Attributes of an Empowered Employee

On any given day, each person you supervise makes more than a hundred decisions to resolve problems and complete projects. Most are routine and have been executed many times before. This repetition evolves into the mastery necessary to navigate the daily workload. But then there are those unexpected challenges that can disrupt momentum in a heartbeat. We have all experienced the fear of making the wrong decision, even though we pretty much knew what to say or do. Most of us possess the confidence move past this initial apprehension and navigate to a successful solution.

Some, however, struggle to adapt. Much of this apprehension can be attributed to a lack of confidence in their ability to solve problems and make decisions, especially in the stress of the moment. So, how can you help these individuals develop more confidence in their daily decisions? The effort comes down to a simple word – empower. 

Top performers in any work environment exude confidence. They believe they are fully capable of dealing with whatever issue confronts them. In order other words. They feel empowered. So, what does it mean to feel empowered? First, it’s the ability to discern. In the workplace, this means being able to examine the elements of a situation, evaluate what needs to be accomplished and determine the steps for doing so. You can share all the universal truths you want about how to solve problems, but the ability to discern evolves over time as the result of trial and error.

Second, feeling empowered is the ability to manage uncertainty. Uncertainty produces stress. Top performers become comfortable with being uncomfortable. Any significant decision involves some uncertainty.

Third, those who feel empowered possess the skills to recover from what goes wrong. Some decisions don’t work out, even if you’ve made a thoughtful choice. Top performers accept that you don’t go through life making the best decision every time. When things go wrong, they take a step back, evaluate what happened, and come up with a fix.

Fourth, empowerment is the confidence to act independently. Top performers take initiative without asking for permission. They scan the environment for what needs to be done. They are always thinking three and four steps ahead. Because of this, they are more likely to be rewarded with positive outcomes. They have a sense of control over situations others may find overwhelming.

The element that connects all of these attributes is confidence. More and more of society is focusing on blame when something goes wrong. As a result, many people hesitate before making decisions, not wanting to suffer embarrassment, or even humiliation if a decision goes wrong. For this reason, many seek permission before acting, even if they are clear on what to do. This is especially true of those just entering workplace.

How can you help people feel empowered? Try these three strategies:

Provide clear parameters – Each time you delegate a responsibility, ask the person to explain back to you what they heard. Chances are, you’ll find gaps in their understanding. People don’t generally get an entire concept the first time. Go back and re-explain what they missed. Then reinforce the concept through a bit of practical application. This will also encourage them to ask questions about other concerns they have. By the way, asking, “What questions do you have?” is more effective than asking, “Do you have any questions?” Asking “what” communicates that questions are expected.

Provide the authority – Many times, we delegate responsibility and assume the person understands the parameters about spending money, making exceptions and so on. Then we become frustrated when they ask endless questions. To be effective, express authority using these three steps:

  • First, explain to the person that they may feel some uncertainty about making these decisions initially. Say something like, “You may feel uncomfortable making these decisions at first. I know I did. But don’t worry, I’ve got your back.” This will ease their concern.
  • Second, provide examples of decisions where they may hesitate. Then show them the process for resolving them. If you have performed this job in the past, make a list of the typical decisions you made and explain how you made them. You might even create a matrix or cheat sheet they can consult when they’re on their own. Recognize, however, that those individuals who are overly reliant on “rules” may require more coaching than those possessing confidence in their ability to think things through.
  • Third, step back and watch what happens. It is human nature to jump in when you see someone making a mistake. Resist the temptation. If they begin to believe that you will “save their butt” every time something is about to go wrong, they will become afraid to act or become careless.

Reinforce the process – Rehearsal and reinforcement are critical. Some will embrace these principles right away. Others will remain uncomfortable embracing their new authority. This is generally more about emotion than intellect. In other words, they understand what they’re supposed to do, but uncertainty and fear of failure or blame is holding them back. How do you get them to do this? Try these tactics:

  • Explain that you understand their apprehension. We’ve all been there. Reinforce that you’ve got their back. If something goes wrong, you’ll work together with them to resolve the situation.
  • Work together on each of the processes they will need to master. This means posing situations and case studies, based on their and your past experiences.
  • Stay close as they begin to implement. Check in regularly, but be careful not to make the decisions for them. It’s a good sign when they start pushing you away, because they have developed the confidence to act on their own.

When those around you feel empowered, they make better decisions and feel inspired to work confidently and independently.

Save Energy by Managing Your Appoplexy

It is so easy to find an app for every little convenience these days. Whether you’re looking for travel short-cuts, recipes, or simply games to pass the time. Search any topic on Apple or Android and you’ll find millions of them, most free or less than five dollars. Installing them is as easy as clicking on “open,” authorizing installation with your thumb and waiting a few seconds for it to load. Voilà, instant convenience and fun.

In many ways, however, apps have become a crutch as everyone reaches for their smart phone seeking assistance with everything under the sun. But there is a more insidious cost of having an app for every need imaginable. All these apps can be a source of decision fatigue. Imagine trying to save a bit of money by using the app you’re positive you’ve downloaded to save a couple of bucks on Bar-B-Que. As you page through each screen, your brain has to examine each app’s icon ever-so-briefly to determine whether or not that’s the one you’re looking for. Each one of these neural transactions consumes a bit of the sugar energy your brain depends upon to focus and function.

Too many apps can clog up the system. There’s the conference app you downloaded for that meeting in Detroit back in 2016. There’s the Sit or Squat app you downloaded to help your aging parents find the closest public toilet on last year’s vacation. There’s that car seat helper app you used seven years ago, except now your kids are in middle school. If you can’t remember the exact name of the Bar-B-Que app or what it looks like, you could spend five minutes looking for something that will only save you two bucks. And once you’ve found it, you’ll probably spend another couple of minutes updating it, depending on the speed of the local internet.

Sometimes in seminars, I’ll ask those attending to pull out their smart phones and count the number of apps they have downloaded. The record so far on one device is 241. That’s ten full screens of 24 apps each. Here’s the bottom line. When it comes to apps, the more convenience you have, the less convenience you have.

Decision fatigue is caused by making too many unproductive decisions. Looking for that “needle-in-a-haystack” app is a great example of why we feel tired halfway through the day. This is a phenomenon I call “appoplexy.” So here’s a quick solution. Take out your smart phone right now and delete an app you really don’t use. Then make a practice of doing so whenever you’re on line at the grocery store, waiting to get your car washed, or waiting for the movie to begin. Eliminating little decisions will conserve the energy you need for the bigger decisions throughout the day.

The Inextricable Link Between Pride and Outcome

Back in the 1970s, the leadership of railway equipment manufacturer, Budd Company, invited a select group of their assemblers to take an overnight ride on a train composed of the cars they had built. The leadership simply wanted to provide a bit of fun and recognition for those toiling in the factory. But then an interesting thing happened. Those aboard the train began to examine the “product” they had produced. They discovered missing rivets, windows that didn’t seal properly and other details that left them irritated that the work had not been done to their standards. All of it was within the company’s tolerances, but that wasn’t good enough for them.

Upon returning to the factory, they established new processes to ensure the railway cars they were producing were something they could be proud of every single time. I suspect Budd’s leadership had no idea this was going to happen. They just wanted to provide a reward for some hardworking souls. But there’s a universal truth illustrated here – there is an inextricable link between pride and quality of outcome.

Now, you may be thinking, “Of course there is. There’s nothing new here.” But how do people feel about it on your front line? How much pride do your people feel in the work they do? Chances are, the answer is all over the map. Some are totally invested. Others may be simply there for the paycheck. Then there are a bunch in the middle. If you directly supervise them, you probably know where along the continuum each person falls.

So, how do you build pride in those who don’t display a lot of interest or investment? Make it real. How? Here are a couple of examples:

Recognize little extra efforts – Many times, people toil away without being recognized for how well they’re performing. The key is to let them know that you know. Several years, I became acquainted with the general manager of a resort in the southwest. With 2500 people on his team it was impossible to know how everyone was contributing. Knowing this, he put the word out to his supervisors that when they saw someone doing something right, they should let him know via e-mail or a note to his office. Then once a week, he sat down to write complementary notes to the individuals identified. But he went a step further by mailing these notes to each person’s home. After all, a housekeeper who receives one of these notes while on the job will probably just stick it in her uniform and forget it. A handwritten note from the general manager that arrives at home gets posted on the refrigerator so the entire family can see it.

Share more customer feedback – Too often, customers wanting to share positive comments end up filling out a form on the company website these days. These kudos are then posted on behalf of the entire company. That’s fine, but what about the person the customer actually had contact with? If someone mentions a name, why not track that person down and share the feedback personally? Chances are, they weren’t even aware it was submitted.

You can also do this personally. When someone provides me with good service, I make a point of complimenting them, even if we’re on live chat. I’m not trying to make a big difference, just making the effort to brighten someone’s day. But while it might a little thing to me, it might be the best thing they’ve heard all week. Pride and outcome go hand-in-hand. What can you and your colleagues do to foster more of this connection?

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:

Produce a video (or videos) that illustrates how the firm functions – Accounting firms have used this strategy for years to aid in the recruiting of young auditors. A “day in the life of” video helps viewers understand the nuances of the job, the effort involved, the typical decisions made, even the employee’s daily routine. Here’s an example. How can you adapt this idea? It doesn’t require anything more than a smart phone and a bit of creativity.

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.

How Does This Place Make Money? Part One

That’s the question I have challenged employers to ask their people for years. Sadly, most people can’t provide an answer that demonstrates they really understand the business model of the firm for which they work. Generally, they’ll say something like, “We sell software,” or “We deliver stuff to restaurants.” If you ask them to drill down on that and provide more detail, most will give you a blank stare. Why? Because of silos. In other words, they can only explain how the processes work within their particular part of the company. Ask someone in accounts payable how checks are cut and they can explain the 17 steps. Ask someone in the warehouse how trucks are loaded, and they’ll give you a short dissertation on all the details. But ask them about the overall business model and they’ll shrug their shoulders. In some cases, the person will say, “That’s not really my job.” But it is! Here are three reasons why:

  • It engenders pride. A while ago, I spoke to an all hands meeting for Rasmussen Group, a large heavy construction company. These are the people who build roads, bridges and the other components of infrastructure upon which we all rely. Talk about silos! With the exception of the engineers and project superintendents, most employees spend their days moving earth, operating cranes and other mostly isolated tasks. So, every couple of years, the firm’s leadership brings everyone together for an expenses-paid weekend to provide information about the company, offer a bit of training and allow them to socialize. This past year, everyone was shown a twenty-minute video illustrating how all the components for a large project came together. It featured those in the room doing their jobs on these enormous pieces of equipment. What fun it was! Everybody in the room was laughing and pointing and teasing each other when they appeared on the screen. Ask most heavy equipment operators what they do and they’ll say something like, “I drive a tractor.” Ask a Rasmussen operator and he’s more likely to say, I help build bridges.”
  • It engenders better daily decisions. When you are proud of what you do, you take more ownership in the outcome. That means you think about the bigger picture – how your decisions affect others and how theirs affect yours and how all decisions impact the final product. You can’t help but make better decisions when you’re invested in the outcome. Does this sometimes engender disagreements about the best way to proceed? Yes, but that’s a good thing because it demonstrates that people care. So as long as they are productive, let’s have more disagreements. They will produce better decisions.
  • This results in loyalty and retention. It’s been said that employee loyalty is a thing of the past – that most employees see their jobs as contracts. Not when they believe in what they do and believe that what they do is making a contribution. When they’re making good decisions and seeing the direct results of their efforts, employees, regardless of age, will remain on the job and continue to hone their skills. The costs of turnover can devastate a company’s bottom line.

Simply answering the question, “How does this place make money?” begins the effort of building pride, compelling better decisions, and boosting retention. How? I’ll share some strategies for that in the next post.

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.

Rehearsal: One of the Essentials to Effective Decision Making

Like most people, I have been known to act without thinking. But there are consequences. As the saying goes, good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgment. What the best decision makers discover over time is that there is an essential collection of strategies enabling us to act with more clarity and confidence, resulting in better outcomes. One of these strategies is rehearsing what you’re going to say before approaching someone about a particular decision.

Last week, for example, I went online to see if I could improve on the phone plan my family and I pay for each month. Unfortunately, the company website was so confusing, I gave up trying to use it. That left me with going to the local store and chatting with a salesperson. Like many, however, I’ve become wary of talking with most sales representatives. But since sometimes there is no alternative, I’ve learned to prepare in advance.

I began by answering my favorite decision-making question, “What will success look like?” The more of a detailed vision I can create up front, the better chance I have of achieving that vision. In this particular case it was an unlimited plan for less money. Once I had a clear vision of the outcome, I printed out screenshots of the webpages offering the plan I desired, along with the ones that had confused me. (For instance, “How come when I click on the offer for $35 per line for four lines, the total on the next page comes out as $249? The taxes can’t be that much.”)

Once I had my questions prepared and my “evidence” printed out, I rehearsed the questions I had prepared out loud a couple of times to make sure I could explain myself clearly and confidently. When I got to the store, the conversation went remarkably well, probably because I appeared confident and well prepared. So what was the result of this two minutes of additional preparation?

First, I was clear on the desired outcome. This enabled me to better prepare for an encounter with the salesperson. Second, I was more confident. Not only did I feel well prepared, I had taken a minute to rehearse what I was going to ask to make sure I got it right. Third, I was rewarded with my clearly defined outcome —  a phone bill that is now $50 less per month and allows for unlimited data.

Now, you might say, “Sure, I know all this.” But do you implement this kind of process consistently? I’m just sayin’.