Category Archives: Decision Making

How Much Can You (Mentally) Bench? Six Ways to Build Your Mental Toughness with Ron Howard

When discussing the characteristics of successful leaders, one trait is often overlooked. It’s not the need for charisma, confidence, or communication skills, we talking about those incessantly. No, it is the need for mental toughness. Famed filmmaker and actor Ron Howard discussed this undervalued attribute during a recent conversation on the podcast Off Camera with Sam Jones:

I was talking to a friend of mine who’s a Wall Street guy, and he’s always been a bond trader. He said that when he recruits young talent, they have to understand math, but he loves to get men and women who are athletes, highly competitive athletes. And I said, ‘Oh, it’s because you are trying to win, right? It’s kind of a zero sum thing.’ He said, ‘No, they know how to lose. They know how to lose and get back up and go, and go hard. No one reaches that caliber of athletic achievement without losing a helluva lot more than they win. And they learn how to cope with that.’ And I think if we’re doing this type of work and you want to make it your life’s work, you have to have that mental toughness or at least that understanding.

Mental toughness is the ability to respond resiliently to pressures, setbacks, adversities and challenges. It involves remaining emotionally steady and focused while continuing to make rational decisions under pressure. Like Ron Howard’s friend, mental toughness is often associated with athletes. After all, they spend a significant amount time in high-pressure, highly competitive situations, with arenas of onlookers and the objective to achieve a specific goal within a compressed period of time.

This unique atmosphere compels athletes to learn how to conquer fears and evade despondence in their quest for victory. For instance, a recent study examining professional baseball players found that players with greater mental toughness performed better in on-base plus slugging, a key performance metric that reflects a player’s ability to get on base and advance base runners (and is considered among the most predictive metrics of team wins). They also performed better under stress, kept their emotions in check, and were able to bounce back quicker when things did not go well.

Obviously, star athletes must have some innate, natural ability—coordination, physical flexibility, anatomical capacities—just as successful senior executives need to be able to think strategically and relate to people. But the real key to excellence in both sports and business is not the ability to swim fast or do quantitative analyses quickly in your head. Rather, it is [mindset] mental toughness.—Grant Jones, Sports Psychologist and former consultant to Olympic and world champions in seven games

This is not just applicable to the sports world. In her book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, psychologist Angela Duckworth’s research shows that this skill set is more reliable than cognitive or technical skills when predicting success. If this sounds like an overstatement, consider the results of her study. Focusing on new cadets at West Point military academy, Duckworth examined the student’ high school rank, SAT scores, Leadership Potential Score, Physical Aptitude Exam, and Grit Scale (which measures perseverance and passion for long–term goals). What she found was that while intelligence, strength, and leadership potential were beneficial, those scoring highest on the Grit Scale were 60% more likely to successfully finish the initiation program than their peers.

These results were replicated in a number of other studies:

In the Journal of Managerial Psychology, researchers concluded, “mental toughness can be a significant indicator of potential for level of achievement and managerial position attained.”

A study in the Journal of Management found that leaders exhibiting mental toughness are more successful in obtaining their followers’ trust, respect, and buy-in. They are also more likely to be perceived as influential, while less resilient leaders who appear ambivalent or emotionally-unfulfilled are less likely to be seen as persuasive.

In a nationwide survey conducted by Price Pritchett where CEOs were asked to name the most important traits of their company, the top answers were staying power, can-do attitude, and resilience, all characteristics associated with mental toughness.

And good news! Research has found that mental toughness can be developed. Professional athletes regularly engage in training their psychological readiness. Jason Selk, author of Executive Toughness and director of mental training for the St. Louis Cardinals, coordinates daily “mental workouts” with players, including such practices as controlled breathing, visualizing a personal “highlight reel,” and imagining successes that are going to happen in the next game. You can also consider:

Practice self-control. To be mentally tough, we need to be able to manage our thinking and emotions. This means not allowing the business environment or the opinion of others to control our decision making. To do so, when experiencing pressure, immediately stop, take a few deep breaths, and assess the situation.

Be inner-driven. Mentally strong people harness their internal motivation so they can decide how/why to push themselves. They do not allow negative outside forces to hijack their thoughts and emotions.

Practice flexibility. Do you know why the Caribbean has so many palm trees? Because they bend in a hurricane. Just like the palm tree, success in our dynamic work environment depends on our readiness to adjust quickly. To remain mentally elastic, approach new situations with a creative mind, be aggressively curious, and be open to alternatives.

Seek challenges. You cannot become mentally tougher if you are not inserting yourself into situations that test your intellect, skill set, or ego.

Don’t be an expert. One trap of ambitious professionals is believing they’ve reached “expert status.” Experts fall into a routine; they see things a certain way and stop considering alternatives. Retain your probing, creative mindset and don’t let experience blind you from new possibilities.

Embrace uncertainty. Mental toughness is not synonymous with being all-knowing. But it does mean that we cannot allow ambiguity to cloud our judgment or spur panic. Think through the options and act on them. Avoid knee-jerk responses and keep your sights on the end-goal.

While we may not be able to compete with professional athlete on muscle strength, we are capable of being contenders in mental strength. Don’t let adversity thwart your confidence. Practice resilience so when the next challenge transpires, you can flex those skills and tough it out.

Are You Suffering from Moral Superiority?

Are you really as good a person as you think you are? Don’t get me wrong; I think you’re great, really, I do. What I’m asking is whether you are morally superior to the general population. Are your decisions more principled? Is you behavior more virtuous?

According to research in Social Psychological and Personality Science, we tend to see ourselves as better than other people. In the study, participants rated themselves and the average person on traits reflecting the core dimensions of social perception: morality (e.g., sincerity, honesty), sociability (e.g., warmth, likeability), and agency (e.g., competence, creativity). Virtually all individuals irrationally inflated their moral qualities. For instance, they rated traits like trustworthiness as 6.1 for themselves, but only 4.3 for others. The other domains of positive self-evaluation also received higher scores, but the participants didn’t inflate their scores as much as they did for the morality-based characteristics.

In another study from Motivation and Emotion, participants estimated the percentage of times they exhibited positive traits. Six weeks later, these same participants evaluated the average person’s positive traits based on estimates that supposedly represented the populace. In reality, the traits being measured were their own scores. Results found that people consistently gauge themselves more favorably than others, even when the estimates on which they base their ratings are identical to their own.

If you’re familiar with the theory of social projection, it states the belief that if you do something, others are likely to do the same. But if this were true, in the two studies above and numerous others, participants would either drop their own self-rating or rate everyone else higher. No, social projection may be true for aspects of our life, but there remains an assumption that one’s morality is significantly greater than everyone else.

As a leader, moral superiority can have dangerous repercussions. This “positive illusion” leads to self-justified corruption, a reduced willingness to compromise, and intolerance. In addition, people displaying this arrogance feel less obligated to follow a strict ethical code because they believe themselves to already be so much more progressive. Thus, by believing we are above the moral average, it could ironically makes us less so.

Don’t fall for the trappings of moral conceit. I’m sure you are extremely morality-bound, but so are most of the people around you. You may not always understand why they behave the ways they do, but that’s an opportunity to converse, not pronounce them as malefactors and yourself a saint. Sustain a more grounded outlook and keep your “ethical ego” in check.

When Did Opposition Become Obstruction?

In today’s political climate, there has been a focus on the “oppositional” party. How the “less represented” party tries to push their agenda forward has always been a talking point. The difference is in the tactics that have been used during the previous Presidential administration and have continued into the current one. It’s the difference between opposition and obstruction.

By definition, oppositional parties tend to be against the policies of the “ruling” party and/or person(s) in power. This is an important part of a democracy. Through debate and discussion, they ensure we retain checks and balances. The ruling party is held accountable and the views of a broader range of constituents are represented.

While oppositional parties work against those in power, traditionally they have also been willing to work with their foes to some degree, while retaining the focus on their agenda. That is the key differentiator between opposing and obstructing.

The duty of the opposition is to oppose.—Winston Churchill

Obstructionists are those members of the opposing party who refuse to not only work with those in power, but purposely block their opponent’s progress. It does not matter whether the decision is justified and reasonable, which it often is. It does not matter whether they agree with the progress being proposed, which they often do. And it does not matter whether the majority have the right/ability to make the change, which is often the case. An obstructionist’s goal is to stop the rival at whatever the cost.

The obstructionist knows that to give a little is to concede. The fallout is irrelevant as are the consequences of their actions. Even if an obstructionist loses, they can show that they are not complicit in the outcome. Could they have made the solution better with their insight? Sure, but then their supporters would think they’re weak and without core principles.

If there is a nuclear tactic being used here, I submit it is the use of that obstruction where a willful minority blocks a bipartisan majority from voting on the President’s judicial nominees.—John Cornyn, U.S. Senator

This was not always the case. Politic use to be about compromise; it use to be about taking part in the process without an instinctually defiant stance. When you disagreed, you argued your points. You bargained for your agenda. You helped shape the solution so it included some of your party’s input. But this only happens through participation…and obstructionists refuse to participate.

This is a lesson for leaders. If you want to make an impact, if you want influence within your organization, don’t allow your feelings of opposition to transmute into obstructionist behaviors. Removing yourself from the discussion does not mean you are more ideologically pure, it means you are giving others a valid reason to cut you out of the decision making. While you may not like what others are proposing, a willingness to compromise will allow your concerns to be heard and may shape the end-result in a way that makes it more palatable for those who oppose it. Or, you can cover your ears and repeatedly yell, “NO.” I’m sure your opponents didn’t want to hear your views anyway.

Why Leaders Cannot Be Indifferent to the Truth: Part 2—The Destructive Nature of Alternative Facts (i.e. Lies)

Check out Part 1 of this series where we discuss the logical fallacy of believing you are entitled to your opinion.

While some leaders use their opinion as a weapon against critical thinking, there’s a dangerous new trend that reclassifies opinions as alternative facts. Just as you are not entitled to your opinion, you are not entitled to blatantly lie or recreate reality to better suit your convenience.

Alternative facts go beyond the concept of post-truth where “facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” While it may be dismissed in favor of a passion-based sentiment, at least post-truths involve a comprehension of the facts.

The concept of alternative facts became more prevalent when Meet the Press’ Chuck Todd questioned statements made by White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer concerning the size of the turnout for Trump’s inauguration. When asked, Counselor to the President Kellyann Conway told Todd that Spicer was only offering alternative facts, to which Todd replied, “Alternative facts are just falsehoods.”

If audience size seems like a minor lie, you are only half wrong. Sure, there are more serious issues to lie about, but as research shows, a lie (even a small one) can have destructive effects. For now, let’s forgo the ethical argument, or the Golden Rule, or the simple societal norm that lying is bad. Instead, focus on how lies impact your employees.

According to Harvard University psychologist Daniel Gilbert, people see the world in two steps. First, for a brief moment, we hold the lie as true: We must accept it so as to understand it. For instance, if the President were to erroneously say, “I have been on [Time magazine’s] cover, like, 14 or 15 times. I think we have the all-time record in the history of Time magazine,” we must for a second accept that he holds this record. Only then do we go to the second step—accepting or rejecting it.

While the first step happens automatically, the second step involves actively deciding whether or not to believe the statement. And too often, this mentally strenuous verification does not occur. As Gilbert writes, human minds, “when faced with shortages of time, energy, or conclusive evidence, may fail to unaccept the ideas that they involuntarily accept during comprehension.”

Based on our limited cognitive resources, when we fail to unaccept an idea, our minds have become so overwhelmed with (potentially) false statements that we stop trying to sift through to the truth. The improbability of the statement is irrelevant; with time, our brains give up trying to figure out what is true.

It’s the bed-of-nails principle: If you step on one nail, it hurts you; if you step on a thousand nails, no single one stands out, and you’re fine.—John Oliver

Since people become more susceptible to lies when they are told with higher frequency, it may sound easier to lead through lies—who doesn’t want to say whatever they want without having to defend it? Of course you will lose all credibility and quickly build a reputation of fraudulence that delegitimizes both you and your organization, but think of the time you’ll save trying to persuade the masses.

Sarcasm aside, once a group is more receptive to lies, they are more receptive to everyone’s lies, not just yours. If you aren’t so bold as to tell outright lies but do not want to be bothered with the fact-checkable truth, in Part 3 of this series we’ll discuss the effects of sprinkling your argument with a few untruths, otherwise known as paltering.

 

The Why Leaders Cannot Be Indifferent to the Truth series:

Part 1—You are NOT Entitled to Your Opinion

Part 2—The Destructive Nature of Alternative Facts (i.e. Lies)

Part 3—Deceiving with Fact-based Lies

Part 4— 10 Ways to Create a Culture of Trust

Three Ways to Provide Meaningful Context with Questlove

Ever had a new, ingenious idea that was met with a thud? I’m sure YOU haven’t but you’ve probably seen it happen to others. I was speaking with a CEO recently who had been working on an exciting new direction for her company. She had questions about strategy, but what we really should have been discussing was her communication plan when launching it.

At the company-wide unveiling, she eagerly revealed the plan. There were charts and graphs and every other quantifiable measure to support her idea. And then there was silence—a bleak, soul crushing silence.

It turns out that no one, including her leadership team, had any inkling this was coming. They thought they were attending a quarterly review, not a turn-the-world-upside-down upheaval. Change, in itself, can be scary, but what’s even scarier is when you don’t understand the what’s, why’s, and how’s. What my colleague was missing was context.

Context involves our ability to interrelate something you already know with whatever change we’d like to instill. Questlove, a music aficionado, record producer, and drummer/joint frontman for The Roots, recently discussed this on Here’s the Thing with Alec Baldwin:

No one has ever had success in music without being contextualized in an artistic community. So, you think you like Stevie Wonder, but no, you associate Stevie Wonder with Smokie [Robinson], The Temptations, Diana Ross and the Supremes, the Motown family… The only people that had success without a family or contextualization are one-hit wonders… Everyone is associated with a movement. Look at The Police. They were part of that post-punk movement, early new wave movement, Talking Heads. Even if they don’t do it by design, we as consumers think that.

Just as no one has ever had success in music without being contextualized, no leader is successful in business without contextualizing their ideas. With context, the leader sets the tone so they can initiate commitment and support for change. It taps into individuals’ established schemas and mental models so they can create the mental links necessary to apply the new information to their construction of reality. If this seems complicated, these three simple techniques can help you provide context to your team.

Know thy audience. Everything is interpreted through someone’s context. It shapes the meaning in all communication. Thus, when your message is delivered in a context that is not compatible with the audience, miscommunication is inevitable. Maintain an understanding as to what your audience already knows and how they are most receptive to learning.

Squash fears. Change is often associated with fear, and fear is often associated with a lack of understanding. So illustrate how the new plan meshes with the current strategy. Explain what, if anything, it is replacing. Describe how it will reallocate resources, job duties, etc. and how it will affect individual employees.

Provide history. Every new concept has a background, a past. It may involve an update, revision, or enhancement to a current concept; a best practice; or a new industry standard…but it didn’t materialize out of thin air. Plot out the history so others can visualize how the project started and why it is necessary.

Very often we assume others can comprehend these connections without explanation; after all, it is so clear to us. However, as in the case of the aforementioned CEO, she had been thinking about her new direction for almost two years before the launch. That is two years of pondering, brainstorming, and intellectualizing. Two years of making the associations she needed to bridge the gap between her vision and the current state of the company. Two years of contextualizing.

Want to learn from her misstep? Inform your team of the issue at hand through a workable framework. Address their concerns. Give them the background information you already possess so they can visualize the decision making leading up to your resolution. It may not seem like much, but it’s the context they need to associate your new Stevie Wonder with their classic Smokie Robinson.