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When Leaders Insulate: The Dangers of Corrosive Privilege

I recently read a fascinating article by Rebecca Solnit on how being born to privilege has had a corrosive effect on Donald Trump and his presidency. She discusses the ways an individual raised in a protected bubble of wealth and power becomes isolated from the rest of the world. After reading Solnit’s piece, it’s evident that the trappings she associates with Trump can become obstacles for all leaders. Here are three lessons that sound out:

Setbacks

We gain awareness of ourselves and others from setbacks and difficulties; we get used to a world that is not always about us.—Rebecca Solnit

There is a mentality amongst some leaders that acknowledging failure is a weakness. As a result, they shift responsibility (i.e. blame others) so they are no longer accountable, artificially reframe setbacks as new opportunities, and/or outright change the end-goal so the outcome can now be viewed as a win.

While “not failing” may feel good, it is a false sense of satisfaction. Leaders must build the thick skin necessary to accept and learn from disappointment without carrying the weight of feeling like a failure. Otherwise we risk becoming overly sensitive and brittle, unequipped to make the adjustments necessary to rebound and adapt.

As leaders, we must also allow others to fail. Solnit writes of rich college kids who are not allowed to fail because their parents “[keep] throwing out safety nets and buffers” that protect them from experiencing adversity. As nice as this may sound, when we live without consequences, our lives become inconsequential—we cannot feel the highs of achievement without also having faced the lows of failure.

Self-Reflection

Power corrupts, and absolute power often corrupts the awareness of those who possess it.—Rebecca Solnit

In Hannah Arendt’s book On the Origins of Totalitarianism, she promotes the need for an inner dialogue where we can cross-examine ourselves, where we can ask the difficult questions. If we can master this skill, we are better equipped to have these discussions with the people around us. If we lack the ability to self-interrogate, we are prone to suffer from, what Arendt calls, the banality of evil, i.e. “the inability to hear another voice, the inability to have a dialogue either with oneself, or the imagination to have a dialogue with the world, the moral world.”

Obliviousness

Equality keeps us honest. Our peers tell us who we are and how we are doing, providing that service in personal life that a free press does in a functioning society.—Rebecca Solnit

We need people in our lives who have the ability to provide unfiltered commentary. These individuals cannot be fearful of repercussions, nor can they hold back in the hopes of gaining some type of advantage. They must be willing to give it to us straight and we must be open to what they are saying. Otherwise, we risk becoming oblivious.

Obliviousness is not a sign of low intelligence, but an indication that the leader is sequestered from information that runs counter to their viewpoint. It tends to happen over time as we weed out those who are the bearers of bad news, those who are perceived as not being “on board,” and those who are damaging our precious self-esteem with their critique. Before we know it, we are surrounded by yes-men and sycophants who tell us what we want to hear versus what we need to hear. In the end, not only are we alone, but their biased feedback has infected us with delusional thinking, faulty decision making, and a general lack of insight into how our team and the population-at-large are feeling.

Being in a position of power can be lonely, but it doesn’t have to. Leaders must seek and foster relationships outside of their power structure. Our associates keep us honest. They ensure we remain grounded and in touch with reality. And they provide the feedback, criticism, and advice that, while not preferable, is essential to avoiding the impairments of corrosive privilege.

The OODA Loop: Your “Lasso of Truth” for Enhanced Decision Making

What makes Wonder Woman such a fierce warrior? We can chalk it up to her royal lineage or her upbringing as the princess of the Amazons, but it really comes down to her mission-driven, strategic mindset. She is able to break down a problem, formulate a new plan, and flawless execute. Famed military strategist John Boyd believes we can do the same.

In the 1960s, Boyd developed a strategic tool called the OODA Loop—Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act. This four-step decision-making process provides a systematic method for addressing uncertainty with a strategy for winning direct competitions. It does so by helping us categorize and organize the ways we think about our environment. And those who make it through all four stages the quickest, wins.

Wonder Woman is a fighter, better than most, but it’s what she fights for that is important. It’s her vision of a future of peace and acceptance that makes her the right ambassador for everyone.—Gal Gadot

Leaders are surrounded with ambiguity. When circumstances change, too often we fail to shift our outlook, instead continuing to see the world as it was. Then, when our old outlook doesn’t work, we keep trying to force it to work. To overcome this ineffective cycle, we need to adapt our outlook so we can deal with the actual reality. That is where the OODA Loop comes in.

The OODA Loop illustrates a process to help us learn, develop, and thrive in an ever-shifting environment. Let’s break down each step.

Observe

The first step in the OODA Loop is to observe. This involves absorbing new information about our environment, maintaining a strong sense of situational awareness, and remaining open to change. Intellectual curiosity is the key.

From an Amazonian warrior’s standpoint, observing is remaining in a state of relaxed alert where while there’s no specific threat, you are taking in your surroundings in both a relaxed and alert manner. For the rest of us, observation requires us to be diligently aware of internal and external opportunities and threats. To do so, we need to keep track of revenue, expenses, and profit but also industry trends, company culture, and the overall business environment.

It is not necessarily the one with more information who will come out victorious, it is the one with better judgment, the one who is better at discerning patterns.—Frans P.B. Osinga, Science, Strategy, and War

Orient

The second step is considered to be the focal point of the OODA Loop. Orientation shapes the ways we interact with, observe, react to, and behave towards our environment. Just as Wonder Woman cannot approach every adversary with the same tactical strategies, we cannot approach every situation as if they are constant. Effective orientation involves a process called destructive deduction where we shatter old paradigms so as to put them back together in a way that is more closely aligned to our current reality, i.e. creative induction.

To improve your orientation:

Start shattering and rebuilding your paradigms. The more you do it, the better you’ll be.

Never stop orienting. Deductive destruction and creative induction is not a one-time event; it is a continual process of updating outdated mindsets to fit the changing environment.

Validate new paradigms before enacting them. Utilize past experiences to determine what has worked in similar situations, study best practices, and brainstorm with the team. Then you are ready for the next two steps in the OODA Loop.

Decide

Once we’ve observed, deductively destroyed, and creatively induced, it is time to decide on the course of action. This involves moving forward with our best hypothesis about the paradigm we feel will be most beneficial. To avoid this step is to remain unfocused and aimless. To tackle it, we are indicating that we are ready for the next step.

Act

Action is how we learn whether our hypothesis is correct. If it is, Wonder Woman wins the battle and we overcome our obstacle; if it is not, we start the OODA Loop again using our newly observed knowledge.

Whether you are an Amazonian princess or a mild-mannered supervisor, we must have a clear, applicable process to cut through uncertainty so we can make quick decisions in an organized manner. The OODA Loop (or Lasso of Truth for you Wonder Woman fans) makes this typically implicit practice explicit through an easy to follow method. It’s a wonder you haven’t used it yet.

Complaining is Not Catharsis: Choose Sportsmanship Over Purposeless Venting

Few things bother me more than complaining. I’m not referring to actual complaints, the kind where the individual has a legitimate gripe and would like help finding a solution. No, I’m talking about the pointless complaints where the only intent is to voice discontent. If you are watching Feud: Bette and Joan then you know what I mean.

The mini-series Feud: Bette and Joan follows the real-life story of two legendary actresses, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, and their legendary quarreling. They constantly complain about each other to studio heads, the director, tabloid columnists, and to their children. While many of their complaints are not without merit, how much did Davis and Crawford accomplish with their relentless critiques? A new study found that complaining may actually make the situation worse.

According to research published in the European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, Demeroutia and Cropanzano found that complaining about negative events cements their impact. It seems that discussing these events immediately during or after they occur forces the brain to re-live the negative emotional response. This reinforces the association between the event and the negative emotions, “turning a bad experience into That Bad Experience.” The incident then becomes more memorable and has a more damaging influence on emotional well-being.

When complaining, Demeroutia and Cropanzano concluded that what may have been intended as a short outburst persists until at least the afternoon of the following day. That is over 24 hours of significantly diminished momentary mood, less satisfaction with work, and lower pride in accomplishments.

It is easy to say that the lesson is to ask people to refrain from talking about bad things, however that is not at all the point. When a problem arises we must work towards resolution, and that begins with verbalizing it. But purposeless complaining is not the solution—a more constructive method is to harness your sportsmanship.

Sportsmanship, otherwise known as organizational citizenship behavior, involves a willingness to tolerate workplace inconveniences, annoyances, and discomforts without complaining. A “good sport” can buffer themself from the harmful effects of daily negative work experiences, thereby blocking the formation of salient negative memories.

Demeroutia and Cropanzano determined that individuals with higher levels of sportsmanship processed negative events with the intent of achieving positive outcomes, not complaining for the sake of complaining. As a result, they recovered faster from setbacks. Being free from harmful distractions, they were then able to experience enhanced productivity, display a greater willingness to help co-workers, improve their efficiency, and generate social capital with stronger networks of peers.

Don’t let pettiness get the best of you or allow it to overrun your culture. We are not victims of our circumstances; we have the latitude to evaluate and process the meaning of events and how we choose to react. You can spend your whole career like Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, but you’ll end up with a bruised ego, few real friends, and a wake of wasted opportunities. They each achieved great things, but a trace of sportsmanship may have resulted in so much more. Learn from them. Make the choice to be a good sport.

The Don Rickles School of Praise: When There’s Too Much of a Good Thing

Last week I wrote about the business case for being nice. I stand by the article and the cited research flaunting the benefits of leadership based in trust, warmth, and mutual cooperation; however, with the passing of legendary comedian Don Rickles, I’d like to honor his memory by providing a counter argument—the business case for not being so nice. More specifically, why we should be more discerning when doling out praise.

In today’s culture, leaders are encouraged to instill confidence, build self-esteem, and offer regular praise so as to encourage employees to believe in themselves. This “feel good” behavior creates a nice environment, but “nice” is not synonymous with “engaging,” “productive,” or “dynamic.” In fact, research shows that praise may actually undermine success.

I always rib people, but nobody ever gives me a hard time. I don’t know why. Maybe they’re afraid of what I might say. There’s probably a lesson in that somewhere, but I don’t know what it is.—Don Rickles

A study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that when people are praised for ‘doing their own thing,’ they lose interest in the activity once the praise stops. Where they may have once felt satisfaction with the intrinsically rewarding enjoyment of performing the activity, the praise replaced the intrinsic reward with a contingent, external incentive, thus reducing the appeal of the intrinsic reward. As a result, expecting praise can soon make that thing seem not worth doing if you are not receiving the praise.

In another study published in Educational Leadership, people praised for personal attributes (being smart, talented, etc) were more easily discouraged with complex tasks and they stopped making an effort much sooner than those praised for ‘working hard’. Also, when praised for effort, participants overwhelmingly chose the more challenging task, while those praised for intelligence chose the easy test.

And according to Dr. Peggy Drexler, a research psychologist and professor of psychology at Cornell University, unpraised individuals show higher levels of confidence, while the overpraised are more likely to lie or exaggerate to make their performance sound better. Praise becomes addictive; once they get it, they need it and cannot function without it.

They always use the word ‘insult’ with me, but I don’t hurt anybody. I wouldn’t be sitting here if I did. I make fun of everybody and exaggerate all our insecurities.—Don Rickles

Before you are completely turned off from delivering praise (and decide to follow the Don Rickles’ style of ‘compliments’), the lesson here is not to withhold support or encouragement; what’s key is making sure the praise you deliver is accomplishing your intended purpose and being conveyed in the most impactful manner. A few ways you can maximize your praise include:

  • Be selective with praise. A compliment is more meaningful when it is kept sacred. If you do it all the time, it has less potency and creates an atmosphere of dependency. As David “Father of Advertising” Ogilvy says, it should be just uncommon enough to make each instance a momentous occasion.
  • Focus on what is within a person’s control. Don’t bother heaping compliments on characteristics that come natural; emphasis what they can consciously influence and control.
  • Avoid applause for easy tasks. A study found that people praised for an achievement that comes easily believe either 1) the praiser is not smart enough to realize how easy the task is or 2) the praiser thinks the prasiee is not smart.
  • Don’t over-praise for doing something they should be doing anyway. Recognize them for going above and beyond or finding a new way to complete a task, otherwise you are just reinforcing the minimum expectations of the job.
  • Deliver razor-sharp praise. Ambiguous, broad statements like, “You are great,” are worthless. Compliments should be specific and describe a detailed account of what they did well.

Don Rickles, derisively nicknamed Mr. Warmth, was always quick with an insult. He could disarm the most caustic audience with the most politically correctless jab. The greatest praise he offered was a verbal barb… and people begged Rickles to make fun of them. Of course, context matters so we should not try to emulate his form of tribute. Instead, use praise to build people up, but, at the same time, don’t rely on it as your primary form of communication. Keep it pointed, make it meaningful, and (I cannot stress this enough) don’t think “What would Rickles say.”

Why the Attitude? The Business Case for Being Nice

I recently received a call from a frustrated CEO who had concerns about his COO. The COO was brash, antagonistic, and exhibiting a pervasively aggressive disposition. The culture was plummeting and his staff was on the verge of a coup. The CEO and I sat down with the COO to salvage and hopefully remedy the situation.

After I heard the COO’s frustrations, many of which had merit, I dug into why he chose the attack mode. He had excuses and the CEO had retorts, but both seemed to be missing the point. So I went to the heart of issue by asking, “And you couldn’t accomplish this by being nice?” Like many leaders, he equated “nice” with being “weak.” Being a staunch fan of the movie Road House, I could not disagree more.

Road House is one of the greatest films of all time. Starring Patrick Swayze, it’s the story of Dalton, a philosopher hired to clean up bars. This Zen Bouncer ends up at the Double Deuce where we needs to get rid of the sketchy clientele, upgrade the staff, and change the mindset of how to operate a saloon. When retraining the bouncers, Dalton bestows his threes rules.

One, never underestimate your opponent. Expect the unexpected. Two, take it outside. Never start anything inside the bar unless it’s absolutely necessary. And three, be nice.

Be nice? How can a bouncer enforce the rules with the lowlifes who reside in the Double Deuce and be nice? It’s actually a pretty easy, effective way to lead.

If somebody gets in your face and calls you a [bad name], I want you to be nice. Ask him to walk. Be nice. If he won’t walk, walk him. But be nice. If you can’t walk him, one of the other [bouncers] will help you, and you’ll both be nice. I want you to remember that it’s a job. It’s nothing personal.

Do you notice that Dalton does not instruct his bouncers to let patrons do whatever they want? Nor does he ease up on the high standards he sets for a safe, family-friendly tavern. No, being nice is about the manner in which things are done, not what you are actually trying to accomplish. This isn’t soft; this is supported by science.

A study by Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin found that the most altruistic members of the team gain the highest status, are more frequently preferred as cooperative interaction partners, and receive greater rewards as their virtuous efforts increase.

A Research in Organizational Behavior study concluded that leaders who project warmth are more effective than those leaders who rely on force or competence—“warmth is the conduit of influence: It facilitates trust and the communication and absorption of ideas.”

Research in the Journal of Positive Psychology found that when leaders display behaviors related to self-sacrificing, their employees feel more engaged, committed, and are more likely to go out of their way to support other members of the team.

comprehensive healthcare study found that a culture of kindness not only improves employee productivity but also improves client health outcomes and satisfaction.

All together, the research is clear that a leadership model of trust, warmth, and mutual cooperation can serve as a powerful basis for a company’s culture. Just be nice. Emulate the Zen Bouncer and say, “If somebody underperforms, I want you to be nice. Provide constructive feedback. Be nice. If he won’t take your feedback, be more stern. But be nice. If you can’t turn around his performance, one of the other leaders will help you, and you’ll both be nice.”