Tag Archives: Behavior

The One Way to Constructively Defuse an Argument

Constructive conflict is a healthy part of any organization. Deprived of it, we end up with a lack of innovation, status quos are not challenged, necessary questions are avoided, and there is a lethal amount of consensus. The key is how we address this conflict.

One way to face conflict is fast and furious. Like the multi-sequel movie franchise, we can follow Dom Toretto’s philosophy:

I live my life a quarter-mile at a time. Nothing else matters; not the mortgage; not the store; not my team and their bullshit. For those ten seconds or less, I’m free.

When we lead through a “quarter-mile at a time” mindset, we are likely to engage in such practical strategies as seeking compromise, utilizing empathy, avoiding blame, apologizing, and forgiving past actions. However, while these techniques can be effective, they do not work when we are in the midst of a heated argument where we feel emotionally invested. So how can we improve our ability to resolve our interpersonal conflicts?

According to a study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, you are more likely to resolve conflict through superior reasoning strategies when you consider the situation in the long run. By distancing yourself from your current feelings, you are better equipped to unravel negative events and find resolution. Otherwise, according to another study, you are prone to ruminating, recounting, and re-experiencing the negative event indefinitely.

Still not convinced you are better off with a marathon (versus sprint) mentality? A study in Psychological Review found that imagining the future is a natural outlet to thinking more abstractly about an interpersonal conflict. Once we are able to transcend the present moment and put the negative events in context, we are less focused on recounting it and more focused on thinking about the bigger picture. And with enhanced adaptive reasoning strategies, the research reported that participants had a greater influx of positive emotions and insight.

To resolve conflicts, we need to think beyond a “quarter-mile at a time.” How will it pan out tomorrow, next week, and next year? It may not be as harrowing as a fast and furious solution, but the measure of successful leadership is not reliant on how quickly you reach the finish line.

Why Leaders Should Be More Like Ebenezer Scrooge: A Five Step Process

a_christmas_carolThe story of Ebenezer Scrooge is one of my favorite holiday traditions. As much as I’d like to say that I read Dickens’ A Christmas Carol every year, in truth I read it once, really liked it, and have since made a ritual of watching Scrooged with Bill Murray. With every viewing of this movie plus the multitude of other renditions, I wonder why calling someone a “Scrooge” is such a bad thing.

As leaders, we should strive to be Scrooges. If this sounds wrong that’s because you are focusing on the pre-Christmas Ebenezer. That guy is a selfish, egotistical miser who says things like, “If I could work my will, every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips should be…buried with a stake of holly through his heart.” But this is not the message of A Christmas Carol, it is simply the beginning.

A Christmas Carol is the story of self-improvement. It’s about learning from your past, having foresight into your future, and making the changes necessary in the present. This is not a feel-good self-affirmation; it’s a motivator to introspectively pick apart our flaws and work towards becoming a better person.

We can’t be forced to change our ways. There is no Ghost of Christmas Yet-to-Come to serve as a catalyst for evolving. Our fate will not be on display to pressure us into an epiphany. All we have is inner drive. Unfortunately, the determination to change is not enough; our bad habits are too embedded into our psyche. Therefore, according to Prochaska and DiClemente’s Stages of Change Model, we need to follow these five steps to make positive behavioral changes that stick.

  1. Precontemplation. In this first stage, we are Scrooge on December 23rd–making a change has been the farthest thing from our mind. The signs have been all around us, but we’ve fought or just ignored them.
  2. Contemplation. In this stage we’ve begun to think about the need to change a behavior. The impetus is different for everyone. For some it takes a particular event to wake us up, like Scrooge’s surprise visit from his deceased business partner Jacob Marley. For others it involves years of deliberation.
  3. Determination. Now we begin to mentally prepare for action. While Scrooge woke up on Christmas morning with a new outlook on life, we may download a new calendar app or buy running shoes. This stage involves mapping out our plan of attack and scheduling a start date. This culmination of willpower is the resolve to change and the fuel needed to attain your goals.
  4. Action. Time to activate your plan. Give Bob Cratchit a raise. Get medical assistance for Tiny Tim. Start moving!
  5. Maintenance. Day 1 of a new behavior is easy; true change takes persistence. Scrooge wasn’t just a more virtuous person on December 25th. As the book states, “Scrooge was better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more… He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man…” Maintenance involves continuing to chase your goal every day, with every decision, and every deed. It requires that we uphold a high life-condition where our changed belief continues to manifest as action. Create short milestones so you can appreciate the sense of accomplishment and reward yourself along the way.

Want to be a better leader? Be a Scrooge—remain in a constant state of self-improvement. Want to be a better leader? Be a Jacob Marley—guide others towards elevating their skills and performance. And if you really want to be a better leader, be a Ghost of Christmas Past, Present and Yet-to-Come—foster a culture where people can learn from their mistakes, understand the repercussions, and make changes before its too late. Or say, “Ba-Hum-Bug” and suffer the consequences.

How Does Your Homework Affect Work-Life Balance?

Last week my kids went back to school. As much as they groaned, I felt myself grumbling even more knowing that our “relaxing” evenings were about to become a cyclone of homework and school projects. With two working parents, three kids in elementary school, and a prevailing over-achiever mentality, I often wonder how much we are benefiting from the homework that all five of us are doing.

There is much research arguing against homework. In his book The Homework Myth, Alfie Kohn states that it’s positive effects are overblown. Homework reduces necessary quality time with family and does not significantly improve learning or academic results. Kohn writes:

For younger students, in fact, there isn’t even a correlation between whether children do homework (or how much they do) and any meaningful measure of achievement. At the high school level, the correlation is weak and tends to disappear when more sophisticated statistical measures are applied.

Other studies agree:

  • In The Battle Over Homework, Duke University Professor Harris Cooper found little correlation between the amount of homework and achievement in elementary school and only a moderate correlation in middle school. Even in high school, “too much homework may diminish its effectiveness or even become counterproductive.”
  • Many countries with the highest scoring students on achievement tests (Japan, Denmark, etc) are assigned little homework, while the more homework-dependent countries (Greece, Thailand, etc) consistently have some of the worst average scores, according to a four-year study.
  • Even pro-homework advocate Tom Sherrington cited a popular mega-study concluding that homework has minimal benefits for kids under the age of ten.

These are pretty clear-cut findings on school homework, but do they only pertain to our kids? Is our work-related homework any more useful?

I don’t generally like the phrase work-life balance, but it is hard to deny the negative affects of an unbalanced life. Health problems, depression, and impaired sleep are commonly associated. These conditions hurt the employee and the organization, resulting in burnout, a long-term lack of productivity, turnover, and a generally actively disengaged workforce. Mind you, I’m writing this from home after a full day of work, so I may not be the best example of balance, but I am trying to get better.

Here are a few ways you and I can strike a better balance between home and work:

Carve out family time. A study by the University of Michigan found that family meals are the single strongest predictor of better achievement scores and fewer behavioral problems for children. It’s also a nice way to decompress after a busy day.

Forget about a 50/50 split. Reasonable expectations are key to a work-life balance. Some days are going to be work heavy, while other days won’t allow for the amount of work you’d like to complete. You may still get frustrated, but anticipating your reality can often make it less wearisome.

Stop blaming your phone. You can decide whether to read and respond to every text as they arrive.

Get organized. Work-life balance will not happen without a systematized schedule, a way to capture to-do items, or focus. Maintain priorities and stick to your daily plan (as much as you can).

Being home is not being lazy. I make it a priority to be home for dinner. I then help get everyone to bed and go back to work. Is it ideal? Maybe not, but I find it relaxing to get a few things off my to-do list before morning.

Get a hobby. As much I enjoy doing some work at night, I don’t do it every night. Find something non-work related that you enjoy. Exercise, reading, etc are great ways to get rid of stress. And TV does not count as a hobby (no matter how much I’d like it to).

Homework for both you and your kids is inevitable. We can complain about it or accept that work-life balance is not based on a set period of time where one turns on and the other off. A healthy mindset involves the ability to integrate family with work/school priorities. Find the balance that works for you so you can spend the rest of your free time checking your daughter’s algebra… as I’m about to do.

Are Ethicist More Ethical? The Need for Moral Leaders

house-of-cardsA few weeks ago, I wrote about the perceived trustworthiness associated with expressing moral outrage. Since then, I’ve found myself on the receiving end as people strongly disagree with the idea that taking action is more likely to damage your reputation than just talking about it. Rationally, I don’t disagree; empirically, I have another study that focuses on the “moral” aspects of voicing moral outrage.

In the above-mentioned research published in Nature, people tend to identify morally-focused orators as being more moral. It makes sense. After all, shouldn’t people who obsess about fairness, justice, and integrity behave with an increased demonstration of fairness, justice, and integrity? Not necessarily.

A study in Philosophical Psychology has found that Ethicists, those who specialize in teaching and researching ethics, do not appear to embrace more ethical behaviors. They do not give a greater percentage of their income to charity, donate blood more frequently, have a greater likelihood of being an organ donor, call their mother more often, etc.

Unfortunately, this does not surprise me. Maybe I’m jaded from too much Presidential election coverage where inspiration has long been superseded by divisiveness and mud slinging. Or maybe it’s a result of the aftereffects stemming from the new season of House of Cards. Either way, the good news from the research is that while Ethicists do not act more ethically, they don’t seem to behave worse either. In fact, they behave just like everyone else.

I can accept that Ethicists are mere mortals; however, the section of the paper I found alarming concerned their unconcealed hypocrisy. Those Ethicists who were surveyed agreed that the main purpose of studying ethics was self-improvement AND most accepted that philosophers should be judged by their actions as much as by their words. Yet they had no problem admitting that their ethically-centric words have little impact on their actions.

I can ask why someone would bother dedicating their professional life to a topic while so blatantly disregarding the subject matter being studied, or I can accept that what people know to be true is not always congruent with how they behave—cardiologists smoke cigarettes, personal trainers eat junk food, etc. This does not make it okay, it just means I understand.

I am not a professional Ethicist. Instead, I aspire to consistently perform as though I’m on the professional circuit of ethical behavior. “Do as I say, not as I do” runs counter to how we should lead, parent, and participate in society. Study ethics, talk to others about it, and then follow your own advice. It’ll make you a more effective role model and will leave a lower body count than Frank and Claire Underwood’s flimsy house of cards.

The Superman Effect of Contagious Leadership

superman cavillI was speaking to a colleague last week who wasn’t feeling as if his leadership mattered. He has a high functioning team that needs little motivation and even less direction. These are good problems to have unless you 1) are an overachiever, and/or 2) achieve fulfillment through your ability to “fix” the work environment.

You may say my friend is humble, but he’s not…he’s really, really not. He is downplaying the contagious nature of his leadership. If this sounds unlikely, consider the superhero equivalent of the super-leader, Superman. With his “S” emblem and red cape, Superman outruns speeding bullets and leaps buildings in the pursuit of truth and justice. He doesn’t do it for glory or wealth; it is about doing the right thing.

The suit doesn’t make the hero. A hero is made in the moment by the choices that he makes and the reasons that he makes them. A hero brings out the best in people.—Clark Kent, Smallville

Superman’s ideals and the ways in which he chooses to accomplish these ideals make him a powerful symbol to other superheroes, the public at large, and those who read about his adventures. His leadership is infectious…and if you think this sounds corny, consider the research.

We already know behaviors are contagious. Studies by UC San Diego’s James Fowler and Harvard’s Nicholas Christakis have found that having happy friends increases the probability of your happiness by 25%; overweight friends make it 60% more likely that you will also be overweight; and if you have a close friend who’s divorced, you are 33% more likely to follow suit. A new study shows that “social contagion” is a natural by-product of effective leadership, as well.

According to an article in the Harvard Business Review, strong leaders are more likely to churn out strong leaders. According to the findings, high-level managers whose overall leadership effectiveness was in the top 10% had direct reports (mid-level managers) who were also rated far above average. These mid-level managers scored in the top 81st percentile and, to continue the contagious snowball effect, their subordinates scored in the top 74th percentile. Conversely, the direct reports of the worst-performing high-level managers (those in the bottom 10%), scored in the 15th percentile and their subordinates scored in the 24th percentile.

The study also reported that behaviors with the highest correlations between managers and their direct reports include (listed from most to least contagious):

  • Developing self and others
  • Technical skills
  • Strategy skills
  • Integrity
  • Global perspective
  • Results focus

If you want to be a Super team with a Super culture that generates Super leaders, you don’t need to break your company dress code with a skin-tight, blue onesie. Modeling the virtues, traits, and behaviors of a leader is communicable. The more you do it, the more others will, too.