Tag Archives: Harvard Business Review

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.

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.”

Ozzy Osbourne on Overconfidence and the Power of “I Don’t Know”

ozzy osbourneThere’s a classic track off Ozzy Osbourne’s debut solo album Blizzard of Ozz called “I Don’t Know.” In this song, Ozzy sings of people looking to him for answers, “asking me who to follow,” “what’s the future of mankind,” and “looking to find the truth.” His simple response: “Don’t ask me, I don’t know.” You may see this as a copout from the self-proclaimed Prince of Darkness, but admitting you don’t know may lead to the most strategic decision you can make.

In a wide-spread international study of managers, consultants, academics, and students, Mark Chussil created a tournament to record how decision-makers solve a competitive-strategy problem. The contest is based on three fictitious industries that each have three competitors. The industries starts out identical (cost structure, product line, performance, etc.) and the participants are tasked with devising the most successful three-year strategy. A computer then analyzes the simulations and compares them with the other participants.

If this tournament sounds easy, consider that the number of possible outcomes in each industry is 3,201,872,665,419. In an attempt to discover successful decision making traits, Chussil has found many interesting results ranging from market adaptability to goal selection to the ability to predict outcomes. One finding I’d like to focus on is what I’m calling the Ozzy Effect, i.e. the willingness to say, “I Don’t Know.”

In Chussil’s research, he analyzed participants’ speed and processing abilities before they finalized a decision. He then split them up into three groups: 1) the I-already-knows whose confidence led towards snap judgments, 2) the Now-I-knows who felt confident after deliberating, and 3) the I-don’t-knows who made a thoughtful decision but did not feel overly assured.

Mark Chussil Strat Decision

Of the three styles, the best-performing tournament strategy was overwhelmingly the I-don’t-knows. These individuals were able to avoid the traps associated with overconfidence, including a willingness to explore all options, test multiple theories, and keep an open mind. They also took more time to make a decision and continued to search for solutions (versus trying to bolster the decision that was already made).

Before you make your next big decision, consider the Ozzy Effect. Start with an I-don’t-know mindset so you can attack the problem with a clear perspective and avoid the assumptions associated with thinking you already know. You can then communicate the new cultural expectation, differentiate the good decision-makers from the bad, and promote those on your team who display these Ozzy-fied characteristics.

Suicide Squad’s Three Steps to Turning Enemies Into Allies

Suicide Squad bannerHave you ever experienced a workplace rivalry? Moving beyond healthy competition, I’m referring to opposition that is counterproductive to both you and your organization’s success. It can be as obvious as jockeying against an adversary for a promotion, or as subtle as a colleague undermining your authority, abilities, or accomplishments. In some extreme cases, it can feel like we are being forced to work on a team with psychopathic criminals. No wait, that’s the plot for the new movie Suicide Squad.

In DC Comic’s movie Suicide Squad, a secret government agency recruits imprisoned supervillains to perform dangerous missions in exchange for clemency. Imagine the opposite of the Avengers or the Justice League, where instead of working together for a common good, each member of the team is self-serving, manipulative, and basically evil.

Your worst-case experience (hopefully) is not as bad as the Suicide Squad, but there may be similarities— infighting, a lack of mutual trust, bickering, backstabbing. When faced with these situations, you have two options, run away or deal with it. The first is self-explanatory and, being the leader you are, is not a likely choice. To deal with it, we need to learn how to turn our enemies into collaborators.

In Brian Uzzi and Shannon Dunlap’s Harvard Business Review article, they introduce a method that, if executed correctly, turns adversaries into allies. Unlike previous techniques that rely on reasoning and logic, Uzzi and Dunlap focus on the emotional aspects of forming trusting relationships. Their process called the 3Rs is as follows:

Step 1: Redirection

To begin your rivalry-conversion program, you need to re-establish the relationship. This involves channeling your adversary’s negative emotions away from you. In a comfortable setting, demonstrate that you understand their value. A sincere compliment, public recognition, and flattery can go a long way to redirecting the relationship towards more positive rapport.

Then, if possible, clear the air. Take responsibility for your actions and admit fault. Don’t push them to concede their part in stoking the rivalry, nor should you seek an apology. This is about you displaying a willingness to improve the relationship. Once redirection has taken place, which may take more than one instance depending on the relationship’s toxicity, you’ve set the groundwork for the next step.

Step 2: Reciprocity

After exhibiting energy to repair the broken relationship, it is time to loosen their negative feelings by giving up something of value. The idea it to consider how you can fulfill one of their more immediate needs or reduce a pain point. Carrying out this assignment will further establish trust and demonstrate the benefits of your partnership.

Once you’ve satisfied your promise(s), ask for something in return. Choose a task that requires little effort for them to reciprocate. If you get greedy, they will question your motives, which will only intensify the rivalry. Also, don’t give and then instantaneously ask for something in return. Let the good feelings simmer before trying to collect.

Step 3: Rationality

The final step establishes your expectations of the new relationship. You can get lost in redirection and reciprocity, but that won’t necessarily patch up a conflict. By expressing your expectations, you are mitigating your challenger’s ability to second-guess your intentions. This pushes your adversary to consider a reasoned perspective, comprehend the benefits, and recognize that they are being offered a valuable opportunity.

Rationality is like offering medicine after a spoonful of sugar: It ensures that you’re getting the benefit of the shifted negative emotions, and any growing positive ones, which would otherwise diffuse over time. And it avoids the ambiguity that clouds expectations and feedback when flattery and favors come one day, and demands the next.—Brian Uzzi & Shannon Dunlap

Workplace enemies are harmful to all involved. It distracts us from reaching our goals, absorbs our energy, and is a certain culture killer. As leaders, we cannot ignore or attempt to contain these caustic relationships. We must first model positive behavior by mending our rivalries and then assist our team to do the same. The other option is to form a team of self-interested supervillains, but with their proclivity towards destruction, that’s probably not a long-term solution.