Growth as a Boredom Buster

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I doubt anyone would call artist and writer Julia Couzens’ life dull. She is an art critic for the Sacramento Bee, and a productive fine artist. She recently gave a presentation as part of the Centennial Lecture Series at the Sacramento City College Art Department. Her first slide said:

It’s the journey, not the destination.

Questions live longer than answers.

Sometimes the back side is the piece.

She also distributed the “Incomplete Manifesto for Growth” by Bruce Mau. This manifesto, she said, is the secret of life. It certainly is the key to understanding her creative life. In the subsequent slides she showed us her work. “I like chaos. I like dissonance.” Her work shows 3. Process is more important than outcome and 4. Love your experiments (as you would an ugly child). 

I was able to participate in this lecture series because I enrolled in a Collage/Assemblage studio art class at Sacramento City College. It has been terrific for opening up both sides of my brain to more creativity.  I recommend all leaders find a creative expression that helps them to be more intuitive and get back in touch with something you enjoy doing.

This weekend I caught up with my major professor now retired from USC. John Odell is taking voice lessons and sings in two vocal groups. He is finding great pleasure in this creative expression. Don’t wait until retirement to make time for this in your leadership life.

I am realizing that much of my redesign at 49 has evolved into finding the space for a creative life–writing, doing art, or taking naps. And in so doing I am approaching all of my work challenges more creatively. Taking the class this semester has helped me be much more intentional. Listening to Side Hustle School podcast has helped motivate me to work towards it every day.

Last week I listened to Rob Bell’s podcast “The Importance of Boredom” but I don’t think he really meant boredom. What he was really talking about is making time to unplug and allow creative thought. I am finding since I started the class that I am less interested in watching movies or television shows and more interested in creating my own stuff. And it is anything but boring because you inevitably grow and change when you create.

One last thought, I looked up a few of Julia Couzen’s reviews in the Sacramento Bee’s Arts & Theater and loved her review of the Diebenkorn and Matisse show at SFMOMA (March 23, 2017). It is is a beautiful example of Mou’s Manifesto #23. Stand on someone’s shoulders. You can travel farther carried on the accomplishments of those who came before you. And the view is so much better. 

Leaders Say I’m Sorry

Or do they? Thinking about the “Leaders Say…” series, I brainstormed topics and wrote down “I’m sorry” without a second thought. There has been a fair amount of criticism of 45 because he seems incapable of admitting a mistake or giving a sincere apology. But do we really see an apology as a sign of leadership or as a sign of weakness?

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About once a year a Japanese CEO makes a very public apology on behalf of his organization’s failings. My friend Keiko Sakurai is an expert on cross-cultural business practices as a consultant for Aperian Global. I skyped with her to learn more about apologies from her experience.

She graduated from UC Berkeley’s Haas Management program after working in Japan. In her first role with a U.S. team her supervisor gave her feedback that she was apologizing too much. “In Japan saying you are sorry is a social lubricant; we say it all the time in social and business situations.” It is expected especially from people with less status to people with more status, consultants to clients, and peer to peer.

In Japan if an organization makes a mistake and does not publicly apologize, it is perceived they will pay a price in public opinion. This does prompt some superficial apologies and we agreed these probably do not restore much trust. And behind every apology is a desire to repair a relationship and to begin to restore trust. Apologies, in our experience, work most effectively when they are specific and sincere and are undermined when accompanied by justifications.

We were troubled that we could not think of more examples of a US leader effectively apologizing. Keiko related a story from a workshop she led with participants from several cultures. She posed a situation: Your boss and team are giving a presentation to potential clients when you realize the boss is presenting old pricing information. What would you do?

–Pause and think of your response.—Read on.

I thought of a team I work with where we share mutual respect and I replied, “I would say, excuse me, I am so sorry there is more recent pricing information and I did not update this slide. Please let me share the most up to date pricing.” Keiko shared this is what the participant from Korea said they would do. Whereas the participant from Japan said they would call for a break and then pull aside the boss to point out the mistake and then they could introduce the information after the break saying they just got a call or email from the Head Office.”

What did the participant from the USA say? He would interject and state the facts objectively, without apology or blaming anyone, “There is more recent pricing available.” And offer a new slide. Or, he qualified his response, if he was competing with his boss and gunning for his position, he would actually point out to the client that the Boss made the critical mistake, and he will stand up and take over the presentation with the correct information, causing the boss to lose face. .

All I could say was, “Wow!”

Keiko explained that in Asian culture there is much more interest in maintaining harmony and people are more willing to put the organization’s needs ahead of their individual aspirations than in the USA.

I wondered how research says about on apologies and in a recent Washington Post article journalist Jena McGregor assembled a nifty summary. She found that the research is not totally clear.

  • Harvard Business School professor Francisca Gino finds that apologizing is generally beneficial for leaders, with even superfluous, unnecessary apologies leading to greater trust. If an apology is botched or if the leaders isn’t trustworthy, then there may be downsides and may be seen as backing down from a dispute.
  • Researchers from Queen’s University in Canada tested whether apologizing was a sign of weakness. They surveyed hockey coaches and referees as well as other lab experiments, and they found generally, those who apologized were seen as more “transformational.” Rather than weak these leaders were perceived as having the ability to inspire, motivate and challenge their followers.
  • Research has also shown that apologizing is associated with better psychological well-being among a boss’s employees and for themselves.
  • In another study, CEOs who show expressions of sadness on their faces when they issued public apologies were viewed as more remorseful and their customers tended to be more willing to do business with them in the future.

On the flip-side, there are some who do perceive apologies as weak, an admission of responsibility, or accepting blame. And in the US litigious culture often leads to non-apology, apologies. “Writing in the Washington Post in late 2015, political scientist Richard Hanania said that people, particularly men, who don’t ‘back down in the face of controversy [show] confidence by not giving in to social pressure, and [take] a risk refusing to follow the conventional path. Some on the right openly suggest that part of Trump’s appeal lies in his refusal to apologize and his unwillingness to be ‘politically correct’.”

Keiko and I met through CTI Co-Active Leadership training where we learned how to “stay and recover” when we make mistakes as leaders, when we are attacked, or when events do not unfold as intended. Sometimes we need to “repair” with colleagues—a boss, a direct report or a customer. A repair is just what it sounds like—doing what is needed to restore the relationship. In our experience, apologies have strengthened trust in relationships and have served our leadership well.

In closing, let’s look at the McGregor’s checklist for an apology to be effective: “an expression of regret and an explanation of what went wrong to an acknowledgement of responsibility, a statement of repentance, and request for forgiveness.”

Leaders Say Thank You

I am stumped why so few leaders pause to say thank you. Maybe even saying “pause” is part of the problem. You can move forward toward your stake faster when people feel appreciated and included. Saying a sincere and thoughtful thank you in person is terrific. I also like a written note because as a recipient I can read it again and again. So few leaders say thank you in an intentional way.

In California Agricultural Leadership program we were taught to say a sincere and personalized thank you (sometimes with a gift) to people who gave to our program through teaching, speaking, or with financial gifts. I was not surprised when my end of year gift to the Foundation was followed within a month or so by a Thank you example from the Board Chair. I give to lots of different organizations and causes. Most feel that their autogenerated “thank you” with receipt is sufficient. The personal notes or typed letters I receive from the California Agricultural Leadership Foundation binds my loyalty to them as donor.

Last night  I hosted Taylor and Lauren from the Concordia University Irvine women’s choir. They performed beautifully at St John’s Lutheran Church and then I took them home and provided them hospitality. We had a delightful conversation, walked to get coffee and tea and Weatherstone coffeehouse, and they got a good night’s sleep. Twelve hours later I was dropping them off with very little inconvenience to me and yet they took the time to write a beautiful hand written note and leave it on the guest bed (that they made!). A handwritten note is the gold standard for expressing appreciation.

Is this leadership or just being a polite person? I encourage you to think of it as a critical part of leadership. Just ask yourself how much you appreciate when your boss or client recognizes your contribution and thanks you. For ideas about how to do this most effectively, listen to Episode 9 of Radical Candor podcast.  They emphasize the importance of being specific and sincere.

Understanding the Fascination with Ove

oveThe novel, A Man Called Ove, created something of a sensation in the book club world in 2016. I mildly enjoyed the novel but found the character unbearably curmudgeonly through the first half. Though I can understand how many people were attracted to this man of seemingly forgotten values: “Since his father’s death he had begun more and more to differentiate between people who did what they should, and those who didn’t. People who did and people who just talked. Ove talked less and less and did more and more.”

Imagine if the world was mute and people only knew you for your actions.

Who would they see?

Tribes and American Men’s Identity Crisis

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The photographer Platon is featured on the Netflix documentary series Abstract. One focus of his work has been soldiers and military families.

I started my week with a really ugly misogynist verbal dump from a family member. It was very upsetting and the self-preservationist in me beat a retreat. I am concerned my family member is listening to so much hate radio. Still I want to be curious about what is taking so many men down this path. I looked at my pile of unread books and grabbed Sebastian Junger’s Tribe. As a reporter in many war torn countries, he has observed people coming together to help one another in a crisis. It is backed up by more rigorous research.

His definition of tribe is different than one I would have thought of: “the people you feel compelled to share the last of your food with.” What Junger has observed is that people don’t mind, and in fact, thrive on hardship. But modern society has made hardship more and more scarce. Dorothy Day touched back to her experience after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake when everyone pulled together, when the natural disaster and its destruction leveled society. A society-wide crisis–whether it is war or environmental disaster–resets community to a fundamental egalitarianism.

Humans lived with one another this way for centuries until agriculture and then industry developed and the concepts of private property and individual efforts became more important than the common good. Junger points to the three intrinsic values needed to be content: 1) feel competent at what they do; 2) feel connect to others; 3) authentic in their lives. As Junger explains, “Bluntly put, modern society seems to emphasize extrinsic values over intrinsic ones, and as a result mental health issues refuse to decline with growing wealth.”

Humans are hard-wired to help other people. Risk-taking to help others is expressed differently among men and woman. Men tend to do the majority of bystander rescues, and our definition of hero tends to encompass this kind of action that risks one’s life to save non-kin.  Women tend to display the majority of moral courage. (p. 56-57)  Both are needed:

“When a woman gives shelter to a family because she doesn’t want to raise her children in a world where people can be massacred because of their race or their beliefs, she is taking a large risk but also promoting the kind of moral thinking that has clearly kept hominid communities glued together for hundreds of thousands of years. It is exactly the same kind of altruistic choice–with all the attendant risks and terrors–tat a man makes when he runs into a burning building to save someone else’s children. Both are profound acts of selflessness and distinguish us from all other mammals, including the higher primates that we are so closely related to.” (p. 58-59)

When you examine the experience of soldiers after tours in Iraq or Afghanistan, you begin to see why some miss the battlefield and may become depressed when home. They are transitioning from an experience full of social ties and meaning, and return to a relatively isolated existence often without work of any kind.

In today’s The New York Times Magazine, Barbara Ehrenreich wrote one of the featured articles: “New Jobs Require New Ideas–And New Ways of Organizing.” She is focused on the change in our economy and why the labor movement is reinventing itself. As Ehrenreich states, “If the stereotype the old working class was a man in a hard hat, the new one is better represented as a woman chanting, “El pueblo unido jamas  sera vencido! (The people united will never be defeated!)” If men are already feeling emasculated by a lack of work and changing roles in society, there are going to be increasingly angry at women when they read this and it may explain why the Women’s March is stirring up such strong reactions from some men.

The resistance to #45 better fits the kind of moral courage that is more often in women’s domain. Where women feel energized and inspired to run for office, men may be engineering a backlash that will make previous anger at women seem tame.

I am not sure what the solution is, but I am concerned that we’ll repeat the post-9/11 experience when men decided we should go to war. Men need an outlet for their warrior urges and their need to take life-risking action. Or at a minimum, they need good jobs that provide for their families. Without a positive way for them to express these values, what will they get up to?

 

 

 

Mental Mistakes We Commonly Make

 

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My collage made in POTUS 45’s first week in office.

I am not alone in asking, “How the hell did we get to this point?” I am searching for powerful explanations as to how the United States elected an undisciplined, unfocused President who is completely lacking in humility, empathy or curiosity.

I have read brain science articles that suggest our political affiliations light up the part of the brain that identifies with our tribe. It is not reasonable.

The books I have been reading either address cultural divides, such as Hillbilly Elegy, or rebut “rational man” ideas. I’ve never been a fan of theories that require a rational actor. I could think of 2 dozen examples of decisions I  made for reasons other than my own best interest in a one hour economics lecture.

lewis-photoAfter listening to interviews with author Michael Lewis on several podcasts, I bought his hardback book (high compliment!), The Undoing Project.  His latest book is a profile of two Israeli psychologists who created a new branch called behavioral psychology and impacted other fields including economics, and military strategy. Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky each possessed brilliant minds, but their collaboration was genius. Lewis tells the interesting story of how they developed independently, how they met and then describes their unique work partnership.

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Both Kahneman and Tversky were fascinated with common mental errors. Kahneman was especially observant of people’s tendencies to make mistakes. As a combatant and psychologist on the front lines of multiple Israeli wars, he was able to make improvements in how the army selected officers by questioning conventional wisdom and tracking actual performance against the impressions the same candidates made during the screening process. His improved method made such an impression the Israeli army still uses it with minor adjustments.

Biases towards managing with criticism or praise: We all tend to believe that one is more effective than the other. Kahneman was helping the Israeli Air Force train pilots and he noticed that the trainers believed criticism was more useful than praise. “They’d explained to Danny that he only needed to see what happened after they praised him for performing especially well, or criticized him for performing especially badly. The pilot who was praised always performed worse the next time out, and the pilot who was criticized always performed better.” (p 125) After observing he explained what was really going on. “The pilot who was praised because he’d flown exceptionally well, like the pilot who was chastised after he had flown exceptionally badly, simply were regressing to the mean. They’d have tended to perform better (or worse) even if the teacher had said nothing at all. An illusion of the mind tricked teachers—and probably many others—into thinking that their words were less effective when they gave pleasure than when they gave pain.”

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Daniel Kahneman won the Nobel Prize and shared credit posthumously with Tversky

There were many fascinating ideas presented in The Undoing Project and the most telling for our current situation are the four heuristics or rules of thumbs they developed for the fallibility of human judgment.

  1. Representativeness: when people make judgments, they compare whatever they are judging to some model in their minds. We compare the specific case to the parent population. “Our thesis is that in many situations, an event A is judged to be more probable than an event B whenever A appears more representative than B.” They had a hunch that people, when they formed judgments, weren’t just making random mistakes—that they were doing something systemically wrong. (examples p 186-187)
  2. Availability: a heuristic for judging frequency and probability. “The more easily people can call some scenario to mind—the more available it is to them—the more probable they find it to be. Any fact or incident that was especially vivid, or recent, or common—or anything that happened to preoccupy a person—was likely to be recalled with special ease, and so be disproportionately weighted in any judgment.”(examples p 191-192) Human judgment was distorted by the memorable.
  3. Anchoring: People can be anchored with information that was totally irrelevant to the problem they were being asked to solve. (examples p 192)kahneman-quote
  4. Simulation: the power of unrealized possibilities to contaminate people’s minds. As they moved through the world, people ran simulations of the future. They based their judgments and decisions in part on these imagined scenarios. And yet not all scenarios were equally easy to imagine; they were constrained, much in the way that people’s minds seemed constrained when they “undid” some tragedy. Discover the mental rules that the mind obeyed when it undid events after they occurred and you might find, in the bargain, how it simulated reality before it occurred. (p 300) Danny called this “the state of the ‘undoing project.”  This reinforces the importance of framing. Simply by changing the description of a situation, and making a gain seem like a loss, you could cause people to completely flip their attitude toward risk, and turn them from risk-avoiding to risk-seeking.

These examples of these profound rules are ubiquitous. One of Lewis’ illustrations of how these rules confine people’s thinking made a big impression: “It’s far easier for a Jew living in Paris in 1939 to construct a story about how the German army will behave much as it had in 1919, for instance, than to invent a story in which it behaves as it did in 1941, no matter how persuasive the evidence might be that, this time, things are different.” (p 195)

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Because of our faulty assumptions and thinking, we need to have some humility about what we know and what can be known. Leaders must remain curious and open to new knowledge.

I’ll let Amos Tversky have the last word: “The handwriting was on the wall, it was just the ink that was invisible.”

 

First Surreal Weekend of Many

hasan-minhajOn night 8 of the new administration, I met my friend Petrea for dinner and then we went to the Mondavi Center at UC Davis for Hasan Minhaj’s comedy show. He is from Davis, California so he selected these two shows–one for general audience and one for students–to film “Homecoming King” for Netflix. He also lived out the best high school revenge story since  Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion. Davis, a place that prides itself on its tolerance and liberalism, dished out plenty of bigotry along the way. Add some humor about growing up with immigrant parents and a beautifully constructed series of story arcs and it adds up to a great show. The audience laughed raucously and at other times you could have heard a pin drop.

The next day I started reading about the President’s Muslim Ban and other assorted travel restrictions. I watched along with the nation as people rushed to airports in support of Muslims and against the ban. Lawyers of all stripes came to the actual aid of travellers like medical professionals responding to a medical emergency on a plane. It was all heartening and fundamentally discouraging because our country is on a very dangerous path. There is no room to be smug about any of it.

On the new public square Facebook, my Christian friends posted scriptures in support of welcoming the stranger and memes about Jesus, Mary and Joseph as refugees. Beneath all of this is the tension between those who believe we are all interconnected and those who want to separate themselves; between those who love the other and themselves and those who fear the other; between people who welcome the stranger and those who slam the gate shut. And yet by dividing people in this way I succumb to practicing the same otherness that I condemn. It is hard and not so black and white.

I recently read If the Oceans Were Ink by Carla Power. It was recommended reading to learn more about the Quran and the Muslim faith. The author was raised agnostic by a father who was fascinated by all things Islam. She had the opportunity to spend a year getting to know a renowned Muslim teacher much more intimately. Sheikh Mohammad Akram Nadwi is a Cambridge professor and influential teacher. She opens up Islam for the westerner in an unprecedented way.

I discovered layers of prejudice in my own thinking that jarred me. My eyes were opened to the beauty and mystery of another faith. A faith that is the cousin to Christianity and Judaism. After years of seeing cartoonish portrayals of Islam in the media, it is at times challenging to open myself to seeing this faith in a new way.

I also realized that fundamental Christianity is wanting to impose a Christian version of Sharia law on our nation. And Christian people have misplaced their faith in God with faith in nationalism. It has helped me reaffirm my belief in separation of church and state, both for nonbelievers and for believers of all faiths.

I do not know where this Muslim Ban is headed. Today a judge has overturned the order and the administration is appealing. I just ask that if you fear Muslims that you take a moment and learn more about their faith from a sympathetic author. We share a lot of values and we share some pillars of the faith, such as Abraham. Other faiths could learn a lot about their prayer disciplines.

Most of all, the most extreme elements of Islam are as representative of their faith as Westboro Baptist Church is of Christianity. Not. And if you do not like the mix of politics and religion in Pakistan and Afghanistan, well it won’t be better if it “Christian nationalism” and our democracy. As Tony Compolo has said, “Mixing religion and politics is like mixing ice cream and manure. It doesn’t do much to the manure but it sure does ruin the ice cream.”