Author Archives: Mike Williams

Are You Really Seeing What You Think You Are Seeing?

Click on me for a cool optical illusion

Click on me for a cool optical illusion

Your eyes can fool you!

For one of the coolest optical illusions I have seen, click on the picture then come back here. No matter how many times you watch the short video clip and no matter how sure you are that the cube is the same size on all sides, every time you look at this picture it will fool you.

We’re talking today about perception and how much culture effects what we see and what we think we see.

Too Much Happening At Once

Because our brain is bombarded with information every moment of every day, we must be selective in what we notice (“attend to” to use a more scientific word). By “bombarded” I mean that our brains receive 400 billion (with a “b!”) pieces of information every second.

400 Billion Messages a Second!

How can that be? Think about the fact that you could probably hear dozens of sounds right this minute if you stopped to listen. Add to that the things that go unnoticed by your nose, eyes, and your tongue all times. Simultaneously, every inch of your skin is firing millions of signals to your brain 24/7. You don’t notice the slight taste of your breakfast still stuck between your teeth, the smell of the cologne you put on this morning, and the feel of your shirt touching your back.

You Must Be Selective

The reason you don’t notice these billions of inputs bombarding your brain is because we have to be selective in what we notice in order to survive. We can’t be thinking about our pants touching our leg all day long or we wouldn’t get anything done.

We seem to be “hard-wired” to notice certain things. Movement is one. In an entire room filled with hundreds of still things, a small mouse running across the room will immediately grab our attention. Followed by our screaming and jumping on a chair also grabbing the attention of the folks in the next room.

Faces are another thing we notice. We have all heard stories about people seeing famous people or religious figures in a piece of toast or in the clouds, but actually that is normal and not strange. In some recent research*, Dr. Kang Lee said, “…our findings suggest that it’s common for people to see non-existent (facial) features because human brains are uniquely wired to recognize faces, so that even when there’s only a slight suggestion of facial features the brain automatically interprets it as a face.”

Culture Helps Decide What We Notice

In some cultures people pay close attention to the numbers on license plates, and in some cultures it matters very little. Americans will rarely notice the numbers on a license plate, while Arabs usually care much more about it. In China, it is extremely important because some numbers are very lucky and other very unlucky. Rich Chinese people have been known to pay many thousands of dollars to get a “fortunate” license plate.

Does It Matter?

Does it matter what we pay attention to? It matters a lot because in intercultural relations people from different cultures will notice different things and will take away different understandings from the things they pay attention to. Not handling the differences well can lead to distrust and misunderstandings while being a master at it will greatly help your multicultural capability.

Next time, we will meet my friend, Janet, and learn a couple of great ways to not get caught in the cultural perception trap.

*Jiangang Liu, Jun Li, Lu Feng, Ling Li, Jie Tian, Kang Lee. Seeing Jesus in toast: Neural and behavioral correlates of face pareidolia. Cortex, 2014; 53: 60 DOI: 10.1016/j.cortex.2014.01.013

Multitaking Part 4: Practical Tips: How To Do It, Do It, Do It, Do It Right

Boy In FlightPerhaps you remember the story from a few years ago. Air traffic control lost contact with Northwest Airlines Flight 188 about halfway through the flight. Just as the US Air Force was scrambling jets to check on the plane, contact was reestablished, but by now the plane was more than 200 kilometers past Minneapolis and was over Wisconsin. The pilots were on their personal computers going over future flying schedules instead of paying attention to their job of flying the plane. The two pilots were fired and lost their flying licenses. Two careers lost to multitasking.

To recap this series, we looked at some interesting facts about multitasking in Part 1, why multitasking can be bad in Part 2, and some good things about multitasking in Part 3.

To finish this series, today I want to suggest some good ways to multitask and then finish this post with a great suggestion for putting all of this together to improve productivity!

Multitask With Low Cognitive Load Tasks

Scott Belsky, in his book, “Making Ideas Happen: Overcoming the Obstacles Between Vision and Reality” suggests the multitasking is a myth and that sequential tasking is better. He proposes that through good organization, you should move quickly between tasks and projects and concentrate on one task at a time.

Also, as I mentioned in Part 3, it is great to multitask as long as only one task is mentally taxing and the rest are low-cognitive load tasks. It is definitely worth the read if you missed it.

Stop Interruptions

Robert Half International, the prestigious staffing service provider, claims that the average employee only works at about 50% of capacity, much of that due to distractions.

A study* just released this week found that interruptions greatly diminish the quality of work produced by an employee. They said, ”Interruption can cause a noticeable decrement in the quality of work, so it’s important to take steps to reduce the number of external interruptions we encounter daily.”

Some great ideas to stop interruptions:

  • Turn off your cellphone for uninterrupted work periods;
  • Turn off email programs and only check email once every hour or two;
  • If you have an appointment looming, set a timer so you don’t have to be distracted by making sure you don’t miss your appointment;
  • Turn off music with words while working; (Some scientists think music without words is okay and distracts only a little or not at all.)
  • Place a sign on your door to let coworkers know under what circumstances you can be interrupted. It can be like a traffic light. It is okay to interrupt you 1.) freely (green light); 2.) only if it is pretty important (yellow light); or 3.) only in an emergency (red light).


It is almost indisputable that focus is the key to higher levels of quality and quantity of work. Scott Belsky, in his book, “Making Ideas Happen: Overcoming the Obstacles Between Vision and Reality,” says, “Create windows of nonstimulation. To achieve long-term goals in the age of always-on technology and free-flowing communication, create windows of time dedicated to uninterrupted project focus.”

My post from last year has some great suggestions for this.

For a humorous look at how to focus, watch this wonderful TED Talk from Paolo Cardini.

The following series of questions come from the excellent book, “The One Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results” by Gary Keller. He proposes asking, “What’s the ONE Thing I can do, such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?”

These are his focusing questions:

  • For My Spiritual Life: “What’s the ONE Thing I can do to help others?”
  • For My Physical Health: “What’s the ONE Thing I can do to achieve my diet goals?”
  • For My Personal Life: “What’s the ONE Thing I can do to improve my skill at _______?”
  • For My Key Relationships: “What’s the ONE Thing I can do to improve my relationship with my spouse?”
  • For My Job: “What’s the ONE Thing I can do to ensure that I hit my goals?”
  • For My Business: “What’s the ONE Thing I can do to make us more competitive?”
  • For My Finances: “What’s the ONE Thing I can do to increase my net worth?”


The ironic thing is that more focus also necessitates more rest. I strongly suggest periods of complete focus, followed by short periods of rest to be most efficient at work tasks.

This is backed up by recent research.** This study suggested that short periods of Workplace Internet Leisure Browsing (WILB) actually improved productivity in employees under 30 years old. These activities include YouTube, Facebook, or internet surfing. Yeah! Concentrate on work for a while and then watch a YouTube video!

Putting It All Together

So, to really be productive, we should

  • stop bad multitasking; only one high-cognitive load task at a time
  • do more good multitasking; do low-cognitive load tasks in the background
  • turn off distractions
  • focus
  • rest for short periods between periods of concentrated focus

One interesting method brings these ideas together. Many of you may have heard of something called the “Pomodoro Technique.”

It is a time management plan where you

  • plan what your task is
  • work in a very focused manner for 25 minutes while setting a timer
  • when the timer goes off, you stop and rest for 3-5 minutes
  • set another timer for 25 minutes and focus again
  • after 4 “pomodori” take a 15- to 20-minute break.

There’s even an app for that! See the Vitamin R App if you are interested.

I hope you have enjoyed this series on multitasking and have learned some valuable things. Just in case you were wondering, because of the airline incident I mentioned earlier, the FAA has put some new rules into effect to keep pilots from multitasking while at the controls of an airplane. Good news, don’t you think?

*Cyrus Foroughi et al. Do Interruptions Affect Quality of Work? Human Factors, July 2014 DOI:10.1177/0018720814531786

**Brent L. S. Coker. Workplace Internet Leisure Browsing. Human Performance, 2013; 26 (2): 114 DOI:10.1080/08959285.2013.765878

Multitasking Part 3: Good Multitasking: The Good News Is…It Isn’t All Bad

Comic cartoon of a man multitaskingThe 100 Kilometer Error
I was driving with a friend and was really enjoying our conversation. The only problem was that I was too engrossed in our discussion, missed a turn, and didn’t discover my mistake until we had gone 50 km in the wrong direction.

That is the downside of multitasking. Today, in the 3rd installment of this series, I want to talk about the good things about doing multiple activities at one time.

In Part 1, I shared some interesting and surprising facts about multitasking.

In the last post, I mentioned some startling research that shows just how bad multitasking can be.

Today, I want to talk about the good things about multitasking. Next time, I will share some practical tips on how you can increase your productivity and your life by multitasking well.

Research First

While there are dozens, and maybe hundreds, of studies that show the downside of multitasking (for example, a 40% drop in productivity*), at least 2 recent studies have highlighted some positive things about it.

Improved Judgement
Researchers in a study from the University of Basel** found that sometimes the cognitive load that results from multitasking improved performance because it forced the participants to switch cognitive strategies and use a more efficient action plan to solve problems.

Multi-sensory Integration
In another study***, researchers found that participants who were heavy media multitaskers were less distracted by an unexpected sound when trying to complete other tasks. They said, “Although the present findings do not demonstrate any causal effect, they highlight an interesting possibility of the effect of media multitasking on certain cognitive abilities, multisensory integration in particular. Media multitasking may not always be a bad thing.”

That is the good news! It should be noted that these are 2 small studies that point to the good effects of multitasking while nearly all of the other research casts a very harsh light on trying to manage several jobs at one time. But, we are highlighting the good in this blog, so rejoice over these 2 studies!

When Multitasking is Good

Despite all of the bad things I have said about it, we should be multitasking.

As I said earlier, in the next post I’ll share many practical tips on effective multitasking, but I want to talk about good multitasking for a moment here.

It actually is a great idea to do several things at once as long as only one of them is important and mentally taxing.

Multitasking is a fantastic way to get many things done simultaneously as long as all but one of them is low-priority and low-cognitive load.

The other day I was answering email (highly cognitive) while I was downloading a computer update (low cognitive), baking a cake in the oven (low cognitive), washing a load of clothes (low cognitive), and had music playing the background (uses a different brain center than writing skills). I have found, personally, that I need to set timers so my clothes don’t sit in the washer after it is finished and my cake isn’t set on fire because I forgot to take it out. I have several timers and often have 3-4 low cognitive tasks on the “back burner” while concentrating on one important task.

One of my favorite forms of multitasking is listening to audiobooks while I exercise. I learn something while I am distracted from the physical pain and drudgery of the exercise. I call that win/win.

As long as you do it right, multitask away!!!

*Rubinstein, Joshua S.; Meyer, David E.; Evans, Jeffrey E. (2001). Executive Control of Cognitive Processes in Task Switching. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 27(4), 763-797.

**J. A. Hoffmann, B. von Helversen, J. Rieskamp. Deliberation’s Blindsight: How Cognitive Load Can Improve Judgments. Psychological Science, 2013; DOI: 10.1177/0956797612463581

***Kelvin F. H. Lui, Alan C.-N. Wong. Does media multitasking always hurt? A positive correlation between multitasking and multisensory integration. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 2012; DOI: 10.3758/s13423-012-0245-7

Multitasking Part 2: Bad Multitasking: Those Who Shouldn’t, Do It the Most

One Man copyI can picture the scene in my head to this day. I was in a meeting in Asia several years ago and a colleague in the meeting was participating in the discussion while writing email and reading the open book on his lap. I was impressed!

But should I have been?

In my previous post I shared some interesting facts about multitasking. If you haven’t read it yet, plead go read it now and come back.

This post will concentrate on the downside of multitasking. There is so much research coming out lately, pointing to the fact that it is just not good for us. I will highlight a few of the more interesting and insightful studies.

Why Most People Multitask

The latest research indicates that there are four main reasons why the heaviest multitaskers do so.

  • They have a lack of restraint or self-discipline. People who are more impulsive and are more sensation-seeking tend to participate in it the most.
  • They are easily distracted. Researchers found that the heaviest multitaskers did do several things at once to get more done, but because they were not able to block out distractions and focus on one task at a time. They were, in fact, really bad at doing several things at once even though they tended to do it the most.
  • They are overconfident of their ability to multitask. Even though the heaviest multitaskers scored lower on multitasking measurement tests, they scored themselves significantly higher in their ability than they actually were.
  • They wanted to impress other people. One of the other main reasons cited for multitasking was because they had observed others doing it, were impressed, and wanted to impress others.

As one researcher* stated, “We showed that people who multitask the most are those who appear to be the least capable of multitasking effectively.”

In another study out of Stanford**, researchers expected that heavy multitaskers would be better than average on three skills important to effective multitasking—filtering information, switching between tasks effectively, and keeping a high working memory. They were shocked to find that the heaviest multitaskers were the worst at all three tasks. They said, “It turns out multitaskers are terrible at every aspect of multitasking.”

Even worse, the these participants felt great about their achievements and believed they were getting more accomplished, even though they scored worse than those who were singletasking. Professor David Strayer, adds, “The people who are most likely to multitask harbor the illusion they are better than average at it, when in fact they are no better than average and often worse.”

The Real Irony With Those Who Multitask Less

Meanwhile, the people who really are good at multitasking seem to be the ones who do it less.

Two things were true about the 25% of people who scored highest on the multitasking tests:

  • They spent less time doing it
  • They were better at it

About the only bright spot in all of this is that the Stanford study found that since music is processed in a different part of the brain than other tasks, it seems to be okay to listen to music while doing something else.

Enough of the bad news! In my next post, I will share the good news about how multitasking can be good. See you then!

*David M. Sanbonmatsu, David L. Strayer, Nathan Medeiros-Ward, Jason M. Watson. Who Multi-Tasks and Why? Multi-Tasking Ability, Perceived Multi-Tasking Ability, Impulsivity, and Sensation Seeking. PLoS ONE, 2013; 8 (1): e54402 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0054402

**Eyal Ophira, Clifford Nass, Anthony D. Wagner. Cognitive control in media multitaskers.  Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America; September 15, 2009.

Multitasking Part 1: Are You Really As Good As You Think You Are?

Young woman driving , applying lipstick and speaking on her smart phoneTrue story: A friend hit a mailbox. She couldn’t understand why, but she said she was driving a car while putting on makeup, eating breakfast, and talking on the phone at the same time.

It seems that all of us are multitasking these days and the younger generations have seemingly built their lives on perfecting the fine art of multitasking.

Is it good? Is it bad? The answer is “Yes! Multitasking is both good and bad.”

This is the first part of a 4-part series on multitasking. I think you will find this series to  be very interesting and extremely helpful. Here is the plan:

Part 1: What Multitasking Is and Some Interesting Facts About It

Part 2: Bad Multitasking: Those Who Shouldn’t Multitask, Do It the Most

Part 3: Good Multitasking: The Good News Is, Multitasking Isn’t All Bad

Part 4: Practical Tips: How To Do It, Do It, Do It Right

A Computer and Your Brain

The term “multitasking” first was coined in the 1960’s to describe when multiple tasks were being performed by one CPU (computer brain). The word eventually also came to be used to describe when a person was performing multiple tasks at one time. It is a bit of a misconception, however, because neither a CPU nor your brain can actually do more than one thing at a time.

Then why does it seem like we can multitask? Like a computer, our brains are capable of performing multiple tasks so quickly in succession it seems they are being performed at the same time. The big difference between the human brain and the computer CPU is that a computer is very good at handling the “shut off” and “start up” procedures necessary to switch back and forth between two or more tasks. Our brains are really not very good at it. (More interesting scientific facts about this in Part 2.)

“Multitasking is a lie because nearly everyone accepts it as an effective thing to do, but when you try to do two things at once, you either can’t or won’t do either well. Multitasking is an effective way to get less done.” (Gary Keller in his book, “The ONE Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results” -emphasis mine.)

Multitasking Is Killing Us

We are literally dying from multitasking—one fast way, and one slow way.

The fast way to a multitasking death—multitasking while driving a car.
Here are the facts:

  • Texting while driving makes a driver 23x more likely to crash.
  • Drivers talking on a cell phone are 4x more likely to have a car accident.
  • In 2012 in the USA, 3,328 people were killed in distraction-related crashes.
  • In 2012 in the USA, almost half a million people were injured in crashes involving a distracted driver.

The slow way to a multitasking death— higher tension, blood pressure, and stress from multitasking.

“There is data to show that multitasking leads to more distractibility and poor concentration…When we’re in speed mode, we have to be more on edge and alert, which naturally creates tension and agitance…We also would do well to place limits on the times during which we multitask.” (Marc Schoen in his book, “Your Survival Instinct Is Killing You: Retrain Your Brain to Conquer Fear, Make Better Decisions, and Thrive in the 21st Century.”)

Some Interesting Facts About Multitasking

Multitasking Is Killing Productivity
While at work, the average American:

  • checks email more than 11 times a day
  • open their inbox every 20 minutes
  • took 15 minutes to return to their previous task after checking email

Because of this, some scientists estimate that the average American focuses on one task only about 15 minutes per hour.

Women Really Are Better At Multitasking!
Some recent researchers* have found that under certain conditions the old adage really is true: women really are better at multitasking than men.

Well, I’m don writing this article, so it’s time for me to turn off my music, shut down my email, and quit texting. I think I need to read my next post about why, when, and where we shouldn’t multitask! Stay tuned.

*Gijsbert Stoet, Daryl B O’Connor, Mark Conner and Keith R Laws. Are women better than men at multitasking? BMC Psychology, October 2013

Ouch! That Hurts When You Try to Be Kind

disillusioned young violinistWe’ve all seen it: the doting parents praising their child after a performance that everyone else in the room knows was terrible.

The problem is that in an attempt to be loving and kind, they are actually hurting their child.

The same thing can happen at work when supervisors fail to give honest, and sometimes difficult, feedback to their coworkers.

Some Important New Insights From Research

A new study* published in April 2014 helps explain why people sometimes think they are good at something when actually they are not good at all.

First, let me mention why this study is so important. It is important because of the huge amount of data used for the study. The authors used a meta-synthesis statistical technique with data from many other studies. This allowed them to look at results from over a quarter of a million participants. That is a mega-number for research!

Second, let me mention what it tells us. One of the main reasons why we are self-deceived about our abilities and think that we can do better at something than we really can is because we don’t have good self-insight. Many times, the lack of self-insight is a direct result of people getting vague feedback from family, friends, and employers.

Let’s be clear: self-esteem rarely, if ever, leads to greater performance. Yet in an effort to be kind and build self-esteem, we give vague, often overly generous feedback to our friends and co-workers. “You did a good job,” is too fuzzy to do anyone any good.

What improves performance is accurate and specific feedback and a concerted effort to improve. For more on the difference between the lie, “practice makes perfect” and the truth “perfect practice makes perfect” click here.

Think back to your best teachers in school. You know, the ones that pushed you to excel. They often were not the kindest or even the gentlest, but they were the ones who were honest and pushed you to constant improvement. They told you exactly what you were doing wrong and how to fix it.

One of the researchers (Krizan) said, “If people are evaluating themselves in terms of very specific criteria, they’re going to have better self-insight because they are constrained by how to interpret the ability.”

What Should We Do?

On the receiving feedback side: push those around you to greater honesty and specifics when they are giving you feedback.

Drill down deeper if they say you did “well.” What was good about it? How could if be better?

On the giving feedback side: Be brutally honest (with kindness!) and very specific when you give feedback. Tell your friends, family, and coworkers exactly what was good and what was bad.

They will thank you for it in the end.

*E. Zell, Z. Krizan. Do People Have Insight Into Their Abilities? A Metasynthesis. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 2014; 9 (2): 111 DOI: 10.1177/1745691613518075

Cooperation With Croquet Mallets

Croquet Score“If you had to identify, in one word, the reason why the human race has not achieved, and never will achieve, its full potential, that word would be ‘meetings.’”- Dave Barry

Cooperation is something that every child has to learn. Sometimes it takes a lot to learn it. One of my cooperation learning sessions involved “Sally,” the girl next door. Sally and I were the same age, went to the same schools, and grew up together. Our families were great friends and we spent a lot of time together as children.

Did I mention that Sally was sometimes infuriating? In my memory it seems that every game we played ended in us fighting and every time we played together, one (or both) of us would end up running home to our mothers in tears.

Then there was the croquet mallet incident. I really don’t remember the exact incident, but I do remember the aftermath. Evidently, Sally extremely irritated me while we were playing croquet and I hit her over the head with my croquet mallet. As I said, I don’t remember that incident but I do remember how much trouble I was in afterward. (And the spanking.) I needed a big lesson in cooperation.

Cooperation isn’t for just on the playground. It should, and must, happen every day in the office. One of the examples of a way we cooperate is to have a meeting.

Unfortunately, many meetings are a waste of time.  When you consider man-hours, if you just have eight people in a meeting and meet for one hour you have used an entire eight-hour day. Was that meeting worth a whole day’s work? Many times, unfortunately, the answer is no.

There are many things that leaders can do in order to maximize meetings. But let me share just one simple thought today that I think might be the most important: make the purpose of each meeting action steps.

What is an “action step”?

Very simply, an action step is a specific action that must be taken. It will also help to keep in mind that each of these actions must be measurable (so that you know if it’s been accomplished or not) and timed (so that you know when the action must be completed).

If you don’t already do this, here are three simple ideas to get you started that I believe will revolutionize your meetings.

1. Measure the success of each meeting in action steps. If the members of the meeting have specific things they need to do once the meeting is over, then the meeting is very likely successful.

2. Make sure every action step is owned by a specific person in the meeting. Any action steps that are not assigned will never be completed.

3. End each meeting with each person articulating what their action steps are. Be sure to keep a record of each person’s assignment and hold everyone accountable.

John Kenneth Galbraith said, “Meetings are indispensable when you don’t want to do anything.”

A good meeting ending with actionable steps will prove him wrong.

One more bit of free advice: leave the croquet mallet home. Sorry Sally!

I Was In A Panic…

Calm Panic Buttons Show Panicking Or CalmnessThe huge Pakistani man standing in front of me thrust out his hand and suddenly I didn’t know what to do.

Was he threatening me? No, he was smiling.

Am I fearful of Pakistanis? No, all my barbers are Pakistani and I let them flash razors around my head all the time.

Why was I so afraid?

It was his big, yellow truck.

He was there to empty the septic tank and I knew that he had spent his day sucking out sewers… and now he wanted to shake my hand.

For many of you that wouldn’t be a problem, but Cindy sometimes accuses me of being “germophobic.” My response is that I’m not afraid of Germans, although I am pretty wary of Italians with super-spicy meatballs. She thinks I may have mysophobia, or the fear of contamination or germs.

I’m not afraid of germs, I just feel the same way about them that I do about heights—I have a very healthy respect.

Now he wanted me to shake his hand. I gulped.

The truth is, we miscalculate danger all the time. For example, one Noble prize winning psychologist asked people the question, “Are you more likely to die being eaten by a shark or by falling airplane parts?” nearly everyone thinks that sharks are the biggest danger. In fact, you are 30 times more likely to die from falling airplane parts than you are by a shark attack. I guess your chances of dying must skyrocket if you live on a beach near an airport.

This kind of miscalculation not only effects our vacation plans, but also our lives in interactions with people from other cultures. The problem is information and the fact that we bring familiar information to mind first and make decisions based on easy information instead of correct information.

Here are 3 pitfalls that we often fall into.

1. Availability Error-
That’s the problem in the shark/airplane question. A shark attack is big news, so we hear about it more, so it seems to happen more often. Unless we actually do the research, we feel like a shark attack is a greater danger.

I sometimes call it the fortune cookie problem. In America, most Chinese restaurants finish each meal with a fortune cookie. When Americans travel to China and eat real Chinese food, they are shocked not to get a fortune cookie. Fortune cookies are an American Chinese thing and not a real Chinese thing. (Wikipedia reference)

Error Correction: Do your research!

2. Confirmation Error-
Have you ever considered buying a certain brand of car and suddenly it seems that everyone is driving that kind of car? It may not actually be as popular as it seems. When we hold an idea or attitude, we are constantly seeking confirmation that we are correct and will grab onto small verifications that are really not proof at all.

Error Correction: Think objectively!

3. Out-Group Homogeneity Error-
Out-groups are people from a different group than ours. I am a male, so women are an out-group for men. I am an American, so Italians (and their super-spicy meatballs) are an out-group.

We tend to see people in our in-groups as very different, but people in our out-groups as being all the same. I’m sure not all New Yorkers are rude and and all Koreans like rice.

Error Correction: Notice differences!

Back to the Pakistani, I did shake his hand and was glad to make a new friend that day. I did, however, go in my house and wash my hands. Twice!

Is Your Strong Personality Hurting Your Team?

Cartoon Man with Bubble-HiRes-Photoshopped-Sized for InternetPeople often say you can’t judge a book by its cover. But you can judge a book by its title.

For example, if the title of the book is, “The Wisdom of Peter Drucker,” then you can be sure that the book is going to have a lot of good management principles. On the other hand if the book’s title is, “Accounting Made Simple,” you know that the book is full of lies.

Many times, when we say “you can’t judge a book by its cover” we’re referring to people, and the implication is that you can’t know someone just by meeting them briefly. This actually is not true. We all know that first impressions are important and studies have found that in meeting someone for just 7 seconds, people are about 80% right in understanding what that person’s basic personality traits are.

We all know leaders and managers who have a strong personalities.  Many times, the perception is that it is the strong personalities that make them good leaders. That may be true for businesses that are stable and have little change, but it is completely wrong for businesses where rapid change is involved.

A recent study out of Europe* shows that leaders with strong personalities find it very difficult to change.  This hindered the teams and likewise made the teams less able to cope with change. This is explained, at least in part, by the fact that the stronger a leader’s personality is the more they are “stuck” in a certain method of accomplishing tasks and goals.

To quote the researcher, “Teams that had markedly strong personality traits were more inflexible than teams with less markedly strong traits.” He also found that the stronger the personality traits, the less able the teams were to adapt.

 What can we do?

There are at least three ways that we can help ourselves and our teams in this area.

  • Understand the problem and diagnose it

As always, knowledge is power. Since we now know that our leadership strengths can also be our weaknesses when it comes to change, we need to understand who we are and how we function.  If we tend to be rule-conscious, then we need to be willing to work around the rules. If we are more private, we need to work at being more open. If our nature is to be more self-reliant, we need to purposely try to depend on others in a greater way.

  • Get some training in flexibility

There are a lot of great training programs for individuals and for teams that can teach increased flexibility.

  • Get some training in teamwork

Training programs to increase teamwork will also be a huge benefit since different strengths from each team member will tend to offset each other.

Small self-promotion: We have a lot of great training programs like these and others available at Professional Gulf Consulting and would love to be of service to you.

Many times we think that we cannot change; that we are the way we are and are doomed to always be that way. It’s not easy, but we can change and change for the better.

And last, be sure to let me know if you want to borrow my old copy of “Accounting Made Simple.”

*Jan Ketil Arnulf. Organizational change capacity and composition of management teams: A visualization of how personality traits may restrain team adaptability. Team Performance Management, 2012; 18 (7): 433 DOI: 10.1108/13527591211281156

A Charred Steak in the Garden of Eden

Not an actual picture of my grandmother

Not an actual picture of my grandmother

My Grandmother Williams, a wonderful woman, was born in rural Iowa over 100 years ago. If you don’t know what rural Iowa was like 100 years ago, it should not be mistaken for a place where actual human beings lived—at least not in large numbers.

Rural Iowa was beautiful. Picture the Garden of Eden with more clothing and lots of corn. Except in winter. Then you have to picture snow, covered with a layer of ice, slathered with more snow, with sleet and hail mixed in.

Evidently during that time in rural Iowa, one of the leading causes of death was undercooked meat. According to my grandmother’s idea, the bubonic plague was child’s play compared to eating meat that wasn’t charred beyond recognition.

To her, a steak had to be thoroughly cooked—and by “thoroughly” I mean “black.” If it was recognizable as an actual food-like substance, it was unsafe to eat. Only if it looked like Martians had zapped it with a death ray, could it be safely consumed.

I mention my grandmother here because she brings up an important topic: change. She lived her whole life believing that all meat must be thoroughly cooked in order to be eaten. I know for certain this is not true because I love my steaks rare and yet so far I am apparently still alive. But she was taught one thing and stuck with that plan her whole life.

As leaders and managers we have to be brave enough to implement change.

Change is always hard because it seems that all of us, as human beings, resist change. We can do things to make change easier, though.

  • Don’t be paralyzed by the idea of change or the magnitude of a big change.

Often we don’t know how or where to begin and this causes us to do nothing because we don’t know what we should do. Making a plan will help with this (see below.)

  • Identify what needs to be changed.

This is critical because we don’t want to make change just for the sake of change and ruin something that is working well, nor do we want to destroy what could be effective change because we don’t go far enough.

  • Figure out how much change can your organization or team handle.

Every organization or team has a threshold of the amount of change that they can deal with at any given time. Take stock of how much other changes happening in the organization and make sure that there is not too much change happening all at the same time.

  • Decide before you start how you will measure success in the change.

Before you even begin the change decide how you will know when you have been successful. This includes a way to measure when the changes are accomplished successfully, and the many small goals that must be met along the way in order to accomplish the final goal.

  • Make a detailed plan for how to accomplish the change.

Summarize what the change will look like when you are successful. This is the vision. Think about who the change actors will be and how to get them on board with your plan. Communicate your vision with everybody involved; let them know what their part will be and why it is important. Create a plan with all of the necessary steps to make your change happen.

Hopefully, we will be the kind of leaders who can implement change successfully so we won’t be stuck in the Garden of Eden eating a charred steak.