Category Archives: Self Development

When Feeling Good Hurts

Chocolate Cake- dreamstime_l_1684878-Sized for InternetWe often give in to something that we know is bad because we want to feel good:

  • we buy something we know we can’t afford;
  • we eat the chocolate cake when we know we need to lose weight;
  • we put off washing our dishes because we don’t feel like doing them.

We “give in” so that we can feel good. (Scientists call this subject “self-regulation.”)

But the story doesn’t end there.

This temporary “feel good” comes at very high cost in the long-term.

I remember when I was in music school I had a 25-page paper about a classical composer due on a certain day. I put off writing the paper until the night before. Cindy, my wife now, my fiancé then, spent the whole night typing as I dictated the paper to her. What a miserable night and what a high price she paid for my procrastination. ( I deserved it—she didn’t.)

Of course, I do have an excuse. The part of the brain that regulates these things doesn’t fully develop until about age 25 and I was only 19 at the time. (If you buy that excuse, I have some land I’d like to sell you! I was just showing my immaturity.)

Save Your Desert For Last

I have always considered being able to delay gratification as a sure sign of maturity. It is one of the main differences between childish behavior and adult behavior.

Sure, that piece of cake really looks good, but do I really want to spend an extra 15 minutes at the gym because I gave in to my emotions? The mature, self-regulating person says, “I’d rather not have those extra calories. I can achieve the long-term good.”

Maturity is allowing the long-term good to outweigh the emotional attraction of the current, short-term desire.

What Is It You Want To Do?

Do you want to lose a few pounds and get back in shape?
Do you want to stop watching so much television and read good books instead?
Do you want to finish that big project that you keep putting off?
Do you want to save money ahead of time for a vacation instead of going into debt?

Be mature and let the long-term goal outweigh the emotions that seem so strong at the moment.

BTW, staying up all night writing that paper worked out well after all. It was such a bad experience that I made a vow to never do that again and I have pretty-much kept that promise. For the rest of my college career I turned in my papers before they were due and (almost) never “crammed” for an exam. My grades dramatically improved as a result.

Be mature.


See the long-term good.

Feel REALLY good later instead of feeling slightly good now!

Past blog postings about similar subjects:

How To Make Better Decisions- Part 1

Don’t Cower, Get Superpower Willpower is willpower?
One of the simplest definitions of willpower is, “Controlling your behavior; doing things you should and want to do, and NOT doing the things you shouldn’t and don’t want to do.”

Facts about willpower
Some interesting facts have come out of the latest research on willpower.

  • Willpower is like a muscle in 3 ways.
  1. If you don’t use it, over time it will “atrophy” and grow weaker.
  2. The “power” of willpower will deplete. If you use it too much in one day, it will grow “tired” and weak like your muscles feel after too much exercise.
  3. Over time, you can build it up with use, like you can build muscles. Willpower becomes stronger with use.
  • Willpower is not fixed at birth. You’re not born “with” it or “without” it.
  • Not something one person has and another doesn’t. We all can develop willpower as we exercise it.

Important steps to exercising willpower

  • Delay gratification. Look at the long-term good and not the short-term pleasure.
  • Use “I want power.” Kelly McGonigal, in her book, “The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works” says that we need to use “I want power” instead of willpower. Set a goal for what you want to accomplish and think of that instead of what you are giving up. Don’t think, “I have to give up chocolate cake,” think, “I want to be 10 centimeters smaller in my waist, feel better, and healthier.
  • Goal-setting. As we’ve discussed before in this blog, probably the best way to accomplish anything is to set a clear, achievable, and measurable goal. The same is true with exercising willpower.
  • Set a regular schedule. As I said above, if you use too much willpower in one day, it will become fatigued and weak, like a muscle. One way to not be forced to exercise excessive willpower is to create habits and schedules that will take you away from the problem areas so you don’t have to “use up” your daily allotment of willpower.

Other Practical tips that help build willpower

  • Do the hardest thing first while willpower is strongest.
  • Get plenty of sleep. Believe it or not, getting enough sleep helps us exercise willpower better.
  • Have and keep a good attitude. A bad attitude drains willpower; a good attitude builds it.
  • Get plenty of exercise. This may not seem obvious, but exercise also contributes to developing willpower.

The good news is that if you have felt like a failure when it comes to exercising willpower in the past, it is never too late to take some of these steps to help yourself build willpower and accomplish the important things you really want to do.

Embrace Uncertainty researchers were conducting a study and were interviewing people on the street. They asked one man, “What do you think of uncertainty and indifference?”

His reply was, “I don’t know, and I don’t care.”

We all have to live with uncertainty. Marc Schoen in his book “Your Survival Instinct Is Killing You” has this to say: “Uncertainty is inevitable. It’s human nature to find uncertainty very unsettling, and as such it’s also human nature for it to create high levels of agitance within us. As we wrestle with uncertainty, we struggle to find ways to manage it— and many attempts can worsen its effects.”

And yet, many times uncertainty can help us because it forces us to resolve problems and to accomplish more than we we would otherwise.

“Uncertainty avoidance” was one of the five cultural dimensions Gert Hofstede reported in his landmark research a few decades ago. There is both a personal and a cultural aspect to uncertainty avoidance.

Some people are, by their very nature, more adventurous and enjoy uncertainly to a great degree. Research has shown that this is both a function of nature and nurture.

Cultures and societies as a whole also tend to embrace or avoid uncertainty. Cultures that embrace uncertainty tend to be more relaxed, feel comfortable in changing environments, have fewer rules, and are more tolerant of change. Some of these countries are: USA, UK, India, China and Indonesia.

Cultures that avoid uncertainty tend to be more rigid, emotional, plan things step-by-step, and have a lot of rules. Some of these countries are: Greece, Belgium, Italy, Russia, Korea and Mexico.

One of my favorite movie quotes comes from “The Hunt for Red October” when Admiral Painter and Jack Ryan are discussing the Russians. Ryan asks if the Russians have a plan and the Admiral replies, “Russians don’t take a dump, son, without a plan.” Uncertainty avoidance!

To illustrate the differences, think of Germany and England. Both cultures are fairly similar, but Germans tend to be much more uncertainty intolerant. Thus, they plan and develop programs and systems to a much greater degree.

What do we need to do about it?

At work in a multicultural situation, we need to:

  • try to accommodate our coworkers who are less tolerant of uncertainty than we are;
  • learn the rules for cultures where uncertainty is avoided; and
  • communicate better with coworkers who have different levels of uncertainty avoidance.

Personally, since uncertainty is part of life, we need to constantly deal better with it. How? By embracing it and not fearing it. Our motto should be: “Embrace Uncertainty.” Constantly expand your comfort zone when there is uncertainty.

To quote Marc Schoen once again, “For now, when you do feel a sense of uncertainty, focus on a feeling of appreciation, and teach yourself to value it and achieve a level of comfort with it— despite how you might initially react to it. You can even focus on other areas of your life in which you feel thankful. With practice, this will ultimately recondition your response to uncertainty as you begin to view it in a more healthy and constructive way.”

A Tale of Two Hamburgers was the best of teams, it was the worst of teams…

David Livermore tells a story of a problem McDonalds had when they started operating in India. The company motivates work teams in the USA and Europe by rewarding hardworking employees with the distinction of “employee of the month.” It was very successful in America where people want to be noticed and individualistic…it was a total failure in India where people want to blend in and be part of the group in a collectivist culture.

In this series on multi-cultural leadership, we have been talking about the important subjects of  communication, trust, and human resource policies. Today I will share some ideas about the subject of how to approach motivation in different cultural situations.

As we saw in the example of McDonald’s trying to motivate their employees, well-intended motivational plans can sometimes cause more harm that good.

Motivating employees to accomplish more in both quality and quantity is one of the most important jobs that a leader or manager must do. And it often is not easily done when working in one culture, but complications are magnified in a multicultural setting.

2 Kinds of Motivation

Motivation is usually divided into 2 types: extrinsic (outside of oneself) and intrinsic (inside oneself.)

The rewards gained from extrinsic motivation will “push” an employee to do tasks that he would normally find boring, unlikeable, or even disgusting. These rewards may be something as little as a smiley face on a daily assignment written by a 3rd grade teacher, to all-expense-paid vacation for meeting a large sales goal, a raise in salary, or a job promotion. Often, people think of these as financial rewards, but they can include many other things such as notoriety, fame, parental or coworker approval, etc.

This varies by culture. As an example, lets think about parents wanting to motivate their child to do better in school. Extrinsic motivation in the United States and other Western countries would typically be to provide an external reward (an ice cream cone or more TV time) for better grades. External motivation in a “shame and honor culture” (like some Asian and Middle Eastern cultures) would be to criticize, scold, or punish the child for disappointing grades. For an excellent TED Talk on the subject, you can watch Dan Ariely.

Intrinsic motivational rewards are positive feelings received from the task itself simply because the employee enjoys the work. My wife is intrinsically motivated to solve Sudoku puzzles. Me…not so much.

Where Culture Meets Motivation
As if motivating employees wasn’t hard enough in one culture, it is greatly complicated when dealing with multiple cultures. I only have time to share 2 today.

1. Choice– More choice typically is very motivating for employees from individualist cultures and generally decreases motivation for those from collectivist cultures.

2. Competition– Having a more competitive environment will usually motivate individuals from individualistic cultures while it normally will demotivate workers from a collectivist culture.

For the multicultural leader, we must think through the important issues of motivating our employees of different backgrounds. It’s hard work, but the “rewards” (intrinsic and extrinsic!) are great.

The Banana Verses the Banana Pepper

Banana and Banana Pepper-smallI was shocked every day when it came to the multicultural event of eating lunch. It was my first job and I was only a young teenager. I worked washing trucks for a meat packing company and several of the employees were Mexican immigrants. As a white suburbanite, I was used to pretty bland food and my new friends were used to very spicy food. I never got used to seeing them put hot sauce on every bite of every kind of food they ate. I could hardly believe my eyes when I saw one guy put a drop of the spicy condiment on a banana. It makes me smile to think about it even now.

This series is about multicultural leadership and we have looked at communication issues and     trust issues so far. Today we’re going to talk about human resource (HR) policies.

We can only scratch the surface here, but these are just a few important areas to consider when developing HR policies for multicultural teams and businesses.

1. Corporate culture versus local culture- For a multinational corporation, one important aspect is creating a corporate culture across the entire enterprise. If (probably more likely “when”) some of the corporate culture issues clash with local culture, which one takes precedence?

2. Employee relations- How deeply and and how people interact is somewhat determined by culture. This will effect relationships between employees when they come from different cultures. One example is handshakes. In America, a firm handshake is considered essential for making a good impression. In the Arab world, handshakes are very loose. How to reconcile the myriad of cultural differences that effect employee relations is important to consider.

3. Family practices- Family systems in different cultures vary immensely. Working spouses, maternal/paternal leave, vacation policies, and childcare are only a few of the major considerations. I remember sharing with a friend from another culture that 2 of our sons work at the same bank in the USA and he replied, “That would not be allowed in my country.” In China, I would often talk to spouses who were raising their child by themselves because the husband or wife was studying overseas for many years to benefit the extended family, while I know of few Americans who would make that kind of sacrifice. This shows the greater importance of the extended family in China and the nuclear family in the USA.

4. Career planning- Culture effects career planning in many ways. It is well known that an American will move a great distance away from their family for a relatively small bump in salary while and Indian will not be willing to move to another city or country for a much larger salary.

These are just a few of the problem areas that HR managers face in multicultural settings. They are serious matters and have great impact on any business or team working across cultural boundaries.

What’s the Worst Way to Win the Nobel Prize?

leukemia-dreamstime_5630117-smallDr. Robin Warren and Dr. Barry Marshall, who won the Nobel Prize in 2005, were convinced that the H. Pylori bacteria was responsible for stomach ulcers when most of their colleagues were convinced that stress was the problem. To prove their point, Marshall drank a dose of of the bacteria that they had collected from several stomach ulcers and proved their point. That is one way to be a leader and change culture. Let me just say I’m glad I study culture and not ulcers!

In this series of posts we have been talking about how to become better leaders of multicultural teams. In my last post, we looked at 5 things that can break trust in multicultural situations and today we are going to look at how we can build trust.

Remember that trust is the foundation of all human relationships and must be cultivated and developed. One of our main jobs as multicultural leaders is to create an atmosphere where trust can develop between ourselves and the team and between team members.

Trust is ultimately an ethical issue. Not only do we have to maintain high ethics to build trust, but we have to be aware of what ethics are involved in the various cultures of our team members and live ethically according to each of the cultures involved. How is this done? Here are a few suggestions.

1. Study- Learn and try to know as much as you can about the cultures of your team members and what their idea of ethical behaviors is in their context and culture. Ask questions and be a student.

2. Dialogue- Take time during team meetings to address these issues where they conflict between cultures of team members. Bring the issue to light and try to help everyone on the team understand each other better.

3. Be Agreeable- Help the team members agree on a common team culture that supersedes each individual team members’ culture and see that everyone commits to live up to the standards of the common team culture.

4. Release- As a leader, we can lead by example and let go of aspects of our culture (which are important to us) that cause problems and pain for other team members. That is true leadership. We also need to release control of how we think others should act according to our cultural framework.

5. Be Vulnerable- In every culture I can think of, trust is built by being vulnerable and “real.” As leaders, we don’t need to hide our faults and and our failures, but we need to be transparent and open to share our defeats as well as our successes. For some reason, most people have the idea that we build respect by never appearing to have problems and failures, but the opposite is actually true. By sharing our defeats, team members are drawn to us in a greater way.

In the next post, I’ll talk about how we can be better leaders in the area of human resource policies as it relates to multicultural contexts.

“That’s Me!”

Discussion-dreamstime_1466208-smallerI was conducting a seminar in Egypt for multicultural leaders and dealing with the subject of cultural differences. The audience was almost completely North American and Western European (individualistic cultures) and I was sharing about how people from collectivists cultures tend to think and interpret the world differently. During one of the breaks, Carlos, one of the few Asians in the room, came up to me and said, “Man, that’s me! That is totally the way I think”

Differences in interpreting the world around us are just one of the difficulties we face in multi-cultural leadership. The current series is about how do be a better multi-cultural leader. Part 1 was an introduction, Part 2 was about high-context and low-context communication.  Part 3 and   Part 4 were about direct and indirect communication. In Part 5, I talked about the importance of trust and things that break trust, and today I will share some specifics as to why cultural differences create trust problems.

Quick review: Trust is the foundation of all human relationships and can take a long time to build and be quickly destroyed.

So for today our question is: how do cultural differences make building and maintaining trust even more difficult? Here are a few reasons.

1. Communication is harder. In this blog from the past I talked about communication differences between cultures. These differences can be seen as withholding information which is known to break trust (from my last blog.)

2. Ethics are different. Different cultures tend to view relationship and responsibilities differently, which can lead to misunderstandings about honesty and dishonesty. As we discussed in the last blog, this can break trust.

3. Western reliance on contracts and non-Western reliance on relationships. Westerners value contracts in a business relationship and non-Westerners value relationships. For non-Westerners, the relationship is what matters, so agreements can change as the relationship changes. Not wanting to have a contract or not abiding by the written contract can be seen as deceitfulness and unreliability to Westerners– something that will break trust.

4. Leadership values and styles. Leadership and management styles differ greatly between cultures. Westerners working for non-Western managers tend to feel controlled by management and want more independence. Non-Westerners working for Western managers usually want more guidance, instruction, and oversight than the Western manager is willing to give. Both situations destroy trust.

5. Different attitudes toward time. Some cultures are “clock time” cultures in which appointments are governed by the clock and tend to be exact. Other cultures are “even time” cultures and starting times tend to be very loose according to the clock. This is a problem because lack of promptness or precision in deadlines and meetings often destroys trust in Western people’s thinking.

These are some important issues to think about and deal with in multi-cultural leadership.

Next time we will talk about how the leader of international teams can build trust among members.

I Punched Myself In the Nose

defiance-dreamstime_1117360-smallThe kid was much older than me and was the bully of the neighborhood, but I thought he was cool and wanted to please him. So, when he told me he wanted to see how strong I was I trusted him. When he told me to hold my palm up and make a fist, I trusted him. When he told me to pull up as hard as I could so he could test my strength, I trusted him. When he quickly pulled his hand away, I punched myself in the nose. I never trusted him again.

Trust is the foundation of all human relationships and is made more complicated when team members  are from different cultures. We’ll talk more about that in just a minute.

This series is about how do be a better multi-cultural leader. Part 1 was an introduction, Part 2 was about high-context and low-context communication.  Part 3 and Part 4 were about direct and indirect communication. Today I will talk about trust.

4 Things That Break Trust
Unfortunately, trust can take a long time to build and can be destroyed quickly in one instant. That is why we need to constantly keep in mind how to build and maintain trust among our co-workers. The following 4 things will quickly destroy trust and should be avoided at all costs.

1. Talking about others behind their backs (gossip.) Most people enjoy hearing juicy bits of gossip about others, but we always walk away with the thought, “What is he saying about ME when I am not around?” This will destroy trust. Don’t do it.

2. Not doing what you say you will (undependability.) Trust is built when we do what we will say we will do at the time we say we will do it. Not being dependable will break down trust. Don’t do it.

3. Giving false information (dishonesty.) Even when it comes to small things (“white lies” we call them in American culture), falsehoods never lead to trust. When someone is dishonest, even in a small thing, we always wonder, “What else is she lying to me about?” Dishonesty kills trust. Don’t do it.

4. Withholding information (secrecy.) The old adage says: knowledge is power. We’re wrong if we believe and practice that principle because it destroys trust in relationships. Withholding vital information hinders trust. Don’t do it.

Wow! Just NOT doing those 4 things can be really hard because of old, bad habits we have been practicing. I believe it’s important, though.

On top of that, building trust is even more difficult in a multi-cultural situation. We’ll look at that next time.

Question for discussion: Think of a time when trust was broken in a relationship you had. Was it because of one of the 4 trust-breakers mentioned above? Please post your thoughts and comments.

Is It Rude To Say “No”? Yes, But…

Mr. LiI remember the day well when Mr. Li smiled at me and said, “In China, we never say ‘no’ because it is considered rude.”

“How do you say ‘no’ then?” I asked.

“We have a very clever way to say ‘no,’” he responded.

More on that in just a minute.

We’ve been talking about leading a multi-cultural team. In Part 1, we had some important introductory thoughts. In Part 2, we talked about high/low context communication. Last time, in Part 3, we talked about direct/indirect communication. Today, I want to continue the discussion about direct and indirect communication with an personal example of how I learned an important lesson on this topic.

Mr Li was the middleman between me and the university where I used to teach and now hosted our private language school that I had founded. We had spent many hours and years together and he had become a good friend. I would often sit in his office and learn about Chinese culture from the things he told me and the things I observed. I enjoyed my time with him greatly.

One day he told me that Chinese people never directly say “no.” This surprised me because nobody can say “yes” to everything, so I questioned him for a deeper answer. He told me it was easy to say “no” without really saying “no.”

Then he told me the secret: Always answer, “yes, but…”

When someone asks you to do something and you can’t or don’t want to do it, simply answer, “Yes, but…” and give some kind of objection or explanation.

This is a classic example of the type of indirect communication I talked about in the last post. Direct communicators are very likely to say “no” if they can’t or won’t do something. Indirect communicators will not say so directly, but will expect the listener to understand the “no” from the context.

Mr. Li taught me a great lesson and I used it often in my next few years in China. After I would give a lecture, inevitably visiting students from other universities approach me after the lecture and would ask me to give a lecture at their university. My answer would be something like, “Yes, of course, but I am very busy in the days ahead. Please talk to me again later about it.”

Indirect communication. I didn’t say “no” in so many words, but the student clearly understood that I was actually declining the offer. Good communication isn’t easy, but it can be fun!

Question for discussion: If someone would ask to borrow your car but you don’t want to let them borrow it, how would you say that in a direct communication style? An indirect communication style? Please post your thoughts and answers.

What Kind of Communicator Are You? you thought much about your personal communication style? Here is a self quiz that will give you some insight into the way you communicate.

1. Do you find it easy to talk about personal information with others?
2. Do you often disagree with others in a conversation?
3. Do you often try to persuade others in a conversation?
4. Do you expect others to understand your meaning even if you don’t say something directly?
5. Do you use the words “maybe” or “perhaps” often in your communication?
Do you focus more on what others don’t say, rather than on what they do say?

If you answered “yes” to the first 3 questions, then you are probably more of a direct communicator. If you answered “yes” to the last 3 questions, you are probably more of a an indirect communicator.

More on this in a second.

In Part 1 we talked about how hard multi-cultural communication can be and in Part 2 we talked about high/low context communication styles. Today we’re going to talk about direct and indirect communication.

What Does This Look Like?

People who are direct communicators like communication that is clear, direct, and precise. Think especially of Americans and Western Europeans. They are much more likely to “tell it like it is.”

People who are indirect communicators, tend to expect others to take their meaning from the context  and also like to be more polite in communication.

Why Is This A Problem?

One problem when people from different styles communicate is that that meanings are misunderstood. The direct communicator will not understand the subtle meanings that the indirect communicator is trying to give.

Another big problem is that direct communicators feel like an indirect communicator is not effective and is evasive. They can distrust an indirect communicator because they feel like the other person is hiding something. They aren’t; they are just communicating in a different way. Meanwhile, the indirect communicator feels like the direct communicator is rude and pushy.

What Can We Do?

When we are leading a team of people with different communication styles, here are some things that will help us all communicate better.

1. Talk about it. Just knowing that these styles exist and are different will help everyone be more in tune to their own communication style and the styles of the other team members.

2. For the indirect communicators: aim for a more direct style. Even though it might feel awkward  and rude to them, help them understand that the direct communicator cannot pick up on the subtle clues that seem obvious to the indirect communicator.

3. For the direct communicators: try to be more indirect and a “softer” communicator. Avoid directly disagreeing with co-workers, and voice disagreements in more subtle ways. Be less confrontational and use words like “maybe” and “perhaps” more often.

Questions for discussion: Think of a discussion you had today. Was it more direct or more indirect? Do you think you can change your communication style? Please post your thoughts.