Category Archives: Culture

Getting the Best Out of Stress- Part 1

grief-dreamstime_2615652The title, “Getting the Best Out of Stress” may seem a little bit odd to some people. The reason is we hear so much about the negative side of stress sometimes we begin to think that all stress is bad.

I want to make the point today that not all stress is bad and in fact, can be very beneficial. Next time, I want to share some specific ways that we can deal with stress that will help us when we adjust to a new culture.

We like stress

It may seem strange to think about this, but we enjoy stress. There are many examples of this from our everyday life.

Why do people enjoy reading novels? Because they like stress. Every novel opens with some kind of stress that gets resolved at the end of the book. Each chapter begins with stress that gets resolved at the end of that chapter.

Why do people like movies? For exactly the same reason-because there is stress. Every good movie has some elements of stress which are resolved at the end of the movie. If you think of every movie you have ever watched and enjoyed you can think of the stress that was there that made you excited about the movie. A movie without stress would be extremely boring.

Why do people like music? Because of the stress! In fact, the whole point of music is to create tension (read: stress) and then to release that tension. Think of the simple song, “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.” Many people don’t realize it, but that same tune is the “ABC Song” and was actually written by Mozart. Sing the song to yourself, but leave off the last note. So sing it this way:

Twinkle, twinkle, little star,
How I wonder what you…

If you were singing that to yourself it will drive you crazy to leave the song unfinished. In fact, sometimes when I’m giving seminars I’ll sing the song and stop at that exact place. There has never been a time when at least one person, and usually several people, sing the last note because they can’t stand to leave it unfinished.

Why? Because the music creates tension. That tension is released when the song ends on the very last note. We enjoyed music because of the tension it creates.

Even our bodies need stress to be healthy. Muscles atrophy if not used and put under “stress.” Our bones become soft if we don’t walk or run and put them under stress. Recent studies have shown that exercise, which is stress for our bodies, is especially important as people grow older.

So why do we think that stress is so bad? Why do we have the idea that stress causes heart attack and other physical problems?

Because it does! What makes the difference whether stress is enjoyable and beneficial or painful and harmful involves resolution. The novel is enjoyable because the good guy wins in the end. We liked the movie because good triumphs over evil in the last reel. Music is enjoyable because the song resolves and ends on the last note.

Stress that is resolved makes us feel good. Unresolved stress makes us feel bad and can even shorten our lives.

Here are some important points about how cultural adjustment and stress are related.

1. Cultural adjustment always involves stress.

2. As human beings we always try to find ways to “cope with,” or manage, that stress.

3. Some ways that we cope are good (beneficial) and some ways that we cope are bad (harmful.)

Next time we’ll talk about ways that we cope with the stress that we face when we are adjusting to a new culture.

Discussion Question: Think through all of the hobbies that you enjoy, whether it be reading, playing video games, watching TV, listening to music, or painting. Is there some kind of stress involved that makes it enjoyable? What is it? Have you ever thought about this before? Please post your thoughts and your comments.

How To Make Better Decisions- Part 3: If/Then

Fat and Not Fat- smaller“Suddenly, I’m not half the man I used to be.” – From the song “Yesterday” by Paul McCartney

It wasn’t suddenly and it’s not quite half, but the two pictures here are me at age 30 when I was a “big boy” and me at age 45 when I was much healthier and in better shape. The difference is 15 years and 100 pounds of fat lost.

Everybody is looking for the Holy Grail that will cure the obesity problem in the developed world. Losing weight and controlling obesity is, for most people, simply a matter of making better decisions. We’re going to talk today about how I used this decision-making strategy to lose weight and get healthy.

To review, in Part 1 of the series we learned that most of the time emotions play too large of a role in our decision-making. And, because emotions are up and down we often make poor decisions. We talked about the need for removing emotions from our decision-making process.

In Part 2, we talked about one technique that helps remove emotions from the decision: never base a decision on a sunk cost.

Today in Part 3, were going to learn to use if/then statements to improve our decision-making.

  • What are if/then statements?

They are simply a statement that says “if ‘this’ happens, then I will do ‘this.’” For me when I was losing my weight some of my if/then statements were, “if it is 5 AM, then I will run for 45 minutes,” “if I want to eat a candy bar, then I will eat an apple.” You get the idea

  • Why does this work?

This is a powerful way to make good decisions by taking the emotional impact out of the decision-making process by separating the emotion from the decision. I don’t make a decision at 5 AM whether or not to run for 45 minutes. Why? Because at 5 AM my emotions may tell me I don’t want to run. But if I make the decision the night before after I’ve weighed myself and see that I’m too heavy, then I can decide firmly that, “If it is 5 AM, then I will run for 45 minutes.”

  • Does this really work?

You can see from the pictures above it worked very well for me. In order to increase my exercise and decrease my calorie intake every day became a series of dozens of if/then statements. The key is to make a good and logical decision at a time when your emotions are not pulling you in the direction of a bad decision.

If you wake up today and say, “I’m not going to eat a candy bar today,” the chances are when you walk by the vending machine and your stomach is growling, you will be reaching in your pocket for some change. But, if you make the decision before the day begins and say to yourself, “If I feel like eating a candy bar, then I’m going to drink Diet Coke,” chances are you actually will drink the Coke and save the calories.

  • This really works!

I use this technique every day multiple times to control my diet and exercise as well as get to those projects that I would otherwise put off.

  • Is there something you really want to do but have never been able to get started?

Make an if/then statement and get it done!

Can you make some if/then statements that will help you in your decision-making? Please post some examples and your thoughts.

How To Make Better Decisions- Part 2: Sunk Costs and Sarah were in the throes of a difficult decision. They had a beautiful opportunity before them but weren’t sure if they could leave their present situation. They talked and debated and thought some more and could not make a decision. Finally, Nick said, “I really want to make the change but I feel like we have invested too much time and energy to quit now.”

At that exact moment the couple looked at each other and said at the same time, “Sunk cost!” (More on what that means later.)

Nick and Sarah had been in one of my seminars six months before this. We had talked about decision-making and how to make better decisions. One of the tidbits that I shared was, “never base a decision on a sunk cost.” At the exact time when they needed to make a difficult decision the light came on and they realized that they were basing their decision on a “sunk cost.” They shared with me later that that simple insight freed them to make the good decision that they needed to make.

We talked in Part 1 about the need to be able to separate emotions from decision-making. You can’t separate all emotions from your decisions, but you can take some of the emotions out to make more logical ones. One of the most effective ways to do that is summed up in that simple phrase “never base a decision on a sunk cost.”

What is a “sunk cost?”

The definition of a sunk cost is simple but its ramifications are deep. A sunk cost is simply a past cost that is already been incurred that can never be recovered. In other words you have invested money, time, or effort into something and that investment can never be recovered again.

  • The concept is simple but we base decisions on sunk costs all the time.

How many people do you know that are in a job that they hate but they continue simply because it was their major in college?

How many times have you wasted time and effort on a project that you knew would never be successful but you justified it by saying, “I’ve come too far to stop now”?

How many times have you sat through a movie that you hated but you thought to yourself, “I paid 10 bucks so I might as well get my money’s worth”? The problem is that you not only wasted 10 bucks, but also will wasted two hours of your life in addition to the money. A much better decision would have been to walk out of the movie and use the two hours for better purposes.

  • Because we have invested money, time, or effort into something we have an emotional attachment.

That emotional attachment clouds our decision and often leads us to a bad choice. We need to ask, “What is the best decision now, regardless of the sunk costs?”

Time, effort, and education are always sunk costs which can never be recovered. Because of that, if we ever hear that little voice in our head say, “I can’t stop now because I’m invested too much time (or effort),” understand that you are in danger of making a poor decision. What is the best course of action now, regardless of the time you have already invested?

Think about that the next time you are at the buffet and think, “I’m going to get my money’s worth today and eat way more than I should!”

In Part 3 of this decision-making series we will look at one more practical application that will help us divorce our emotions from our decisions.

Can you think of a time when you based the decision on a sunk cost? Please share by posting a comment below.

How To Make Better Decisions- Part 1- Emotions

eccentric- crazy lady-dreamstime_8831912-smallerThe story is told about a woman who applied for a job at a citrus farm. The boss asked her, “Do you have any experience picking lemons?”

“Yes, I’ve been divorced three times.”

We spend our days making hundreds, and sometimes thousands of decisions. Some are very simple and have little impact on the future, and some are life-changing.

This is the 1st of 3 posts in which we’re going to talk about ways to make better decisions. Today, we’re going to talk about  an important principle in making better decisions and the next two posts will give practical ways to apply the principle.

  • Decisions are mostly emotional

We may not realize it or even want to admit it but scientists tell us that most of our decisions are based on emotions. We don’t like that because we want to think that were very smart and that we use logic to make our decisions, but it just is not true. In fact, researchers tell us that about 80% to 90% of our decision-making process is based on our emotions.

Dr. Antonio Damazio, neuroscientist at USC, has done some fascinating research with people who have lost the ability to feel emotions because of brain disease or brain injury. What has he found? That they are almost completely paralyzed in their decision-making.

One story he tells in his book is about one of his study participants who is asked a simple question: “When do you want to meet next, on Tuesday or on Wednesday?” The patient spent the next 30 minutes thinking through the advantages and disadvantages of meeting on Tuesday or Wednesday and with great difficulty finally made the decision. For most of us, it would be a 1- or 2-second process.

In another study, participants were asked to push a button with their right hand or their left hand while the researchers observed their brain activity with the use of MRI. The scientists were able to tell what the decision was 7 seconds before the participants actually acted. When asked what they were doing during that 7-second lag the participants replied that they were trying to make a decision. What many scientists now believe is that the decision was actually made on an emotional level initially, and the subjects took 7 seconds to develop a rational explanation for that decision.

So, even though we think we are making a decision based on logic, we probably are making a mostly emotional decision.

  • Why is that a problem?

Because, logic is consistent but emotions are not. If indeed we are making decisions based on our emotions then we are open to making bad decisions when we are feeling poor emotionally.

Because of this, one way to make better decisions is to make decisions that are based less on emotions and more on logic and reason.

Can this be done? Yes, and we will talk about how to do that in the next two posts.

After all, picking lemons is really only good if you’re getting ready to make lemonade.

How would you rate your decision-making on a 1-10 scale? Please post and share some thoughts.

That’s My Steak Under Your Thumb! waitress delivered the meal to my friend with her thumb firmly planted on top of his steak. He gasped and said, “Miss, your thumb is on my steak.” She replied, “I know. I didn’t want to drop it on the floor again.” Check please!

He claims the story is true (I have my doubts), but it does illustrate a difference in cultures when it comes to angry service workers and their customers.

A recent study by the University of British Columbia* found that when angry at rude customers, North Americans retaliated against the offensive customer, while Chinese staff retaliated against all customers in general. They reported that Americans blamed the offending customer while Chinese blamed the system, the company, or the customers en masse.

Of course, this makes sense when you consider that America is a strongly individualistic culture and China is a strongly collectivist culture.

This finding may also help explain a problem that McDonalds in the USA is having, according to a recent story in the Wall Street Journal.** The article claims that 20% of customers’ complaints are related to rude service, that “service is broken,” and that the company is strongly encouraging franchise owners to improve service. Customers rated service nearly as important as competitive pricing.

How does this knowledge help us as global managers?

First, it is a reminder to all of us of the importance of service. Many companies are used to competing on price, but service has become one of the most important issues for global companies.

Second, we need to raise the standard of service in our enterprises and create a company culture of extraordinary service.

Third, our managers and employees need to be trained and equipped to deal effectively with a diversified cultural mix of customers as we move into new markets.

Fourth, our multi-cultural teams need to understand these cultural pressures and know how to deal with them effectively.

Multicultural leadership for managers and multicultural training for employees is an essential part of business today. Don’t over look the need! I’ve been offering this training for years and have seen it work. You can check it out at our Gulf Consulting Group website.

After all, we want to have the customer under our thumbs, not the customer’s steak.

Do you have an interesting story about exceptionally good or bad service? Please share and post your thoughts.

*”Global companies beware: Rude customer treatment depends on culture”; March 25, 2013 in ScienceDaily.

**”McDonald’s Tackles Repair of ‘Broken’ Service”; April 10, 2013 in the Wall Street Journal.

Of Life and Death, Spiders, and Public Speaking of those oft-heard “truisms” is that people’s #1 fear is public speaking. We hear it so often, it must be true. Yeah, and if you tell a lie, your nose will grow and if you cross your eyes you they will stay that way.

I have no doubt that on a questionnaire, fear of public speaking comes out ahead of death and spiders, but I am very skeptical as to the fact of it actually being the #1 fear.

Let me put it this way: If I point a gun at you and say, “Either give us a speech about turnips or I’m going to shoot you,” I guarantee that you will be scouring your grey matter to recall if turnips are purple on the bottom and white on top, or vice versa in preparation to take the microphone.

Still, I read it this week in a scientific study, fear of public speaking tops death and spiders as the #1 fear. For me, it might be death BY spiders while eating turnips.

We all do have to speak in public at some time, though. It may be in school for a class, at work while giving a presentation, or at a party where everyone has to talk about something interesting from their past.

In those times, our heart rate rises, our palms get sweaty, and the butterflies dance around the turnips in our stomach. That seems bad, but actually, it can be really good.

We have those reactions to the stress of performing in public and think that all stress is bad. It isn’t. We hear “stress” and think “heart attack” or ”stressed out” and want to flee, but we shouldn’t. The truth is that some stress is good. Stress can be our friend and can bring a peak performance.

The sweaty palms and stomach butterflies are actually our body preparing for something important. Blood is being diverted from our arms and legs where we don’t need it as much and is pumping more to our body’s inner core where we do. (And you thought having “cold feet” was just a saying!) Adrenalin is being pumped into our system.

When you have a big job interview or need to present a project to the boss, stress can really help you if you can think of it the right way. It is making you more alert and clear-headed.

The key is to understand your stress and realize it is beneficial and embrace it.

In a recent study*  the researchers prepared half the participants by informing them about the good side of stress while half were not given the information. The ones who were prepared felt like they had the resources to cope with the task of public speaking and their physiological measurements confirmed their feelings.

So, when you feel stressed getting ready for public speaking, if you bring to mind that this stress is good for you and will help you, you will feel better and be at your peak performance level.

After all, public speaking is not a matter of life and death. Now, can you sprinkle some spiders on my turnip soup? It’s time for me to give a speech.

*”Changing the Conceptualization of Stress in Social Anxiety Disorder: Affective and Physiological Consequences” in Clinical Psychological Science, April 8, 2013.

I Was Paralyzed… was 3 AM and I stood in the aisle of Wal-mart completely paralyzed: I couldn’t think, I couldn’t move, and was utterly helpless as to what to do next.

It was the first few hours of being back in America after living in China for a year and a half. Jetlag was in full gear and I was famished and wide awake in the middle of the night. Now I was completely dumbfounded.

What was I facing that was so difficult? Choice.

I needed to buy a tube of toothpaste and there before me were hundreds of possible flavors, brands, colors, packaging, and sizes. It was completely overwhelming after having only a few choices less than 24 hours earlier in my home half-way around the world.

Most of us believe that choice makes us happy and that our lives are better the more choices we have. As Barry Schwartz pointed out in his 2004 book, “The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less,” choices actually make us miserable. If you haven’t read the book, I suggest you try it. You will also enjoy his TED talk on the subject.

There is too much to say here to completely understand what he is saying, but I want to mention a couple of reasons why choice makes us miserable. First, we regret the choice we have made. Second, our expectations are higher the more choices we have. And third, we blame ourselves if the choice wasn’t perfect (and few choices are ever perfect).

On top of that, a recent study suggests that too much choice leads to riskier decisions*.

Wow! Who thought that choice was bad?!

Things aren’t getting easier, either. Take peanut better, for example. When I was a kid there were two choices: smooth or chunky. I just took a look at Skippy’s website, and there are no less than 11 choices now, ranging from Skippy Reduced Fat Creamy, to Skippy Natural ⅓ Less Sodium & Sugar, to Skippy Super Natural Super Chunk with Honey. What is a peanut butter lover to do?!

Armed with the knowledge that more choice is not necessarily better, what can we do to help ourselves, our family, our coworkers, and our clients?

  • When making a decision for yourself, don’t look at every choice available but think through what you really want and decide from a few, more limited options.
  • When in leadership, don’t feel the need to give your team members every choice available. Choose to limit the choices available for possible solutions.
  • When making a sale, don’t overwhelm the buyer with too many choices.

Well, I gotta go for now, I need to go buy a chocolate candy bar. You don’t think there will be too many choices, do you?

*Thomas T. Hills, Takao Noguchi, Michael Gibbert. Information overload or search-amplified risk? Set size and order effects on decisions from experience. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 2013; DOI: 10.3758/s13423-013-0422-3

Two Lies Your Mother Told You- Part 2- “Anything Worth Doing Is Worth Doing Well”

Disruption-Dreamstime- Sized for InternetAnything worth doing is worth doing well. All of us have heard that and most of us would agree. But…it is wrong. (Perfectionists, please read on!)

I learned this my first semester in college. I had a political science class with a very famous professor. I was so excited and wanted to do well so I could graduate with a 4.0 GPA. This class was graded on only one thing: 3 tests given throughout the semester.

At the beginning of the semester, I went to every class, took copious notes, and studied the book like crazy–and got a “C” on the first test. I was devastated. Then I found out that nearly everyone got a “C” on the test and only senior PoliSci majors got an “A.”

This was discouraging, so next I went to every class, only took a few notes, and studied a little–and still got a “C.”

To end the term, I didn’t go to class and never cracked the book. You can probably guess my grade on the final: “C.”  It didn’t matter if I worked hard or not. I was doomed to a mediocre grade, so there was no reason to spend the time and effort to study. There went my 4.0!

The truth is that many, perhaps most, of the things we do in any given day are NOT worth doing well.  Should you get a ruler out to measure the bows on your shoestrings when you tie them to make sure you have tied the knot perfectly? Of course not! Should you cook a 5-course gourmet meal every time you need to feed your family? Absolutely not!

Many things are not worth doing well and though we must do them, we should dispense with them as quickly as we can, even if we don’t do a perfect job.

One of the important skills we can learn is to differentiate between things that need to be done well and things that should be accomplished as quickly as possible.

The problem is that we often decide according to habit, convenience, or pleasure.
Habit, because we’ve always done it that way.
Convenience, because some tasks are easier than others so we tend to spend too much time on them.
Pleasure, because we like doing them and want to spend more time on them.

We should decide what to do well according to one criteria: tasks that get results according to our goals. One of the most important steps you can take to becoming more productive is to be laser focused on result-heavy tasks and ignore or pass quickly over the other assignments.

Keep this in mind as you plan your day. Think, “How well do I need to do this?” If it won’t bring results that lead to your goals, get it over with quickly.

Anything worth doing is worth doing well…NOT!

Two Lies Your Mother Told You- Part 1- “Practice Makes Perfect” makes perfect. We’ve heard that sentence many times and we take it for granted that it is true. Unfortunately, it is not.

The English origin of the proverb is traced back to about 1550, but the idea goes back to the Latin phrase, “Uses promptos facit” (“Use makes perfect”).

Psychologist Anders Ericsson added an important word to the cliché is his landmark paper published in 1993: “Deliberate practice makes perfect.” The idea is that unless you are practicing with purpose and a goal in mind, it is of far less, maybe of no, value.

My piano teacher when I was in grade school, long before Ericsson’s paper (we’re talkin’ waaaay before!), even had a better idea when she taught me that “Perfect practice makes perfect.” That one word changes everything and makes all the difference. Her point was that if you practice a mistake, it is worse that not practicing at all. Why? Because if you practice a mistake, you must unlearn the error first and then learn the correct way. Way hard!

Sport coaches, at least the good ones, know this also because they always stress “the fundamentals.” What are the fundamental? Simple steps that an athlete practices which are building blocks of the correct way to do something.

This fundamental truth is part of the explanation of why it is so hard to change. Because once we practice something over and over again, it is very hard to do it a different way. We have to unlearn a behavior and then relearn it.

How do we put this knowledge to good use?

  • Analyze your current practices to see if they are a result of “perfect practice,” of just the way you you’ve done it for a long time.

How do you speak to your spouse or your kids when you are tired? Perfect practice makes perfect.
How do you start the day?  With meditation and prayer, or in a blitz to get out the door of the house and to the office? Perfect practice makes perfect.
How are you doing on your healthy exercise and eating habits? Perfect practice makes perfect.

  • Be deliberate (perfect) when starting a new task and make sure that you are doing it perfectly.

Do you want to spend more time every day reading good books that will help you learn and grow? Perfect practice makes perfect.
Do you want to pick up a new hobby like making pottery or playing the guitar? Perfect practice makes perfect.

So, don’t blame your mom, she probably didn’t know any better. She learned it from her mother who learned it from your grandmother. I guess perfect practice makes a difference even between generations.

Taking a Stab at Blab

Taking a Stab at Blab-PhotoshoppedOne of the things that I have enjoyed in learning about other cultures is the use of silence. I’m not talking here about personal silence. I think it is important to be alone, silent, reflective, and prayerful every day. But, I’m speaking here about silence between two or more people. I don’t know if there is a term for it, so I’ll call it “interactional silence.”

A little background. Since many of the readers here are American, I’ll share something that is true in American culture that few of us realize:  Americans have a strong aversion to interactional silence. That’s why we have so many “safe topics” to discuss when we are with people. Things like sports, weather, movies, etc. These topics are safe because we don’t have to disclose personal information but allow us to fill the air with chatter. (Exception: It’s embarrassing for me to admit to being a Cub fan.)

Watch two or more Americans walking, sitting, eating, or riding in a car together. Notice what I am talking about. Generally, things get uncomfortable after just a few seconds without any verbiage.

That’s why riding on elevators often feels awkward. Americans are together, but social norms demand looking forward without speaking. Being with other people yet mute = uncomfortable.

Many, probably most, other cultures are not this way–especially collectivist cultures.

I remember in China when I had a meeting with my friend Mr. Li at his office at the university. We were friends, so we drank tea while having our meeting. When the topic of discussion was over, we sat drinking tea in silence. My Chinese friend was quite comfortable sitting in peace enjoying his tea with a friend. On the other hand, I was dying to jump in with a comment on the weather or some other meaningless topic to break the stillness. Fortunately, I knew enough not to do so and enjoyed sitting silently with my friend.

A Japanese businessman visiting America described watching an American conversation like watching a ping pong game: your head goes back and forth with no interruption.

I often see Arabs sitting silently together and enjoying each other’s company without speaking.

Try this fun experiment. If you are an American try to sit with a friend for a few minutes without uttering a word. If you’re not an American but are with one, try just being silent and see what your friend does.

A couple of takeaways.

  • Notice your use of silence, or lack thereof

Just being aware is a huge part of the road to becoming more intercultural.

  • Change to be like your friend in the other culture

Talk more if you are not American, and talk less if you are. The best and most important part of learning a new culture is changing your behavior to imitate the Other.

I have more to say, but I’ll be silent for now.