The “new normal” changes everything in traditional personality assessment – and more.

Human life in the "new normal" of social distancing. Is psychology keeping up?

Who’s the extravert now, in our "new normal"? The individual making 100 phone calls a day (including to their mother) but works and mostly stays in their relatively isolated space in compliance with CDC guidance during this pandemic? Or the people protesting for social justice -- most peacefully, some not – with or without masks, but definitely “out” in physically social groups?

{Note: It’s regrettable that we’ve somehow confused “social” with “proximal” in coining and using the term, “social distancing.” Uncertainty is largely managed by being social but being social isn’t necessarily about “huddling” or “cuddling” – important, though they may be. “Physical spacing” would be a more appropriate term to reflect how this virus operates without implying that it should cause us to be “farther” apart in social vs. physical ways.}

Similarly, is a prolific online social media user an extravert, or something else? Does being “agreeable” (or perhaps more evidentially, “disagreeable”) in person look the same online as in a room with others? One thing’s for sure: The “new normal” in which we live in (hi Paul, if you’re reading) changes everything in traditional personality assessment.

There are two major factors that have changed assessment in current times, and especially in our "new normal":

  1.    Technology
  2.     Norms

Technology.

Technology made the first move in assessment by somewhat passively moving the paper and pencil instrument online. These early assessments were sometimes referred to as “automatic page turners.”

Significant changes have been made to reflect the incredible practicality, scalability, and power that technology adds to personality assessment. But essentially, these changes have been made to insure the equivalence of online assessment with the old “rock and chisel” approach. Issues regarding cheating, user interface, and standardization across respondents were among the first and biggest issues addressed – and they’ve largely been controlled.

But there’s a bigger issue. Much bigger. And it’s particularly evident now thanks to the rapid disruption (chaos) and changes caused by this global pandemic and enabled by modern technology. Here is the real game changer for personality assessment...

Norms.

Less than three months ago “screen time” was considered a psychological and biological hazard (and it still is). But now it’s expected or required for most of us to spend far more time staring into the blue rays of our phones, tablets, computers, etc. Moreover, in that three months ago, now so far, far away in terms of the changes that have since taken place, offices and workspaces were almost completely communal (i.e., no walls, or, "open plan" offices). People were encouraged to work together -- and not just in terms of cooperation. We literally "worked together." Now we’re at home, largely isolated from physical proximity with others. And when we do venture out, we’re wearing masks and staying at least six feet from others. Even places of traditional social gathering are being redesigned or used to keep us from getting too close to others.

Now who’s the introvert? Maybe the individual that seldomly leaves the confines of "self quarantining" is simply highly conscientious about the behavioral approach (our only approach as of now) to mitigating the effects of a pathogen that does its evil work when we get close to each other?

In my career I’ve built, reviewed, and used hundreds of psychological assessments including the “latest and greatest.” But in a new reality where being online, once considered the “second world” is beginning to take over as a primary means of being, assessments still operate primarily on traditional (historical) norms as if technology didn’t exist – or at least play the role that it does now.

Personality assessment now needs a complete overhaul. Though we are, and always will be, social animals, what defines “social” has already changed radically from what it was not too many weeks ago.

Technology goes faster than science.

Science is largely about redundancy and standardization. Science is all about reducing uncertainty (and something we could use a lot more of now). Technology is about innovation and change. The way things get done can change overnight, and some adapt to these changes faster than others. It’s highly likely that comfort and skill with technology is “contaminating” what we know and how we know about human behavior. And this is just the beginning. Technology has crushed social studies and liberal arts in our educational systems.

The truth is we don’t know what many of our traditional psychological constructs look like in the "new normal." But we are beginning to acknowledge that behavior in this era of technology-driven, -accelerated, or -enabled change is not what it used to be. And it certainly isn't what it used to be before the spread of a still poorly understood and unmanaged virus.

What isn’t changing is the need for a good understanding of human behavior, and the psychological sciences are aggressively adapting to remain relevant with new tools and greater urgency.

Work is being done to make the changes necessary, but psychology has to admit that we are losing ground to the pace of global and technological change. More research, faster with more rapid application via techniques, tools and even therapies is needed. The very concept of "norms" is nearly moot.

It’s been said that the more things change, the more they stay the same. In this time of logarithmic acceleration, the most basic of psychological principles still apply. People are social, and assertive individuals balancing the need to get along with the drive to achieve and stand out via competition. It’s how we do this that has changed, and we need to understand how this changes our understanding of all behavior.

And this is true: The farther behind we get in psychology, the more important it becomes. Our need for understanding, predicting and influencing human behavior has never been greater.

Be well.

A leadership survival kit for the coronavirus

a virus requiring leadership

As the world reacts to the spread of the coronavirus (covid-19), leadership is more important than ever. Beyond the biological threats to employees and their families, the psychological stress arising from the viral threat is potentially more concerning as this likely affects many more than will ever become seriously ill from the virus. Here I provide a "leadership survival kit," in five key behaviors leaders can take to manage the extraordinary psychological stresses resulting directly or indirectly from this rapidly spreading virus:

  1. Stay up to date -
    • with the spread and management of the biological threat. Not knowing what can be known about the epidemic and its management broadly and more locally will render anything else you say or do ineffective. You have a responsibility to know as much as possible from credible sources.
    • with your organization’s specific actions and resources for managing the physical and psychological threat. Beyond safe personal hygiene and behaviors that minimize the risk of transmission, you must be prepared to deal with widespread and significant psychological stress. Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) and other professional counseling services should be made aware and available to employees, all of whom will be concerned to varying degree. Be prepared for the likely possibility that these resources will be overtaxed and what alternatives may be helpful. Your organization should have an emergency activation plan and it should be customized for this specific event.
    • with the well-being of your team. You need to know who is experiencing impacts from the disease ranging from symptoms to confirmed cases. You and your organization need to know who’s afraid, who’s symptomatic and who’s infected in order to manage the reality in your team and company.
  2. Communicate early and often for both fact and feeling.
    • By staying up to date (per #1) you will be equipped to manage the range of biological and psychological experiences – hopefully preemptively. Uncertainty is at the root of fear and anxiety and knowledge and proactive behavior is the antidote. How you communicate will make a BIG difference. In order of impact from most effective to least effective, you should employ the following forms of communication:
      1. Face-to-face (Physical) – While insuring against the possibility of spreading the virus biologically, seek to reassure your team by your physical presence. Many behavioral cues are communicated beyond the spoken word or even visible behavior that video could record. Simply put, the fidelity of being on stage is much better than being on screen. Moreover, being physically present, without possibility of biological contamination, reassures those with you that there is no threat by your presence and that you are not overly stressed. Showing up with masks or other biological barriers should obviously not apply.
      2. Face-to-face (live video with real time interpersonal communication) – Facts and feelings can be communicated with good fidelity using today’s readily accessible means of this form of communication. All the best aspects of in-person communication apply (tone, exchange, posture, cadence, etc.), but will be diminished relative to literally being present. This is a good alternative.
      3. Phone calls – conference and personal. I list the two together because different circumstances render one or the other more effective. Efficiencies are a primary consideration when opting for personal calls over conference calls, but the group exchanges can be beneficial to some on the call who may not speak up or know the answer to a relevant question from another. Personal phone calls are best for expressing empathy, or sympathy. They also can help more with individuals you know or expect to react more than others for varying reasons.
      4. Team communication (written or taped) – I list this ahead of personal notes because these reinforce the team relationship at a time when social needs will be particularly high. It’s also the best way to assimilate and present facts and resources as they become available without risking thoughts that more may be being shared with selective team members.
      5. Personal check-ins – Similar to personal phone calls, these communicate personal concern and your approach-ability to team members. This is a way to “be in touch” when you can’t literally be in touch.
  3. Take care of yourself.
    • The simplest thing to remember here is that physical and psychological health are VERY related – what’s good for one is good for the other.
      1. Eat a healthy diet (nervous eating is notoriously bad for well-being)
      2. Exercise – studies prove that exercise protects against – and can ameliorate -- psychological distress
      3. Manage your emotions – meditation and mindfulness are proven techniques to self-regulate emotions and behavior
      4. Get enough sleep – many studies point to the importance of a good night’s sleep on one’s health, both physical and psychological
    • Fact: The behaviors and emotions of leaders transfer to members of the team.
        • How you handle yourself literally influences others. While this is true between any team members, it’s especially so for the leader relative to the team.
    • Ultimately, taking care of yourself is good role modeling and truly authentic leadership behavior which is essential in a crisis.
  4. Keep work flowing.
      • It's good for the organization and what's good for the organization is what makes for the potential to be good for the employee (i.e., finances).
      • It's therapeutic to the employee – and not just because it displaces or distracts individuals from psychological stressors like rumination and fear fueled gossip. Work provides a means of reinforcing one’s value to the organization and themselves and is a major contributor to a healthy psychological identity.
  5. Be authentic.
        • Express empathy and sympathy for your team, their family and associates – both in and out of your organization. You can’t make the biological crisis go away, so don’t pretend you can do it.
        • Acknowledge what you do -- and don’t -- know. Your team expects a real leader, not an actor.

This is neither an exhaustive list of means of managing emotions in a crisis nor is it a substitute for knowing, communicating and reinforcing good biological practices. It is hoped that these recommendations are helpful when a contagion like today’s coronavirus challenges the psychological well-being of so many – even if they don’t show it.

The Dark Side of Passion at Work

It's not my work, it's my passion at work

Being passionate about one’s work is widely recognized as one of the most desirable aspects of employment. To be rewarded, not by external means such as money or promotions, but rather by appeal to the intrinsic value of meaningful work is the ultimate state of work motivation. On Maslow’s pyramid this equates to the pinnacle of motivation known as “self-actualization.” Everything is beautiful when one enjoys complete passion at work. Right?

Not necessarily, according to recent studies.

There is a dark side to the experience of being highly passionate about one’s work. Maybe you’ve experienced it – or exploited it.

The phenomenon is called “legitimization of passion exploitation” and it falls under the broad umbrella of cognitive dissonance, or rationalization. It occurs when some unsavory or demeaning task is handed to an employee because they are so passionate about their work that they won’t be bothered. Examples include being asked (forced) to work extra hours without pay, or to carry out undesirable tasks that have no legitimate relationship to the worker’s job. In the boss’ mind these are trivial matters because the passionate worker is so motivated, they would do just about anything simply out of their “love” for their work.

From a phenomenological standpoint, it can be readily apparent to a passionate employee when they are being “overused,” but it’s unknown to the boss who imposes such demands. As mentioned, cognitive dissonance results in the boss thinking to themselves, “They love their work so much, they will be glad to work a few extra hours” or “they’ll appreciate coming to another team dinner this evening,” etc.

So, while passionate work may be arguably the greatest reward for people at work, it also can have a downside.

How do we handle this?

The most direct means is to make the boss aware that their explicit, or implicit demands that aren’t fair or aren’t part of the worker’s job are, in fact abusive, if not as psychologically harmful as some of the more obviously exploitative behaviors (e.g., sexual harassment, exposure to extremely dangerous conditions, bullying, etc.). This could be accomplished as simply as by educating the boss about the potential for legitimization of passion exploitation as a form of abuse of power but may require more intensive intervention if the “bias” (it’s not technically a psychological bias) is deeply ingrained in their behavior or world view.

Alternatively, the worker could – or need -- be the point of intervention. In this case the employee who is being exploited for their passion may first have to overcome their own possible biases that also can serve to justify the exceptional requests. Passionate employees oftentimes volunteer for various “extraordinary” tasks because they too justify the behavior in the name of their own passion. But this isn’t always the case.

Once one notices that they are being exploited by a presumably caring, but blinded boss, they need to “unblind” the boss in a way that doesn’t do more harm than good. This can be difficult since the boss is not consciously aware of their exploitative behavior and there may even be a longstanding precedent in which the exploited employee willingly – cheerfully – submits to the excessive demands. Ideally, a third party, such as a coach or HR, could broach the topic between employee and boss. But not everyone, mostly no one, has the benefit of a trained third party so ready to intervene.

For the passionate employee, the greatest hurdle is to get over the impression that anything is justified in the line of their ‘beloved’ work. Sometimes even great jobs ask too much of employees. And this is where the intervention begins; noticing that one is being exploited and that it isn’t right. It’s far more difficult for the employee to remedy the situation than the boss or via a third party, but it isn’t impossible.

In cases where a third party is unavailable or inappropriate (some boss’ would rather be addressed directly by the employee than to be made aware by a coach or HR) the employee should first remember that they are likely perceived in a positive light by their boss. In addition, this type of exploitation isn’t deliberately demeaning or pejorative. The employee just needs to find the right way to bring up the issue without causing undue harm, i.e., embarrassment by accusation. This will require tact and diplomacy on the part of the employee.

The first issue is timing: when should the employee bring up the perception that they are being ‘overused’? Generally, the best time to bring up sensitive issues is when emotions are balanced. It’s not wise to mention that you’re being overworked when your boss is under a lot of pressure. Instead, the employee should wait for a time when both they and their boss are “psychologically removed” from the behavior or situation to minimize reflexive, defensive reactions. Both the employee and boss should be in a neutral frame of mind where it comes to the given exploitative situation. A particularly good time would be when the boss asks for feedback. This doesn’t mean they won’t be upset by the accusation, but they’re presumably prepared for some corrective encouragement.

If you, the exploited one, must bring the issue up, be sure to do so in a private meeting with your boss. Face to face is best, then via voice/teleconference if face to face isn’t practical. The least favorable means are via the written word. Email or notes (or even worse, tweets) are much less personal or intimate and miss the sensitivity of being more “present.” Traditional advice on giving negative feedback applies in this situation. Try starting with what you appreciate most about your boss or your job and then delicately introducing the one thing that would make your boss or your job even better. When positioned as an extension of something positive, negative feedback is more palatable.

There are other means of guarding against or remedying exploitation of passion, but the main point is that it happens and that it isn’t intended to be exploitative. While not on level ground with child labor or blatant abuse of power, passionate employees can be victims of the very work for which they are so passionate.

Do you know of anyone who is experiencing passion exploitation at work? You probably do and it isn’t “just okay.” Step in or step up to this subtle, but real form of abuse and right a wrong that many don’t see.

Running on my high school cross country team taught me these 2 lessons about performance and leadership

Lessons from cross country about performance and leadership

We weren’t very good as a team, but we had two individuals who were extraordinary runners, and they regularly took first and second place at our cross country meets. For one of our meets I didn’t compete due to a minor injury. It turns out this injury was something of a “twist of fate” as it gave me the opportunity to actually see Fred and Mark, our star runners, finish a race and teach me the first of two lessons about performance leadership:

Lesson 1: Performance excellence can create the illusion of leadership – you have to understand the “how” beneath performance to tell the difference

As I watched on, Fred and Mark crossed the finish line first and second, respectively, and with impressive times. Even more impressive was the way they finished. What I saw that day is not only stamped in my memory, it relates to many subsequent “races” I’ve been in or witnessed since then.

Here’s a little more of my story in support of Leadership Lesson 1:

Fred was our great star and he always finished first in our practices and races. He held the record time for our school and won the state competition. Mark was nearly as good, and we counted on him to take second place leading the rest of us, and our opponents’ runners, to the finish line. If this was all you knew about Fred and Mark, you might consider them to be roughly equal in terms of their running performance. But as you also may suspect, you’d be wrong. Mark was an altogether different kind of runner.

Unlike the rest of us who dutifully trained under the direction of Coach Dan, Mark never practiced. In fact, Mark wasn’t even on the cross country team except for the days of our races. Coach Dan would simply “tap” him on race day, and for reasons the rest of us never knew, (our guess was that it had to do with PE credits) Mark would just show up at the starting line and run. He was remarkable for his “fresh off the couch” ability to regularly finish second behind “Fast Freddy.” But I didn’t know how he did it until I had the opportunity to see him finish the race that day I didn’t run.

The next days’ newspaper would report that Fred and Mark had finished first and second, yet their excellence still couldn’t carry the home team to victory. Here, the article would go on, was the reliable, “dynamic duo of running talent.” Sure, they were dynamic alright, but based on my witness to their performance, they certainly were no “duo of running talent.” They weren’t the same, not even close.

Here’s what I actually saw that the paper didn’t get:

Crossing the finish line first, and once again breaking the school record, Fred ran as he did from the start, his pace graceful and his face relaxed, he wasn’t even sweating. Then came Mark. Unlike Fred, who looked as if he were running through daisy fields in some halcyon dream, Mark looked like he was about to be run down by a bear. His stride was broken, his mouth wide open gasping for air as he grasped his stomach. Immediately after crossing the finish line, Mark bent over and yaked. (This wasn’t a one-time event for him as I would later learn.)

What could possibly explain the striking contrast in their finish? The “picture” would lead to very different assumptions regarding where they finished – certainly not close to each other. I don’t know for sure, but I have a pretty good guess now that the way they finished didn’t have to do with their shoes.

Fred was the prototypical elite runner. He was both strong and enduring. Mark, on the other hand, was just enduring. Fred ran without strain. Mark ran in denial of pain.

So, what’s this got to do with work?

Like the differences between Fred and Mark from my high school cross country team, I’ve also observed two types of people at work: Some, like Fred, excel by virtue of performance competence, others, like Mark, merely “finish well” by means of sheer grit. In terms of results, the two are of similar measure, but underneath, these two types are made of different stuff.

Taking a purely practical view as employer, you might ask what difference this really makes, they both get outstanding results.

Not so fast.

Despite all appearances to the contrary, cross country is a team sport. Great as Fred and Mark were, they didn’t make the team any better – I think they made us worse. Fred made races seem easy and Mark made them seem near deadly. Neither example served to motivate the rest of us. We were a team only on paper – and one that always lost.

But that’s not where the story ends.

The next year we got a new coach, Coach Mike, and he was as different from Coach Dan as Mark was from Fred, both of whom left the team – Fred by way of graduation and Mark by absence of conscription. Despite the loss of these two great individuals from the lineup, our team as a whole began to get good. In fact, within two years’ time we won our league’s championship tournament. It didn’t have anything to do with the strength of any one or two individuals on the team. It had to do with our coach. More specifically, it had to do Coach Mike and WHO he was as a person. It only helped that he could run.

What was the difference between Coach Dan and Coach Mike?

My first coach, Coach Dan, used to send us out for practice on a circular route of roads around school. But this low (no?) involvement coaching style began to change when he discovered that some of the team (except Fred and me, ahem) were taking short cuts. So he put us in the team van, drove straight away from school and dropped us off seven miles out. When a concerned whistleblower (i.e., parent) reported some of us for hitchhiking, Coach Dan doubled went into dragnet mode trailing us like a homecoming chaperone in that van as he chain-smoked his way through a pack of Marlboros. But hey, he wasn’t all “police state” – he did occasionally offer smokes to the rest of us. (This was Richmond, VA after all, home of Phillip Morris.)

When Coach Mike took over from Coach Dan (supposedly for medical reasons) things got worse at “practice.” Instead of supervising us from the van, Coach Mike actually ran with us. We didn’t like him from the start. And we not-too-secretly conspired to get a new coach. But coach Mike didn’t quit. It was us who quit. We quit trying to cut corners and hide behind others’ coattails.

In time, we began to accept Coach Mike’s “running with the pack” style of coaching. On the rare day that Coach Mike cancelled practice for something silly like final exams, we would STILL run full a full ten or more miles without him. We wanted to keep up with Coach Mike, who was a champion runner in college, and eventually we could. (Now I know he was holding back.) We began to win meets and even tournaments. And unlike Fred or Mark, none of us was truly exceptional. Which brings me to my second leadership lesson from my high school cross country team:

Lesson 2: Great coaches have no favorites, they run with the “middle of the pack.”

To his credit, Coach Dan was a great recruiter who could source scarce talent – he did identify and enlist Mark from the school hallway. But Mark never joined the team. And the team never won meets, much less tournaments.

Coach Mike, on the other hand, was a great leader who inspired his team to want to win by his present and personal example. And the team was proud above its individuals.

In their own ways, both Coach Dan and Coach Mike were technically good at their “jobs.” But Coach Dan’s strong recruiting could not make up for his bad example while Coach Mike’s mediocre class of runners were won over – and over won – by his authentic leadership.

Final Lap: In the hectic race of work and life, people don’t win by command or by being in front of others. They win by “running with the pack” and truly being with the people.

In life, work and play, it really is best to, "Be like Mike."

10 common challenges with performance appraisals and how to fix them

Performance appraisals (PAs) require a lot of attention, and they get it. The problem is they never seem to get enough. For most organizations PA comes around once a year. And every year questions arise regarding the process – many of them quite familiar to Talent Management, “Should we use a 4-pt scale or a 5-pt scale?” It’s déjà vu all over again. It can make even the most skilled talent management professional begin to question their decisions.

Should we use a 4-pt scale or a 5-pt scale?

Here I’ve listed 10 of the most common challenges that arise when rolling out a PA process along with a response template based on affirmation, negation and a potentiality better way. They will be familiar to you. But when viewed outside of your own sandbox they can be amusing in a “rubber necking” sort of way. Additionally, they can reassure you that you’re not stuck in some talent management “do loop.”

  1. Should individuals rate themselves?
    1. Absolutely – including self ratings helps to calibrate evaluations between individuals and their boss; can provide information the boss doesn’t have; gives employees a voice in the process
    2. No way – some bosses will agree with the employee for the sake of peace; some bosses will adopt the employee’s rating out of laziness; it’s the boss’ call and they shouldn’t be bothered with predictably lenient self ratings
    3. How about we… – have employees rate themselves but without numbers to minimize trivial arguments over decimals, be clear about how their ratings will be used, hold bosses accountable for final ratings
  2. Should others be included in the rating?
    1. Absolutely – bosses aren’t the only stakeholder, other perspectives matter enough to solicit
    2. No way – bosses over-depend on or hide behind others’ ratings; creates a burden for some raters who have to rate many employees
    3. How about we… – communicate that others may be relevant to review, have bosses informally solicit others’ feedback but hold the boss accountable for final ratings
  3. Should we include objective results?
    1. Absolutely – objective results avoid problems with rater judgment; personal goals should align with organization goals; the specificity helps to motivate; they help distinguish busy versus productive employees
    2. No way – objective measures are difficult to attribute exclusively to the employee; objective targets can bring about counterproductive work behavior whereby the end justifies the means; objective goals can be difficult to identify for some employees; bosses can legitimately disagree with objective results and shouldn’t be forced to agree with a given metric
    3. How about we… – include objective evaluations along with behavioral evaluations for jobs where clear cause and effect exists between employee behavior and valued organization results; do so with full transparency
  4. Our strategic plan changed, should we change what gets evaluated?
    1. Absolutely – change happens, it’s more important to be relevant than consistent
    2. No way – changing targets mid-year is confusing, makes us look unsure and ignores what was once important
    3. How about we… – design the process to accommodate reasonable changes in performance standards at the organization level but not as a “one-off” for isolated individuals; consider mid-term evaluations for material changes in goals that still leave adequate time for review
  5. Should we use a common anniversary date?
    1. Absolutely – it improves calibration to rate everyone at the same time; improves consistency and communication across individuals
    2. No way – results for everyone don’t happen at the same time or on cue, it’s important to be timely with reviews; it takes time to get results, everyone should be given the same amount of time under review – including new hires
    3. How about we… – use common anniversary dates but supplement them with mid-term evaluations; recognize other talent processes such as succession planning in the performance appraisal cycle
  6. Should we use PA results for merit reviews?
    1. Absolutely – performance and compensation need to be clearly and formally linked; a separate process for merit review is inefficient and may be discordant
    2. No way – puts too much weight on internal equity without consideration of labor markets; some will use ratings to effect pay changes on their own terms instead of accurately appraising performance
    3. How about we… – use PA results as one source of input to merit reviews but not the sole determinant; ensure feedback providers understand exactly how merit and performance relate to each other
  7. Should we “fix” rater results that are clearly inaccurate?
    1. Absolutely – a fair process requires consistency of reviews between raters and justifies corrections
    2. No way – raters need to have the final say in their evaluations and should be the author of any changes
    3. How about we… – use rater training and procedural checks throughout the process to minimize outlier evaluations; communicate any changes to bosses and the broader review team
  8. Should we use an even number of performance gradations?
    1. Absolutely – it pushes raters “off the fence” of favoring mid-scale evaluations that don’t differentiate between employees
    2. No way – normal distributions do predict “average” ratings; it upsets raters not to have a midpoint evaluation when they are the ones giving the feedback
    3. How about we… – use an odd numbered scale for performance reviews where feedback is generally expected and bosses need the organizations’ confidence and support, use an evenly anchored scale for succession planning to generate differentiation for a process that doesn’t carry the same feedback responsibility
  9. Should we do succession planning and performance appraisals at the same time?
    1. Absolutely – performance and potential are necessarily linked, besides the ratings would be redundant; using one process is more efficient
    2. No way – PA ratings need to be based on past performance whereas succession planning ratings need to reflect projections, asking raters to do both at the same time is confounding
    3. How about we… – maintain distinct processes for PA and succession planning but openly reference each with the other when calibrating ratings between raters (this simplifies both tasks while maintaining independence)
  10. Should we use any and all available data?
    1. Absolutely – the more input available to final evaluations the better
    2. No way – some data comes at the expense to ethical standards and privacy
    3. How about we… – ensure that whatever data used for evaluation is well known and generally accepted as reasonable by those being rated; do not pry into private lives outside of work or spy on employees by incorporating any- and everything that could be measured; Overreaching is tempting in our “more is better” world but attitudes differ significantly between employee and employer about what’s fair for review. Performance appraisals don’t like surprises.

Performance appraisals don’t like surprises.

The most important thing that must be done with performance appraisals is to clarify and communicate exactly what will happen, when and to whom. The process must be well understood by everyone and it’s good practice to solicit and include input from organization members. Beyond being fair and professional, you must be perceived as fair and professional for the system to work as expected. And this isn’t a “one off” or isolated effort. It’s important to keep in mind that you very well may be repeating the show in the future so don’t act like you’ll never have to cross the same bridge again. Individuals will remember how they’ve been treated and aren’t typically shy about sharing this with you and others – performance appraisals get a lot of bad press.

As mentioned, no system is perfect, and these “fixes” won’t apply or work in every situation. They are offered as my recommendations based on an abstract, hypothetical model of performance appraisal. Specifics will largely depend on exactly why you have a PA process in the first place.

Performance appraisals are delicate, far-reaching and highly sensitive processes. A “little mistake” can have serious consequences. The referenced concerns have been posed as something of a “mock list.” They are not intended as prescription. Individual results will vary but the basic principles should translate to various situations.

Be safe and true.

9 signs you might be using the wrong personality test

Personality testing is a big part of the way organizations make hiring decisions — it has been for a some time now (it wasn’t popular before about 1980). With advances in technology there has been a great proliferation of personality assessments. They’re not all good. These assessments are much easier to generate than they are to validate. This quiz, below, can help you to know if you’re using the wrong personality test. (Have some fun with it.)

Directions: The following list of paired statements(questions) reflects things I occasionally hear when folks are evaluating personality tests. For each pair, one response is more problematic when it comes to evaluating personality tests. Reflecting on your current situation, which of the two statements would I be most likely to hear from you or others if I were a fly on the wall when you were getting the pitch from your vendor?

This 9-item quiz can help you to know if you're using the wrong personality test

Response Key: For all odd numbered pairs the problematic statement is in column A, for even numbered items the more problematic one is in column B.

Some of the statements do require more assumption than others, don’t get too caught up in the scoring. These are my answers and rationale:

  1. “It sure worked for me” — Frequently personality tests are sold by having the decision maker complete the assessment. This isn’t a bad thing — I encourage users to complete the assessment for themselves. The potential problem is that this is frequently the primary (or sole) evaluation criterion for a decision maker. Vendors know this and some hawk an instrument that produces unrealistically favorable results. “It says I’m good, therefore it must be right.” As for column B, the 300 page manual, good ones are typically lengthy. It takes some pulp to present all the evidence supporting a properly constructed inventory.
  2. “A type’s a type” – The most popular personality assessment of all, the MBTI, presents results for an individual as one of 16 types. Scores, to the extent that they are reported, only reflect the likelihood that the respondent is a given type or style – not that they are more or less extraverted, for example. But research and common sense say that personality traits do vary in degree, someone can be “really neurotic.” Two individuals with the same type can be quite different behaviorally based on how much of a trait they possess. A very extraverted person is different from someone who is only slightly extraverted — same type, different people. (No, I don’t condone mocking or calling out anyone’s score, as it would appear I’m suggesting in column A, but with a good test such a statement is potentially valid.)
  3. “That’s a clever twist” – Few personality tests are fully transparent to the respondent – this helps control the issue of social desirability. But some go too far with “tricky” scoring or scales. This is a problem in two ways: 1) if the trick gets out (google that) the assessment loses its value, and 2) respondents don’t like being tricked. It’s better to be fairly obvious with an item than to deal with {very} frustrated respondents who may just take you to court.
  4. “It was built using retina imaging” – Here’s another statement that needs a little help to see what’s going on (no pun intended). I’m not against new technology, it’s driving ever better assessment. But sometimes the technology is misused or inadequately supported with research. There’s a reason that some personality assessments have been around for more than 50 years. Validity isn’t always sexy.
  5. “That’s what I heard in a TED talk” — My intent here was to implicate “faddish” assessments. They may say they’re measuring the hot topic of the day, but more often than not, what’s hot in personality assessment, at least as far as traits are concerned, is not new. Research has concluded that many traits are not meaningfully different from ones that have been around a while. Don’t fall for an assessment just because you like the vocabulary, check the manual to see if it’s legitimately derived. There’s a reason that scientists prefer instruments based on the Big 5 traits (not the big 50).
  6. “Now that’s what I call an algorithm” — More complicated isn’t necessarily better. Some very good — typically public domain — assessments can be scored by hand. Tests that use Item Response Theory (IRT) for scoring, do have more complicated algorithms than tests scored via Classical Test Theory (i.e., more like your 3rd grade teacher scored your spelling test). Still, a three parameter IRT scoring method isn’t necessarily better than a one parameter model and it isn’t three times more complicated anyway. Proprietary assessments typically protect their copyright with nontransparent scoring, but for the most part what’s obfuscated or obscure is what items go into a calculation, not that the calculation is necessarily complex. Good assessments should employ fairly straightforward scoring to render both raw scores and percentile, or normed scores.
  7. “It really has big correlations” — As with some prior items a bit more context is needed to get the point I’m trying to make. Here the issue is sufficiency. Yes, a good instrument will show some relatively high correlations, but they need to be the right correlations. (And they need to be truthful. Unfortunately, I know of cases where misleading statistics have been presented. It helps to know about research design and to have a realistic expectation for that validity correlation. If the vendor tells you that their assessment correlates with performance above .40, make them prove it. (And a .40 correlation equates to a 16% reduction in uncertainty, not a 40% reduction. Sometimes vendors get this confused.)
  8. “It’s too long, let’s cut some items” – It’s tempting to simply eliminate irrelevant scales or items for your specific need. After all, you’re not touching the items that comprise the traits you want to know. The problem is that the assessment is validated “as is.” Both the length of an assessment and its contents can influence scores. Priming biases are one example of how items interact with each other. Anytime you modify an assessment it needs to be validated. This is typically the case for short forms of assessments (i.e., they’ve been specifically validated), so it’s fair to ask about this alternate form.
  9. “That’s amazing” — By now you should see that a common factor in my problem statements has to do with how much goes on “out of view” (less is better) and how thorough the test manual is. “That’s amazing” is for magic shows, not science (I realize I’m parsing semantics here – you get my point).

Personality inventories can be legitimate assessments for many (most) jobs. (This even applies to machines. Researchers are using a variation of personality inventories to manipulate the perceived personality of robots.) Without exception, it’s critical to ensure that any assessment be validated for specific use, but you want to start with something that has been thoroughly researched. If everything has been done right, you can expect local results to be in line with the manual (assuming your tested population isn’t that different from the test manual sample(s)).

A lot goes into validating a personality assessment and test manuals are lengthy. Although this is good and necessary for adequately evaluating the test, it can be used in intimidating or misleading ways. It’s easy for claims to be made out of context even if the manual is true, especially when decisions are made that affect one’s job. It’s important to review that test manual, not just the marketing brochure. (The good news is these manuals are boringly redundant. For example, the same figure is used for each scale, or trait, when repeating testing for gender bias.) Although I’m sure your vendor is a “stand up” person, you can’t rely on this fact if your process gets challenged in court. It pays to review the manual thoroughly.

I hope your personality inventory passed the test.

Psychological burnout is a lonely experience with lots of company. Here are 7 ways to help others out while avoiding it yourself

psychological burnout is a silent crisis that needs an alarm

Psychological burnout in the workplace is a painful, silent crisis receiving inadequate attention from both organizations and individuals. The social stigma of appearing weak prevents victims from speaking up and the need to be seen as virtuous in light of such a debilitating condition keeps organizations (i.e., leaders in control) from accepting blame, much less do anything about it. Despite, and as result of this comorbid “coverup,” everyone both knows what psychological burnout is, and knows a victim of it. This is a very personal affliction. What’s worse? Recovery from psychological burnout is extremely difficult – even with lots of help.

Anecdotal evidence of the increasing problem of burnout at work can be found in my typical day. Lately I’ve been taking an increasing number of calls from self-claimed victims (or near it). And these calls come from individuals both at, and out of, work. It’s clear to me that this is not a simple matter of the binary reality of having or not having work. Those who call “with work" wrestle with the question of whether or not they should quit, and those “without” work struggle with whether or not to finally give up the search for meaningful work. This is evidence of a third brutal truth beyond hushed victims and organizations in denial. No two people experience the stressors that lead to full blown burnout the same way. What one calls stressful to the point of ruin, another claims to be exhilarating. What all calls have in common is a deep and painful sense of lost relevance -- and loneliness.

Naturally, prevention is the best course of action. But for the reasons already mentioned, few (and increasingly fewer) organizations are ready or able to take action before it’s too late. The worse things get, the less willing and able organizations are to reckon with the causes of psychological burnout. The problem is more ominous than the mere absence of some innocuous organization stressors such as employee engagement or basic satisfaction with working conditions. Psychological burnout is squarely on the dark side of organizational behavior.

But the survival instinct is strong, and people experiencing stress will turn to independent means when outside help isn’t available. Too frequently, however, independent action exacerbates the problem causing more stress despite seeming innocent enough. Stress is like quicksand, you don't know how deep it is, it's very difficult to escape, and the struggle to do so can dig you in deeper. Some of these behaviors are actually helpful in the right circumstances but things change under stress. For example, taking time off is an obvious and popular means of reducing stress. The paradox here is that work and the stressors at work don't take a vacation, in fact they actually accumulate over the time when one is experiencing chronic stress. But some "go to" behaviors are clearly dysfunctional in the case of burnout and may create an even worse, vicious cycle, e.g., abusing alcohol.

Here I provide a list of simple behaviors one can take to reduce stress and ward off burnout that a) don’t depend on someone or something else to help and b) pose {little} risk of making things worse. As such, they avoid the complications apparent for stress in the workplace (which may be the same place as home). {Note: Special and significant caution is advised for items 6 and 7 for reasons I will address to follow.}

  1. Smile - Smiling makes people feel happy – even when nobody sees them. In addition, smiling is associated with the psychological trait of “agreeableness” which is associated with success at work. Most beneficial, smiling and its consequences is contagious.
  2. Move around - Movement improves cognitive functioning and re-focuses attention so as to avoid stress.
  3. Clean up – When someone declutters their workspace they may also “declutter their head” by putting away distractions that can cause stress. Cleaning up also demonstrates “conscientiousness,” another trait that, like agreeableness, is associated with high performance, for good reason. Organizing behavior, a component of conscientiousness, serves as a form of non-verbal communication that allows others to know what or where something is when “the organizer” isn’t available (or is taking a vacation).
  4. Exercise – The link between physical fitness and mental fitness is clear and strong, exercise improves self-image and releases high amounts of endorphins. In fact, being physically active improves health as much or more than dieting or even quitting smoking (which is still very harmful).
  5. Meditate – Studies consistently reveal the power of meditation to improve psychological health. Mindfulness is one form of meditation with especially impressive positive results. When combined with physical activity (i.e., exercise) the benefits multiply.
  6. Be with others – People are social animals with a fundamental need to interact. Even passive interaction helps to make people feel better. By interacting with others, individuals build their social network which is probably the number one predictor of well-being. (Caveat – it is not helpful to be around others who similarly are experiencing stress or burnout. This can create exaggerated anxiety that results in one or both becoming even more stressed and at risk of burnout.)
  7. Do someone a favor – People who help others can receive more benefit than the person they’re helping. A simple favor makes the individual useful and builds social relationships. (Again, it’s vitally important that the favor not pertain directly to psychological stress or stressors.)

As the potential for these suggested remedies to allay burnout increases, so does the risk (in terms of likelihood and severity) of unfavorable results. I have listed them by increasing order of potential benefit AND risk. Incremental risk for items 1 through 5 is relatively constant, but the risk spikes for items 6 and 7. Due to the social nature of these two items caution is advised, the risks can outweigh the benefits. A mistake here can create bigger problems not just for one, but for two or more people. Only when properly managed and kept within the scope as defined here can the benefits of behaviors #6 and #7 be realized with minimum negative fallout. Should there be any doubt, these are not advised. Dumping stress on someone else is a burden to even willing receivers who aren't trained as a counselor.

Psychological burnout and the stressors that cause it is a painful and pervasive problem that increasingly is not receiving adequate attention. That said, individuals don’t have to simply “get over it” without any help. The behaviors described here have scientific support for their ability to make a difference in an individual’s experience and management of moderate levels of stress without outside intervention. In cases that approach true burnout more substantial intervention is necessary. Though burnout may be silent, help is desperately wanted.

How to tell if someone should NOT be your coach

Unhappy male coachee listening to an executive coach give advice. Frustrated client holding a hand to his face.

Coaching has become very popular as organizations face an increasing need for individuals (or groups) to learn and grow more substantially and quickly than ever. Based on favorable if scarce evidence supporting the effectiveness of coaching not presented here, coaching should be given serious consideration as a key component of any organization’s talent management strategy. But, as is the case with anything powerful, you have to be careful with coaching engagements, or you can get hurt – badly. Because there is no "one best way" to coaching, there’s considerable risk of engaging the wrong person as a coach. And I'll be the first to say you can’t judge a coach by their title (or solely based on published credentials). The best of well-intended sponsors/buyers/users of coaching services are at risk of making a mistake before the coach even gets started. Here, I share some of the key ways for you to know when someone should NOT be your coach.

  1. They overlook ethical matters. This may seem obvious, but it’s much more complicated -- and risky -- than most think. Ethical issues abound in any situation where personal assessments are made, but they’re especially prevalent in coaching. Key questions must be addressed: What’s in-bounds/out-of-bounds? How will data be collected and shared? What happens next?

Coaching is extraordinarily powerful with rightfully high expectations since it isn’t cheap. There’s a lot of pressure that can lead to shortcuts or, kindly put, bad judgment. But individual and organizational “lives” are at stake. You need to engage someone well-versed in the substantial ethical issues that are a part of all coaching engagements – however formal.

  1. They get the role wrong. An executive coach is NOT;

a. Colleague – Your coach (by “your coach,” I mean the coach you engage) may be someone from within your organization, but they shouldn’t work directly with the coachee. It’s hard for a coachee to confide in someone that’s already close enough to have preconceptions or may affect the coachee’s fate “back on the job.” Using a colleague as coach has its place, but I advise against it for the majority of situations. A number of bad outcomes can occur for both coach and coachee when the two already work together.

b. Vendor – Assessment tools, for example, are a big part of coaching. Your coach shouldn’t be indefensibly partial about what assessments or other “coachware” they use. There’s more than one personality test, believe me. Check twice if the coach markets their tools exclusively. You want someone who knows a range of tools and how they work (i.e., their psychometrics).

c. TrainerCorporate trainers are specifically skilled at building and transferring new skills. While this may be a part of what an effective coach does, it’s rarely the “main course.” The coaching context simply isn’t right for a blog-standard training approach. For example, coaches build closer (i.e., deeper trusting) relationships based on coachee-centered discourse and need. (But note mistake 2d, immediately below)

d. Friend – Your coach isn’t meant to be or become the coachee’s friend, but this is a significant risk in with considerable “gray area.” A coach is expected to be friendly (i.e., “nice”), in fact this is key to building a trusting relationship, but boundaries MUST BE established and maintained between the two. Beyond the professional conflict that can arise when coach and coachee become close friends, the potential exists for much more serious ethical conflicts with life-changing psychological and legal consequences. Because of the highly sensitive interpersonal dynamic that emerges when self-disclosure to an authority figure is involved, the stage is set for transference. This is a catastrophic – about as bad as it gets. Any inappropriate relations must be managed swiftly and surely. If there’s any suspicion that an inappropriate relationship is forming, you should end the coaching engagement. Immediately! Full stop. This is no time to be bashful. {Respecting all caution, it is okay, even expected, for your coach to use friendly behavior. But they must not cross ethical boundaries that are much more critical for a coach than they are for others, e.g., a colleague (but they are important here, too.}

e. Boss – Again, bosses (possibly, you) aren’t excluded from coaching, they’re actually expected to coach. But bosses need to “stay in their lane.” In all likelihood the boss has had a role in the calling for the need of a coach in the first place. Boss’ never get the same story that an outsider can. I hope the reasons are obvious.

f. Short-order cook – Your coach shouldn’t be overly concerned with accommodating the coachee’s every need. Here again, the temptation of the coach is to give what is asked for, after all, that’s service, right? Wrong. What a coachee wants isn’t always what they need, in fact it’s exceptional when it is. A good coach knows when to accommodate, when to resist and when to suggest otherwise. They must maintain control of the relationship.

g. Subject matter expert (SME) – A coach is not an expert in the specific, technical/functional aspects of the coachee’s current or future job. That’s what a mentor is, and the skillsets are very different. Mentors impart organizational wisdom and job-related instruction. Coaches work with the coachee to evoke more general insights and lay plans for action and follow-up.

h. Messenger – This is a BIG one. (and shouldn't be 'h') It’s imperative that the coach not only be able to make an accurate assessment, they must be permitted to do so. Using a coach to provide feedback is cowardly and ineffective. On a personally relevant note, coaching as a profession and trade is tainted by this unsavory tactic. Don’t do this. At minimum, it will destroy trust.

  1. They didn’t adequately address objectivity.

A common challenge when engaging a coach is insuring objectivity. A good coach can’t be influenced by demands, information or circumstances. Being objective isn’t necessarily about having unrelated, or no prior involvement with the coaching party (i.e., coachee, sponsor, others involved) – it’s about being able to set aside circumstantial information when necessary for the good of a professional engagement. It’s being a trusted expert.

Beyond being objective, the coach must be perceived as objective. As I’ve mentioned, it isn’t impossible, but it is rare, to find a coach- and role-appropriate level of objectivity when considering internal coaches. But internal coaches frequently have too much history with the coachee for to be adequately insulated from the organization’s dynamics. The type of relationship an internal coach builds is almost always different from that of an external coach; the reason is objectivity.

When I have worked as an internal consultant, I’ve never taken on the role of executive coach – with one exception. That was a job in which I practically worked as an outside consultant and had no exposure to the coachee. The likelihood of a conflict of interest jeopardizing objectivity is especially risky for folks in HR. You can’t expect a coachee to share their deepest work-related concerns when they know, or think, that their “confidante” is about to run off and determine their pay. Even though conflicts are a risk for external coaches, handling deeply sensitive and personal discussions is one of the main tasks of the coach and vital to building trust.

{Oftentimes a coach does have a say in the coachee’s fate. In these cases, it’s imperative to respect boundaries and to have a comprehensive coaching agreement in place. The coachee needs to know and formally agree what they’re getting into.}

  1. They didn’t engage an expert in coaching. Coaching requires a plethora of specialized skills. SOME of these include:
    • Executive assessment
    • Psychometrics
    • Individual counseling
    • Leadership development
    • Ethical matters of individual assessment, specifically in organizations
    • Learning and development
    • Organization behavior
    • Organization development and effectiveness
    • Succession planning

This is just a partial list and doctoral degrees are conferred for each of these requirements. Every coaching engagement is unique and requires the coach to adapt in ways that optimize the engagement. True experts are more than a “one horse show” and can adjust seamlessly and effectively.

All of these mistakes need to be avoided in order for a professional and trusted coach-coachee engagement to exist. Without any one of these, it may be more than a professional lapse of judgment - you could have a real crisis on your hands.

...Thought you should know…

The top 5 reasons succession planning goes wrong and how to fix them

Succession planning org chart with person icons

Succession planning may be – no – it IS the most important job of executive leadership. The critical aim of this work is to ensure leadership continuity by identifying individuals with the highest potential to fill key positions in an organization. This is work that affects more than just the future of individuals’ careers, it affects the fate of the entire organization. I have literally seen a company’s stock price swing more than 10% in a day when news about executive position replacements gets out. Even in moderately large organizations billions of dollars can be at stake when it comes to answering the question, who will lead? As such, succession planning represents possibly the highest stakes of all executive assessment. Unfortunately, most organizations are really bad at succession planning. And more often than not, those stock prices swing lower rather than higher based on news of new leadership. Maybe the investors are right.

Succession planning is typically construed as good defense. In order to ensure leadership continuity, a list of individuals most ready to backfill a given job is prepared so that in the event of an open position (typically unanticipated) a succession of leadership changes can be made. Backfills are made not just for the open position but for the “domino effect” that cascades through the organization based on even one or two key moves. While this may be a good replacement plan for key executives, it’s bad for true, strategic organizational succession planning. It’s like looking in the rearview mirror in order to go forward – you might just run over someone and you won’t get where you want to go.

Let’s examine some of the most challenging realities that plague most succession planning efforts.

Succession Planning - Done Wrong

  1. It’s based on backwards thinking.

The typical exercise involves identifying the next in line, i.e., "backfill," for a job that opens up, usually due to an executive departure from the organization. While this may be a good way to stay where you are as an organization, your competition is going forward at full speed. The error here is replicating what you’ve had versus positioning what you’ll need.

  1. It’s driven by those who need a successor.

This problem applies more broadly than succession planning. From a personal point of view, the assumption here is that if I win the lottery, then my groomed successor will replace me. Wrong. If you leave the organization, you most definitely won’t be the one making key executive moves – you’re not even around. The most likely person to make any backfill is the person to whom that position needing a backfill reports, not the one in the position. For this reason, it’s imperative that executives know not just their direct reports, they need to know the employee population at least two levels beneath them.

Guess what? I have facilitated numerous succession planning efforts where executives have no idea who reports to their direct reports. Photos don’t even jar their memory (and can be controversial in this context). “You rode up on the elevator with them.” Still don’t know them.

  1. It’s based on the strongest of psychological biases.

Too many positions are filled based on the “like me” method. Naturally, we’re wired to think that we are exactly what “my” position needs, therefore I am looking for a “mini-me.” Well, you may think you’re at the center of the universe (face it, we all do), but if you ask others, you’ll get a very different point of view. Others in the organization may not want your backfill to be a mini you. That’s a good perspective to cultivate but it’s almost impossible when you’re in the room. This is why politics play such a strong role in most succession planning.

  1. It’s personal, not organizational.

This is another bias that inserts itself in the succession planning process. Leaders are VERY sensitive about “their people.” In fact, a leader oftentimes acts as though “their people” are just like family members – and sometimes THEY ARE, but this is a whole other concern not to be addressed here. Regardless, they aren’t “you’re people,” they’re the organization’s people.

  1. It’s based on flawed judgement.

Even for the few occasions that I have someone tell me they’re a poor judge of people, guess who weighs in on talent to fill open positions? Yep, everyone has a point of view when it comes to selection. And the closer that selection is to the individual, the stronger their judgement gets.

Studies consistently find human judgement to be a bad predictor of actual talent. If only those who are right when they admit that they’re a poor judge of talent actually deferred to more objective, scientific means of assessment. But they don’t. Sometimes the best you can do is to present decision makers with well-designed psychometric instruments that do make accurate assessments and hope that reasoned, versus inferred judgement prevails. This works best when the judge knows a bit about how the given psychometric tools work. In many cases, science will make an impact. You’ve got to take the magic out of the assessment and encourage those who “lean in” to a better way.

Succession Planning - Done Right

  1. Think of succession planning as progression planning.

Instead of priming defensive and myopic mindsets with terms like “succession,” “my successor” and “backfill” use terms like “progression,” “strategic,” “organization,” and “future fill.” This can even help with the personal biases as you and history are intrinsically bound. (See #s 2, 3, 4 and 5) Good succession planning isn’t possible without good strategic planning. Your talent for the future should look like what you need in the future, not what you’ve had in the past.

  1. Have leaders discuss talent at least two levels below them.

The first time you do this you may find yourself in a circular loop, “we can’t talk about the talent because we don’t know this talent” meets, “we don’t know this talent because we’ve never talked about this talent.”

That’s actually a good start. When leaders admit they need deeper insight you have the opportunity to improve on those shallow evaluations. Ignorance can be your saving grace! I’d much rather work with a leader that “doesn’t know everything” and is right about that than one who’s confident in their wrongful thinking. Now’s a good time to introduce better assessments and more strategic thinking.

  1. Train leaders in good assessment and talent management.

This is a big deal. You have to take the “like me” person out of assessment. Otherwise you have the old cliché, “when you’re a hammer, the world looks like a nail.” And since diversity and inclusion are nowhere near where they need to be in organizations – especially at the senior most levels, you need the seasoned group of executives to really recognize and know talent that isn’t at all like them. But good, accurate, assessment is hard and typically counter intuitive. Still, it’s not impossible to have a leader acknowledge that their best replacement won’t look like them.

  1. Ensure leaders discuss not only “their” function, make them responsible for all of the organization's functions.

Leaders think in their silos and don’t want others messing with their kingdom. That’s all wrong. You need to open up and break personal “myndsets” and create organizational mindsets. After all, these are individuals entrusted with the future of the organization – not just one function or group. By getting leaders to talk about talent in other groups you also improve the likelihood of cross-functional moves. These are critical to effective succession planning as they work to create organization leaders versus expert leaders. Well-rounded talent knows more than accounting.

  1. Use properly validated assessments.

Study after study show that good psychometrics beat good assessors. While there are exceptions, you aren’t one of them. Moreover, research finds that “good assessors” primarily are good at assessing specific characteristics or traits – but not all. A comprehensive set of psychological assessments used by an expert in workplace psychology should be mandatory for proper succession planning. Furthermore, studies show that training assessors with the framing reference of properly validated psychometrics actually improves their personal evaluations.

Good succession planning shouldn’t be a blind date. Open leadership’s eyes to the talents of new, unknown talent and give them the tools to truly know that talent. Only by clarifying what’s needed in the future for the organization can you break some of psychology’s strongest biases to truly ensure organization continuity AND progress.

I spent a week in silent mindfulness meditation only to learn nothing – now I’m going back for more

woman engaged in mindfulness meditation

I recently returned from a mindfulness meditation silent retreat. According to the brochure, this looked to be a peaceful experience of luxurious silence free from the NOISE of everyday life. I spend most of my time listening to others or otherwise silent, so this seemed to be a step further in a direction I already knew.

Boy, was I wrong. Nothing could have adequately prepared me for a week of the silent treatment.

How’s that?

Recall a perfume ad from the 80s that famously claimed, “If you want to capture someone’s attention – whisper.” The corporate equivalent would be, “If you want to make a PR splash -- leak it.” Following a week spent sitting in complete silence with some 40 others, I borrow and amplify this captivating slogan; “If you want to blow someone’s mind – say nothing.”

Nothing. That’s what I learned from dutifully meditating 18 times a day for a week in silent retreat. I don’t mean not just nothing useful. I mean nothing. No, thing. Nada. Zilch. Zero. Yep, I graduated, Cum Laude, by learning “nothing,” absolutely.

It was one of the most significant lessons of my life.

Sure, volumes of research support many clear benefits to mindfulness meditation. From weight-loss to stress management, mindfulness meditation has become a near psychological panacea. But my intent here isn’t purely scientific, it’s phenomenological – to describe the psychological experience of mindfulness meditation because sometimes experience IS the best teacher. What follows is my personal account, individual results may vary.

“Nothing” is surprisingly difficult to describe despite its frequent and familiar use. Think about it. How would you describe, “nothing?” It’s not so easy, especially if you’re trying to describe it without resorting to what it isn’t. To define “nothing” requires “something” (e.g., words) that in themselves belie the phenomenon – by definition. Okay, okay – enough of the philosophical dribble. To my own defense, there were a lot of eggheads at this retreat. (“Is that Havarti cheese you’re having?” “Hale, yes!”)

To be honest, I didn’t get all the way to nothing. And I’m pretty sure no one else did, either. But that doesn’t sell the experience short. Getting next to nothing is good enough to render two blades; one that sharpens the senses, another that pares the tenses. (OMG! I’ve become one of them!)

On the first, sensory level, one cannot fully appreciate just how much “noise pollution” there is in our world until going deaf and dumb for a week.

We live in a cacophony of chatter and tempest of man-made sounds. Proof? The cocktail party phenomenon. We’ve evolved to unconsciously register personal information (our spoken name) from the noisy clamor of people and machines competing with pyramiding decibels for our attention. (Ever notice how television ads are louder than the show and frequently use shouting salespeople?)

After a week of sitting, eating, and living with 40 other mutes, where the only noises I heard were footsteps, breathing, coughs (why these happen ONLY when mediating, I don’t know), blinking and even swallowing, (among other gastrointestinal chimes), I’ve developed Extraordinary Sensory Perception. Initially, I chalked this up to simple sensory deprivation, any twitch seems a convulsion after watching a person-statue for ten hours straight. But there’s more. A lot more.

In fact, this wasn’t even simply a personal experience, but rather a group one. But not so fast, not right here right now. For now, let’s stick with my newfound superpowers of observation.

Like anything of real value, the “prize” (i.e., nothing) didn’t come without a significant challenge and some time. I’d never meditated before much less meditated and kept my yap shut for a WEEK! I was so ignorant upon arrival that I did’t even take note of the fact that at least ten other participants exclaimed, “Wow!” when I told them I’d never even sat still for more than ten minutes (and that’s inflated).

By the third day I learned what “WOW!” meant.

It was after three days of forcing myself to sit still, that the witty “sayings” and paradoxical stories were no longer amusing. I winced with every “fortune cookie” cliche, longing only for the cookie and groaned (silently) through circular arguments that would eventually deny, and then justify, themselves. I’d just about had enough of nothing.

I wouldn’t have been the first to check out. This environment was COMPLETELY different from the wild and woolly world of work. I’d become quite comfortable in a world where stopping for a yellow traffic signal is a capital offense and “get to the point” is the refrain of executives who seem to be saying, “I don’t have time for you” (although most really do have the attention span of a flea). We’re all under HEAVY pressure to dump the story and get straight to the chase. What a waste.

The heightened ability to notice what another is thinking or feeling merely by their posture and steadiness is very useful, especially to a guy that makes his career by seeing in people what others don’t. It may be the job applicant who “manages” what they tell me. It may be the individual I’m coaching that feels compelled to point out the errors of senior management. Before this retreat I was pretty good at this. Afterwards, I’m even better. I see, hear, smell, etc., more than ever.

But the experience did more than merely sharpen the senses – even as valuable as that was. Indeed, development of the senses paled in comparison to the {almost} revelation of “nothing”, or more accurately, the state of “nothingness.” (Although they aren’t identical, I use “nothing” and “nothingness” somewhat interchangeably here, let’s not get picky).

Psycholinguistics (aka, psycho-babble) aside, “nothing” is easier to experience than it is to define. But to experience “nothing” is no lay-up. That’s probably why the spiritual retreat used every hour of a full week. (We had seven hours to sleep, but still maintain behavioral and social austerity. (No talkie.)

The journey to nothingness involves managing one’s attention by ascribing more and more of it to fewer and fewer stimuli. A blurring distinction between things previously seen as discrete is the result. Traditional “boundaries” of human-imposed mentality fade away as our man-made words lose their relevance and governance. How does one describe the weight of a kilometer? The thoughts of a rabbit? The self-imposed phenomena of past and future? (neither of which really exist)

It didn’t make any sense at first, and I dwelt in the world I knew at the expense of not recognizing the world around me. How beautiful it is. How balanced. How wonderful.

As I began paring back layer upon layer of denial, assumption, and self-defense that I thought defined my resilience I discovered something radically different, a nonjudgmental curiosity and compassion inaccessible by might. Incredibly, I was becoming mindful all the while finally dropping tons of dull attention I previously thought was sharp.

But here’s the thing. Nothing, it turns out, IS something. It’s just not A thing. “Destination nowhere,” isn’t the goal, it’s the ride, but yet, a ride that actually delivers both along the way and upon arrival, a ride that we need to pay attention to -- If we can. Attention seems to be in short supply in an increasingly distracting world of environmental noise and executives that bark, “get to the point.” To wit, prescriptions for ADHD medications have risen 53% over five years for adults. (Mindfulness is arguably the most useful technique psychology has presented for improving attention and overall concentration. Forgive me for shorting the research, but I’ll stand by that claim.)

Now, I have a job that demands that I be hyper aware of behaviors and attitudes. My value isn’t in seeing what others do, it’s in seeing what others don’t; the person no one else sees in interviews; the you that you don’t know. So far most would agree that I’ve been, “above average.” Now I have a whole new game.

So, what’s the big deal?

Nothing. That’s it. Nothing. It’s amazing what happens when one gets intimate with “nothing.”

Doesn’t exactly sound like a bargain, does it? But that’s exactly what I returned with following this week-long silent retreat practicing Zen Sesshin. Nothing. Maybe that’s why the brochure emphasized the silent meditations and lovely surroundings.

Of course, there’s more to the story or else I wouldn’t be writing anything here. As I do write, it was like nothing I have ever done.

It started innocently enough. Along with about 40 other retreatants I checked in and enjoyed a social (and talkative) dinner. Having never “technically” meditated, much less spent a week in silent meditation, I was not surprised that others were surprised at my, virtually absolute, ignorance.

“So, how many times have you sat?” I was asked. “Sat” is an informal reference to the traditional meditations.

“Never.” I replied to about ten individuals during this prelude.“WOW!” was the singular response from everyone that asked me this question. It wasn’t until one of the Sesshin leaders shared that they’d never had a novice complete an entire Sesshin before that I really began to worry (Sort of, I’m experienced being a surviving novice.)

Beyond any doubts related to my capacity to manage so strongly my thoughts feelings and behaviors, the goal was not to survive – but to thrive. I didn’t want to just “make it.” That would be to reduce the experience to an exercise in self-discipline. I wanted to reap the benefits so publicly trumpeted in scientific research. I wanted to feel and be better.

By the end of the week I was exhausted but energized at the same time. I suppose I was experiencing both sensations independently as they pertained to completely different perspectives of the same experience.

Physically I was okay aside from some aches that come from sitting on one’s posterior for a week. Mentally I was overwhelmed. Everything took on enhanced sensations I could barely withstand. (It does get better)

A friend who is experienced in mindfulness and the Zen Buddhism sesshin strongly suggested a gradual reintroduction to the outside world. I needed to manage myself and my surroundings to avoid overstimulation. I tried. (spoiler alert)

If you’ve ever fallen asleep on an airplane to be awakened by the PA system blaring something at you about your seatback you know what overstimulation is about. I just about jumped out of the plane every time that loudspeaker roared.

A regional barbeque was a bad plan. Nevertheless, this is where I had my first real-world experience with my new, “Spidey senses.” As the live band played loud to compensate for "tonal lapses," I freaked out. I found myself staring at folks and not stopping even when they stared back. Compassion and attention merged to heighten my awareness of others along with a steady sense of concern. Everyone was to be accepted as they were, none as a threat. I can still hear the band playing to the crowd, “What song is it you want to hear?” Whew - don't miss it.

After about three days back, I found my “earth legs.” This was somewhat bittersweet. On the one hand I was much less jumpy, on the other I wasn’t as much in tune. Have your cake and eat it too? I haven’t gotten that far so as to merge the heightened awareness and nonjudgmental thought of mindfulness meditation into my native life. But I think it’s possible with some consistent effort.

I need to make my meditation less convenient to be more germane. Naturally, this requires practice – a primary pitfall for us "distractibles" (that includes you). The benefits are convincing and real but they don’t come with a “one and done” attitude. Life is a chronic condition of stimuli constantly competing for your attention that never go away. But they don’t need to have constant perceived impact. This is where acknowledgement without capitulation to one’s attentions comes into play. In the balance between attention and obsession and acceptance, mindfulness has its utility. You may not be able to fully control your consciousness, but you can influence it and be satisfied.

The same can be said of your social presence. People with strong mindfulness practices always seem to be interpersonaly gifted. Studies and my personal experience suggest that this is not accidental. Emotional intelligence, the ability to recognize and appropriately manage one’s and others’ experience has been credited with more predictive value in nearly any situation than mere IQ. Patience is not only a value, it’s of value.

So, it’s high time for me to re-boost my mindful ways as I prepare for Sesshin II. Now enlightened, I expect to gain even more value from nothing. And you’re welcome to join me!

You just have to sit still.