Running on my high school cross country team taught me these 2 lessons 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 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

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 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

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.

Don’t think you can control your emotions? You’re probably right – and it’s affecting your “batting average”

When I was about 10 years old, my dad gave me and my brother a baseball lesson. Specifically, we practiced hitting the ball. The lesson Dad gave was the same for my brother as it was for me, but the results couldn’t have been more divergent. From that day on my brother became a “slugger” and I, a “striker.” If you don’t think you can control your emotions, you’re probably right, and you’ll likely become a striker like me. The placebo effect from drug studies may help, though.

A Little Difference with Big Results

What can science tell us about how my brother elevated his game and I tanked mine? (This is the scientific equivalent of, WTF?) All we know now is that something different happened for my brother and me. It turns out that a simple belief is likely to credit for our diverging batting averages – a belief that is within personal control but not fully controllable by everyone. Huh? Why? How?

A significant component of dad’s instruction addressed the bat – or at least implied its role in getting hits.

You’ve got to Believe

“You may be wondering: how are you going to hit a round ball with a round bat?” Dad posed.

“Yeah, Dad, I was wondering that very thing, HOW CAN I hit a round ball with a round bat?”

This turned out to be a key question and, I believe, THE pivotal condition that put my brother on a path to playoff-bound teams whereas I was never able to get my baseball career to first base.

“You don’t. You hit the ball on the flat side of the bat." Dad encouraged us as he guided our fingers over the barrel of the bat.

“Here, feel here. Here you can feel the flat side of the bat. If you swing this flat side at the ball, you will get more hits.”

The Placebo Effect

My dad was counting on a powerful psychological condition well known in the field of pharmacology – The Placebo effect.

It didn’t entirely work out as Dad planned – at least, not for me.

My brother claimed to feel the flat side of our shared Louisville Slugger. Armed with the conviction that bat and ball actually are designed for hits not strikes my brother saw an immediate improvement in his hitting. I, on the other hand, did NOT feel the flat side of the bat, and, did NOT experience better batting. In fact, now convinced that the flat side of the bat (that doesn’t exist) was THE (missing) KEY to getting hits, I was barely able to make ball contact at all. The easiest explanation for the sudden divergence of my brother’s and my batting was that belief that holding the bat a certain way that favored its “flat side” would lead to more hits, or not.

When a Placebo Becomes a Primary Variable -- i.e., a Big Deal

Here we have the experimental design of the placebo effect. By encouraging my brother and me to “feel” the flat side of the bat (which doesn’t really exist) my dad hoped to establish the critical belief that hits were possible if only one swung with the right side of the bat facing the ball. Confidence in this belief (I know – an oxymoron, "confident belief") was figured to cause an increase in hits as a result. Given this was the only identifiable difference between my brother and myself, belief in one’s potential determined hits. My brother prospered in his newfound belief about the difficulty of the task. But what happened to my placebo effect?

The placebo effect is well known in pharmacological research, or drug studies. This is the standard “psychology only” condition for virtually every drug entering the market. To test the possibility that merely believing in the efficacy of a given treatment has a significant effect on its results beyond any biological agent, the new drug is tested against a placebo condition where no drug is administered to a control group. This simple design has arguably yielded more advances in pharmacological and psychological research than just about any other phenomenon. It turns out that the placebo effect is not only present in just about every drug trial, it's strong, rivaling the physiological effect of many new drugs.

Prove It

How important is the placebo effect to psychological research?

Critical. And in more ways than one.

In fact, THE primary question in psychological research is whether or not a treatment condition is significantly more effective than no treatment at all. This is the tested assumption of the null hypothesis which is the bedrock of experimental design. As an inferential, data-driven science, the job of the researcher is to disprove the possibility that nothing happened. Placebos are a staple of pharmacological research aimed at rejecting the null hypothesis that nothing happened in favor of the presented alternative. This alternative account of results isn’t proven true, the hypothesis of no effect is simply proven to be relatively improbable as compared to the hypothesized effect. In this regard, properly scientific psychological research seeks to prove that “nothing” is an inferior explanation to the alternative hypothesis.

Beyond the Placebo Effect

In psychological research, the placebo effect goes beyond the simple issue of whether a given effect is due merely to the non-treatment condition or the presence of some stimulus (e. g., taking a pill). Here the matter applies as much to independent psychological mechanisms (i.e., variables and their nature of influence) as much it does to the simple question of whether or not any effect is present. A placebo effect holds out the possibility that a given variable may have a more insightful role in behavior than serve simply as a placebo.

The possibility THAT something (oftentimes a psychological variable) can influence study results begs the question: “HOW?”

When a placebo advances in research from the fact that it has SOME kind of effect on results to the specific mechanism(s) of the “placebo” the placebo becomes a key variable for study beyond the original focal variable(s). Science turns to addressing HOW the former placebo works instead of asserting THAT it exists. This is when the placebo becomes an independent variable with a specific mechanism of action. This is when powerful psychological insights are made -- insights that aren’t immediately written off to a placebo effect, but rather depend on the main effect of a placebo effect-like psychological condition.

For our hitting practice, belief in a flat side of a bat minimized the negative attitudinal, or motivational effects underlying a known difficult task -- hitting a round ball with a round bat. The change of attitude associated with our evolving placebo effect emulates a well-researched condition known as cognitive reappraisal.

Typically, this emotional motivation is deliberately and noticeably manipulated via an explicit experimental condition in which participants are guided through the act of cognitive reappraisal. Such an act is not necessary in this case because motivation is already provided by the goal of getting hits. The only thing necessary is to manipulate the participant’s belief in their ability to hit the ball.

That’s not funny

The punchline to an old psychology joke goes, … “one, but the lightbulb has got to WANT to change.” The common understanding is that beliefs are precursors to acts and that any change in action requires/carries a change in causal/supporting beliefs. In most cases cognitive reappraisal is triggered directly by asking a study participant to consider the emotions (or beliefs, in our example) associated with the task in a new light. By reframing an emotional state this way an individual can manage the emotional impact of a situation so as to have less of a negative impact on immediate performance. In this case the motivation to perform is assumed rather than directly manipulated. Here, motivation depends upon beliefs about the difficulty of the task. As these beliefs are enhanced, the motivating attitudes are similarly predicted to change.

Reaping value

So – how can one get value out of this insight?

Wanting to change isn’t the same thing as believing one can, but it is a measurable and influential effect strongly predictive of being able to change. In this case, wanting to get hits is a motivational condition preceding the act of hitting the ball AND resulting from the consequence of getting hits. Therefore, managing one’s motivation for a task has the potential to enhance task performance. But how do you do this?

We’ve seen one good example for how to manage your emotions already – cognitive reappraisal. This is the equivalent of hitting the “reset button” to current thinking and concomitant feelings. By changing the emotive nature of a task we change its desirability and increase(decrease) its motivation. Another means of emotions management is via mindfulness meditation. I write about my personal experience on a week-long silent mindfulness meditation here.

In conclusion

  1. Attitudes matter. They influence motivation which has a corresponding influence on task performance by framing expectations/beliefs.
  2. Motivations matter. They are a form of attitude (which already matters) that can be deliberately controlled by adapting and associating various emotional effects/influences from one situation to another. In our batting example this was accomplished by changing beliefs about the probability of a successful/desired performance.

“It” may all be in your head – but there’s no guarantee that you will have control over “it.” However, if you cannot control it, then it will control you.

Psychology at work – it’s more important than you think!

People with no personality are more common than you think

“They have no personality.” We’re all familiar with this casual saying (it’s no compliment) and we know not to take it literally (or out for drinks). But what exactly does, or could it, mean? Have you ever thought about what “no personality” really looks like?

Personality is arguably the most popular and practical contribution psychology has made to society. Here is a construct or phenomenon that isn’t just for geeky researchers but is decidedly mainstream. From selection assessments and team building events to everyday use and language, personality is big these days; heck, dating services may be the “biggest users” of personality assessments going and everyone has been on a dating site (admit it). Personality is obviously important, so what does it mean when we say someone has no personality?

A literal interpretation would be to say the person really isn’t a person (why do you think we call it PERSONality?). Instead, “no personality” has come to describe someone with a behavioral style of little interest (aka, “boring”).  An apt simile is that no personality is like (plain ‘ole) vanilla ice cream – familiar to all but not the most colorful. But “no personality” is more accurately described as “light” vs. zero personality – featureless but not absent, what are we really talking about?

So, what does “no personality” look like?

Naturally, we know that this saying is not to be taken literally – everyone has something worth listening to (if they don’t then they’re just boring, not a personality-less plant.) Nevertheless, we speak of personality in quantifiable terms, e.g., “Sally has a lot of personality,” the opposite of boring. To have a lot of personality is comparable to interesting and enthusiastic.

So, is it possible for someone (conscious) to have no personality? Literally? The answer depends on how we interpret the words, “no personality.”

{Obviously this is an abstract concept, in part defined by semantics. Nevertheless, the label “no personality” is a fixture – if informal - in characterizing people.}

In this case, “no” refers to a non-existent quantity. We’ve already agreed that there is no such thing as zero personality in a living person, but zero personality does not equal no personality. For all the personality tests I’ve administered, I’ve never had one come back with no scores.

But I have worked with many people who have no ONE definitive personality – or “type.”  I’m not talking about the clinical issues associated with split personality. Some individuals simply don’t have a personality type.

In fact, none do.

The first key to this puzzle is in the specific meaning of “one personality.” If we think of personality as behavioral style, then everyone has one. It’s like the SAT, you get 200 points just for putting your name on it. But if we think of personality as a “type” then I think you’d agree that no one is perfectly described by one “type.”

People change. (It’s what keeps psychologists in business.)

What someone does today may not predict what they do tomorrow. That’s because behavior varies within the repertoire of one person just like it does between people. Today may be a good day for “head down, GSD” while tomorrow may bring about behavior associated with taking a vacation. The way we act in worship probably doesn’t predict what we do (how we behave) at a party. Same person, different behavior.

But not that much. (It’s what keeps personality practitioners in business.)

Especially not after reaching adulthood (which is later than you think; about 30 years old) by which time it’s been estimated that 90% of personality (behavioral style) is in place. Imagine how difficult things would be if people were completely unpredictable even if you like variety. Communication and social behavior in general depend on some degree of consistency – it’s required to allow reliable interpretation.

Some change more than others.

Research has suggested that Emotional Intelligence, also referenced by its quantitative measure, “Emotional Quotient” (EQ), is more predictive of performance and satisfaction than intellectual intelligence, or IQ. This is a big deal.

Emotional intelligence pertains to an individual’s ability to identify and respond accordingly to the pleasure and expectations of present company in an emotionally effective manner. Unlike most psychological research, EQ is a rather simple and practical phenomenon that has become quite popular with the general public thanks to Daniel Goleman, a science reporter for the New York Times. Goleman “chanced” upon the term in the academic literature, simplified and refined the concept and described it.

Just how much of a breakthrough is EQ?

“Self-monitoring” was defined by Mark Snyder as an attribute related to the cross-situational consistency of behavior well before Daniel Goleman’s article that launched the EQ movement. Self-monitoring refers to the ability to discern another person’s or group’s attitude and moderate one’s own behavior to suit intentions for the other.

The stability, hence, predictability, of an individual’s behavior depends on the degree to which a person is a high or low self-monitor.

People with low scores on self-monitoring behave relatively consistently from situation to situation. These are people of principle that are less concerned with being popular than with being right. As a result, people with low self-monitoring scores act more predictably across situations.

People with high self-monitoring scores tend to be entertaining, attractive and popular. Elected politicians are among the prototypical example of high self-monitors. The high self-monitor can determine and adopt the mood of the audience in order to be more relevant and potentially influential to the individual or group.

People that have high levels of self-monitoring are less likely to be behaviorally consistent in a crowd. These are the people often referred to as “social chameleons.” They’re one person with corresponding behavior in one group and “another person” with a different group.

Can a single score capture all the behavior for an individual on a given trait?

Most personality test reports provide a single score for an individual on various characteristics. This can be considered the average behavior as scores reflect the responses to items comprising the trait. While averages are useful to capture the degree to which a reflects some personality attribute, they are not always that accurate. For example, Sally and Jeff may receive the same score on extraversion, but the way they get there is different. This can be illustrated by examining the responses that make up a given character trait.

Sally

Jeff

Although Sally and Jeff have essentially the same average on extraversion Sally and Jeff are not that similar. Sally could be described as being moderately extraverted. Jeff, however, appears to be extraverted about half the time. Essentially, Jeff is harder to predict based on his “split” responses to items that make up the behavior (in this case, extraversion).

Jeff’s responses are consistent with those of a person high in self-monitoring. He may be more extraverted with a group of friends (items 8, 9, 10) versus a group of strangers (items 1 and 2). One can’t say whether Jeff is extraverted or not.

Self-monitoring changes the interpretation of personality tests

Although self-monitoring can be inferred based on item/scale scores (see “Jeff”, above), going the other direction (i.e., from self-monitoring to the behaviors) is more helpful. Since self-monitoring is actually a sub dimension of Emotional Intelligence, EQ scores provide a proxy for self-monitoring. Armed with knowledge of an individual’s EQ scores the interpretation of high self-monitors must be distinguished from low self-monitors.

Low self-monitors are who they are for the most part. Interpreting personality test scores from these individuals is relatively straightforward and reliable. Low self-monitors are generally well described by their scores and their environment is not that much of an influence, they will be consistent regardless of the context.

High self-monitors, on the other hand, are highly influenced by their environment. In the right circumstances they may demonstrate one behavior, in another something else. In order to predict how a high self-monitor will behave it is beneficial to know about their environment; as the environment goes, so goes the high self-monitor.

No <ONE> personality

High self-monitors provide one example of how a given individual cannot be said to have one personality type. In this case, the more accurate assessment would be that the individual’s behavior varies. The same is true for low self-monitors but not to the same degree.

To summarize, people’s behavior is the result of both person- and environmental factors. As such, taking a personality test at face value is unlikely and under-informed, other data must be included for the best picture.

What your Personality Test Report says about You

People are frequently amazed at the accuracy of their personality test report. These reports can be powerfully enlightening as they describe an individual’s tendencies and character traits from what appears to be an objective point of view. When given the opportunity to review their report, I haven’t had one person defer. Everyone wants to know what their report says about them – whether they agree with it or not.

But sometimes personality test results are misleading and of no use at all. And it happens more often than you’d think.

In an experiment with college sophomores, a traditional favorite for academic researchers, the accuracy of personality tests was put to its own test. Following completion and scoring of a personality test given to all of the students in the class, the researcher asked for a show of hands from those for whom the test report accurately described them. A sizeable majority of hands went up – the report was an accurate depiction. There’s one thing they didn’t know:

Everyone got exactly the same report.

Yep. {I wish I’d thought of this first.}

Despite everyone completing the test in their personally distinctive manner, only one report was copied and distributed to the entire class of subjects. No matter how similar you may think college sophomores are, they’re not so identical as to yield precisely identical personality profiles. But still, a “J. Doe” report was viewed as a perfect fit to most. How does this happen?

Take a read of one of your personality test results. If you’re like most, you’ve completed several of these assessments and probably still have a report or two laying around. When reading your report take note of the following indicators of BS reports:

  1. Conditional Statements: The number of times the words “may,” “might,” “sometimes” show up

Example: “You may be unsure of yourself in a group.”

How “may?” Like, maybe, “90% unsure”, or “maybe completely confident?” The reader typically fills in this blank unwittingly giving the report a “pass.”

  1. Compensatory Observations: The number of times opposing behaviors are presented next to each other

Example: “You have a hard time sharing your feelings in a group. However, with the right group you find it refreshing to get your emotions ‘off your chest.’”

So which are you? A paranoid prepper? Or a chest pounding demonstrator? Either one of these opposing types could fit by this example.

  1. General Statements: The specificity of the descriptions, or lack thereof

Example: “You maintain only a few close friends.”

This statement is pretty much true by definition. It’s certainly up for interpretation such that it is befitting for all.

  1. Differentiating Statements: {fewer is worse} The uniqueness of the descriptions.

Example: “Privately, you feel under qualified for the things others consider you to be expert at.”

The lack of differentiating statements is not exactly the same as making general statements. A specific statement may not be differentiating. The above example is specific, but not distinctive as a fairly large percentage of people do feel under qualified for even their profession.

The point is, anyone can be right when they:

  1. Speak in couched probabilities,
  2. about “both-or” samples of a given behavior,
  3. in very general terms,
  4. about things that many people experience.

These four “hacks” provide all the latitude needed for ANY report to make you think it has “nailed you.”

Beyond these tactics, many give too much credit to the personality test. Frequently reports are simply feeding you back EXACTLY what you put in via your responses. For example, the item, “I like to organize things” may show up in a report as, “You like to organize things.” There were probably more than a hundred items on the test – you probably don’t remember every response you made for every item.

Another way folks give too much credit to the personality test is by holding the belief that the instrument should be right. Beyond your general position on the validity of personality tests, publishers have various tactics to make the test report more "scientific."

  1. Lots of statistics
  2. Lots of figures
  3. Distinguished endorsers
  4. Techno-babble

None of these things may have anything to do with the actual validity of the test. But research shows these things enhance people’s opinion of its validity.

What’s a good report look like?

  1. Good reports take a point of view. They provide specific summaries of behavioral style that really are uniquely you. If you gave the report to a friend and told them this was their report, they’d honestly say that it doesn’t accurately depict them – even if the two of you are inseparable. Fit is determined by both accommodation and exclusion. A good report speaks to you and no one else.
  2. Better reports don’t provide any narrative at all. They simply provide normative scores on the various dimensions (i.e., characteristic behaviors) covered by the test. This type of report allows an expert to interpret the full spectrum of dimensions in the broader context. Good interpreters know what to look for in terms of how the dimensions interact with each other and can further specify the evaluation with just a bit of extra information on the respondent. This does not mean that they already know the subject. It may be as little as knowing why or when the person completed the assessment.
  3. Great reports present just the facts. The report is a fairly straightforward summary of your responses, organized by dimension (trait) and compared to a group of others’ responses/scores. Better still, great reports provide more than one score per dimension, or the average. They also give some indication of the variations in responses by dimension. This allows the interpreter to know just how confident a given score is. No variance = high confidence. Wide variance = low confidence.

So, what does your report really say about you? Depending on the factors I’ve outlined – it may say nothing at all (or worse).

It really helps to know some of this stuff.

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