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."

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…

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

baseball striking bat under high velocity to illustrate the placebo effect

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!

What your Personality Test Report says about You

Business man's hand plotting people's personality test report scores on a grid

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.

Stop thanking your team

Notebook with handwriting to suggest that the leader stop thanking the team so much

Most leaders don’t know it, but the way they’re thanking their team is actually self- and team-defeating. Before making an error that is at best as useful as watering the ocean, or at worst as appreciated as making a “tiny correction” to the Mona Lisa, stop thanking your team.

Here’s why.

People want to make a difference. It’s what defines and realizes us. To everyone besides your mom, you are what you do. Even in a team people want to know that they, personally, are making a meaningful contribution. It’s not just the most motivation a person can have – it’s the only true motivation there is (Hertzberg, 1959). One of the biggest problems leaders have is thanking their team too much.

You have this problem, too.

When you thank someone for their work, you think you’re expressing genuine appreciation. But “genuine” is in the eye of the beholder. And for 90% of the “thanks” out there, you’re not doing it right (authentically). In fact, you’re actually making things worse.

To be a great leader you’ve got to stop thanking your team – at least the way most do. Most feel an irrepressible need to add on to “thanks” with some thoughts of their own.

Bad move.

stop at "thanks."

If anything more than gratitude is expressed, all they’ll hear is “BUT.” Just stop at “thanks.”

With one exception.

Your thanks will be most impactful if you are able to fully subordinate yourself to the other’s act or idea.

Your thanks will be most impactful if you are able to fully subordinate yourself to the other’s act or idea. The best way to do this is with a simple nod that says “tell me more.” (Or you can actually say the words).

Next to making a difference, and actually a form of it, people need to feel a sense of power. Not necessarily via pure dominance, but yes, by some means of rising above others. High potential workers are especially motivated by power. The power to make a difference through others.

So, why does thanking your team actually demotivate them?

First – You’re recognizing the obvious

You demote and demean the high potential by thanking them for something that they feel is their normal order of business. It’s like telling someone, “Thanks, Mary. You’re very articulate.” To most this is a “left-handed” compliment at best, judgement in disguise. To some it’s an outright slap in the face.

NEVER thank someone for something that the target of thanks believes is an innate capability of theirs. I use the word, “thank” but the general act is one of praise. Be very careful that when you allocate praise that it is for something truly extraordinary. Something you REALLY appreciate, as in, “you really saved my @ss”.

Second – You’re improving "good enough"

You hijack – or “seize and one up” the individual’s contribution. Yep, by thanking someone you are basically saying, “I know that was a valuable contribution because I already know {have done, etc), ….”

Have you ever edited someone else’s email? (you know what I'm talking about then)

This may be a bit of a stretch presented as is. Let me offer another example to illustrate the harm in “blessing” another’s work.

TEAM MEMBER:  “We should put gears on the engine.”

LEADER:  “That's a great idea {because I gave it to you}. Thanks. That will also help us to make more ground rutabaga.”

TM to Self: {“I know it’s a great idea, Jughead, that’s what I deliver. Why can’t you leave it alone?”}

This power move takes (seizes) Team Member’s idea by acknowledging (“You’re right”) and taking it where it wasn’t going (hijacks it).

Don’t think you do this? Have you ever edited someone else’s email?

Moving on.

Third – You don’t really mean it

Some people are inveterate "Thankers." They thank someone for stepping on their toe. Over thanking is dilutive. The more you thank someone, the less they hear it or appreciate it (and you).

Did you know that you can stop your squawk box, I mean, “Alexa”, from repeating everything you tell it? Google it. I bet you will because you get sick of hearing your echo every time you give an order?

YOU:      “Alexa, turn on the lights.”

ALEXA: “Sure, I’ve turned on the lights.”

YOU:      “No duh. I can see that.”

ALEXA: “Sorry, I don’t know what you mean.”

Alexa’s no good-natured woman, she’s a heartless hockey puck.

You get sick of hearing the same words. You get sick of hearing the same intonation. You realize Alexa’s no good-natured woman, she’s a heartless hockey puck. (AI still has a long way to go).

Yep. This is what over thanking sounds like to your team – a hockey puck. Enough already!

The science of motivation (simple version of Victor Vroom's Expectancy Theory)

In Physics, Work = Force x Displacement.

In Psychology, Valued Work = Quality x Instrumentality. (this is a 3rd person derivative of V. Vroom, 1964)

People want to deliver value at work. Let them do it.

Properly motivated, most deliver a quality product that makes a difference. People want to deliver value at work. Let them do it. Don’t stick your finger in a humming machine. Save your gratitude for the truly unexpected result and avoid over engineering another's pride.

Oh. And thanks for being a good reader.


Google can’t solve all problems. For hands on expertise, get in touch with me at Talentlift. (You can click the word. It won’t send an email or make a call).

The Best Advice for Delivering Bad News

Deliverging Bad News

I once listened to a coaching client describe (vent), in great detail, the multitude of deficiencies of one of their direct reports. This wasn’t the first time this topic had come up in our conversations, so I knew it was more than a “sore spot” for the frustrated leader. Bad news was more than simmering.

This time they meant business.

It was apparent that the “plan of attack” had been refined and rehearsed to ensure that nothing could dislodge the “facts.” Every objection covered, all evidence compiled, I even got a little rattled as my client grew more incensed.

But even hurricanes take a breather. Once the wall of my client’s fury yielded to an "eye" of tranquility, I asked: “Do you think this individual knows how disappointed you are?”

“Absolutely!” my client proclaimed. “There’s no way they can deny it.”

“And how do you think they feel about this?” I asked.

“I can’t see how they could feel anything but shameful” was the reply.

“So, let me get this straight. You intend to deliver negative feedback to someone that already knows they’re falling short of expectations? And, they feel badly about it?”

My client’s shoulders dropped and their once riveting eye contact broke off as they gazed toward the floor. It was obvious where I was going.

To meet the obvious, if regrettable, expectation, I continued, “Why don’t you start your conversation with them by simply asking, ‘How do you feel?’”

“I get it,” they replied softly, “And if I ask in that manner, they’ll probably talk about the performance problems I’ve been ready to unload on them?”

Probably so.

How many times has someone crammed something down your throat that you already knew? What was your reaction?

The great detectives -- Columbo, for example, use riveting questions to tell of their knowing, “Oh, oh, oh, … just one more thing, ma’am. If you weren’t at the scene of the murder of your husband, then how is it that your beloved and loyal guard dog, Gunter, isn’t it, never barked? You see, your neighbors were recording a Youtube video on mindless tranquility at the exact time of your husband’s murder. He pleaded for his life – it’s on the tape – but, Gunter? No, Gunter never barked. Not a whimper.”

The same strategy is employed by the great lawyers, like - Perry Mason. “In closing, I ask the jury, ‘why would anyone actually go ‘coo-coo for coco-puffs?”

Let the jury connect the last dots. It’s far more powerful, psychologically, to come to one’s own conclusion (as it seems) than to have it shoved down their throat.

And the target of question or criticism? They know more than you’ve prepared for. (Incidentally, research proves that punishment is reinforcing to the punisher, so don’t believe your parents' claims through your childhood, “this is going to hurt me more than you.” B.S.) Besides, going into the conversation with “both guns loaded,” will only invoke defense. And this usually doesn’t end well.

Find that moment of tranquility when preparing to enter a tough conversation. Is it possible that other/others know what you’re about to say or do concerning their behavior? If so, ask yourself, “Am I really teaching them a lesson?” or “Am I actually reinforcing my ego?”

Bad news needn’t be badly delivered. It’s usually not news, anyway.

(Favorable comments, only, please)

A good mood is better than being happy

Cheerleader jumping high in the air to raise crowd's mood

Whether you’re at work designing plastic wrap that never wrinkles or at home washing dishes after the family reunion, your mood matters. I’m not talking about the obvious pleasure of a “good mood.” Your mood is WAY more powerful, more than you think.*

You probably know this. “I’m not in the mood right now.” Sound familiar? Sure it does. But I bet you’ve never heard it at work. Telling your boss that you can’t send out that customer email because you’re “not in the mood,” wouldn’t go over very well, would it?

Maybe it should.

Inspiration is more important than direction.

Creating a positive mood for your employees actually WOULD make them “work smarter, not harder.”

Inspiration is more important than direction. But which do you think there’s more of in the average workplace? Which do you do more? (If you answer, “inspiration,” ask one of your co-workers to tell you the truth.)

Excitement (i.e., inspiration) is magic. It stimulates creativity. Individuals are more than twice as innovative when they receive a good report (vs. a bad report) prior to a test of creativity. It even makes people smarter. Another study showed that by inducing excitement prior to a difficult math test, scores increased 8%. (If that sounds trivial to you, I’ll be happy to manage your money.)

Home teams have an advantage in sports. Gaming apps sell more than productivity apps. Advertisements feature smiling models and red sports-cars on the open road. (Ever wonder why there’s NEVER any traffic? It makes you anxious.)

Work.

Just the word makes you sigh. Know why? Because work causes anxiety, “I’ve got no time…” and sacks excitement, “I get to do it again?”

Warning: The following content contains explicit language and adult content. (Now I know you’ll keep reading.)

Sex sells. Need I say more?

You can open your eyes now. No joke. Open your eyes to see why approximately 87% of employees are less than engaged. (If you’re reading this while you’re at work, count yourself among the 87/100.)

Work isn’t exciting – at least not for 87% of all workers surveyed by Gallup. As a result, the biggest waste in any organization is what people don’t do that they could.

If excitement is magic, fear is poison.

Want to see someone work hard but get nothing done? (No, but I’m making a point here.) Make them scared. A study showed that by inducing fear, activity that was once fun and frequent, stops.

Fear, stress, anxiety, burnout, frustration, etc. They’re all bad and all related to lost productivity, a lack of creativity, unethical behavior and even physiological health.

Once again, you probably aren’t surprised.

So why do you over-instruct, or worse, take over when someone isn’t doing their job perfectly? (i.e., micro-manage) Why do you keep others working even when they’re on vacation? (“Smart” phones? Give me a break — literally.) These well-intended, but imposing behaviors are so prevalent they’re probably an instinct. (BTW: Telling someone to “calm down” actually makes them MORE anxious.)

If excitement is magic, fear is poison. It stifles good behavior, stimulates bad behavior and absolutely crushes creativity to dust.

Piling on the facts, the flames of fear can be lit in an instant but can take forever to put out.

In summary:

  1. Excitement improves productivity, intellect and innovation.
  2. Fear extinguishes productivity, intellect and innovation.
  3. The benefit/detriment of excitement vs. fear WILL transform an organization.

Key question:

What do you do to stimulate people’s excitement at work?

If you don’t see this as your job, it very well could mean your job. (Hope I didn’t scare you.)

  • In a related post, I describe a simple task to create positive moods.

Psychology by Machine? Not for a While.

Psychology button on computer where "Enter" key should be

Technology can fly planes, drive cars; heck, virtually perform remote surgery (pun, not intended). Some believe that literally all jobs will eventually be performed by technology. For them, if a “machine” isn’t already doing it, just wait. (Note: This is an extreme view).

Technology is changing the world faster than ever. If you agree with Moore’s law, it will only continue to increase its impact even faster over time.

Will technology take my job?

Probably so. But don’t quit yet! If you’ve been around a few years, like I have, it’s likely that technology has already “taken” all or much of the job you had 10 years ago. You’ve simply changed to stay in front of the technological evolution.

What does science say?

A recent study looked at the rise of technology in relation to the probability of it overtaking more than 700 jobs catalogued in O*Net, a public database of jobs and the various knowledge, skills and abilities required for their performance. The researchers (Frye and Osborne, 2013) reasoned that the probability of technology overtaking a given job is closely related to the time it will take for this to occur. As such, they created a list rank ordering the probability that these 700 jobs will be overtaken by technology in 20 years.

The study is now a few years old, but seems to have already made some accurate predictions. For example, you’ve probably received a “robocall”, a task once was performed by a person.

The crux of the study is in the researchers’ identification of three key job characteristics they refer to as “bottlenecks to computerization.” The degree to which a job encompasses one or more of these “bottlenecks” predicts the probability (and time) required for technology to be able to perform that job. These three bottlenecks include: 1) Fine Perception and Manipulation, 2) Creative Intelligence and 3) Social Intelligence.

The three bottlenecks were further broken down into seven more discreet tasks. Of these seven tasks, Social Intelligence encompasses a majority of four.

The practical implication is that if your job requires you to “read” people or influence them, particularly in emotional ways, you’re likely safe from seeing a robot at your desk one morning anytime soon.

Specifically, the study predicts that social workers, therapists and teachers should have relatively long careers as far as “automation threat” is concerned. Psychologist, is also in the top 20 of the 700 jobs ranked according to the difficulty of automation.

Although this research is new, the issue isn’t. Psychological assessment has long been a topic of technological debate: Can a personality assessment alone more accurately predict behavior than an expert in psychological assessment?

Continue reading “Psychology by Machine? Not for a While.”

Group vs. Individual Assessment Bias

Group vs. Individual Bias

“We are all underperforming, except for me — and my team.”

I hear this almost as many times as I ask the question, “How’s performance?”

You know the story: A leader takes a stand declaring the obvious, “we’re underperforming…”, while protecting him or herself and compatriots, “except for me and my team.”

How can group vs. individual decision making be so different?

This is probably the most pervasive and frustrating psychological bias I come across in the work environment; evaluating and/or treating individuals differently from groups. It happens ALL the time.

But you can use this bias to influence an entire organization.

Continue reading “Group vs. Individual Assessment Bias”

What is Bias?

Woman with hands held to eyes to create hand goggles

In psychology, ‘bias’ refers to predictable errors in perception. Here’s a simplified explanation of how bias works.

To start, everything we experience ‘beyond our skin’ is initially registered via our senses. After we sense something we begin to process it using our central nervous system, or brain (roughly speaking). This second process, resulting from the reception of the sensing process, is generally referred to as perception.

Once we perceive the input from our senses, a lot of “stuff” happens. Some of it is fully aware to us (i.e., conscious), some of it is not (i.e., unconscious). Whether conscious or unconscious, our brains actively interpret our (tasted, heard, seen, etc.) environment.

The interesting truth is: We don’t always interpret the “objective” world accurately. (We can know this because two people can perceive the same stimulus in different ways. If their is a ‘Truth”, both can’t be right; right?)

Continue reading “What is Bias?”