Psssst! Did you hear …?

Do you know that people attribute what you say about others as your own characteristics? Yup. It’s official. In a series of studies reported in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, we become associated with the very traits we attribute to others. Moreover, those associations persist over time, even when there is no logical basis for them.

The implications are clear: to build effective working relationships, be careful what you say about others. Make your comments positive, not critical.

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Banish brain fog

If you’re like most leader-managers, you sometimes feel your thoughts are swirling, you can’t think straight or concentrate, or that a problem you need to think through is just too much for you and you don’t even know where to begin. Maybe you occasionally sit staring at the computer screen or the paper or journal in front of you with ‘the lights on but no one home’, as the saying goes.

There’s a term for that: brain fog. It happens to us all, especially when we’re feeling stressed or worried, or when we have so much to do, we feel we can’t possibly get through it all. Here are four tips to clear your brain fog when it sets in.

  1. Go outside and get some fresh air. A few deep breaths and a short walk work wonders. It clears your brain and lets your subconscious get to work sorting out what you need to concentrate on.
  2. Clear the clutter in your workspace. Brain fog finds it hard to stick around when the space around you is clear.
  3. Avoid sugar, pasta and other simple carbohydrates. They drain energy away from your brain into your stomach to digest them.

  4. Get a good night’s sleep. No texting, tweeting or posting. A rested brain works far better than a tired brain.

Each of these simple tips for clearing brain for is good for you in lots of other ways, too. You can’t lose!

Feel happy, perform well

Everyone’s brain has a special circuit for enjoyment, pleasure and euphoria. Let’s call it a happiness circuit. And literally hundreds of research studies have shown that, provided nothing gets in the way, like shoddy tools and equipment or a boss you hate or a dull-as-dishwater job, when your happiness circuit is firing, you do a good job at whatever you’re doing. Happy people are also more creative and solve problems better and more easily. Happy people even live longer.

It makes sense, then, to light up your happiness circuit. Money can buy a lot of things but it doesn’t fire up your happiness circuit, at least not for long. Being smart, according to research, doesn’t make you happier either. Even being young doesn’t make you happier. (In fact, research shows that older people are generally more satisfied with their lives than younger people.)

So we can put money, brains and youth to one side. Let’s talk about Aristotle instead. He believed that happiness comes from what you do, as in, for instance, good deeds and making the most of the possibilities open to you. That means you can take control of how happy you are, or at least the 50 per cent that isn’t down to your genes. Even if your genes dispose you towards gloominess rather than gladness, you can still ramp up your brain’s happy circuit.

What you do, what you think, how you view the world around you and how you respond to life’s events can either light up your happiness circuit or damp it down. So pay attention to what you do and how you do it. Pay attention to your thoughts. Pay attention to how you respond to events. Make sure you’re lighting up your happiness circuit for better performance.

To help the people in your work team perform better, talk about what they can do to light up their own happiness circuits. Develop a team culture that includes praise, thanks and consideration. Take time to have some fun while you work together and share a laugh. When someone achieves a goal or does something to boost the team’s morale, make it a ‘high five’ moment.

The happier you and your team are, the better you can perform – together and individually.

How to sound more credible at meetings

Every leader-manager needs to sound credible – to their reports, their peers and their own manager. What do you sound like when you speak? When you speak too quickly or with a high pitch, you can sound overly excited, childish, nervous, or just plain inept.

There’s a good physiological reason for this: When you’re nervous, the flight-fight-freeze response kicks in and you tense up. You feel the need to rush as your muscles tense for battle or a quick getaway and your vocal cords follow suit. Tightened vocal cords (or vocal folds to be precise) raise your pitch. They can even cause you to squeak rather than speak!

A deeper voice sounds more confident and competent. Take your time, breathe deeply and relax your neck muscles. This opens up your diaphragm and relaxes your vocal cords, which lowers your pitch and slows you down. Don’t settle for a mechanical, low-pitched monotonous drone, though. That just puts people to sleep. Aim for an interesting mix of vocal pitch and speed.

Another way your voice can shatter your credibility is finishing sentences on an upward note, as if you’re asking a question. This can make you sound uncertain and immature. A 70 per cent falling inflection helps you sound confident and convincing.

When you have something to contribute to a meeting or discussion, gather your thoughts. Think about the two or three main points you want to make; you can even jot down as a few key words. When you’ve thought through how you can best contribute, you don’t need to worry about forgetting what you want to say or becoming tongue-tied.

Word your contributions clearly, objectively and positively, and  in a way that won’t create argument or antagonism. Clearly means replacing weasel words that diminish your points with powerful and specific words that strengthen your points: instead of ‘I think‘ say ‘I believe‘ or ‘I know’, for instance. Objectively means replacing emotionally-laden words and phrases with factual words and phrases: instead of ‘We were pathetic’ say ‘Our presentation let us down’. Positively means replacing negative points with positive ones: instead of saying what you want to avoid, say what you want to achieve.

In formal meetings, catch the eye of the person chairing the meeting and wait for acknowledgement before speaking. In informal meetings and discussions, wait for a lull, sit up straight and speak up in a clear voice that everyone can hear. Keep the floor by prefacing your contribution with a short goal: ‘I have three points to make that I believe can help us here’.

Don’t deny people the benefit of your point of view, your ideas and your knowledge. Speak up in a way that can make them sit up and listen!

How to avoid brain sabotage

Most of the time, your brain goes all out to help you. Sometimes, though, for the best of reasons, it sabotages you instead. This happens particularly when you’re dealing with complex issues or information – and what leader-manager doesn’t deal with complex issues and information?!  Here are six ways your brain can sabotage you.

  1. Seeing what you want to see. The brain naturally seeks evidence that confirms and supports your point of view or preferred course of action. It also avoids information that contradicts what you already ‘know’ or believe to be so. This affects where you go to collect information (which Dr Google continues to offer up when for later searches), how you interpret it, and who you listen to. It causes you to put too much weight on information that supports your thinking and to overly discount information that challenges it.What to do about it? Don’t make a decision and then figure out how to justify it. Don’t undermine the real facts with your own expectations and biases. Don’t accept confirming evidence without question. Be aware of your opinion and admit your inclination to think a certain way. Consciously open your mind to other viewpoints. Find someone to play devil’s advocate and argue against you.
  2. Anchoring. This means giving too much weight to what you see or hear first and last, whether it’s information, evidence, opinions, estimates or ideas.What to do about it? Be cautious about your first and last impressions and information. Make an effort to give fair weight to what you see and learn in between and don’t automatically stick with whatever idea occurs to you first.
  3. Sticking with the status quo. The conventional wisdom of ‘Leave well enough alone’ and ‘Let sleeping dogs lie’ warns us not to do anything radical or different. It often seems easier to stick with things as they are. Doing nothing is a lot easier than making an effort to do something differently. And the less action you take, the less open you are to criticism. Inertia is temptingly safe.What to do about it? Maintaining the status quo might be a good choice, but don’t do it just because it’s safe and easy. Ask yourself: ‘What do I want to achieve? Does the current situation do this well enough for me or could an alternative be better?’ A great question is: ‘Would I select the status quo if it were just another alternative?’
  4. Estimating and forecasting. This is a double whammy. The first whammy is with everyday estimates. Take the example of judging distance. For this, your brain uses a mental shortcut that equates clarity with closeness. This means that the more clearly an object appears, the closer you think it is. That’s generally fine – until haze or fog tricks you into thinking things are further away than they are. That can be dangerous: studies show that people drive faster in fog because the reduced clarity and contrast make people think they’re driving slower than they really are.The second whammy is estimating and forecasting in situations you don’t often encounter. When you estimate the same sorts of things a lot – distance, time, volume, weight – you become pretty good at it because you have a lot of feedback on how well you guess. But when you’re faced with something unusual, you haven’t had a chance to develop and fine-tune your estimating skills in that area, making the task a lot more difficult. As a result, you’re likely to become either over-confident or over-cautious, or to rely too much on past events or dramatic events that have left a strong impression – none of which leads to accuracy.There isn’t much you can do about those automatic mental shortcuts except be disciplined. Realise they exist, think about the assumptions you’re making to make sure you’re not going off at a tangent, try not to be guided by impressions, and when you can, use accurate facts and figures. Then cross your fingers, know your guesstimate is a long shot, and be prepared to be wrong and change course when it fails.
  5. Not cutting your losses. It’s hard to turn your back on the time, effort and money you’ve put into something. You see it as a waste, and who doesn’t hate waste!The world’s richest man, Warren Buffet, said that the best thing to do when you’re in a hole is to stop digging and get out. Good advice. Consider the costs of not cutting your losses and moving on and think about what you have to gain by moving on.
  6. Pattern recognition. When you’re faced with a new situation, you automatically pull together information from up to 30 parts of your brain. This usually works well but it can also mislead you, particularly when you’re dealing with situations that seem to be familiar but actually turn out to be unusual. You think you know what’s going on, but you don’t. History doesn’t always repeat itself, especially today, when change is coming fast and furious. This means that what worked fine last year may not work again this year because conditions, the economy, technology and people have probably all changed and those changes influence what does and doesn’t work.What to do about it? Rather than blindly following past experience over a cliff, think about whether your memories and experience could be misleading you. Think about what might be different about this situation to other seemingly similar situations. When you decide to apply the solution or action that worked last time, be prepared to cut your losses as soon as you can see it isn’t working.

Your brain is usually your friend, but it can be your foe when you let it! Forewarned is forearmed.

Inventions by women

When organisations, countries or individuals don’t grow and change, they stagnate, decline and eventually die. Here are some amazing inventions that have helped us all. And they’re all inventions made by women.

  • Some of the telecommunications technology developed by physicist Dr Shirley Jackson in the 1980s and 1990s include the portable fax machine, the touch tone telephone, solar cells, fibre optic cables and the technology behind caller ID and call waiting. Dr Jackson is currently president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, the oldest technological research university and one of the top 50 universities in the United States.
  • Marie Van Brittan Brown invented closed-circuit television security (CCTV) in 1969 to help people ensure their own security and to counter the slow response of police officers; this invention influenced modern CCTV systems used for home security and police work today.
  • In 1965, Stephanie Kwolek invented kevlar, the life-saving material that is more than five times stronger than steel and used, for example, in bulletproof vests and as a replacement for steel in racing tyres.
  • Residential solar heating, invented by Dr Maria Telkes in 1947; Dr Telkes was a psychiatrist as well as a solar-power pioneer.
  • Hedy Lamarr (the world famous film star) and co-inventor George Anthiel invented a secret, wireless transmission technology, patented in 1941; it was used during World War II for radio-controlling torpedoes and paved the way for everything from Wi-Fi to GPS.
  • Dr Grace Murray Hopper, a computer scientist, invented COBOL, the first user-friendly business computer software system, in 1940. She was also a rear admiral in the US Navy and the first person to use the term ‘bug’ to refer to a glitch in a computer system – she literally found a bug (a moth) causing problems with her computer.
  • Alice Parker invented a gas powered central heater in 1919, the first to use natural gas to heat a home; it was never manufactured but it did inspire today’s central heating systems.
  • The modern electric refrigerator was invented by Florence Parpart in 1914; she also created an improved street cleaning machine.
  • Elizabeth Magie invented a game she called the Landlord’s Game in 1904 to expose the injustices of unchecked capitalism. Charles Darrow saw the game and sold it as his own invention to Parker Brothers 30 years later, who called it Monopoly. Parker Brothers later paid Elizabeth $500 for her game.
  • The medical syringe that could be operated with only one hand was invented by Letitia Geer in 1899.
  • Margaret E Wilcox invented and patented the car heater in 1893; she also invented a combined clothes and dishwasher (which goes to show that not all inventions take off).
  • The fire escape was invented and patented by Anna Connelly in 1887.
  • Josephine Cochrane invented the dishwasher in 1887; she even marketed it to hotel owners and opened her own factory (without the help of a man!)
  • The life raft was invented by Maria Beasley in 1882; she also invented a barrel-making machine that made her very rich.
  • The machine that makes square-bottomed paper bags was invented by Margaret Knight in 1871; she almost didn’t get credit when Charles Anan tried to steal her work, claiming it wasn’t possible for a woman to create this brilliant invention. Margaret Knight also invented a safety device for cotton mills when she was 12 years old, an invention still used today.
  • Nancy Johnson invented the ice cream maker in 1843; her patented design is still used today.
  • The computer algorithm was invented by Ada Lovelace, who is essentially the first computer programer due to her work with Charles Babbage at the University of London in 1842; her notes were essential in helping Alan Turing’s work on the first modern computer in the 1940s.

And last but not least:

  • Beer: According to Beer Historian Jane Peyton, Mesopotamian women were the first to develop, sell and drink beer!

Did you make one?

A New Year’s Resolution, I mean! I wonder how many of you actually did make one and if you did, whether you’re still keeping it!

I suspect New Year’s resolutions are something we all think about in a vague sort of way but seldom actually make one or when we do, seldom actually stick to it. That’s a pity, really, because unless we change and improve, we fall apart and decay.

You probably know about The Salk Curve of Change, named after Jonas Salk, who discovered the polio vaccine. Changing and improving is a natural part of life that governs all living systems (and probably businesses, communities and nations, too).

The Salk Curve is a sigmoid – think of an S on its side and you’ve got a sigmoid. You can see growth, prosperity, stability and decline – unless you make changes during prosperity to avoid decline and begin the cycle again. That’s the way to beat decline – change and improve. Otherwise, you keep doing what you’ve always done, which leads to eventual decline.

Resolutions are a great way to beat decline and you can make them any time: on your birthday, at New Year’s , or just whenever you feel like it. And now, at the beginning of a new year, is as good a time as any.

Instead of resolving to do something big, like becoming the world’s best manager, you can make a small adjustment, or improvement, to what you’re doing already. Tweaking is a lot easier than an extreme make-over. So you might resolve to get to know your direct reports better this year, or to listen to their improvement ideas more carefully and thoughtfully, or to spend three hours a week coaching or mentoring people. The trick is to make small improvements and stick to them.

You can make your decline-beating resolution even more powerful by writing it down. Research consistently shows that people who write down their goals are far more likely to achieve them than people who just think about their goals.

Write your resolution in clear words and make it positive – something you’re going to do, not something you’re going to stop doing. For instance, resolve to Listen carefully and thoughtfully to peoples’ ideas, not to Not brush off peoples’ ideas.

Out of sight is out of mind, so put your resolution where you’ll see it, somewhere that you will look at it often. A friend of mine writes hers on a Post-It note and puts it on the side of her bedside table, where she sees it as she falls asleep and first thing when she wakes up. Or you could stick your resolution on the mirror where you put on your make up or shave, or on the dashboard of your car. Whatever works for you. You want to keep seeing your resolution so it imbeds itself into your subconscious.

When ‘life’ gets in the way, as it does, do not tolerate exceptions. Stick persistently to your decline-beating resolution and avoid as many situations that could tempt you to ignore your resolution, as you can.

Old habits are hard to break – they’re wired into your brain. They’re the ‘default’ setting and you obey your old habits automatically, without any conscious effort. Replacing them with new habits, in effect re-wiring that part of your brain to create a new ‘default’ setting takes effort and commitment. The first few days are the hardest and then sticking to your resolution becomes easier and easier, until it becomes your new ‘default’.

That, in a nutshell, is how to stave off inevitable decline and make 2018 a great year.