Gather your facts first

I’m reading a fantastic book by Jim Robbins called The Wonder of Birds. In it (on pages 124-5) he relates a story that is a lesson on the importance of gathering your facts and thinking through the implications of your actions.

In China in 1958, Chairman Mao Zedong ordered that sparrows (as well as flies, mosquitoes and rates) be exterminated. Everyone was expected to do their share of the killing. and they did.

The scientists had estimated that each sparrow ate nearly two kilos of grain a year. Every million sparrows killed would free up enough grain to feed sixty thousand people.

The Great Sparrow Campaign began, with many bells and whistles and banging of pots and pans. Millions of sparrows across the country were killed in just a few months. The people celebrated.

But wait. When scientists dissected the bodies of some of the poor, dead birds, they found that 3/4 of the sparrow diet was not grain, but insects. The near extinction of sparrows in China not only upset the ecological balance of the country but allowed the population of locusts and other insects the sparrows would have kept at bay to flourish. The Great Chinese Famine that resulted killed 30 million people.

The moral of this sad tale is clear, isn’t it?


Science-backed study tips

Let’s review some eminently sensible science-backed ways to remember more when you’re studying. Then, for fun as well as for your edification, we’ll look at some off-the-wall but nevertheless science-backed tips to add some icing to the cake.

First, make a study plan to organise your study time and working on assignments. This ensures you spread your studying and practice testing (discussed below) over time. Cramming doesn’t work.

When you sit down to study, don’t just read; know why you’re reading. Begin by skimming, so you get a quick overview and to prime your brain for the information. Check out the headings, tables and figures; notice the key terms (highlighted or in italics in the text).

Then think about what you already know about the material. Now your brain’s neural circuits are fired up and ready to accept new information on the topic. And that’s really what learning is — making new neural circuits.

Now you can read more deeply. Look for something you can use; read to learn about a concept or the steps to achieving something (e.g. solving a problem, preparing for a meeting).

Your short-term memory doesn’t last very long so, in order to retain information, you need to do something with it. Every few paragraphs, stop and think about what you’ve read; paraphrase it to yourself to make sure you understand it. Explain it to an imaginary friend if you have one. Pets are good, too, particularly goldfish as they can’t get up and walk away.

Make mental images of what you’re learning. See the information as a scene in your mind’s eye or, better still, imagine yourself putting it to use. Or think about a time when you could have put that information to use. Or think about when you’ve seen the material put into practice by someone else and run that through in your mind. Discuss the material with others and talk about how you can apply it, too.

Multi-tasking shreds those neural circuits you’ve just built up, so don’t do it. When you read or study, read or study. No exceptions. If you’re a technoholic, put in some serious study time, say 10 or 15 minutes. Then reward yourself with a 10-minute tech break. Gradually increase your serious study time until you can concentrate for an hour. You’ll learn more and put it to better use. You’ll get better grades, too.

When you’re reading, and in class, take notes. Take them the old-fashioned way — by longhand. This really improves your understanding of the concepts, probably because writing longhand means you need to process the information, work out what’s most important and put it into your own words — all of which increases learning. (When you need to learn just facts, the laptop is fine.)

A great way to take notes is to draw a line down the page about 1/3rd over. Take notes on the larger bit. On the other bit, write questions you can ask yourself to test your memory and understanding of the material. (That’s called the Cornell note-taking system and it works a treat. See for more information.)

Know you’ll be tested on the material. That alone can improve your recall of the material by 40 to 75 per cent.

Complete the practice test questions and case studies at the end of every chapter. That enhances learning, as do the flash cards in CourseMate Express. Keep practising the test questions and flash cards until you always get them right. (Newsflash: We’re moving the second case study to CourseMate Express for the 7th edition, which is due for release in October 2018; but rest assured: there are still two case studies for each chapter in Parts 2 through 5.)

When you’ve taken a test or completed an assignment, look back over it to see how you could do better next time.

And now for the crazy but probably valid tips:

Eat a handful of walnuts every day to improve your thinking.

Workout with weights just before you study to improve your long-term memory by about 20 per cent.

When you’ve finished studying, take a short nap. Sleeping for as few as six minutes lets your brain cells connect with other brain cells, which makes the information stick — provided you keep those circuits alive by putting what you’ve learned to use or, at the very least, by reviewing it.

The caffeine in a cup of coffee can help the information you’ve just learned move into your long-term memory.

So there we have it. Enjoy your learning and see it as an important path to the future, not a chore.


Honest conversations

As a leader-manager, you no doubt want to be open and honest with your team members. Here are some conversation starters.

Especially with new team members, contractors or temporary workers, and with team members whose performance is merely average, explain how you measure the success of their performance. What do they need to achieve? Which tasks are so important, and why, that they need to double check they’ve done them well? What specifically differentiates a star performer from a good performer in your eyes?

Make sure your criteria are measurable, time-gramed, achievable yet challenging and related to the department’s or organisation’s success measures. And make sure the job holder can easily track their success themselves — it’s silly to make people rely on you to tell them whether they’re doing a good job.

Have a frank discussion about the challenges the employee faces in their role. Maybe it’s interdepartmental politics or very tight budget constraints. Discuss how the employee can best deal with them and how you can help the employee work with them. Maybe it’s poorly organised work procedures. How can you streamline them or reduce backtracking and extra work? Maybe it’s lots of interruptions. What causes them? Can you remove or reduce them? It’s these sorts of issues that annoy and demotivate people, devalue their job and diminish their performance. Don’t let that happen.

Find out what the employee needs to be really happy in their work and from you, their leader-manager. Do they appreciate lots of feedback? Consultation? Cordial relationships with their teammates? Flexibility? A stable working environment Do what you can to provide it.

Explain what you most value about the employee and their performance. I once had a boss that found me positive, enthusiastic and smart. But I didn’t find that out until many years later. Shame; perhaps if he’d told me, I’d have stuck around longer!

Discuss how you see the employee’s future and how their job might change. Find out how they see their future and how they would like their job to change. Help them work out what they can do to prepare for the future so they can look forward to it and welcome it. (Remember, we’re talking about honest conversations, so no false hopes and no false timelines.)

People appreciate knowing where they stand. Do your team members know where they stand with you?

Leading and managing people older than yourself

Are any of your direct reports older than yourself? Chances are high, and getting higher, that this is the case.
A study in the Journal of Organizational Behavior examined the emotions experienced by 8000 employees in 61 German companies in a range of industries. About 25% of those surveyed worked for a manager younger than themselves.
Here’s the bad news: Employees managed by a younger person experienced more resentment-based negative emotions than employees whose managers were older than themselves. And those negative emotions, according to the study, resulted in lowered performance across the entire organisation. The researchers hypothesise that those negative emotions drain the enthusiasm from their colleagues, too.
The reason isn’t surprising, I suppose. Many people calibrate their ‘career success’ against their peers and can feel diminished when those their age bounce past them on the ‘career ladder’. Those younger than you overtaking would be a double whammy.
Going back to the bad old days of promoting on seniority rather than merit isn’t the answer, of course. Guarding against resentment and lowered performance in your work team when some of them are younger than you is. A dose of empathy and allowing older employees to share their insights and experience are two good places to begin.

Authenticity rules

Let’s do a bit of navel gazing. Would your team members, your peers, your manager and your family say you are an authentic person? Would they say you are true to yourself despite external pressures? Consistent in what you say and do?

Leader-managers who are genuine, or authentic, express what they’re thinking and feeling tactfully, honestly and considerately, in an emotionally intelligent way. They don’t have hidden agendas. They’re willing to say: ‘I don’t know’ and to admit to mistakes and correct them.

Authentic leader-managers don’t hide behind masks or false fronts. They don’t pretend to be something they’re not. People see that they ‘walk their talk’ and they trust them to do the ‘right thing’.

Authenticity builds your reputation as reliable, straightforward and trustworthy. People appreciate you for what you are (and are not). People respect you opinions and are willing to support you when they see you as authentic.

Your authenticity is based on a strong understanding of yourself and your values and on knowing what’s important in your life and in your role as a leader-manager. You understand your own little quirks, your motives and your characteristics.

To be a leader-manager that has friends and influences people, work on your self-awareness. Be your authentic self, walk your talk and do what’s right.

Whose gold are you polishing?

Dennis was a sales trainer. He complained that the big oil company he worked for wasn’t recruiting good people any more. ‘They just aren’t up to it’, he said. So I trotted along to sit in on one of his sales courses to find out what he was talking about. Here’s what happened:

Dennis opens the program by saying, ‘Now, then. You need to pay attention because this stuff isn’t easy. Most of you won’t cut the grade. Another thing. Come back on time from breaks and from lunch. I’m sick of collecting everyone up and dragging them back.’

Then there was Hal. I worked for him when I was pretty much straight out of uni. And I dressed like I was straight out of uni. Say no more.

Good thing Hal didn’t dress me down for dressing unsuitably. Had he done that, no doubt I’d have crossed my arms, stamped my foot, tossed back my hair and said: ‘The way I dress doesn’t affect how well I do my job!’ And I’d have stuck to my dress code.

Instead, whenever Hal introduced me to someone, he would always say: ‘I’d like you to meet Kris. She’s very professional.’ Eventually that word, ‘professional’, sank in and I started dressing more professionally.

A good question leader-managers should ask themselves every once in a while is ‘Am I being a Dennis or am I being a Hal? Am I giving people something to grow into?’

Goethe, the German philosopher, said:

‘Treat people as if they were what they ought to be
and you help them too become what they are capable of being.’

Consider Andrew Carnegie, a penniless, uneducated, 14-year old Scottish immigrant to the United States. He became not just the wealthiest man there, but the wealthiest man in the world. And he shared his wealth around, not least with the people who worked for him. At one point, he was paying 43 people over US$ 1 million a year (that’s a buying power of over US$ 14 million today).

A journalist asked him how those people came to be worth that much money to him. Here’s what he said:

‘Men are developed the same way gold is mined.
Several tonnes of dirt must be moved to get one ounce of gold.
But one doesn’t go into the mine looking for the dirt.
One goes in looking for the gold.’

Like Carnegie, Hal polished people’s gold. Dennis didn’t.

Whose gold are you polishing? What positive image of themselves are you giving them to grow into?

What to do when you get out on the wrong side of bed

Have you ever had one of those mornings when, right from the start, things just seem to go wrong? I think sometimes you can tell it’s going to be ‘one of those days’ when you’re getting out of bed! But you don’t need to surrender to it!

When the first things goes wrong, instead of saying to yourself: ‘It’s going to be one of those days’, think of something you’re looking forward to that day. That immediately changes your attitude and your mood.

Then take advantage of that change in attitude by looking for some humour in what’s just happened. Can’t do that? Deal with it philosophically: ‘It is what it is’. (Or: ‘C’est la vie; c’est la guerre’ as my friend Veronica says.) Then move on quickly.

When you think it’s still going to be ‘one of those days’, you’re probably looking for something else to go wrong, which invites it in the door, so to speak. Try not to do that. Should something else go wrong, don’t keep thinking about what a bummer of a day it is – get up and do something else to reduce your tension and improve your mood. Step outside and go for a quick walk in the fresh air; drink a big glass of water; invite a friend with a great sense of humour for a coffee.

Keep working to stay positive on ‘those days’. Here are three easy things to do:

  1. Think of something you’re thankful for.
  2. Do something nice for someone.
  3. Put a smile on your face.

If all else fails, have a good laugh — at yourself, if you have to. Looking for the absurdity in these things that are annoying you by not going according to plan makes them vanish with a pop.

Why is this important for leader-managers? Because your team take their cues from you. Your bad moods are catching and so are your good moods. You don’t want your ‘one of those days’ to spill over into the rest of your team, do you?