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.


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.

Start now to start the New Year off right

The Festive Season looms and the closer it gets, three things happen:

  1. You get busier with holiday preparations and the ‘We must catch up before Christmas’ social whirl.
  2. You have less time to clear your desk of all those jobs you’ve been putting off.
  3. You have less time to make good on all your good intentions.

I was listening to a podcast from the British Psychological Society on how to stop procrastinating. It made a good point, along the lines of Procrastination is delay but not all delay is procrastination. Sometimes we put things off for a good reason.

As the year is coming to a close, my advice to you is to clear your desk of all those tasks you’ve put off without a good reason and to fulfil all your good intentions before the summer whirl sets in. That way, you can come back to work in the New Year refreshed and ready to roll, unencumbered by last year’s leftovers.

What is on your ‘I know I should do this, but …’ list? Think about why you haven’t done it. The podcast suggested a two-stage reason we don’t do what we know we should do:

  1. Negative feelings about the task: it’s unpleasant, I’m concerned I won’t do it well, etc.
  2. Delaying the task provides temporary relief.

That suggests procrastination is emotion-driven. The answer is twofold:

  1. Forgive yourself for the last time you procrastinated over the task.
  2. Find a positive feeling about starting or completing the task.

That will probably work, especially now that your goal is to knock off what you’ve been putting off in order to start off the New Year right.

Here’s a little ditty for you:

Procrastination is my sin,
It brings me endless sorrow.
I really must stop putting off.
In fact, I’ll start tomorrow.

Don’t. Start today, lest you end up like the Murray River settler, whose tombstone reads:

He revelled ‘neath the moon,
He slept beneath the sun,
He lived a life of going-to-do,
And died with nothing done.

Procrastination blocks your brain and reduces your creativity and work capacity. It causes guilt and anxiety and undermines your self-respect. As William James, considered the founder of modern psychology pointed out:

Nothing is so fatiguing as the eternal hanging on of an uncompleted task.

So that your ‘I really should do this, but …’ list doesn’t grow like Pinocchio’s nose, develop a routine. Here’s a great one: At the end of the day, clear your desk. Use your fresh start the next morning to work on something you’ve been putting off. As Mark Twain said:

If it’s your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning. And if it’s your job to eat two frogs, it’s best to eat the biggest one first.

With tasks you just plain hate, those that equate to eating a frog, you have two choices: gut them out or farm them out. Decide so that they get done, somehow.

Time is running out! Get those lingering tasks done and come back to a clear New Year!


The six worst things a boss can do

I think most leader-managers know what they’re supposed to do, at least in theory, but sometimes reality gets in the way. It’s easy to succumb and take the occasional shortcut and before you know it, the ‘easy option’ has become the default. Soon, you don’t even realise that what you’re doing is actually harming your team’s morale or it’s productivity.

So here is my list of the six worst things you can do when you’re a boss — usually unintentionally.

  1. Break your promises. What quicker way is there to lose peoples’ trust and confidence? When you agree to do something or say something will happen (‘Thanks for spending the weekend doing that; I’ll see you get some time off in lieu’) honour your commitment. Write it down if you have to so you don’t forget.
  2. Settle for second best. Close enough can be good enough when a task is of minor importance or adds minuscule value, but most of the time, ‘She’ll be right’ just means ‘I can’t be bothered to do it properly’. Don accept mediocre when you know you or someone who works for you is capable of better.
  3. Treat all your team members like the same cardboard cutout, regardless of their age, background, culture, home responsibilities, interests and working styles. That can never bring out peoples’ best work. Everyone has their own set of expectations and needs from work and different ways of saying ‘Thank you’ delight different people. Tailor your assignments, coaching, perks and thank you’s to individuals to ‘light that fire within’. That means not treating people as you want to be treated but treating people as they want to be treated. Easy to forget but best remembered.
  4. Just give someone a job to do and let them get on with it without explaining why it’s important and how it fits into the ‘bigger picture’ of the team’s work or organisation’s goals. Nope. Most people want to be part of something bigger and make a worthwhile contribution to it. Explain the bigger picture to light the fire within.
  5. Hide your mistakes; when that doesn’t work, blame someone else; when that doesn’t work, blame events beyond your control. Step up. Fix it up.
  6. Sit back, relax, breathe a sigh of relief and put your feet up, especially when things seem to be going well. Big mistake. Chill out, yes, but when you’ve finished that cuppa, get back to work! Now is the time to get on with important but not urgent duties, like planning and looking for ways to improve ways of working, removing bottlenecks, improving your storage space — whatever. What in your job, your team members’s jobs, your team’s processes, your learning and development and that of your team, for instance, can you improve, however incrementally? What can you do easier, better, faster, more economically, more reliably, more safely or more sustainably? When your team has hit a milestone or met their goals, spend some time recognising their hard work and take a bit of time to celebrate with them.

So there you have it. Easy-to-make leadership blunders but fortunately, also fairly easy to avoid.

What! You don’t agree with me?

When you see a discussion as an argument, that’s likely what you’ll have. Seeing it as a competition doesn’t get you very far, either – you’ll hold fast to your opinion and end up ignoring what the other person believes or wants.

The next time you sense a conflict or disagreement approaching, shift your thinking from ‘argument’ to ‘agreement’. How can we best reach agreement on this? How can we come to a shared understanding? What can I learn from this different perspective? What can I do so that we can work this out? That mindset opens the way to a productive conversation.

Once you’ve adjusted your mindset, set your sights on something you both want. That way, you’re not arguing but figuring out how to reach a shared goal. You’re not focusing on what’s coming between you — you’re on the same side. Sit next to, not opposite, the other person so you’re literally on the same side, too. And use the word ‘we’ a lot to show you’re in this together.

Effective communication begins inside, with your mindsets.

Are you an above the line person or a below the line person?

Above and below the line behaviour is a shorthand way of describing how you relate to the world and respond to problems, mistakes and disappointments.

Below the line people react to problems by denying them completely, blaming others for them, or making excuses. Here’s an example. You’re sitting at home after a hard day’s work, feet up, relaxing. From the kitchen, you hear a crash. You call out ‘What happened’ and the response is: ‘Nothing!’ That’s denial.

You persist. ‘I heard a crash; what was it?’ If two people are in the kitchen, you might hear ‘Mary did it!’ That’s blame. Or you might hear ‘Awwww, it wasn’t my fault; the milk carton was wet and it slipped.’ That’s an excuse. All below the line responses.

Wouldn’t it be nice to hear ‘I dropped the milk carton; I’m just getting the mop to clean up the mess.’ That’s an above the line response. That’s taking responsibility.

A lot of children never learn to let go of below the line behaviour and carry it with them right into adulthood. They don’t stump up to their mistakes. They don’t face stumbling blocks and set-backs and fix them. They refuse to accept problems. Instead of taking responsibility, they deny, lay blame or make excuses. They never learn and they never grow.

Much better to give up the ‘victim’ mentality, stop blaming others, and take responsibility. Taking responsibility for your own choices and their consequences is more likely to move you forward, towards your goals and towards learning life’s lessons.

Are you an above the line person or a below the line person? What about your team members? How can you help any below the line team members start accepting responsibility for their actions and their consequences?

Three cornerstones of successful communication

Who are the leader-managers you admire most? Chances are, they excel at communication. Chances are, they have a knack of getting on with people and winning their cooperation. Chances are they shine at three cornerstones of successful communication.

The first cornerstone is really an attitude, or an approach to life and to people; the second two are the skill sets of gathering good information and of giving good information.

  1. Respect: respecting yourself and respecting others
  2. Gathering good information: this takes empathy, the ability to see situations from other points of view, not just your own. This makes you willing to listen and helps you understand the whats, whys and wherefores of other people’s thinking.
  3. Giving good information: what good is it to have an opinion, an idea, or some information if you can’t share it clearly with others?

Here’s your challenge: For the rest of the week, pay attention to three aspects of your communication:

  1. how respectfully you treat others and how respectfully you encourage others to treat you
  2. how carefully you listen to others and put yourself in their shoes so you can figure out where they’re coming from
  3. how clearly and succinctly you give information to others.

That will show you your strengths and where your opportunities to improve are.