Fear and Forgiveness

This week our very own Lisa McArthur tackles the weight of fear and the weightlessness of forgiveness.

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Reading the story of Dean Otto this week, it’s hard not to reflect on the power of forgiveness.  For those not familiar with his story, Dean was seriously injured when struck by a truck while riding his bike last September.  He had no feeling from the waist down.  Against the odds, last week Dean completed a half-marathon in under 2 hours.  But what makes this story so unique is that Dean ran that marathon alongside his surgeon and the young man who hit him.

Even while sitting on the side of the road, Dean forgave the driver.  “I accepted what had happened to me.  I forgave the guy that hit me so I wouldn’t harbor any resentment and being able to do that has really helped me throughout the whole process.”

WOW!

A poignant example of forgiveness overcoming fear.  Fear holds us back and restricts us from working together and accomplishing truly inspiring things.  The ability to be gracious, to forgive, to move forward past a challenging event benefits everyone involved.  If Dean can forgive the driver of the truck that hit him…what’s stopping me? What grievances do you have in your workplace and what’s stopping you from moving past them? In a word…FEAR.

Fear makes us hold back, avoid situations and do nothing. But doing nothing has a cost a well. How do we move past our fears, forgive and build trust?

Step 1: Name your fear

Start by being explicit about what is holding you back. Here are 4 common ones:

  • Execution fear – I might make a mistake
  • Competence fear – I don’t how to do it right
  • Outcome fear – Everything might not turn out the way I want it to
  • Shame-based fear – They might not like or respect me anymore

Step 2: Write it, Read it, Say it

Once you can identify your fear, write it down, read it and say it out-loud. Don’t be tempted to skip this step. By writing things down and saying them out-loud, we move past our fight-or-flight emotional impulses and diminish the power of the emotion. I’ve often been in contentious meetings and have scribbled many such “verbalizations” in the margin of my notebook. Trust me…it works!

Step 3:  What’s the worst that could happen?

Think about your next meeting or conversation? What will you say or do? What is the worst thing that could happen? Could you be challenged? Yes. Could you be embarrassed? Possibly. What else might happen?

For many of us, the outcomes will not be life-threatening. They may be unpleasant for the short-term but will be things we can overcome. Thinking about outcomes rationally can help us maintain perspective and take the fear out of the situation.

Step 4: Identify the other person’s fear

Put your fears aside and try to see things from the other person’s perspective. Dean Otto told the young driver to not let this define or haunt him. He recognized the fear and impact of the event on both of them. Think about your personal situation…what fears might be driving the other person’s behavior? How might you be able to help them overcome their own fears?

This serves two key purposes…it may help you find new win-win ways to deal with the situation…but most importantly, it changes the sound of that little voice inside your head and lets you move beyond your fear.

Step 5:  Act

Most importantly, you need to act.

Understanding both perspectives, take honest stock of the situation, define what you can and cannot do, then take action. Remember, the fear of doing something wrong often stops us from doing something right. Be confident in your intent. As Dean said he “forgave…so I wouldn’t harbor any resentment.”

Team performance in any organization starts with collaboration. We must learn how to hold ourselves accountable to each other, get past our own fears and resolve conflict quickly. Fear holds us back and prevents us from working together. By acknowledging our fears and taking the risk of forgiveness, we create teams that can accomplish great things. What fears are holding you back from forgiveness and what risks are you willing to take to run your own version of a half-marathon?

How You Use Your Smarts Is What Attracts Clients

You’ve heard, “It’s not what you know; it’s who you know.” You’ve also heard the reverse.

You’ve heard, “You’ve got a limited amount of time to impress them; use it.” But you’ve also heard, “Let the client do most of the talking.”

And you’ve probably heard, “You’ve got to be just a little smarter than your client.” But you’ve probably also heard, “Don’t think you know more about your client’s business than your client does.”

So, what’s the role of smarts? How important is it to be smart? And, by the way, what does that even mean?

Let’s be clear. I’m not talking about emotional intelligence, political savvy, or so-called street smarts. I’m talking about what we usually mean by “smart” in business, which generally boils down to three things:

  • Native intelligence, IQ-ish talent
  • Subject matter mastery
  • Industry knowledge

But let’s also be clear: being smart is less about what kind of smart you are and more about how you use your smarts. And usage, in turn, deconstructs into timing, amount, and context.

Kinds of Smart

I’ll use “IQ” as shorthand for some measure of native intelligence, mindful that there’s a lot of debate about its validity. IQ is seen as an innate form of smarts—you’re supposed to be born with it.

People with high IQs tend to think highly of high IQs, but that doesn’t mean everyone else does. In fact, if clients perceive someone as more clever, sharper, quicker, adept than them, it can be perceived as a negative—particularly if you’re selling.

“Watch out for this one,” the client thinks. “He might pull the wool over my eyes and outwit me.”

Subject matter mastery is different. It’s not an innate kind of smart; it’s derived from experience.

“I could be as smart as him,” thinks the client, “if I had chosen to work in that area.”

In fact, it’s that mastery that clients seek. A client hires a lawyer who knows the law precisely because the client doesn’t know it as well. A subject matter expert with a slightly lower (perceived) IQ than the buyer is even better. They are seen as knowledgeable but unthreatening.

Like subject matter mastery, industry smart is derived, not innate. But unlike subject matter mastery, its presence isn’t a plus so much as its absence is a minus. Clients, particularly those in professional and financial businesses, look down on “generalist” subject matter experts and functional specialists. There’s a general feeling that “our people won’t accept advice coming from you unless you have industry smarts” (though the speaker usually refers to ‘our people’ and not to himself).

In general industries, it is believed that management is management and sales is sales, that the know-how is transferable across industries. That isn’t the case in the professions—rightly or wrongly. You won’t win fighting that feeling; it runs deep.

Timing: When to be Smart

The time to show your IQ smarts is before you meet. Show it in your resume, qualifying documents, and your website’s “About Us” section. That’s because IQ smarts are the only kind of smarts that are potentially embarrassing to the client. The client doesn’t want to be over- or under-estimating you in real time; they’d prefer to know what kind of person they’re dealing with up front, in advance of meeting you. That way they feel much more in control, which is a good thing.

Once you’re in a meeting or interacting with the client, never mention IQ smarts again. Don’t bring up your resume, your degrees, your globe-hopping upbringing, or the brilliant circles in which you travel unless, of course, you’re asked a direct question.

You also want to show a little bit of subject matter smarts and industry smarts in advance of a first meeting or interaction—enough to assure the client they won’t be wasting their time and that they might well benefit from meeting you.

In short: be IQ-smart before you meet. And in face-to-face meetings, be subject-matter and industry-smart.

Amount: How Smart Should You Be?

No one likes to feel condescended to. Fortunately, it’s easy to avoid being condescending in subject matter and industry smarts. The main place to worry is in IQ smarts. If you really think your IQ is so much higher than your client’s, remember that your client is likely to resent or fear you if you make a point of it. Go work on your emotional quotient.

For subject matter and industry smarts, there is no natural upper bound. You’re being hired in part for your expertise, and your client will respect high levels of knowledge of your industry without fearing it. Your biggest challenge here is to be gracious in revealing how smart you are.

Context: Being Gracious about Your Smarts

The single most common sales error regarding smarts that professionals make is to think they have to show how smart they are. They somehow believe that a goal of client interaction is to demonstrate how smart they are. This is almost always unfounded, and frequently it accomplishes the very opposite of what’s desired. It makes the client feel you are self-centered and ego-driven and that you’re only out to make the sale.

Instead, the rule should be to use your smarts as necessary in support of the right thing for the client:

  • If it’s useful to mention that a particular recommendation has been followed successfully by three other clients, then say so. But if you say so just to demonstrate your clout, it’s better to leave it unsaid.
  • If it might be useful to the client that you know so-and-so, a big industry player, then mention it. If you do it only to prove your industry smarts, don’t.
  • If a question is asked to which you clearly know the answer, answer it. But if it’s another question that was asked, and you’re piling on to that question to answer another one, unasked, stifle yourself.

Following that simple rule demonstrates that your driving motivation is client service, not the pursuit of the sale and not your search for ego gratification. And if you’re worried about not knowing the answer to an occasional question, remember a client would rather hear an honest “I don’t know” than a transparent struggle to fake your way through an answer.

The smart call is to use your smarts only in service to your client.

The Antidote to Resentment

A lot of time is wasted debating the relative merits of “hard” and “soft” skills. The right response is almost always “both,” and “it depends.”  I want to focus here on the “both” part.

There is a growing belief – particularly in tech and in consultative professions (and everything is becoming both tech and consultative) – that we should approach the ‘soft’ stuff in ‘hard’ terms, i.e. through metrics, short-term goals, competency models and the like.

Treating ‘soft’ skills this way completely disintegrates them. You can’t have both if you’ve turned one into the other.

Case in point: dealing with resentments in the business world.

You Might Be Copping a Resentment If…

You may not think you’re a resentful person. And maybe, graded on a curve, you’re not.

But how often do you find yourself muttering at the driver who cut you off; re-litigating arguments in your head, where you win this time; waking up in the middle of the night pre-occupied with your checking account; and gossiping with someone about how so-and-so really isn’t all that?

All those are versions of wishing you could change reality – when you can’t. And that’s pretty much resentment.

It’s the difference between hoping and wishing. Hoping things will change is fine, particularly if you’re doing something to help the change. But wishing that things were other than they are – that’s living in an alternative universe. That’s resentment. It’s fine to hope you win the lottery—as long as you bought a ticket. But wishing you’d won last week’s lottery – that’s resentment.

By living in an alternative universe, you’re playing at being God. (Unless, worse yet, you think it’s not play, and you actually believe that all your wishing makes a dime’s worth of difference to Reality). Well, hear this: there is a God – and you’re not it.

Resentment tends to eventually manifest as resentment against other people. But personal resentment is like taking poison and waiting for the other person to die. All it does is eat you up from inside, while the Resented One is either blissfully unaware, or at least generally doesn’t give much of a damn.

Why Resentment Kills Sales and Influence

This is not afternoon TV psycho-babble. It makes a daily difference in business – a huge difference.

If you are prone to the Black Art of Resentment, then you are likely to believe in short cuts, quick fixes, fad diets, new interpersonal techniques, flashy methodologies, and come-on lines for dating bars – because all those gimmicks appeal to your desire to live in a world other than this one: one in which you can dominate, control, bend the other’s will to your desire. And when they let you down – and they do, and they will – you will once again feel your Old Friend Resentment (or its kissing cousin, self-pity).

People don’t buy from those who are trying to change them. People don’t pay attention to people who are trying to persuade them. People don’t take advice from those whose egos are tied up in having their advice taken. (Interestingly, people of both genders also don’t like to date people who are needy; they prefer people who appear independently self-contained).

We interpret all those things as attempts to manipulate, and we shun the manipulator. This is not a good thing.

It also has serious business consequences. It makes for salespeople who can’t sell; advisers whose advice isn’t taken; and relationship managers that people don’t relate to. The absence of soft skills has dramatically hard results.

 

The Best Way to Sell and Influence

The best way to sell and influence is to get rid of resentment; to get rid of living in alternative universes; to accept everything, starting with the customer in front of you.

Acceptance in this case means taking them at face value, getting to know them on their terms, giving up all attachment to your outcome (because that’s about you, not them) – and applying your focus, energy and attention to simply helping them. Let’s call that, for lack of a better term, empathetic client focus.

If you do that, and spend your time and energy seeking to understand them, you’ll do a far better job of connecting with them than all the other resentment-fueled alternate-universe salespeople and advisors.

One result of which is – you’ll end up selling more and having your advice taken more often.

Is that a paradox? Definitely. But it’s life. People buy from those who don’t try to sell them. People listen to those who listen to them, not those who talk. The best way to sell it to stop selling. The best way to influence is to shut up.

Training to Get Rid of Resentments

You do not get rid of resentments by examining best practices.  You don’t banish resentments by designing a training program based on four levels of resentment-coping skills, with behavioral metrics indicating competencies at successive levels.

Instead, you get rid of resentments by doing a Jedi mind trick; an emotional/spiritual jiu jitsu flip; a Paul-on-the-road-to-Damascus conversion. You have to come to believe that you are not God – and that all your resentments are nothing more than an attempt to claim otherwise, doomed to fail because your whole approach is selfishly based on You trying to dominate Them. It doesn’t work. They push back.

In practical terms, the solution is not the usual ‘act your way into right thinking.’ Instead, this new perspective comes about through conversations with others; through reflection; through role-playing; and through discussion with others about shared experiences. This is a different approach to corporate training – but a necessary one for certain advanced ‘soft’ skills.

Goals are Great, but An Expectation is a Pre-meditated Resentment

Goals are great. So are objectives and milestones and targets. They give you a sense of what you’re aiming for, and help you envision the to-be state.

But don’t confuse goals with their purpose. The purpose of a goal is not to achieve the goal – the purpose of a goal is to help you achieve your True Purpose. You should never confuse a quarterly sales quota with a Purpose.

It’s when goals get transmuted into expectations that we confuse goals with purpose. When we start living in that alternative universe defined by the goals, when we start obsessing over the new car, winning the contest, getting the boss’s approval, ranking in the top 20% on the bonus plan – that’s when we begin to have expectations. And an expectation is a pre-meditated resentment.

Think. Do. Accept. Rinse and repeat.

Plan, set goals, and strive. Then celebrate what you get; because to bemoan what you haven’t got is to live in resentment. A life spent wishing you were other than you are is a failed attempt at playing God, and a recipe for unhappiness – and for poor sales and unheeded advice.

 

Trusting your colleagues will make you more trustworthy to your customers

If you’re trying to sell your services, you already know the value of being trusted. Being trusted increases value, cuts time, lowers costs, and increases profitability—both for us and for our clients.

As a solo practitioner, being trustworthy is pretty straightforward (note that I didn’t say it’s easy). But when you are part of a company and have to rely on other colleagues, it can feel much more complex.

What effect does trusting your colleagues have on being trustworthy with your client?

Let’s start with the obvious: we are all human, with very human needs. In the world of professional services, these needs probably show up as some flavor of wanting to help the client succeed, wanting to provide the right solution, wanting to be good at what we do, or wanting to be respected and liked.

In organizations where there is low trust, when you have to rely on your colleagues, these human needs can become vulnerabilities – actually getting in the way of doing what’s right for the client:

  • You become territorial about your client, or concerned about your credibility, so you limit and control access to your client
  • You’re not an expert in someone else’s knowledge area, so you don’t bring it to the client as a possible solution
  • You want to be the one to solve the client’s problems, so you take on more than you can handle, or tasks for which others are better suited

And so – despite the best of intentions and because of being only human – you become a bottleneck.  You limit your client’s access to all the company has to offer, and you create (at best) unnecessary complexity and delays in providing solutions, or (at worst) a single source of failure when things aren’t going well.

It takes a village

Building trust within your organization is a powerful way to overcome these vulnerabilities. The easiest way to explore this is through the Trust Equation:

 

When you trust your colleagues, you can be more trustworthy for your client. We can see this in all four variables of the trust equation.

When you trust your colleagues:

You don’t have to be the expert on everything, so you can bring more and better solutions, and be candid when he doesn’t personally know something, which increases your credibility

You can delegate work to better meet commitments on time, and get the information you need to alert the client if a commitment can’t be met, which increases your reliability

You know your colleagues and leadership stand behind you, so you can take more personal risk with your client, which increases your intimacy

You don’t worry about your colleagues’ motives, so you are willing to introduce more people to the client, and you can focus on the client’s needs without distraction, which demonstrates low self-orientation

Building Trust Internally

Trust in the workplace starts with the organization (Charles Green wrote a great blog about organizational trust), but trust among employees still is a personal choice – and while you cannot force someone to trust you, you can be more trustworthy.

In our workshops, we ask participants how they can be better trusted advisors to their colleagues. Here are five ways they identified to increase trustworthiness among employees:

  1. Be trusting. Extending trust is a powerful Intimacy move – taking the risk to trust someone creates space and momentum for them to trust you in return. The ultimate trust paradox.
  2. Respond fast. We’re all responsive to our clients, but how responsive are we to our colleagues? If you are busy with client work or need to prioritize requests for a short time, consider an automated email response that lets people know you are unavailable and when you will
  3. Listen more, and better. Good listening is a low self-orientation skill that creates high intimacy. Try holding your questions until the end of a presentation, acknowledging what someone said before asking them a question, or asking a coworker about their weekend (and then really listening to their response)
  4. Share information freely. It’s no accident that transparency is one of the four Trust Principles. Sharing information freely increases every variable of the trust equation, especially if it’s bad news (here’s a tip for sharing bad news).
  5. Seek to know others. For biggest impact, this is both knowing more people and knowing people at a deeper level. To expand your network, introduce two coworkers who don’t know each other, eat lunch in the cafeteria, or join a virtual community. To deepen relationships, address people by name, start a meeting with personal introductions, or invite a coworker for coffee.

So if you’re working hard to build trust with your clients, take a look at how you’re doing with your colleagues.

 

The Zombie Idea of Neuroscience in Business

A zombie idea is one that refuses to die, regardless of repeated efforts to kill  it off.  The idea that neuroscience explains trust and leadership in business is one such zombie. Authors like David Rock and Paul Zak have popularized the idea that we can “understand” themes like trust and leadership better through the wonders of neuroscience, e.g. through the “trust molecule” oxytocin and its effect on the brain.

I’ve personally tried to kill off this zombie – way back in 2007, again  in 2012, again in 2013. But I’m just a business author and blogger.

Ed Hong wrote a withering piece in The Atlantic on Paul  Zak. But The Atlantic can’t compare with night-time talk television: you’ve got to watch late night host John Oliver’s vicious take-down of Zak (skip to minute 10).

And yet – the zombie is back again.  This time, in the Harvard Business Review. In The Neuroscience of Trust Paul Zak states the case for Oxytocin as the causal agent of trust, and identifies eight “strategies” that derive from it.

Let’s be clear: this article is 95% nonsense, and an embarrassment to HBR. Yet understanding just why it is nonsense is very instructive, and not initially obvious – even to John Oliver.  The problem has little to do with neuroscience itself – but everything to do with the logic of explanation.

Zak and his ilk are creating philosophical zombies. The only successful stake through the heart (to mix the horror genre’s metaphors) will be philosophical, not scientific. Here we go.

The Zombie Claim

A typical claim of the genre about neuroscience and leadership is as follows:

For many years, the science of leadership was considered a “soft” science. While many experts in management and business understood the qualities that made a good leader and knew the activities that could help leaders become even stronger, they didn’t immediately recognize the important link between the “hard” science of neurobiology and the “soft” science of leadership.

In the HBR article, Mr Zak says that his neuroscience studies reveal eight “strategies” which “effectively create and manage a culture of trust.”

Zak says oxytocin “causes” trust. (Always be wary of claims of causality). His own lack of confidence in this conclusion is evidenced by the fact that not one of his eight “strategies” includes dosages of oxytocin in the workplace.

The truth is: It makes as much sense to say Oxytocin “causes” trust as it does to say molecules cause car crashes. And neuroscience doesn’t “explain” leadership or management any better than do stories, strategies or similes.

The Zombie Mistake(s)

Zak et al make two important errors of thinking.

The language  problem. Mr. Zak himself describes his research as aimed at answering “the most basic question: Why do two people trust each other in the first place?”  The answer, he claims, is to be found in the biochemistry of the brain – in particular the action of oxytocin.

He claims that the best explanation – the best answer to a “why” question – must come from a particular “language” of human interaction; in this case, the language of biochemistry.

On simple reflection, this is far from evident. Why should the language of biochemistry be better at “explaining” trust than the language of management? Or poetry? Or analogy by stories? Or standup comedy?

In fact, the claim that biochemistry is the best “language” of explanation is no more sensible than the claim that French is better than German.

Any phenomenon, including human emotions, can be explained in an infinite number of ways. If I raise my hand, am I a) contracting my upper arm muscles, b) initiating a handshake, or c) offering a social gesture?

The answer is all the above, and many more. Which descriptor feels better is not a function of the underlying phenomena, but of the realm of reality I’m trying to describe.

The test of a valid explanation is not to be found in the language used, but in the usefulness of that language for the case at hand.

  • If the case at hand is pharmacological, and the desire is to create new drugs, then biochemistry is indeed the right language to use. Neuroscience indeed has its place, and this is one example.
  • But if the case at hand is to understand and affect managerial behavior, then the use of chemical language adds virtually nothing. (See below for why Zak’s eight ’strategies’ fit this description).

The reductionist problem. The reductionist problem in philosophy is the belief that the continued dissection of problems into ever-finer constituent pieces will always lead to ever-more profound understanding and explanation.

If Joe appears angry at me, I might explain it by breaking it down into our past history, what happened to Joe this morning, and what I just said to him a moment ago. This might lead to a most constructive response – an empathetic inquiry, aimed at calming Joe and keeping me from a punch in the nose. So far, so good.

But breaking it down further – describing Joe’s blood type, the tension in his musculature, his level of serotonin, the grammatical structure of what I said to him – is not likely to either help Joe or prevent my face-punch. Yet reductionist thinking insists this is necessary to fully ‘explain’ what is going on, or to identify the ‘cause’ of the phenomenon in question.

Just as in the language claim, the real-world usefulness of a particular explanation is not a function of the depth of description used, but of the phenomenon requiring explanation.  To explain most management behavior, you simply don’t need to get to the level of biochemistry. You’re better off with commonsense language that describes human interactions.

The Commonsense Approach to Trust: Reciprocity. 

Mr Zak himself – in passing – quite correctly points out the fundamentally reciprocal nature of trust. One party takes a risk, and the other party then returns that trust – or not. This is indeed a critical observation about the dynamics of trust – it is a reciprocating relationship.

But it’s a commonsensical observation, almost definitional – it is something we know by life, not something we need neuroscience to prove for us.

This fundamental truth was famously stated by Henry L. Stimson: “The only way to make a man trustworthy is to trust him; and the surest way to make him untrustworthy is to distrust him.” Ernest Hemingway said the same thing: “The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.” It was well known to Abraham Lincoln (“The people when rightly and fully trusted will return the trust,”) and to Warren Bennis (“Trust is the lubricant that makes it possible for organizations to work.”) Mr Zak himself cites Adam Smith as having said much the same.

Neither Stimson, Hemingway, Lincoln or Bennis required neuroscience to validly know whereof they spoke. Yet they clearly understood the fundamental nature of reciprocity to the functioning of trust.

Trust “strategies.” Here are the eight “strategies” or “management behaviors” (he uses both terms) that Zak identifies:

Recognize excellence; give people discretion; enable job crafting; share information broadly; intentionally build relationships; facilitate whole person growth; show vulnerability; and induce “challenge stress.”

Zak derived these strategies from experiments and surveys that analyze the production of oxytocin in various situations, and then ‘tested’ the impact of those trust-inducing behaviors on business performance.

One doesn’t need to question the validity of either his experiments or his ‘tests’ to ask a much simpler question: what does this language add to our understanding of trust in business, compared to other languages?

Now we might ask: if you wanted to list strategies of reciprocation to enhance trust, what might you do?  You might:

  1. recognize excellence, which probably results in appreciation and more excellence
  2. give people discretion in their jobs, and see if they reciprocate positively
  3. enable job crafting, to which people will reciprocate by improving performance
  4. share information broadly, which probably drives reciprocal behaviors of sharing and intelligent use of that information
  5. intentionally build relationships, which results in yet more relationship-building
  6. facilitate whole person growth, which probably results in gratitude and performance
  7. show vulnerability, to which people reciprocate by sharing their own vulnerabilities, creating more trust.

That is: seven of Zak’s eight strategies (all but “induce challenge stress”) follow self-evidently from a simple pragmatic definition of trust as a human process of reciprocation. Indeed, we can add a few that he might have missed, e.g. thanking people for favors done, or recognizing emotional states in others.

In other words: Zak’s “strategies” are commonsensical, and derived from basic principles of human interactions that even he recognizes. Neuroscience adds nothing to their understanding.

 

Let me be clear. I’m not challenging neuroscience itself. In certain spheres (like medicine or pharmacology), understanding the role of oxytocin and other chemicals in our brain and on our behavior is important, even vital. Biochemistry is the “right” language for such endeavors.

But for other fields – in particular, business – the language of biochemistry is like knitting with mittens on. It is worse than useless because it promises much and delivers little. Other languages are better suited and more productive to understanding the challenges of organizing, leading and managing groups of human beings.

And if you didn’t do it the first time, go back and watch John Oliver’s take on the same issue (he gets down to business at about minute 10:00).

Can we get rid of this zombie idea yet?

What Problem Are We Trying to Solve?

An old business friend told me the other day that the thing he most remembers me saying was, “What problem are we trying to solve?” As he put it, “That little phrase is the key to unfreezing more off-course conversations than any other technique I know of.”

I can’t claim invention. I got it from the United Research side of Gemini Consulting, one of several pieces of clever social engineering they brought to business. Here’s how, and why, it works.

How Business Conversations Go Astray

To hear us tell it after the fact, many business meetings follow a logical flow. They start with an agenda or problem definition, data are then presented, discussions held, and conclusions reached.  Then pigs fly.

It’s not that those individual elements don’t happen – they do. It’s that they happen like a Tower of Babel, randomly and all at once. When everybody’s got an opinion and a vested interest, and nobody’s a designated facilitator – a description of most meetings – we shouldn’t expect much else.

Have you ever been in a planning board meeting?  A condo association meeting? A meeting within your firm’s HR department? An inter-departmental meeting? A sales call with an interested but wary client?

Then you’ve seen the following dysfunctions:

  1. People pursuing their own agendas as sub-text to a given issue
  2. Aimless wandering around various problem definitions
  3. Randomly proposed solutions without grounding
  4. A social struggle for air time
  5. An airing of pet peeves as they manifest in the given issue
  6. A game of dominance and submission playing out in an issue.

And I’m sure there are more. All are forms of incoherence, lacking sequence or structure, generating more frustration from which to feed more incoherence.

It Doesn’t Have to Be That Way

If the root issue is incoherence, then there are several ways to tackle it. You can agree on an agenda. You can enforce sequencing. You can apportion air time.

But one way seems to work better than others. When the babble begins to peak, and the frustration level is palpable, raise your hand, furrow your brow, and ask, genuinely, “Hey folks – what problem are we trying to solve?”

Notice what this simple formulation does.

First, it is socially neutral-to-positive. Logically it has the same effect as saying, “You fools are all over the map – you can’t even define the problem” – but the emotional effect is totally different. You’re not claiming the moral high ground or fighting for your point of view – you’re simply observing a phenomenon, and asking a question.

Second, it’s a very good question. Asking a group to gut-check a problem definition almost immediately elicits an answer – and often it’s the same answer. In which case, collaboration is restored – you all have a common mission again.

And if it’s a different answer, voila, you’ve distilled the essence of the debate – “we have two competing problem definitions, no wonder we were having such difficulties!” In either case, the group becomes re-centered around a dynamic goal – problem definition and resolution, rather than bitching and moaning, or power games.

The net effect of all this is claiming, centering, and norming. A group becomes a group again, with common goals, moving forward, rather than a fractious collection of squabblers.

Give it a try next time you’re in a meeting that’s driving you a little batty – just ask, “Hey folks – what problem are we trying to solve?”

 

Know Yourself. Wait, what does that even mean?

Know Yourself. It seems a timely topic these days – musically speaking, educationally speaking, pop-culture speaking. It’s also an old adage, from Socrates’ “know thyself” to Shakespeare’s “to thine own self be true.” We learned it in high school, but maybe we lost sight along the way.

What do you think? Do you know yourself? Are you willing to?

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In college, I majored in philosophy. I underlined all the important parts in my texbooks – the hard, the empirical, the deductive, the categorical. I underlined about half of each book. What I skipped over were the soft and squishy parts: know thyself, be virtuous, metaphysics, that kind of thing.

Years later I deigned to go to the School for Practical Philosophy. After a class or two, I realized it was powerful stuff. I also realized it was about the other half of the book – all the things I hadn’t underlined.

I still eschew the metaphysics stuff in favor of David Hume, but I have become a complete convert on the subject of Know Thyself.

Self-knowledge is one of the five trust skills that my co-author Andrea Howe and I describe in the Trusted Advisor FieldBook. In fact, it’s the capstone skill of the five skills we describe in that book, as well as in our workshop program Trust-based Leadership.

If “know yourself” strikes you as squishy, soft, fuzzy, left coast suburban buddhist hippie-talk homilies – like it used to strike me – then let me break it down and toughen it up for you. Because when you get it, it’s a lot tougher than the analytical subject-mastery behavioral neuro-babble that is too often celebrated in business today.

Know yourself means four things.

  1. To know yourself, you have to be able to see yourself objectively. The “you” that knows yourself cannot be the same as the “self” that you know. If you can’t do this, you’re doomed to always just doing and feeling the stuff that you always did and felt. You can’t do anything about it if you’re always in it.  (Hang on, I’ll tell you how later).
  2. If you know yourself, then you know what makes you the same as, and different from, the other 7.091 billion humanoids on the planet. And you are more same than different. Get over your terminal uniqueness. You are better than some billions, worse than other billions, on billions of continua. You fall into the broad middle billions of humanity. You ain’t all that.
  3. Seeing who you are and recognizing your right-sized place in humanity, you can now find freedom. You don’t owe anybody anything, nobody owes you anything. Everything is a gift, or nothing at all. You make your own luck, you create your own suck. Your life is what you make of it, nothing more, nothing less. Success is heavily an inside job –  happiness, completely.
  4. Once free, you can decide what to do with your freedom. Since you no longer need anything, you are free to give, and to make the world a better place. And the collateral damage of doing good is that you get good back in return.

Because the universe has a way of paying you back.  I’m not talking about metaphysics and karma, I’m talking human nature. Way more often than not, people return good for good and evil for evil. By leading with good, you greatly increase the odds of receiving good. It’s not a cosmic principle thing – it’s just how people work. That’s concrete.

And it’s a powerful enough rule that you can make book on it – and do business based on it. It’s not guaranteed in every situation, instance or transaction – but it is ironclad in the long run across multiple events.

What Good is Knowing Yourself?

You mean, besides making you happy and free and attractive to other people?  Well, OK, here’s just one concrete specific item.

You know how sometimes you find out that someone thinks way more highly of you than you thought they did? Or that they think much worse of you? Either way, you know the shock when you discover the disconnect?

Knowing yourself prevents those shocks, because there’s no disconnect. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. By knowing who you are and aren’t, you can maximize your potential. You don’t cause friction, waste and slippage by under- or over-shooting, or by seeking more or less from others than you should. When you know who you are, you can calibrate exactly what impact you will create in any given situation – no more guessing, wishing, hoping. That is empowering.

How Am I Supposed to Do This?

I know, I know – how do you do this stuff? Where’s the tips and tricks, top ten lists, business processes and metrics that you need to do things?

Andrea Howe and I give you three concrete actions to take in The Trusted Advisor Fieldbook. They are:

  1. Look inward – basically, introspection. Lots of ways to do that. Write it down and share with others as you discover.
  2. Convert blind spots to insights – get feedback. Simple. Just go ask for it.
  3. Experiment – create learning opportunities. Put money where mouth is. Try stuff; evaluate; recalibrate; try again.

You can break each one down further – into processes, timeframes, sequences, metrics and milestones – if that’s your preferred style. Or, you can just swim in it. Both ways will work.

One last thing about knowing yourself. It’s not a step function, it’s incremental. You can always get better, and as you do, you reap the benefits at the same time. It’s a progressive thing. And anytime is a good time to start.

Are Your Clients Lying to You?

Have you ever had that sinking feeling that your client—or your hopefully prospective client—is being less than honest with you?

Maybe they haven’t returned that call. The last three email exchanges have been one-way. They haven’t mentioned that meeting they were so eager about just last month. They’re talking constrained budgets. Is it possible your client is lying to you?

There Is Lying, and There Is Lying

I’m not talking about flat-out lies like, “We’re going to give you the project,” when they already signed an agreement with another firm. But consider a few other situations from your daily life:

How often do you answer “How are you?” with “Fine, thanks,” when you’re not fine?

How often do you answer, “No problem,” when, in fact, it is a problem?

How do you answer the classic, “Does this dress make me look fat?”

How often do you say, “Let’s do lunch,” meaning this is goodbye?

How about, “Oh, I’m sorry, I’m booked on Friday?” Or, “Yes, let’s definitely stay in touch.”

I’m not trying to draw a sharp moral distinction (or to blur one). I’m not trying to justify or excuse any type or level of truth-telling or its absence. I’m simply pointing out the ubiquity of situations in which we, on a daily basis, are Less Than Fully Transparent. Let’s call it LTFT. And let’s recognize that it happens—a lot.

What You Mean When You Are LTFT

What about when you are LTFT? Do you have evil intentions? Are you attempting to hoodwink someone? Are you a swindler? A thief? A con artist?

Almost certainly not. Your motives are probably to be careful of and solicitous toward the other person. You are trying not to hurt their feelings. You want to spare them the embarrassment of being contradicted, rejected, or humiliated.

And oddly enough, the less you know them, the more you are likely to feel a need to protect them. After all, if you knew them well, you’d feel more comfortable having a heart-to-heart.

But from another perspective, this isn’t odd at all. The fact that you don’t know them well is precisely why you don’t want to get into uncomfortably specific details. You can afford to think “out of sight, out of mind” because you won’t see them much more—if ever—but you don’t want them to speak ill of you either.

And so we choose a strategy for handling difficult situations with not-deep acquaintances we don’t want to hurt—to be polite and give no offense.

And so, you are LTFT. Or, if you prefer, you lie to them.

What They Mean When They Are LTFT

Be honest: why should other people’s motives be any different, or any worse, than yours? Unless you’re a candidate for sainthood, odds are your motives are the same as theirs.

What, then, to make of the girl in high school who, when you asked her out, said, “Oh, I’m so sorry. I’m busy Friday night,” before turning away? Do you really wish she had said, “Look, I just don’t want to go out with you at all?”

What to make of the prospective client you met at a networking event who said, “Yes, let’s do lunch one of these days.” Would you prefer he said, “Look, I’m just not interested in you or your offering, and I don’t want to waste any more time talking about it?”

What did your client really mean when they said you lost the bid on price? Would you really prefer they said, “Frankly, you were fourth out of five on most dimensions, and fifth on the rest, and we don’t want to invest more time in explaining it to you?”

Like you, your clients are trying to be polite, to spare your feelings, and to disengage without hurt feelings—or, at least, with the ability to say to themselves that there were no hurt feelings. They’re not “lying” to you; they’re just being LTFT with you.

The Solution to LTFT

If you don’t like being in an LTFT situation as a seller, you have two options.

The first option is appropriate when you really don’t have a viable proposition to bring to the table—when you know in your bones that you got solidly beat by a competitor or you just don’t have game. In those cases, your strategy should be simply to accept it.

In fact, be grateful for it. At least they liked you enough not to be “brutally honest.” Stop obsessing, stop feeling angry, and stop the self-pity. Resolve to either change your proposition for the next time you face this situation or not to get into that situation again.

The second option is preventive and prophylactic: drive sharply past the “friend zone,” and create a personal connection of trust. Use the “Name It and Claim It” approach and speak out loud the issue that everyone is dancing around. Give them an off-ramp, but be sure to put the issue on the table.

You don’t have to be a full-blown trusted advisor to have a trust-based connection. Nor does it have to take a long time. What you must do is speak a direct, unvarnished little piece of The Truth. Here’s what some “truth-bits” might look like:

  • Don’t send that third email pretending nothing is wrong. Say something like this: “If I don’t hear back from you, I’ll assume things have shifted or changed, which of course does happen.” Then if you don’t hear back, move along.
  • Instead of saying, “Let’s do lunch,” lean in while you shake the person’s hand and say, “Look, would you like to have lunch a week from Wednesday, or would you prefer to just get back to me at some later point of your choosing?” Then if you don’t hear back, move along.
  • Instead of meekly accepting that you “lost on price,” say, “Look, Joe, I just want to ask you one favor, just one yes-or-no question with no follow-up. I know we did several things wrong—was it really just price that determined your decision? Or was it several other things, too? I just want to know where we should focus our efforts going forward, and that yes/no would be a huge help to us.”
  • Better yet, before the bidding results are announced, say, “Look, Joe, I know we may win, and we may lose. I’d like to ask you one favor. If we were to lose, could I ask you to be honest with me about the main reason we lost? So often people give just a nice ‘So sorry’ and then we go off and make the same mistake again. You could really help us learn going forward. If you’d be so kind, I’d really appreciate it.”

Instead of meekly submitting to the LTFT ritual, be the one to break out of it. You can’t force other people to break out of it with you—you always need to give them the LTFT off-ramp—but you can lead by example.

You can show them that you’re willing to speak directly and truthfully, and you’ll appreciate the company—if they’re up to it.

 

How Smart People Get Stupid

Exhibit A. Google conducted a multi-year, multi-million dollar study called Project Aristotle to determine just what distinguishes successful teams from unsuccessful ones. Tons of data were examined, decades of research studied, multiple hypotheses explored.

The answer? Drum roll: successful team members display more sensitivity toward their colleagues, e.g. granting them equal talk time.

THAT’S IT!

If you find that a stunningly unsurprising flash of the obvious, you don’t understand how things work in business these days. Here’s the reaction of one Googler to that study:

“‘Just having data that proves to people that these things are worth paying attention to sometimes is the most important step in getting them to actually pay attention…I had research telling me that it was O.K. to follow my gut,’’ she said. ‘‘So that’s what I did. The data helped me feel safe enough to do what I thought was right.’’

I’m not picking on Google; they are not unique. (And they are, indeed, really smart). But let me restate what Exhibit A is really telling us:

Millions of years of evolution have brought humans incredibly complex and exquisitely tuned neurological systems, capable of instantly intuiting not just friend vs. foe, but parsing a spectacularly wide array of emotional messages being sent out by our fellow humans.

Yet the smartest of the smart among us have determined that you can’t trust that system – unless it’s backed up by years of technological research that couldn’t have been done even just ten years ago.  Fortunately, we have now been given permission by that research to ‘trust your gut.’

It’s a wonder the human race stumbled along without that study for so many years.

 

Exhibit B. We recently got a plaintive email from a genuinely perplexed  client.

He said:

I hear constantly that being authentic is crucial. But it’s hard to get a clear grasp on the idea. It’s especially hard to figure out how I can know (instead of just feeling or believing) that I am authentic – much less know that someone else is.

Absent knowing we’re authentic, can’t anyone believing they’re authentic just claim to be so? How could anyone prove otherwise?  And since we can’t really know authenticity, doesn’t that also mean we can’t measure it, so we can’t compare it across people or time or situations?

Hasn’t someone come up with a way of getting at authenticity by way of knowing, rather than feeling or believing? I’m struggling to know how I can know I’m authentic. I hope this makes some sense.

This person’s pain is real, and deep; I don’t want to appear insensitive by citing it as a cautionary example, we can all relate to the sentiment. Yet, contrary to their hope, the query makes no good sense at all. Instead, it represents the abandonment of commonsense.

Authenticity – to pick that particular example – speaks to an alignment of beliefs and feelings with the cognitive functions that our writer called “knowing.”  When we run across someone who accesses solely their cognitive talents, we don’t think of them as authentic – we think of them as Sheldon Cooper. They are inauthentic because they are presenting not their full selves, but only their frontal cortexes to others.

“Authentic” is what we feel instantly in our pre- and sub-conscious instinctive feelings about other people. It is the same kind of feeling we get when we jump away from the speeding car, recoil at the sight of a snake, or feel our hearts tug when a puppy wags its tail at us.

An Outbreak of Reductionism

This is hardly the first outbreak of hyper-rationalization. In the social sciences it has a name – physics envy. It is particularly virulent today in neuroscience, where some, having locating certain emotions in particular areas of the brain, claim to have “explained” those emotions. Description is by far the narrowest form of explanation – it’s more akin to translation.

But the disease affects business as well. We have no trouble smiling at the naiveté of Frederick Taylor and his stopwatch, measuring people like machines. Yet we are every bit as mechanical and naive today.

Today, it is an article of faith in many of our most successful companies that “management” is a matter of decomposing goals into a series of cascading behaviors which, properly measured and carefully matched to incentives, produce an internally consistent, humming machine. All you need is a dashboard, which is easily available in the form of widgets.

The manifestation of this belief system (codified in “if you can’t measure it you can’t manage it”) is the enormous investment in training, goal-setting, reporting, progress discussion, and performance reviews – all of them non-direct value-adding processes.  All of them are built around a behavioral view of meaningfulness, a pyramid view of behaviors, and a system for metrics and incentives.

Every training department knows to use the Skinnerian language (“attendees will learn the behaviors associated with mastering the skills of XYZ…and will be rated regularly thereafter on a four-point scale of Early, Maturing, Mature, and Master.”)

Petrification by Metrification

This is precisely the technique used decades ago by Harold Geneen, who believed in rolling up data from all his subsidiaries and managing by the numbers. Except Geneen was measuring profit margins, inventory turns and capital costs. (And it turned out it was Geneen’s outsized personality, not his system, that made it work).

Today’s managers are applying the Geneen model to manage things like trust, authenticity, ethics and vulnerability – with the same tools they apply to measuring click-through rates. There is a huge mismatch. Entire organizations – and not just Left-coast tech companies – are being managed by cascading goals and KPIs, each firm with its own acronym for the process.

This continued reduction of higher order human functions to behavioral minutiae, coupled with the rats-and-cheese-in-the-maze approach to incentives, succeeds only in hollowing out those functions. Try this thought experiment: How do you incent unselfishness?

In the words of ex-consultant and CEO Jim McCurry, all this leads to “petrification by metrification.”  You don’t get the genuine article, but a fossilized replica. It may look real, but it’s checkbox stuff.

Scaling the Soft Skills

George Burns once said, “The most important thing in life is sincerity; if you can fake that, you’ve got it made.”

Ironically, the management teams who try to apply Big Data techniques to rich, basic human interactions are swimming upstream. The right way to scale soft skills and sensitivity not only looks different than the way you incent car  salespeople, but it’s a lot cheaper and faster. It has to do with leading with values, engineering conversations, and role-modeling.

But that’s fodder for another blogpost.

 

 

 

DON’T Always Exceed Expectations

Like most people, I enjoy a good positive surprise. Whether that’s something as simple as getting an unexpected discount at the grocery store, snagging a last-minute table at a popular restaurant, or being surprised by having the driver in front of me pay for my toll – it’s all good.

But when it comes to business – good old fashioned straight-forward honesty can do more for building your reliability than can exceeding expectations. How’s that? Read on.

——-

Many of us go around repeating a mantra that we think is self-evidently correct: Under-promise and over-deliver, we say. Always exceed expectations.

There is a website ExceedAllExpectations. Another website, HowTo.gov, tells governmental agencies they ought to incent (suborn?) performance beyond expectations. And as you well know, it’s a common mantra in business.

Well – not so fast.

Why Always Exceeding Expectations is a Bad Idea

Think this through. If you intentionally exceed a customer’s expectations, then you intentionally misled your customer about what to expect in the first place. In plain English – you lied. And if you make that a habit – as in “consistently exceed expectations” – then you’re a habitual liar.

Think that’s too strong? Think it through the next step. When a customer habitually gets more than they were promised, what’s such a customer to think?  That’s easy – they’ll think that you’re constantly sandbagging the quote to make yourself look good. And they will naturally start to bargain with you about the expected results and/or the price.

When you make a habit of exceeding expectations, you are training your customers. You are training them to expect you to under-promise and over-deliver. And they are not dumb, they learn quickly.

You have trained them to doubt you, to suspect your motives, and to disbelieve what you tell them in the future.

Proof from the Market

In a recent issue of my newsletter TrustedAdvice, I included a link to a video clip about this idea. (By the way, if you’d like to get TrustedAdvice via email, click here to subscribe).

Within minutes, I heard from two readers, with very interesting comments.

From Reader 1
I have learned this time and time again, but I want to please my clients, so I repeatedly try to exceed client expectations – only to find the clients coming back and demanding more and more.  The fact is, I set myself up for failure, as you cannot give more than 100%. I end up getting frustrated because then clients generally speaking don’t appreciate it when you do give them 100%, they just expect more and more of you and your time.

and Reader 2 adds another wrinkle
My company has exceeding expectations built into its DNA, a by-product of yours truly (though I am so much better now than I used to be). It has created more damage than you’d ever think. Not just in terms of clients expecting more for less, but in a shop that can never truly feel good about itself just for doing a good job, always feeling we could/should have done more.

“Always exceed expectations,” despite frequently coming from good motives, actually succeeds in destroying trust, with customers and employees alike.

So – don’t do that.

Instead, do what builds trust. Tell people exactly what to expect, and then deliver that. Period. After all, that’s how you develop a track record or being credible and reliable. That way your motives are never in doubt. That way you get known for being not only a straight shooter, but a particularly good estimator.

Basically, tell the truth. It’s always a better policy.

This post first appeared in Trust Matters.