A Brief History of Organizations: The Quest to Reinvent Work

The way we work isn’t working anymore.

Some experts blame traditional organizational hierarchies, incentives that fail to motivate, disengaged employees (two-thirds of the workforce), and a system that overcompensates management while undervaluing frontline workers.

New ways of working have already evolved, explains corporate coach Frederic Laloux in Reinventing Organizations: A Guide to Creating Organizations Inspired by the Next Stage of Human Consciousness. He poses an important question:

Can we create organizations free of politics, bureaucracy and infighting; free of stress and burnout; free of resignation, resentment, and apathy; and free of the posturing at the top and the drudgery at the bottom?

Some say we’re on the verge of a shift in the way we organize and manage people who must work together. Others aren’t so sure. Is it really possible to reinvent organizations? Can we devise a new model that makes work more productive—and, even more importantly—truly fulfilling and meaningful?

In the course of history, humankind has repeatedly reinvented how people come together to get work done, each time creating a new, vastly superior organizational model. What’s more, this historical perspective hints at a new organizational design that may be just around the corner, waiting to emerge.

Organizations’ Evolving Stages

A review of the major stages in the development of human consciousness and organizations reveals how we can potentially reinvent work to be more productive and meaningful.

Many scientists and historians have categorized how we organize to get things done, but naming the stages is always a struggle. It’s challenging to use a single adjective to capture the complex reality of any organizational model.

One way to understand and clarify developmental stages is to assign descriptive names and colors, which vary according to experts. Laloux uses names and colors suggested by Ken Wilber, Integral Theory, Spiral Dynamics and others.

Early Tribal Organizations

Reactive-Infrared Paradigm: This paradigm addresses humanity’s earliest developmental stage, spanning 100,000 to 50,000 BC. Humans lived in small bands of family kinships.

These bands typically numbered just a few dozen people who foraged to survive. There was no division of labor, so there was nothing resembling an organizational model. There was no hierarchy, chief or leadership. There were usually high rates of violence and murder.

Magic-Magenta Paradigm: Around 15,000 years ago, humanity started to shift into tribes of up to a few hundred people, representing a major improvement in members’ ability to handle complexity. Tribes sought comfort in ritualistic behaviors, following an elder or shaman with strong beliefs in spirits and magic.

Early Organization of Labor

Impulsive-Red Paradigm: Around 10,000 years ago, chiefdoms and proto-empires evolved as the first forms of organizational life. Thinking was shaped by a black-and-white worldview: strong vs. weak, us vs. them.

Role differentiation and divisions of labor existed, with a chief, foot soldiers and sometimes slaves. Some present-day organizations still operate with this model: prisons, crime cartels, countries at war or civil-war states. Gangs and inner-city neighborhoods may organize using the Red Paradigm.

A Red Organization’s defining characteristic is the chief’s use of overwhelming power to remain in position. There’s no formal hierarchy and no job titles, so this organizational model doesn’t scale well. Fear and submission keep the structure intact.

Conformist-Amber Paradigm: Every paradigm shift opens up new capabilities and emerging ways for groups to get things done. Around 4000 BC, more sophisticated societies emerged in Mesopotamia. Humankind leaped from a tribal world subsisting on horticulture to the age of agriculture, states and civilizations, institutions, bureaucracies and organized religions.

A new class of rulers, administrators, warriors and craftsmen emerged. To feel safe in the world, members of the Amber Paradigm sought order, stability and predictability, creating control through institutions and bureaucracies. Societal roles and rules were well defined.

Most people today operate from this paradigm. They grasp cause-and-effect relationships and linear time, and they can project into the future. These capabilities foster self-discipline and foresight in planning.

Amber Organizations: With the Amber level of consciousness, organizations evolved because of two breakthrough ideas:

  1. Medium- and long-term planning
  2. Stable and scalable structures

These breakthroughs led to unprecedented innovation: irrigation systems, pyramids, the Great Wall of China, trading posts, merchant shipping and the Catholic Church.

The first large corporations of the Industrial Revolution were run on this paradigm. Amber Organizations are still very present today: government agencies, public schools, religious institutions and the military.

Today’s Organizations

Achievement-Orange Paradigm: As consciousness evolves, people can handle greater complexity. They move beyond absolute right-or-wrong reasoning, weighing relevant variables. Effectiveness replaces morals as the decision-making yardstick.

Orange thinking emerged with the Age of Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution. It was adopted by most Western societies after the Second World War. Orange is the dominating worldview of most modern businesses and political leaders.

Orange thinking has spurred scientific investigation, innovation and entrepreneurship, bringing unprecedented prosperity in just two centuries. Yet, every paradigm has its dark side.

Driven by materialism and individual egos, the Achievement-Orange Paradigm has also yielded corporate greed, short-term thinking, overconsumption, and reckless exploitation of resources and ecosystems.

Orange Organizations: The global corporation is the embodiment of this paradigm. Orange organizations have achieved more than any of their brethren, primarily through three breakthroughs:

  1. Innovation
  2. Accountability
  3. Meritocracy

Orange organizations are process- and project-driven, retaining the pyramid as their basic structure, but with project groups, teams and cross-functional initiatives that enable faster innovation.

They aim to predict and control, inventing tactics like management by objectives, key performance indicators, strategic planning, budget cycles and scoreboards to track progress. The reigning metaphor is the machine; people are resources managed with incentives.

With meritocracy, in principle, anyone can move up the ladder. Individual success is highly valued. Leadership is goal-oriented, focused on solving tangible problems, putting tasks over relationships. Dispassionate rationality is favored over emotions.

A downside of the Orange paradigm is “innovation gone mad,” or growth pursued for growth’s sake. When the bottom line is all that counts, collective greed may triumph.

When there’s a lack of shared values and purpose—when success is driven year after year by numbers and targets, milestones and deadlines—people may end up bereft of meaning and fulfillment.

Achievement-Orange is clearly the dominant paradigm of today’s corporations, but not all organizations are satisfied with the bottom line as their sole focus.

Pluralistic-Green Paradigm: The Pluralistic-Green worldview attempts to fill the void of individual success by being sensitive to everyone’s feelings. In the Green stage, the emphasis is on social equality and community. All people deserve respect, fairness and harmony through cooperation and consensus.

The Green Paradigm brought about the abolition of slavery and equality for women and minorities in the late 18th and 19th centuries, and it continues to make inroads today. While Orange is predominant in business and politics, Green largely prevails in postmodern academic thinking, nonprofits and community activism.

Green Organizations: Green strives for bottom-up processes, gathering input from all levels to achieve consensus. The Green perspective is uneasy with power and hierarchy. But consensus among large groups of people is inherently difficult.

Green Organizations have contributed three breakthroughs:

  1. Empowerment: Although they retain the pyramidal hierarchical structure, Green leaders push a majority of decisions down to frontline workers. Top and middle managers share power.
  2. Shared Values and Purpose: Research shows that values-driven organizations can outperform others by wide margins.
  3. Multiple-Stakeholder Perspective: While Orange companies strive to increase shareholder value, Green looks to benefit all stakeholders: employees, customers, suppliers, communities and the environment.

If Orange businesses use a machine metaphor, the metaphor for Green is the family. Examples of Green organizations include Southwest Airlines, Zappos and Ben & Jerry’s.

Teal: The Newest Stage of Organizations

The next stage of human consciousness corresponds to Maslow’s self-actualizing level and has been variously labeled “authentic,” “integral” or “Evolutionary-Teal.” People transitioning to Teal deal with the world in more complex and refined ways. For example:

  • The shift to Conformist-Amber happens when Impulsive-Red internalizes rules that allow them to disidentify from impulsively satisfying their needs.
  • The shift to Achievement-Orange happens when Amber disidentifies from group norms.
  • The shift to Evolutionary-Teal happens when we learn to disidentify from our own ego.

When we minimize the need to control, to look good, to be right and to fit in, we are no longer fused with ego. We refuse to let fears reflexively control our lives. We listen for wisdom in others and to the deeper parts of ourselves.

The fears of the ego are replaced by a capacity to trust the abundance of life. With this belief, if something unexpected happens or if we make mistakes, we are confident things will turn out all right. (And when they don’t, we believe life will give us an opportunity to learn and grow.)

  • In Impulsive-Red, a good decision is the one that gets me what I want.
  • In Conformist-Amber, decisions conform to rules and social norms.
  • In Achievement-Orange, decision yardsticks are effectiveness and success.
  • In Pluralistic-Green, decisions are judged by the criteria of belonging and harmony.

In Evolutionary-Teal, we are concerned with inner rightness: Does this decision seem right? Am I of service to the world? Does my decision resonate with my deep inner convictions?

In Teal, we do not pursue recognition, success, wealth and belonging to live a good life; we pursue a life well lived. Our ultimate goals are reimagined:

  • To become the truest expression of ourselves
  • To live into authentic selfhood
  •  To honor our gifts and calling
  •  To be of service to humanity

Leaders of Teal Organizations

What happens when leaders run an organization from the Teal Paradigm?

The higher they climb on the developmental ladder, the more effectively they’ll lead others, according to several researchers.

William Torbert has established that a CEO’s developmental stage significantly determines the success of large-scale corporate transformation programs. Leaders who operate from Evolutionary-Teal were by far the most successful Clare Graves came to a similar conclusion in his research.

The more complex our worldview and cognition, the more effectively we can deal with problems. In Teal Organizations, some of today’s common corporate ills disappear. But many questions arise:

  • When trust replaces fear, does a hierarchical pyramid provide the best structure?
  • Are all the rules, policies, detailed budgets, targets and processes that give leaders control still necessary or effective?
  • Are there simpler, more efficient ways to run organizations?

To answer such questions, Laloux researched a dozen pioneer companies that operate on Teal principles. Next month’s article will explore their structures, practices and cultures.

How Improv Comedy Improves Conversations at Work

Conversations at work can often feel more like political debates and battles between egos. People with strong points of view argue and debate without anyone moving toward solutions or common goals.
Collaboration is difficult when conversations are competitive. Instead of dialoging together, co-workers try to outdo each other. Without fully listening, people are forming their own thoughts, just waiting their turn to jump in.
A common response to new ideas is often “No,” or “Yes, but…” followed by, “That wouldn’t work and I’ll tell you why.”
What if we could improve conversation skills so that everyone—supervisors, team leaders or individuals-may connect more by engaging in creative, collaborative dialogue? Instead of debating differences and promoting our own opinions, the discussions would be supportive, friendly and fun.
Here’s a suggestion: Simply replacing “No” with a response of “Yes, and…” can make all the difference. This conversational rule comes from improvisational theater. The way improv comedians are trained turns out to be excellent for improving conversations at work as well.
The First Rule of Improv Comedy
Second City Works has been offering training to organizations for decades now because the same skills required for comedians on stage are also effective for companies.
Improvisational training improves people’s ability to process on the fly, relinquish power struggles, create space for everyone to contribute, and learn how to learn from failure. People use the rules of improv to increase their capacity for innovation, creativity and confidence.
In the book Yes, And: How Improvisation Reverses “No, But” Thinking and Improves Creativity and Collaboration–Lessons from The Second City, by Kelly Leonard and Tom Yorton, the authors describe how the same improv skills used to create funny scenes can also improve emotional intelligence, increase creativity, and teach you to pivot out of tight and uncomfortable situations.
Improv comedians share the common goal of a lasting interaction and a deep connection with their co-players and the audience. Above all else, players aim for flow. When you think about it, these are similar goals required of people working together in business today.
At work, conversations can feel awkward, people aren’t sure how to respond, or they walk away without understanding or connecting with a person. The rules for improv can help you:

  • Eliminate awkward silences
  • Help make conversations flow smoothly
  • Listen better
  • Connect more deeply without effort

Great conversations don’t always appear spontaneously; you’re not always on the same wavelength as your partner. You can’t use a script or list questions to ask.
In improv comedy, participants collaborate and support everyone, working towards a common goal. Players need to be flexible and carefully listen and observe the other person.
They don’t come on stage with expectations about where the scenario should end up. They watch for emotional signals and respond to everything presented, both non-verbally and verbally. Great conversations are created in the same way.
When you have a set agenda, you don’t listen or observe. If you are constantly debating, arguing, selling or trying to change minds, you can’t create a feeling of likeability and collaboration.
When people try to control the flow of conversation they miss out on important clues to what others are really thinking. Here is the first rule of improv comedy that you can apply to work conversations.
Rule # 1: “Yes, and…”
This is the first rule of improv: no matter what the other person says, you must respond with “Yes, and…” in order to build and expand the conversation. The key here is to accept what’s said — regardless of what you may think of it — and to add to it. It’s absolutely foundational to improv.
We can understand why. When someone responds with “No,” or “Yes, but…” it shuts down the scene and it’s not funny. The same thing happens at work. Responding to another with “Yes, and…” is an easy concept to understand — but in actual practice it’s hard to commit to doing.
It requires you to trust that others will support and build upon your contribution and it requires you to do the same for them. In business, support is almost always highly conditional.

  • “I’ll support you as long as I know where this idea is going.”
  • “I’ll support you as long as success is guaranteed.”
  • “I’ll support you as long as there’s something in it for me.”

People don’t like giving up control of the conversation. And yet it’s only when you trust enough to let it happen that surprising innovations happen.
Obviously not every idea is a good idea and there is a time and place for using “Yes, and…” There are times when people have to be told “No.”
Yet too often “No” is the default response to everything. It’s offered as a way to avoid risk and possible failure. It results in customer dissatisfaction, employee disengagement, and lack of innovation.
Responding with “Yes, and…” is a skill that’s useful in deepening interpersonal relationships, teamwork, feedback, brainstorming, conflict resolution, sales negotiations and problem solving.
Saying “Yes, and…” gives conversations energy and forward momentum. It gives people confidence to speak up and participate at their best. It allows individuals and groups to bring their finest selves to a conversation and get the top ideas into the room.

Stuck in the Past: 5 Steps to Personal Growth

If you’ve ever worked with a colleague who tells the same old stories over and over, you understand how people can distort reality to suit their purposes. And yet, most of do our own version of repetitive storytelling.
We form an identity of ourselves as a team members, colleagues, or friends by telling personal stories about our past. And we project the lessons we’ve learned onto our present situations. We let our past influence our present reality and in doing so, affect our future.
The fact is, personal stories serve to protect our egos — it’s human nature. Our stories aren’t about what actually happened, but rather what we told ourselves happened. They’re founded on real events, but mostly on real emotions. They are stories that we’ve invented based on how we interpreted things back then.
Reframing Reality
Few of us take the time to evaluate our stories for how well they help us navigate the complexities of present day relationships and work teams. We hold onto the past because it’s all we know for sure. Then we try to figure out how we can do better the next time we’re faced with the same emotions.
Strong emotions are retained by the brain as memories of events. Without strong emotions, we forget events easily. So we end up with many memories of anger, disappointment, embarrassment, guilt, and revenge, which far outweigh our positive memories.
You can see how holding on to such memories primes the brain to be alert and distrusting in the future for similar situations. Yet with awareness of these strong emotions, we can choose to question our assumptions and reframe reality.
We can shift what we thought was reality into a more consequential story, one that promotes growth and success.
Looking Back to Look Forward
In Judith Glaser’s book Conversational Intelligence: How Great Leaders Build Trust & Get Extraordinary Results, the author suggests an exercise to look at the past, find new meaning from significant events, and create successful behavior patterns.
You can do this on your own, but it’s much more effective to do with a trusted partner, friend, or better yet, your coach. In this exercise, choose events in your life that are significant. Write them down and then ask for each event “What can I learn from this?”
Rather than bringing along the negative feelings, revisit the event and reframe the way you think about it. Aim to extract wisdom from the situation that you can take forward into your current and future life.
Step 1: Draw a Life Timeline
You can do this graphically using a line drawing, or make a list. Outline your lifeline into three segments: the first third of your life, second third, and last third.
Step 2: Identify Significant Events or People with Big Impact
Looking at each time segment, identify the events that had a significant impact on you. Write down some key words to anchor them. Find at least one episode in each time frame. Each experience will have a key event, people, a story you made up about it, and a takeaway lesson you formed at the time.
After identifying your timeline stories, share them with a partner or your coach.
Step 3: Find Patterns and Meaning
As you share your stories, ask your partner if he or she sees any patterns you may not have seen. Help each other to step back to see the big picture. As you get to the present, see the larger patterns in your life. Capture insights.
Step 4: Back to the Future
Each partner takes turns at looking into the future to see what’s next. How is this life pattern going to impact the future? Is there a pattern that you want to replicate, change, or do differently? Find the elements of wisdom for your life’s journey.
Step 5: Map Making
As you reflect on your life from this perspective, what lessons can you carry forward to enhance your personal or professional life? What are your biggest takeaways?
Trust in the Future
Everyone grows along life’s journey, some in ways that are beneficial, others in ways that restrict their potential. The point is to grow and evolve, not to repeat the same stories and diminish our possibilities.
When you do this exercise with your coach, you use your past to enhance the future. Personal growth and wisdom come from being able to look at the past and reframe and revise our stories so that we continue to evolve for a changing future.

The Human Factor: A New Era of Relationships

Human interactions rule our lives. Our social nature may be even more valuable than we realize. In a world where technological advances increasingly provide solutions and perform jobs, our social skills can increase or diminish our value.
But most of us—professionals, employees and managers alike—undervalue our social skills. This is not an option in an era of dwindling job opportunities.
“When people in an organization develop a shared and intuitive vibe for what’s going on in the world, they’re able to see new opportunities faster than their competitors, long before that information becomes explicit enough to read about in the Wall Street Journal. They have the courage of their convictions to take a risk on something new.” –Dev Patnaik, Wired to Care: How Companies Prosper When They Create Widespread Empathy (FT Press, 2009)
The term “Information Age” insufficiently captures our future professional landscape. We face unprecedented data streams, vast knowledge networks and unknown problems.
Success hinges on how well we can work in groups. CEOs recognize that teams are more productive, creative and valuable than individual workers—as long as team members work cohesively, using their finely honed social intelligence.
There’s a growing demand for relationship workers: people who are socially astute, no matter the field. As neuroscientist Michael S. Gazzaniga aptly states:
“Natural selection mandated us to be in groups in order to survive…that is how we are built. Without our alliances and coalitions we die. It was true…for early humans. It is still true for us.”
Most of us assume our jobs cannot be taken over by a computer, but history and technological advances prove us wrong. There are few skills computers cannot eventually acquire. Computing power doubles every two years, so more tasks can—and will—be handled by sophisticated algorithms, notes Fortune Magazine Senior Editor Geoff Colvin in Humans Are Underrated: What High Achievers Know That Brilliant Machines Never Will (Portfolio, 2015).
The Critical Need for Teams
Ample evidence demonstrates that we require flexibility, agility and diverse perspectives to understand and manage organizational complexities. CEOs are turning to teams to solve increasingly intricate problems.
The most effective groups include people with strong social skills. Wanting to work with other people is one of the healthier aspects of human nature. We rely on human interactions to:

  • Tell our stories and hear others’ stories
  • Brainstorm new ideas and create new products/services
  • Share our feelings and learn to appreciate other points of view
  • Connect on a deeply human level through our physical senses
  • Form coalitions and alliances
  • Negotiate agreements

Even if a computer spits out the right words and makes the right decisions, we want to follow human leaders. We need to look into someone’s eyes.
What We Don’t Want Computers to Do
We must first identify the skills we want other humans to perform, regardless of a computer’s prowess. Most of these tasks involve projects or areas for which people are held accountable.
For example, computers have shown they’re superior to juries when evaluating criminal evidence. But there’s a social necessity for humans to be accountable for life-and-death decisions.
Humans are also critical to organizational life because priorities continually shift. It takes a human touch to redefine problems and goals. We must address the needs of numerous stakeholders, including customers, employees and the public—issues that people must work out for themselves.
Priority Skills for the Future
The Towers Watson consulting firm and Oxford Economics research firm asked employers which skills they’ll need most over the next five years. Employers’ top priorities include:

  • Relationship-building
  • Teaming
  • Co-creativity and brainstorming
  • Cultural sensitivity and diversity management

These are right-brain social skills. It’s important to note that survey respondents did not cite business acumen, analysis or other left-brain thinking skills.
Other research supports this finding. The McKinsey Global Institute reveals that “interaction jobs” were “the fastest-growing category of employment in advanced economies” between 2001 and 2009. More specifically:

  • Transaction jobs (bank teller, checkout clerk) decreased by 700,000 in the United States.
  • Production jobs decreased by 2.7 million.
  • Doctors, teachers and other highly interactive jobs increased by 4.8 million.

Historically, the most skilled and educated U.S. workers were assured the high-salaried jobs. But researchers at the University of British Columbia and York University found a decline in demand in 2000—one that has steadily dipped over the last 15 years.
Inflation-adjusted wages for U.S. college graduates have stagnated. We cannot suggest that education is no longer valued, but it’s obviously no longer enough to guarantee success.
The New Relationship Era
The key to differentiation in all fields—from engineering to law, from management to medicine—lies in our ability to socially interact with others. Those who will be hired, retained and capable of flourishing in almost all professions are the ones skilled at forming emotional bonds, persuading others and making judgments.
In the late 1950s, management expert Peter Drucker coined the term “knowledge worker” to describe valued skills in an increasingly information-based economy. More than 50 years later,  our most valuable people can be dubbed “relationship workers.”
No matter your job or field, you must excel at being a person. Unfortunately, a focus on technology and skills acquisition has caused many of our interpersonal abilities to atrophy.
How Technology Is Changing Us
We tend to over-rely on tech tools to communicate quickly and efficiently. We text or email instead of calling or meeting face-to-face. This does, indeed, save time, but it’s impossible for us to pick up on nonverbal cues—a critical component of building relationships.
If you cannot face another person, you’re deprived of noticing facial expressions, as well as subtle shifts in vocal tone, eye movement, posture, physical distance and other social signals. Spotting these cues quickly is crucial to responding appropriately.
In one social experiment, scientists gathered a group of sixth-graders in a camp for five days, without any screen access: no computers, tablets, cellphones, music players, games or TV. They wanted to measure the children’s ability to recognize nonverbal emotional cues in others. After five days of solely face-to-face interaction, the students had become far more emotionally insightful.
American adults (ages 16 to 45) with access to at least two devices report 7.5 hours of screen time daily. Indonesians spend 9 hours a day and Filipinos just a few minutes less, so this is not an affluence-related phenomenon. Imagine what this does to our social sensitivity.
Nothing Beats Face-to-Face Contact
With digital communication, the quality of real human connection is weak. When two people talk face-to-face, their brains synchronize. This doesn’t happen when they’re back-to-back, so our faces are vital communication tools. Video communication provides only weak synchronization.
Reading one another and conversational turn-taking determine how well a group performs a wide range of tasks. The personal connection helps us become smarter and more capable. Teams that have met face-to-face at least once can thereafter work well virtually. Greater communication challenges occur with those who have never met in person.
When people get together, they naturally try to learn about each other and understand what others are thinking. Face-to-face conversations are an intense, fully engaging experience that builds overall mental abilities.
Our Most Crucial Human Skill
Empathy is the foundation for sociability. At its core, it’s the ability to discern what another person is thinking and feeling, as well as respond appropriately.
Mirror neurons in the brain help us detect another person’s state. Some of us are more skilled at choosing an effective response.
Employing highly empathic workers has numerous advantages, including better customer relations, team cohesiveness and a more positive working environment. Research confirms:

  • Empathic salespeople and negotiators are more successful.
  • Waiters who display empathy earn nearly 20 percent more in tips.
  • Debt collectors with empathy skills recover twice as much money.
  • Empathic doctors make more accurate diagnoses and fewer errors, incur lower costs and are sued less.

Measuring Sociability in Teams
Team interaction is so powerful that any increase improves group performance. Colvin offers a telling case study in Humans Are Underrated:
In a Bank of America call center of 3,000 employees, productivity vastly improved simply by changing the schedule of break times so that workers on the same teams spent more time together socially. When the bank aligned team breaks, productivity rose and turnover fell. Performance improved as workers had more time to interact with each other. The bank estimated a savings of $15 million a year.
Scientists are using new technologies to measure social interaction in organizations. Professor Alex Pentland’s Human Dynamics Lab at MIT invented a sociometric badge, worn on people’s clothing, that measures tone of voice, whether people face one another while talking, gesture frequency, and the ratio of talking/listening/interrupting. A sociometer doesn’t record the words people say, as they are irrelevant measures of social signals and interactions.
Organizations that use sociometers assert that social sensitivity in the workplace outweighs all other factors contributing to team effectiveness.
Social Signals 
Our extraordinary ability to sense others’ feelings and thoughts relies on seeing faces, reading body language and assessing vocal tone. None of these abilities can be employed when we’re texting or using social media. There is some evidence that shows the next generation, known for its unprecedented dependence on technology, is showing lower empathy skills.
Each of us can learn to recognize the social signals we produce and perceive. We have innate empathic skills, but they weaken if we don’t use them.
CEOs often seem overly concerned with performance and bottom-line results in a rapidly changing, uncertain and disruptive marketplace. Long-term viability will require them to value empathy and human interactions. People cannot perform well without developing rapport and trust, talking about fears and emotions, and confronting colleagues without destroying partnerships.
“Relationship-focused success expands capacity and potential, and empathy is a business skill that actually grows when practiced and shared,” notes Cleary University President Jayson M. Boyers in a 2013 Forbes article. “Although it may be unlike any practice you have ever used within your business, empathy in the workplace creates and encourages sharing ideas free from the fear of ridicule. If we are to keep our businesses relevant and our consumers happy, we must embrace empathy and let it be the force that drives us forward.”

Three Ways to Be a Better Team Member

It may seem unlikely that there could be anything new to learn about what makes teams effective, but there is. More than ever before, work today gets done in teams, and your ability to contribute as a member is vital to your career success.
Every team is a unique social unit. The quality of members’ social interactions —both intra-team and inter-team — determines project success or failure. Each member contributes to group outcomes — and some more so than others.
But until recently, there hasn’t been much specific advice on how to improve your value as a team member. You’ve probably been advised to “display empathy,” “respect diversity,” and communicate and share openly. As a team member, you’re directed to work for common goals rather than focusing on personal success.
Sometimes team members are evaluated on factors like leadership, technical skills, vision, communication, and motivation. But although these matter, they’re not nearly as important as social skills.
Deep Human Interactions
Research using ever more sophisticated measurement and observation technology has now determined that the number one factor in making a group effective is skill at deep human interactions.
Effective team members demonstrate consistent social skills, like noticing the subtlest elements of social cues: a furrowed brow, a smile, a desire to speak up.
Researchers have studied groups for years. They’ve learned that intelligence doesn’t explain a group’s effectiveness, nor does group cohesion, motivation, or satisfaction. Stability of the team and its size matters only a little.
Furthermore, following lofty ideals doesn’t bring about a significant impact on team effectiveness, although these are certainly beneficial:

  1. Having a clear, challenging, meaningful vision
  2. Specifying well-defined roles and responsibilities
  3. Giving members appropriate rewards, recognition, and resources

Such concepts are fine but don’t determine the success of teams. There is only one ability that stands out in people who are great team members: they all have great social sensitivity.
Social Sensitivity
Social sensitivity is the ability to perceive people’s thoughts and feelings based on looking at their faces and other nonverbal cues. Social sensitivity shows up when team members read body language, take turns talking and listen well. Not surprisingly, many women perform better than men in measures of social sensitivity.
Using a Sociometer Device
How do we know that social sensitivity outweighs all other factors in team effectiveness? Professor Alex Pentland’s Human Dynamic Lab at MIT invented a sociometric badge, worn on people’s clothing. It has the technology to measure the tone of voice a person uses, whether people are facing one another while talking, how much they gesture, how much they talk, listen, and interrupt one another.
A sociometer doesn’t record the words people say, as they are determined irrelevant in measures of interactions. Here are some of their findings:

  1. Successful team members generate a large number of ideas in short contributions to conversations. No one goes on for great length.
  2. They engage in “dense interactions;” that is, they alternate between advancing their own ideas and responding to the contributions of others with “good,” “right,” “what?” and other short comments that signal consensus on an idea’s value, good or bad.
  3. Successful members contribute ideas and reactions, taking turns more or less equally, ensuring a wide diversity of ideas.

Those three elements of interaction were more important than any other factor in explaining excellent performance of the best teams. In fact, they were about as important as all the other factors — individual intelligence, technical skills, members’ personalities and anything else — combined.
Team-Based Social Interactions
Human interaction in teams is so powerful that increasing it just a little improves group performance a lot. Here’s a case study example, reported in Geoff Golvin’s book, Humans Are Underrated: What High Achievers Know That Brilliant Machines Never Will (Portfolio, 2015):
In a Bank of America call center of 3,000 employees, productivity vastly improved simply by changing the schedule of break times so that workers spent more time together socially. When the bank switched to aligned team breaks, productivity rose and turnover fell. Performance improved as workers had more time to interact with each other. The bank estimated a savings of $15 million a year.
Three Ways to Be a Better Team Member
How can you use this information to become a better team member and increase your value in your organization? Everyone can improve their social sensitivity. When working with your team, try these three approaches:

  1. Suggest a large number of ideas in short contributions to conversations.
  2. Engage in “dense interactions”: switch between advancing your own ideas and responding to others’ with “good,” “right,” and other short comments.
  3. Take conversational turns more or less equally, to make sure everyone contributes a wide diversity of ideas.

What’s required to ensure improved teamwork is that you observe and shift awareness of your social skills. You can practice doing this with a trusted peer, a mentor, or a professional coach.
Yet be aware that these three elements are not superficial communication techniques that can be applied without examining your mindset and attitudes. For that, you’ll make the most improvements working with a coach.

Boost Performance with Creative Insights

Leaders may inadvertently suppress their people’s creative insights. While bragging about their innovative, out-of-the-box thinking, these bosses may fail to notice that company systems discourage creativity. This ingrained, often invisible problem has an adverse side effect: It can diminish profits.
Improving performance for long-term success requires a two-pronged managerial approach: Focus on reducing errors while increasing creative insights.
Most managers concentrate on reducing errors: the obvious half of the equation. They know mistakes are visible, costly and embarrassing.
But many managers forget about the second step. Businesses cannot surge ahead in the marketplace without creative insights
4 Stages of Creative Insights
When we put too much energy into eliminating mistakes, we’re less likely to gain insights. ~ Gary A. Klein, PhD, Seeing What Others Don’t: The Remarkable Ways We Gain Insights (PublicAffairs, First Trade Paper Edition, 2013)
Research into how the brain solves problems and generates “aha” moments has helped us understand the best ways to stimulate creative insights.
British psychologist Graham Wallas proposed a four-stage process in his 1926 book, The Art of Thought. He asserted that creative solutions appear sequentially:
Preparation => Incubation => Illumination => Implementation
Psychology professors John Kounios and Mark Beeman tweaked the formula in The Eureka Factor: Aha Moments, Creative Insight and the Brain (Random House, 2015):
Immersion => Impasse => Diversion => Insight
We must step back and painstakingly observe a problem (immersion), examine perspectives and context, reinterpret the familiar, become aware of unfamiliar and unseen relationships, and question assumptions and biases.
If you reach an impasse, stop seeking answers. Seek a change of scenery, and give your brain a rest (diversion). Your subconscious will continue to make remote associations and connect ideas during an incubation period. Insights will materialize, accompanied by feelings of certainty and an emotional thrill.
7 Places to Find Creative Insights
A November 2014 Harvard Business Review article (“Where to Look for Insight”) defines insight as “an imaginative understanding of an internal or external opportunity that can be tapped to improve efficiency, generate revenue, or boost engagement. Insights can be about stakeholder needs, market dynamics, or even how your company works.”
Most of us can adopt a mindset that facilitates creativity and insights. The authors of the HBR article urge readers to explore seven key areas:

  1. Anomalies: Examine deviations from the norm. Do you see unexpectedly high or low revenue or share in a market or segment? Surprise performance from a business process or a company unit?
  2. Confluence: Find macro trend intersections. What key economic, behavioral, technological or demographic trends do you see? How are they combining to create opportunities?
  3. Frustrations: Pinpoint deficiencies in the system. Where are customer pain points for your products, services or solutions? Which organizational processes or practices annoy you and your colleagues?
  4. Orthodoxies: Question conventional beliefs. Are there assumptions or beliefs in your industry that go unexamined? Toxic behaviors or procedures at your company that go unchallenged?
  5. Extremities: Exploit deviance. What can you learn from the behaviors and needs of your leading-edge or laggard customers, employees or suppliers?
  6. Voyages: Learn from immersion elsewhere. How are your stakeholders’ needs influenced by their sociocultural context?
  7. Analogies: Borrow from other industries or organizations. What successful innovations do you see applied in other disciplines? Can you adapt them for your own use?

Fixation Thinking
Albert Einstein is reported to have said that if you gave him an hour to solve a problem, he’d use the first 55 minutes to consider if it was the right problem.
A problem typically leads to an impasse because you’re asking the wrong question. When you focus on misleading features, you risk going down rabbit holes. We need to become aware of the mental traps that cause us to fixate on the wrong problem.
Mental Training
Studies have shown that even thinking about unusual people or events primes the brain for creativity. On the other hand, thinking about conformity, rules and the way things are usually done enhances analytical thinking.
Achieving psychological distance – even if it’s only imaginary – increases insightfulness. Try to think about the big picture, the 30,000-foot view.
Environmental Influences
Kounias and Beeman believe your environment can promote a brain state that’s amenable to “aha” moments.
Creative insights and valid intuitions are characterized by:

  1. Remote associations
  2. Broad, flexible attention
  3. Abstract thought
  4. Positive mood
  5. A sense of psychological distance
  6. A promotion orientation

Some studies show that expansive surroundings (high ceilings, a view) allow greater creativity and broaden attention. The ideal environment for creative thinking is open, airy, rounded and calm.
Change everyday routines. Interact with diverse people and situations. Nonconformists can be strange, but their creative thinking is contagious. Being around them primes the brain for enhanced insightfulness.
8 Tips to Enhance Insightfulness
The threat of a deadline narrows your thinking and restricts ideas. Frequent breaks and long periods of incubation are likely impractical, but finding ways to maintain a creative mindset is paramount.
Try the following strategies to enhance insightfulness:

  1. Periodically consider your larger goals and values, and how you can promote them.
  2. Reserve time for long-range planning and creative daydreaming.
  3. Cultivate a positive mood by thinking about the people and things that bring you joy.
  4. Schedule vacations that will stimulate creative thinking.
  5. Do something new. Take up a new hobby, or delve into a topic unrelated to your occupation.
  6. Walk, run or engage in another physical activity to promote brain growth.
  7. Meditate and disengage periodically.
  8. Get ample sleep to rejuvenate brain cells, improve associative thinking and consolidate memories.

The Creative Power of Questions

Asking creative questions can change everything. A big, beautiful question can generate ideas, inspire action, influence engagement and participation, as well as solve problems and spark creative genius.
Provocative questions can answer most conundrums of life and work. Einstein allegedly said that if someone gave him one hour to solve a problem, he would spend the first 55 minutes making sure he was answering the right question.
In business, we don’t ask enough questions for fear of appearing stupid or uninformed. Or we don’t want to challenge authority or be disruptive. But research is showing that there are many kinds of questions and, asked in the right way, they can lead to breakthrough thinking and disruptive innovations, such as those created by Airbnb, Uber, Pandora, Foursquare, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, iPhone and many others.
The Creative Process
Let’s explore some of the questioning frameworks people use to find creative solutions:

  1. 4 Stages: Nearly a century ago, the British psychologist Graham Wallas proposed a four-stage process of creativity. In his 1926 book The Art of Thought, Wallas observed that creative solutions appear sequentially:

Preparation => Incubation => Illumination => Implementation
This creative process is still used today in many research and innovation companies.

  1. 5 Whys: The “five whys” methodology originated in Japan with Sakichi Toyoda, the founder of Toyota Industries. Asking “why” five times in succession is a means of discovering the root of a particular manufacturing problem. But this can be applied to many areas, including behaviors. People are inclined to look for the easiest, most obvious explanation for a problem, so asking “why” five times leads to understanding a problem fully.
  2. Contextual Inquiry: When you ask questions up close and in context, using observation, listening, and empathy, you are likely to get a better understanding of user experiences. This means going beyond the office and spending time with customers to find out what they really care about.
  3. Connective Inquiry: One of the ways to find new ideas is to connect existing ideas in unusual ways. This is also known as “combinatorial thinking.” One successful example was when Frederick Rueckheim observed the popularity of candy, peanuts and popcorn and created Cracker Jacks , adding a small prize to each box in 1913.
  4. Collaborative Inquiry: It’s never been easier than in today’s interconnected world to ask for help with ideas and creative solutions. Many of the most recent start-ups are using this access to a diverse world to achieve speed, flexibility and ingenuity that would never have been possible even ten years ago.

The Why, What If and How of Creative Questioning
The ability to ask “why” has sparked innumerable inventions.
Author and journalist Warren Berger writes about this in A More Beautiful Question, a fascinating book illuminating the power of questions that lead to innovations. He outlines a framework of three sequential questions to spark the creative process:
Why? => What if…? => How might we…?
Ask “Why” and “What If”
The “why” stage is about stepping back and observing, to see and understand more fully what’s going on. Notice what others may be missing. Don’t ignore incongruencies. Investigate them. Challenge assumptions. Question the questions being asked and ask a new question.
To question well – in particular, to ask fundamental “why” questions – we need to stop doing, stop knowing and start asking, which makes most people uncomfortable. We don’t want to ask, “Why are we doing this, exactly?” We don’t want to slow down a meeting, or appear stupid.
The problem is that we are prone to act out of habit, unquestioningly. The pressure to keep moving forward is everywhere. It’s difficult to admit our common human condition of thinking we know more than we do. The ego protects itself by gravitating toward feelings of certainty. In that state of mind we’re unlikely to ask questions.
Being comfortable with not knowing is the first part of being a good questioner. Asking naive questions without feeling self-conscious is not easy to do. A beginner’s mind is open to all possibilities while an expert’s is not.
Even if you don’t yet know “how,” it’s important to ask “why” and “what if” questions. Yet even when people do ask questions, they’re often relying on assumptions and biases.
“Every time you come up with a question, you should be wondering, What are the underlying assumptions of that question? Is there a different question I should be asking?” ~ Robert Burton, On Being Certain
Ask “How”
The “how” stage tends to be a slow and difficult part of the creative process. It’s marked with failures which don’t always feel good or beneficial. To act on an idea, narrow down the possibilities and commit to finding a way to materialize it.
Sharing and feedback are a critical part of this stage. Fortunately, it’s easier now than ever to get prototypes made and reviewed. In the future, if 3-D printing becomes widely available and affordable, this might become even easier and faster.
A Culture of Inquiry
It’s happening already. We’re expected to quickly adapt to using new and unfamiliar tools every day. The technology is always changing and there are never clear instructions.
Like it or not, we are expected to adapt– now. The future is here. Most of us need to ask better questions and become better experimenters. If you’re uncomfortable asking questions, talk with a professional coach.
The best coaches, managers, consultants and therapists seem to agree: there is no substitute for self-questioning. The most important help an adviser can give is to suggest asking provocative questions, both of yourself and of others. It might be helpful to engage in “question-storming,” that is, brainstorming to generate better questions instead of ideas.
What do you think? How often are you willing to ask creative questions?

The Tricky Art of the Apology

Who hasn’t said something in the heat of the moment that they regret? Everyone makes mistakes. We make insensitive statements, we speak before we think, and we let our emotions get the best of us.
No workplace is perfect. Managers berate subordinates in meetings. Colleagues make snide remarks about each other. Even worse, people send emails, texts, or tweets without giving sufficient consideration to how the messages will be received. This makes our insensitivities more public and all the more egregious.
Even seasoned executives aren’t immune from foot-in-mouth disease. Tony Hayward, the former CEO of British Petroleum, famously complained that he “wanted his life back” in the midst of the 2010 oil spill. (He later apologized to the families of the workers who had died in the tragedy, as well as the thousands of people whose lives were totally disrupted.)
Former Harvard President and Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers had to apologize in 2005 for his contention that “innate differences” between men and women accounted for the under-representation of women in the sciences. Senior advertising executive Justine Sacco was fired for posting an insensitive and racist tweet about AIDS in Africa. And more recently, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella apologized for suggesting that women should not speak up about pay inequities.
It’s time for an apology. But apologies can be tricky and can backfire. Without some forethought, an apology – public or private – is no guarantee you’ll redeem yourself. Sometimes, people aren’t ready to forgive.
More often than not, however, your apology fails because you apologize the wrong way. Most people approach it with some version of:

  • “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to —-, I was only trying to —-.”
  • “I wasn’t implying that you —-, I only wanted to express my —-.”
  • “I had a good reason for saying —-, please understand where I’m coming from.”

In other words, we make the apology all about ourselves. We justify, explain, and coat it with our own polish.
Don’t Justify
When you screw up, people don’t want to hear about you. In order for them to forgive you, they want to know you recognize how you offended them. Your rationalizations for offending them aren’t going to endear you.
Make your apology about them and how they must be feeling. If you’re not sure what that is, ask. Focus on how they have been affected by your mistake or your words. Ask what they need from you.
You should take all ambiguity out of the situation. Don’t assume you know how they feel. Inquire, and listen to their answers.
Acknowledge Their Feelings and Values
The people you’ve offended need you to acknowledge their perspective. Don’t argue it. Let them know you hear them by affirming and encouraging them to talk about what is important to them.
When you listen to them talk about their feelings, you are opening the door to healing the damage done.
Restore Common Ground
When you make a mistake or say the wrong thing, you diminish trust in the relationship you have. You need to repair that by reminding them of your shared history, your shared goals. You reassure the other party that you want to continue to share commonalities with them and work together again. Your apology should include your intention to not let them down again.
Know Your Audience
Fine tuning an apology depends on knowing how you’ve offended them and what actions will aid in repairing the relationship. Often a simple statement of empathy will go a long way to restoring trust. At other times some form of compensation is in order.
There are no hard rules as to how to deliver an apology – whether written, public, private, or otherwise. Each is unique in its own way. What is appropriate in one situation is not in another. Only you can tell how to phrase it, how to deliver it, and how to make it resonate with the other party.
An apology always requires you to offer an expression of empathy to the offended party. Without sincerely stating how your error has affected them, your apology becomes a hollow justification of yourself and your actions.
When crafting an apology, ask yourself, “Who am I talking to, and what are they looking for in my apology?” If you’re not sure, then consult with a trusted peer or your coach.

How Great Leaders Manage Perceptions

“You can influence people’s perceptions of you by playing to their needs. Once you understand how to make other people feel comfortable with you, you’ve won their approval.” Corporate marketing consultant Camille Lavington, You’ve Only Got Three Seconds (Main Street Books, 1998)

Even at the highest levels of government and business, leaders struggle to communicate their intentions. Most of us have some demonstrable deficiencies when it comes to influencing others.
A leader’s words may be misinterpreted, misquoted and/or taken out of context. Communicating and managing perceptions remain significant challenges. Leaders cannot succeed without consistently and accurately telegraphing their thoughts and intentions. If you want to shape others’ perceptions, you must take control of the messages you send.
Major problems occur when listeners distort your words to fit their existing views. Their prevailing agendas and beliefs may prevent them from liking, trusting or even noticing you. This workplace dynamic is seldom logical or fair. In fact, it’s often biased, incomplete, unconscious, inflexible and largely automatic.
Think of your last verbal workplace exchange. You probably thought you explained yourself well and that your listeners understood you. Here’s the unvarnished truth: You and they likely didn’t. How, then, can we ensure that people hear what we say?
The Perception Process
Perceivers (your audience) are prone to perceptual errors governed by rules and biases we can identify and anticipate. Understanding this predisposition allows us to unlock the perception puzzle. As leaders, we can alter our words and actions to send desired signals.
Listeners experience a flurry of brain activity as they try to understand what you’re saying. They’re also sizing you up, forming opinions of you and your message, comparing you to others, and remembering similar situations and opinions.
Most of what happens in perceivers’ minds is automatic and unconscious. This is Phase 1 of the perception process, and it is riddled with bias.
In Phase 2, perceivers use the part of the brain concerned with logic and reason. This is a much more effortful thinking process, one that requires energy. Consequently, they avoid it to conserve brain resources.
More often than not, Phase 2 is never activated. People form opinions of you and your message with Phase 1 assumptions and then they move on.
Most leaders are unaware of these basic brain behaviors, so they never take the time needed to push their listeners past quick, stereotypical judgments.
Two Flawed Assumptions
“Statistically speaking, there are only weak correlations between how others see us and how we believe we are seen,” notes social psychologist Heidi Grant Halvorson in No One Understands You and What to Do About It (Harvard Business Review Press, 2015).
Without even realizing it, we’re likely operating under two flawed assumptions:

  1. Other people see you objectively as you are.
  2. Other people see you as you see yourself.

Neither of these beliefs is true. You’re much harder to read than you imagine. You may think you’re an open book, but this is magical thinking. You’ll always be a mystery to others, even if you think you’re doing enough to make yourself knowable.
For example, your emotions are much less obvious than you realize. Strong emotions are easy to read: fear, rage, surprise, disgust. But the more subtle emotions we experience daily frustration, annoyance, disappointment, impatience and respect may not actually register on our faces. When they do, they’re usually indistinguishable from other emotions.
Psychologists call this the transparency illusion. Great communicators will go the extra mile, clearly articulating what they’re feeling instead of expecting others to deduce it.
How ‘Judgeable’ Are You?
Some of us are more knowable than others. Leaders who are easier to understand deliberately express themselves in ways that encourage more accurate perceptions. Psychologists refer to this as ‘judgeability’.
Introverted leaders who reveal little about themselves will have a hard time with judgeability. Similarly, if you aren’t shy about sharing your accomplishments, you’ll also meet listeners resistance (unless you clarify your intentions). For example, telling people you graduated at the top of your class or turned around a failing company isn’t as effective as articulating the strengths that helped facilitate these results.
If you don’t tell people what they need to know, their brains will fill in the blanks, creating a personality profile that may or may not be accurate.
Perception Biases
Perceivers rely on rules of thumb so their brains don’t have to work too hard:

  1. Confirmation Bias. When people look at you, they see what they’re expecting to see. They hear what they’re expecting to hear. They seek (and will probably find) evidence that matches their expectations.
  2. Primacy Effect. First impressions strongly influence how we interpret and remember information. People resist changing opinions once they’re formed.
  3. Stereotypes. Most people are biased, yet they deny being so. We are unconsciously influenced by stereotypical beliefs about gender, race, sexual orientation, ethnicity, professions, socioeconomic classes and education. We categorize people on various dimensions, including facial features. It’s human nature. Our brains are wired to quickly sort friend from foe. We cannot turn off this feature, but we can become conscious of it and make necessary modifications.
  4. Halo Effect. We tend to assume that people who possess one positive quality also have many others. For example, we often judge a good-looking person to be smart and charming, even without evidence.
  5. False-Consensus Effect. We assume other people think and feel exactly the way we do. We erroneously believe our bad habits are universal and normal. We also tend to believe that we have better values and are generally more honest, kind and capable than others (the false-uniqueness fallacy).

Managing Others’ Biases
You never start from scratch when meeting new people. Their brains are rapidly filling in details about you, even if you’ve never met them before.
The more you consider listeners likes, dislikes, strengths and weaknesses, the better you can anticipate what they’re projecting onto you. Work on emphasizing your good qualities to benefit from positive stereotypes and halo effects.
While humans are wired to make assumptions based on first impressions, we’re also capable of correcting those impressions as long as we see value in doing so.
3 Perceptual Filters
We view others through three lenses or filters:

  • Trust
  • Power
  • Ego

When you speak or act, perceivers ask themselves:

  • How much trust should I grant?
  • What is the power differential here?
  • How much of an ego threat or self-esteem boost will I experience?

Studies show that employees ask themselves two questions when assessing their leaders:

  1. Do you have good intentions toward me (friend or foe)?
  2. Do you have what it takes to act on these intentions?

The Trust Filter
The first thing people do when listening to you is determine whether to trust you. This decision is made almost entirely unconsciously.
Leaders can build trust in many ways:

  • Project Warmth and Competence. This is perhaps the most important component of gaining others’ trust. How well do you communicate friendliness, loyalty and empathy? Do you come across as intelligent, skillful and effective? According to Harvard psychologist Amy Cuddy, perceptions of warmth and competence account for 90 percent of the variability in whether others perceive you positively or negatively.
  • Trust Them First. We are naturally inclined to reciprocate favors and extend trust to someone who has trusted us first.
  • Pay Attention. Leaders who make eye contact, smile, nod, recognize individuals by name and really listen are the ones who excel at communicating. While this may seem obvious, too many executives appear hurried and oblivious to others.
  • Share Your Stories. When you share past experiences (especially your mistakes), you become vulnerable, thereby extending trust to listeners. This helps build high-quality relationships.
  • Walk Your Talk. People need to see you make good on your promises and carry out your stated intentions. Actions speak louder than words. Overconfidence is a trap for leaders, who must learn to project a realistic sense of themselves. Great leaders show modesty, yet remain confident in their words and deeds.

The Power Filter
Power changes the way we see other people, especially when there’s a power differential.
When leaders speak, they must be mindful of how their power influences their message. Failing to address the issue leaves room for perceivers to fill in the blanks. Great communicators are always cognizant of this filter and respectfully enlist their followers’ engagement.
The Ego Filter
The ego lens has one goal: to protect and enhance the perceiver’s self-esteem. Perceivers will always protect their self-esteem, including their decision to receive or reject a leader’s message. Smart leaders address their audience members’ interests and benefits.
Successful Communication
If you want to be understood, first try to improve your ability to understand others. Identify your ingrained assumptions, biases and filters so you can manage them more effectively.
Halvorson suggests the following strategies:

  1. Take your time. Always remember that your first impression may be dead wrong. There are always other possible interpretations of someone’s behavior.
  2. Commit to being fair. We sometimes forget to be fair when we judge someone. The more you consciously implement fairness, the more accurate your perceptions will be.
  3. Beware of the confirmation bias. Once you form an impression, you’ll seek evidence to confirm it. you’ll ignore other behaviors, even (and perhaps especially) if they contradict your impressions.Have the courage to confront your biases and accept reality.

If there’s a huge gap between your intended message and how others hear it, you’ll need to closely examine your communication style and substance. Consider working with a trusted mentor or professional coach to analyze how you come across to others.

Digital Distractions: The War for Your Attention

Are you letting digital devices overwhelm you and eat away at your ability to focus and concentrate? Is technology really saving you time and energy – like it’s supposed to do – or is it running rampant, creating unnecessary work?
Most of us are bombarded by messages, texts, alerts, and buzzed throughout the day with rings, chirps, and dings, making it difficult to concentrate on crucial information. With the slightest urge to procrastinate, we’re never more than a click away from diversion.
This 24/7 connected culture is taking its toll professionally as well as personally. We waste time, attention, and energy on extraneous information and interactions, staying busy but producing little of real value.
The Information Overload Research Group estimates that knowledge workers in the US waste 25% of their time dealing with too much information, costing the economy $997 billion annually.
Smart, productive people know they must manage their devices and data, or else information streams will drown them.
Digital Addiction or Anxiety
In a Harvard Business Review article, “Conquering Digital Distraction,” psychologist Larry Rosen at the University of California, Dominguez Hills, suggests the overuse of digital devices is not so much an addiction as a response to fear-based anxieties, such as the following:

  • FOMO: the fear of missing out
  • FOBO: the fear of being offline
  • Nomophobia: the fear of being out of phone contact

In the information age, knowledge has power and those who stay ahead of the data stream are perceived as smarter and more capable. This demands that you manage the content, analyze it, and put it into perspective so you can apply what’s valuable while discarding the rest.
Digital devices and information streams aren’t going away; they’re only growing and multiplying along with their complexity. You have to understand how to use them strategically if you want to guard your ability to focus and concentrate on your most important tasks, both on and offline.
Human Brains and Multitasking
The fact is, the brain doesn’t handle more than one problem well. Although we can certainly walk and chew gum at the same time, we can’t pay attention to simultaneous problems. Instead, the brain must switch tasks, using uptime and energy. When task switching is not done well, time is wasted and mistakes are made.
One such research study, funded by Hewlett-Packard and conducted by the Institute of Psychiatry at the University of London, found that “Workers distracted by email and phone calls suffered a fall in IQ more than twice that found in marijuana smokers.” The report termed this new “infomania” a serious threat to workplace productivity.
Another study at the University of California at Irvine monitored interruptions among office workers. They found that it took an average of 20 minutes to recover from interruptions such as phone calls or emails and to return to their original task.
Studies show that doing two things at the same time can be done well only when one task is automatic. So you can:

  • Listen to a podcast while driving, but not with good retention or learning.
  • Answer email while on a conference call, but not without lowering quality.
  • Look at your Facebook feed while eating lunch, most likely without problems.
  • Do your expense report while watching YouTube, but expect errors.

There are two approaches recommended to get back in the driver’s seat to win the attention wars:

  1. Systematically limit or reduce access to information streams.
  2. Make use of technological tools to strategically manage information.

Smart Use of Tech Tools
Some recommend that knowledge workers restrict time and access to digital content; however, when it comes to responding to emails and social media updates that concern customers and business reputations, we don’t always have a choice.
We can recognize that not all messages need immediate responses, and learn to prioritize tasks. For example, email filters can be set up so that certain subjects may be handled first.
Outlook, Gmail, and most other major email tools will allow you to set rules and filters to ensure that only the most essential messages reach you right away. Newsletters, purchase receipts, social media updates, and messages on which you are copied can be accessed later. Then designate an hour every day to review these folders.
You can also use news feeds such as RSS or newsreader apps such as Feedly, Reeder, or Flipboard to group articles and blog posts by topics. You can’t read everything in your field, nor do you need to, but you can stay current by regularly reviewing what others are writing.
The important thing is to manage content on your schedule, when you have the time and attention to devote to each topic.
Managing Social Media
Building professional credibility and reaching out to others can be enhanced by social media sites and specific interest groups. Yet it can be a time monster. You need to automate as much as possible.
Several tools offer an efficient way to post to Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook: Hootsuite, Buffer, and Social Inbox are popular with overloaded executives. These tools allow you to reach multiple networks and schedule updates and posts in advance.
The War for Attention
The question of why we are willing to fracture our attention and risk errors remains unanswered. There is perhaps some pride in believing we are able to multitask in order to prove our cognitive prowess, but it can also be fear driven.
Winning the battle over distractions may be a long uphill fight, but as we gain access to more and more tools, we can adapt better skills to maintain our focus.