Three Ways To Engage A Business Audience With Humour

 crowd laughing

About a third of my work is comedy-related. I don’t have ‘funny bones’ but I’m workmanlike enough to know how to construct and do funny. I realise LinkedIn isn’t Comedy Central but enough non-comedy business folk have contacted me via LinkedIn for help with speeches, presentations, training, journal articles and such that there’s clearly a latent demand out there from the accidentally comedic to the professionally unfunny to amp up their game when the occasion requires it.

Not everyone should attempt to write or perform jokes or standup. Some of these ideas I’m suggesting do come from that world. Neither you nor I should expect a NetFlix special to be offered to us. Let’s calibrate our expectations. Maybe you’re a self-employed professional or you’ve got aspirations within your newly joined firm or industry association? How do you stand out and engage people, drawing attention to your key messages and aiding people’s retention of those messages and of you? One way is workplace appropriate humour. They don’t have to be jokey jokes or even obviously a joke per se.

These are tools to put in your toolbox, techniques from which you can choose. They can be a bit ‘colour-by-numbers’ but if you’re competent and confident enough to be asked to write an article or deliver a speech, then the humour aspect isn’t any harder than the technical aspects of architecture or whatever your subject is. Once you know the basic principles of architecture, you can give it a crack. (Note: I do not know anything about architecture).

1. Defined-interaction Questions.

This is a good technique to start with in a low-risk and engaging way. (It’s low-risk for both you and your audience). Indicate how you want them to answer – “Raise your hand if…”, “Shout yes on the count of three if…”, “On a scale of one to five raise some fingers…”.

“Who’s got kids? [Raise hand – Pause] Who’s ever been a kid? [Raise hand – Pause] Who’s waiting on DNA tests? [Pause] I like to include everyone.”

My quote might be a joke for the sake of a joke but it also has the purpose of connecting and creating opportunities for involvement. That principle is fundamental to every field in which I work – writing, training, facilitating, speaking, MCing, comedy. Even if it gets no laughs, as long as you’re not left hanging desperate for a laugh, everything is fine if you’ve created an opportunity for involvement. These are inherently engaging. Here’s a short video on the three critical ingredients for the optimal engagement environmen

For your own opening, what might be your questions relevant to your topic, your audience, this place and time?

2. Point Out Inconsistent Behaviours

“You know how you look at a photo of yourself from 20 years ago and think oh that haircut how embarrassing? You know how you look at a photo of yourself from 10 years ago and think oh that haircut how embarrassing? Yet all of us at some stage today looked in a mirror and said, ‘Nailed it’!”

What might be some inconsistent behaviours in your industry, organisation or team? You can poke at sacred cow topics and at least raise avoided topics using this technique. Does your firm talk a big game on customer service but don’t walk the talk consistently?

3. Misdirection + Dramatic Reveal

I was MCing a conference at which a speaker was talking about workplace drug testing. Her objective was to sell workplace drug testing. She had one session in the morning and the same session with a different audience after lunch. At one point she asked the audience what they thought the percentage of the population who had tried the drug ‘P’ (meth) was. People shouted out numbers and it escalated quickly getting to 40%. When she told them the answer was 15% it was something of an anti-climax. She made no sales that morning.

Over lunch we had a bit of a chat. I talked about a particular type of joke-writing technique called the dramatic reveal. You give some information leading logically in one direction then the punchline is a surprise. Usually this requires a minimum of three steps. She constructed a slide showing the preceding years’ ‘P’ usage that were all very low and only gradually rising – 0.2, 0.4, 0.9, 1,9 Then she rhetorically asked what they thought the last year’s figure was and before they time to answer but while their brains were in a state of curiousity, she dramatically revealed the last bar in the bar graph – a staggeringly larger 15%. That afternoon she made three sales, the least of which was worth to her $10,000.

“I learned most of my job skills via trial and error. Unfortunately, I’m a lawyer”

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Why Does Going Home Seem Faster?

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This article goes into an experiment by Ryosuke Ozawa and other scientists from Kyoto University who found that subjects perceived a journey from A to B as seeming longer than B to A. In this case, ‘A’ is home.

You can read the article yourself but first I’ll quickly summarise the possible reasons why, then I’ll suggest how we might use this finding on ourselves and those we lead or influence in order to nudge ourselves into more positive mindsets and better results – or, at least, results about which we might feel better.

The first reason centres around familiarity. The bits of our brain that were on duty back in caveman times (caveperson) were really attuned to not getting eaten by predators. Back then the food chain wasn’t just an abstract concept to humans. Something new was noticed and time and energy in the brain given to assessing it. Could it eat us? Could we eat it? Could I start a family with it or at leats give it a go? That’s about it. It’s that time and energy given by the brain to the unfamiliar that may generate a perception of longer time. Similarly, under stress oneof the physical effects you may not have noticed is the dilation of the eyes’ pupils. This is let in more light so we can react more quickly in a fight or flight situation, doing punches ‘Matrix’-style. I guess we’ve evolved from successful fighters. With stress memories seen through dilated pupils, those memories seem bigger and slower than actual reality. Interviews with victims of armed robberies regularly report the robbers as being significantly bigger than they actually were.

For those journeys away to unfamiliar places, perhaps for an event that might stress us like a new client, job interview, presentation, etc, we may well perceive as longer due to the strangeness / unfamiliarity. Returning home, the stress is less and there is at least one previous experience of the route.

A morale for this story – if you’re trying to be creative or inspire someone, take them for a walk away from the familiar workplace. I’m not suggesting you drive them into the woods at midnight – just hit up a different cafe from the usual watering hole.

“OUR BRAINS KEEP TRACK OF TIME USING VERY DISTINCT SYSTEMS”. – Dan Zakay

The second reason was overestimation / overconfidence. Before the first journey is taken, most people usually underestimate how long it will take. On the return, we over-correct and over-estimate so relative to our 2nd guess, it seems quicker. Disneyland and such themeparks regularly use this effect for queue management. A sign may suggest this point has a 45-minute waiting time whereas it’s only 20 so when you fly through in 20-25, it seems quicker. (Either way you’re probably buying an over-priced soda on the way).

The third reason was a contrast between worring or anticipating about the purpose of the trip and generally positive feelings about home after some sense of completion. Other research has shown that time does fly when you’re having fun and drags during calculus class (or whatever your ‘calculus class’ was). Also, time flies, at least in your brain, just after you’ve had fun.

So, leaving aside driving to places for gigs, interviews, etc, in what situations might the ‘return-trip effect’ be useful to us developing more positive mindsets and better results?

If you’re planning a project, you need to programme in some last steps to ‘return home’ – to compare and appreciate how far you’ve come. If you’re in a relationship and blocking out date nights, don’t stick to the same safe favourite place. Mix it up. If you do the regular family holiday, consider the pro’s and cons of always going to the same place. Cost-aside, the brains of your family will remember more positively and for longer the unfamiliar. Ironically the word familiar, of course, is derived from family.

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To what extent are you seeing what you want to see and disregarding the rest?

muscles skinny mirror

Meta-cognition is a fancy term for thinking about how we think. We don’t often do it because we’re all so caught up in actually thinking or, more probably, doing stuff with as little thought as possible. (I might be judging myself on that point). The mindset and beliefs we have got us to this point and if this point is OK or better, there are risks in changing and challenging. But things won’t get better if you don’t.

In short, one answer is to deliberately surround yourself and seek out and expose yourself to information sources that you know will challenge you. I’m not suggesting you live in a perpetual state of stressful heightened awareness and self doubt but at the very least you gotta have someone who’ll call you out. Diversity is the broadest sense is even better. Source from beyond your bubble.

You won’t have time to think about everything, after-all that’s why you revert to confirmation bias to begin with, but perhaps approach conversations with an open mind. Don’t be so quick to judge.

Surround yourself with different types of people. Don’t label yourself. Be well-rounded and willing to hear different types of opinions on politics, religion, and life in general. This is a sign of intelligence not passivity.

It takes incredible mental strength to challenge your own deep-seated beliefs. Stand by your convictions, of course, but just realize some of that just may be rooted in confirmation bias. Be open. After-all. life is full of the gray stuff. We wish it were simple. This is right. That is wrong. It doesn’t always work that way. That’s why it’s good to be aware. Self-aware.

This article explains confirmation bias and some more thinking around addressing it.

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Life’s Too Short For Bad Vacations

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The other day someone asked me what skills I have learned from my various roles as trainer / coach / speaker / MC / comedian / writer that can be used in managing the stress caused by the Christmas / New Year / summer holiday season.  Here was a person not only determined to let the holidays cause them stress but was investing time and energy anticipating that stress.  I bought them a(nother) drink and told them the following joke:  Someone put a little notice under my windscreen wiper.  It was headed Parking Fine.  It’s always nice to get a compliment.

She laughed, stopped asking me questions and walked away but my point is that everything depends on how we choose to react to situations.  One person’s stress is another person’s motivation and Christmas is much the same.  From commercial hype to religious differences to the fertile ground for conflict laid by blood relatives in enclosed spaces with alcohol and over-excited children.  It doesn’t have to be like that.  If we compared family arguments at Christmas to a crime scene then it ain’t Christmas’ fault.  Christmas provided the opportunity but not the motive.

The reason such scenes occur is due to the repression of lots of little incidents and feelings.  Then when they do get released, it is volcanic in proportions, rather than the hissy-fit status it deserves.  This why organisations make regular performance reviews mandatory, or at least why they should.  Things can be nipped in the bud.  Pressure release valve opportunities are provided.  Today we are so focused on work, or success in school or sport that families are spending less time with each other.  For many, the dinner-time ‘review’ is rare or non-existent.  Greater emphasis and expectations get placed on events like Christmas, weddings and so forth.

A survey revealed that the number one stressor at Christmas time is “finding enough time to fit everything in.”  So whatever you’re going to do at Christmas, you should start early.  My sister buys all her presents on Boxing Day for the following year.  Somewhere between you and my sister is the right level of preparedness.

Human Resources professionals are famous (infamous?) for being able to develop an assessment tool for each and every occasion and Christmas is no exception.  I am able to provide a preview of a new festive season preparedness test.  Tick any item you agree with; would like to agree; think is a fabulous idea; or seriously plan to implement.  The more you tick, the higher your Christmas Stress Rating.

Santa Claus is long overdue for a cholesterol test  
   
Plastic surgery vouchers are acceptable gifts  
   
The odds of surviving holidays without email is less than 10%  
   
Being sacked would give you more time for Christmas shopping  
   
Replanted Christmas trees attract significant carbon credits  
   
Possession of a stun-gun at during Christmas lunch is acceptable  
   

Keep in mind that there are many variables that interact on health during the holiday period including the altitude of your holiday destination, the brandy content of the Christmas cake, and the radiation from the electric fence you erect to discourage unwanted visitors.

The summer holidays present an opportunity to “get away from it all.”  Technology allows us “it all” to chase us.  You may have seen the television advertisement of the couple in the beach-house getting amorous only for the woman to remember her scheduled tele-conference with the marketing team.  A friend of mine is taking his family to Christchurch for Christmas.  The main present for the kids is a trampoline, which he isn’t taking to Christchurch with them.  To provide a vicarious trampoline present-opening experience, he scanned photographs of all the big presents and published a website which the kids can log onto come December 25.  Not a memory from my own childhood but then this is a new millennium.  The same guy signed up his son for a Disney website as part of his Christmas gift planning.  He told me he tried to make the password MickeyDonaldGoofyScrooge because it had to be at least four characters.

Focus on the positive outcomes you want from the holidays, not the expectations of others.  New Zealand is a wonderful country during the summer holidays.  Sure sometimes kiwis have to go overseas to achieve their potential because we don’t do enough for them here.  Lord Rutherford wanted to be first in the world to split the atom – had to overseas.  Kiri  Te Kanawa wanted to be the best opera singer in the world – had to go overseas.  Ed Hillary wanted to climb the highest mountain in the world – had to go overseas.

National parks in New Zealand have those fire-risk-meters in the national parks.  A large sign with an arrow depicts the danger on a scale of low (green) to high (red.)  Visitors see the sign and it is a constant reminder to be careful and not create sparks.  A household I was in one Christmas had a similar device stuck to their fridge with a magnet, only it was a Christmas-stress-ometer.
Visitors see the sign and it is a constant reminder to be careful and not create sparks.  This use of a small but humourous technique got everyone talking about the stresses and pressures and that in itself provided release from them.

Perhaps this year for you has been a negative one from an economic perspective and the festive season, with its financial demands, exacerbates that.  If you bought one thousand dollars worth of Air New Zealand B shares a year ago, it would now be worth $67.50.  If you bought one thousand dollars worth of beer a year ago, drank all the beer, kept the cans, and traded in the cans for recycling, you’d have $78.10.  Everything depends on your point of view.  There was a Larson Far Side cartoon with three identical frames.  Each had a man staring at a glass.  The first said “the glass is half full.”  The second said “the glass is half empty.”  The third said “What is this glass doing here?  I ordered a cheeseburger!”  A lesson there for all of us I think.

Poignant rather than funny, is the tale of Emmanuel Kant.  Emmanuel Kant, as you will know, is the German philosopher of great renown.  He was cared for much of his life by a manservant named Lampe.  Then he discovered that Lampe had been systematically robbing him, and he was forced to dismiss him. (HR issues here!)  But he missed him.  Terribly.  And after Kant’s death, his journals revealed the recurring note: “Remember to forget Lampe.”  I think of that every year about this time as a signal about New Year resolutions.  The only resolution worth making is -“remember to forget”.  Forget all the minor hurts inflicted on you in the course of the year, the silly things you did, the petty jealousies, the embarrassing moments.  Kant’s painful and pathetic diary note is a reminder to take a moment to remember to forget, and to remember to move on.  Life’s too short.

 

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Getting Better Buy-In: How to move your people to move with you

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In the workshops I lead, and with the people I’ve had reporting to me who also had people reporting to them, one of the most common questions I’ve heard is, “How do I motivate someone”? I don’t think that’s the best or first question to ask.

I’ve been a trainer and facilitator for over twenty five years. In the middle of that, I was also a senior manager in a complex and changing organisation for a dozen years. Both roles involved helping people move towards behaviour change. The thing about behaviour change is that you can’t do it for them, nor can you always be around when the going gets tough, when most people easily revert. For those people doing the actual moving towards behaviour change, they need to:

 

  • want to do it,
  • think they need to do it,
  • believe they can do it, and
  • think they should do it now.

 

The combination of all those conditions is what we label ‘motivated’. They need to be self-motivated. Armies might have generals, stage plays might have directors, and sports teams might have coaches screaming on the sidelines but the soldiers, athletes and actors doing the doing are the ones who need to be motivated. The generals, directors and coaches just need to make sure they recruit well, train for technical skills and create a culture and environment where people’s natural motivations can come through. It’s easy to say in a single sentence but it’s not easy to do, especially when many leaders don’t even realise that’s what they’re supposed to be doing. There’s way too much of that image of the sports coach screaming from the sidelines as the poster child for motivation. There are definite times and places for that approach but it’s far less necessary than many think.

It might sound controversial for someone authoring books on how to motivate, influence, persuade and engage people but I don’t think any one person can motivate any other one person meaningfully in the long run. What they certainly can do is create an environment and provide some tools where individuals and teams have:

 

  • clarity on what they’re trying to achieve,
  • clarity on what action steps are required, and
  • surety that the effort required is worth it, even if the results are not guaranteed.

 

That would apply in war, sports and drama, as well as any workplace you’d care to name.

One of my favourite leadership quotes is, “The true test of your leadership is what happens when you’re not around”. (I tried to find out who originated it to give them credit. Even with Google, I could not find it. Maybe it was me? It sounds like something I would say). Think about the implications of that quote.

I’ve worked for people in the past who were charismatic, passionate and energetic – the sorts of people many would believe to be what motivators look and sound like. Just being around them, you couldn’t help but be turned on to the work by their infectious enthusiasm. However, it quickly became evident that it was all quite fleeting and superficial. Fireworks are exciting but you wouldn’t want to work for them.

I’ve read widely the works of motivational authors and attended the presentations of many motivational speakers. It might be argued that perhaps they should call themselves speakers and the audiences can decide whether or not they’re motivational? Maybe they’re entertaining, and maybe they’ve got great content, but does that move anyone in the audience to lasting and meaningful behaviour change? The truly great ones who genuinely motivate don’t just speak or write, they provide structures, systems, tools and the design for environments that will allow and enable us to motivate ourselves. Because, ultimately, we’re on our own for the most part once we close that book or walk out of that auditorium.

I mainly work with leaders or potential leaders in the workplace or those that support them. That said, I see the principles I write and talk about being applied successfully outside work. You might be a sports coach or captain. You might be in the arts or sciences. You might be a sales person, business owner or project manager. You might be a mum or dad. Chances are, you have more than one of these life leadership roles where you need to move people towards behaviour change. Whether it’s to practice the clarinet late into the night before the national championships or whether it’s to get a marginal customer service rep to answer more calls, you’d like some tools to motivate people that don’t rely on you doing all the heavy lifting.

My drive to collect ideas, techniques and tools to help motivate and engage people stepped up a gear in earnest in 2013. I had just finished presenting to a group of dairy farmers. One came up to me afterwards with a question. They had a worker nicknamed ‘Sleepy’ (red flag right there) and, as a well-meaning employer, they felt Sleepy had heaps of unfulfilled potential but was just doing the job and no more, and was treading water. I didn’t have an answer on the spot and was frustrated with myself as a result. So, me being me, I threw myself way too obsessively into research which led to me having a couple of books published on the subject.

Motivation is a toolkit approach in my opinion. A foundation tool for me is one that influences focus and attention. It’s the Reticular Activating System (RAS). What is this RAS?

Have you ever encountered a situation where someone asks you a question like, “Hey Terry, have you noticed the new Toyota Prius? It’s that fluorescent lime-green colour”. And you hadn’t noticed it but, the moment it’s drawn to your attention, for the next two weeks you see nothing but lime-green cars everywhere you go. That’s the RAS in action. You knew what it was but you might not have known what it was called.

Picture the RAS as you’d picture a bouncer in a nightclub. The nightclub in this metaphor is your conscious mind and it has a limited capacity. The clubbers in the queue are the sensations from our five senses. Ideally, the bouncer would only let in VIPs and exclude the riff-raff. “You’re in. You’re in. You, not with those shoes”. But, as we’ve already demonstrated, riff-raff does get in, such as lime-green cars. And it gets in using the same technique that clubbers have used on nightclub bouncers for years – bribes. For a brain, that’s dopamine, a neurotransmitter linked to reward and pleasure. The problem for many of us is that random stuff gets in there like lime-green cars, the ranting de jour on our Twitter feed and shiny things. What we’d like in there are high-value thoughts that can help us and move us forward. How can we switch our own RAS onto deliberate and positive foci and how can we do that for the people from whom we’re trying to get buy-in? For now, let’s focus on how you need to represent your goal tangibly in the physical world so it can serve to activate your RAS.

This physical form needs to have three characteristics. The reason the lime-green car activates your RAS and sticks in your mind for ages afterwards is that it’s:

 

  • novel,
  • distinctive, and
  • physically exists in multiple locations.

 

Advertisers know this, which is why you often see an ad on a bus shelter at the same time you hear it on your car radio – behaviour change is moved by multiple aggregated hits. To leverage this mind-system to your own ends of self or team development and reaching whatever goals you have, you need a novel, distinctive and physical reminder in multiple prime eyelines. For your team, where are these eyelines? What are people looking at all day and as they arrive and leave? Is it their computer screen, clock on the wall, the fridge door in the kitchenette, the entry door to the office? Mass-produced motivational posters of geese flying in formation or rowers at dawn are all well and good but do they really motivate at all, or are they just good for covering the smudge marks on the wall? If you’d spent the twenty dollars you spent on that poster on a pizza, would that have been more motivational? The trouble with posters and pizzas is that they’re both short-term motivators, if they’re motivators at all. What would be more specifically motivational for your people on an ongoing basis?

Whatever personalized and customized focus visuals you create, their images and messages will wear off, so they need to be regularly updated. Short-burst campaigns are more effective than dusty old posters. Those things just become part of the wallpaper and certainly quickly fail the novelty and distinctiveness tests. A powerful one I saw in one sales workplace was a wall-sized graphic of an airliner that was coloured in as the team progressed towards their sales incentive of a trip for everyone to Fiji.

A second tool, useful for teams, that I see gaining momentum is the ‘personal one-page user-manual’. Rather than hope those around us figure out how to get the best from us, why not write our own one-page user manual and show it around? This helps people connect better and work together more effectively, removing a common demotivator. They’re written informally and bullet pointed on one page – no ‘Game of Thrones’ epics. It’s a great way for people in workplaces, sports, schools, and even families to better synch their personal ‘operating systems’ and lessen unproductive and demotivating conflict & stress. I’ve popped a template up at www.myusermanual.net.

Sleepy didn’t last long on that dairy farm. He’s now a very successful commission-based real estate agent. Perseverance is often cited as a major contributor to success but sometimes we all need to know when to quit.


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Performance Management Moneyball

data screen

I’ve been following NBA basketball pretty intently for thirty five years. These days I watch games in high-definition on any one of a number of devices via an online streaming or on-demand subscription service the NBA provides me. You know who else is watching that same footage and has access to the same stats and more in real time? The players!

We probably couldn’t see it in 1982 because of collusion with broadcasters or just the terrible quality of analog broadcasts in the 80s but players were probably smoking and drinking on the bench during games. Maybe they were trying to blend into 80s society? I can’t say they were for sure as I wasn’t there but I can’t say for sure that they didn’t. In 2017, modern players all sit each with their own individual tablet device provided by the team with close-to-realtime videos relating to their own performance, accompanied by statistical breakdowns on the team generally and them specifically. No one is smoking or drinking and if anyone so much as opens a bag of skittles, they’ll likely get fined and sent to make an appointment with a counsellor, then attend a restorative justice session for any members of the team who were emotionally triggered by the insensitivity.

Kiwi Steven Adams is doing well in the NBA for the Oklahoma City Thunder. He, and we, could simply assume so based on his recently formalised nine-digit contract. A nine digit contract!? I barely have that many digits on my hands. Salary in pro sports, as in any other job, is no real gauge of performance. As pro rugby players do, even in little old New Zealand, Adams wears a device within his uniform as he runs up and down the court and it measures much more than the official game stats and transmits that information to where it is automatically and instantly collated and compared and returned as multi-media reports to Adams, his coaching team and the management, who ultimately sign off on contracts.

There is a correlation between easily measured metres run and success at basketball worthy of reward. It’s not everything. If he was a disruptive influence in the team, talent notwithstanding, he could be cut or traded. A Lakers player who thought it would be hilarious to tape one of his teammates confessing to cheating on his popstar wife, then putting it on social media is no longer a Laker. He is now with the Brooklyn Nets – a team with one of the worst 3-year stretches in the history of the game. Karma baby.

The Nets’ GM is Sean Marks. He’s a kiwi – New Zealand’s first ever NBA player and now an executive on the up. When you have a job that is historically on the bottom, the only way is up. He’ll have performance measures of his own in place. The team is owned by a Russian billionaire and they’re famous for feedback. Could marks’ performance be managed as clinically as Adams’?

If we’re talking about performance management in work generally, the underlying foundation ultimately is measurement of the actual level of performance and comparison to an expected level of performance. Ideally, these would be as objective as possible and for some jobs that is challenging. Basketballers can count points, rebounds, assists and a variety of other easily measured things. Historically, some players on poor teams on the last year of their contract did something called ‘padding their stats’. They put their own interests ahead of the team to make their numbers look good. I’ve worked in a couple of places where sales folk did similar things. The nature of the measuring of performance drove behaviours that gamed the system.

Nowdays, with moneyball execs and algorithms and such, there is a basketball measure called ‘Real Plus/Minus’ that, whilst not perfect, does a fairer and more accurate job of ‘scoring’ a player’s actual contribution to the success of the team. Fans can see in realtime and players at the next timeout the difference their efforts are making or not. How do you think that might impact the performance of average working people in more mainstream jobs, like plumbers, contact centre reps or cheesemaker? I have a sideline as a comedian and that is the most well performance managed job on Earth. For a start, it is literally (and I literally mean literally) a performance. If they laugh that’s good feedback. If they don’t laugh, that’s also good feedback. It’s instant, it’s honest and it’s independent.

Real Plus/Minus is complex to calculate and only started in 2014. Not all coaches love it. Some stick to their subjective ways. Prior to that, coaches and scouts had to look at whatever numbers that were available, then think about how they felt about that player and their contributions to productivity. And on that, players were judged. How confident are we that most managers of work performance don’t manage performance like meteorologists of old, licking a finger and waving it in the wind?


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Self-Discipline: How To Refill Your Willpower Tank

brain gym

You’ve only got so much self control; Don’t waste it!

This article in ‘Psychology Today’ by Susan Krauss reports on Roy Baumeister’s work about how our self control can be sapped through overuse.

Personally, I’ve always had a mental model of willpower / self discipline / self control as a muscle that you could exercise and get to grow stronger. It turns out to actually be a tank that gets emptied but can be refilled and we can rely on random chance to do it for us, or be proactive and consciously and deliberately take actions that refill our willpower tank.

Oddly, the only thing proven to do so is consumption of small amounts of actual sugar. As much as we’d like to think of ourselves as rational creatures who, through strength of character, can be better people, maybe our natural level of self control is set through natural random chemical chance? It’s like those old Donald Duck cartoons where he’s in a dilemma and on one shoulder a little duck angel appears and on his other shoulder appears a little duck devil who argue it out into each of his ears. This ‘strength’ or ‘ego depletion’ theory implies that the angel gets weary and the devil gets his way until the angel rests up. And the best advice is to slip the angel a barley sugar or a powerade like it’s on a triathalon.

Krauss argues, and I agree, that if the model is that of a muscle that gets tired, then maybe the same progressive development can be applied to our willpower muscle that bodybuilders apply to their actual muscles. Keep working it out and it’ll get stronger over time but you need to keep increasing the weight / temptation to build it up. No pain; no gain.

No weight trainer or body builder says, “I’m going to curl this 20kg with my bicep forever,” yet you’re supposed to say, “I’m never going to have chocolate cake ever again.” That seems unrealistic, demoralising and potentially counterproductive. Weight trainers say, “I’m going to curl this 20kg weight 8-12 times or until I can’t, then rest, then do that set two more times. After time, that’ll get easier and I’ll increase the weight.” I don’t know what the cake equivalent is but it isn’t, “None ever again.” Work up to it.

Employers probably aren’t directly interested in employees’ cake avoidance or body building abilities but willpower / self control is likely a contributor to perseverance and grit which, as I write about frequently, are the most common precursors to success at work (or anywhere else for that matter.) So, if you’re leading someone at work who gives up, can’t focus for long enough or is constantly engaging in temptations that are distracting them from activities that should be adding value to their work and their lives, what can you do?

Well, if we’re stick to our weight training metaphor, you become their personal trainer. Not one of those old school cliche ‘Drill Sergeant’ types who shout, “You’re worthless and weak!! Give me twenty!!” Set challenging but realistic micro-goals that progressively build towards the desired target. Each success builds on itself, they’re more likely to buy-in to it and participate and, ultimately, you and they are more likely to achieve the end goal. But even the fluffiest of personal trainers aren’t pushovers. They don’t accept excuses and they demand honesty and effort.

And the irony is, given that sugar refuels our willpower tank, even if you do eat the cake, you may regret it but you’re less likely to eat more cake. So, in a tenuous way, you can have your cake and eat it too. Try a handful of dried cranberries. They’re the supposed ‘Superfruit.’ You never hear of ‘Supercake.’ (If you have heard of ‘Supercake’, please do let me know…)

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Why do some people micro-manage?

time bunny

I ran a couple of workshops this week on effective delegation with a law firm. I’ve also run these many times with many non-law firms. There’s a point after we agree on a definition of what delegation is, then discuss the potential benefits and differing objectives delegating might purposefully achieve if conducted effectively in a structured and tailored way. Right after that we tackle the reasons, justifiable or otherwise, why some people might choose not to delegate, or to do so ineffectively (whether or not those people were even consciously aware of why they were doing so).

Earlier, I’d sought from participants real-life stories from their own experience or observations of instances they considered to be effective and ineffective delegation. This week, as always, the vast majority of ineffective and unfortunate examples involved actions that could be encapsulated as ‘micro managing’.

We’ve all been there.

My own story was being lectured and berated on my sweeping technique in a building supply warehouse in which I worked in the mid 80s. I’m certainly over it but even in the retelling, I still get a hackle-raising sense of frustration in my blood. Others shared similar tales from their own back-stories.

One of the major reasons the groups self-identified behind people choosing to either not delegate or to pretty quickly start sticking their oar in again was to do with time and perspective.

If all you’re focused on is today and the ticking clock of a deadline, it may well be true that you can do it better and quicker yourself rather than delegating it. But if you’re focused on the big picture and the long game, you’re more open to realising and accepting that the point of delegating isn’t just about getting this piece of work done as soon as possible. It’s about getting many more pieces of work done again and again constantly. It’s a false economy to try and fool yourself that hanging onto tasks that could be done by others is effective leadership, simply because this one time you beat the buzzer. There are many more pieces of work than you are physically and mentally incapable of doing. It’s a simple capacity issue – if you’re focused beyond today. Delegating isn’t about flicking a task or two to the lowest-cost grunt able to competently do it, it’s about building capacity in your team in a planned, measured and deliberate way. Quite apart from getting stuff done, it exposes different people to your clients, builds trust, identified problems and mistakes early enough to rectify them, creates skills for succession planning and developing cover. If only one person can do a particular task and they get hit by a bus, or leave, or set up in competition, that’s a poorly managed risk.

Some people naturally have a time focus on the immediate short-term; others naturally look down the line a bit. The group had some ideas about how to not rely on nature, logical argument and luck to nudge the mindsets of those those now-fixated folk into the future a bit. One was around stories – not dissimilar to Scrooge and the ghosts of Christmas past and present. If micro-managing leaders can be exposed to leaders who used to be like them but saw the light, or that light they saw was the fire that burned them, them some lessons can be passed along forming organisational learning and memory. And everyone benefits, maybe not today but soon enough. And the sooner they start, the sooner it’ll happen.

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Does Your Fun ‘n’ Funky Workplace Actually Make For Better Work?

slide at work

This article covers some workplaces that have gone for the fun and funky motif – perhaps some others have tried to, but in the superficial way where all the mini golf courses in corridors and Harry Potter secret doors and fireman poles cannot overcome the dull, uninspiring work infecting dulled, uninspired inhabitants.

Cosmetic efforts at dollying-up the physical environment or doing ‘David-Brent-From-The Office UK’ level of cringe-worthy activities is superficial, paternalistic and, at best, only effective in the short term.

“…one of the most important factors in engagement actually relates to internal employee happiness rather than external stimuli. This means, in the same way that buying children a lollipop will please them for a few minutes, ‘faux fun’ will have equally short-term benefits”.

A boss with a rubber chicken is probably embarrassing or at best diverting attention from problems that demand competent attention. Several real chickens would probably be more effective at boosting morale, although you’d rather have it be your turn to clean the microwave than clean up after Katy Pecky and Christina Eggalayer.

I MC’d a conference in Wellington a while ago. In the afternoon, we were taken on a waling tour of a couple of high-profile workplaces – TradeMe and Xero. Ostensibly, we were looking at the physical layout of the workplaces as they were famous / infamous for being Googly / Appley in their fun, modern, even futuristic designs. And, yes, on arrival it was very visibly overt and different. Walls lined with classic album covers, a five-story spiral slide in the centre of the building and even a choice of several boutique beers on tap in the staff canteen with sweeping harbour views for all.

But these places also walked the talk. It was not superficial; it was representative. One meeting room was a caravan parked in a large space. It was an old caravan fitted out with the mod cons of an office meeting room. But it was also one of the first items ever sold on their site. It meant something. It represented something. But it was also practical, flexible and had genuine functionality.

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Gift Giving At Work

gift

‘Tis the reason for the season. Yes, I know it’s barely November and not even close to the actual season itself yet (unless you mean duck hunting) but the retail stores are already smashing us in the face and ears with things Christmassy. I was buying some birthday wrapping paper for my nephew’s science-based-parental-assistance-required birthday gift and thought, well, I’d better grab three five-metre rolls of Christmas rapping paper just in case. I was not alone.

Work presents several opportunities for giving gifts – sometimes amongst the team and sometimes from the organisation to the individuals or groups, within and / or outside the organisation. There’s the classic ‘Secret Santa’ and all its permutations. Names are drawn randomly and you get one gift for one specified person anonymously. I’m more focused in this article on leaders giving gifts to their team members. I’m not focussing on reward and recognition with a performance-reinforcing intention. I’m just looking at plain old gift-giving.

My advice, for what it’s worth, is to be purposeful, as in all things leadership. What’s is the point? What are you trying to achieve?The questions falling out of that will determine not only the nature of what you give but the way in which it’s given. This video clip summarises some content from a great book on influence by Robert Cialdini. The section on giving and how to give is very illuminating.

Objectives might include bolstering employee satisfaction, morale, loyalty, engagement, etc. Or maybe some leaders just want to have people think better of them driven by ego. Let’s be honest with ourselves.

My key points and questions around giving gifts at work (whether it’s Christmas or not) are:

  1. (Again), what are you trying to achieve?
  2. Target the gift to the person. Sure, everyone might appreciate a million bucks but a gift that connects to someone, or resonates emotionally, is more likely to engender genuine appreciation. If you get it right, it shows you listen, observe, remember and maybe even care. That’s hard to fake. On this topic too, try not to succumb to the temptation of just delegating it to your assistant. It’s OK to delegate the buying and wrapping legwork but the thinking needs to be yours.
  3. Add a meaningful and ‘keepable’ card that again is customised and encouraging, not just a generic ‘happy birthday’ message on a card. I walk through a lot of workplaces and it’s not uncommon to see a card or certificate stuck on a wall or workstation as an ongoing reminder (or evidence) of a respected and effective leader.
  4. I’m not suggesting you do the under-10 thing at home and physically make the gifts (unless you’re a master craftsman) but do you have to buy a thing?
  5. Some research indicates gifts that are remembered most fondly, and for longer, are experiences rather than things.
  6. Consider whether it’s best to gift publicly or privately. Might be a cultural thing too.
  7. If gifting publicly, consider whether it’s appropriate to tell a micro-story with each gifting as to why this gift is for this person. I’ve done this and seen this and it’s a great event experience if you get it right. Creates or connects to memories.
  8. Nothing says, “I couldn’t be bothered” than a gift card regardless of the amount, unless it comes with a story.
  9. Keep it appropriate. ‘Joke’ gifts or ‘hey-it’s-only-a-joke-mocking-gifts’, even if funny can be hurtful and counter productive. I once saw someone with some tooth issues given toothpaste as a ‘joke’ add-on to what was a decent gift. Just don’t.
  10. An option is to give a gift that has components that can be re-gifted or on-gifted. A basket o’ goodies once unwrapped can have those chocolate covered almonds passed forward to someone without a nut allergy. I have a nut allergy and every time someone gives me a gift that includes nuts, I thank them but the message is diminished as they clearly don’t know me or it was a generic off-the-shelf gift. Or they want to kill me. I once had a teammate gifted by our new boss a bottle of champagne oblivious to what everyone else at work knew – that the recipient was an alcoholic. That’s what I call ‘tickbox’ gifting. The giver rated champagne as a gift and a symbol but the message sent was that they did not care enough to know you at all.
  11. Make a list and update it throughout the year. Link significant events and achievements of each person to possible gift ideas. Think representative and meaning.
  12. Maintain relative gift budget equity.

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