The Comparison Trap

We all fall into traps in life. One of the most common is the comparison trap: constantly comparing ourselves to others and judging our worth by how we stack up—mostly on things that are superficial and unimportant:

Where do I live?

What do I drive?

How much do I make?

Where do I fall in the social hierarchy?

According to researchers, this kind of comparative thinking is common:

“…the urge to make comparisons is strong. Our research has found that more than 10% of daily thoughts involved making a comparison of some kind.” -Dr. Amy Summerville, “Is Comparison Really the Thief of Joy”

I suspect it’s only getting worse in the age of Instagram and TikTok.

As always, there’s some nuance here. This kind of thinking can motivate us to work harder to improve. We can draw energy from a sense of competition and striving.

The problem, though, is that this kind of thinking can significantly detract from our sense of wellbeing and life satisfaction.

“Comparison is the thief of joy.” -Theodore Roosevelt

“Social comparison is a big part of how people measure worldly success, but the research is clear that it strips us of life satisfaction.”Arthur C. Brooks, social scientist and writer

One reason is that we tend to use unrealistic comparison points, such as the best person we know in an area, such as wealth or fitness. Naturally, then, we fall short in a side-by-side review.

Of course, we can’t be the best in everything. What’s more, our self-review can be brutal. And that means we’re sabotaging ourselves.

Another issue: the point of life is not to be the best (or the richest, or most famous, powerful, or beautiful), and certainly not to be the best at everything. Talk about unrealistic.

Also, we’re all living our own lives, with our own unique context, challenges, values, and aspirations. Life can be hard enough without us feeling like we have to beat someone at their game.

A better formula: You be you, and I’ll be me. I’ll play my own game. (And hopefully I’ll choose the long game.)

“…let’s just go ahead and be what we were made to be, without enviously or pridefully comparing ourselves with each other, or trying to be something we aren’t.” -Romans 12

If some comparing is inevitable (often generated involuntarily by our mischievous brains), one key may be our mindset: do we view our abilities as fixed (and thereby feel bad if someone is better than us at something), or as malleable if we work hard and smart, thereby motivating to learn, grow, and develop?

Fortunately, researchers have identified many ways we can train our brain to be happier:

  • We need to move our bodies, and when we do so we can build strength, endurance, and energy. It causes positive reactions in our bodies that affect our mood, and it helps us sleep well (also critical for physical and mental health).
  • According to researchers, being grateful for what we have can have powerful effects on our quality of life, including improved well-being, life satisfaction, sense of connectedness, and physical health. Activities such as gratitude journaling or writing gratitude letters to those who have helped us can have surprisingly strong and lasting effects.
  • Meditation and Mindfulness. Researchers have found many benefits from mindfulness practices, including improvements in mental and physical health as well as performance.
  • A clear sense of why we’re here or what makes our lives feel meaningful or significant.
  • Fully feeling and enjoying positive experiences, and thereby extending them.
  • Contributing to others, in ways large or small, including simple things like acts of kindness.
  • Writing / Journaling. Research has shown that writing about stressful experiences can help people create meaning from them. And it can be a creative outlet for emotional catharsis.
  • Goals and Progress. Having a deep commitment to and progress on lifelong goals, including small wins and a sense of movement and direction, can be invigorating.

Ultimately, a great antidote to the comparative trap is what Father Robert Spitzer, former President of Gonzaga University, has called a contributive ethic, including working toward the greater good.

Instead of walking around comparing ourselves to others, why don’t we walk around wondering how we can help? And why can’t we make this a habit, perhaps becoming our new default and crowding out those vexing comparative distractions?

Why compare when instead we can contribute?

“The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts.”Marcus Aurelius

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Gregg Vanourek is an award-winning author and entrepreneurial leader who trains, teaches, and speaks on personal development and leadership. Gregg is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out Gregg’s new online course on “Crafting Your Life and Work” (limited time only), his manifesto on how to avoid the Common Traps of Living, or his TEDx talk on “LIFE Entrepreneurship and Discover Mode.”

The Urgency of Sustainable Leadership—and the Promise of Social Entrepreneurship

On this Earth Day, we honor our planet and recognize the importance of climate action and environmental stewardship. We acknowledge our interdependence—and the gravity of the stakes if we fail to meet the moment.

What is the role of business in this epic challenge? Of leaders and entrepreneurs? Of all of us?

The Role of Business

Business leaders of course must address cash, profits, and growth as they manage their venture’s financial health amidst market pressures. Thankfully, there are not just costs associated with environmental stewardship but real opportunities.

“For far-sighted companies, the environment may turn out to be the biggest opportunity for enterprise and invention the industrial world has ever seen.”The Economist

Businesses operating sustainably have the potential for:

  • Increased sales
  • Cost reduction
  • Risk mitigation
  • Reputation enhancement
  • Operational efficiency
  • Customer loyalty
  • Pricing premiums
  • Innovation benefits
  • Competitive advantage
  • Talent attraction, motivation, and retention

Of course, these gains are not automatic. Leaders must figure out viable business models and strategies, leveraging innovation and efficient operations while engaging with partners in the community and their supply chains.

None of this can happen without leading people well. Organizations must have an intentional culture that allows people to sustain excellent and ethical work over time.

“I think every business needs a leader that does not forget the massive impact business can have on the world. All business leaders should be thinking, ‘How can I be a force for good?’ What I see is demand from our people to be a business that is good, makes a profit, but also does something for the planet and humanity. I think this is a trend we will see more of.” Richard Branson, British entrepreneur, philanthropist, and founder, Virgin Group

The Promise of Social Entrepreneurship

One of the driving forces of changemaking on this front is social entrepreneurship. It’s one of the great mega-trends of our time, but it can be a bit complicated and confusing. What is it?

Wikipedia notes that social entrepreneurship “uses entrepreneurial principles to organize, create, and manage a venture to achieve a social change.” I define it simply as “creating an innovative enterprise that generates social value.”

It’s best illustrated through examples. Today there are many exciting examples of social entrepreneurship and innovation in action:

  • Karma is a food app in Sweden that connects surplus food from restaurants, cafes, and grocery stores to consumers for a lower price. Users eat food for less money, and businesses receive an additional revenue stream–all while reducing food waste.
  • The Palazzo Italia is a building in Milan with a smart, biodynamic concrete skin that absorbs and breaks down pollutants—making it a smog-eating building. Photocatalytic cement captures pollution when it comes into contact with light, which is then transformed into inert salts. The building, designed by Nemesi Studio, is net-zero energy.
  • Valani is a fashion brand that bridges the gap between sustainability and feminine style by offering sustainable, vegan apparel for women. Its plant-based fabrics are dyed with low-impact, non-toxic dyes and can be composted. One dress, for example, is made from 100% banana viscose, made from discarded banana tree stems, a vegan alternative to silk.

“Let’s be honest, sustainability and fashion haven’t always been friends.” Vanni Leung, founder of Valani

Social entrepreneurs often begin with a problem they notice. They learn more about the context and start experimenting with different ways to solve it. For example:

  • Problem: Coral reefs support up to 1 billion people, sustain 25% of marine life, and generate $30 billion annually through tourism and fisheries, but they are dying rapidly. Over 30% of our world’s reefs have died over the past several decades. The oceans are projected to lose 75% of reefs by 2050.
  • Solution: coral farming has been proven to be a viable tool to revitalize reef health. Coral Vita in the Bahamas created a commercial, land-based coral farm that grows and transplants corals to restore dying coral reefs, helping to preserve the ocean’s biodiversity.

 

  • Problem: Potholes are annoying to people and damaging to cars, while roadmaking has a large carbon footprint.
  • Solution: MacRebur in Scotland uses molten, recycled plastic as a replacement for the bitumen commonly found in asphalt roads. Their product is now used in Australia, Dubai, Estonia, Slovakia, South Africa, and the U.S.

“We’re basically using rubbish to create better roads.” -Toby McCartney, co-founder of MacRebur in Scotland, “The Plastic Roads Company”

  • Problem: lack of access to clean water. The WHO and UNICEF note that 844 million people faced this problem in 2015.
  • Solution: Solvatten founder and CEO Petra Wadström created a revolutionary water-filtration technology—a portable water treatment device that also serves as a solar water heater. The sun’s energy inactivates pathogens through UV radiation, while also heating the water to provide additional disinfection. UV light destroys the formation of DNA linkages in microorganisms, making them harmless. Today, about 350,000 people across 20 countries use Solvatten.

The Role of Technology and Innovation

Today, we’re seeing great advances in areas such as biomimicry, circular economy business models, carbon sequestration, regenerative and restorative practices, and more.

Of course, social entrepreneurship, sustainable leadership, and innovation aren’t nearly enough on their own to address the climate crisis. We also need bold and decisive collective action from governments, NGOs, philanthropies, scientists, and individuals changing their behavior and sending market signals to industry.

On this Earth Day, we must take stock and act boldly, decisively, and urgently. So much is at stake. Will we meet the moment?

“If the success or failure of this planet, and of human beings, depended on how I am and what I do, how would I be? What would I do?” -Buckminster Fuller

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Gregg Vanourek is an award-winning author and entrepreneurial leader who trains, teaches, and speaks on leadership and personal development. He runs Gregg Vanourek LLC, a training and development venture focused on leading self, leading others, and leading change. Gregg is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out Gregg’s manifesto on how to avoid the Common Traps of Living, or his TEDx talk on “LIFE Entrepreneurship and Discover Mode.” Twitter: @gvanourek

Guard Your Heart

A year into the pandemic, we’re reminded of how important it is to guard your heart.

Here we mean our metaphysical heart, our sacred center. Parker Palmer said it beautifully:

“I’m using the word ‘heart’ as they did in ancient times, when it didn’t merely mean the emotions, as it tends to mean today. It meant that center in the human self where everything comes together—where will and intellect and values and feeling and intuition and vision all converge. It meant the source of one’s integrity.”

So many of us these days have suffered anxieties, losses, hardship, or tragedies. All added on a baseline of busyness and burnout. With frazzled days and heavy loads. With negative self-talk judging harshly. With fear and uncertainty.

This year, our hearts have taken a beating.

The effects on our health, relationships, and work can be devastating.

So we must guard our hearts, preserving every ounce of hope, wonder, awe, gratitude, and love we can muster.

“Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life.” -Proverbs 4:23 (King Solomon)

Why does heart matter so much?

We need it in our lives. We need it to stay grounded and faithful that we can survive, that we can learn the lessons life is offering.

We need it in our relationships, often frayed or neglected during hard times.

We need it at work, with opportunities to connect with colleagues also facing ghosts or demons.

We need it in our leadership, especially during hard times. In his adaptive leadership framework, Ron Heifetz of Harvard University encourages us to maintain a “sacred heart” and avoid numbing our soul with cynicism or defeatism.

How to guard your heart?

For starters, develop resilience through disciplined self-care. There are many possibilities, so choose the ones that resonate with you:

  • Breaks
  • Conversations
  • Exercise
  • Fun
  • Games
  • Gratitude
  • Hobbies
  • Meditation
  • Mindfulness
  • Music
  • Nature
  • Relationships
  • Savoring
  • Serving
  • Sleep
  • Stargazing
  • Writing or journaling
  • Yoga

Some of the most powerful heart defenses come bottled in larger themes: Live purposefully. Preserve your vitality. Stay connected to people. Serve others. Take time for renewal.

If your heart is asleep, dormant from years of neglect, reawaken it.

If your heart is closed, crack it open.

If your heart is cold, bring it warmth.

If your path forward is hazy, ask your heart to light the way. We see things with our heart that we can’t see otherwise.

Guard your heart.

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Gregg Vanourek is an award-winning author and entrepreneurial leader who trains, teaches, and speaks on leadership and personal development. He runs Gregg Vanourek LLC, a training and development venture. Gregg is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out Gregg’s manifesto on how to avoid the Common Traps of Living, or his TEDx talk on “LIFE Entrepreneurship and Discover Mode.”

Are You Playing the Long Game?

These days it’s easy to fall into the trap of playing the short game. Our culture is geared toward it. With our devices, we’re developing the attention span of a gnat. We swipe and scroll. We get fidgety with a few seconds of down-time.

The power of the long game is astonishing, but the short game is alluring. We see it in many realms.

We see it in business. Clayton Christensen noted, “If you study the root causes of business disasters, over and over you’ll find a predisposition toward endeavors that offer immediate gratification.”

We see it in startups. Steve Blank notes that many startups incur what he calls “organizational debt”: “all the people/culture compromises made to ‘just get it done’ in the early stages of a startup.” Common examples: a lack of good onboarding and training, missing job descriptions, chaotic compensation, puny HR budgets, and more. While these compromises can help keep the cash burn rate down, they “can turn a growing company into a chaotic nightmare.”

We see it in our climate. We’re making a harrowing gamble with our children’s future as we fail to address the gathering dangers of climate change.

We see it in our health. Many of us are sitting longer, eating poorly, sleeping less, and pinging through life in a state of perpetual busyness or burnout.

We see it in our relationships. Caught up in our careers, we lose touch with family and friends—something we’re likely to regret. Australian nurse Bronnie Ware, working in palliative care, found that two of the top regrets of people as they approached their death were: wishing they hadn’t worked so hard, and wishing they had stayed in touch with their friends.

We see it in parenting. Years ago, a colleague of mine, also a father of young children, said a few words that changed me as a parent: “They’re only young once.”

We see it in our careers. When we’re young and in school, we face pressures about what we’re going to do next, with expectations from parents and peers, and without much basis for making big decisions. Too often we make big decisions based on the pressures of the moment in ways that don’t stand the test of time. We follow the herd into that high-status profession. Or we choose solely based on the paycheck.

We see it in life. One day there will be a reckoning for the choices we’ve made. Did we fall into the following short-game traps?

Conforming to what others expect.

Drifting through life without direction.

Staying in a job we don’t like.

Getting nowhere (or nowhere good) in a professional hamster wheel.

Deferring our dreams because it’s “not the right time.”

Settling forgood enough.”

Continuing to climb even though we’re on the wrong ladder.

The idea of playing the long game isn’t new. Thousands of years ago, Aristotle advised, “Plan with your whole life in mind.”

Now more than ever we need to reorient our life and work to the long game.

Questions for Reflection:

  • In what areas—business, health, relationships, parenting, careers, life—are you playing the short game?
  • What ideas do you have to start making changes?
  • Who can you connect with for help and accountability?

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Gregg Vanourek is an award-winning author and entrepreneurial leader who trains, teaches, and speaks on leadership and personal development. He runs Gregg Vanourek LLC, a training and development venture. Gregg is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). To get Gregg’s manifesto on how to avoid the Common Traps of Living, check out his Free Guide. Or check out his TEDx talk on “LIFE Entrepreneurship and Discover Mode.”

Designing Your Work for Flow

 

We’ve all heard of flow—that remarkable state of being in the zone and operating at our best. Many of us have experienced it.

But what exactly is it? And how do we get into it?

First, we note that the deep concentration and absorption associated with flow is becoming much harder to attain these days with all our alluring devices and their dopamine-driving distractions.

Just when we need it most, it’s becoming more and more elusive.

Complete Absorption

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a psychology professor now at Claremont Graduate University, has dedicated much of his life to studying flow. In his interviews with athletes, artists, chess players, and rock climbers, he found that many of them moved into a state of flow—a “state of complete absorption in an activity and situation.”

Why did he call it “flow”? Many of the people he interviewed described the experience as if a rushing current of water carried them along. Writer Elizabeth Gilbert in her book Big Magic captures it beautifully:

“Sometimes, when I’m in the midst of writing, I feel like I am suddenly walking on one of those moving sidewalks that you find in a big airport terminal… I can feel myself being gently propelled by some exterior force. Something is carrying me along—something powerful and generous…. I lose track of time and space and self…. I only rarely experience this feeling, but it’s the most magnificent sensation imaginable when it arrives. I don’t think there is a more perfect happiness to be found in life than this state, except perhaps falling in love.”

Csikszentmihalyi characterizes flow as a state of “optimal experience”—of almost effortless attention and peak performance. In flow, he says, we feel “a sense of exhilaration, a deep sense of enjoyment that is long cherished and that becomes a landmark in memory for what life should be like.”

Flow changes everything. Once you experience it, you’re changed forever, having glimpsed a different way of working. After jockey Red Pollard’s come-back ride aboard Seabiscuit at the famous “hundred grander” at Santa Anita, a spectator said Pollard looked like “a man who temporarily had visited Olympus and still was no longer for this world.”

In flow, according to Csikszentmihalyi, “Attention is fully invested in the task at hand, and the person functions at his or her fullest capacity…. You’re so involved in what you’re doing you aren’t thinking about yourself as separate from the immediate activity. You’re no longer a participant observer, only a participant. You’re moving in harmony with something else you’re part of.”

Nature of Flow

What is flow, exactly? Flow involves three elements:

  • Complete absorption in an activity
  • Lack of anxiety about losing control
  • Altered sense of time

The last one is a telltale sign. Recall those times when you’re so engrossed in the activity that you’re astonished when you discover how much time has passed in the meantime. It feels timeless.

The Body and Brain in Flow

Flow isn’t just a poetic description of a magical state but also a bona fide physiological phenomenon. When in flow, according to researchers, our heart rate and blood pressure decrease, and our facial muscles relax. Neurological studies show that the brain expends less energy during flow compared to when it’s wrestling with a problem.

Flow is associated with a decrease in “psychic entropy”: an anxious state of mind, common for many of us, in which our brain is stuck in a frustrating loop of concern and disarray, with fragmented attention. With that dialed down or switched off, we’re able to engage fully and enjoy the experience.

Flow and Performance

How does flow affect performance? According to Csikszentmihalyi, “a host of studies have found a strong positive relationship between flow and performance.” He notes that flow is positively associated with artistic and scientific creativity, learning, effective teaching, peak performance in sports, and even skill development. The latter is important, because it means that the more we can get into flow, the better we can get at our chosen activity.

According to the research, flow experiences are fairly rare, but almost any kind of activity—work, studies, hobbies—can produce them. So how do we achieve flow?

Conditions for Flow

According to the research, there are three necessary conditions for flow:

  • Clear set of goals
  • Clear and immediate feedback (so we can tell if we’re advancing toward our goals)
  • Balance between perceived challenges and skills, warranting our full attention (otherwise we’d get bored with too little challenge and anxious with too much challenge)

Here’s where things get really interesting. Flow is not some mystical state bestowed upon us by flow gremlins. It’s a mental state that we can invite by designing our work and context to meet these conditions.

Most of us live and work in a context today that makes achieving flow about as likely as winning the lottery. To invite flow, we need to get disciplined and systematic about doing what computer scientist Cal Newport calls “deep work”: working for extended periods with full concentration on a single task, free from distraction.

How to do this? In his book, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, he recommends that we decide where we’ll work (a pleasant, quiet place) and for how long and how (with rituals, rules, and standard processes). We also need breaks built into our day to allow us to recharge—and to let our subconscious mind wander.

Perhaps most importantly, we must minimize distractions.

Distractions block flow and open the floodgates to psychic entropy. Too many of us have surrendered to a life of shallow work and distractions.

What could we do with a life of deep work infused with flow?

Questions for Reflection:

  • When have you been in a state of flow?
  • What was the context, and what were you doing?
  • What ideas do you have for designing your work—and that of your team, if you have one—to invite flow?

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Gregg Vanourek is an award-winning author and entrepreneurial leader who trains, teaches, and speaks on leadership and personal development. He runs Gregg Vanourek LLC, a training and development venture. Gregg is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). To get Gregg’s manifesto on how to avoid the Common Traps of Living and free book chapters from his books, check out his Free Guide. Or check out his TEDx talk on “LIFE Entrepreneurship.”

Leadership and Psychological Safety in Teams

The problems in far too many organizations today are legion:

  • Unproductive, boring meetings
  • Astonishing amounts of wasted time
  • Avoidance of sensitive issues
  • Lack of full engagement
  • Reluctance to provide candid, constructive feedback
  • Political games and hidden agendas

Sound familiar?

The effects are far-reaching, from low quality work to employee turnover. According to a Corporate Executive Board study, “Nearly half of all executive teams fail to receive negative news that is material to firm performance in a timely manner because employees are afraid of being tainted by the bad news,” and only “19% of executive teams are always promptly informed of bad news that is material to firm performance.”

“So many times, I’ve heard people say, ‘I knew our strategy wasn’t working, but no one was willing to tell our CEO. No one wanted to lose their job.” –Susan Scott in Fierce Conversations

Andrew Kakabadse found that an alarmingly high percentage of top management team members in countries around the world report that there are issues not discussed because they are too sensitive, as shown below.

Lack of Dialogue among Top Management Team about Sensitive Issues (% of top management team members reporting that there are issues that should be aired but are not discussed because they’re too sensitive)

Source: Andrew Kakabadse, The Success Formula: How Smart Leaders Deliver Outstanding Value (Bloomsbury, 2015).

A related problem is groupthink—when people feel pressure to conform to an artificial consensus instead of pressure-testing ideas thoroughly without fear or favor.

What’s to be done?

Psychological Safety

What’s needed—desperately in some cases—is what Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson and others call psychological safety: a shared sense that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking, such as floating a new idea for improving performance, raising a concern, or admitting a mistake.

Timothy R. Clark notes that psychological safety exists when people feel included and safe to learn, contribute, and challenge the status quo—“all without fear of being embarrassed, marginalized, or punished.”

Easier said than done.

Our neurological wiring helps explain why psychological safety is fragile: our brains process a raised voice or a cutting comment as a threat, triggering certain parts of the brain with a fight-or-flight response and shutting down the parts responsible for advanced reasoning and creativity. We become unable to think clearly just when we need it most.

Edmondson found that “Low levels of psychological safety can create a culture of silence… in which speaking up is belittled and warnings go unheeded.”

She notes that speaking up is only the beginning. If a manager responds negatively when someone raises a concern, psychological safety is diminished or destroyed.

She also notes that “psychologically safe workplaces have a powerful advantage in competitive industries,” because they benefit from the feedback loops when customer service agents raise concerns with their managers or when line workers mention production problems to their supervisors, thereby identifying opportunities for improvement. In too many organizations, people are afraid to speak up, and so countless ideas are never shared.

The Importance of Trust—And Conflict

To create psychological safety we must build trust. Stephen M. R. Covey has noted that with high trust in organizations, speed increases and costs decrease.

Enter the work of Patrick Lencioni, who has noted the value of conflict in organizations (productive, not destructive, conflict). Most people view conflict as something to be avoided, because it can be awkward and uncomfortable.

Healthy teams use conflict productively, for example, to work through a difficult problem or understand the root cause of a breakdown. Lencioni observes that the best leaders “mine for conflict,” almost like it’s gold.

“Weak leaders want agreement. Strong leaders want the truth.” -Susan Scott in Fierce Conversations

Most teams run from conflict like it’s the plague. The first “dysfunction of a team” noted by Lencioni is an absence of trust. When people aren’t comfortable being vulnerable in the group (due to a lack of psychological safety), it’s impossible to build a foundation of trust because people are not open about their mistakes, weaknesses, and needs for help.

This tees up the second dysfunction: fear of conflict. Without trust, team members can’t engage in an unfiltered and vigorous debate, instead relying on veiled discussions and guarded comments that don’t get anywhere near the core issues.

“Trust is the foundation of real teamwork…. Great teams do not hold back with one another. They are unafraid to air their dirty laundry. They admit their mistakes, their weaknesses, and their concerns without fear of reprisal…. The most important action that a leader must take to encourage the building of trust on a team is to demonstrate vulnerability first.” -Patrick Lencioni

By showing vulnerability, leaders model the way and open a space where others feel comfortable doing the same.

The results of disciplined attention to these matters over time can be extraordinary. With high levels of psychological safety, fueled by vulnerability and trust, people rise to new heights of performance and engagement.

Psychological safety, while fragile and rare, is precious and powerful. The best leaders cultivate it carefully.

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Gregg Vanourek is an award-winning author and entrepreneurial leader who trains, teaches, and speaks on leadership and personal development. He runs Gregg Vanourek LLC, a training and development venture. Gregg is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards).

To get Gregg’s manifesto on how to avoid the Common Traps of Living and free book chapters from his books, check out his Free Guide. Or check out his TEDx talk on “LIFE Entrepreneurship.”

How to Give Effective Feedback—A Communication Superpower

Giving effective feedback is a powerful skill. When done well, it can be a big performance booster. When done poorly, a disaster bringing fear, discomfort, and resentment.

At its best, feedback is a great gift that can build trust and respect. At its worst, a spiral to anguish and despair. So tread carefully.

According to decades of research from Dr. John Hattie (2008), feedback is among the most powerful influences on levels of achievement.*

“We all need people who will give us feedback. That’s how we improve.”Bill Gates

Unfortunately, few people have learned how to give effective feedback or take the time to do it well, in part because of the fear associated with hurting feelings or damaging a relationship.

Through feedback you can provide information about how someone is doing on the way to reaching a goal. But it can also derail their learning, motivation, and performance if not handled well.

Note that feedback is not advice: “You need more examples in your report” is an example of advice, not feedback. Here are examples of feedback:

  • (Golf coach to a golfer): “Each time you swung and missed, you raised your head as you swung so you didn’t really have your eye on the ball. On the one you hit hard, you kept your head down and saw the ball.”
  • (Reader to a writer): “The first few paragraphs kept my full attention. The scene painted was vivid and interesting. But then the dialogue became hard to follow. As a reader, I was confused about who was talking, and the sequence was puzzling, so I became less engaged.” (Source: Grant Wiggins.)*

Here are some best practices for giving feedback:*

  1. Private Setting: The place where you give feedback should be private and neutral. Make the recipient as comfortable as possible, and avoid whenever possible public scrutiny that will take focus off the issue at hand. In-person feedback is much better than written, because so many important nuances get lost in emails and text.
  2. Mindset: Check your mindset to ensure that you come to the feedback session with a mindset of service, kindness, and openness, and that you’re presuming the best about the person (e.g., that they’re doing the best they can, or there may be obstacles that you don’t know about). Begin with a mindset of wanting the person to thrive and excel while feeling trusted and supported.
  3. Positive Experience: Make it a positive experience for the recipient. The purpose of feedback is to help the person improve. Note that feedback should contain positive and negative information about how their actions are affecting their progress toward goals. Simple praise is not enough. Strive for a high ratio of positive to negative observations to ensure the response is not dejection and thus counterproductive. Be kind and considerate. Developing your emotional intelligence is essential.
  4. Goal-Referenced: Indicate whether the person is on track toward goals or in need of a change. If the latter, brainstorm with them ways to get back on track.
  5. Specific and Actionable: Help the recipient answer the question, “What specifically should I do more or less of next time?” (Thus, “You did that incorrectly” or “Good job” do not cut it.) The Center for Creative Leadership points to the “SBI method”:
    • Situation: Describe the situation.
    • Behavior: Describe the actual, observed behavior being discussed. Stick to the facts and avoid opinions and judgments.
    • Impact: Describe the results of the behavior.
  6. User-Friendly: Feedback must be accepted by the recipient to be helpful. View it from his/her perspective and present it clearly. Note the most important elements (not a long list of items without priorities).
  7. Timely and Ongoing: The sooner the better, so the actions are fresh. Too many managers save feedback for performance reviews, which is way too late. Feedback should be frequent and ongoing.

“A global study of over 1,000 organizations in more than 150 countries found that more than one-third of all employees had to wait more than three months to get feedback from their manager; nearly two-thirds wish they received more feedback from their colleagues.” James Kouzes and Barry Posner in The Leadership Challenge

  1. Curious and Open: Invite their perspective and input. Search for mutual agreement and be open to their ideas. Ask them what ideas they have for moving forward. Ensure that they maintain a sense of accomplishment, competence, and agency.
  2. Humble: Research has shown that people aren’t good raters of other people’s performance (or their own). We vastly overestimate our ability to do this well. (It’s called the “idiosyncratic rater effect.”) We assume we are clear and correct in our observations and judgments, but this is often much less true than we think.

Why Feedback Gets Derailed. To be effective at giving feedback, we must step back and understand why it is so difficult and dangerous. Think back to when you received feedback from a teacher in front of class, or from an intense and critical boss. Feedback gets derailed when:

  • It focuses on the person and not the actions
  • It comes across as one-sided, with the giver of feedback assuming they are right, they have all the relevant information, or they alone have the key to the only way forward
  • It feels like an attack, not a gesture of solidarity and mutual commitment to improvement

When giving feedback, we’re not just in the land of communication and leadership but also of psychology and neuroscience. Our brains are brilliant at discounting or rejecting feedback. Our egos get engaged. We get defensive. We deflect attention away from our flaws and mistakes. We focus on what we want to hear and block out what we don’t.

“When we give feedback, we notice that the receiver isn’t good at receiving it. When we receive feedback, we notice that the giver isn’t good at giving it.” -Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen in Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well 

We discredit or attack the one giving feedback, judging them extra harshly to protect our precious and wounded ego. Much of this is unconscious (an automatic triggering of our “fight or flight” response in sympathetic nervous system), so even harder for us to avoid (without strong self-awareness, emotional intelligence, and mindfulness practices).

The activation of this part of our brain reduces our ability to take in new information and impairs our learning, thereby defeating the very purpose of feedback. Professor Richard Boyatzis summarizes research noting that critical feedback engages strong negative emotion, which “inhibits access to existing neural circuits and invokes cognitive, emotional, and perceptual impairment.”*

The key is avoiding these negative triggers and taking care to engage more productive parts of the brain: the parasympathetic nervous system, associated with “a sense of well-being, better immune system functioning, and cognitive, emotional, and perceptual openness.” (Boyatzis)*

The way to do this is to notice what people did well, encourage them to reflect on and continue it, and add nuances or ideas to the understanding of the drivers of positive performance. Note what worked and ask the person what they were thinking or doing at the time. As Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall say in “The Feedback Fallacy” in Harvard Business Review, “replay each small moment of excellence to your team.”

“As a leader, part of your job is to consistently let people know what they are doing well to reinforce those positive behaviors and to build emotional capital. Positive feedback makes work more enjoyable and more productive.”Susan Scott, Fierce Conversations

The other problem is that some people walk around giving unsolicited advice. The assumption is that they’re right, others are wrong, others need correcting, and the act of doling out advice is like a gift from above. More often, though, it trounces on people’s feelings and makes things worse. People don’t want to be fixed. They want to feel supported and valued as they go through their own journey, including wins, losses, and learnings. We all want to be the heroes of our own story.

Receiving Feedback. Feedback is a two-way street. It must also be received well. That requires an ability to listen well: focusing intently on what the other person is saying (not using the time while they’re speaking to think through your counterpoints) and being open to their point of view (not getting defensive). When listening well, we ask questions, share our feelings, and summarize points while checking for accuracy and understanding. The conversation builds naturally as we go to new places together.

“Really pay attention to negative feedback and solicit it, particularly from friends. … Hardly anyone does that, and it’s incredibly helpful… Constantly seek criticism. A well thought out critique of whatever you’re doing is as valuable as gold.” -Elon Musk

“On the Leadership Practices Inventory… the statement on which leaders consistently report engaging in least frequently is ‘asks for feedback on how my actions affect other people’s performance.’ Openness to feedback, especially negative feedback, is characteristic of the best learners.”James Kouzes and Barry Posner in The Leadership Challenge

Giving and receiving feedback well is a communication superpower. Use it wisely.

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*Sources:

  • Leo Babauta, “How to Give Kind Criticism, And Avoid Being Critical,” Zen Habits, undated
  • Ken Blanchard Companies, “Take the Fear Out of Feedback,” Perspectives, 2016
  • Richard Boyatzis, “Neuroscience and Leadership: The Promise of Insights,” Ivey Business Journal, January / February 2011
  • Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall, “The Feedback Fallacy,” Harvard Business Review, March 2019
  • Center for Creative Leadership, “Immediately Improve Your Talent Development with the SBI Feedback Model,” Leading Effectively articles, undated
  • John Hattie, Visible Learning: A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement (Routledge, 2008)
  • Robert Nash and Naomi Winstone, “Why Even the Best Feedback Can Bring Out the Worst in Us,” BBC, March 8, 2017
  • Grant Wiggins, “Seven Keys to Effective Feedback,” ASCD: Educational Leadership, September 2012

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Gregg Vanourek is an award-winning author who trains, teaches, and speaks on leadership and personal development. He runs Gregg Vanourek LLC, a training venture focused on helping you lead yourself, lead others, and lead change. Gregg is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards).

To get Gregg’s manifesto on how to avoid the Common Traps of Living and free book chapters from Gregg’s books, check out his Free Guide.

The Importance of Trust in Leadership

There are many ways to think about leadership. For some, as we have seen, it is about control or power. For others, it is about achievement or recognition. For others, thankfully, it is about people and service, along with higher purpose and positive impact.
 
Since leadership by definition involves a relationship between leaders and followers—and, more precisely, an influence relationship—it begs the question of trust. One may be able to command, control, or deceive at some point or for some time, but for an enduring relationship of constrictive influence, trust must be present.
 
Trust is a firm belief in the reliability or truth of someone. This takes us into the deep and rich territory of character, credibility, ethics, honesty, integrity, morality, and values—all of which are essential underpinnings and necessary prerequisites of good leadership. These virtues are good in and of themselves and should be aspired to by all (and, yes, even in competitive contexts such as business and sports).
 
There is also a “business case” for trust. Without trust in an organization or society, things take longer and cost more, due to the need for checks and reviews and the inevitable holding back that comes in such situations. In his book, The Speed of Trustauthor Stephen M. R. Covey wrote, “Trust always affects outcomes—speed and cost. When trust goes up, speed will also go up, and costs will go down. When trust goes down, speed will also go down, and costs go up.” He and his father, Stephen R. Covey (author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People), brilliantly described leadership as “getting results today in a way that, by inspiring trust, increases our ability to get results tomorrow.”
 
Leadership scholars James Kouzes and Barry Posner, authors of the classic book, The Leadership Challenge, have been surveying people around the world for decades on the characteristics of admired leaders. More than 100,000 people worldwide have responded, and the findings are powerful:
 
“Credibility is the foundation of leadership. People must be able, above all else, to believe in their leaders. To willingly follow them, people must believe that the leaders’ word can be trusted…. Trust is the most significant predictor of individuals’ satisfaction within their organizations.” -James Kouzes and Barry Posner, The Leadership Challenge
 
This is not rocket science. Imagine working for a leader or colleague whose behavior has demonstrated that he or she is not worthy of your trust, since he or she has deceived or used you. Imagine living with a family member or having a friend who abuses your trust.
 
Unacceptable. Such a situation requires change, and urgently so.
 
Of course, we all make mistakes and, when we do, thankfully we can redeem and make amends when others are kind and gracious enough to give us a second chance. But patterns of deceit warrant decisive action. Otherwise, we enable abuse and corrosive forces in our organizations and society.
 
Trust is essential in leadership—and in all forms of human relationships and organizations. Chronically failing the trust test is disqualifying for leaders.

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Gregg Vanourek is an award-winning author who trains, teaches, and speaks on leadership and personal development. He runs Gregg Vanourek LLC, a training venture focused on helping you lead yourself, lead others, and lead change. Gregg is co-author of three books, including Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards) and LIFE Entrepreneurs (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion). Twitter: @gvanourek

The Importance of Credibility in Leadership

Credibility: the quality of being worthy of belief and trust

Credibility, which flows from character and competence, is one of the most essential aspects of leadership. High credibility is a tremendous asset for leaders seeking to achieve exceptional performance and positive impacts. Low credibility is devastating.

Credible leaders are straight with people, even about hard topics. They walk the talk and practice what they preach. They do what they say they will do and follow through on promises.

Think about what you have wanted from your leaders, parents, teachers, and coaches over the years. Think of the impact that credible leaders have had on your life. Think of the kind of leader you would want your children or best friend to work for.

Leadership scholars James Kouzes and Barry Posner, authors of the best-selling classic, The Leadership Challenge, have been surveying people around the world for decades on the “Characteristics of Admired Leaders.” More than 100,000 people worldwide have responded, and the findings are powerful and surprisingly consistent across nations:

“In every survey we’ve conducted, honesty is selected more often than any other leadership characteristic. Overall, it emerges as the single most important factor in the leader-constituent relationship…. First and foremost, people want a leader who is honest….
“…people want to follow leaders who, more than anything, are credible. Credibility is the foundation of leadership. People must be able, above all else, to believe in their leaders. To willingly follow them, people must believe that the leaders’ word can be trusted.”
-James Kouzes and Barry Posner, The Leadership Challenge

Table 1. Characteristics of Admired Leaders
(% of respondents selecting each characteristic over time periods)

According to their research, when people perceive their manager to have high credibility, they are significantly more likely to:

  • Be proud to tell others they’re part of the organization
  • Feel a strong sense of team spirit
  • See their own personal values as consistent with those of the organization
  • Feel attached and committed to the organization
  • Have a sense of ownership of the organization

When they perceive their manager to have low credibility, they are significantly more likely to:

  • Produce only if carefully watched
  • Be motivated primarily by money
  • Say good things about the organization publicly but criticize it privately
  • Consider looking for another job if the organization experiences problems
  • Feel unsupported and unappreciated

That leads them to the Kouzes-Posner 1st Law of Leadership:
“If you don’t believe in the messenger, you won’t believe the message.”

And then to the Kouzes-Posner 2nd Law of Leadership:
DWYSYWD: “Do what you say you will do.”

Today we all face grave challenges, from the pandemic and economic crisis, with all their stresses and pressures, to competitive and technological disruption. Now more than ever we need credible leaders worthy of our belief and trust.

“Credibility is a leader’s currency. With it, he or she is solvent; without it, he or she is bankrupt.”
-John C. Maxwell

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Gregg Vanourek is an award-winning author who trains, teaches, and speaks on leadership and personal development. He runs Gregg Vanourek LLC, a training venture focused on helping you lead yourself, lead others, and lead change. Gregg is co-author of three books, including Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards) and LIFE Entrepreneurs (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion). Twitter: @gvanourek

The Root Cause of Ethical Failings (and Our Political Dysfunction)

Scandals. Fraud. Abuse of power. Greed. Corruption. Tax evasion. Coverups.

Once rare occurrences, coming back to haunt us every decade or so, these are now front and center in our daily lives and our daily news cycle. We see them in government, in business, and even in nonprofits and some religious organizations.

It seems as if we are in a race to the bottom.

While these challenges and failings have always been with us, we are not particularly well equipped to deal with them, in part because we fail to understand their root causes—and to hack away at them.

Enter Professor Kenneth Goodpaster and what he calls the “three symptoms of ethical hazard”:*

1. Fixation: obsession with an overarching goal. For example, Enron executives were a group of hyper-ambitious overachievers with something to prove about being number one. Many were ruthless and uninhibited about doing whatever it took to get there. For NASA, it was fixation with set-in-stone space shuttle launch dates, contributing to tragic explosions and loss of life. Some mountain climbers get “summit fever,” where they are so focused on reaching the top that they recklessly risk their own lives and those of their teams.

2. Rationalization: attempting to explain or justify behavior with logical reasons, even when not appropriate. Sometimes values conflict (e.g., truth vs. loyalty). Rationalization entails choosing based on one “privileged feature” (e.g., total loyalty regardless of the truth). This creates “blind spots” in ethical thinking. Examples of rationalization are legion:

  • My boss told me to do it.
  • Everybody else is doing it.
  • It’s just this one time.
  • No one will find out.
  • It’s not my responsibility.
  • It’s not lying. (It’s just not telling the truth.)
  • We really need/deserve this.
  • I didn’t do anything. (I just looked the other way.)
  • You don’t understand the pressure we’re under.
  • “Business is business”: we’re just “maximizing shareholder value.”
  • “Politics is dirty”: we have to do this so we can do X, Y, Z….

“I… rationalized that what I was doing was OK, that it wasn’t going to hurt anybody.” / “I will live with this pain, with this torment, for the rest of my life.”Bernie Madoff, former financier and operator of a Ponzi scheme considered the largest financial fraud in U.S. history

3. Detachment: the sense of not being personally involved in something or of having no interest or stake. On ethical matters, Goodpaster raises the alarm when our actions are detached from our personal values. When detached, people bypass their heart and soul as they privilege only their head, and they anesthetize their humanity in the face of temptations to win or be perceived as successful. Here he draws on psychoanalyst and author Michael Maccoby, who warned that “careerism” was a self-destructive affliction suffered by many successful executives (and politicians, presumably), fueled by an obsession with winning and a “gamesman” view of all actions in terms of whether they will help you succeed in your career or campaign. The person detaches from his or her sense of identity (e.g., as a mother or father, citizen, etc.) and integrity, and one’s sense of self-worth becomes measured by performance in the market, game, or arena. Such detachment corrodes character and degrades mental health, with people leading divided lives between work and home.

Two related dangers here are “ethical fading” and “moral disengagement”:

  • Ethical fading: “when the ethical aspects of a decision disappear from view,” such as when people focus so much on things like profitability or winning that they do not register unethical and illegal behavior (and the related aspects of harm, pain, conflict).
  • Moral disengagement: restructuring reality to make our actions seem less harmful than they are, convincing ourselves that ethical standards do not apply to us in a certain context, such as a political campaign. We mentally reframe destructive behavior as acceptable, and our brains are masterful at this misdirection.

Each one of these three symptoms is dangerous, but the real problem is that they converge into a single, terrible pattern. Goodpaster calls this “teleopathy”: the unbalanced pursuit of purpose. The word “teleopathy” combines two Greek roots: “teleo”: goal, target, or purpose; and “pathos”: disease or sickness.

We can think of it as a goal sickness—as being so focused on a goal that we pursue it destructively:

We must win.
We must be the best.
We must rule.

Thankfully, Goodpaster notes that there are “antidotes” for the three symptoms of ethical hazard:

1. From fixation to perspective. We must see that our goals are part of a larger mission, the common good. We need to transcend our perpetual busyness and reactivity and build in reflection time, renewal rituals, and sanctuary. Without a larger and longer term perspective of community, duty, stewardship, and sustainability, we will spiral down in self-destructive patterns.

2. From rationalization to frankness. Since our rationalizations tend to be subconscious, coming from the older and faster parts of our brain that do not engage our most advanced reasoning capacities in our prefrontal cortex, we need radical honesty and candor through searching and piercing dialogue and healthy conflict with colleagues who recognize the tremendous value of vetting and pressure-testing our ideas and decisions and inviting conversations about whether we are upholding our shared values. We need people who are willing to “speak truth to power,” even when they are a voice of one. Ideally, our organizational culture fosters such questioning and conflict, all in service of making wise decisions and proper actions.

3. From detachment to engagement. This requires engaging our heart as well as our head. A powerful way to do that is to be clear about the higher purpose of the work you are doing (beyond winning a campaign or maximizing profits:

  • What will you do once elected?
  • What value can you create for all stakeholders through the profits you generate?
  • What positive impact can you have via serving others, and are you doing your part for the common good?

Now more than ever we need to identify and hack away at the root causes of our ethical failings and political dysfunction. We need to stop our senseless race to the bottom—in business with our myopic pursuit of profit and growth regardless of the consequences on people and planet, and in politics with our zero-sum game mentality of “I must win and you must lose” with all its attendant cynicism and disdain for fellow citizens who happen to disagree with us on some issues. We need to look for shared values and mutual interests instead of stoking mistrust, anger, and resentment. This race to the bottom is so dangerous because it threatens to destroy the very foundations of our communities and society. With perspective, frankness, engagement, and a healthy pursuit of shared purpose, we can redirect the race upward.


* Source: Kenneth Goodpaster, “Ethics or Excellence? Conscience as a Check on the Unbalanced Pursuit of Organizational Goals,”Ivey Business Journal, March/April 2004.

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Gregg Vanourek is an award-winning author who trains, teaches, and speaks on leadership and personal development. He runs Gregg Vanourek LLC, a training venture focused on helping you lead yourself, lead others, and lead change. Gregg is co-author of three books, including Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards) and LIFE Entrepreneurs (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion). To get Gregg’s manifesto on how to avoid the Common Traps of Living and free book chapters from Gregg’s books, check out his Free Guide.