Are you managing like an artist?

Photo by Coolm36

I was watching the Israeli version of American Idol yesterday (roughly translated to “A Star Is Born”). I noticed a recurring theme. The main feedback the novice artists received is that they need to be more in touch with their feelings. To be truly themselves. The sing from within. To understand the lyrics they are singing and connect with it. When the feedback made one of the contestants cry, her coach told her – “Now, this is real, this is what I want to see on stage” (It sounds harsher than it actually was in reality).

I was watching all that and thinking – how many employees and managers are given (or giving) this advice? How many of us truly connect with who we are and what we are when we go about our craft? Does it really matter if you are a singer or a service provider? If you are a dancer or a carpenter? Shouldn’t we all aspire to produce Art?

I used to write a monthly column to the student newspaper during my undergrad years. I did a well enough job and the editor almost always published my columns with some alterations. One day I saw a number of student behaviors that really upset me. I sat down and wrote an entire column in an hour. I sent it to the editor. She wrote back to me after a few minutes. “Wow! I can almost feel the anger in your words! I am publishing it as is in the front page, in addition to your usual column in the back of the paper. Send me more stuff like that”. The day it was published I was terrified. How will people react? I actually wrote something against my the dominating culture. Some of my best friends were behaving in ways that were covered in my column. I got only positive reviews. I can’t really say that I changed the world, but it felt so good to truly say what I felt like!

A few days ago I finished reading The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement by David Brooks. As I understand it, Brooks tried to write a book that glorifies feelings and the unconscious. Not just gut feelings (like some think Gladwell’s Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking is about, which I am not sure it is) but of truly connecting with the wonderful creatures we are and making the most out the social relationships that are all around us, relationships that are based mainly on emotions. Brooks writes at the end of the book, after thanking his wife Sarah, that he may write about emotions and feelings, but that’s not because he is actually good at expressing them. It is because he is naturally bad at them.

I think there is a lesson there for all of us. Our culture tends to view emotions and feelings in a derogatory way. In the best cases, it something for artists. Not for professionals in other fields. I think this is because putting our true-selves into whatever we do is hard. Popular culture has a tendency to support the path of least resistance. The other path, which is much tougher to thread through comes with tremendous rewards. We can spot the singer who sings from the heart immediately because it resonates in our own social being. I think this is true for every profession and for every business. I am not surprised that Howard Schultz called his book: Pour Your Heart Into It: How Starbucks Built a Company One Cup at a Time

And for all you managers out there, my question to you: are you managing people like you manage artists – by pushing them to connect with their true feelings? Or are you producing more mindless, soulless cogs?


Continuous improvement, the past, feelings and rituals

Photo by visualpanic

Nametag Scott wrote an interesting post a few days ago under the concept: “You don’t need an idea – you need an I did”. In it he discusses the idea of continuous improvement or Kaizen (which I wrote about in the past). One part of the post really made me think:

2. What will you do differently next time? Kaizen is the Japanese term for continuous improvement. That’s exactly what this question is all about: Honoring your current performance, yet challenging yourself to envision an enhanced future.

In my first five years as a professional speaker, I employed this philosophy as a post-speech ritual. Once my presentation was over, I’d take fifteen minutes to write a stream of consciousness list. Every thought, every feeling and every evaluation of my performance, I wrote down.

What worked? What didn’t work? What killed? What bombed?

This simple ritual grew into a profitable practice for continuous improvement of my performance as a speaker. How could you apply the same reflection process to your job performance?

I find this particular advice powerful because of three reasons:

1. It acknowledges the past, but puts it behind. Scott says: “I’d take fifteen minutes to write a stream of consciousness list”. That is it. 15 minutes. We fret a lot about the past on analyze every aspect of it. We let out attention be captured by it. While it is important not to ignore past mistakes and make sure we learn from them, the focus should be on the future. Feedfoward instead of feedback.

2. It acknowledges the importance of feelings, not thoughts. Scott says: “Every thought, every feeling and every evaluation of my performance, I wrote down”. Yes, we can and should look at things rationally, but we should also look at them emotionally. When are too focused on the numbers, on the performance on the outcomes, we tend to lose touch with our own humanity. I am not suggesting to sit and cry for fifteen minutes after every failed performance, but I am suggesting that we need to recognize the importance of feeling in our performance and decision-making.

3. It emphasizes the importance of rituals. Continuous improvement is all about rituals and habits. Aristotle said: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, therefore, is not an act, but a habit”. Yet, most of us trust ourselves to do the right thing, to make the difficult analysis, to put things on the table, to learn from our mistakes. If all of these things were so easy, they wouldn’t be so valuable. There is strength in rituals not only in our personal lives but also in our professional lives. What kind of rituals or habits does your company or team has? What challenges do these rituals or habits help your overcome?


Standardizing feelings and relationships

Photo by NeilsPhotography


This is the fifth post in a series of posts I am writing after reading Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell (for former post see 1, 2, 3, 4).

In the fourth post about Blink I wrote about the Love Lab:

In the book Gladwll describes what he calls the love lab. It is a long experiment conducted by John Gottman from the University of Washington. Since the 1980s Gottman has been watching married couples in a small room after telling them to have a normal conversation around everyday issues. He then videotapes them and examines the conversations. He developed a system, almost like a Morse Code to interpret the real undercurrent emotions of the marriage and he is able to predict, with amazing success rate, if a couple is going to survive or divorce.

In another part of the book Gladwell describes the science of micro-expressions. This field is the inspiration of the series Lie to Me. The idea is that everyone in the world has the same facial expression when they experience certain emotions. These micro-expressions last for a very short time and are easy to miss by the untrained eye. But, when you spot them (for example, by filming and watching in slow-motion) they reveal a lot about the feelings of the person.

That made me think. Shouldn’t we train all people (and especially managers) in both these methods? Can’t we analyze a managerial situation using these tools and predict who is going to be a good manager or which people fit to work together? Today, there are many people who are promoted to being managers even though they don’t have the skills (or the desire) to manage people – wouldn’t it be great if we can know that in advance and in some cases train them to be better managers?

I am not sure we can even fully standardize feelings and relationships. I am not sure we want to. But to a certain extent, we sure can use help in these fields that are such a big part of our lives.


The difference between downstream and upstream feedback

Photo by Jonas B


I wrote in the past about the difficulties of giving positive feedback and praise . I do believe that positive feedback and noticing employees are very important concepts that are not practiced enough. There a tendency to deal only with the negative (hopefully, constructive) feedback, neglecting the discussion of what went well and how can we improve and leverage from our strengths.

However, this is especially true for downstream feedback. That is to say, as a manager or team member giving feedback to your employees or peers. When we talk about the upstream feedback, feedback coming from the employees up to the manager, the tendency is to focus on the good things, while many of the bad things disappear. I came across this paragraph in Guy Kawasaki’s book, Reality Check:

Good news. The competition, customers, governments and schmexperts (shmucks + experts) constantly assault a company. Because of this barrage, good news is attractive – like an addictive, illegal, and dangerous drug. It makes you crave more good news, and you refuse to communicate bad news up the chain of command. Ultimately, it may even make you refuse to hear bad news at all. How many commanders-in-chief of armies has this phenomenon brought down over the course of history?

Now, while Kawasaki’s quote focuses on bad news in general, it is just as valid for negative (constructive) feedback coming up from employees. How many employees do you know will conscientiously, wholeheartedly, criticize their manager? Or even tell him when he is wrong or mistreating someone or missing a crucial fact? Not enough. Not because they don’t think about it or talk about it behind the managers back or feel frustrated about it. Because of culture and the action of the manager when somebody does it and of course, conventional wisdom.

As managers we need to be aware of that fact. The problem is that the minute we become managers, we fall prey to the toxic tandem. We actually know and understand less about our employees the higher we are. So while dealing with downstream feedback, we need to focus on the emphasizing the positive sides and focusing on strengths, when dealing with the upstream side, we need to demand employees to come up and tell us we are wrong, what we are missing and how we can improve. And it is important to encourage, notice, and recognize it when it happens as well as to take in with humility.

The employees could be wrong. They might not see the entire picture or understand what you as a manger understand. They might get the facts wrong. However, I can guarantee one thing. You will understand their feelings better and while we can argue with facts, we cannot argue with individual feelings. And we cannot deal with feelings, until they are out there and we recognized them.

What do you get out of the upstream of information coming from your employees? Is it only praises and good news?