Finding yourself or creating yourself?

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Warning: The post today is more philosophical then practical in nature. It represents even more fuzzy ideas than usual. Readers should proceed at their own peril.

Bill Taylor wrote a few days ago on HBR.org a post following a NYT column by David Brooks titled: “It’s Not About You”. This is the gist of Taylor’s argument:

But I’m with Brooks and his words of warning against the cult of self-fulfillment. The more executives, entrepreneurs, and talented individuals I get to know, the more convinced I become that true happiness, a genuine sense of satisfaction, comes, as Brooks suggests, not from “finding” yourself but from “losing” yourself — in a company you believe in, a cause you are prepared to fight for, a commitment to solve a problem that has defied solution.

In other words, “we” is bigger than “me” — the true measure of success is not the value you create for yourself but the values that define your work and how you lead and live.

This comes out of Brooks attack against the common advice given to graduates in commencement ceremonies to “find themselves”:

Worst of all, they are sent off into this world with the whole baby-boomer theology ringing in their ears. If you sample some of the commencement addresses being broadcast on C-Span these days, you see that many graduates are told to: Follow your passion, chart your own course, march to the beat of your own drummer, follow your dreams and find yourself. This is the litany of expressive individualism, which is still the dominant note in American culture. But, of course, this mantra misleads on nearly every front [Emphasis added].

I tend to agree. I think these two ideas should be examined from a wider perspective. Two expanding thoughts.

I wrote a few weeks ago about the myth of leadership. The idea that we need to wait for some external force (hero or leader) that will come and save us all is ingrained in our culture. We just need to wait for the prophecy to be fulfilled. This passivity is also ingrained in the advice above. Your passion is out there – you just need to find it! Like a treasure sitting at the bottom of the sea waiting to be found. “Find yourself” means that “you” are somewhere and it is just a matter of looking. It implies a passivity and acceptance. I prefer George Bernard Shaw’s advice:

“Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.”

And this leads to the second thought. In another wonderful HBR.org post, Justin Menkes, writes about how Management Thinking May Be Blinding Leadership:

For over a century, reductionist thinking has offered an excellent means for generating clear, concise, and evidence-based answers to important questions. It is also perfectly suited for rendering compelling statistical evidence to support these answers… Reductionism’s widespread acceptance and application has generated countless advancement around the world that have vastly improved the human condition, and it remains the foundation of the scientific method taught to all grade-schoolers as the fundamentals of “real science” today. But the study of complex dynamic systems has uncovered a fundamental flaw in this method, as South African philosophy professor Paul Cilliers discussed in his 1998 book Complexity and Postmodernism. A complex system is not constituted merely by the sum of its components, but also by the intricate relationships between these components. By “cutting up” a system, the reductionist method destroys that which it is trying to understand.

The focus on “the individual” (in the wider sense of the word) has been a corner stone of western thinking for the foreseeable past. And it has led to great advancements for individuals and societies. It is time, to add to this magnificent concept another level of complexity and understanding of emergent properties. No man is an island. No real life social phenomenon occurs in vacuum. It is all about connections, interdependencies and relationships.

In this sense, calling people, as the emphasis in Brooks quote illustrate to think only about themselves, ignores the idea of emergence out interconnectedness. And this is where it correlates with Shaw’s advice. Create yourself not only means being active it also means that there must be a relationship with others. A creation, by definition, is connected to something external. It is about change in the broader sense of society. It is about a relationship with the world that creates value. It is about absorbing things from your soundings and molding it to something different, unique and special. The “you” in this process is not found but emerges from an active progression of integrating yourself with the world around you.

So, are you finding yourself alone or are you creating yourself with others?

Elad

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?

Elad

Next action: ask why?

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In the last few weeks to different perspectives have mashed up into one coherent thought in my head. I guess it is s continuation of my latest focus on the issue of balance. On one side, I find the idea of outcome focus as discussed by Anita Woolley to be very compelling. Here is a quick reminder from one of my posts on this subject:

Put simply when a team, early in its life cycle, deliberately engages in thinking about outcomes (higher-level – “the what”) and not about process (lower lever – “the how”), it creates a norm of talking about the higher level. This in turn creates flexibility and an ability to adapt. These abilities allow for better performance on the team final task.

On the other hand, in the last few weeks I have been listening to Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity by David Allen. One of the main concepts Allen introduces in his book is the question: “what is the next action?” Allen advocates for a focus on the concrete tangible doable action. Here is a short description of this concept:

… Next Actions concept says that if you have an abstract item on your to-do list (replace tires on car), you’ll never do it because every time you look at it, you’ll glaze the in-between steps. But you do have to think about what to do in order to do it. So why not think about it now? By thinking about it now and writing it down as a Next Action (the Next Action I can take to bring this project to completion), I can do that Next Action automatically the next time I see it instead of glazing over some nebulous far-in-the-future to-do. (Call tire shop for prices.) With a to-do list you have to make a decision on the next action for each item each time you look at it. With a Next Actions list, you have that decision made and you just have to choose which Next Action to do now.

While on a first glance these two concepts seem like opposites they are actually complementary. The relationship between them is quite fascinating when you think about it. You can’t actually properly think about how (or next action) until you understand that what (outcome focus). If what Woolley claims is correct, in teams, a preliminary focus on the process (the how) can be detrimental for future performance. At the same time, in order to be free to really contemplate the big whys in you projects, goals and life, you need to free your mind by focusing only on what you can do. What is great is that I actually found myself creating next actions that read: Think about why X…  at beginning of projects. A doable action that is focused on the desired outcome.

I love the balance between these two concepts and I try to incorporate habits based on them into my routine. So, when do you focus on next action and when do you focus on the desired outcome or purpose?

Elad

The categories of happiness

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Yesterday, I read an article that was sitting in my “to read” folder for a while. It is called: “Positive Psychology Progress – Empirical Validation of Interventions” by Martin E. P. Seligman, Tracy A. Steen, Nansook Park and Christopher Peterson. Most of the article is highly technical but I encountered two interesting paragraphs that I want to share. Today I want to talk about this paragraph from the article:

We work under the assumption that happiness is a scientifically unwieldy term and that its serious study involves dissolving the term into at least three distinct and better-defined routes to “happiness”… : (a) positive emotion and pleasure (the pleasant life); (b) engagement (the engaged life); and (c) meaning (the meaningful life). Our recent research suggests that people reliably differ according to the type of life that they pursue and, further, that the most satisfied people are those who orient their pursuits toward all three, with the greatest weight carried by engagement and meaning… We continue to use the word happiness, but only in the atheoretical sense of labeling the overall aim of the positive psychology endeavor and referring jointly to positive emotion, engagement, and meaning.

Like every other goal in life, the first step to achieving it is to break it into smaller, easier to handle, steps. In some way or another, all of us have the goal of “being happy” somewhere in or mental to-do list. However, I think that this breakdown into three distinct categories is a great way to start the long journey towards it.

In addition I like the fact that authors emphasize two important issues:

  1. People differ in the proportion of significance they put on each category.
  2. One category by itself is never enough, it is about a mix. This means that the people who are trying to sell us a silver-bullet solution to happiness are scan artists. It also means that it is not wrong to dwell in a little bit of transient pleasure now and then. Life is not only about meaning and engagement but also about simple hedonistic delight.

In particular, the breakdown into three distinct categories can help managers and leaders create better environments and workplaces. A mix and match of the three categories allows for better planning of a happy workplace. More importantly, the understanding of the preferences of each individual allows for a personalized approach that supports and sustains the individual employee’s motivation and happiness levels.

So, how do you think about happiness in your own personal life and in your work setting? Do you find the three categories to be helpful?

Elad

Full citation: Martin E. P. Seligman, Tracy A. Steen, Nansook Park and Christopher Peterson (2005) “Positive Psychology Progress – Empirical Validation of Interventions” American Psychologist Vol. 60, No. 5, 410–42

Playing the “why-boy” game with our habits

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Following my last post on Anita Williams Woolley’s work on outcome and process focus I kept thinking about the idea of action identification. This is how action identification is generally defined:

[A]ccording to this theory, individuals can construe, construct, or conceptualize a specific act with reference to specific details and features. Alternatively, they can construe the same act with reference to more abstract labels, such as the purpose, goals, or implications of this action

And as I quoted from Woolley in my last post:

[I]ndividuals can identify actions as low-level, specific activities (e.g. ‘‘I am typing a report’’) or in higher-level terms that encompass multiple specific alternative activities for enactment (e.g. ‘‘I am consolidating and communicating my knowledge’’).

I think this idea has tremendous power both professionally and personally. It reminds of the idea of Equifinality I wrote about the past:

There are a lot of ways to reach success.  If we treat everybody according to their uniqueness we create variety which is beneficial

Many times we get entrenched in our own habits. We do the same thing again and again just because we are used to it or because it is easy. Or we might do it without even thinking about it. Just because. And we resist change because we our sure that our way is the way. But there is no such thing as “the way” to do anything. This idea is wonderfully illustrated by Friedrich Nietzsche in his famous book Thus Spake Zarathustra:

By divers ways and wendings did I arrive at my truth; not by one ladder did I mount to the height where mine eye roveth into my remoteness. And unwillingly only did I ask my way—that was always counter to my taste! Rather did I question and test the ways themselves. A testing and a questioning hath been all my travelling:— and verily, one must also learn to answer such questioning!

That, however,—is my taste: —Neither a good nor a bad taste, but my taste, of which I have no longer either shame or secrecy. “This—is now my way,—where is yours?” Thus did I answer those who asked me “the way.” For the way—it doth not exist!

Thus spake Zarathustra

In The Invisible Gorilla: How Our Intuitions Deceive Us, the authors describe an interesting study:

For his first study, Rozenblit approached students in the hallways of the psychology building and asked them if they knew why the sky is blue or how a cylinder lock works. If they answered yes, he then played what he calls the “why boy” game, which he describes as follows: “I ask you a question and you give me an answer, and I say ‘why is that?’ Channeling the spirit of a curious five-year-old, I then just keep following each explanation with another ‘why is that?’ until the other person gets really annoyed.” The unexpected result of this informal experiment was that people gave up really quickly—they answered no more than one or two “why” questions before they reached a gap in their understanding. Even more striking were their reactions when they discovered that they really had no understanding. “It was clearly counterintuitive to them. People were surprised and chagrined and a little embarrassed.” After all, they had just claimed to know the answer.

And my question to you is: how many times do you stop and ask yourself – why I am doing this thing in this specific way? What am I really trying to achieve? What is my high-level goal? I think you will be surprised with some of the answers.

Elad

Is your team thinking about higher level actions and goals?

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In the last year or so, as part of a research project I am working on, I have been reading hundreds of academic articles on different aspects of teamwork. I must say that most articles are very shallow and focus on a very narrow idea. Most of the experiments have very limited implementation potential in the real world. That is mostly fine as this is how academic ideas develop. However, every once in a while I encounter an article that makes me say “Wow! This is deep and has implications”. This was the case when I read Amy Edmondson’s articles about psychological safety which I wrote about in the past. And this is the case with Anita Williams Woolley’s work on outcome and process focus.

In a series of studies Woolley demonstrated that the way a team initially discusses its task has tremendous effects on the way team members’ attitudes and behaviors will develop down the road, significantly affecting their performance. As Woolley puts it:

Thinking about a team’s process [process focus] involves identification of the specific subtasks that need to be completed, the resources available for doing so, and the coordination of each among members. In contrast, outcomes [outcomes focus] refer to the intended final product or results of the team’s work.

This distinction is based partly on earlier work regarding action identification:

[This] work has shown that individuals can identify actions as low-level, specific activities (e.g. ‘‘I am typing a report’’) or in higher-level terms that encompass multiple specific alternative activities for enactment (e.g. ‘‘I am consolidating and communicating my knowledge’’).

Put simply when a team, early in its life cycle, deliberately engages in thinking about outcomes (higher-level – “the what”) and not about process (lower lever – “the how”), it creates a norm of talking about the higher level. This in turn creates flexibility and an ability to adapt. These abilities allow for better performance on the team final task.

While this sounds simple enough, when you think about it, it really isn’t. Think about the last time you were on a team. I am willing to bet that there is high chance that the first thing that you did was to think about how to divide the work and how to distribute responsibilities. It not only comes naturally, it seems common sense to us to do that. I can’t count the times I heard (or said) the phrase, let’s each start working on it and it will come to us. Many times in these kinds of situations people feel it is a waste of time to talk about the ambiguous goals that we want to achieve. At least according to Woolley’s work that is exactly what they should do, because it creates an understanding of the purpose that later allows people to identify the specific actions with higher level goals.

I wrote a lot about rules in the past and I think this idea correlates with my thoughts about the subject. The problem with rules is that they deprive people from the connection to what actually matters. People forget that rules were put in place to achieve a certain goal. They then follow to rules blindly, even is situations when the best way to achieve the goal is actually ignoring the rule.

In the end, I think it is another interesting look at the idea of purpose and how important is for people – working in team or individually – to understand that purpose of what they are doing and how it relates to higher level goals – personal or organizational.

In a blog post today, Heidi Grant Halvorson has a very interesting point of view on this issue. Here is what she writes:

In order to experience a sense of autonomy, your employees need to understand why the goal or project they’ve been assigned has value.  Too often, managers tell their employees what they need to do, without taking the time to explain why it’s important, or how it fits into the bigger picture.  No one ever really commits to a goal if they don’t see why it’s desirable for them to do it in the first place.

Allowing your employees the freedom to decide how they will complete an assignment is another way to create the feeling of choice necessary to be intrinsically motivated.  Allowing them to tailor their approach to their preferences and abilities will also give them heightened sense of control over the situation they find themselves in, which can only benefit performance.

The important thing is the Why. The how will come afterwards.

Elad

Here are the academic citations for the Woolley articles:
Anita Williams Woolley (2009) “Putting first things first: Outcome and process focus in knowledge work teams” J. Organiz. Behav. 30, 427–452
Anita Williams Woolley (2009) “Means vs. Ends: Implications of Process and Outcome Focus for Team Adaptation and Performance” Organization Science 20(3), 500–515

Telos

Photo by Image Editor (and originally by Raphael)

I am reading Barry Schwartz’s new book Practical Wisdom: The Right Way to Do the Right Thing. I am sure I am going to mention it a lot here on the blog. Here is a first taste:

Acting wisely demands that we be guided by the proper aims or goals of a particular activity. Aristotle’s word for the purpose or aim of a practice was telos. The telos of teaching is to educate students; the telos of doctoring is to promote health and relieve suffering; the telos of lawyering is to pursue justice. Every profession—from banking to social work—has a telos, and those who excel are those who are able to locate and pursue it. So a good practitioner is motivated to aim at the telos of her practice. But it takes wisdom—practical wisdom—to translate the very general aims of a practice into concrete action.

If purpose is indeed an all encompassing concept that every aspiring manager should master then this idea of telos probably lies in the middle of it. While, as Schwartz says, it is only the beginning of translating that general aim into concrete action, it is a good place to start. A place I am not sure we reach for enough.

How many of you have stopped in the last week\month\year and asked – “why am I doing this”?

When was the last time you started a meeting by asking: “So, does anybody have thoughts about why we are here? Why are we doing it? What is the purpose of our work?”

In the management world talks about vision, goals and desired outcomes are ubiquitous. Talks about what lies underneath them are scarce.

I know on which side of the equation I would like to be.

What about you?

Elad