Words are Branches, Thoughts are Roots

My face has always been pretty easy to read. Indeed, my wife occasionally tells me that she doesn’t like how I’ve reacted to something, to which I’ll reply, “but I didn’t even say anything!”

“Ah, but you were thinking it.”

Possibly.

We all have versions of this, the non-verbal cues that we communicate irrespective of what we do or don’t say.

The question then arises: when we discover that we’re not showing up how we’d like to the people around us, when we learn that their experience of our non-verbal, energetic responses to them aren’t what we thought they were, what do we do?

Maybe, we think, we should change the words that we say.

Do we feel timid? We can say something confident.

Are we often quick to contradict? We can stay quiet for longer.

Have we been finding a colleague frustrating? We can complement him.

Do we secretly know that we’re not up to this new stretch assignment? We can talk the talk.

All of that is a start, certainly. In fact, often it works to behave our way into new attitudes, not the other way around.

But we can also fall into a root/branch trap here, and never claw our way out. When this happens, we let ourselves off the hook of digging into the underlying thoughts that are what’s really going on.

Where that fear comes from.

That judgement.

The avoidance of a courageous conversation with that colleague.

The skills you believe you don’t have that you so desperately need.

To create real and lasting change in how others experience us, we must begin by observing, with intent and curiosity, where our root thoughts come from. We must bravely drag them out into daylight and see them for what they are.

Then, slowly, slowly, we start chopping away at the roots of our habitual responses.

Without doing this work, we end up hand-waving in defense of the words we said (or the micro-expression that flashed across our face), instead of acknowledging the work we still have to do on the underlying thoughts racing through our minds.

Speaking of which, we’re turning the page to yet another low point in American politics. It seems like soon we will all be discussing whether the President of the United States said the n-word, and then surely, if he did, watching smokescreen discussions of why “it’s just a word” and how we are all overreacting.

Let’s not forget that the real conversation isn’t about the word, it’s about the thoughts that lead to it.

The real conversation is the unspoken truth of the ugly, hateful, dehumanizing root thoughts that give rise to those words, roots that are indefensible and immoral.

 

New Best Friend

Imagine, if you will, that your best friend talked to you the way you (silently) talk to yourself in your most self-critical moments.

Imagine if she had a tendency to look away from your many gifts, your beauty, all of the things that you do with grace, ease and aplomb.

Imagine if she habitually homed in on each little flaw, whether of mind or body, and devoted most of her attention to that instead.

Imagine if she was as quick as you are to focus on shortcomings; if she were as articulate as you are about why you shouldn’t believe you can do this; if she droned on, for hours and hours (and hours!), while you lay there sleepless, about all the reasons why this next important thing might not work.

I’d hope that, pretty quickly, you’d get a new best friend.

Kaizen Basking

Rowers talk about how, when the whole crew is in sync, the boat somehow lifts a few inches out of the water and magically seems to glide.

That moment is the payoff from the accumulated effort of years of training, focus and discipline, the prerequisites to that moment of synchronicity.

This can happen in our day-to-day as well. We put in analytical, emotional and financial effort to make something work just right, but still it’s not quite there yet.

And then we see something new. It’s something that had been there all along, hidden in plain sight. Then things just click, and something that was almost-there is suddenly there. What a great feeling that is.

Kaizen is the Japanese word for continuous improvement. It’s based on the principle that we never arrive because we are always on the journey.

We are.

But, thankfully, we sometimes get to experience those moments of discontinuous leaps, where something comes together and we perform at another level.

Don’t forget to bask in those moments before resuming your journey.

Ken Ravizza, Tiny Toilets, and 167 Baseball Bats

Ken Ravizza-Steve Green, Chicago Cubs_NYTimes
Ken Ravizza in the Chicago Cubs dugout. Photo copyright Steve Green/Chicago Cubs via The New York Times.

Ken Ravizza, who brought the practice of sports psychology to professional baseball, recently passed away at the age of 70. Ravizza began this work four decades ago at a time when talk of a “sports psychologist” would cause chuckles in the locker room. Today, thanks to in no small part to Ravizza and others he worked with and influenced, nearly every Major League baseball team has a director of “mental conditioning,” and players are increasingly evaluated on six skills: running, throwing, fielding, hitting for average, hitting for power, and psychological resilience. Ravizza’s last job was as an assistant to Chicago Cubs Manager Joe Maddon in the years the Cubs won the World Series.

What did Ravizza do that was so special?

According to Chad Bohling, the first sports psychologist hired by the Yankees, “Ravizza was skilled at taking generic concepts in psychology and applying them to high-level athletes in a manner in which they could understand.”

Put another way, Ravizza’s gift was not as an inventor of new psychological concepts, nor was he necessarily on the cutting edge of psychology itself. Rather, he was a teacher and a translator, taking the best that field had to offer and bringing it to a new audience to help them perform at a higher level. Ravizza knew how to make simple but profound concepts, like “forget your last mistake” and “stay in the moment,” tangible, sticky, and therefore impactful to the players.

Two Ken Ravizza vignettes:

In 2004, when working with a slumping Cal State Fullerton team, Ravizza gave each player a tiny toilet small enough to fit in their gloves to remind them to flush away anything that was in the past and let it go.

During spring training of 2015, what would become the Cubs’ championship season, he, according to the New York Times, gathered the full team on the field “where he had lined up 162 baseballs, plus about a dozen more, and separated them with seven bats.”

The objects represented the number of games the Cubs would play over the course of the season, including the playoffs, and the bats divided them by months.

The message?

‘How long the season is, yet how individual it is and how each game means something’ said Adam Warren, a Yankees reliever who spent the first half of that season with the Cubs. ‘For an athlete, it’s easy to say ‘forget about that’ or ‘focus on the next pitch’ or ‘one game at a time.’ But if you have something visually that you can see that symbolizes that and resonates, it’s going to stay with you as opposed to something you hear and then forget about two minutes later.’

What a perfect summary of our jobs as creators, authors and sense-makers in our fields (let alone as managers, coaches, and leadership trainers), and a great antidote to the ever-pervasive “I have nothing new to say.”

What Ken Ravizza models is that, to be impactful, we needn’t be in the business of inventing brand new ideas that no one has ever thought of.

Rather, our job is to take our dedication to something we believe is important—for example, the mental game in baseball—and became highly skilled at selecting the most important concepts, ideas and insights that we have access to and to translate them in ways that players (our tribe) can hear them.

I’m reminded of one of my first full-time jobs, working at IBM to partner with U.S. public school districts to support their adoption of new technologies. Every time I and my IBM colleagues showed up to speak to school administrators, one of the first questions we were consistently asked was, “are any of you educators?” Why?  Because they wanted to know, “are you one of us?” Or, more specifically, “are you close enough to being one of us that I should believe that you understand our context, and believe your application of these ideas to our reality?” Because if not, then I’m going to tune you out.

With this lens, we see what are two most important jobs are as creators, neither of which is “creating absolutely brand new things.” Instead, we must:

Become “one of us” to the tribes to whom we are speaking, a practice of self-authorization that grows out of the way we show up, how consistently we show up, and the clarity and generosity with which we share our articulation of the ideas we believe need to be translated to this audience. Most important is, like Ravizza, speaking in a language this tribe can hear—the first indicator of whether we are ‘in’ or ‘out’—and using a form of communication that is meaningful to them.

Effectively tell stories, like the one with the 162 baseballs and the 7 bats, in a way that can be heard and remembered. This is what allows lessons to penetrate the psyche of those to whom we are speaking. We can choose to use physical objects—tiny toilets, baseballs and bats—or vivid, concrete stories. But no matter what the medium, our job is to speak in ways that engage, in ways that are easily remembered and repeated, so that our audience can tell themselves and others those stories again and again, long after we are gone. Our job is to leave behind, in the form of these memorable stories, tiny mementos of our message.

This view is a chance to free ourselves from the terror of the blank page—whether a page we are trying to fill with a blog post, an article, a video draft, a speech, or our story garden for a training session—by reminding ourselves that the question we have been asked to answer is not “how do I say something that no one could find if they Googled these ideas after the fact,” but rather, “what, of all that I have been exposed to, are the most important ideas, concepts and frameworks that I can understand, process and translate to generously support the people to whom I am speaking.”

New ideas are a dime a dozen.

Ideas that land in a way that people can hear, remember, digest, practice, and internalize…those ones are priceless.

WhatsApp, Bluejeans, Zoom and Skype Walked Into a Bar

Despite all the tools at our disposal, working across time zones and distances is still one of the hardest things to pull off in global organizations.

The new tools do help: video conferencing has finally arrived in the form of Bluejeans, Skype, Zoom, WhatsApp and other services. They are all stable and inexpensive enough that everyone with more than one office should be using them. There’s a quality to seeing people’s faces, surroundings and expressions that creates relational and contextual fabric, and it shouldn’t be missed.

On a technical note, of the options out there, I prefer Bluejeans and Zoom because they are better at mixing phones + internet calling, and have more build-in redundancy. Your mileage may vary.

That said, tools only get us so far. They aren’t the same thing as communications. And to get communications right, we need well-groomed behaviors, ones that build the sort of trust and easy back-and-forth that happens much more naturally when we see each other face to face.

If you’re trying to build these behaviors in your organization, think about communications norms at four levels:

Personal norms are the discipline each person has about how they communicate, how responsive they are, and what tools they use. Ideally everyone everywhere would have great personal communications norms. The challenge is, this is rarely the case, and even if it is, there’s enough variation in peoples’ behaviors and expectations that personal norms alone are rarely enough.

Interpersonal norms are routines that two people or more who need to communicate regularly establish (including teams). To operationalize this, you need to have both good tools in place AND make space for conversations about how you’re going to communicate. This boils down to the nitty gritty of things like: how are we going to handle the regular stuff and when something goes wrong. What’s ‘our normal’ for rate and pace of communication flow? Which tools will we use for which kinds of conversations? How do we escalate? And on and on. To avoid getting bogged down, I’d suggest having short conversations that drive to quick resolutions, try the new behavior for a week and then revisit. This is much higher yield than hour-long group conversations about norms, which tend to peter out and be more talk than action.

Organizational norms are often unspoken, but shouldn’t be. The people in your organization communicate in a certain way, with a certain tone, frequency, rate and quality. Often it feels productive to discuss organizational communication norms—“people like us communicate in this way”—but this conversations run the risk of lacking teeth if there isn’t ongoing and sustained work after the meeting about how to meet that agreed-upon common standard.

Note that this is the thorniest topic to tackle cross-border, since communications norms and tools are so different in different places (most obvious: email culture in the US, Europe; WhatsApp/Text/call culture most everywhere else.)

No Norms doesn’t seem like a category, but it is. It’s the assumption that in a global organization, neither pairs of people, teams or the whole organization needs to invest in how it communicates. This rarely yields optimal results.

I’ve generally found most success in moving the needle at the level of interpersonal norms, whether pairs of people (peers, with a boss, etc) or small teams. I’ve also noticed that there are lots of ways that good teams communicate successfully, but they all communicate successfully.

Similarly, I’ve never seen a high-performing team or organization that has low responsiveness and poor communications. Because without responsiveness and an open flow of communication, there can be no real trust.

To boil this all down, ask the question: when I throw the (communications/idea/issue/topic/need/question/request) ball to someone I work with, how confident am I that she’ll catch the ball and throw it back to me?

My Daughter the Brainiac

My daughter is working her way through a summer book of math and reading. She got to the end and found this Summer Brainiac Certificate on the last page. She was ecstatic.

Brainiac, Brain Quest

After filling it in and cutting it out she asked, “Is this a real certificate?”

Striking to notice how, at just seven years old, she’s already picked up that it might be someone else’s job to tell her if she’s achieved, to decide whether she gets a trophy, a certificate or a gold star.

“Yes,” I told her, “it’s definitely a real certificate.”

This lesson, that someone besides us is judge and jury, holds on tight to us. We started learning it at a tender age, and year after year, our schools and then our workplaces have taught us that a grade is coming from somewhere, that someone besides us decides what the homework is, how we should direct our efforts, what is going to be on the test. If we do it all right, they give us a piece of paper that confirms, to us and to others, that we hit the mark.

Makes me wonder what blank certificates I should be writing for myself for the skills and achievements I’m working towards. So simple to write them out and leave a blank space for my name.

To be clear, I couldn’t be prouder of my Brainiac daughter, most of all that she choose to do the work and then she filled out her own certificate.

Old Dog, New Tricks

old dogs, new tricks

It is simply not true that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.

Yes, you might not be able to teach an old dog to run as fast, or jump as high, or even see as well. Old has its disadvantages, to be sure. But old dogs are actually better than young ones at learning new tricks: they have better attention spans, and are less easily distracted.

No, the old dog’s problem is the old tricks: having spent a lifetime getting positive reinforcement for those old tricks, she just can’t seem to let them go.

If you are one of my many non-dog readers, think about it for a minute: isn’t what got us here all our old tricks? And aren’t we quite well-trained to seek the praise get when we do them?

Couple the power of that lifetime of reinforcement with our recommended daily allowance of pride, fear, unwillingness to admit fallibility and surrender authority. Then top that with a cherry of the smidge of shame we anticipate if we try something new and unproven in front of other dogs. After all of that, we may not even know if we’re any good at new tricks, because there’s so much underbrush to clear away before we even let ourselves get started.

Perhaps we can motivate ourselves by another adage, this one less famous but more useful: if we fight for our limitations and win, our prize is that we get to keep them.

One number(s)

We all have one big, headline line that we want to see move up and to the right—that could be revenues or profits, funds raised or grant dollars dispersed, or number of people reached through our programs.

Underneath this are the gears of our enterprise, the everyday of what we put in to get that output.

Three conversations you can have, either alone with your notebook or with your team.

  1. This leads to that: What are the most important things we do to make the numbers we want to go up go up?
  2. We do a lot of this, but it doesn’t create that: What are the things we spend a lot of time doing that we could strip away without impacting the results that really matter for us.
  3. These things create short-term results, but might hurt us in the long run: What are the things that are going up today (stress, eroding trust or joy, command-and-control) that create results in the near term but risks in the long term?

The Walk-Talk Gap

“Change is hard.”

“You’ve got to show up every day.”

“To learn new skills, you must to push through a period of incompetence.”

“Self-knowledge is hard-won.”

“True acts of leadership are rarely praised.”

“We only grow when we’re willing to let go of some of our most deeply held beliefs.”

“Sometimes you just have to compromise.”

I’m reminded of the time I spent in Indonesia nearly 20 years ago, and my going-in expectations about learning Bahasa Indonesia, the fifth language I had studied.

“I’m good at languages,” I thought, “so this shouldn’t be so hard.”

And then I remember the blindingly obvious observation I made about a week in: how, to speak this new language, I’d have to learn a new word for nearly every single thing on the planet: types of food, trees, animals, verbs, possessive…the list was endless.

As if there was going to be some way to skip those steps.

Just because we possess hard-won knowledge of what the path looks like from here to there, just because we’ve walked that path a few times before, does not mean it will be a breeze to walk the path this time. Far from it. It just means that we might walk it with a bit more perspective and perseverance, a dash more courage and determination.

Being in the trough, though, that valley in which we find ourselves face-to-face with an important compromise, feedback that cuts deep, or the recognition that, this time, the person who is set in his ways is us…

The question we’re faced with at that moment is the only one that matters: this time, are we going to be willing to do the hard work?

Symptoms and causes

You tweak your knee and start limping a little, only to find that your lower back on the other side starts to ache.

Your job has gotten overwhelming, you are working too many hours, and now, no matter what kind of day you had, you’re finding it hard to get a good night’s sleep.

Two colleagues have misaligned expectations for who will do what, the deliverables get botched, and, going into the next client presentation, they are reticent to work together.

We’re all told to work on the root cause, and not just the symptoms. But often the symptoms become just as real as the thing that caused them – whether pain in your back, learned anxiety, or another deliverable that’s not up to snuff.

If the thing you can work on today is the symptom, and you know how to do that work, then that’s the right place to start.

Often, we behave our way into new attitudes, not the other way around.