Perform, or Else!

November 25, 2015 Leave a comment

That is intended to sound like a threat! I have just finished reading an important book by Santa Monica psychologist Hendrie Weisinger and performance expert J. P. Pawliw-Fry titled Performing Under Pressure: The Science of Doing Your Best When It Matters Most (Crown Business, 2015).

Critical to understanding their work is distinguishing between stress and pressure. Put simply, pressure is a form of stress “in which the consequences or results matter.” Making a foul shot early in the first half when you’re in the lead is not pressure, while making a foul shot with no time left on the clock and you’re one point behind—that is pressure. Pressure is what you feel when you are doing something, or about to be doing something, that could have disastrous (or at least game-changing) results if you do not do your normal good job—i.e., if you choke.

Persons who are more calm under pressure do not perform better than their usual—they just don’t perform particularly worse than usual. Those who are not calm under pressure tend to perform worse than their usual—they choke. So, the goal is not to perform better under pressure than your usual, but to perform as well as your usual.

The primary cause of sub-par performance under pressure is distractions, whether it be anxiety over the outcome or attack planes at 3 o’clock—imagined or present distractions. The solution is to find a way to resist such distractions and to focus on the immediate goal. Some people will find this easier to master than others—the world of personality assessment has shown us that persons low on Big Five N (typically calm), low on Big Five O (typically focused on the here-and-now), and high on Big Five C (typically methodical and disciplined) will find it more natural to remain calm under pressure, as well as to use the techniques recommended in this book to resist distractions. However, the techniques listed below can also work for those high in N (tending to be anxious and pessimistic), high in O (tending to be curious, imaginative, and more easily distracted), and low in C (tending to be more spontaneous and less disciplined).

Weisinger and Pawliw-Fry suggest these 22 proven ways to stay focused and resist distractions under pressure (the wording is mostly theirs):

  • Think of pressure moments as an opportunity for you to strut your stuff and maybe even have some fun—a challenge rather than a calamity.
  • See this as one of many opportunities, not the last.
  • Shrink the importance of the pressure moment—the more importance you place on it, the more you are likely to underperform.
  • Focus on your immediate mission, as in doing a good interview, squeeze ballrather than ultimate or related goals, such as getting the job.
  • Squeeze a ball—or some other form of isometric exercise—to dissipate the tension.
  • Expect the unexpected—anticipate what might surprise you and prepare how to handle it.
  • Affirm your self-worth—focusing on your strengths helps performance.
  • Flash back to your previous successes.
  • Be positive before and during high-pressure moments—engage in positive self-talk. (Remember the Little Engine that Could—“I think I can, I think I can, I KNOW I can!”)
  • Be here and now—tune into your senses—breathe deeply and take in everything around you.
  • Focus on what you can control—write off what is out of your control and build on your reliable strengths.
  • Practice meditation, including relaxation, mental imagery, and mindfulness yoga
  • Listen to or sing a favorite song—that is why many high-performance athletes use headsets before an event to prevent more debilitating distractions—music distracts from distractions!
  • Use a holistic word or image “cue” to guide performance and anchor your attention—use a word such as “smooth” or an image such as “landing safely” to undergird your performance.
  • Practice experiencing pressure—like the kid on the playground pretending to be Michael Jordan with ten seconds on the clock and down two points.
  • Write out your concerns about the high-pressure situation you are facing—putting it in words helps to free your working memory and prevent choking.
  • Put away self-consciousness by practicing self-consciously—viewing yourself on video, for example, tends to reduce distracting self-consciousness when later under pressure.
  • Create and practice a pre-routine, as opposed to a ritual—crossing yourself before a foul shot or other key event is a ritual, while foul shotengaging in deep breathing, bouncing the ball three times, and shrugging is a pre-routine. Effective pre-routines include mental activities, imagery, relaxation, positive self-talk, and some kind of arousal-inducing action (such as jumping jacks) aimed at increasing blood flow and pumping oxygen to the brain for optimal alertness.
  • Slow down your responses—give yourself time to think it over before you say or do it—look before you leap. A friend once lamented that he knew his history material cold but couldn’t get more than a B on his monthly essay tests—he couldn’t get it all on paper in the time allowed. I suggested he take three minutes before each essay and compose a mind map, then write—he wouldn’t have to worry about what to write next. He began writing twice as much on his essay tests and got his A.
  • Regulate your breathing—to help get calm, do deep breathing—breathe in through your nose on a slow six count filling both lower and upper chambers, then hold for a four count, then exhale on a slow six count. Repeat several times after four second intervals.
  • Go first when you have the choice—you tend to perform better when you haven’t seen what you’re up against.
  • Communicate your feelings to others of being under pressure—putting negative concerns into words activates the part of the brain that hosts positive emotions.

Pick one or more that suit your style and put reminders around you to keep them on your radar. If you want more explanation for any of them, give the book a read! It abounds with examples in diverse performance areas, as well as the research that backs up the 22 recommendations.

9 – 11 – 11 – 13

November 18, 2015 Leave a comment

So what’s with the numbers? Am I giving you a number sequence to solve, as in what is the next logical number in the sequence? No, but you are welcome to use them in that way. Perhaps 13, as in a sequence that begins at 9, then adds 2 and repeats the sum twice; then adds 2 and repeats the sum three times; then adds 2 and repeats the sum four times, and so on. (9 – 11 – 11 – 13 – 13 – 13 – 15 – 15 – 15 – 15…). Or, a numerologist—one who finds mystical connections between numbers and events—might see 9-11 as the day of the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, then 11-13 as the day of the recent Paris attacks (I hadn’t realized it was Friday the 13th until I began making notes for this post), and then conclude that the next attack should be, say 13-15, and another on 15-17, with 13 reverting to month 1 and 15 to month 3. But what would be the evidence for that conclusion? None, to my knowledge. And that is what I want to talk about briefly today—evidence, and critical thinking.

At a meeting in Maarsen (near Utrecht), The Netherlands, soon after the EvidenceWTC attacks in 2001, Jane and I were asked by our audience of peers why we thought western culture was so hated by some. One answer was that many of our cultural practices were drastically opposite of the beliefs of some—long flowing female hair versus fabric coverings, lots of skin showing versus covered skin, booze everywhere and in abundance versus none at all, violent sexy films versus tamer fare, females with social and vocational carte blanche versus females confined to second-class roles, amplified heavy metal and hard drugs versus somber reeds and hookah pipes… Uneducated, provincial people bent on preserving their local way of life fixated on these glaring differences and used them as rallying points in favor of wiping such practices away in a holy war with promises of virgins in paradise.

But there is something more. Biologist E. O. Wilson in his 1998 book Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge formed a conclusion that has stuck with me: It is not religious, political, and social differences that cause conflict but rather the activities of persons who do not respect the force of evidence. Knowledge is gained by imposition or by investigation—imposed values, opinions, mores, and beliefs versus conclusions formed after considering evidence. The process of collecting evidence is used for the purpose of describing the world as accurately as possible—the process of critical thinking—so that we have the best possible information in order to solve difficult problems, make sound decisions, and lay effective plans. Evidence-based medicine is formalized critical thinking. Socratic dialog is critical thinking. Anything that we ask or do in order to get the most accurate information is critical thinking—it is not taking what we hear or see at first encounter. It is not swallowing what authoritarian others in our lives ask us to consume hook, line, and sinker.

I was once asked by a potential customer in a western North Carolina bank district to do a workshop on time management for his bank managers. As a seasoned organization development professional, I knew that clients rarely asked for what they wanted, but rather asked for what they thought they wanted. Being cautious, I asked a simple question: “What is the evidence that your managers need time management training?” The answer could lead in two directions—either in helping me design an appropriate time management workshop for them, or in helping them get a more accurate handle on what the need was. The client told me that the evidence was that his managers were complaining that they did not have time to implement the new call program that the bank had initiated. This was at a time back in the 80s when banking culture was changing from one in which bankers sat at their desks and took orders to one in which they made calls and sought out orders. Many managers—especially the more sedentary ones—resisted. To the point—they didn’t need time management: They needed change management!

You can find much advocacy in the media for teaching critical thinking as necessary both for survival and success in life. I just did a Google search on “We need to teach more critical thinking” and got 36,300,000 hits. Mary Belenky (et al, 1997) in her recently re-released book Women’s Ways of Knowing: The Development of Self, Voice, and Mind observed that many traditional girls—and too many boys–are raised to accept knowledge from their authority figures, and as the result fail to find their own voice—dare we call it the Voice of Malala? Belenky and crew conclude that the best way to help young people find their voices—their show-me evidentiary voices—is through teaching critical thinking in grade schools, high schools, colleges, corporate training classes, religious institutions—why stop there—how about in talk show programs, soap operas, news programs, and presidential debates? My friend Susan Close in British Columbia has developed a curriculum for teaching critical thinking with young children called Smart Reading—let’s all follow her lead in our individual domains.

Bertrand Russell once quipped that “Most people would sooner die than Einstein on thinking.jpgthink, in fact they do.” Many vest-wearers on jihad die for lack of thinking, and many more innocents as the result of terrorists’ distaste for evidence. These generally poor, uneducated youth are told 1) that the only sure way to paradise is through martyrdom for the cause, 2) that they will be rewarded with 72 virgins each upon arrival in paradise, 3) that the recruiters will take care of their families after the martyrdom, and 4) that the recruiters will take good care of the recruits during training for martyrdom (the pay is far better and more reliable than the pay for regular service, for instance). Those successfully recruited apparently believe all four come-ons. The only clearly demonstrable one is whether they are taking good care of those already recruited—they have money in hand, food, clothing, and shelter. The other three are less easy to produce evidence for. What if all the trainees asked for evidence that their martyrdom would be followed with 72 virgins in paradise? That their families would definitely be taken care of? That there is no other sure way to paradise? Show me.

A Pet Peeve

November 11, 2015 Leave a comment

No, perhaps more than a pet peeve, which I just saw defined as a “minor irritant.” It is really a major irritant. To wit: Researchers report results without regard to individual differences.

Put simply: Too many researchers ask a simple question, such as “How satisfied are you with the direction your life is taking?”

Then they report the results something like this: “60% of Americans are satisfied with their lives.” They may explain these Pet peeve grrrresults by using demographic information: “Of the satisfied 60%, women outnumbered men two to one,” or perhaps “Of the satisfied 60%, city dwellers were more satisfied than rural citizens,” or maybe “Of the satisfied 60%, Asians and Hispanics lagged behind Caucasians.”

Such so-called demographic differences are important, but there is a far more basic kind of difference that can help clarify the meaning of such research results—personality variables, such as traits, values, and mental abilities.

To say that 60% are satisfied with the direction of their lives is to ignore that persons who score high on Big Five “N” (Need for Stability, or Neuroticism) are by nature dissatisfied with things. They are almost always going to be dissatisfied, and that dissatisfaction is not a reflection on their culture, their family, their employer, or any other environmental factor. For the research to be meaningful, you need to limit your research subjects to those whose satisfaction with life can actually be increased or decreased according to changes in their environment. If you take the 30% who score highest on Big Five N and eliminate them from the study, you would likely find that 90% are satisfied with the direction of their lives.

The same kind of relationships can be found with other research questions and other personality variables. For example, in the original Obedience to Authority research done in the early 1960s by Stanley Milgram in New Haven, Connecticut, about ¾ of the subjects in his experiment were found to obey a malevolent authority. However, in a recent replication of that study in Paris, France, subjects who were high in Big Five “A” (Agreeableness, or Accommodation) and also high in Big Five “C” (Conscientiousness, or Consolidation) were far more likely to obey the malevolent authority. This means that it is misleading to say that ¾ of typical people will obey malevolent authorities. The proportion would actually be lower than that, once you eliminate (or otherwise take into account) those high in A and C.

And another just now from today’s “PsyBlog”—researchers reported on the female profile that “males” find more alluring—high heels (the higher the more alluring), blonde hair, tattoos, make-up, revealing dress, figure, and wearing red. With the exception of one attribute (I’ll leave you to guess which one), that is the precise opposite of what I find alluring in women. So, what individual personality differences were these researchers not accounting for? Intelligence? Education level? Values? Particular traits? Please, Dr. Researcher, do find a way to avoid such breezy generalizations. Admittedly, the researchers mention that this allure is short-term in its appeal—the “come hither” look gets lots of hits but doesn’t necessarily win the game in the long term. Limited lust versus lasting love.

The point: When we read about research results, we need to think critically and ask questions about how individual differences could account for the reported results.

Having and Wanting

October 30, 2015 1 comment

While I cannot find the source for this research, the point it makes is worth sharing.

Mental attitudes—mind over matter, thinking positively, reframing, putting a spin on things, looking for the silver lining, deciding to let go of a loss—some are easier to manage than others. I remember the first time I sent a book manuscript to my editor in Texas. It was returned with page after page of “queries,” a polite word for corrections and challenges. My first reaction pictured her as a malevolent high school English teacher determined to crush my ego with red ink. I wanted to quit. But something told me to reframe the situation—she was not my critic, but my teammate. Together we could make something stronger than either of us could alone. So rather than be bummed by her markings, I made a game of it. With future submissions to her, I tried to learn from her past corrections and anticipate how she might react to my new material. My goal was to minimize her queries. With that change in mental attitude, I have gone on to work with four additional editors on twelve different books. And to think I almost quit!

This recent research (whose source I can’t put my hands on) about mental attitudes and well-being found that two mental attitudes are associated with a higher sense of well-being:

  • “I want what I have.”
  • “I have what I want.”

Here are some personal examples of “I want what I have”:

  • I have a temperament that is uncomfortable around crowds and noises, and I have no desire to be any different—I don’t want to learn to enjoy noisy crowds (i.e., I like/want my quiet).
  • I have a lower-priced sedan that is safe and durable, and that is fine—I don’t dream about a more expensive car with more features.
  • I have a 3’ x 6’ N-scale model railroad to enjoy with my grandchildren (and any other children of all ages), and I have no need or desire for a larger layout.

And here are examples of “I have what I want.”

  • I wanted both children and grandchildren, and I have them.
  • I wanted a collection of early musical instruments, and I have them.
  • I wanted a laptop computer that would enable me to work anywhere, and I have it.

The research suggests that such attitudes promote a sense of well-being. They contrast with two attitudes that add nothingi want more to one’s sense of well-being:

  • “I want something that I don’t have.”
  • “I have something that I don’t want.”

In the spirit of practicing what I preach, I have tried to minimize wanting something that I don’t have. Therefore, the three things that I will list are things that I have wanted in the past, but that I have decided that I no longer want:

  • I want(ed) a getaway cabin in the mountains.
  • I want(ed) to have less of a temper, i.e., to have a slower trigger.
  • I want(ed) a child or grandchild with whom I can play duets.

So, I have abandoned these three desires—for different reasons. The cabin, because 1) I have read that having a vacation home provides no boost to happiness, and 2) Jane and I like variety, so retreating to different locales has a stronger appeal than feeling that we have to go repeatedly to the same place to justify the investment. The temper, because I couldn’t change myself short of a pre-frontal lobotomy—but I’ve learned to avoid situations that trigger it, such as deadlines (I typically give myself false, early deadlines, so I don’t run up against the real ones). The musical kids because they just did not turn out to be musicians! And, as Khaled Hosseini writes in The Kite Runner, “Children aren’t coloring books. You don’t get to fill them with your favorite colors.”

Finally, three things that I have that I don’t want:

  • I have a lovely spiral staircase when I (we) should have no stairs at all (knees, back).
  • I have a yard that is more of a burden than a pleasure or source of pride.
  • I have a balalaika (3-stringed Russian musical instrument) that I have never learned to play nor have I maintained it properly (cleaning, and so forth).

We tried to address the first two items in 2008 by trying to sell our house and move into a condominium. Then the economy tanked—dream deferred, but still a dream. The balalaika, I would love to find a home for.

But there is something a little too neat and comfy about these mental attitudes. I like the idea, and it does make sense. But how does this outlook relate to the need for one to have goals in life? Does it mean, for example, that to have a Bucket List best things aren't thingsis a drag? One thing I want to do that I haven’t done is to create a multi-media show based on music and art that have been set to Psalm 150. Ah! There’s the difference. Doing something is different from having something! Just as the research shows that money spent on possessions is less satisfying than money spent on experiences, so having a list of things to do is different than having a list of things to have. In addition, the research shows that having goals are important, but that making progress towards those goals is more important than the goals themselves. Having a goal without making progress is like wanting something that you do not have. To have a goal and make no progress is a bummer. I have begun my multi-media treatment of Psalm 150—it’ll take a while, but it’ll get done. Making progress on a goal is like having it. There are a LOT of things on my Bucket List, and they are things I don’t have that I want. No, not things—experiences. Things I want to do, not to have, and I am slowly checking off one experience after another on my bucket list. One of these days Psalm 150 will be checked off.

Playing Sports? It’ll Cost Ya an Arm and a Brain

October 21, 2015 Leave a comment

In 2009 I posted a warning blog about (mostly football) concussions. Since that time many changes have occurred. But theconcussion problem lingers—partly because it appears we have misunderstood the root cause.

In a brief update on concussions in Time (October 26, 2015, pp.23-24), Sean Gregory points to the accumulation of lesser hits to the head, rather than the single, bone-jarring hits that are obvious, as the major culprit that has led to the dismaying discovery that 87 of the 91 brains of dead NFLers exhibit CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy).

If it is the cumulative effect of lesser hits, Gregory concludes, then why not put a ceiling on the number of lesser hits a player suffers, such that they enter concussion protocol when they’ve reached that number? We do that for baseball—in Little League, an eight-year-old cannot pitch more than 50 in a day and must rest for two days, and an 18-year-old cannot pitch more than 105 and must rest for four days. The only difference in Little League and the majors is that the limit is required for the youngsters—games can be forfeited if the rules are violated.

Surely the protection of brains is as important as the protection of arms! The technology is available (cf. Shockbox) to count the number of hits to the head and to record the g-force (gravitational force is a measure of acceleration) for each hit. That technology needs to be installed in the helmet of every footballer regardless of age, and the rules need to be agreed on. And enforced. Gregory recommends as a beginning point that high school footballers be limited to 90 blows exceeding 20 g’s in one week, then they must rest for a period to be determined.

It costs an arm and a brain to pitch and hit without limit. That’s too great a price to pay.

Communication Practices of Great Teams

October 14, 2015 Leave a comment

At the Human Dynamics Laboratory of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, researchers pinned electronic badges on 2,500 team members from diverse industries. These badges collected a wide range of team-relevant data such as tone of voice, length of talking episodes, who was addressed, body language, standing versus sitting, and so forth. Lab director Alex “Sandy” Pentland summarized their findings in a recent issue of Harvard Business Review. Perhaps you might use this list as a kind of report card to assess your current team’s functioning, with an eye towards how you and others might behave differently in order to be at your best.

On high-performing teams, regardless of the team’s composition and purpose:

  • Members are more engaged with one another when not in meetings—visits, breaks and meals together, water-cooler conversations, and adhocracies.
  • Creating social opportunities within the work contexts (e.g., adequate space/seats for breaks and meals) is more predictive of performance than non-work contexts (e.g., beer busts).
  • Talking, and therefore listening, is evenly distributed among members.sociogram
  • Each talking episode is shorter rather than longer.
  • Members talk facing one another.
  • Members gesture enthusiastically.
  • Members vary their tone of voice, which is generally described as energetic.
  • Members address each other, not just their leader.
  • Members engage in side conversations.
  • Members leave the meeting on occasion and return with new information.
  • Adherence to these communication patterns is more strongly associated with productivity, regardless of team goal, than does the talent and intelligence of individual members.
  • The best predictor of high performance is frequency of face-to-face communication; second best is frequency of telephone or video communication (but as the number of participants increases, the contribution to performance decreases); number of emails and text are the least predictive.
  • Frequency is everything, however—a team can have too few or too many face-to-face communications.
  • The entire team holds forth no more than half the time.
  • Higher performing teams look outside their team for information and judgment—fresh perspectives.
  • Managers encourage equal, face-to-face participation and model all of the above.
  • High performing teams have members who are “charismatic connectors”—natural leaders who circulate throughout the day with frequent, short, face-to-face encounters in which they both talk and listen. The more of them on a team, the higher its performance.

As we at the Center for Applied Cognitive Studies (CentACS) are in the business of personality assessment, I would like to know what personality traits predict these behaviors, and which traits predict the ability to learn them. Clearly higher extraversion is associated with many of these behaviors (length of contributions, frequency of talking, variation in pitch and volume, wandering around), and listening tends to be associated with mid to high levels of Big Five Agreeableness/Accommodation. I have designed a questionnaire based on these bullets, and I am collecting responses from persons who’ve taken our WorkPlace Big Five Profile as well as my Team Communication Profile. I want to see which traits are correlated with these team communication behaviors. Interested in helping me collect data?

Pentland groups these team behaviors and practices under three categories—energy, engagement, and exploration, with the best teams showing equal attention to all three. How’s your team doing?

Taking Care of the Goose

October 7, 2015 Leave a comment

This morning my nephew, Bob McGahey, emailed to alert me of two blogposts he thought I’d take an interest in. They concerned the role of religion and the state of the planet. Bob is a devout Quaker and an eco-educator. In responding to his posts, I found my topic for this week’s blog of my own! Here goes.

For me, the unquenchable human spirit is my beacon. I am renewed daily by my own inexplicable and irreducible 500-year To Do List–what is it about me (and others) that never lacks lust for life? Yesterday’s story (Charlotte Observer) of trumpeter John Parker, who auditioned for the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra his senior year at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who at 23 is among the youngest principal players in the history of the symphony, and who will play the Shostakovich Concerto for Piano, Trumpet, and String Orchestra this weekend, was rejuvenating. Meanwhile, Carolina Panther quarterback Cam Newton’s rejection of all animal protein but fish–just for the discipline of it, he says, no other reason–is token of the human spirit nudging itself Platonically towards some ineffable ideal. Ineffable but real in its compelling drawing power. These driven souls are not all leaders–some are creators, builders, parents, athletes, inventors, writers. They are not like me, but they are my kin.

It seems to me that the universal idea of a higher power is a form of that inner drive towards an ideal, or a set of ideals. Some need to give this engagement in life a name. I am comfortable leaving it unnamed.

But whether we name the drive towards the true, beautiful, and good or whether we accept it for what it is, we must know that preventive maintenance is necessary for goose and golden eggour machines (earth, self) to keep burning. Aesop’s peasant greedily cut open his ever-golden-egg-laying-goose only to discover normal innards and not a cache of more gold. Rather than try to exhaust our earth of gold (oil, rainforests) and to push our bodies towards excellence (world records, fortune), we must have the good sense to take care of the earth’s production capability through respecting the purity of her air, water, soil, and denizens, as well as our body’s performance capability through respecting her evolved needs of sleep, nutrition, love, kindness, and exercise.

Dag Hammarskjold once suggested that world peace might ensue from everyone committing to develop one high quality relationship. Perhaps the same could be said for our bodies—commit to at least one healthy bodily practice (such as adequate sleep or regular aerobic exercise), and our earth–that our planetary home might be conserved by everyone committing to one significant way to decrease their carbon footprint. Ten years ago, Jane and I eliminated our second car in that spirit. My carbon footprint is now at 15,674, as calculated here:

What’s yours? What can we do as a next step to protect Mother Earth? When we were in Tokyo recently, we remarked that we were impressed by the practice of bus drivers turning off their engines while parked at the entry to our hotel. Our host commented that Shinto practitioners treat the earth as their home, and that unnecessary running of motors is regarded as something like urinating on one’s living room carpet. That was a powerful image. Now, at the end of the day when I get the car to pick up Jane in the portico of our building, off with the motor and down with the windows as I await her smile to join me!

Enjoy your golden eggs, but take really good care of that goose!

carbon footprint


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