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On Materialism

It is what it is. If the shoe fits, wear it. If you’ve got it, flaunt it. A rose by any other name….

Our language is peppered with such phrases that urge authenticity. Perhaps Shakespeare said it most eloquently (Hamlet, I,3, 564-566) with

This above all--to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.

On the one hand, political correctness would have us find the least offensive words to describe one another—pleasantly plump, not fat. On the other hand, and particularly today in an era of alternative facts and fake news, critical thinking demands that we describe the world as accurately as possible, in order that we might make the most effective decisions.

shoes of markos

Imelda Marcos Shoe Museum. Manila, The Philippines.

So, I have a problem with one of our assessments—the WorkPlace Values Profile™ (for a free tryout, ask at info@centacs.com) . This profile measures the relative importance of 16 values for an individual—things like Power, Beauty, and Relationships. My problem—one of tact vs. truth—is with Materialism, one of our 16 values. Many people just don’t like being associated with that word, in spite of answering relevant questions in support of materialism:

 

  • Having possessions that are the envy of others
  • Having really nice things around me
  • Being able to shop at the finer stores or other venues
  • Maximizing the amount of luxury in my life
  • Being seen in settings that are fashionable

When someone’s answers endorse these items, they get a high score on Materialism. Too many clients have told me that they squirmed when they saw their high score, saying “I’m not really that materialistic!” In processing their results, we review how they answered each question, yet they wouldn’t change their answers. “Compared to others,” I then say, “you are more materialistic than the norm.” That is what these statements define—materialism is an emphasis on having nice things, shopping at finer venues, maximizing luxury, being fashionable, having possessions. While they may also have high scores on values such as Relationships, Helping, or Intellect, it is as though many people feel like the materialistic label overshadows their other values, that being seen as materialistic negates other values. You can’t be true to two, they feel. You can’t value Intellect and be Materialistic. The appellation of materialistic seems to taint its bedfellows—guilt by association.

Just as “Something there is that doesn’t like a wall” (Robert Frost, “Mending Wall”), there something that many people don’t like when they are described as “materialistic.” Materialism is both a philosophical and an everyday term. In philosophy, a materialist asserts that nothing exists beside the observable, physical world. As an everyday word, a materialistic person typically describes someone who values things, especially nice things. A materialistic person in the everyday sense could also exhibit other values, such as Relationships, Spirituality, and Intellect, that might appear to be the opposite of Materialism. The often-thought opposites of Spiritualism and Materialism were conjoined in the Rev. Jim Bakker’s dictum that “God doesn’t like junk.” Monks are examples of non-materialistic spiritualists. Bakker was a materialistic spiritualist, with his gold-plated bathroom faucets.

I should say that I do see Materialism as neither a good nor a bad value. Like any other value, it can be used for good or ill. Some materialists set standards that are motivating to others, while other materialists exhibit a greed that crushes motivation. Some of my best friends are materialistic! I had a colleague once who chided me upon hearing that I was headed for Europe one summer. “I wish I had that kind of money.” “You do,” I quipped, “but you spent it on a Cadillac. I drive a VW beetle! And, I go to Europe on the difference in price.” Desire for Status drove his Materialism to have things that made others envious. My desire for intellectual stimulation took the same money and applied to travel and books.

I have searched thesauri for synonyms that would be more neutral/less offensive—worldliness, acquisitiveness, object-orientation, possessiveness, physicalism, greediness. None quite worked. One that I did like—materiality—has a fixed meaning in auditing—small discrepancies are immaterial, while large ones are material, or show materiality. I think “materiality” is the best of the words I’ve considered—the most neutral. “Materiality” suggests that something is way out of line—an egregious mistake, intentional or otherwise. Should I not be concerned about this special meaning of a word that otherwise is the most objective way of saying “Materialism”?

What do you think? Should I/we keep using “materialism” and shrug at complaints, saying, “Hey, a rose is a rose is a rose….” Or should we replace it with “materiality”? Or something else?

Silence! I’m Composing…

March 15, 2017 2 comments

The story is told of the Beethoven fan who had exhausted the usual pursuits of musical enthusiasts—he had all the recordings, publications, pictures, anecdotes, and so forth. At his wit’s end to spend his zealous energy further, he arrived one midnight with spade in hand at Ludwig van’s grave in Vienna. He dug to the casket. Gently prying its lid, beams of light filled the excavation. Peering in, he observed the master rubbing on a manuscript with a large eraser. Beethoven, looking up, implored, “Silence and away, please, I’m decomposing.”

Well, the story/joke is perhaps marred by Beethoven’s deafness—why would he ask for silence? Which takes me to the larger question: Do all composers require silence in order to transfer their musical ideas to staff paper? Do distractions kill their train of thought? I had not asked this question until I recently read a biography of Finnish composer Jean Sibelius (Ainola: The Home of Jean and Aino Sibelius, The Finnish Literature Society, Helsinki, 2015). I was struck by the lengths to which “Sibba” went to insure silence and absence of distractions while composing. So much silence, in fact, that he even eschewed the use of a piano—normally required by composers as they pen their notes. He went from brain to paper directly. Children had to play silent games downstairs. Maintenance workers could make no noise in the course of their work. Often, when total silence was difficult, he would stay up all night with a pot of coffee and sleep til lunch. The children could not even practice their piano or other instruments while papa was penning.

Grieg's Cabin

Edward Grieg’s Cabin, Bergen, Norway. Provided by Bob Ivey

As a personality psychologist, I regard the power of concentration as what we call an “individual difference variable”—some individuals find it easier to concentrate—they get into a kind of trance and blank out the immediate environment, noises and all. Others have more difficulty concentrating, and the television, playful children, hammering carpenters, and passing motorists drive them to distraction as they lose whatever train of thought they may have contemplated. In other words, concentration varies according to the normal curve along a continuum, from those who find it easier to those who find it more difficult to concentrate, and many who are in-between, where it sort of depends on the circumstances.

I asked myself: Do all composers of music require total absence of distraction in a manner similar to Sibelius? Or do some composers pen away in total oblivion with respect to local distractions?  Put another way, is total silence a work attribute requirement for all composers, or do composers vary on their need for distraction-free environments? I haven’t known very many composers in my 75 years, so I turned to two friends who have—Bob Ivey, retired organist, bell-ringer, and conductor, and Andrew Pester, doctoral student in music history at Duke University, whose dissertation focuses on three 20th century French composers.

Bob first replied that

…the only details I know of the type you are requesting pertain to Edvard Grieg.  We have been to his home (Troldhaugen) twice in Bergen, but actually all I know is that he has a separate composing building with many windows (the size of a tool shed or a small play house for a child) that is separate from his home.  It is in a beautiful location on the side of the hill, overlooking the water. [see photo above]

Bob forwarded my question to his musician friend and Curtis Institute graduate Richard Cummins of Roanoke, Virginia. Richard responded:

I guess the most famous composers I ever knew were Samuel Barber and Roy Harris and Jean Langlais. We had a 50th birthday party for Sam when I was at Curtis and I had several nice chats with him. He took something out of his hip pocket which looked worn and tattered. Turns out it was a pocket score of Bach’s Orgelbüchlein. Sam told me he carried it with him whenever he was traveling by train or plane and constantly studied it, always gleaning something new and revealing from it. I don’t know about Sam’s requirements for actually composing but would think a reasonable quiet place would be welcome— however some composers prefer to have a piano handy to try any ideas which may appear in their minds.

Roy Harris was a truck driver in Oklahoma before he became a serious classical composer. I am guessing he also liked quiet when thinking and experimenting with notes, etc. When I knew Roy the longest he was at Inter American University in Puerto Rico. They had a new and wonderful recording studio/concert hall there and Roy and his wife would pawn the many kids they had produced off on his composition students while he and his wife, Johanna (a wonderful pianist), would work until the wee hours of the morning in the studio and then sack out until time for morning classes. However, listening to other composers’ music in real time or by recording can also prompt ideas. It’s a very personal thing and I don’t think there is any one vessel any creative person can use to approach actual composing.

I do know that Sibelius, late in the afternoon, would walk down the hill from his home to the local pub and imbibe until he could no longer make it up the hill to home, whereupon Mrs. S. and the two daughters would take an actual wheelbarrow down to collect the great man, and the three would push him home! [Sibelius’ drinking problem was legendary. With such an active mind, he likely drank to fill the void when not composing, much as the fictional Sherlock Holmes used cocaine for stimulation when not on a case—a way to slow down their racing minds. –PJH]

I also knew Jean Langlais who, as you know was blind. I remember playing themes for him on the piano and he would, in turn, play them over on the piano several times and then put a piece of paper in between a small metal grid and, with an instrument, punch holes through the grid into the paper, which captured the phrase or fragment for him.

St. John’s [in Roanoke] choir is doing my Dag Hammarskjöld piece on 2 April at the 10am service and I am conducting. I nearly always worked at the piano because I like to immediately hear the sound of any ideas I get. Some, like Mahler, would compose in a small cottage with no instrument. And then there was Beethoven–ultimately he had to write only what he could hear in his head and, my gosh, what he could hear!

Andrew added:

It’s an interesting question. To be fair, of all the information that I’ve shoved into my mind, I cannot say that I know much of this as a composer’s need for absolute silence. In fact, I know much more of composers who have been productive through extraneous noise and disruptions rather than silence. I know of other requirements: Beethoven liked to compose at the piano; Rachmaninoff preferred a certain brand of piano—Blüthner–as did Stravinsky. But absolute silence seems elusive. I imagine that this would be the most conducive environment for composition, but I don’t know of those who demanded it. I know that composers frequently sought out certain conditions [italics mine], but (somewhat strangely) I don’t know of silence being a frequent or common requirement.

Conclusion: “Sought out certain conditions”—to me, that is the key. Composers’ need for a particular ambience varies with the individual according to their personality traits, the nature of their compositional task, and the habits they’ve learned over a lifetime. In truth, all creative people tend to have their own way of setting the stage for composition:

  • William Faulkner took a jug of rye whiskey up to the hayloft of his barn to get in the mood.
  • Samuel Johnson and W. H. Auden drank tea.
  • Dame Edith Sitwell lay in a casket.
  • Friedrich von Schiller placed rotten apples in his desk drawer.
  • Hart Crane listened to Latin music.
  • Edgar Allan Poe perched his cat on his shoulder.
  • Rudyard Kipling had a fetish for the blackest of India inks.
  • (More at Topic 25.8 in my The Owner’s Manual for the Brain, 4th, William Morrow)

Et moi? I burn a big, fat, red, Christmas candle to transport me into my writing frame of mind. To each his own! There is no one right, mandatory, way to be. Silence is nice, but not the only device.

I’m Just a Churl Who Can’t Say “No”

Well, not really a churl. Or a girl, for that matter.

At the Center for Applied Cognitive Studies, we employ the Five-Factor Model to describe individual differences in personality traits. One of the traits is Accommodation, which reports how an individual typically behaves around power. Broadly described, Challengers are those low in Accommodation—as a rule they have no trouble saying “No”—i.e., standing up for themselves. Negotiators are those in the midrange—saying no is more situational, and they are as likely to negotiate to get what they need as they are to say no when their limits have been reached. People high in Accommodation are Adapters, and these are they who tend to have trouble saying no—saying no to social pressures, saying no to requests for help, or saying no in moral dilemmas when something untoward is requested of them.

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Letters on Road, Dan Brady.      CC BY 2.0

 

As a researcher and educator, I am always looking for ways to help people understand how their traits work for or against their interests. One of my favorite resources is “poem-a-day,” a free digital poetry service of the Academy of American Poets (https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem-day). I’ve subscribed to this service for several years—I get one poem on weekdays composed by contemporary poets, and one poem on weekend days composed by past poets. Today’s offering is from Poet Dana Levin, who is Distinguished Writer in Residence at Maryville University in St. Louis: “Instructions for Stopping.” It is an ode in support of saying no:

Instructions for Stopping

By Dana Levin

Say Stop.
Keep your lips pressed together
after you say the p:
(soon they’ll try
and pry
your breath out—)
Whisper it
three times in a row:
Stop Stop Stop
In a hospital bed
                           like a curled up fish, someone’s
gulping at air—
How should you apply
your breath?
 —
List all of the people
you would like
to stop.
Who offers love,
who terror—
Write Stop.
Put a period at the end.
 Decide if it’s a kiss
or a bullet.
Copyright © 2017 Dana Levin. Used with permission of the author.

 

One way to evaluate the quality of literature is to look for evidence that the writer’s characters reflect the various dimensions of the Five-Factor Model. Characters who can’t be pegged as to their traits are what I would describe as flat characters. Characters whose personality traits are apparent I would describe as round characters—more fully developed characters.  In this brief gem, Ms. Levin captures the essence of the internal struggle between the two poles of the Accommodation continuum—Whether to draw the line (“bullet”) or to bend the line (“kiss”)—that is the question. Well drawn, professor!

Understanding Your Panic Button

September 21, 2016 Leave a comment

I have more terms of endearment for my wife than there are waves headed for the beach. And like waves, they just keep on coming.

Turn-of-the-century anthropologist Franz Boas (1858-1942) first identified this phenomenon. People have more words for things that are most important to them. Snow is vitally important to those living within the Arctic Circle. North Alaskan Inuits have over 50 words for snow, and the Samis of northern Scandinavia have a thousand terms for reindeer.

In today’s advanced cultures, life is so complex that many of us seem to live under constant stress. So long as all of our balls remain juggled in the air, we are fine. But often they fall crashing to the ground, and we have to address the crisis. Stress is important because we can’t avoid it and we have to figure out how to alleviate it. Because stress is so important to us, we have developed quite a vocabulary to refer to these dropped balls, just as the Sami speak of reindeer:

  • The sky is falling
  • Everything has come crashing down
  • I’ve just used one of my nine lives
  • The s*** has hit the fan
  • All hell has broken loose
  • The end is near
  • I’m packed in snowball that is rolling downhill gathering more snow
  • Everything has gone to hell in a handbasket
  • SNAFU (Situation normal—all fouled up!)
  • The bottom fell out
  • My life is like a three-ring circus without a circus master
  • Everything is turned upside down
  • I’m living in a whirlwind
  • I’m feeling topsy-turvy
  • The props have fallen out from under me/us

And there are more. I’ll bet you can add to this list by posting a comment below.

rodin-la-porte-de-lenfer-cc-by-nc-nd-2-0

Paris–Musee Rodin: La Porte de l’Enfer, photo by Wally Gobetz, 2007, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

I recently wrote about “When You’re Not You.” Most people are not themselves when the bottom falls out. Those who are low in Big Five Need for Stability, or Neuroticism, are typically unaffected by life’s major stressors. It takes a prodigious amount of stress for these serene people to change behavior. That’s a minority of the population—about one in three. Good for them! But the rest of us—two out of every three—writhe as though someone were controlling us with an equalizer board turning our knobs to make us more intense in various ways. I am reminded of Auguste Rodin’s early 20th century sculpture La Porte de l’Enfer (The Gates of Hell). It depicts the Thinker posed before over 100+ figures in hell from Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy. The thinker represents those unaffected by turmoil—the calm one in three, while the characters in the background represent the rest of us who are affected by stress.

Most of us undergo a quantitative change under stress. We become more of what we have more of already. Each of us has traits that are stronger than others. For example, my imagination is stronger than my sociability, and my trust is stronger than my methodicalness. Under stress, being someone who is higher on Need for Stability, I become even stronger in imagination and trust. I will dream up wild escape plans and trust strangers whom I would normally keep at a distance.

To say we’re not our normal selves under major stress, I mean it in a quantitative sense, not a qualitative one. We are more intense in our salient traits[1].

  • If we are normally trusting, we become more trusting under stress.
  • If we tend towards perfectionism, under stress we become more perfectionistic.
  • If we tend to have a temper, under stress we have an even quicker trigger.
  • If sociable, more sociable.
  • If solitary, even more solitary.
  • If comfortable with the details, we wallow in them even more.
  • If competitive, then even more so.
  • If deferential, then we can become a doormat.
  • If optimistic, then we become Pollyannaish.
  • If pessimistic, then we become a doomsdayer.

So, the way we change under stress is that we become more of who we are, like a salty dish becoming more salty, a sweet dish more sugary, or a sour dish downright pungent. We change, but quantitatively, not qualitatively. In intensity, not in kind. Under stress it is as though our personality were a tongue that lost half of its taste buds and needs stronger flavors just to taste anything. Sock it to me, sock it to me. Turn up the volume.

A word to the wise: Perhaps this ramping up of who we are under stress has survival value, in an evolutionary sense. Perhaps it has worked to some creatures’ advantage to become more intense rather than different—to change how many stripes, not the kinds of stripes. Maybe fast gazelles ran even faster, clever creatures became even sneakier, when under attack. But we moderns are not always best served under stress by turning up the volume on our strengths. We need to question whether these natural tendencies serve our best interests. It might pay for us to consider not being more intense in who we are under stress, but the opposite. Maybe your sociability should yield to solitary reflection, my trust become more skeptical, and my imagination take back seat to being more practical and appreciative of the tried and true and what is known to work.

We are not gazelles who always need to run faster to escape the leopard. We are humans who can pause to reflect and consider our options. We don’t have to do it alone. Partners make great stress busters. In lieu of a partner, try aerobic exercise to find your calm spot that is conducive to problem solving.

[1] For a summary of the exploratory research that supports this statement, email me (pjhoward@centacs.com) for “State of Trait Levels under Stress”, by Bennett, Ey, and Howard, CentACS, 2015.

Driving Happiness

August 31, 2016 Leave a comment

Happiness is more like a car, less like a building.

I have written elsewhere that five modes of positive being are as good or better than happiness itself—

  • Goals—making progress towards a goal
  • Fit—having goals that build on who you are, not who you are not
  • Flow—having goals that are challenging, but not too much so
  • Altruism—having goals that entail service to others
  • Relationships—pursuing goals in a way that builds high quality relationships

Some would put these five elements, or some other similar assortment of happiness “ingredients,” into a hierarchical arrangement, much like a building with floors. According to these theorists, you must satisfy one element before you can proceed to the next, and so on, until you reach the highest element—the pinnacle of happiness.

This is not my approach. I consider each of the five elements effective at achieving a sense of subjective well-being in and of itself. Of course, if one engages in all five, or a combination of the five, the payoff would be greater.

Destination Management, 2008 CC BY 2.0

Destination Management, 2008, DD BY 2.0

Rather than thinking of these elements hierarchically, like a building with five floors, I suggest we think of them as a vehicle—car, train, bicycle, bus, airplane…. Every vehicle needs a destination—a goal. Without a destination, the vehicle lacks a purpose. Unless one uses the vehicle to make progress towards a goal, why have the vehicle?

Every vehicle needs fuel to power it to its destination. For me, the equivalent of fuel in this analogy is the degree to which a person’s strengths are engaged in pursuit of their goal—their “fit.” To the degree that one’s salient traits, abilities, values, experiences, and physical experiences are engaged, a person will be more motivated, more energized, in pursuit of their goal.

The other three elements are like adjustments we can make in pursuit of our goals. We achieve flow—that sense of being totally absorbed in the moment—by taking on goals that are neither too easy nor too difficult. If bored, increase the challenge of the goal. If frustrated, decrease the challenge or increase your skill. We achieve service in goal pursuit by choosing goals that have a positive impact on others. This could be achieved by a wide range of emphases—from relieving misery to entertaining others. We achieve relationship quality in goal pursuit by involving others in our goals in a way that allows others to be fulfilled by our goal pursuit as much as we are—sharing, intimacy, interdependence, and all that.

Where are you going? What fuel will you use to get there? How will it positively impact family, friends, customers, co-workers, and citizens at large? How will you avoid frustration and boredom? How will you build high quality relationships during the journey?

A Note on Chilling: One of my teammates vetted this piece yesterday, saying “Excellent blog. However, there’s nothing like just chilling out and not worrying about goals and such.” I agree. On the other hand, there’s no chilling out like an activity that is characterized by fit, flow, relationships, or altruism. Chill by engaging one of your salient strengths—for me, that would be something that employed my imagination, love of complexity and analysis, or passion for beauty, especially music. Chill by doing something that is neither boring nor frustrating, but in flow. I chill by reading, so don’t read boring and don’t read excess complexity. Chill by hanging with a friend or pet and furthering the relationship. Chill by visiting someone who needs attention—take a bucket of whiskey sours to someone who’s moving into a new house and have a drink with them. Fit, flow, relationships, and altruism are fine ways to chill!

Managing Micromanagers

August 24, 2016 1 comment

“Get off my back—I can’t fly when you are weighing me down!”

Such is the lament of the underling suffering from micromanagement—the uninvited incursion by a manager into the how to’s and wherefores of a subordinate’s day. Just last week a client asked me, “How do I get her off my back? I’ve about had it.”

The problem with managing micromanagers is that their motives—the needs they are satisfying by micromanaging—vary among individuals. I call this a “multi-source behavior”—a phenomenon I did a series on recently (“Appearances Can Be Deceiving,” or, “What You See Isn’t Always What You Get”). Just as smiles don’t always convey liking, micromanaging doesn’t always convey judgment on the employee’s work. Hence, one needs to address micromanaging based on the trait, or combination of traits, that drive the manager to take over your wheel while driving.

You begin the process by understanding their trait profile. We use the WorkPlace Big Five Profile 4.0, which provides information on 23 subtraits of the Five-Factor Model. Here I highlight the traits that, in my experience, tend to lead a manager into pastures best left alone (names of the actual WorkPlace Big Five Profile 4.0 dimensions are italicized):

The Micromanager spaceship, Software Testing Club, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0,

The Micromanager Spaceship, Software Test Club, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

  • High anxiety (N1+, high worry). Some individuals live out their days in perpetual fear of less than desirable results. This was true before they were promoted into management, and it continues after their elevation. An effective way to manage one’s boss’s anxiety is through active listening—as in, “You feel doubtful that my approach will lead to the right results—is that right?” And keep listening, paraphrasing, asking narrative questions (Where, How, When, What, Who, Which…). Anxiety is often calmed by talking it out, as discovered through brain research.
  • Low trust (E5-, low trust of others). Some are born skeptical of others, and it isn’t going to change…much. The key to avoiding the crushing feeling of being mistrusted is to understand that it is not personally directed at you—micromanagers typically mistrust everyone! I know that doesn’t excuse it, and it doesn’t make it hurt any less when you hear their mistrust of you, but in your rational self you can tell yourself that you’re not being singled out for special treatment of the mistrust variety. Internally laugh it off and say (silently) to yourself, “Yeah, this is just Barb being Barb” (or Barb sending barbs!)
  • Detail orientation (O4-, low scope). Some can’t see the forest for the trees—they love to wallow in the details. And, if you don’t play that game, it can be infuriating. On the other hand, if you are a big picture person, you may find that a detail person can become a partner, whereby they help complete your where that you didn’t have the patience to dot every “I” and cross every “t” for. Often individuals are promoted into management because they were best at handling the details of their job, and now they are mishandling (or overhandling) the details.
  • Personal agenda (A1-, low others’ needs). Some are more concerned with getting their personal priorities met than addressing the priorities of their associates, subordinates, or customers. It is all about them. When this is the case, ask them what is so important about their involvement, so that you can help to shape your work in a way that helps to address their priorities. If their priorities conflict with yours, then discover their motives AND share your motives in order to negotiate an agreeable compromise.
  • Competitive aggression (A2-, low agreement). Some people just have to win, to have the last word, to perhaps even put others down. They can be real pills, a cod-liver-oil-type-of-foul-tasting-pills. Like mistrust, it is not personally directed—it is just who they are. Normally it is testerone-driven, so approach them at a time when they are lowest in testosterone (after they’ve been defeated at something. Men begin their day with high testosterone levels that gradually decrease throughout the day, with lowest levels in the evening. Work at home in the mornings and go to the office after lunch? Just kidding. Women are highest in testosterone around ovulation time, so wait a week or so after a particularly difficult incursion before approaching them again.
  • Pride (A3-, low humility). Goeth before the fall, right? Pride is associated with wanting to look good based on the sterling work of one’s team. Some micromanagers hover over subordinates because they want to shine after the work is done. Begin as assignment from them by asking what their standards are for success. Make it a joint effort for achieving star status, yet be prepared that they may take credit for your work.
  • Assertiveness (A4-, low reserve). Some managers just talk a lot. It is not that they are anxious, dubious, competitive, or any of the other traits we’ve mentioned, but that they just can’t keep their mouths shut. Talkativeness can come across as micromanaging. I once had a manager who went on and on. I tried establishing false time limits, as in “Yes, I can meet with you now, but I need to go take a call in ten minutes.” It worked.
  • Perfectionism (C1+, high perfectionism). This is probably the most common motive for micromanaging—the obsessive need for every output to be flawless. Buy the person a copy of Barry Schwartz’s The Paradox of Choice for their birthday. It is about maximizers and satisficers. Hopefully, your micromanager will learn to be less of a maximizer and more of a satisficer.

All of these traits have the potential to appear in micromanagers. At CentACS (Center for Applied Cognitive Studies), we especially track Low Trust of Others, Low Scope, and High Perfectionism in our Consultant’s Report.

 

Leaders Can Be Made, If Not Born

August 17, 2016 1 comment

One can be born to be a 7-foot NBA center, but one cannot be made into one. Or? Look at the Dutch, who have an unusually tall population and who also are known for their unusually heavy consumption of calcium (milk, cheese, and their kin). Clearly most human behavior has a largely genetic component, but there is always, well, almost always, room for the environment to play a small part.

Research reveals ideal Big Five trait levels for leadership. Across all leadership situations, followers need their leaders to be calm in a crisis (low Need for Stability), an active communicator (high Extraversion), strategically visionary (high Originality/Openness), sufficiently tough to say no when necessary (low to mid Accommodation/Agreeableness), and focused on the objective (high Consolidation/Consciousness). For short, I refer to this profile as N-E+O+A-/=C+. Tennyson’s “Ulysses” exemplifies these qualities. Here the poet summarizes the qualities of his leader:

One equal temper (N-) of heroic hearts (E+),
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will (C+)
To strive (A-), to seek (O+), to find (O+), and not to yield (A-).
Ulysses Nick Thompson CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.jpg

Ulysses, by Nick Thompson, from early Roman sarcophagus. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

But here’s the rub: Few of us are born with this temperament. Consider the odds: 1 in 3 are born N- (the bottom third of the normal distribution), 1/3 are born E+, 1/3 O+, 1/3 A-/+ (upper half of the low range of A plus the bottom half of the midrange of A), and 1/3 are born C+. The probability of being born with all five of these trait levels in one person is 1/3 x 1/3 x 1/3 x 1/3 x 1/3, or one in 243. You would be correct to infer from this that, in a company of 200+ employees, there are many leader/managers who are misfits for their role. What are they to do?

I recently discussed this dilemma with an associate in Thailand. He was wondering whether our ideal leader formula might be too stringent a criterion for leader identification. He had received pushback from his clients, questioning the validity of the formula.

Here’s my explanation. Few people are ideally suited for their roles. Everyone must compensate, or adapt, in some way that is not totally natural for them. For example, in my role as research and development officer, I must be attentive to details. However, my temperament is not detail-oriented. I prefer the big ideas. But I must attend to details if I am to do my job, just as the introverted mad scientist must adapt and act extraverted at parties in order to schmooze with deep pockets and land funding for projects. We must all adapt in some way, except for the few, the 1 in 243, who are natural fits.

Leaders who are missing one or more of the ideal trait levels have three options. All are based on 1) self-awareness of one’s strengths and weaknesses (gained through an assessment process), and 2) a willingness to find ways to compensate for one’s weaknesses.

  1. Choose the context. Not all leadership demands are equal. Some followers require more communication (E+) than others, as in sales teams needing more chat than a laboratory of research chemists. Put an E+ in a research lab and you have a bull in a china shop. The point: Find a context that needs what you offer, trait-wise. If you are prone to stress (N+), and you really want (or need) to lead, then find a context that is relatively stress-free (e.g., managing a gift shop rather than managing a hospital emergency room). The ideal leader trait levels are averages, and that means that in many situations more extreme levels—both higher and lower—can be effective.
  1. Embrace interdependence. Self-awareness is critical for this option. Interdependence means leaning on one another by acknowledging that others’ strengths can compensate for my weaknesses. My company is a team of ten. Not one of us exhibits all five of the ideal leader trait levels. However, on our leadership team of three, all five trait levels are present—distributed among the three of us. Jane has the N-, O+, and A-, Lisa has the O+,E+, A-, and C+, and I have the O+ (that’s about all, I fear—I’m not very leaderly!). In our meetings, I tend to brainstorm, while Lisa serves as evaluator. Lisa provides hard data for tough decisions, while Jane finds ways to circumvent constraints. Lisa and I both worry about doomsday, while Jane is as calm as a hibernating bear. We all value our differences and acknowledge that we each bring something necessary to the table, like proteins, fats, and carbs. You bring the tomatoes, you over there bring the mayo, and I’ll bring the white bread.
  1. Retain a coach. A coach in the leadership world is someone who can offer the leader suggestions on how to achieve one’s objectives. This could be anyone whom the leader trusts, from business or life partner to a professional psychologist or business coach. I was once engaged as a coach to the managing partner of an architecture firm of 80+ associates. The managing partner was concerned that associates complained about the quality of his meetings. The manager was quite introverted and hated meetings. I suggested he ask one of his more extraverted department heads to facilitate the meetings, and that the manager sit in the back of the room and serve as a resource throughout the meeting. Problem solved. In the case of Ulysses, his self-awareness made him aware that he lacked the steel nerves (N–) and rigid focus (C++) to resist the seductive sirens. Some coach—his #2 perhaps—may have suggested that he rope himself to the mast and plug his ears to bolster his resistance. Disaster averted. Whether a “coach” nudged him in the direction of acknowledging the weakness and using an adaptive strategy, or whether Ulysses figured it out on his own, this required self-awareness and interdependence.

Just because we are not a 1 in 243 natural leader, that does not mean we cannot lead. If we wish to lead, or find ourselves having to lead, we have these three options to be optimally responsive to our followers’ needs. People need a leader who is strong in will with an equal temper and strong in heart to strive, seek, and find, and not to yield. If all of these qualities are not in one person, adapt or look elsewhere.