Archive for the ‘Relationships’ Category

Loving is Living

November 30, 2016 Leave a comment

The sleepy Davidson College campus awoke with a start.

It was graduation day in the Spring of 1960. I, a lowly freshman, sat quietly with fellow singers in the Male Chorus. We awaited our next turn to entertain with song. With the audience of faculty, parents, and fellow graduating seniors expecting him to dribble on for 15 minutes, graduating senior and poet-scholar W. Dabney Stuart had given an address that was not a speech but a dare. Here’s what he said, as I recall:

Many people have lived. Many people have died. One of these was Jesus of Nazareth. He said, “Love one another.” I have nothing of significance to add.

friendshipAnd then he returned to his seat. Some thought it an insult to tradition, a sign of disrespect from a rebellious hippy. I thought it the most powerful lecture/sermon/dare I had experienced. Often I have quoted Dabney, now a professor emeritus of English at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia. At the risk of oversimplifying, Dabney had cut to the chase. He got to the point. Southern haiku, as it were. No meat, fat, gristle, or cosmetics–all bone. Life at its essence.

Sharing a value for poetry, I have subscribed to Poem-a-Day for many years. This program of the Academy of American Poets emails one contemporary poem every weekday to subscribers (for free, at,) and one classic poem on Saturday and Sunday.

To my surprise and delight, last Sunday I received Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Eros” (1847). I do not know if this gem was the inspiration for Dabney 56 years ago. It does not matter. What matters is that Dabney’s dare to live lovingly was nothing new:

The sense of the world is short,—
Long and various the report,—
To love and be beloved;
Men and gods have not outlearned it;
And, how oft soe’er they’ve turned it,
’Tis not to be improved.

I am amused to think that scholar-poet Stuart might have taken a professor’s assignment to paraphrase a poem and used “Eros” as his original. In either case, whether we say there is “nothing of significance to add” or “’tis not to be improved,” both Stuart and Emerson have struck the proper tone for any major religious or humanist holiday.

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.


Beauty, Billions, and Brains

August 10, 2016 Leave a comment

My search for summer reading led me to a first novel by Stuart Rojstaczer (ROYCE-teacher)–The Mathematician’s Shiva (Penguin, 2014). Hadn’t heard of it, but it sounded intriguing—a fictional, brilliant, female, University of Wisconsin mathematician named Rachela Karnokovitch was dead, and brainy mathematicians from around the were globe sitting shiva. Much of the story dealt with the difficulty of brainy people letting their abilities shine in public, with many, especially women, preferring to hide their smarts.

Woman Thinker-Stanley Zimny

Rachela’s son, Sasha, also a mathematician, at one point mused about what it meant to be an intellectual—someone who uses mental acuity to guide their life rather than acting only on impulses, faith, and whims. Such intellectual activity entailed asking for definitions, evidence, facts, and their ilk. Think of it as critical thinking.


One passage struck me as important to share. Sasha, given to comparing American and eastern European culture, mused about how persons with money and beauty are encouraged to go public with their gifts, while persons with brains are discouraged:

To Americans, the outward display of intelligence is considered unseemly. The Donald Trumps of the world can boast about their penthouses and Ferraris, their women can wear baubles the size of Nebraska, and no one says boo. If you have money, you’re almost always expected to flaunt it. But intellect? This is something else entirely. Women, especially, are supposed to play dumb. One of the richest men in America has said publicly that if your SAT score is too high, find a way to sell 200 points. Supposedly you don’t need them.
This inability of Americans to value intellect is, to me, maddening. If someone possesses physical beauty, they will not be cloistered or hidden in dark shadows. No, they are expected to be the source of pleasing scenery to others. We are not frightened in this country by beauty. We celebrate it, as we should. But what about beautiful brains, the kind that can create amazing worlds out of nothing but thoughts, that can find a way to intricately bond elements of our lives and our ideas that conventional wisdom tells us are inert? Why should anyone hide this intellect ever? No. F—-g boring financiers like Warren Buffett. If you have a high score on your SAT, don’t sell a single point. In fact, find a way to get smart enough to achieve a perfect score. There is no such thing as unnecessary beauty, whether it be physical or intellectual. (Kindle location 3401)

I am reminded of E. O. Wilson’s comment that the world needs more citizens who require evidence before making decisions, that it is not differences in politics and religion that entail strife, but differences in the willingness to think critically rather than to uncritically follow a leader. Said another way, we need to celebrate intellect, not hide it. Don’t be timid in asking questions and searching for evidence. It is a rich, beautiful thing.

Leaving Stuff Behind

I’d like to leave more than a tombstone for folks to remember me by.

German-American psychologist Erik Erikson wrote of the importance of generativity—of leaving something for future generations to value and remember us by. Something tangible that affirms our life has meaning for others after all is said and done. Our legacy. Recent happiness research confirms that working towards leaving something positive for others to remember us by provides us with a positive emotional boost.

Tombstone William Allen, Image Historian, 2007 CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Tombstone, William Allen, Image Historian, 2007. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Summer is opportune for working on our legacy. Whether on vacation or just chilling in the shade, the time is ripe for thinking about, choosing, and beginning work on what we will leave for those after us to remember our values, idiosyncrasies, skills, and so forth. What are the elements of your legacy, and how far along are you in making it real and lasting? Just this week Michael Jordan has added another element to his—a $500,000 investment in literacy. Just last night I added an eight inch plank to the hull of my wooden model of the 1492 caravelle Santa Maria—certainly a more modest gift for my grandchildren, but nonetheless satisfying as a small way of being remembered (unless it gets crushed, of course!).

Just in case you’re not already engaged in building your legacy, here is a list of some well-known forms of legacy, and also some that perhaps you’ve not thought of as such:

  • Writing a book of any sort
  • Writing a family history and putting it in one’s home town library
  • Building a cradle or a doll house
  • Constructing a scrap book or photo album, whether on paper or digitally (I have 13 Power Point photo albums!)
  • Painting a portrait of a family member(s)—or having someone else paint/draw them
  • Endowing a chair in a university, symphony, or…
  • Founding a scholarship
  • Creating an extended family mail list and sharing it with everyone in the family
  • Writing a song or other piece of music
  • Collecting family recipes and publishing them (or recipes from your religious group, scout organization, book club, etc.)
  • Designing a garden for public viewing and nurturing it to life
  • Sculpting something
  • Interviewing (and recording and transcribing) everyone in your family or circle for possible use by you or someone else in writing a family history
  • Write a poem or story or song to be read (or sung) on special occasions—Thanksgiving, July 4, Bastille Day…
  • Creating a video documentary of your family or organization
  • Contributing money towards having something named after you or your family
  • Building a mountain cabin and leaving it to your family/friends/company
  • Building a beach or lake cabin and leaving it to your family/friends/company
  • Write and enact a law or policy that the next generation will attribute to you with pride
  • Make costumes, ornaments, or other craft collections that will benefit others
  • Endow in your family’s name a permanent summer camp scholarship for a youth who otherwise would not be able to attend camp
  • Keep a personal/family diary, such that others may read it after your time is up
  • Build a Little Free Library for your neighborhood (
  • Plan and build a sports or exercise arena of some sort—ball field, tennis court, and so forth
  • Through interviews and other media, collect stories from your family (or other organization) and write them up as an anthology. Start with the most senior members, and get as much detail as possible. Perhaps do group interviews, as in several cousins recalling stories about their parents/grandparents
  • Start a business or non-profit or social club that will continue indefinitely in association with your family or friends
  • Organize and start an annual family reunion
  • Build your family tree—consider using an online tool such as
  • Write your autobiography, or dictate it to a youth who needs a class, scouting, or other project (as in the Senior Project)
  • Do the taxidermy thing and create a stuffed wall mounting to look down on future generations
  • Design and make a set of clothes for your grandchild’s doll(s)
  • Get a book like The Big Book of Whittling and Woodcarving or The Foxfire Book and make toys, statues, games, pony tail holders, and so forth to leave with your family or friends.
  • Create your family medical history, and distribute it to family members so that they may use your information as a starter for their own medical histories to leave on file with their family doctor
  • Get your spit tested for DNA (23andMe, Family Tree DNA, etc.) and share with your family your/their ancestry
  • Prepare your will thoughtfully—my mother made a list of all her possessions and valued items, then had each of her seven children, in turn from oldest to youngest, select what they wished for their own upon her demise
  • Knit afghans or piece together quilts for those close to you and/or for those in need
  • Win trophies for competitions in your special field, whether a Pulitzer Prize or a neighborhood tennis ladder
  • Preserve your scouting or military uniform or wedding dress or christening gown as a wall mount
  • Write a script for a play or some kind of event that documents and celebrates the history and characters of your neighborhood—record it and write it up
  • Start a neighborhood festival—the North Bronx Jubilee, or some such
  • Have an exchange student and continue the relationship after their year is up
  • Record your children’s/grandchildren’s voices once a year from birth onward, so that they have a record of the evolution of how their voice has changed over time
  • Collect stories and anecdotes about a favorite family pet or farm animal, and prepare them as a book, scrapbook, audio file, Power Point presentation…
  • Organize and execute a neighborhood event that will continue after you’re gone—e.g. Will and Gertrude’s Annual Halloween Wiener Roast for Amity Avenue (or South Fork Creek rural area)
  • Finance someone’s education (university, trade school, apprenticeship, professional/graduate school) who might otherwise not be able to pursue such

To get the most satisfaction from creating your legacy, choose something that expresses one or more of your values (see The Owner’s Manual for Values at Work) and incorporates one or more of your Big Five personality traits (see The Owner’s Manual for Personality at Work or The Owner’s Manual for Personality from 12 to 22). And, to read more about how this fits into your overall happiness set point, read The Owner’s Manual for Happiness.

Pick one or more and get going! And enjoy the process. Leave more than a tombstone…

Appearances Can Be Deceiving (3. Smiles and Liking)

What you see isn’t always what you get

Indeed. As I wrote in two recent posts about solitude (not always loneliness) and fidgeting (not always impatience), common behaviors don’t necessarily originate with common causes. Will Shakespeare would have us think otherwise, as he suggested when he had Julius Caesar say this of Cassius:

Let me have men about me that are fat,
Sleek-headed men and such as sleep a-nights.
Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look,
He thinks too much; such men are dangerous.

Julius Caesar Act 1, scene 2, 190–195

The Bard makes two assumptions here: they who are fat are happy, and they who are gaunt are plotting to take your dinner (or throne). All who are fat are not happy, and all gaunt persons are not dangerous.

Take smiling. One might assume that, when someone smiles at you, they like you. Friendly smiles, however, are not always friendly. Body language research has demonstrated that most of us interpret someone’s smile aimed at us as evidence that they like us. But smiling can also be a subterfuge, a stalking horse that masks inner hostility at worst, or boredom at the least. Or it could suggest amusement, but not necessarily liking. Even if a smile does convey truly positive feelings, it doesn’t necessarily mean that someone is flirting with you. Research shows that the typical heterosexual man tends to interpret a woman’s smile as meant for him in a romantic way, while women do not typically take a man’s smile as a come on.

The 19th century French neurologist Guillaume Duchenne defined a true smile, i.e., one

duchenne smile

Duchenne smile, by RealWann, 2006. CC BY 2.0

that reflects positive affect, as one that entails both a contraction of the muscle that raises the termini of one’s mouth, and also the muscle that raises one’s cheeks with the effect of forming bird feet flanking one’s eyes. Today, psychologists contrast this genuine Duchenne smile with the Pan Am smile, named for the desperate flight attendants who try their best to put on a polite, happy face to their often unpleasant travelers. That Pan Am is caput suggests that fake smiles don’t work.

To ensure that you don’t misinterpret someone’s smile, look for bird feet at the edge of their eyes and cheek creases at the edge of their upturned mouth edges. If these two signs are present, assume that a) the person is feeling positive affect, or that b) they are a fine actor and may be seething with hatred, evaporating from boredom, or maybe deeply amused at something. In a good way, or not.

Like most behaviors, a smile’s motive must be confirmed, or clarified, through dialog.

It turns out that Julius Caesar (via Shakespeare) was right in his interpretation. Luck of the Romans.

But after all is said, it sure is nice to be around smiles, rather than frowns, even if smiles, like flowers, are resting on something rotten and smelly below!

Appearances Can Be Deceiving (2. Solitude and Loneliness)

January 27, 2016 Leave a comment

All that glitters is not gold, and alone is not always lonely.

Last week I began a series on behaviors that are often mistaken for one another. Elsewhere I’ve called them “multi-source behaviors,” in the sense that one single behavior might originate in different psychological spaces. Last week we saw how fidgeting and restlessness could be interpreted on the one hand as evidence of impatience, but on the other as evidence of boredom. One must stay vigilant to the possibility of multiple meanings behind behavior and not always assume we know the meaning of a grimace, a smile, or a frown. A simple “What’s the meaning behind that frown?” can often prevent bad feelings and a trip down the wrong inferential path.

A commonly misperceived behavior is the state of being alone. All too often, Gregarious Groupies try to nudge Solitary Singles into joining them on the assumption that the Solitary Single is lonely. But, being alone does not necessarily entail loneliness. We are built differently. Some of us have high thresholds for the afferent and efferent nerves,

1996 Jocassee Quiet Solitude, by anoldent CC BY-SA 2.0

1996 Jocassee Quiet Solitude, by anoldent; CC BY-SA 2.0

such that the 105 decibels of sound at a football game may not phase us because we have a high threshold for noise, while those bombarding decibels would wear me down because of my low noise threshold. After the game, you’d be ready to party, and I’d be ready to be private. I would not be lonely, but quiet and (probably) alone, or at least with another quiet person.

I remember a couple from graduate school days in Chapel Hill. He had a lower sensory threshold, she, a higher. He read in the library most days, while she taught junior high school choral music. He would arrive home in the evenings not lonely from a day at his library study carrel way off the beaten path, but, in fact, mentally energized from a day of reading and thinking. She would get home eager to talk through her day with him, not in the least exhausted from the hustle and bustle of hormonal youth trying to harmonize. When she spied him opening a book shortly after getting home, it was “What do you have against people? Talk with me!” And this was met with his “What do you have against quiet? Get comfortable with yourself!” Over time they learned to respect each other’s differing traits—they’re still married after 50 years.

These two were extremes—extremely introverted and extremely extraverted, the one energized by solitude, and the other energized by society. Then there are folks like me—ambiverted—ready for society after a day of study, or ready for study after a day of society. I give out of society juice after being in the thick of the action for too long and must get quiet, which usually (but not necessarily) means being alone, or with my ambiverted partner, Jane. On the other hand, I give out of solitary juice after extended study sessions (mostly writing and reading), and am ready for some social stimulation.

Loneliness happens when a soul has run out of fuel for being alone and is ready for some action but finds none. Most of us manage our needs for solitude and society successfully. When we begin to feel lonely, as in having had enough solitude and are now ready for company, we know where to look. Reaching out for contact could be satisfied by playing with a loved pet at one extreme or going to visit family or friends at another. Often, the simplest cure for loneliness is an open-ended question. Sometimes when I fly, I am ready for solitude, and I blank out the persons sitting on either side as I read. Other times I have just emerged from extended solitude and am ready for society, so I ask one of my seatmates an open-ended question and hope that an engaging conversation ensues.

So the learning is to never assume you know a person’s mental state when you see them alone. Ask. Then either let them be alone, or engage them based on their response.

Appearances Can Be Deceiving (1. Impatience and Boredom)

January 20, 2016 Leave a comment

Last week a colleague called me impatient. I bristled—I don’t like to be called impatient.

“What leads you to say that?” I asked, puzzled not knowing the evidence that led him to judgment.


“I want It Now,” by Denise Krebs CC BY 2.0

“You sometimes look away from others, move around a bunch in your chair when others are talking with you or to the team, leave the room to go get things, frequently refer to your iPhone or iPad, make notes that don’t appear related to the topic of the moment…. How’s that for starters?”

“Oh, that!” Relieved, I now know what he meant. “What you see as impatience is actually boredom. When I’m unengaged around others, I find it almost impossible to sit passively as words fly back and forth. My mind is constantly generating ideas, opinions, memories, and other items that I want to follow up on. But when I’m engaged—when I’m in flow—when I am interested in what you or others have to discuss, I think you will find me attentive and willing to take all the time necessary to get to an agreeable stopping point.”

To cover up boredom is not patience, but dissembling for the sake of good manners. Impatience is wishing for, and urging, others to speed up. “Come on, hurry up!” The classic example of impatience is trying to rush something and not allowing it to take its normal course to maturity. “No wine before its time” is anathema to the impatient. Cutting corners, skipping steps, and, in general, lowering quality standards, are the signs of impatience. If I try to hurry my scrambled eggs by turning up the heat, that is impatience. If I get bored while the eggs slowly cook, and find a way to occupy my mind meanwhile (clean off the counter, make the toast, set the table, dice scallions for a topping, and so forth), that is avoiding boredom and preventing the temptation to cut corners out of impatience. And, it is a choice.

Do I get impatient while waiting for something to run its normal course? Well, I try not to.


“Boredom,” by Kayla Sawyer, CC BY-NC 2.0

When I go to the post office and find a line, that is normal. I can’t rush it. This is a recipe for impatience and boredom. However, I am in control of how I use my mind while waiting. To wait in line and not use my mind somehow means boredom and probably impatience. To wait in line and use my mind avoids boredom. When I am not in control of my mental life while having to wait—yes, I will be both bored and impatient. In a chess match, that is why time limits exist. I can study possible future moves while my opponent cogitates, but if they take too long I begin to fidget—there is a limit to my plotting the future, and manners say I shouldn’t read a magazine while my opponent ponders. But as in waiting in line and waiting for an opponent to move, usually I am in control of how I might engage my mind during this invitation to boredom. Standing in line, I can: calculate the average transaction time of the postal clerks, catch up on my email (on my iPhone), review recent Facebook entries, start a conversation with a neighbor, practice balancing on one leg, practice yoga deep breathing, read one of several books I’ve started on my iPhone Kindle app, jot down notes for a project I’m working on (I always have a pad of Post-It notes in my pocket along with pen and pencil, plus my iPhone), call Jane or another family or team member to check in, ask my neighbor to hold my place while I go shop for stamps, meditate while standing, people watch and make up stories about their possible backgrounds…. In short, ways to use my mind while waiting are limited only by will, imagination, and manners. And where there’s a will, there’s a way.

So, appearances can be deceiving. The next time someone appears to be impatient, it is possible that they are bored and disengaged, not impatient. Check in with them somehow, with “Looks like you’ve checked out of this discussion,” or “Are we boring you?”, or “What’s on your mind?” Find out the source of their inattention and find a way to either re-engage or liberate them (as in excusing them from the meeting).

People high in the Big Five trait of Originality (aka Openness) are more susceptible to boredom, those who are low in Big Five Accommodation (aka Agreeableness) are prone to impatience, and persons high in Big Five Consolidation (aka Conscientiousness) are more likely to be patient. Nonetheless, boredom and impatience are both choices. You can choose to find a way to engage your mind when bored, just as you can choose to find something meaningful to do while waiting for something to run its course. Boredom can look like impatience, but impatience seldom looks like boredom. The one is disengagement in need of meaning, while the other is intolerance of someone’s or something’s natural pace towards completion or maturity.

See my earlier posts on establishing flow to avoid boredom and frustration, and on various ways to relieve boredom.