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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?

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.

1382168225_a829f14da3_b

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!

What Does Meaning Mean?

September 16, 2016 3 comments

Give me a break! That was my first thought when I read these passages in a scholarly article:

  • “How do students make meaning when they explore their strengths?”
  • “Does their meaning-making influence their daily lives?”
  • “Identify your strengths and give them meaning.”
  • “Enabling a deep analysis of personal meaning-making…”
  • “Depending on individual meaning-making, etc….”
  • “…reflection and other meaning-making processes.”
  • “…which leads to a more meaningful
  • “This can be a complex meaning-making experience.”
labyrinth-by-brainwise-2005-cc-by-nc-nd-2-0

Labyrinth, by brainwise, 2005, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 (Labyrinth at Columcille Megalith Park, Bangor, PA)

 

What do all these uses of “meaning” mean? For me, they are undefined jargon—terms used by a writer who cannot find a more concrete way to say what is on their mind. But “mean” and “meaning” are perfectly good, simple, and concrete words until they get elevated to the clouds and semantic obscurity. “Mean” comes from the Old English “mænan,” which is defined as to intend, to have in one’s mind. When we ask the meaning of something, we are saying we don’t know the definition of a word someone has used (What does expialidocious mean?), the purpose of a behavior (What is the meaning of that glare?), or what a written or spoken message was supposed to communicate (I heard/read what you said/wrote, but I don’t know what you mean!).

I suppose that the writer of the above bullets was referring to the degree to which an individual derived value from an experience, or how they reacted to it. What were they feeling inside? What do they know now that they didn’t know before? What did it make them think of? I am reminded of “Sentence Completions”–a facilitator’s guide to helping participants report to one another how they reacted to a shared experience. Let us say that you show a film about prejudice to a group. As a way of helping the individuals evaluate that experience and speak about it with the others, the facilitator might ask them to complete one or more of these sentence stems:

  • I learned that I…
  • I realized that I…
  • I was pleased that I…
  • I was displeased that I…
  • I was surprised that I…
  • I rediscovered that I…
  • I noticed that I…
  • I re-learned that I…
  • I was amused that I…
  • I was saddened that I…
  • I regret that I…
  • I look forward to…
  • I wish I had more…
  • I wonder if…
  • I wonder why…
  • I wonder about…
  • I wonder whether…
  • I wonder when…
  • I wonder how…
  • I plan to…
  • I am optimistic that I…
  • I am pessimistic about…
  • I wish I could change…
  • I wish I had…
  • I need to…
  • I want to…
  • I was perplexed about…
  • I’m planning to contact…
  • I need more…
  • I need less…
  • I will never…

values-toolkitIf someone is unable to fill in any of these incomplete sentences, then it is probably safe to conclude that they did not find the film experience “meaningful.” This list, incidentally, is taken from my book The Values Toolkit: Application Manual for The Owner’s Manual for Values at Work (Center for Applied Cognitive Studies, 2016). It is an activity called “Sentence Completions” and is based on a similar activity popular in the Values Clarification literature in the 1970s.

values-at-workSo when we think about asking someone whether or not they had a meaningful vacation, date, interview, trip, worship, or some other kind of experience, what we really mean (i.e., intend) is to ask them what they enjoyed, learned, hated, what was the high point/low point, and so forth. Did they have an emotional reaction or a cognitive gain? Or both?

Rather than ask whether something is meaningful to someone, try getting more specific. As in, now that you have read this blog, rather than my asking you whether or not it was meaningful for you, I will ask you: Was it worth your time to read this blog? If so, in what way? If you have trouble answering, refer to the sentence stems above!

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.

 

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?

Life’s Big Questions

September 9, 2015 Leave a comment

Just as a sailboat needs a rudder to serve passengers, so a person needs a sense of Self in order to serve a relationship. My friend, fellow bass, hoops fan, and retired psychiatrist Mark Ardis suggests three questions that are an apt start for defining who we are. Our answers will likely change over time—as the result of crises, education, epiphanies, tragedies, and simply growing up. He suggests that we might return to these questions like a periodic mantra. The answers to these three queries provide a strong basis for defining our Self, somewhat similar to a title of an article, an executive summary of its contents, and then the contents itself:

  • Who am I? This first question is oriented backwards in time—who have you been in the past, up througuiderocksgh today? The answer to this question might be conceived as something of an epitaph, or, more positively, a title of the biography of your life up to this point. I suggest you think in terms of the major roles you have played—the hats you have worn. My answer:
    • Learner, Family Man, and Educator Who Loves Life
  • What is my purpose? The second question focuses on the present—to what ends are you playing the roles identified in question one? Why am I learning, educating, and nurturing my family relationships? What goal, purpose, or objective is served? My answer:
    • Several decades ago I came across Francis Bacon’s quote that “Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man.” I was struck by that passage, and interpreted it to mean that reading and conversation come easy—cheap, as it were, but that writing entailed organizing your thoughts meaningfully and sharing them with others. Perhaps Bacon tapped into my sense of guilt—self-indulgence for taking so much time in reading and conversation. I decided that writing is my way of giving back to all who have made it possible for me to live a life of reading, study, and dialog—my patient and loving family, my supportive and inspirational colleagues, and the thousands of clients who have been my laboratory. In a word, my purpose is to give back.
  • How do I fit in? The third question is more forward looking and focuses on how we use our strengths to accomplish our purpose. It does not necessarily mean how we compromise, adapt, and change our ways to suit others, although that is often what “fitting in” conjures. By fitting in, I mean what is our niche—how do our strengths determine the best way to serve our purpose? How do I use my personality traits, mental abilities, physical characteristics, values, and experiences in service of my purpose—to give back. My answer:
    • My learning has been in many areas—organizational psychology, neuroscience, music, cooking, genealogical research. In each of these areas, I have different ways of giving back.
    • In music, I could be selfish and play or sing chamber music at home without sharing with the public. But in the spirit of resisting this self-indulgent approach, I give back by playing chamber music and singing with others in public venues.
    • In family, I give back through writing, maintaining, and sharing in print and the Internet my family history. I also share my cooking and crafts interests with friends, family, and grandchildren.
    • In psychology, I write books, teach seminars, design courses, write blogposts, design new products and applications, and serve with professional associations as a way to give back for all the opportunity I have had to read, conduct research, and delve into my imagination.

In the Jewish tradition of High Holy Days—the ten days from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur, one is asked to openbook of life the book of life on day one and reassess the state of one’s Self before the book slams shut on day ten. Other world religions have similar periods and provisions for sober self-assessment—the Hajj, the Ashram, Ramadan, Buddhist meditation retreats, Shinto purification, and Easter Week. None strikes me with the clarity of the opening and closing of the book of life. It just so happens that the High Holy Days begin this year next Monday, September 13, and conclude September 23.

Perhaps Mark’s three questions from the beginning of this blog will guide dialog between you and those close to you. It obviously doesn’t have to happen now—maybe the hoopla of football season doesn’t suit you for self-study! But, I think this is a good time for me to revisit these three questions. My answers above are a record of my past, present, and immediate future. In my ongoing quest to optimize myself, how might I like to keep or shape those answers? I wonder if my significant others have any requests? New roles? Resurrect old roles? New ways of learning? New ways of giving back? Hmmm… Can’t wait to start.

The What and How of Motivation

September 2, 2015 1 comment

Motivation is a complex concept with many definitions. I have a simple definition: People are most motivated, or engaged in what they are doing, when they are 1) acting in accordance with their values and 2) acting in a way that builds on their strengths and not their weaknesses.

Values are what we hold as most important to us. I do not mean them necessarily as moral values—some are, some are not. At CentACS, where we focus on personality assessment, we have identified 16 broad values terms. While you may prefer a different word than one of our 16, these terms cover pretty much the gamut of what folks hold as important:

  • AchievementDisney on Values
  • Activity
  • Beauty
  • Competition
  • Health
  • Helping
  • Independence
  • Intellect
  • Justice
  • Materialism
  • Pleasure
  • Power
  • Relationships
  • Spirituality
  • Stability
  • Status

So, step one of motivating someone is to know their top and bottom values—that comprises their values “style.” Knowing what values to build on and what values to avoid is critical to motivation. Want to motivate me? Then make sure to ask me to do something that builds on my passion for Pleasure, Beauty, Intellect, and Independence, and don’t expect me to resonate on anything that smacks of Power, Competition, Materialism, or Status.

But knowing what values to build on is not the same as knowing how to build on those values. The how is determined by knowing the individual’s behavioral traits and mental abilities. These days, pesonality traits are most often expressed by the Five-Factor Model, or the Big Five:

  • Need for Stability—calm vs. reactive
  • Extraversion—quiet/solitary vs. in the thick of the action
  • Originality—practical and detail-oriented vs. creative and big picture-oriented
  • Accommodation—competitive and aggressive vs. collaborative and conflict-averse
  • Consolidation—spontaneous and multi-tasking vs. focused on goals

Mental abilities do not have such a succinct model as the Big Five, but a satisfying way to categorize them is Gardner’s eight talents:

  • VerbalBrain with cogwheels
  • Mathematical/Logical
  • Visual/Spatial
  • Auditory
  • Kinesthetic
  • Natural Observer (as in taxonomies and complex organizational schemes)
  • Interpersonal
  • Intrapersonal

My salient personality trait is high Originality (creative, love of compleCentxity, comfortable with change), and my salient mental abilities are mathematics and taxonomy development. To determine how to motivate me, here’s all you need:

What to do: Something that builds on my value for Intellect, Beauty, Pleasure, and/or Independence

How to do it: Use my creativity, numerical ability, and/or fondness for taxonomy development

Recommendation: Ask me to scan what is being done around the world on a topic of mutual interest and come up with a best practices model.

Rationale: Conducting research builds on my value for Intellect, and the model development builds on my abilities in Natural Observation and taxonomy development.

I suggest you make a little card that profiles each person for whom you feel some responsibility for keeping motivated. On each card, list:

  • What:
    • Values to emphasize or build on
    • Values to avoid
  • How:
    • Big Five traits to emphasize
    • Big Five traits to minimize
    • Mental abilities to emphasize
    • Mental abilities to minimize

Periodically have a dialog with these folks and mutually evaluate the degree to which they are acting in accordance with their values and in light of their behavioral and mental strengths.

Motivation is as simple as that. Know what they value, and how they naturally go about their everyday activities. And if neither is obvious to you, ask us at Center for Applied Cognitive Studies for help.