We Are Really Bad at Reading Minds

The other day I noticed that my son was unusually quiet after baseball practice. This has been an up and down year. At the beginning of Spring, for the first time, he experienced tryouts and player evaluations. The league he was trying out for did player drafts to put together the teams, and they had several different levels of teams. Ben was drafted down a level below what he could have qualified for by age. I chalked it up to us not knowing the procedures and necessarily being 100% ready from the start. But rather than focus on that, we took it as a great opportunity to learn, practice, and have a good time. And what a great time it turned out to be. Ben did GREAT and his team took first place in their division. Ben played catcher and first base, and he did so well that he was asked to try out for the Summer tournament team at the next level up. We were on a high…so excited that he was now being asked to play up.

But then we got to tryouts and practice for the Summer team and realized (of course) that everyone there was playing at a high level, and we had just entered a new level of competition. Ben made the team and went to the practices, adapting to the differences in rules between the different levels of play, but the competition was tough, and the coaching style was very different (a topic for a different post). Ben got edged out of the positions that he had loved playing during the Spring and assigned to less familiar positions and fewer innings of playing time. This was frustrating for him. He felt that he was better at catcher than some of the kids who were getting to play there, and he couldn’t understand why the coaches let the other players play that position but not him.

And thus began our lesson in non-verbal communication. I tried to share with him, in a loving-father, non-preachy sort of way, some of the things that I saw him do and how the coaches might interpret those actions. It was definitely stretching him to think about several different ways that actions or behaviors can be interpreted when you don’t have the context of what someone is thinking. For example, if you are not hustling during practice, does that mean that you are tired or bored or just think practice isn’t as important as a game? He said he was tired, but I would guess the coaches read it another way. Many people say you play like you practice so you should practice like it’s the real thing, and I tend to agree with that, but this was new thinking to him because in his mind practice is practice, nobody is keeping score and games are different. But there is a lot to be said for the power of habit. We went through a few other examples where he thought his behavior was clearly saying one thing and I shared other ways it might be interpreted that were less positive.

It got him thinking…and it got me thinking…what do I do at work or at home where others are reading my actions and they may be interpreting those actions to mean something completely different than I intended. Bosses and spouses, coworkers and friends, everyone makes assumptions based on what they see and what they think that means. For example, someone says something to you as they pass by and you don’t respond…are you mad…are you deep in thought…did you just not hear them? Maybe you’re on a video conference and you’re scowling at the camera…are you upset about what the other person is saying? Or did you just notice that you have a hair out of place and wish it would behave?

Non-verbal communication is all around us and we all engage in it, both sending and receiving. And it colors all of our actions and thoughts. Perhaps now is a good time to think about how others might be misinterpreting you, and how you may have misinterpreted them.

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My Favorite Authors

Some of my favorite books...

Whether you’re new to the world of leadership development and personal growth, or a longtime learner, allow me to tell you about a couple of my favorite authors on the topic, John C. Maxwell and Patrick Lencioni.

Now there are a slew of other great authors and great books, and I try to read or listen to many of them, but I find myself consistently interested in whatever these two have written, and I regularly explore their catalog for something that I have not yet read.

Interestingly, these two have very different styles of writing.  Both are easy reads packed with great lessons, but very different in how their books are put together.

If you like your books to flow from start to finish as a cohesive story, you will really enjoy Patrick Lencioni’s books.  Lencioni writes in what I would call a parable-style.  They make the most sense if you start at the beginning and read straight through to the end.  Now, don’t let this story form fool you into thinking that they are not packed with good stuff.  These books are full of great lessons and key points, and I highlight them as much as any other book.  And sometimes, because the lessons are presented in the context of an overall story, that really helps the reader understand and apply the lessons or key points to their own situation more easily than other styles.

On the other hand, John Maxwell’s books are more organized into chapters and lessons on key topics, making them a phenomenal resource not just straight-through but also on-demand.  While John packs his books and speaking full of stories and anecdotes to make his point and help the reader more fully understand the lesson, it is also easy to jump around from chapter to chapter, lesson to lesson as each one is relatively self-contained.  Of course there is great value to reading the entire book, and some points build upon previous chapters, but if you want to jump straight to, say, the chapter on Servant Leadership, you can go straight there, study it, and then come back to others in any order.

So there you have it, two of my favorite authors.  Both have several books available and I would recommend all of them.  They are great resources, both for the novice and the cagey veteran. Go pick one up and dive in today.

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It’s Never Too Late to Have a Happy New Year

Happy New Year!

So here we are, one month into 2018…how are you doing on your New Year’s Resolutions?  It is often said that after just two weeks, 80% of people have given up on their New Year’s resolutions and fallen back into the old habits of years past.  And if you regularly go to the gym, you probably believe it because you have seen that the first week of January every year it gets packed and there are long lines of people waiting to get on the treadmills, ellipticals, and other exercise machines.  In the second week, the lines are shorter, not because we have figured out how to spread out the demand, but because several people have already gotten discouraged and quit.  And by the end of the second week, and into the third, crowd levels have returned mostly to normal, with a few committed newcomers sticking with it, while the others have faded away.

 

But what if you didn’t get around to even getting started in January with your new plans?  Or what if your plan was like mine, to spend the last week of the year in reflection and planning for the new year, but you just never “got the time” (or more accurately, made it a priority).  I made time to reflect on the past year and went through some steps of planning for the new one, but didn’t quite complete it the way I had intended before life and work got busy again.  So what?  Am I doomed to wait another 11 months before I try again?  Just what is so special about the first of January?  NOTHING!

 

So if you didn’t do what you meant to do, or if you got started and then stopped, so what?  You can start again, right now, where you are, and make a change.  Block out some time in your calendar right now for the things that you wanted to do to make a better life for yourself, and get going again.  It’s never too late to have a Happy New Year!

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The Procrastination – Guilt Cycle

Procrastination leads to guilt which leads to more procrastination.

Procrastination is an insidious thing.  When you put off doing something that you know you should do, or that you’ve promised someone you would do, even when it’s a small thing, it produces a stress reaction in the body that we recognize as guilt.  And as you feel guilty for not doing what you know you should have done already, you start to avoid people who know what it is that you should be doing, which just delays getting it done even further.  This additional procrastination then compounds on the first reaction and produces more guilt.  Around and ’round it goes in a downward spiral.

The guilty feelings also start tricking your mind into believing stuff that is completely made up.  For example, you start to think, “that person is going to be upset that I haven’t done this yet”, “they think I’m horrible for not having done it yet”, or “I can’t start now, it’s too late; I would just be embarrassed”.

But the reality is that we’ve all done it, and we know how it can get away from you.  You have to remember, most people you know, whether friends or clients, or friends who are clients, actually want you to succeed.  They want you to come through; they don’t want you stuck in the downward spiral either.  Pick your time and plot your course of action; and go for it.  Action conquers fear, and this this case, it erases the guilt, too.

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Binge Book Listening

Stack of books

I went on an Audible binge recently.  I signed up for Audible at the beginning of the year and powered through a couple of books, but then let my account sit for a while as I focused my time elsewhere (more on that in a future post).

So, as my account sat idle, I was wracking up new credits each month without a thought of what to do with them.  Then one day a friend starts talking about a book he read recently and recommended it to me.  As I went searching on Amazon, I discovered my credit balance and went on a little buying spree, grabbing audiobooks by the handful and throwing them in the shopping cart.  So here are some notes on what I have been listening to lately.

  1. No Limits: Blow the CAP off Your Capacity by John C. Maxwell.  This latest book by one of my all-time favorite authors on personal growth and leadership.  Each chapter explores a different capacity that each of us has (e.g. energy capacity, creativity capacity, leadership capacity, etc.) and in typical Maxwell style helps you to identify your own level and then how to expand and grow yourself in each area to be able to do, have and become more.  One of the drawbacks to getting this in audiobook form is that I know Maxwell’s voice, having seen him speak live and on recording several times, and he does not narrate the audiobook himself so it kept sounding just a little bit off hearing someone else’s voice reading his words.
  2. The Subtle Art of not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson.  I normally would not have picked up this book, except that it was strongly recommended to me, so I gave it a shot.  With F-bombs sprinkled liberally throughout the book, especially in the first couple of chapters, Manson tries to establish himself and his approach as the anti-Power of Positive Thinking and anti-self-help guru.  I’ll agree with him that some parents have gone off the deep end with positivity and flattery of children based on nothing of substance and he spends quite a bit of the book trying to get you to be honest about where you are right now.  But that’s not really new.  In order to plan how to get where you want to go, you have to know from where you are starting.  Be honest with yourself.  Manson’s points parallel those of many of the best personal growth authors, but he does so in a more confrontational, some would say more honest, way.
  3. Rework by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson.  For my techy friends, these are the guys behind 37Signals, Basecamp, and Ruby on Rails.  They write from their own experience in running a successful SMB (small-to-medium sized business).  The purpose of this book is to get you to challenge the many beliefs that we grow up with about what it takes to run a business, how to be productive, how to win at work; and instead to rethink (RE-WORK) everything.  For example, using modern tools (like Basecamp) to avoid excessive meetings; avoiding venture capital and exit strategies to instead focus on being profitable early and over the long-haul.  If you’re self-employed or run a small business, you need to read this book.  If you’re a manager in a large company, you really need to read this book.  One of my favorite lines from this book is “you can have the Fortune 500, I’m interested in selling to the Fortune 5,000,000.”  There is a REWORK podcast, too.
  4. All Marketers are Liars by Seth Godin.  Another of my favorite authors, I read Seth’s blog regularly, which is filled with daily reminders to think different and pursue your dreams.  I don’t know if the 37Signals guys were inspired by Seth Godin, but there certainly is a common theme in their writing and that theme is that the old rules don’t apply anymore.  It’s a brave new world that is wide open to anyone who wishes to participate.  In this book, Seth talks about the power of stories to market anything and everything; and most importantly the need for authenticity.  Through all of his writing, Seth helps you understand the incredible value to be found in serving a niche market, and how that can grow to be a not-so-small niche after all.

I recommend all of these books, and while I really prefer the tactile experience of reading a book on paper and with a cover, if you find yourself pressed for time like I do, and especially if you have a significant commute, consider giving audiobooks a try.

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Leader != Leadership Position

Not all leaders are in leadership positions; and not all leadership positions are filled by good leaders.

We all wish the second part of that were not true,  but the Pointy-Haired Boss in Dilbert comics makes us laugh not because he is so ridiculous that nobody can relate, but rather because we have either worked for someone like that, or know someone who has.  Maybe it’s the Peter Principle in action, but whatever the reason, just because someone is in a superior position in an organizational chart does not mean that they are the leader.

As John Maxwell says, “Leadership is influence.  Nothing more; nothing less.”  If you are not in a leadership position, don’t let that stop you.  You can still lead (influence) the organization from wherever you are.  If you have a great attitude, that is a powerful influence.  Working diligently is a way that you can set an example for others, which is leadership.  Even being a good listener is influence.  Everything that you do has the potential to influence, and other good leaders will recognize your leadership as well.

If you are in a leadership position, then learn to work with, and celebrate, the leaders on your team, even when (or especially when) they outshine you.  Becoming a Leader of leaders results in phenomenal, exponential results.

Start with what you have and where you are; and go from there.

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OVER-Communicate, Please

What is the best way to kill the rumor mill?  Over-Communicate!

Don’t confuse that with “talk too much”.  I’m saying to communicate with your team more than you think you need to.  Remember, as a manager or other leader, you are in a privileged position to know things that your employees or teammates do not know; you have context to make sense of things that appear arbitrary or senseless to your team…help them by telling them as much as you can.

Rumors get started because people are trying to make sense out of something they don’t understand, so they come up with explanations that fit the facts as they know them.  But you know that they don’t know all the facts.  Suppose your company has just decided to expand into a new state, and build a new set of offices from the ground up.  Why does that make sense?  Why would they spend money on that and not on a new coat of paint for the building you’re in, for example?  Help people to understand how decisions are made in business.

Sometimes people are just trying to explain why some action hasn’t been taken yet, which seems obvious to them.  Share some context.  Maybe there is a legal concern that is blocking action right now.  You don’t have to give specifics, but you could say that something is hung up in legal.  Or, maybe there is counter-acting information that makes what would appear to be an obvious choice not so obvious.  Or maybe you don’t know either.  Tell them that, too.  They’ll respect you for your honesty, and trust you even more.

By communicating frequently and with as much open honesty as you can, you will build trust in your employees.  I understand, there are some things you can’t talk about.  And guess what?  Your team understands that, too.  You have a responsibility to keep certain information confidential.  But in my experience, most of the time, there is a lot of information that you can share without violating your fiduciary responsibilities.  Share as much as you can.  And when you can’t try sharing that, too.  There are times when I have had to tell my team, “I know from your point of view this action we are doing does not appear to make sense.  Right now I can’t tell you any of the details behind the scenes, but trust me that it will make sense when it all comes out.”  That’s tough because people will want to ask questions, but it’s a lot easier if you have established a reputation for sharing what you can, when you can.

Another key is to share information more than once.  You can’t assume that just because you told your team what was going on once that it was sufficient.  That would be like saying to your spouse, “I told you I loved you when I married you, if that changes, I’ll let you know.”  Tell them again.  (Tell your spouse every day and even more.)  Keep an open flow of communication with your team.  As time passes, people forget.  And sometimes things change with the passage of time as well.  One simple example would be decisions may be made seasonally.  Where I work, the summer is the busy season, and January is typically much slower.  We may postpone a project to the slow season so that we have the time to put on it.  On the other hand, we may postpone something to another period where cash flow is better.  There are lots of reasons why things may happen; and if you’re not filling in the gaps for people, they will make up their own answers to fill them in themselves.

True over-communication is rarely a problem.  This is a similar concept to the experience of time for a public speaker.  When speaking in public, it is important to slow yourself down and to force yourself to take pauses that seem like an eternity to you, the speaker, but to your audience are very brief moments in time.  Your experience of the passage of time as the speaker is far different from your audience’s experience.  And your experience of the amount of communication you do as the leader is far different from your team’s experience.  They are thirsting for information…share it.

It’s amazing what can happen when you treat people like responsible, trustworthy adults.

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Technical Posts of the Past

Just a quick note that if you’re looking for any of my technical posts of the past, largely focused on SQL Server, they are still online at my old blog location on SQLTeam.com

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Credit Where Credit is Due

I have a confession.  I am an avid fan of reading books about Leadership principles.  I think that many Leadership principles can be applied not just in managing employees or running a business, but in many other facets of life including raising children and making plans for your own life.  BUT, I am not a good note-taker when I read, and I tend to forget exactly where I read something.  I’ll remember the lesson or maybe a quote, but forget who said it or where I read it.

My views on life and leadership have been shaped largely by a handful of people.  Among those are two of my favorite authors:  Dr. John C. Maxwell and Patrick Lencioni.  In my opinion you can’t go wrong with reading any of their books.  Other key influencers are my father who was a great dentist and small business owner, my pastors, my wife and some personal mentors over the years.

I will always strive to give credit where credit is due when it comes to ideas, lessons, quotes, and so on, but if I fail to directly attribute a quote or other key idea, please consider it likely that it came from either Maxwell or Lencioni, and forgive me my shortcomings in note-taking and footnoting.  By no means do I intend to take credit for their work, and I will always try to add my own shading to the topic.

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Book Review: How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big

For my first book of 2017, and my test-run of using Audible to listen to books in the car while I commute to my office, I chose Scott Adams’ How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big.  This turned out to be a great idea as the book is written in a simple narrative as Scott recounts stories from his past and weaves in leadership and self-help ideas.

Having read much of Scott Adams’ blog posts over the last year on the Master Persuader filter, and of course being a fan of Dilbert, I was a little skeptical that there would be much serious content in this book.  I was presently surprised to discover that several of the points that are made in this book overlap or run in close parallel to many of the leadership principles taught by my favorite authors on the subject.  In fact, i found that the way that they are presented in this book helped clarify and cement some of them in my mind with new ideas of how to apply the principles to my own life.

New to me in this book are Scott’s emphasis on Systems over Goals and his Moist Robot Hypothesis.  While I think the Moist Robot Hypothesis can be taken too far, I do agree with the basis, which is that we can program ourselves for success or other improvements.  It’s not too far of a stretch from the Power of Association, which any parent immediately recognizes and starts asking questions about the other kids that their kids hang around.

Overall a good read (or listen, in my case) with interesting stories mixed-in with immediately usable ideas.  For sensitive readers, be aware that the BS word pops up with some degree of regularity.

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Why Ajarn?

Many moons ago, when I was in high school, a buddy and I decided to join the “karate” class at the YWCA.  I grew up being a huge fan of Chuck Norris and Bruce Lee movies, as well as a whole bunch of other martial arts films (especially ninja movies, those were cool!).  Now was an opportunity to learn some of that stuff for real!

Thus began my education in the martial arts.  I quickly came to learn that it was not “karate” per se but an art known as Lotus Self-Defense that was from Thailand and was a unique mix of Kenpo Karate, Judo, Aikido, Kung Fu, and Muay Thai (a.k.a. Thai Boxing).  In this style, the head instructor is known as Ajarn.  Ajarn is a Thai word meaning teacher or professor (see also ajahn) and is somewhat akin to Sensei in Japanese martial arts.

Well, long story made somewhat shorter…through years of dedication, hard work, and the help of my buddy and several others, I earned my black belt shortly after graduating high school, and a couple of years later, opened my own school, thus earning the title of Ajarn.  Flash forward a few years, and as I was establishing an online identity, at a time when it was very common to use aliases, I adopted the name AjarnMark, and have stuck with it ever since.

And as Paul Harvey was known for saying, “Now you know…the rest of the story.”

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