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BrainCo-workers criticized me for talking about this topic, and then declined to work with me.

Individuals – white and black – told me I was encouraging people to cop out.

PBS chose not to air my comments for “America After Charleston.” (The show was a  conversation about race relations related to the 2015 shootings of the nine church members at the Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, South Carolina where I live.)

Even with this degree of backlash, I still feel compelled to speak out about my biased brain and how I’m dealing with it.

Why? I believe in science. I also believe that understanding and working with the science of bias is our door to dealing with race relations openly in the United States.

In a nutshell, the science shows that bias is built into our brain. It’s part of our biology.

No one knows for sure why the bias exists, although there are theories. But suffice it to say, if you have a brain, you’re biased, as one of my neuroscience professors often says.

In fact, the bias is so ingrained into our unconscious that we’re not aware of the extent to which it influences our thinking and our actions.

This helps explains why many people ─especially whites ─ disagree with my point of view, especially during a time when race relations are so strained now in the United States. Individuals are quick to downplay or even deny biases. They often say they’re not prejudiced or that the prejudice is a figment of someone else’s imagination.

Our brain tells a different story. Basically, our brain has not evolved fast enough to keep up with our current environment, especially a diverse modern-day society in which we encounter people who don’t look like us.

In a June 2012 Harvard Business Review blog post Why Race Still Matters in the Workplace just a few months after the shooting death of the black Florida teenager Trayvon Martin, Dr. David Rock and Dr. Dan Radecki explained how our brain is wired to detect and react to threats, either real or perceived.

The brain’s error detection centers are extremely sensitive, which was incredibly helpful back in the day when we were evolving as a species and lived in the wild. If we had a close encounter with a lion, tiger or bear, humans could respond quickly and either fight or flee to avoid becoming the animal’s snack.

That evolutionary bias still exists today. Our brain can easily generate an intense fear of uncertainty that makes us react in a fight or flight response.

From a neurological perspective, when the brain detects a threat, the orbital frontal cortex (OFC) gets involved in analyzing information it receives. The OFC then communicates its results by creating emotions that are supposed to help us make decisions about what to do. All of this happens in our unconsciousness.

Since 2012, the science has advanced, but the way our brain reacts to threats hasn’t. In fact, some people’s trigger point for fear may be even more heightened these days, especially if they are anxious. If you believe you could lose your job, your status in society or your friends or loved ones, you can feel like you are under attack from all walks of life.

These threats come in all sizes and ages. For example, white adults now show fear when seeing pictures of five-year-old African American boys,  Alexis McGill Johnson, Executive Director of the Perception Institute, recently explained in a CNN interview.

This is “similarity” bias in action. People are more comfortable being around people like them. Their brain is telling them unconsciously that “I like people like me. I don’t trust people who are different.”

Similarity bias is one of the five main categories of bias. Last year the NeuroLeadership Institute grouped the more than 150 types of bias that neuroscientists and others have identified into these five “SEEDS of Bias:”

  1. Similarity: “People like me are better than others.”
  2. Expedience: “If it feels right it must be true.”
  3. Experience: “My perceptions are accurate.”
  4. Distance: “Closer is better than distant.”
  5. Safety: “Bad is stronger than good.”

For more about this, check out my blog post Bless your biased brain! Also the Strategy + Business article Beyond Bias by Dr. Heidi Halvorson and Dr. David Rock is a great primer about the science of bias and its implications, especially at work. Both pieces also explain actions that help mitigate against bias.

Neuroscientists and other experts believe that mitigating ─ that is taking actions to reduce the severity ─ against bias is the best course of action. Right now it doesn’t seem feasible to  change the biology of our brain and eliminate the biases.

As a result, we need to acknowledge and accept responsibility for our biology and then figure out the best ways to work around it.

One first step is to search out opportunities to get out of your “similarity silo” and spend time with people who are different from you.

Then ask thoughtful questions about them and their experiences, listen carefully, and search for common ground. Note that it is easy to form new “in-groups” around common topics, such as sport teams, hobbies, food and other items of interest. The brain’s neuroplasticity can help us here.

My hope is for more people to understand and accept that bias is part of our brain’s biology. Once we’ve opened that door, we can better work toward building bridges and decreasing the adverse actions and impact we’re making on others.

The human brain is not perfect. However, that shouldn’t prevent us from acting with good intentions, compassion, and empathy toward our fellow humans at work and in our communities.

Will you join me?

How to take full advantage of your cognitive edge

by Liz Guthridge on July 10, 2016 · 0 comments

use your brain signAre you a powerful player in today’s cognitive age or an authentic cog in the knowledge economy?

What’s the difference and why should you care?

It’s all about you as a human and how you interact with machines and information. The stakes involve your self-preservation. That means your physical and mental well-being, your relations with others, and your achievements.

Let’s first consider the knowledge economy, which has experienced a shift since the eminent professor and management Guru Peter Drucker introduced the concept in the 1960s.

Economic growth depends more on the quantity, quality and accessibility of information, rather than other forms of production.

Initially, humans were the source of knowledge. Now machines provide more than their fair share of intellectual capital.

With Google, IBM’s Watson, other robots, apps and other technology rapidly improving, machines are the backbone of the knowledge economy. Machines often can access, analyze and report out information faster, more dependably and consistently than humans.

Humans still enjoy a cognitive edge over computers and other machines. For example, we have the ability to think abstractly and creatively, set goals, and interact with other human beings in innovative ways.

That edge can help us navigate our increasingly dynamic VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) world. We can no longer “rinse and repeat” actions and expect the same or even good results.

Instead, in this more demanding cognitive age, we have to absorb, process and synthesize information in different ways and turn it into new actionable ideas.

As The New York Times columnist and author David Brooks has observed, while technology can send you information across the globe in matters of seconds, the most significant segment of the journey is the last few inches ─ the space between your eyes and ears and the various regions of your brain.

Yet, these last two to four inches of your journey also can be the most unreliable.

While we humans should be able to use our brainpower to our advantage, we often fall short of our capabilities. Even if we have the capacity to understand the information we’ve accessed, we may not have the will or skill to apply it, or get past the barriers in our way  ─ real and perceived ─ to get over the hill and take action.

To take full advantage of your cognitive edge, you need to do the following:

  1. Act like a human, not a machine. You cannot operate 24/7 as our devices and other machines can and do. You need to take time throughout the day to eat, move, and rest. You also need to sleep at least seven hours each night. The brain works hardest while you sleep, sorting through and storing memories and doing other clean up. For more info, see What your brain needs for optimal performance.
  1. Embrace the five key qualities in which we humans excel: creativity, humor, empathetic, socially sensitive, and storytelling. In his thought-provoking 2015 book, Humans Are Underrated: What High Achievers Know That Brilliant Machines Never Will, Geoff Colvin identified these five key qualities in which humans excel. For more about CHESS, the acronym for these five characteristics, see Are you ready to excel at CHESS?
  1. Recognize your shortcomings, which all humans have, and adopt workarounds. For better and generally worse, our biology has hard-wired our brain with built-in biases that exist in our nonconsciousness. Neuroscientists have discovered more than 150 types of biases that can cloud our thinking, decision-making and interactions with others. Because we’re not conscious of them, we keep tripping over them. (By the way, these biases contribute to all of the polarizing points of view in American politics these days.) Instead, we need to accept responsibility for our brain’s deficiency in this area and adopt specific processes that prevent us from acting on our biases. For more about this, see Bless Your Biased Brain.

The gap between knowing you should do these things and doing them regularly can be huge. I experience it in myself and my clients all the time.

The best ways to close the gap, or at least narrow it, include:

  • Find an “accountability pal” to share your commitments for action and then check in with each other regularly. The time period can be weekly, biweekly, monthly or whatever Using the principle that “two heads are better than one,” you can help each other stay on your respective course.
  • Create new habits to help you do what you want to do. For example to get enough sleep each night, many find that setting a regular bedtime and sticking with it consistently is the key to success. For more on habits, especially about the skill of building habits, see Be kind to your brain; resolve to build habits.
  • Work with a coach to jumpstart you on the right path for you, and then practice. For example, as a coach I work with individuals to set goals and strategies to achieve those goals, and then help guide them to take regular steps to fulfill their goals. Along the way, my coachees experiment with the best ways to sustain their new behavior and their achievements.

These actions play to our strengths as humans. We’re social creatures and the more empathetic, social sensitive and supportive we can be with each other, the better we can perform and achieve individually and collectively.

Our social strengths are a hallmark of this cognitive age — provided we continue practicing them with help from each other. I’m willing to help. Are you?

Can you develop grit in yourself and others?

by Liz Guthridge on July 5, 2016 · 0 comments

Mohammed Ali gameThe late, great Mohammed Ali had grit.

Grit is the combination of passion and perseverance that defines high achievers, according to University of Pennsylvania Professor and author Angela Duckworth.

Highly successful gritty individuals ─ in all fields, including business ─ rely on both their determination and direction, Duckworth says.

For example, the former world boxing champion and activist (peace, human rights and Parkinson’s syndrome) had the reputation of being the hardest working and most principled man in sports. (He also was considered one of the most boastful. But as Ali once said, “It’s not bragging if you can back it up.”)

Are you born with grit, or can you teach it to yourself? And can you teach others to develop it?

In her new best-selling book, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, Duckworth writes about how you can acquire grit.

You can teach yourself to grow grit from the inside out, and you can help others grow grit from the outside in.

Before you take these steps though, it’s helpful to know the background about grit and why it matters so much for success.

Many of us get distracted by talent. We think those born with great skills, such as being quick on our feet or with our tongue as Ali, have a head start advantage to attain success. Talent can help but it’s not a magic bullet.

Effort, especially practiced and applied in a disciplined manner, can be even more important than skills. This is true for grit as it is for leadership.

Also important are your beliefs. If you think you can exert some control over your situation, you’re on your way to growing grit.  Having hope and being more optimistic than pessimistic are indicators that you believe your situation can and will get better. In other words, you avoid what psychologists called “learned helpless.”  

Duckworth learned these lessons after leaving a management consultant job to teach seventh graders math and science in the New York public school system. She observed that the students who worked harder than others, kept studying, and bounced back from adversity, got the better grades. These grades in turn opened up doors and options for them for new experiences that led to more successes.

Her teaching experience left her with a burning question: “Why do some people work so much harder and longer than others?”

No slouch herself, Duckworth went back to school. She earned a PhD in psychology at the University of Pennsylvania where she now teaches. (She’s also a 2013 MacArthur fellow and founder and scientific director of the Character Lab.)

In her most recent studies and her research, Duckworth has confirmed that having a growth mindset ─ that is believing that you and others can change for the better ─ helps grow and promote grit, especially perseverance.

Duckworth has built on Stanford Professor Carol Dweck’s ground-breaking work on mindset (fixed and growth) that shows that a growth mindset has a positive impact in multiple aspects of your life, as in school, well-being and relationships.

In the work environment, individuals and organizations with growth mindsets adapt better to change, take more risks, are inspired to be more creative and trust each other more. (For more about this, see the blog post Why you don’t want to be #1.)

When you’re more concerned about learning, including learning from your mistakes, rather than protecting what you’ve already achieved, you challenge yourself to keep trying. You also are more likely to bounce back from any roadblocks you bump into.

As for the other element of grit, Duckworth has found that that passion is more about endurance than enthusiasm or intensity. In other words, gritty individuals steadily hold onto their goals over time. Think Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Oprah Winfrey.

And if you’re concerned that you aren’t passionate enough, don’t worry. In this insightful New York Times article, No Passion? Don’t Panic, Duckworth suggests moving toward what interests you, thinking about how you can best serve others, and continuing to learn skills you can apply.

In her book, Duckworth writes more about growing grit in students than employees, which makes sense considering she’s now a professor and parent of two teenagers.

However, if you’re an organizational leader, you certainly can grow grit in others as well as yourself. The steps you need to take are similar to encouraging a growth mindset, as included in the blog post Why you don’t want to be #1.

And even better, you’ll get gritty if you surround yourself with gritty people who enjoy being gritty. They’ll encourage and support each other as well as you, which will help build a gritty culture that will attract even more grit.

Grit isn’t everything, which Duckworth acknowledges, but it certainly makes life inside and outside of organizations rewarding.

Are you ready to see how you rate on Duckworth’s Grit Scale?

Why and how to declutter your mind

by Liz Guthridge on June 27, 2016 · 0 comments

Marcel for June CreationsThe dog’s unofficial code of conduct is: “If you can’t eat it, play with it or pee on it, leave it alone.”

Meet Marcel. Even though he’s just 7 months old, we’ve noticed he’s intuitively adhered to this code ever since he came to live with us.

(Granted, as a puppy, he defines “toys” very broadly. Until recently his “toys” included all human shoes left unattended on the floor. He also loves most dog toys, especially those that aren’t his. When we’re walking by a neighbor’s home, Marcel always wants to stop and check out any toys left on the lawn, as pictured here.)

The dog’s code of conduct runs against our human nature to worry and stew; however, we can still learn valuable lessons from how dogs behave.

For example, while at first blush, Marcel seems to be exhibiting what we humans would refer to as admirable self-control, he’s actually more concerned about self-preservation.

To him, there’s no need to expend energy on things he can’t control or don’t matter to him. Unless it’s edible, enjoyable or otherwise necessary for his well-being, he’s ignoring it.

He and other dogs don’t agonize over others who might have insulted them, don’t bother with negative self-talk, and don’t rewind and replay incidents in their mind–as humans often do.

This difference between canines and homo sapiens is due to the brain’s pre-frontal cortex. Also called the brain’s executive function, it governs our impulses as well as takes responsibility for abstract thinking, goal setting, decision making, social behavior and other tasks humans do well.

The pre-frontal cortex makes up just 7% of a dog’s brain, compared to 30% of the human brain, according to Emotions in our Pets.)

The human’s much larger pre-frontal cortex allows you to think creative thoughts and do innovative things, which is not the specialty of dogs and cats except for their performance on viral videos.

However, your pre-frontal cortex also has plenty of room for clutter, especially if you let yourself ruminate over hurtful or other unpleasant thoughts or when you overtax it by not taking rest breaks, eating or exercising.

This clutter can consume so much of your “cognitive load” that you can have trouble thinking clearly, much less creatively. You get tired, which makes it harder to control your emotions and other impulses. You even can reduce your ability to experience pleasure.

For more about the challenges of a cluttered mind, see the recent New York Times article Think Less, Think Better by the neuroscientist Moshe Bar. The article includes a link to his latest research on this topic.

To declutter your pre-frontal cortex and re-charge yourself, you can practice mindfulness.  When you’re mindful, you’re in the moment. You’re conscious of your thinking. For more about this, see What your brain needs for optimal performance.

You also can embrace the dog’s unofficial code of conduct as appropriate.

For example, one of my clients who’s just adopted a puppy is discovering how much he can learn and benefit from canine behavior.

As background, with my help, this leader has been working to talk less in meetings in order to open up more air time for diverse voices to speak and be heard. Before, he would just blurt out what he thought in the moment and as a result, he often irritated his peers and his team members. Now, his colleagues are pleased that he’s listening more to them and when he speaks, he’s offering cogent comments.

But learning to practice more self-control takes a toll. By the end of a meeting, he’s often exhausted. Controlling his impulse to talk as well as making the effort to carefully edit what he says consumes a lot of energy for his pre-frontal cortex.

Yet, when he asks himself “What would my puppy do?” he’s able to better regulate his energy. He’s leaving others’ comments alone when they’re random things out of his control that don’t advance the priorities of his team or function.

Will this dog’s code of conduct help you declutter your mind?

Stop suffering from bad meetings

by Liz Guthridge on June 21, 2016 · 0 comments

meeting-mastery-book-c7e22af94e1c56d936b23573c8fc8b09Life is too short to suffer through bad meetings.

More times than I like to count, individuals contact me about meeting difficulties that they’ve been grappling with, sometimes for years.

Almost always their meeting problems stem from bad meeting habits, based on these three root causes:

  • No standard processes or poor processes that are mostly ignored.
  • Dysfunctional behaviors of meeting participants that have festered over time.
  • Assumptions that new team members will figure out on their own how the meetings run. (This is even more problematic when meeting processes and team relationships are broken.)

Bad meetings don’t solve themselves on their own. They’ll continue to suck up valuable time, energy and resources, unless you intervene and take action.

In situations like this, it’s best to start building new good meeting habits, rather than try to break the old, based on what social scientists and neuroscientists have learned about habits. In a nutshell, because of the brain’s plasticity, it’s easier for the brain to create new wiring rather than rewire the old.

So if you’re dealing with painful bad meetings, where do you start?

One helpful resource is the new book Meeting Mastery: The Coach.me Leader’s Guide to Meetings with Impact and the companion online program, Meeting Mastery Certification.

Some background first. If you’re not familiar with Coach.me, its mission is to make coaching “the dominant form of self-improvement in every field from business to education to fitness.” Coaches provide targeted, structured support by phone, text and email.

Founder/CEO Tony Stubblebine is a former programmer and engineering manager who built Coach.me out of Lift, an online habit tracker app. (I used Lift successfully for several years. See Making SCARF a daily habit. And in the interest of full disclosure, I’m affiliated with Coach.me.)

The Meeting Mastery book and online course benefit from the technology roots of Coach.me and Lift. Technology is all about systems thinking and design, including processes.

This orientation works well for improving your meetings, especially for building good, consistent and repeatable meeting habits.

The technology roots help in another way too. Many in the technology industry pay attention to what others do, and incorporate those learnings in their products, services and businesses. That’s happened here as Meeting Mastery is built off of meeting practices that many cutting-edge companies like IDEO, Apple and Amazon use.

After a short introduction, the Meeting Mastery book starts with a short useful checklist for running meetings. These tips are for working meetings—getting people together to collaborate on creating, planning, implementing and anything but presenting static information to one another.

The checklist and the easy-to-use tools that follow help you with all three critical meeting stages: preparing, conducting and debriefing.

In my experience, many leaders and participants focus primarily on the meeting itself. They short change both the prep time and the follow-up.

Yet, if you carefully prepare, including developing an agenda, and then vigilantly track action items holding people accountable for their commitments, you exponentially improve the quality of your meetings and your work.

Take the meeting preparation. Meeting Mastery features the GAP methodology, which comes from Tim Roberts, an executive at Fitbit. GAP stands for goal, agenda, and preparation.

GAP is simple and powerful. Meeting leaders set the meeting goal and create the agenda, which they share in advance with the meeting participants. The leaders also let the meeting participants know ahead of time what they need to do before the meeting. Everyone shares some responsibilities.

And by the time you meet, you’re well on your way to getting the right things done.

If you’re willing to try — and continuing practicing — this book’s many other useful tools, it’s easy to build good meeting habits.

These other tools encourage action, accountability and recognition for jobs well done, in and out of meetings.

By the way, recognition is a great addition to meetings because praise helps rewire the brain to repeat the action. (For more about this, see Making celebrations a habit.)

Considering the number of hours most of us spend in meetings and the amount of time we complain about bad meetings, it’s time to do something about it.

Are you ready to start building new good meeting habits?