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3 ways to stay strong and uphold your values

by Liz Guthridge on November 22, 2016 · 0 comments

2016-11-20-16-37-24“I’m a preacher’s kid and we were always told, ‘Act right all the time, because someone’s always watching’.” – the late political reporter and co-anchor of PBS NewsHour Gwen Ifill

Based on the thousands of glowing tributes from politicians, the public, and fellow journalists after her unanticipated death at the age of 61 on November 14, Gwen Ifill closely followed that guidance.

The timing of her death was inauspicious – less than a week after the US presidential election and 12 days after a fascinating panel discussion on “The Neuroscience of Ethics & Values” at the 2016 NeuroLeadership Summit I attended.

The four panelists, all academic researchers, talked about their ongoing studies in light of recent moral dilemmas and crises of values that we’re experiencing in American society and global business. (Think Volkswagen, Wells Fargo, and Mylan’s EpiPen.)

The panelists all agreed that to stay on an ethical path it helps to have strong moral values, principles, and goals, as did Ifill from an early age.

However, the panelists cautioned that even individuals who identify themselves as highly ethical can find their morals becoming malleable under certain situations.

Rather than depend primarily sheer willpower, employees who can rely on these three elements in place at their organization stand a better chance of staying committed to core values:

  1. The organization’s values are in sync with the individual’s personal values.
  2. The organization articulates the core values over and over again.
  3. Leaders role model the core values.

Employees also benefit from frequent exposure to good role models who live their values.

All too often, one of the professors lamented, we focus our attention on the bad guys who violated social norms and values, such as Bernie Madoff and Enron’s Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling, and forget about the good guys.

In fact, this professor committed to everyone in the room that he’s going to start to feature the best and the brightest on the values front.

Gwen Ifill was one of the best and the brightest. When I heard of her death, I immediately thought that she’d be a great example for the professors’ students as well as the rest of us. She was a hard-working, tenacious, and courageous role model who radiated grace, strength, and integrity.

In September 2015, I had the good fortune to watch Ifill up close in person when she and her film crew traveled to Charleston, SC to tape the PBS special America after Charleston: A conversation about race.

Just three months earlier, a white gunman had shot and killed nine African-American members of Charleston’s historic Mother Emanuel Church during bible study.

The taping that September Saturday morning at the Circular Congregation Church, just down the street from Mother Emanuel, brought together a diverse group of people from Charleston as well as the country.

Many of the invited guests were involved in government, health care, education and race-related projects and causes. The objective was to encourage a constructive conversation about race, primarily with these experts as well as approximately 200 general audience members. (I was one of the audience members. To learn about my experience, see this blog post How to admit to a biased brain and overcome the backlash.)

During one of the many filming breaks due to power outages in the 125-year-old church, Ifill roamed the aisles and asked audience members, “What should we be talking about that we’re not?”

That question underscored her curiosity in her fellow humans, which certainly aligned well with her career as a journalist who broke gender and race barriers while upholding strong journalism ethics.

In the spirit of Ifill, here are other good questions to keep you and others focused on living strong core values and ethics:

  • When’s a time that you could have acted unethically and didn’t? What made you stick with your values and act ethically?
  • Who has inspired you to follow strong social norms and values? What lessons did you learn from this individual (or individuals)?
  • What are your “non-negotiables” in terms of making sure you do the right things? Why are they so important to you?

By reflecting on what’s important, you’ll recommit to your core values and ethics. That secures their position as your north star – in case you don’t have someone always watching you as the incomparable Gwen Ifill did.

in-group-of-birdsYes, you — the kind, considerate, empathetic person who respects others at work.

Even if your office nickname is “Mother Teresa” (or Saint Teresa of Calcutta), you still could accidentally be hurting your colleagues.  

For example, based on what you do – or don’t do — your colleagues might react in some or all of these six ways:

  • Experience a drop in their intelligence and reasoning skills
  • Become unwilling to cooperate and show other pro-social behavior
  • Have greater challenges regulating their emotions
  • Face difficulties in making healthy choices
  • Feel defensive and start to lack a sense of purpose
  • Suffer from impaired sleep, depression, and other health problems

What on earth could you do to provoke these strong reactions?

Make them feel excluded.

Perhaps they’re not part of your in-group. Or maybe they’re not on any special teams or projects. They possibly may believe they’re not being heard or their opinions don’t count. Or they may think they don’t have any opportunities to share what’s on their mind or their ideas.

Sound extreme?

The science says otherwise.

A number of neuroscientists and psychologists through brain-imaging and studies have shown that the brain reacts intensely to social situations, especially feelings of social inclusion and exclusion.

For example, let’s take you. Say you’re in an environment in which you feel social threats, such as you perceive that people think negatively of you for any reason. It could be because you’re outspoken, you’re quiet, or you’re of a certain age. Or it’s your gender, race, sexual orientation, dress, looks, or whatever.  And you start getting disinvited to important meetings or left out of small-group gatherings.

When you feel threatened, including feeling excluded, your brain reacts to the social pain by activating similar circuits as if you were experiencing physical pain. (See the blog post What’s your tolerance for pain at work?)

Yet, unlike the effects of physical pain, there’s no bodily evidence…no blood, no breaks or bruises of skin, no bones sticking out, etc.

Instead, when you feel social pain, especially feeling excluded, you can react in some or all of the six ways mentioned above. And you’re not alone. According to the neuroscientists, the consequences of exclusion – and inclusion – are universal to people everywhere.

These findings have major implications for our workplaces, especially since we’re living in a cognitive age in a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) world.

To perform at our peak, all of us need to be in tip-top shape mentally as well as physically. This means being able to focus, think clearly, gather input, collaborate with others, make a case, decide, articulate plans, execute, evaluate, meet deadlines, etc.

So how do you avoid accidentally excluding others though your words, body language, habits, work processes, systems, and everything else?  

It’s not easy, especially since we can always misinterpret a slight. Plus, there’s evidence showing that educating people on the topic of inclusion and exclusion can actually make some individuals feel worse. As Dr. Heidi Grant Halvorson of the NeuroLeadership Institute has explained, the education draws attention to those in the out-group who can become more anxious and threatened by their status.

Nonetheless, knowing about the science is better than being ignorant, especially if individuals also learn that our brains are biased toward detecting potential threats.

Every one of us is unconsciously scanning our environment all the time looking for things that could hurt us physically and socially, and then figuring out how to act.

Compared to physical threats, social threats are much more personal and nuanced.

To try to avoid unintentionally threatening others socially, all of us should make more of an effort to provide an environment that feels inclusive and rewarding. This means acknowledging others and the value they bring, helping them feel that they belong, providing opportunities and choices, and keeping everyone informed and involved.

And if you say or do something that comes across as more exclusionary than inclusionary, call yourself on it, publicly if possible.

For example, you can join me and exclaim:  “Bless my heart!” (I always have the best of intentions of being inclusive but the road to good intentions is paved with hell. For more about this, see Bless your biased brain!)

When we feel safe as well as included and valued, we can work smarter, more creatively, make better decisions and feel better mentally and physically.

What can you do to be more inclusive to have a positive impact on people and performance?

How to help employees proudly wear the letter “A”

by Liz Guthridge on November 7, 2016 · 0 comments

letter-aImagine you have a trusted cadre of individuals who boost your persuasive powers with employees.

For example, these individuals spread out to take the pulse of their peers, relaying to you what they hear and suggesting ways to respond.

They also get the word out, tailoring your messages to fit the persons they talk to.

Because peers are often considered more trustworthy than those in the C-suite or in a corporate office, those in your cadre are extremely influential. Through their conversations and behavior, they help others think differently and take actions that advance the organization’s goals.

When you count on this cadre, you experience at least a triple win. You, your cadre, and the organization at large— all benefit. Here’s how:

  • By leveraging the skills and exertion of others, you effectively extend your reach at a relatively minimal investment of your time and money.
  • The individuals you rely on — whether they’re agents of change, ambassadors, or advocates (more about this later) — have an opportunity to learn and grow on the job as they practice their influence skills.
  • Employees who are on the receiving end of the listening, informing, and influencing are more receptive to the attention because it’s from peers in the language, mode, and manner that resonates well. And as a result of these brain-friendly techniques, employees are more willing to follow through and take action.

To turn this imaginary situation into reality, you need to decide which type of the letter “A” you want your special cadre to wear – agent of change, ambassador, or advocate – and the specific goals and objective you want to achieve.

Then you need to set your cadre up for success, and make sure you follow through to support them. Otherwise, they’ll dissipate faster than hailstones after a summer storm.

First though, what’s the difference between these three “A’s”? In a nutshell, the primary roles are:

  • Agents of change: Serve as a catalyst to stimulate people to change their behavior.
  • Ambassadors: Represent a function (or organization at large) in delivering persuasive messages.
  • Advocates:    Act as interpreter of the function (or organization) and share key information to influence and advance a cause.

For more about the distinctions between ambassadors and advocates, check out Mike Klein’s LinkedIn post “Advocacy” vs “Ambassadorship”: Hint, There’s a Difference.

Whichever “A” you carefully and conscientiously choose, you still need to provide an appropriate environment, which in my experience is easier said than done.

These five environmental elements are critical in attracting quality agents, ambassadors and advocates, setting them up for success, and sustaining them and their successors over time:

  1. Volunteer: Ask individuals to volunteer. In other words, don’t force anyone to take one of these roles if they don’t want to. It’s okay to suggest they volunteer, especially if you think they can benefit developmental opportunities in the role.  
  1. Clear role: Make sure you define the role, name it accurately and describe it to individuals in advance. They need to know what they will be expected to do and the amount of time it may take. Because individuals will be adding these tasks to their regular job and other commitments, they’ve got to determine if they’re willing to volunteer.
  1. Specified time: Set term limits, such as 12 to 18 months so individuals and their managers will know they have a fixed time for the role, which they may extend (if appropriate). This way, this extra job won’t become a burden. And in this case, planned turnover can keep the role fresh and result in better outcomes.
  1. Support with tools: Provide tools, templates, and other guides appropriate for the letter “A” the individuals are wearing. This reduces the learning curve while also ensuring consistency if execution by all the individuals. Also, make sure you offer up tips and techniques that are applicable for personal development to make their experience worthwhile.
  1. Recognition: Regularly acknowledge your volunteers for their effort and results, including thanking them. Praise is a huge reward for most people, giving them a hit of dopamine, the “feel good” neurotransmitter. Dopamine sends signals to other nerve cells, which encourages a repeat of the behavior. For more about this, check out Plant seeds of praise to improve performance and Master the 3 R’s: recognize, reinforce and reward.

You want your volunteers to wear their letter “A” proudly as they perform a valuable role for their peers, the organization and you.

How do you shape your organization’s environment for success?

5 actions to make the most of face-to-face conferences

by Liz Guthridge on October 31, 2016 · 0 comments

meeting-conferenceStop shoveling out more stuff. Instead, set aside time to dig into stuff and discuss.

That’s the most optimal type of in-person meeting for peers who want to get together and experience new ah-ha moments.  

Even though that advice from the New York University Neurobiologist Lila Davachi is almost two years old now, it’s not taken to heart – at least in the circles in which I travel.

The recent conferences I’ve attended as a speaker, panellist, and participant all have concentrated on cramming content into heads while keeping butts in seats.

(In the interest of full disclosure, Dr. Davachi’s advised in her “Rethinking Learning” session at the 2014 NeuroLeadership Summit that “instructional design needs to shift from content delivery to creating the space for insight.”)

What can you do to make the most of face-to-face conferences and other meetings to help adults connect with each other and the content and act on it?

Be social. Your overarching goal should be to make it easy for individuals to meet and greet, and then interact with each other.

Research shows that adults learn best and recall more when they have a positive emotional experience, which generally revolves around social elements. (For more about this, check out The Science of Making Learning Stick: An Update to the AGES Model.)

Here are five low-cost, relatively simple things you can do to encourage personal connections.

  1. Provide meeting participants with a list meeting of attendees with headshots in advance. This simple tool lets individuals easily identify who will be there. They can then figure out who they already know who they want to say “hello” to and who they want to meet. Granted, the list won’t be 100% accurate due to last minute cancellations and additions, but it’s helpful.  
  1. Set aside time at the start of the meeting and each session for introductions. Depending on the size of the group, this can either be introductions of the entire group or by table. The introductions are useful in two ways: 1) They break the ice and 2) They send the signal that the conference organizers are encouraging connections.
  1. Ask participants to move to different seats, especially for events held in the same room for multiple days. When individuals change their perspective, they can change their perceptions. That will help them stay fresh, pay attention and synthesize what they learn. Plus, they can meet more people.
  1. Include interactive sessions for individuals to work together on a challenge or discuss an issue. While so many conferences tout their interactivity, the interaction is often between the speaker and the participants – asking and answering questions – not among participants. Exercises that participants can do together stimulate meaningful conversations that can lead to those wonderful ah-ha moments.
  1. Build time in the agenda to reflect at the end of each session. When the session leaders or event facilitators offer up a thought-provoking question about the just-presented content or ask participants about how they plan to apply their learnings, the participants get a chance to take a few moments to think about what they’ve heard, integrate it with their other knowledge and experience, and consider what to do next. This action starts to move the content from the theoretical to the practical. And if participants pair off to talk about this, the action becomes more social, emotional, and memorable for them.  

Also consider providing regular 20 to 30-minute food and drink breaks so participants can recharge and talk with fellow participants.

To continue the food theme, for events last a day or more, offer at least one communal meal. When participants eat together, they can build stronger connections with each other.

Or, better than nothing, at least arrange dine-arounds for individuals. By doing so, you’re making it easier for people to find a restaurant and dining companions, which for many is more pleasant than eating alone.

By appealing to humans’ social needs, you make the get-togethers more enjoyable and more memorable.

For example, the neuroscience research cited in the AGES model says that we tend to remember who we learned with first. Then, once we recall our co-conspirators, we start to retrieve the content from our common experience.

Yes, we humans are social. Face-to-face conferences and meetings should be social too. (For more on this, see To improve recall, use social learning.)

After all, bringing people together is expensive in terms of travel, meeting space and time.

So how about making the most of it? Eat, drink, be merry, and always be learning and remembering!

By the way, I’ll be doing that this coming week at the 2016 NeuroLeadership Summit. This year’s theme is Rethink the Organization. The NeuroLeadership Institute has a great track record of practicing what it preaches about brain-friendly face-to-face conferences.

What about you? How are you making the most of your face-to-face meetings?

How to make your meetings please introverts

by Liz Guthridge on October 19, 2016 · 0 comments

Picnic table“If you’re not intentionally including individuals, you’re accidentally excluding them.”  — The NeuroLeadership Institute.

That’s a great wake up call for those of us who convene meetings, form teams, and select participants for all types of activities.

Let’s take the topic of meetings, and specifically introverts.

Ever since learning about Susan Cain’s 2012 book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, I realized that routine meeting designs weren’t nearly as inclusive as they should be to accommodate introverts.

Most meetings cater to extroverts. A vocal few can dominate the meeting conversation. Also, those who speak the loudest and the most often push their ideas forward, and can get others to agree to adopt them.

By contrast, introverts tend to listen more than they talk, think before they speak, and prefer avoiding discussions that feel like contentious debates.

At in-person meetings, introverts often can fade into the woodwork. As for virtual meetings, they may go radio silent, although not necessarily by choice. It’s just too hard to fight for air time.

Now that I have finally read Cain’s best-seller book, I’m convinced that many meetings, including my own, need revamping to ensure that introverts feel included and comfortable so they can contribute and add value.

How can you make meetings better for introverts as well as others? Follow these four steps that I’ve adopted.

First, take a broader perspective of meetings, viewing them as an experience that begins before the meeting starts and continues after the formal meeting ends, as explained in the blog post, How to create energy, emotion, and edge in your meetings.

Second, pay careful attention to how you prepare for meetings. In particular, consider the role of the participants who will be attending, the meeting agenda, and the meeting format. More about this in a moment.  

Third, for the actual meeting, stick with your plans, unless things go off track—which is certainly a possibility you need to deal with in the moment (and a bigger topic than making meetings inclusive for introverts so we won’t cover it here). In my experience, all too often once a meeting begins, everyone, including the meeting leader, skips what they were planning to do, and decides to wing it instead. No surprise then that the meeting becomes a free-for-all, which extroverts can control.

Fourth, after the meeting, evaluate the outcomes. Consider not only the results you achieved, but also whether all voices spoke and were heard. You may want to check in with some or all participants, including the known introverts, to ask for their reactions.

Back to the meeting prep, here’s more about the three actions that contribute to consistently effective meetings for everyone:  

1.Consider whether the participants are creators versus collaborators. Individuals who spend most of their work day creating on their own may have different expectations for meetings. (Creators may be introverts, but not necessarily.)

Meetings give creators a break from solitude, which they may appreciate or resent, especially if they’re on deadline. Regardless, meetings may feel like a waste of time compared to their real work.

To help the creators, eliminate or minimize actions people can do on their own, such as reviewing reports. Instead, take advantage of people coming together. Ask provocative questions to get to the heart of issues worth discussing. Share a problem that needs solving. Do contingency planning. Do something to make it worthwhile for creators as well as others to invest time in the meeting and get good outcomes.

2.Prepare a meeting agenda and send it out in advance. Every meeting should have an agenda to ensure a valid meeting purpose, solid content, and realistic goals and timing.

When you share the agenda in advance, you show you’ve invested time into making the meeting effective. You’re also helping participants prepare to do their part to contribute to the meeting’s success.

Introverts may like to use this preparation time to consider when they want to speak and what they want to say. Some introverts feel as if they express themselves better in writing than in conversation. While they may not write out what they plan to say, they can at least consider the points they want to make.

Introverts also can plan how they want to manage their energy in the meeting. Compared to extroverts, introverts can find meetings over-stimulating. Meeting time can be more tiring and trying than working on their own or with one or two others.  

3. Design the meeting format for both individual and group involvement. Include time on the agenda for individual reflection and contributions as well as structured group discussions.

For example, one effective exercise is to hand out sticky notes and ask participants to write down their ideas, one per note, when starting discussion on a new topic. Then collect and post the notes on a wall, grouping them for all to see. Or, ask a couple of participants to read the notes. This exercise ensures that everyone gets a chance to express themselves.

Also, as the facilitator, be aware of who’s not speaking. Look for opportunities to ask those individuals if they want to say anything, now or later.

Also consider meeting ground rules. For instance, “one conversation only with no side conversations” can help everyone focus, especially introverts.

Life is too short for anyone to suffer through bad meetings. With time and thought, you can include a number of brain-friendly techniques that help everyone think better and enjoy the meeting experience, especially introverts.

Meanwhile, please take a moment to answer these short questions about your current meetings. The direct link to the brief assessment is: Your answers will help my colleague Scott Wigley and me as we fine-tune our new meeting experience framework.

What are you doing to make your meetings more inclusive and effective? I’d love to hear from you in the comments box!