Angry elephant

This is what a frustrated elephant looks like.

Oh, he’s going to get angry, but if you watch the first 15 seconds, he looks frustrated and confused. Not being an elephant, I can’t say for sure.

Clearly the van represents something related to his reaction. He seems to watch the people around him and then reacts to the one with the most power, by charging the man with the stick. The rock throwing seems to irritate the elephant rather than move him away from anyone or calm him down. These people truly are ineffective. Fortunately for them, the elephant goes after the van. Interesting choice for the elephant given the van is just sitting there and all the humans are doing the pelting, stick swinging, and rope pulling. Maybe the elephant knows something about directed frustration.

The people involved, scared and wary, are clueless as to what should be done. They are action types, though – when in doubt, throw something, anything, regardless of its effect. What’s needed here is an “Elephant Whisperer” – someone who understands elephant psychology, the environment, and actions that will effectively mitigate the situation.

How many times have you been frustrated, confused, and not quite sure where to focus your emotions? Add to this an interaction with someone else and things usually get worse, because the other person does not know how to effectively alter the situation? Unwittingly, the tension escalates. Do you usually find a van or release your frustrations on those around you?

There are ways to resolve conflict in the work place without upping the ante. Effective resolutions require acknowledging emotions – not ignoring them – understanding the environment, analyzing your options, and judiciously using time. Sometimes the best action is to wait, watch, and think rather than react.

Acid eMails – Elephant on the loose

Have you ever gotten one of these late in the afternoon from someone in power at work?

I need the following pieces of data and reports by tomorrow AM. This is very important. You do not need to know why I need this. There are some things going on that I can’t discuss. I also think it would have been helpful if you had provided this information previously and will need it from now on. I’m getting tired of having to track this kind of information down.  Let me know if there are any questions.

And you think – Excuse me?.. What an idiot… He’s never asked for this kind of information before… And what does he mean by I don’t need to know why?.. Ooh, cloak and dagger stuff at the top – I’m impressed… I didn’t have anything else to do this afternoon at 5:15 PM. I’ll just put everything aside so that I can make him happy – as long as I don’t ask any questions! Unbelievable!!

Ready to roll up your sleeves and get to work?

Hardly. If you are like many people, you are more likely to respond by matching emotion to perceived emotion, or put another way, giving into a limbic moment. The limbic area of the brain is involved in emotions and feelings as well as part of the logic system. With the guiding help of your limbic brain, you can use your reasoning power to construct an equally volatile reply, articulating the way you are presently feeling. It would feel really good – for a while – but how well do you think it will work in the long run?

Perhaps if you knew some background about the sender, it would be easier to temper your response. For example: Continue reading →

Expectations of the middle aged workforce

Who would you rather have flying US Airways 1549 on January 15, 2009, a 58 year old Sully Sullenberger, or a 28 year old Sully Sullenberger?  The odds are that your best chance for survival, had you been on that flight, is the mature Captain Sullenberger.

In her latest book, The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain: The Surprising Talents of the Middle-Aged Mind, Barbara Strauch provides the foundation for my hunch. As she points out, we are all aware of forgetting names, losing our train of thought, desperately searching for the right word, and the frustration of not remembering the things one normally remembers, after we turn 40. Senior moments?  We quietly ask ourselves, “Are these the first signs of Dementia?” Scary.

There’s good news for the overwhelming majority of us over 40: It’s not a disease state; it’s a life process.  As Ms. Strauch reports, some capacity is diminished as we age, but other capacities are vastly improved. In our middle-aged years, we process information better, our cognitive functions related to inductive reasoning improve over the younger brain, we have a better understanding of both sides of an argument, we make better financial decisions, our social expertise improves, and, with exercise, we can even grow new brain cells.

Many organizations overlook the development potential of their middle-aged workers, focusing instead on new and younger employees.  This is short-sighted and ignores a valuable resource: Middle-aged workers comprise roughly half the workforce. It makes no more sense to limit training and development to those 20-39 than it does to limit it to those 40-65. However, training opportunities should be tailored to the needs of each group. Particularly in this age of expanding knowledge-workers, maximizing middle-age employees’abilities to synthesize information, exposing  them to new ideas, enhancing their problem-solving approaches, assessing their performance regularly and providing new challenges, and even encouraging them to exercise regularly will benefit the organization’s performance. People in the middle-aged group work differently than their younger peers – organizations should take full advantage of that.

Sully Sullenberger may have said it best to Katie Couric, “One way of looking at this might be that for 42 years, I’ve been making small, regular deposits in this bank of experience: education and training.  And on January 15 the balance was sufficient so that I could make a very large withdrawal.”  I know who I would want at the stick of that plane, and not because I know the outcome.

Expectations and the young work force

A friend told me about a recent volleyball tournament that he attended with his daughter.

During the multiple-day tournament, his very excited 15-year-old daughter ran up to him and exclaimed, “Daddy, we won a bronze medal, and we’re going to get our picture taken in the medal ceremony.”

Somewhat bewildered, the Dad gave his daughter a hug of congratulations and then asked, “You guys finished third overall for your age class?”

“Yes, we were third in the bronze division for our age group, isn’t that great? Oh, they are starting the ceremony, come on, let’s get over there.”

As she ran ahead, Dad was doing the math.  Out of twelve teams in her division, her team finished ninth—3rd place in the 3rd tier. They were going to get a medal, and they were very excited about “winning.” Continue reading →

About the name Steering the Elephant

You’ve heard expressions like this, “The logical thing to do is…This doesn’t make sense…Why don’t they do it this way…It’s really very simple …Make a list and follow it… Just put the fork down…I don’t understand, I can do it, why can’t you…, You need more self control…”

You have also heard expressions like this, “Something came over me and I just did this…I was so flustered that I forgot to…I promised I wouldn’t, but the smell of those biscuits… I know this is what I should do, but not right now, maybe later …”

I was listening to Jonah Lehrer on Terry Gross’ radio show, “Fresh Air”, and he was discussing his book, How We Decide.  Broadly, he was talking about the interplay between our logical and emotional sides. Historically, we think that logic controls our emotions.  As an example, Mr. Lehrer discussed Plato’s view that logic is a rational charioteer controlling the steeds of emotions.   Mr. Lehrer commented that most scientist these days would broaden Plato’s view on logic, that it is more like a “rider trying to control the elephant” of emotions.  That image really appealed to me. If anyone has ever seen a human astride an elephant, it is quite obvious that the elephant is, at best, accommodating the rider.  There is no illusion in my mind as to what happens if the human crosses the line of irritation for the elephant.

Great thinkers try to elevate logic to a point where it is separated from emotions.  The aspiration is that clean, unencumbered logic will make great decisions.  Mr. Lehrer makes the point that it is just the opposite, we need the interplay of logic and emotions to make reliable judgments.  Our ability as a species to use logic in problem solving is relatively new compared to the longer-term development of our emotions. From a system’s perspective they are integrated, not separate.

From my experience in working with individuals and organizations, observing the incongruity between what people say and what they do, Steering the Elephant is a great image that explains a lot.

Why do I want to do this

Steering the ElephantWhen I started my career in organizational development, I thought that if you gave people the best tools, training, and resources, they would move mountains. I thought by helping people problem solve and logically work through their issues, they would be better employees. Organizations would leap at the opportunity to become better organizations by investing small amounts of resources to leverage the organization’s ability to be as effective as possible. If you built it, they would come…and prosper. As a general concept, I still believe this. As a practical matter, I’ve learned along the way, it’s really hard for organizations (or individuals) to consistently and effectively develop their talent pool (personal resources). I have always been curious as to why this is.

This blog will dig deeper into that curiosity. The outcome will be the creation of a place where others, who believe that organizations (and individuals) are at their strongest when they effectively develop their resources; can compare notes, tell some stories, ask some questions, learn something new, and remind themselves of things from the past that work.