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Avoiding Decision Fatigue

The Stanford Marshmallow Test

I have a confession to make. It isn’t a tabloid-ready exposé or delicious scandal that will have water coolers everywhere buzzing for weeks. It is a simple confession about a weakness I have. I don’t know if it will make me appear weak or less human, but it is real and I deal with it every day.

I crave information. There is always an electronic device near, which connects me to the world-wide web of information. During a recent backpacking trip, my joy knew no bounds when I got a cell signal which enabled me to do an Instagram post from the top of a mountain. Better than the Instagram post was my absolute euphoria at being able to check my email. How crazy is that!

The Marshmallow Test

In the 1960s, Walter Mischel conducted a watershed developmental psychology experiment called the Stanford Marshmallow Test.

Plate of MarshmallowsResearchers placed children in a room with a marshmallow and gave them the choice to either eat the marshmallow immediately or wait 15 minutes and get a bigger treat.

The experiment determined how well children handle delayed gratification and at what age they are able to control their impulses.

Though I wasn’t able to participate in the study—I would have eaten the marshmallow—I began wondering how it applied to me, as an adult, sitting on a mountain holding my phone, checking my email instead of watching a bear walk through a meadow.

Each day we are immersed in our own marshmallow experiment. Our society has taken the idea of delayed gratification and thrown it out the window. Just about anything you want, is available immediately.

Today’s Marshmallow Test

When I was young, if I wanted to know what one of my friends was doing I had to walk to the nearest phone—maybe all the way to the kitchen, because the kitchen had the only phone in our house—and dial their number using the rotary phone.

Facebook NotificationsIf I was lucky, someone at their home would pick up the phone, otherwise the phone would ring and ring, leaving me to wonder where everyone was.

Today, I can’t go ten minutes without some “friend” sharing their latest status or cute kitten photo. Information, the drug I can’t live without, is being thrown at me 24/7 whether I “like” it or not.

I’m not complaining, because as my daughter says, “Likes and prayers save lives every day.” However, the constant buzzing on my hip has re-wired my brain.

Effects of Decision Fatigue

The problem facing the working population is that all of these distractions are creating a phenomenon known as “decision fatigue”. Decision fatigue occurs when faced with a series of difficult choices, the individual’s decision-making ability deteriorates and the quality of the decision is reduced.

Judges and Decision FatigueA 2011 study at Ben-Gurion University found that judges’ parole decisions were influenced by the time of day and their daily caseload.

In the study, judges who had light caseloads were more consistent in their parole decisions than those who had heavy caseloads.

The researchers discovered that judges with heavy caseloads made different decisions in the afternoon compared to rulings made on similar cases in the morning.

The Remedy for Decision Fatigue

Decision fatigue affects us all. It is a function of the world we live in. It can be overcome, but it takes a little planning and some food.

The Ben-Gurion study noticed that the cases heard before a regularly scheduled break, which included a small snack and a drink, had a 20 percent chance of an approved decision compared to the 65 percent chance of those cases heard after the break.

The Takeaway

To stay sharp and make the best decisions possible requires some minor behavioral changes.  First, turn off the electronic pulses.  Each ding, tone or vibration forces you to make a decision.

Turn off the notifications and focus on what is in front of you.  Second, if you have had a stressful section of the day stand up and take a quick walk and get a drink of water before tackling the next problem.  Give your mind a chance to recharge before forcing it into action again.

Our electronic world is relentless, but it can be kept at bay.  Stop the popularity contest between your phone and the person you are with or your current task by focusing on what is in front of you, not on your hip.  Now, if you will excuse me, I have to see how long I can stare at a marshmallow.

The Myth of Following Your Passion

Follow Your Passion

The age old axiom of “do what you love and you will never work a day in your life” rings in my ears daily. A majority of self-help pundits claim that the true path to happiness lies in following your passion. However, according to economist Neil Howe, only 5% of people pick the right profession on the first try.

Each year thousands of people graduate from high schools and colleges ready to chase the great American dream based on what they perceive interests them most. If Howe’s statistic is right, within a few years, many become disillusioned and “trapped”.

It is this 95% of the population who then turn to the “experts” to find advice for their next career choices. That advice is often, “Follow your passion.”

What Are You Great At

Find Your GreatnessEarlier this year, Jeffrey Katzenberg, CEO of DreamWorks Animation, told the audience attending the Milken Global Conference that people should stop following their passions and focus on their skills.

While the audience sat in stunned silence, he continued by saying, “I believe every human being does something great. Follow that thing you’re actually really good at and it may become your passion.”

Consider people who do amazing things. Whether they are athletes, artists or other professionals, none of them began by saying they were passionate about what made them great.

Each of them started with a skill they discovered and then expanded. The more they developed the skill, the more passionate they became.

Previous generations grew up in an environment where passion wasn’t discussed. They were taught to work hard, stay with the same company for their entire careers and get a gold watch when they walked out the door for the last time.

A Philosophy Problem

Something must have been wrong with that philosophy. Those are the same people who now counsel younger generations to follow their passions, because “if you follow your passion, you will never work a day in your life”.

Self Esteem TrophyThe problem is, we have adults telling kids to follow their passions, yet their environment doesn’t allow that. The education system doesn’t give kids the skills they need to be successful—it trains them to pass tests. Athletics doesn’t weed anyone out because everyone gets a trophy and frequently they don’t even keep score.

This “softening” of society is confusing. How can I be skilled at something when I’m artificially good at everything I do and uneducated with real world skills. We need resistance to become strong, we need challenges to get direction and we need skills to survive.

Passion does not equate to profit, but skill does. Think about people who make large amounts of money. They have skills that separate them from the rest. That is why athletes make so much money; they have skills few other people have. The same principle applies to successful entrepreneurs, they have skills which they’ve perfected.

Katzenberg may be on to something. Maybe, passion isn’t where we should start, but rather with what can you do? My dad is a great example of this perspective. He took a skill he learned while working for his father and turned it into a personally rewarding career.

The Takeaway

One of my favorite bloggers, Penelope Trunk, sums it up nicely. When talking about following your passion she says, “When you say you want to do something you’re passionate about, you really mean, when you think about it, that you want to do something that is right for you. Something that is fulfilling and feels like the thing you should be doing with your life.”

Therein lies the key, find a skill you have, and then build on it. As you become more skilled, you will find the path leading to happiness, which may not be where you originally thought it was.

The Secret to Creativity

Connecting the DotsPeople often ask me where I come up with the topics for my articles and my standard response is “I don’t know, do you have any suggestions?”  My question is usually met with a faraway look that says “I have no idea, why are you asking me?”  I have, however, given some thought to the creative process.

One of my sons is becoming a pretty good guitar player.  He has been in several bands and performed a few shows.  One of my favorite things to do is sit with him and his buddies while they write music.  I marvel at their creative process and how they seemingly pull endless ideas out of nowhere and turn them into something amazing for others to enjoy.

Killing Creativity

Corporations Killing CreativityAn article by Kelly Fitzsimmons in INC. magazine, shares the story of how her colleagues almost killed her creativity.

As a young mother, Mrs. Fitzsimmons would spend her Saturdays playing with her kids and alternating her readings between My Little Pony and MIT Technology Review.

By Monday she would think she would be quoting Mark Zuckerberg when in reality it was a quote from Rainbow Dash—which, she says, sounds surprisingly like Mr. Zuckerberg.

Later on she began limiting her reading to “serious” sources like Network Computing, Inc. and Harvard Business Review.  It was this switch to more narrowly focused and “serious” reading material that she credits for the near death of her creativity.

She found she was becoming an “echo chamber for other people’s ideas instead of coming up with her own.”

Kelly learned, as have I, that real creativity comes from consuming vast amounts of information—often unrelated and sometimes highly unusual—and trying to connect the dots between that and daily observations.

Creativity isn’t something that you either have or don’t have, it is something we are all born with and can develop.

Creativity of a Child

Rogue T-RexLast weekend I spent some quality time on the floor playing with my 4 year-old granddaughter.  I marveled at her creativity in coming up with new things to talk about and games to play.

I laughed as her imagination ran wild while we ran from dragons, dinosaurs and other evil villains.

While dodging imaginary darts, an idea popped into my head for a future article and I was able to flesh out a rough idea before being gobbled up by a rogue T-Rex.

A good friend of mine shared a story with about a time when she was working on a challenging presentation late into an evening.  Upon hitting a stumbling block she decided to call it a night and let her mind work on it while she slept.

In the middle of the night she woke up with what she thought was the answer to her problem, so she grabbed the notebook sitting beside her bed and quickly scribbled down the thought.

When she woke up, she reached for the notebook to retrieve her mid-night breakthrough thought only to discover that her groundbreaking solution was Llama Llama Red Pajama.  While my friends midnight ah-ha moment didn’t help her much, it did help me—it became the basis for this article!

Preparation and Observation

Creativity is a skill that can be developed and mastered over time.  Much like the athlete who performs an amazing feat in the middle of a contest, creativity is as much about opportunity as it is about preparation.

Creativity Loves PreparationPeople don’t just do amazing things haphazardly; amazing things come because of preparation.

You can prepare for creativity by consuming information from various disciplines and sources.  Find things that challenge your thinking and perspective, don’t just read things you agree with.

Consider Abraham Lincoln’s executive cabinet—very divided and opinionated—as an example of looking for alternatives outside of your own expertise.  Also, pay attention to the everyday paradoxes and details of your life.

One of the greatest sitcoms of all time was a show about nothing.  The show’s creators spent a great deal of time observing the behavior and activities of those around them.  These observations became a story line and the source of one liners which float through pop culture 15 years later—yada yada yada.

The Takeaway

In short, creativity is about connecting the dots.  The more diverse the dots, the more creative you become.  Like the old song says, “take time to smell the roses” then spend some time figuring out the connection between llamas and red pajamas.

Leadership Styles: The Dictator

Dictator Leadership Styles

Throughout history, dictators have been given a bad rap. To get something done on a large scale, quickly and efficiently, a dictatorial leadership style is the way to go. When dictators make decisions, they are straightforward, efficient and effective. Quite often they bring order to chaos and promise something for everyone.

An examination of several of history’s famous dictators reveals a list of notable traits, which, when applied to corporate America, would, in the beginning, turn any struggling business into a success and move successful businesses to the next level.

Leadership Styles of the Dictator

First, an efficient dictator brings everyone in line with the “correct” way of thinking. Thousands of leadership gurus espouse the theory that good leaders with clear visions are able to motivate their followers effectively. Rather than waste a lot of time in rah-rah meetings, dictators just state what is going to happen and how it will get done. This is about as efficient as it gets.

Leadership StylesNext, an effective dictator has the ability to foster creative thinking. While the employees directly surrounding the dictator may not utilize their creativity, those outside of the inner circle certainly will increase their efforts to please the leader.

By narrowing the capability of what can and can’t be done, those who disagree with the dictator’s policies will go to great lengths to hide actions which undermine the leader’s dictates.

Another characteristic of successful dictators is their ability to build morale. The “my way or the highway” mentality is catchy and people really thrive when they don’t have to think.

When dictators come to a meeting and tell everyone how things are going to be done without seeking input or allowing discussion, everyone leaves happy and motivated because they don’t have to worry about taking the blame if things don’t work out.

A final benefit of the dictatorial leadership style is that they just get stuff done. To overthrow a country, hire a dictator. To stamp out inefficiencies and get rid of deadwood in an organization, hire a dictator.

Through fear and intimidation, dictators motivate their charges to do things previously thought to be impossible. When results are all that matter, never mind that dictators sometimes operate in the gray areas—their track record of getting things done speaks for itself.

The Problem with Dictator Leadership

Dictator Leadership Styles

Now that I have your attention, I’ll tell you why dictatorial leadership will never really succeed. The same examination of history that uncovers dictators’ effective characteristics, also shows that dictatorships tend to implode spectacularly.

In a successful dictatorship there is only enough room for one ego and because of that, the inner circle will always be made up of “yes” people.

Employing a dictatorial style of leadership requires an incredibly high amount of narcissism and because of that, dictators can’t be bothered by conflicting advice, regardless of its quality. This is a root cause of the organization’s communication problems.

Because of the fear that runs through a dictator’s organization, many of the underlings begin to build their own “empires” with the organization to protect themselves.

These silos allow for a controlling of information which insulates the heads of the silos from personal attacks because of their perceived importance to the organization.

It is this “organizational insulation” that feeds communication problems and compounds them, crippling the organization’s ability to move quickly in response to problems.

The Takeaway

Leadership styles,  like dictatorships fail because they are more concerned with short term wins than long term success. Bad leadership is rife with egotism, paranoia and a desire to control everything within its grasp.

While some of the “good” things that occur—getting stuff done, higher morale, greater creativity—sound great from a leader’s perspective, they aren’t so good from the subordinate perspective.

In the end, dictatorships never end well for anyone; someone always ends up with a bloody nose and broken toys. If you are looking to build something that lasts and makes the world a better place, don’t look towards a dictatorship.

Instead, look at an inclusive style of leadership which seeks to shape those around you into something greater than they were before. In the words of John Quincy Adams, “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.”

3 Ways to Improve Employee Engagement

Employee Engagement

Gallup’s 2013 State of the American Workplace report says that 70% of U.S. workers are either “not engaged” or “actively disengaged” at work.  This disengagement costs businesses roughly $500 billion dollars annually in lost productivity.  For those workers, work is not something they enjoy; rather it is a means to survival.  Like a bad relationship, they feel trapped and unworthy of more; their despair grows like a cancer each day.

Consider the following narrative, which is typical for disengaged individuals.

I Hate My Job

“Every day I stare at the same four walls, wondering when they will cave in on me.  I’m a prisoner, not being held against my will, but out of necessity.  I have a basic human need for food and shelter that keeps me coming back, day after day, year after year.  I can’t walk away, although I have tried a thousand times.

Unhappy EmployeeI hate my job.  Every day when the alarm goes off, it feels like the covers on my bed weigh a thousand pounds and it is all I can do to escape their pressing grip.  I drag myself out of bed and head for the coffee maker, seeking the one thing that brings me enough comfort to keep moving forward.

My morning routine never varies.  I don’t have to think or feel the numbness inside my brain.  The commute to my prison is so ingrained that I barely notice the other drones in their cars, heading to their cells.  I pull into the parking lot, silently  grab my sack lunch and head for the building, each step an immense effort not to turn around and run.

My boss hates me.  My contributions are never appreciated; I am treated like a fly on the wall, inconsequential and unnoticed—almost an annoyance, but not enough of one to be eliminated.  I sit down, turn on my computer and begin the countdown to five o’clock, so I can go home and prepare to do it all over again tomorrow.  I feel like Bill Murray’s character in Groundhog Day, living the same day over and over.

Culture of Employee Engagement

Employers and company culture play crucial roles in employee happiness and engagement.  Employee engagement isn’t a new concept, but it becomes more relevant over time as generational differences change the workforce.

Building Company Culture

According to the website Engage for Success, “employee engagement is a workplace approach designed to ensure that employees are committed to their organizations’ goals and values, motivated to contribute to organizational success, and are able at the same time to enhance their own sense of well-being.”

A survey done by Kent University on workplace happiness indicates that 72% of the rising generation want a job where they can make an impact.  They describe the need for autonomy and the ability to manage their own time and decisions as necessary components of a satisfying work environment.

For most of the 20th century, people worked under the “my way or the highway” mentality.  You did your task, didn’t ask questions and got a paycheck.  It was all about the routine, the process.  Today’s knowledge economy requires a different approach. 

Recently, I took a team to visit a client about a new project.  Two of the members of the team questioned why there were going and wondered aloud about the value they would add. After the meeting it was fun to hear the excitement in their voices as we discussed their contributions and their roles going forward.  That was employee engagement at its finest.

According to John Hall, CEO of Influence & Co, a few simple things increase employee engagement.

Three Things to Improve Employee Engagement

  • Listen to everyone.  The best way to make someone feel important is to listen to them.
  • Encourage individuality.  There is a fine line here, but allowing people to express themselves greatly improves their work, creativity and morale.  Before allowing complete freedom, have a discussion about guidelines and expectations.
  • Show appreciation.  Praise them publicly when something great happens.  People want to feel like their contribution matters, so show them.  Taking time to say thank you for a job well done goes a long way.

The Takeaway

While it is not an employer’s or leader’s job to make each employee happy, they can create an environment that promotes happiness.  Ultimately, it is up to individuals to be responsible for their own happiness, but working in an environment where they can be happy is important.

For employees, increased happiness leads to increased productivity and increased productivity leads to the sun shining just a little bit brighter each day; making the world a better place.