Organizational Self-Awareness and Learning

Self-awareness is a critical life and leadership skill that means different things to different people. I used to think that it had to do with just being aware of my thoughts and my tendency to think a certain way.  I believed, therefore, that I had high self-awareness.  However, self-awareness also includes having some knowledge of your subconscious choices, viewpoints, biases, and strengths.  For example, why do I gravitate to certain choices or beliefs?  Are those really the right behaviors and perspectives?   How do those actions and viewpoints affect others?

Taking the time to reflect on these questions and internalize feedback – both positive and negative, formal and informal – is called self-reflective awareness (SRA).  Failure to periodically assess and re-evaluate means I’m operating more on habit than any kind of conscious decision.  A recent blog by Henriques does an excellent job of breaking down this self-reflective process, and describes it as metacognition.  Personally, I find that a regular reflective practice is important in sustaining my self-awareness as I and the environment evolve over time.

The same is true for organizations.  Like people, organizations have a history that influences their self- and world-view, strengths, weaknesses, blind spots, preferences and biases.  Organizations have their own “mental processes” that lead to learning and decision-making:  surveys, informal feedback, organizational metrics, etc.   Organizations that consider a narrow set of data, and fail to reflect and seriously consider feedback – both internally and externally, formal and informal – are just going through the motions of learning and growth.    Like Henriques’ student example, an organization with low self-reflective awareness (SRA) is likely to have a superficial understanding of how to solve problems and blame their failures or shortcomings on external or isolated factors. An organization that has high SRA is more likely to take a thoughtful and comprehensive approach to problem solving and growth and has the courage to face some hard truths.

What would organizational SRA look like?  We can start by looking at low SRA activities, which includes crisis management as standard operating procedure, incremental strategic plans that don’t have a clear vision, a culture of punishing and problem-finding instead of nurturing success and growth, and prioritizing thoughtless organizational metrics that reflect a limited view of organizational success.  Low SRA organizations will have a disconnect between their mission and stated brand, and their actual performance.  For example, some organizations may claim to value diversity, customers or their employees, but the numbers and culture may say otherwise.  The organization may choose to ignore that disconnect by excluding such measures in their data collection, write off dissatisfied customers and employees as anomalies, and rationalize problems as localized, but their stakeholders will notice.

A high organizational SRA will have strong alignment in mission, values, brand and their products and output.  It will have an authentic vision for its future with priorities, policies, procedures and practices are aligned across the organization.  It will regularly reflect as a whole through its strategic planning process and integrate outcomes and feedback to learn and improve.  For example, unpleasant surprises, such as under-performing sales, lawsuits, poor feedback, or a key employee quitting unexpectedly, are taken seriously.  The organization learns from that setback, asking hard questions and facing difficult truths.  It examines gaps between its mission and behavior, and has the courage to listen deeply to tough feedback.  It encourages individuals to take risks and learn from the failures instead of punishing them.  It examines best practices, employs them, and then may even try to raise the bar.  It has leaders who have high SRA, and who encourage SRA in others.

What kind of organization do you work for?  What kind would you rather work for?  It’s easy to see that a high SRA organization will attract and keep the best talent.  How are you contributing to your organization’s SRA and your own?

Part 3: Thinking-Feeling Spectrum: Befriend Your Alien Brain

In Parts 1 and 2, I wrote about the thinking-feeling spectrum and how our tendency to prefer T or F leaves a shadow tendency that seems to play a strong but invisible role in how we feel and behave.    I likened it to an ambivalent, sometimes hostile alien that resides within us, sometimes exerting a negative influence on us, without our knowledge.

Your alien thoughts/feelings can actually work for you, but you have to befriend it and become its ally.  Like a temperamental child, the alien within wants to be recognized and heard.  Failure to do so means the alien will ramp up the stakes, screaming and thrashing at me until I acknowledge its needs. Like an unruly toddler, that internal tempest wreaks havoc and damage until it is heard.

The hardest part is acknowledging the alien’s existence and dysfunction.  But have you noticed that when you listen to a toddler and truly try to understand their world, they get strangely calm and cooperative?  You can then negotiate with them, “I know you want to go have an ice cream sundae but we don’t have time to do that now.  How about I give you an apple right now, or a cookie when we get home? Which do you want?”

Our inner alien is the same way.  “I know the way your co-worker talks to you makes you feel unimportant and inferior, just the way your parents did when you were a child.  You can believe it and feel angry and resentful, or you can go to the gym and work through your frustration and realize that this isn’t about you.  Which would you prefer?”  Suddenly, inner alien is cooperative, because she just wants to be heard and acknowledged.   She’s your Lifelock monitor who alerts you issues (have you seen those commercials?) but it’s your responsibility to deal with the problem.

Make no mistake: she will scream in my head until I do.  Furthermore, I’ve learned that she’ll scream at others through my tone, behavior, perspective and choices without my knowledge.  Others can sense her, even if I can’t.   Others refer to my alien as the b***.  Now you know what I’m talking about.

I’ve learned this lesson the hard way as I’ve spent many years in denial about my aliens.  I don’t always know they’re there, or if I do, sometimes I just can’t quite wrangle and calm them.  It gets easier with practice and time.  Now, I feel like I mostly have cleaned house, though I do still relapse and invite those crazy little devils back into my life.  Living without them though is an amazingly light and freeing feeling.  There are few things that I have done that have had such a profound impact on the quality of my life.  And like all things I have been afraid of, shining a light on them always seems worse at first than it really is.  They’re not scary in others.  You see them.  You know what they need to do.  Do the same for yourself and exorcise that troublemaker.

Part 2: Thinking-Feeling Spectrum – Our Alien Brain

Sigourney-Weaver-Alien-5-559248

In Part 1, we discussed the Thinking-Feeling spectrum and the presence of the dynamic interplay between T-F despite our T or F preference. If we only factor in one set of data, we are unaware of the unseen influence of the other half on our internal experience and our external world view.

My own experience affirms this notion. As a person with a strong T tendency, I have not always been in touch with my feelings. Even now, though my self awareness is much improved, if I have emotional garbage flying beneath my radar, I tend to be more reactive, less patient, more judgmental, and more impulsive. I back it up with logic and explanations and accuse you of being unreasonable.   The thoughts in my head were pretty much absolutely true, no matter how unrealistic, dysfunctional, or abusive they were. They would then invisibly fuel my emotions in this treacherous downward spiral, ensuring my misery.

Hudson: “We’re on an express elevator to hell, going down!”

I’m less of an F but can imagine the same dynamic, but in reverse, holds true. We hold many unconscious beliefs that impact how we view the world and ourselves and thus how we feel. If we are unaware of those beliefs, we cannot see how they drive our feelings.

In other words, we often disassociate our thoughts from our feelings, as if there is an alien in our head (or heart) with which we have no connection. And unfortunately, as a T, I’m here to report that the thoughts in our head do not represent a friendly alien. At best, that alien is complicit in justifying our automatic behavior (see Haidt’s Righteous Mind). At worst, the alien is a constant stream of negativity, fear and anger that damages ourselves and others.

Ash: You still don’t understand what you’re dealing with, do you? Perfect organism. Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility.

Lambert: You admire it.

Ash: I admire its purity. A survivor… unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality.

Unlike the movie Aliens, we just can’t take automatic weapons and blow out the scary alien in our head.   But we can tame them. It’s not easy at first, but improves with practice.

Ripley: How do we kill it, Ash? There’s gotta be a way of killing it. How? How do we do it?

Ash: You can’t.

Parker: That’s bullshit.

First, be present. Being sad or angry means we are living in our past. Being worried or anxious means we are living in the future. Living in this moment we have everything we need. Notice dysfunctional thoughts and feelings. Acknowledge their presence but don’t give them any power by believing them to be real or permanent.

Kane: Quit griping.

Lambert: I like griping.

Second, be mindful. Notice when you are not being present. Come back to the present moment when you find yourself straying.

Third, toxic recurring thoughts should be challenged. Those thoughts tend to be very one-sided, so be open to exploring other perspectives (see Katie’s Who Would You Be Without Your Story).

Finally, find a more balanced perspective using your forgiveness and gratitude.   Remember that the alien in your head is here to steal your peace, and the bigger, braver part of you, your Riley, is here to restore it. Think of that alien as the holy-terror child within that needs to be heard and validated, but doesn’t get to make the decisions about your life and peace of mind.

That’s how you teach the Alien some manners.

Ash: There is a clause in the contract which specifically states any systematized transmission indicating a possible intelligent origin must be investigated.

Parker: I don’t wanna hear it…

Brett: We don’t know if it’s intelligent.

Parker: I wanna go home and party.

Dallas: Parker, will you just listen to the man?

Ash: On penalty of total forfeiture of shares. No money.

Dallas: You got that?

Parker: [chuckling] Well, yeah.

Dallas: All right, we’re going in.

Parker: [to Brett] Yeah, we’re going in, aren’t we?

Part 1: Thinking-Feeling Spectrum: Our Self-Concept

Who are you?  Really?

Do you believe that you are the sum of your thoughts, knowledge and beliefs? That your identity is entirely dependent on those thoughts?  If so, what happens when you change your mind, beliefs or knowledge?  Are you the same person?

Or do you believe that you’re a feeling, emotional being who happens to have thoughts and ideas?  What happens if you don’t have an emotional reaction in a given moment or are stuck in depression? Who are you then?  What does it mean if your emotional reactions are context-dependent?  Are you still you?

One way to think about the questions above is from the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator’s T (thinking) and F (feeling) personality types.  We are on a T-F spectrum in terms of how we tend to make decisions, whether using our head or our feelings. I also think about the T-F spectrum as the mechanism by which we interface with reality.   I’m guessing that T’s tend to use their head to take in information, both about themselves and others, and use that information to decide who they are.  Similarly, F’s view themselves and the world through the lens of their feelings, using that information to define themselves.  (After all, I’m a T and this theory makes sense.)

However, I don’t really like the binary nature of that scale.  We all think.  We all feel.  Trouble is, we may not be very aware of the end of the spectrum that we are unfamiliar with.  Ts are often unaware of their feelings and Fs are often unaware of the thoughts and beliefs underlying their feelings. This is where we get into trouble.

Thoughts and feelings are interactive and synergistic.  Our feelings are profoundly influencing our thoughts, and visa versa, even if we don’t realize it.  That complex dynamic then determines our behavior  (I’m feeling more F-ish today, and this feels right.)

Being in touch with both our thoughts and feelings help us to have a more complete understanding of who we are, how we feel, why we think what we think and why we feel what we feel.  Our habits of thought, feeling and behavior that define our personality, in the end, are really just habits.  We can break and change those habits, yet we’re still the same person underneath, aren’t we?

I like the person you are – that combination of your hidden and portrayed self.  It’s one of my gifts to see the best in others, including that hidden part of you.  I also hope for your growth and improvement in your life’s satisfaction, sense of authenticity and empowerment.  Changing habits that are maladaptive does not change who you are, it merely helps you be a better version of you.  You can be happier, more peaceful, have better relationships, and improved health by taking a holistic and appreciative view of yourself and your world.

All that being said,  the question of Who am I? remains unanswered especially if you acknowledge that most of our thoughts, feelings and behaviors are malleable.  I am not a theologian or philosopher, so I will leave that question to those wise scholars.  As an applied positive psychology practitioner, I reflect on that T-F dynamic and how we can use that self-knowledge to create the best possible life.

But I think I’m out of space.  I feel I must finish this discussion in my next blog, Part 2: Thinking-Feeling Spectrum – Our Alien Brain.  Perhaps the outcome of your thought-feeling dance will be for you to join me.

Greatest Strength/Greatest Weakness: A Lesson From Donald J. Trump

Observing the political or cinematic stage is so fascinating because it provides a common framework for us to discover insights into our shared humanity.   The current political theater that is delighting the pundits also illustrates how we use our strengths for success or failure.

Many psychologists, real and armchair, have analyzed Trump’s psychological profile and fitness for the highest office. As an applied positive psychology practitioner, I observe Trump through the lens of his strengths. Two of his most obvious Gallup strengths are Competition (self-explanatory) and Significance (needing to be seen as important in the eyes of others). Trump loves to win.  He also loves the accolades and applause of his followers. When we are using our strengths well, it’s exhilarating and satisfying. The degree to which these strengths fuel his motivation to run for the country’s highest office could only be known by Trump himself.

Like all strengths, Competition and/or Significance can bring individuals to unimaginable success. The desire to win and to be better than a competitor can help one raise their game, or their team’s game, to the next level. The need to be seen as important can motivate achievement and accomplishment. Trump’s stunning successes in the Republican primary is a case study of skillful use of these strengths.

However, strengths can also be overused and misused. Some pundits are hypothesizing that Trump neither expected to win, nor wants the Presidency. If so, Trump may be competing for the sake of competition without consideration for what’s best for the country. He may also be willing to win at all costs, as he ramps up the rhetoric to arguably dangerous levels.    Significance can also be misused if one uses verbal abuse and bullying to feel more important, powerful, and better than others.

The rise and fall of Trump’s popularity is a lesson to us all. We develop our world-view and strategies based on early lessons and information. We often use those lessons as a frame of reference going forward as we create strategies for the future. Early successes with our strengths may teach us that using our favorite strengths is a good strategy. More is always better, right? Failure to re-evaluate our strategies combined with poor self-awareness can result in overuse and misuse; our strengths become our liabilities. Trump’s troubles are not the result of misfortune or a stellar opponent, as Clinton is as flawed in her own way as he is. Rather, he’s his own worst enemy.

Trump’s political tale beautifully reflects our shared human journey to find wisdom in our changing world and circumstances. The strategies that worked in one job, in another decade, with other people, may not work now. Trump’s opportunity now is go inside to understand his internal stage, as it is for us all.   Failure to do so will likely result in a tragic downfall.

Fall With Style: Lessons From Buzz Lightyear

Animated movies’ universal appeal is in part due to the timeless messages woven through their story lines. One quote I love is from Toy Story, where Woody jealously claims that Buzz Lightyear does not fly, but rather falls “with style”.

But Woody, they’re the same thing.

I’m speaking metaphorically, of course, about our response to failure and challenge. What do we do when we fail? Do we give up and quit taking chances? Do we blame others or circumstances? Do we fail to learn and keep repeating our mistakes? Or do we experiment with risk, employing a rapid turnaround time for experiments, and then use the data to learn how to better our lives and strategies?

This idea of failing well is discussed by Barbara Corcoran from Shark Tank in business and Lance King with regard to students. People that acknowledge and take responsibility for their failures and then learn from them tend to do much better than those that fail badly, whether in business or in academics.

Failing well in business is used deliberately to spark innovation in a process called rapid prototyping. Innovation breakthroughs occur after learning from a series of rapid, small failures. In a safe environment, rapid prototypers quickly determine what doesn’t work and what works well, then use that information to improve design.

How can we apply this concept in our personal lives?   None of us set out to fail. But should we?

Sometimes we have a tendency to make decisions without acknowledging the existence of our blind spots, and then we’re all in with the strategy. We defend and rationalize the strategy, even if it’s not working, often blaming others or circumstances if things go poorly.   If we are in denial about recognizing failure or our shortcomings, we can go quite far down a destructive pathway, possibly damaging good relationships or opportunities, then repeat our mistakes.

As a recovering perfectionist, I understand that admitting shortcomings is a very difficult thing to do.  Failing to admit my shortcomings then produces the thing I fear the most:  failure.  The worse things get, the more I have to dig in and defend myself or my failed strategy.

Imagine using that approach of denying our failures and shortcomings in business. Will that company be competitive in today’s market economy?

It’s so easy to see that denial in others and the havoc it can play on their lives. We don’t see our own blindspots and refuse to explore them when things are going poorly. In science, we call problems surrogate markers; chaos, challenges, and failure in our lives means we have a failed experiment and need to take a rapid prototype approach to finding a solution. Blaming, ignoring, and denying is antithetical to innovation.

Woody at first struggled with adapting to having a new leader in the group, but eventually learned.  We should take a lesson from both Woody and Buzz and fall with style. Then we too can then fly.

Our Responsibility Regarding Bully Leaders

I hadn’t actually heard the term before, but when I googled it, it turns out bully leadership is a thing. It’s several steps beyond an authoritarian leader, since while both authoritarian and bully leaders fail to obtain input from others, bully leaders use fear and intimidation as their primary tools for influence.   Though that style may feel effective and efficient, in the end, it does not pay off.

The most visible example of the consequences of bully leadership is – you guessed it – Donald Trump. While 30% of the public feels The Donald is an effective leader, the majority of the country and the world see right through his style. We are seeing that bully leadership is, in the end, destructive and devisive. It may feel “great” to align oneself with the bully leader, until the bully turns on you.

Do you use bullying as part of your leadership style? According to PD Strategies Blog, Business Insider and Innolect Inc, a bully/toxic leader has the following qualities:

  • You punish others, in small or large ways, if they do not do as you wish or if they appear disloyal, creating lasting damage to them.
  • You don’t try to understand others’ feelings or circumstances, and use criticism, badgering, harassment, threats and blame to control them while failing to provide the support they need to be successful.
  • You want to beat others and win at any cost.
  • Those around you no longer challenge your thinking.
  • You feel you’re better or smarter than others, and that you have the best ideas. You take credit for the work or ideas of others.
  • You use information against others instead of sharing proactively.
  • You use power excessively and will do whatever it takes to get your way or advance your agenda. The end justifies the means.
  • You don’t understand your own or others’ emotions or motivations or how to use that information to be effective.

Though bully leaders may be able to move the bottom line, in the end they hurt they organization. Consider Trump again. Indeed, he made incredible gains initially, winning the Republican primary beyond all expectation and conventional wisdom. In the end however, his take-no-prisoners approach is threatening to unravel the Republican Party and has the potential to greatly harm the country if elected.   He has been described as dangerous by many prominent thought leaders around the world.

Bully leaders thrive when their superiors look the other way to their toxic and damaging behavior.   With regard to our elected officials, we the American people ARE their bosses. Our electoral process is designed for us to choose the right candidate for the job. Therefore, we must be the ones to say “No, this type of behavior is not OK” and must not be fooled by the initially positive outcomes.

Government is not the only place to hire or promote bully leaders. They are in our organizations, families and communities.   Those who condone the behavior, either implicitly or explicitly, share the responsibility for the bully’s outcomes.

So get out and vote this November. If you have not registered to vote yet, do so now!