Self-(un)fulfilling Reality, Part II

Scientists use control groups in experiments since the simple act of observing or measuring can have an impact on the experimental outcome. Our tendency to influence our environment also occurs in our interactions with others at work or at home.

However, we are often completely unaware of our influence on an interpersonal dynamic. For example, I may observe that a colleague or friend is very defensive; makes me wish they would just get their act together and not be so insecure. What’s blind to me is my role in making them feel defensive. That person may be simultaneously wishing that I would quit being so critical.

What? Me? I’m not critical!

Just because I think this other person needs to get their act together, start doing their job, quit going around talking to everyone about how it’s not their fault, doesn’t mean I’m critical!

It’s probably easy for you to see this dynamic because you’re not in the middle of it. Three observations are noteworthy. First, just because I may not have said anything critical to my poor victim, doesn’t mean that my body language, tone, or actions don’t broadcast my feelings. Second, the trait I’m complaining about (defensiveness) is the exact same behavior I’m exhibiting. This is called projection. Projection means that I hate and criticize a trait in someone else because I hate it in myself.

Finally, my subliminal and not-so-subliminal messages and projection means that I am probably influencing the outcome and dynamic of this relationship without my knowledge. Me? I’m completely innocent, right? By viewing the other as the defensive one, I am making her defensive through the criticism that I am fooling myself into believing that I am hiding from her. In other words, I am creating my own reality through my expectation of others.

We are told that children rise to the level of our expectations. This has actually been demonstrated in scientific studies. If a teacher believes an average child is gifted, then that child will outperform other students.  Others rise to (or fall) to the level of our expectations.

I believe the same dynamic holds true for adults. If you’re a manager and you believe that an employee is incompetent, lazy, careless or immature, how will you treat them? Are they likely to be engaged or given opportunities to develop or excel? What behavior will result?

Beware your expectations. You may be creating the behavior you’re expecting and being a hypocrite in the process.

Now consider flipping your critical expectations to the positive. Instead of finding what’s wrong or lacking in others, find what is admirable or excellent. What behavior are you inviting now, in yourself and others?

Now, doesn’t that feel so much better?

Meaning at Work

Getting surprised while doing a training session never seems like a good thing. When I train, I like to anticipate what the range of reactions will be so that I am prepared to handle them.

However, on Friday I was leading a session on job crafting – an exercise that helps you edit your job to be more satisfying, fulfilling, and productive – when I got a surprise reaction from this group of 50 or so female leaders.

In hindsight, maybe it’s related to the fact that I had just strayed from the traditional exercise.   Duh.

We had just finished identifying their strengths, passions, values and job tasks. Then I asked them to consider their personal mission and the purpose of their work.   Then to my surprise – everyone burst out laughing. Not in a that-was-really-funny-Susanna way, but in an are-you-kidding-me? kind of way.

I then explained to them that finding and building meaning at work can enhance worker satisfaction and motivation. Think about it: if all your life you wanted to be a teacher, and you have a job teaching people how to sell a video game that you believe to be bad for children, likely you will not enjoy your job. Once I explained this concept, they thankfully seemed to settle into the exercise without that element of incredulity.

But why the initial reaction? Is the notion of meaning and purpose at work so out of reach, at least upon initial reaction, for some people? Do most of us really just go to our job for a paycheck and little else?

Research on callings tell us that approximately 1/3 of the adult population considers their job simply a means to a paycheck. These participants self-selected for this seminar, so perhaps they are disproportionately represented in this category as opposed to the 1/3 of the population who are pursuing their calling through their work.

Are you in that means-to-paycheck group? Can you draw a connection between what you do at work each day and your life’s mission (what you long to contribute to humanity)? If so, perhaps you feel relatively good about how you spend most of your day. If not, why not? Maybe your answer will surprise you.

Trust at Work

Trust is an important element of motivation, so creating trust in the workplace is critical for employees to perform at their best.   Transparency and open communication is essential for trust. But it’s so much more.

When I was a kid, back during the last Ice Age, employees had an implied and actual contract with their employer. If they were loyal to the organization, the organization would be loyal to them. They had generous pensions and could trust that they could retire comfortably after a certain number of years of service without worry.

That concept seems laughable and naïve these days since the pension seems to have caused financial ruin for many companies. Though the model is not financially sustainable, this idea of a reciprocal relationship between the employee and employer also seems to be as outdated as the dinosaur.   In other words, what the modern contract seems to amount to is: You work as hard as possible, and take on incredible stress and responsibility with little or no support. In return, I give you a paycheck and maybe some benefits. I may or may not treat you well, help you or recognize your efforts.   I may or may not help you grow as an individual or care about your personal or professional well-being. I will dispose of you as soon as I think it will benefit the organization. If the time comes when I think it’s time for you to go, I may simply escort you from the building without so much as a “thanks for your service.” And for that, you better show your appreciation to me and make this job your first priority.

And employers wonder why employees don’t work harder or show a better attitude.

Granted, this contract may be implicit since few managers will actually say something like that. But just like I do a terrible job of trying to appear happy and friendly when I’m actually grouchy or upset, words, tone, and actions belie true intentions.   Being transparent and openly communicating about this You Are A Cog in the Machine philosophy will not improve trust. It will improve disengagement and resentment.

In my opinion, the difference between a manager and a leader is whether they treat employees and colleagues well given the realities of the modern workplace. Treating someone well does not mean you never, ever fire or discipline them. It simply means that when that time comes, you treat them as you wish to be treated. Treating someone well also does not mean that you constantly praise and affirm them. Instead, it means being authentic and true with your praise and reward, and not because you want something from them.   The Arbinger Institute (Leadership and Self-Deception and teaches this philosophy about doing business either by treating others as objects – an obstacle, irrelevant, or a means to an end, or as people – whose needs, wants and desires are as important as your own. Until one learns the difference and behaves accordingly, I believe true leadership will continue to evade them.

The Trouble With Smart People

Pretty much everyone I know is smart. So friends, don’t hate me for what I’m about to say. But someone has to say it and I’m known for speaking what I believe to be truth.

We can be a real pain in the buttinsky.

There. I said it.

At least know that I’m including myself in this equation. In fact, it’s my own experience from which I draw this conclusion.

In my last blog, I wrote about the difference between confidence and arrogance. We can easily cross into arrogance in a blink of an eye – yours truly especially. Arrogance can be very global to our whole lives, or to a major part of our lives like our work (which is mostly what I was referring to).   But arrogance can also be situational and episodic. Either way, it can lead to stupidity.

I like to think that I usually keep my ego in check, but I’m rethinking that assumption after a recent minor injury. As a (non-practicing) health care professional, I felt that I was capable of self-prescribing my recovery plan. A week later I had made little or no progress.   It took a chorus of not only my immediate but extended family (and a few friends) to send me to the doctor and get and X-ray and some crutches.

Some people are more open to input than others.

And, as usual, I see the fallacy in others but not my own folly.

“Why do you look at the speck in your brothers eye, but do not consider the plank in your own eye?”

I frequently see others bypass the wisdom of experts, even when offered for free, because of their belief that their knowledge, wisdom and ability to strategize into the future is complete.   They are (I am) an island, and you can keep swimming on by.

In certain areas, I am a wise consumer. I tend to get care, advice, and supervision proactively when I know I’m out of my league.  In that case, what I don’t know is just ignorance.   But when in an area of comfort and knowledge, what I don’t know are blind spots potentially reinforced by arrogance. Health, psychology, relationships, education, parenting… my blind spots are vast and deep.

“Ignorance is bliss but knowledge is power”

Which do you choose?

Your Bliss: Prospective or Retrospective?

Working with students in higher education is such a privilege because I often get to participate in their important career, and thus, life decisions. Their whole life and career are in front of them.   The possibilities seem endless since they can prospectively plan their bliss into their daily work. According to comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell, following our bliss allows us to feel fully alive; work as a vehicle for bliss has huge implications in terms of our motivation and well-being at work.

However, most of us don’t have that luxury of planning bliss into our career. We may be mid-career, with mortgages, dual careers, debt, aging parents and, well, fear of change that may impair our ability to go bliss chasing. We may have come to terms long ago that our bliss ship has sailed and we missed the boat.   At my age, I just don’t think I’m going to give it all up to try to go become a dancer on Broadway.

But that’s a cop out.   No, I will never at this age get to start a dance career where I will be able to earn a paycheck, much less make a living. But what’s to stop me from taking a dance class? If I really feel the need to perform, why not videotape for Youtube? Or the school “talent” show? Sure.

Better yet, there’s so much we can do within the context of our current jobs. We may not have chosen our current job or career path because of our bliss, but it doesn’t mean we can’t find bliss at work. Researchers Bunderson and Thompson reported in 2009 in a seminal paper on callings that zookeepers, whose job mainly entails cleaning cages and caring for animals, frequently find that tedious work to be their calling. In other words, they had a passion for the work and felt it had impact. Similarly, Wrzesniewski (1997) similarly found that callings exist across a range of jobs, ranks, and disciplines from janitors to CEOs.

The key is whether you make meaning of the work you do. For instance, much of my job is pretty routine. In higher ed, we’re awash in bureaucracy and I shuffle a LOT of forms around. Form-filling is not my calling, but underneath that task I am enabling the degree completion of our students. By not passing the task on to faculty, I am also freeing their time to do the important work of research and advising. The task, though mind-numbingly boring, plays an important role in the school that enables success of our students and faculty.

In other words, my focus and interpretation matter. I can either focus on how parts of my job are soul crushing, or how those small things make a difference to others. I’m never going to enjoy filling out forms but at least I complete that task cheerfully instead of with anger, resentment or martyrdom.

How about you? Do you have a calling or just a job? How can you find more meaning in your job and be more aware of the positive impact of your work on others?

A Case for a Daily Reflective Practice

We all have our routines each day: brushing our teeth, dressing ourselves, exercise perhaps, making our coffee. Those routines are largely around caring for our physical selves.

Some may also have a cognitive routine, such as reading the paper, watching the news, reading their book, or a relational practice, such as checking in with a loved one or playing with the dog.   Many have a spiritual routine, such as prayer, meditation or even enjoying being outdoors, or an environmental routine such as tidying the kitchen, checking the weather, closing a window.

In other words, our lives have many facets, and I imagine that few of us actually attend to each domain on a regular and frequent basis. Fortunately, each domain probably does not need daily attention – I’m not going to check my checking account balance every day – but perhaps our routines merit some consideration. For example, we all attend to our physical health every day. Why not our emotional/psychological? Isn’t that equally important?

I never really gave a reflective practice, one where I check in with myself on a psychological, emotional and spiritual level, much thought until the last few years. I was fiiinnne, until I wasn’t. Now I find that some kind of reflection at least 3-4 times per week is not only SOP but also necessary for my psychological well-being. It’s not so much I need my happy-exercise. I find reflection is also important for my learning and processing.

In the old days, I was pretty much in my head 24/7, thoughts whirling constantly.   Now I try to stay present with my mind clear most of the day, with periods where I am still and quiet, and just invite thoughts to enter. Some thoughts I will reflect upon, others I will discard. That reflection time allows my inner thoughts, ideas, and connections to be recognized and processed.

Modern best practices also incorporate reflection into the education process. Part of my education was recent enough to include reflection but part was not. Though the content was vastly different in each case, I do feel that reflection does impact my ability to learn, process and integrate both academic and personal lessons alike.

Those personal lessons may not necessarily come in the form of books and lectures these days. But my life lessons are equally important: What did I learn about myself/others/our world today? How do those lessons impact me or others? What can I do differently or better? What’s a more constructive or productive perspective? How can I help?

I know in our busy lives we don’t have time for one more thing on our To Do list. But I argue: What is really more important than psychological and emotional housekeeping and maintenance? You don’t want your physical (house), financial (bank account), or physiologic (your body) homes crashing down upon you. They each deserve your time and attention. And so does the inner you.

Growth and Change a la Scrooge



I love the holidays because of the family gatherings. I see my nieces and nephews, and sisters for that matter, all too infrequently and so this sacred tradition means so much to me.   This year I marvel at how much the young people have grown and matured but also at the absence of Mom at the stove and table this year.   Not all the change feels good, but it is necessary.

I’ve written before about change relative to the growth vs fixed mindset. Growth mindset folk believe they can change and adapt, but fixed mindset folk believe they are who they are and that is pretty constant. The former, perhaps unsurprisingly, is more adaptable and resilient. Fixed mindset folk have the belief that they can’t change in response to a challenge and so tend to get stuck following a setback.

I know some folk who are somewhat proud of being of fixed mindset. One in particular felt he was pretty happy with who he was by age 22 and I think mentally and emotionally settled into that developmental stage for the long haul. I’m sure he was terrific at that age since he was pretty terrific 20 years later. But still, now that I’m looking at family members who are currently at that age, it sort of makes me wonder.

Twenty year olds are still mostly “all about me.” It’s about their immediate needs and gratifications, their feelings and desires. They are not financially independent and pretty much do what they want whenever they want.   Most of them still cannot manage their own affairs, like filing their taxes or arranging to get their car fixed. Their relationship management skills can be excellent in some ways, especially socially. However, they are also trying to figure out the balance between intimacy and isolation and learning to create successful relationships. Some may be trying to still identify their sense of self.   They are becoming more conscious.

Imagine a 40- or 50- year old with skills at this level.

A 40 year old normally would be trying to create and nurture things to last, primarily at work and with their children, during this generative stage of life. A successful adult will feel a sense of accomplishment and contribution and eventually will lead to a sense of life fulfillment.

I have no doubt that my young family members will turn out to be pretty amazing at any age, regardless of growth or fixed mindset.   However, the risk to fixed mindset and failure to progress through these developmental stages successfully can result in a shallow existence resulting in bitterness and despair in their old age (think: Ebenezer Scrooge). I hope these kids will learn to continue to grow and create a prosperous life full of meaning. Also, I’m hoping they’ll start to help us do stuff like make appointments or solve complex relationship issues instead of relying on us  into our golden years for daily life management. I also want them to be the kind of people that others can rely on and trust for their growing wisdom, compassion, maturity and resilience.

There’s no need for a crystal ball or a hallucination to know what’s in store for us if we choose to live a shallow and superficial life characterized by self-gratification and isolation. Change is not easy, but it sure beats the alternative.

Merry Christmas everyone.  May your holiday and life be blessed with love, meaning and gratitude, every day.

When You Screw Up

“To err is human, to forgive divine”

Yes, both parts of that statement are really really true. But to me, there’s something missing.   It has to do with taking responsibility for our mistakes.

We all make mistakes, but how we respond to the mistake matters. A mistake could be viewed as a temporary setback and localized to that particular incident or types of incidents. This mindset is characteristic of optimists who are  happier (not surprising) and more successful (maybe surprising) compared to pessimists. Pessimists, in contrast, will view mistakes or setbacks as permanent and pervasive. They tend to get discouraged after a mistake and don’t try to make changes because they view those mistakes as permanent flaws rather than something that can be changed.

Regardless of how one views a mistake, the response to the mistake is critically important. One who is resilient will learn from the mistake and grow, while one who is not might wallow in self-pity, martyrdom, anxiety or depression.

A resilient and optimistic person may even turn the mistake into an opportunity. I’ve made many many mistakes in my life, like many folk. However, my better self can sometimes rise to the occasion and respond with integrity, courage and wisdom and perhaps even gain the respect of someone who could’ve become a critic.

What do you do when you make a mistake? Be honest with yourself.

  • Cry
  • Complain
  • Blame yourself
  • Feel bad about yourself or become devasted
  • Hide/avoid or ignore the person that was injured or adversely impacted
  • Blame the person that was injured or adversely impacted
  • Forget the whole thing and move on
  • Apologize endlessly until the injured party is uncomfortable and has to comfort or reassure you
  • Explain and justify your actions
  • Offer a succinct and sincere apology
  • Acknowledge the feelings of the other
  • Do whatever it takes to make it right, going above and beyond if possible

I wish I could say that I always do the bottom 3, but it’s not always the case. However, I do believe I do the right thing sooner and more frequently than I did in the past, though excuses or blame may happen at least fleetingly in my head initially.   Those types of reactions are natural, but most of them are either unhelpful or actually counterproductive. In the moment, they’re psychologically because we can avoid feeling responsible or guilty.  But if we can muster the courage to admit our share of the responsibility and then act accordingly, it is an opportunity to grow both ourself and the relationship.

So perhaps we should recoin that phrase to: “To err is human, to take responsibility divine.”  Only then, can we actually forgive ourselves for being human.

Ripple Effect

Causing waves

Causing waves

I’ve known about the ripple effect for some time now but haven’t given it a whole lot of thought until recently. Here’s an example of the ripple effect: I may decide to change my dress right before I leave for an interview across town, leave a bit later, then get caught right behind an accident that just happened, and then miss the interview, which then impacts my future. A seemingly harmless decision, but with significant downstream consequences.

Another type of ripple is when something seemingly small happens that may affect a lot of people. For example, penicillin was serendipitously discovered by Alexander Fleming. Fleming’s astute observation then changed the course of medicine and pharmaceutical drug discovery.   Climate change is another example of a small shift (say, a 1 degree change in temperature) having far-reaching consequences.

I think back on my life on the events that rippled through my life: A supporting or loving gesture from someone influential in my life, like a loved one or a mentor. The receipt of a grant or award. Failure to get a grant or award. Running into someone at the store. An introduction by a colleague.   Most such ripples were positive, but not all of them.

I now think back on my life and sometimes hear about the ripples I have unwittingly caused. Most often they come from students or my children, but sometimes my friends or family. Usually they mention a conversation or advice that has stayed with them over the years and that has influenced their thinking or course of action.   You never know when something you say or do strikes a chord, good or bad.

Or do you?

I think we can be really much more intentional and proactive about creating the type of ripples that we want to perpetuate. It’s taken me a long time to figure this out since, as an ethnic minority growing up in Texas, I felt mostly invisible and insignificant most of my life. But now that I feel powerful and strong, I know that I have the ability to create lots of small ripples every day.

It’s my responsibility to make sure they’re positive ripples. It’s also my responsibility to use my strengths, talents and passions to do good every day. Blogging is one example of how I try to create positive ripples every day. Helping others along their personal journey through mentoring, teaching and training is another.   So is showing my love to those around me, and being the best possible role model that I can be.

The benefit to me is a feeling of deep meaning and connection to those around me. I feel woven into the fabric of several communities.   Also, the recipients of the ripples reach back to me and create ripples in my life, thus strengthening our connection. Ultimately, I hope to better our little corner of the world, just a smidge. One ripple at a time.

Low Performer Rehab

Quint Studer, author of Results That Last, describes low performers as those that blame others for their lack of performance, defend themselves by saying they haven’t gotten the proper training to do their job, and disclose personal problems to try to garner sympathy or detract from their performance. In sum, low performers fail to take responsibility for their inability to deliver in their job.

Though it may be their responsibility, it’s not always their fault. A therapist I know once said that everyone is always trying their best. It’s taken me some time, but I completely agree. Even low performers are trying their best. That being said, it’s not a given that low performers should be retained simply for their good intentions and effort.

I actually enjoy working with people who are struggling with their job or course of study. As you may know, one of my gifts is being able to see the best in everyone, despite their circumstances. What I see in low performers is either that they’re not using their talents to their advantage, they’re letting their personal feelings get in the way of their performance, or they’re a poor fit for the job or organization. None of these possibilities speak to their general incompetence, stupidity or being a bad person. I have yet to draw one of those conclusions after working with a low performer.

Working with low performers is so gratifying because the turn around can be dramatic. A self-limiting belief often impedes their ability to shine. By exposing that belief, often times we can see that person blossom, become engaged, and excel. Truly, nothing is more gratifying to me.

Some low performers acknowledge the change they need to succeed, but yet remain stuck in low-performance-mode. Sometimes they seem unready to make a change; in other words, they are still contemplating whether to make that leap. Or, they remain committed to a self-limiting belief that they intellectually recognize is dysfunctional, but have not made that internal shift in their belief system.   Unfortunately, it is all too common that an individual must have a stark wakeup call, such as getting fired, before such life lessons can become real to them. At that point, they may be able to change their dysfunctional beliefs.

Therefore, protecting someone from a natural consequence such as a D or F grade or getting fired is ultimately not doing them any favors. I have frequently seen such individuals find the courage, at that point in time, to start looking for the job or training that allows them to thrive.   They then excel. Others think they’re fantastic. The low performer is a thing of the past.

In conclusion, helping someone to make that transition, either through development, training, moving them into a more suitable position, or even allowing them to suffer the natural consequence of their low performance is the right thing to do. Enabling them to continue in low performance mode not only harms them and the organization, but it will make the high and middle performers perceive the gap as unfair, and their performance will also decline. Motivation and trust decline in tandem.

A leader’s failure to effectively deal with a low performer merits introspection and analysis on the leader’s part regarding why they are not dealing with performance issues. Maybe it’s the low performer’s fault, or you haven’t been trained for this?