How you think in any given situation can determine how successful you are at solving problems, making decisions, and even getting to a satisfying place in your life. Going with your gut response is acceptable in some situations, but if that’s how you consistently operate, you are likely making things more difficult for yourself and the people around you. The same is true for over-analyzing or trying to clobber a thought or idea into existence before it has time to incubate.
Thinking is like kissing. One must use the appropriate approach according to the occasion. There are times when a quick peck simply won’t due.
In his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, psychologist Daniel Kahneman explains that System 1 thinking, that impulsive, gut-reaction way of thinking, is an unavoidable part of our thought process. Problems can arise, however, when a situation warrants deeper thought but the thinker doesn’t proceed to a more considered and deliberative thought mode, System 2.
The reason why many people avoid System 2 thinking is because it’s damn hard work. As Kahneman puts it, “[A]ctivities that impose high demands on System 2 require self-control, and the exertion of self-control is depleting and unpleasant.”
Just think of it: thinking actually causes electrical activity to emanate from our brains. When we are alert and focused, our brains are producing beta waves ranging from 15 to 40 cycles per second. System 2 takes energy, which is why you hear people say things like, “I just like to go with my gut,” and why many of those same people suffer from the Dunning-Kruger Effect. They don’t put in the time and effort to evaluate a decision or its effects, resulting in a false assumption that they are doing are fantastic job.
Another reason someone might be a chronic System 1 thinker is because she just doesn’t see the point of System 2. She believes that intelligence cannot be changed and therefore avoids challenges where she might otherwise undergo a transformative learning experience or substantially improve her understanding of a situation or problem. Those with a growth mindset, on the other hand, yearn to learn. They understand that sometimes great effort is necessary for true understanding. Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, who introduced the world to the growth mindset concept, explains that people with a growth mindset “believe everyone can develop their abilities through hard work, strategies, and lots of help and mentoring from others.” They are therefore less likely to shy away from System 2 thinking because they understand that it is an opportunity for growth.
There are times, of course when the zealous, passionate kiss doesn’t have the desired effects either. In such cases it’s important to remember that there is such a thing as trying too hard. What’s more, when it’s not working, and you’re getting exhausted, sometimes trying even harder is only going to make it worse. Know when to throttle down.
Focused thinking can be exhausting, especially if there are a lot of distractions vying of your attention. Directed attention fatigue is common in our society. It happens at home, work, school and everywhere in between. We spend a tremendous amount of energy trying to maintain focus on whatever it is we’re doing and not fully appreciating the fact that the energy we’re spending is limited. As we lose that energy our ability to focus decreases and our attention becomes involuntary—the distractions win. This results in bad ideas, bad decisions, and bad attitudes. Thinking when your mental resources are depleted is like kissing while texting. Technically you may be going through the process, but despite what you may think, you’re making a mess of it and you’re clearly missing the point.
One way to avoid this ineffective way of thinking is to engage in a diffuse mode of thinking, letting your brainwave activity slowdown to 9 to 14 cycles per second. Think of diffuse thinking like a serene, lingering kiss. Author and Professor of Engineering Barbara Oakely explains diffuse mode like this:
Diffuse-mode thinking is what happens when you relax your attention and just let your mind wander. It is what allows us to suddenly gain a new insight on a problem we’ve been struggling with, and is associated with “big picture” perspectives.
Sometimes you have to ease up, clear your head and stop trying to force it. Attention restoration theory holds that one of the best ways to replenish your mental resources is to get out and experience nature.
Diffuse thinking is not to be confused with mindfulness. Diffuse thinking is letting your mind wander and reflect on your topic without strain, but you are still thinking as a means to reach some future outcome. In that way it is strategic. Mindfulness is most decidedly not that. It is intentionally observing the present moment.
If mindfulness were a kiss it would be the long anticipated kiss when you think to yourself, This is happening, this is really happening!
Mindfulness and meditation are great exercises for thinking. They train you to be aware and present, which is important when you’re a serious thinker. Understanding your behavior and what’s going on with your mind and body can help you adjust accordingly to react and think in the most effective way.
Just remember, the kiss needs to fit the occasion and if you’re serious about it, a lifetime of practice is required.
Have you ever had the sudden realization that your promotion didn’t magically provide you with the gravitas you need to get people to listen to what you have to say? How about when you know more about your job and even the business than your boss, but you can get her to take your advice or even take you seriously? Maybe you’ve been given the responsibility to manage a team, but none of the people report to you.
The list goes on. There are a lot of scenarios where we need to step up and be the leader, but our position doesn’t afford us the power we need to get the job done. But the truth is when it comes to individual leadership, positional power is inferior to personal power. Effective leadership with lasting results comes from strengthening your personal power, evaluating circumstances, and applying the appropriate influence.
1. Strengthen your personal power
There are a few different kinds of power, and we sometimes give positional power too much credit. While there is a place for positional power, it is personal power you need to concentrate on when you want to be a leader with conviction, whether you are in a position of power or not. Positional power is good for an institution and compliance. Personal power gets people committed and lasting results.
Here are four qualities you should exercise (i.e., continuously develop) to strengthen your personal power:
- Emotional Intelligence
2. Assess the Circumstances
Do your reconnaissance. When you’re trying to lead or gain influence in a group dynamic figure out what kind of network your dealing with. Kathleen L. McGinn and Elizabeth Long Lingo at Harvard Business School identify the centrality and density of networks as important factors in how you gain influence. If the network has many connections it may be easier to get through to the entire group by influencing just one actor, but it may be difficult to penetrate that tight-knit team if they are guarded and insular. The opposite may be true of less dense groups.
You will also need to understand the reporting structure (if any), the overall culture of the group, and finally investigate what drives certain individuals. Get to know what their ambitions are and if they are more likely to make decisions based on logic and reason or emotion and intuition.
3. Use the appropriate influence
This is the heart of the matter. You have to understand strategies, principles, and styles of influence. In Developing Management Skills, Whetton and Cameron point to these three influencing strategies:
- Retribution—Forcing others to do what you want
- Reason—Showing others that it makes sense for them to do what you want
- Reciprocity—Helping others to want to do what you want them to do
Retribution is really the only strategy, if you can call it that, available for positional power. Reason and reciprocity are the domain of personal power.
Understanding which strategies to employee will help you know which principles and styles will be most effective. The chart below will be useful for those of you who are already familiar with principles and styles or who would like to dive deeper into the subject.
Bottom line, true leadership takes hard work. It doesn’t just fall into your lap. Don’t envy or strive to find leadership from a promotion or title. Effective and lasting influence is the fruit of personal power.
Two days ago I would have told you that I do not get nervous about public speaking. I do it for a living. I am used to it and have a certain confidence about my ability to convey a message to an audience. I am so confident, in fact, that I coach other people on how they can be better public speakers.
But, two days ago, I was making introductory remarks for a series of presentations on a variety of topics and I froze. I forgot what I was going to say. It left me. I blathered for a few seconds and then found my footing (sort of) and finished it out. It was particularly humbling because the upper echelon of the institution were in attendance, and I had just spent the last several months training the presenters on the fundamentals of public speaking, which included how to keep your cool and not panic.
And yet, there I was panicking like a rookie. It was awful.
The actual presenters did well and afterward everyone was gracious and complimentary about the event. I however, was a wreck, and I still am a bit.
Here’s what I did about it, and what I’m doing about.
That evening I had a glass of wine… OK, two glasses of wine. Four glasses of wine. I had four glasses of wine. But they were those ridiculously tiny Solo wine cups you get at open bars, so really it was like one at-home glass of wine.
Anyway, afterward, I talked to my wife, hugged the kids (and my wife), and we all went to bed early. The next day, I got up, went to the park, put on some classic rock, and ran that shit off.
Not a prescription for everyone, but whatever. It took some of the sting out of it. Now I’m calling it out—looking at what the hell happened and being honest with myself in terms of where I failed. And yes, I failed. Admitting that is the first step, which is oddly difficult even when (maybe especially when) it’s obvious.
If I’m making excuses, there was the fact that this was a highly unusual situation in which there was a lot at stake for many people. There were also an unusually high number of variables that were not in my control that I was keenly aware of while I was busy taking care of administering and hosting the event and taking control of all the variables that were in my control.
Never sacrifice authentic in the pursuit of better.
But if I’m going to be brutally honest, my ego got in the way. I was in charge and I have the skills and experience to run an event like that without breaking a sweat (me being brutally honest). I tried to manage everything in my head and when I got up to speak, I acted like I was beyond the fundamentals.
No one is beyond the fundamentals, least of all me. Eventually you may be able to break the rules, but you always have to have the fundamentals in the back of your mind.
What should I have done? Let go of all that stuff that was not in my control, gotten help with the stuff that was in my control, and presented in an authentic and organic way. Instead I was forcing it; trying to be the model of the ideal public speaker; an example for all who were to follow.
To that end, I had practiced the same lines over and over again, blocking my performance to a T, and reciting my speech in my head whenever I had a spare moment. Yet, when the time came for me to deliver, I had way more on my mind than those damned lines, and some cosmic hiccup nudged me ever so slightly off course and I was a goner. I could feel myself start to lose my footing and instead of taking a beat to get my bearings, I tried to play it off and leap over to some other foothold only to find that there was nothing there for me to grab hold of. I was left floundering in mid air.
So, where do you go from here—after you have tripped over your own ego and landed on your face?
You recognize it as a learning experience, analyze how it happened, and figure out how you can keep it from happening again. For me part of the answer is never again to try to recite. Remember my points, but get the message out naturally.
But the bigger lesson is to stay humble. There are hotshots out there, yes, who are supremely confident and can pound their message into an audience. Kudos to them. Serious. It’s a gift. But that ain’t me. What’s more, I don’t want it to be me.
The number one fundamental rule in public speaking (as in life) is be yourself. Never sacrifice authentic in the pursuit of better. Sometimes, that takes great courage. Usually, it takes great courage. Which is why people so often are eager to forget it. Sometimes we forget who we really are. When that happens, the universe has a way of giving you a swift kick in the ass to remind you to be you.
Which brings me to the one true lesson of this whole post: Listen to the universe. She’s the only one who really knows what she’s doing.
Performing strategically can be daunting. Your operational and functional work will always take priority unless you carve out specific time for the strategic stuff. Strategic effort is particularly frustrating when you’re in the weeds and tensions are running high. The irony, of course, is that is when you need strategy the most.
Getting started can feel like the hardest part. Ideally you want a professional to come in and assess the situation and facilitate the development and planning. When it comes to strategic planning it’s what you don’t know that you don’t know that can sink you.
But maybe you just want to explore strategic planning a bit first. Maybe you want to have a better understanding of how it works before you reach out to a professional.
The diagram below is one way to help understand how to pull your thoughts together and figure out what actions you need to take in order to realize a strategic vision. Your first step is to create a statement that articulates what your strategic vision is. What do you want your organization to look like? How do you want to be performing? Where do you want to be relative to your competitors?
From there you identify 1 to 3 major goals. They need to be ambitious, achievable, and measurable. Remember that the purpose of these goals is to realize you strategic initiative. They will set the tone for how you and your team perform throughout a specified time period. Everything you do will be in service to these goals.
Once you have defined those key goals, develop your feeder or anterior goals. These strategic goals are in service to the key goals. They act as milestones for the larger goals. They are victories on their own, but they also move you close to that strategic vision. These goals are more manageable conceptually and may be specific to certain sectors or departments within a larger organization.
The rest of your strategic development is figuring out what your projects (and their associated tasks) will be that will to accomplish those feeder goals.
There is a lot of work and re-working involved with this process. Don’t be discouraged when you have to go back and make changes. Also, don’t do this on your own. One of the biggest mistakes a leader can make is to develop a strategic plan in isolation and then deliver it via proclamation. Strategic planning is a team effort.
There are events and issues in life that can be destabilizing. Filtering out what is not in your direct control can provide direction and even peace of mind. Take a moment to examine what’s on your mind and run it through the control funnel.
Is it something that no one can control?
Is it something that someone else (other that you) can control?
Is it something that you can influence or empower someone else to control?
Is it something that is within your control?
If no one has control or could ever have control of what’s bothering you, like the weather, you must put it behind you. But be careful here. If the issue that’s plaguing you is happening on a massive scale, for example homelessness in the U.S., don’t dismiss it as something you have no control over just because of its size. Dig into it by asking yourself these questions:
Is the issue something that someone can have some control over?
Are there things that you can do that could make an impact (even in a small way) on this issue?
Are there elected officials or other highly influential people you could urge to address this issue?
What could you do to empower or influence other people to make a difference?
How could you educate yourself or acquire powerful skills so that you assume some level of control over this issue?
Who can you learn from to better understand this issue and how to affect it?
Consider issues at work where you are overburdened with tasks that are not your responsibility. Where does this problem fall in the control funnel? You might be able to train the person whose responsibility it is to perform those tasks—empowering someone else with control. When you are able to empower someone else with control, you not only give that other person the power she deserve, you also free up your capacity so you can focus on those issues that you do have control over. Certainly there may be political obstacles or difficulty finding the time to do the training, but in each of those cases you must again determine the proper layer of control. Run it through the funnel to determine what exactly is in your control, so you can take effective action.
Situations where we do have control are deceptively problematic if we don’t take the time to realize what exactly is within our control. If we don’t articulate what we can control, we can become consumed with frustration even though we hold all the power to fix it. It could be a job that we don’t like or a toxic relationship. Maybe it’s just a messy home. Whatever the case, it’s essential that you stop and own that situation. Take control.
It’s just as important to explicitly recognize those situations where no one has control over a situation. When we do this we are able to let go—at least to some degree—so that we can refocus our attention where it will have some effect.
Understanding where control lies is a filtering process. That’s not to say it’s easy. Far from it. Nor is filtering control the answer to solving all your problems, but understanding this practice will help you focus your efforts where they count.