Saturday, March 26, 2011

Are You Listening?

Are you any good at it?

I think for most people, the answer is yes. Most of us know how to listen. Probably all of us have, at some point, demonstrated pretty darn good listening skills. Whether it was a parent, a child, a best friend, a new friend, a significant other, or a co-worker, we have been there when someone important to us needed to vent, cry, think out loud, get something off his/her chest, or just try to work through a problem.

The challenge, then, is not knowing how to listen, but knowing when to listen. A good listener knows when to withhold judgement, avoid interrupting, postpone a "teachable moment", can the cheap (or even good) advice, or refrain from rationalizing, and just empathize -- in silence -- with what the other person is saying.

If you can figure out when to talk, and when to just close your trap and listen, you will probably become one of the most respected people in your social network.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Poetic Injustice

"One afternoon, near the end of the first summer, when I went to the village to get a shoe from the cobbler's, I was seized and put into jail, because, as I have elsewhere related, I did not pay a tax to, or recognize the authority of, the state which buys and sells men, women, and children, like cattle at the door of its senate-house. I had gone down to the woods for other purposes. But, wherever a man goes, men will pursue and paw him with their dirty institutions, and, if they can, constrain him to belong to their desperate odd-fellow society. It is true, I might have run 'amok' against society; but I preferred that society should run 'amok' against me, it being the desperate party...

"I was never molested by any person but those who represented the state. I had no lock nor bolt but for the desk which held my papers, not even a nail to put over my latch or windows. I never fastened my door night or day, though I was to be absent several days; not even when the next fall I spent a fortnight in the woods of Maine. And yet my house was more respected than if it had been surrounded by a file of soldiers...

"I am convinced, that if all men were to live as simply as I then did, thieving and robbery would be unknown. These take place only in communities where some have got more than is sufficient while others have not enough."

Henry David Thoreau, Walden (paragraph breaks added)

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The American Dream

There is no such thing as The American Dream, at least not the way in which it is generally conceptualized and frequently used today. I don't particularly care for the cookie-cutter definition people (especially public figures) often ascribe to it: owning a home, having two-point-whatever kids, making a lot of money, yada yada yada, blah blah blah. It is spoken of as if it is one commonly accepted dream, one right path to be pursued. I find it sterile and restricting.

My definition of American Dream: the freedom and ability to pursue whatever dream you want, even if it's different, weird, atypical, or outside the confines of the social or cultural majority. It's the freedom to dream your own dream.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

A Dark Side of Accountability?

Accountability seems to be a buzzword in many institutions today. From the financial industry to higher education, people are calling for more accountability! from those who govern our nation, manage our money, and educate our offspring. And I whole-heartedly agree. When individuals or institutions have influence or control over the resources or well-being of other people, they should be held to a high standard. Their actions, and the results of such, should be scrutinized. When your actions affect only you and no one else, I would, for the most part, say, "do as you wish." But when other people enter the equation, accountability should too.

Yet I wonder if accountability has a dark side.

If accountability is perceived (or used) as a threat, or even an ultimatum, it can generate fear: fear of not living up to the expectations, standards, or outcomes set forth; fear of what the consequences might be -- personally, for the organization, or for other people; fear of failure. When fear sets in, it hijacks the brain's "command center" -- the part of the brain that processes information, controls impulses, and allows us to think critically and rationally.

Fear can lead to all kinds of bad things: poor or hasty decision-making; hiding, misrepresenting, or omitting information (intentionally or unintentionally); mistreating others; turf wars; panic; and distrust. I may sound crazy for suggesting this, but I see it happening in my own profession. (I won't go into the details here, but suffice it to say I could share several real-life case studies.) I read about it all the time in business publications. Take this cliche for example: a company panics about making the board's quarterly numbers, and either makes stupid/unethical business decisions or sacrifices long-term success for short-term gains.

Am I suggesting we do away with accountability in our organizations and institutions? Incite anarchy? Absolutely not. What I am suggesting is that depending on how it's facilitated, it can lead to good conclusions or bad, unintended ones. Effective leaders know how to avoid the latter.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Create Shared Experiences

Have you ever gone to a great conference and returned with a fire lit under you, only to find that your co-workers or fellow members don't have the same passion as you (or are annoyed by yours)? Have you ever gone to an amazing movie, but when you try to tell your friends about it, they don't seem to be that into it? There's a reason why.

Experience trumps all -- first-hand experience.

Reporting back what you learned from the conference, no matter how much excitement you infuse into your report, will never be as inspirational as actually attending the conference. Hearing someone boast about an awesome movie is not nearly as thrilling as seeing it for yourself.

Second-hand experience is dull. It loses its power. Being in the action is what inspires. It's what motivates. It's where learning takes place. It's where people want to be. And when the experience is shared with others, it can be an unstoppable force.

Shared experiences create culture. They build bonds. They make memories. Their power can be harnessed to produce many positive dividends for a team, organization, family, or any group of people with a common purpose.

If you want to influence change, if you want to inspire or motivate others, if you want to facilitate learning or growth, create shared experiences. Create opportunities for people to come together and do or see or explore something unique or fun or meaningful with each other. Allow them to help create the experience, to shape its direction and outcome. Let them play the game, rather than watch it from the sidelines (or listen to you commentate).