Ever notice how the thing that turns losers into heroes is the knowledge that they CAN do something they were sure they couldn’t do?

Who can forget the Jedi-style arse-whoopin’ Luke took when Yoda showed him that with proper resolve and concentration, an X-Wing Fighter CAN in fact be levitated out of a swamp on Dagobah?

Luke’s defense? “I can’t believe it,” to which Yoda responded, “That is why you fail.”

Or, do you remember how through a combination of time-travel and renewed confidence, Harry Potter was able to defeat a cattle-rush of dementors? Once again, our loser-turned-hero reveals the secret of his success: “You were right, Hermione! It wasn’t my dad I saw earlier! It was me! I saw myself conjuring the patronus before!  I knew I could do it this time, because well, I’d already done it! Does that make sense?”

And then there are the superheroes. Spiderman (think Tobey Maguire struggling with his moral commitment to the Spidey suit), Batman (particularly Chris Nolan’s first where Bruce Wayne has to find “the courage to do what is necessary”), even the cult-classic Supergirl film where the words “You can” literally free her from the hands of a monster (see the 2:15 mark in the YouTube clip below)—all highlight the essential fact that belief predicates action. We can do something because we believe we can do it.

To do heroic things, to change our lives or the lives of others in seismic ways, we have to believe we can do it. Such belief requires total and absolute resolve. Likewise, to make huge changes in our own lives, to look and feel better no matter what’s happening to us at work, we’ll have to be resolved—purely, totally, and absolutely.

I can hear the objections already:

  • “Whoa there, tiger!  I have a job. I have kids.  What do you want me to do?  Drop in the middle of a meeting and do 20 pushups?”

  • “You’re nuts! There are expectations. I can’t start eating bird seed while everyone else is chowing down on a steak at Morton’s during a business dinner.”

  • “My company’s caving in around me and you want me to starve myself and run around the block a couple of times? I have things to do!”

No one’s talking about starving but yeah, the steak is out (for reasons well beyond cholesterol and the other usual suspects; I’ll explore these in subsequent entries). The point is that compromise and negotiation may be the tools of the trade when you’re structuring a strategic partnership or working a product through development but they don’t cut it when it comes to improving your health.

You either make the rules and do it full monte or you don’t.

The objectors break in again:

“No, no no, Mike. You don’t get it. You’re such an extremist. With you it’s always black and white. Listen, you can do little things. A little bit of exercise here, a little bit of dieting there—it worked for me before, it’ll work again.”

Oh, yeah? It worked for you before, huh? That means, at some point it stopped working which is why you’re considering doing something again. So, ultimately it…uh…wait for it… FAILED.

The cabbage soup diet is about as healthful and lifetime-sustainable as a BP oil line. Bon appetit! (Image via Wikimedia; Credit: Sloveniagirl)

If it worked for some time and then didn’t work anymore for whatever reason (your job changed, your life changed, the weather changed, whatever), it failed. Assuming the diet wasn’t some crackpot liquid or cabbage-type fiasco (which would fail for a host of reasons)but was a healthful intervention (such as Weight Watchers), why did it stop working? What changed? That’s right: RESOLVE. When we’re on a roll and doing well on a diet and fitness program, our resolve is strong but yes, things can get in the way. When that happens, we cease to believe in the importance or priority of the program anymore. We stop believing in the all-importance of our health.

One important footnote to this is that the diet companies themselves bear a great deal of responsibility for our decaying resolve (I’ll explore this in my next post) but regardless of who is to blame, it is we who stop believing in our own efforts to look and feel better.

So, Tip #12 is as follows:

  • Resolve to get healthy. Resolve completely, totally, and absolutely to do what it takes to look and feel better.
  • In our resolutions, we should focus on improving our health, not on weight loss. We all know that being overweight is a bad thing but it is not THE thing. If we do the things we need to do to make our bodies work better, then weight loss will go hand-in-hand with our improved health.
  • Resolve that we have no choice. Health insurance may or may not be optional depending on how political forces play out but good health itself should NEVER be optional.
  • We should make our commitment to good health part of our life, part of the way in which we identify ourselves. Far from being ashamed of it, we should wear it proudly.
  • Above all, believe. Believe that we can do it, and do it.

Because when we stop believing, that is why we fail.

(In my next entry, I’ll look carefully at why a diet such as Weight Watchers is a terrific diet—perhaps the best–but MUST ALWAYS fail unless we change the way we think about and deploy it).

Would somebody please get Charlie Sheen some help? If even half the things people are saying about him are true, the guy has got big problems: surely, one of his friends (to the extent that he has any real ones) or members of his family (to the extent that they’re capable) need to do something for him. I mean, we’d all do the same for our own loved ones, right?

Charlie Sheen (Image via Wikimedia, Credit: Angela George)

Well, maybe.

The guy did bring a lot of this on himself. No one forced him to do coke, hookers, and everything in between.  He’s had a hit film run, has a hit TV sitcom—what IS his excuse exactly?

But then there are the other pieces. We don’t know how he was raised, or how he wasn’t. When he felt like grabbing another kid’s ball on the playground, was his mother/nanny/generic,-easily-and-frequently-replaced-caregiver giving him a nod and a wink to say, “It’s okay, hon. I don’t give a crap.”

We don’t know what his mental and physiological predispositions are, whether he’s genetically prone to depression and addiction, for example. We don’t know how many good doctors turned him away, how many bad ones are in his pocket, enabling him.

We don’t really know what it’s like to be on a Hollywood set, what the expectations are, how he’s expected to behave, and what the consequences are for failure to comply.

There are just a lot of moving parts here and while it may be easy to blame him for his own mess, should we, really? Sheen has made a lot of bad choices but per my earlier post, were they all really his to make or were some of them made for him, constructed for him by where he came from and how? As entrenched in his own history, choices, and consequences as he is, can he even see the way out?

I don’t have a clue. I don’t know anything about Charlie Sheen but I do know something about me and, perhaps, people who behave like me.

What I do know is that we can all get ourselves into some pretty big messes of our own as we sacrifice our physical and mental health for satisfaction and perceived security at the office. Like an addiction, life at the office can absolutely consume us, landing us in a mess that could probably look something like Charlie’s (though without the drugs, non-prescription, anyway).

And I know we can’t even begin to see our way out of those messes until we understand what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, and find alternatives. Only by holding ourselves accountable for our messes, can we crawl out from underneath them.

When business is good, we’re almost happy to kill ourselves for the sake of our work. We eat and caffeinate ourselves to keep ourselves humming like a tuning fork because God knows, louder than even the sound and fury of all that work is the deafening vibrato of silence.

We stop for nothing—as long as we remain seated. We get up and move around only to find something with which to steel ourselves for the big meeting or a protracted date with Excel.  Coffee and donuts work but donuts certainly aren’t hip so we find other things, less obviously unhealthy things that are still sugar-, fat-, and calorie-rich, nonetheless.

KFC's Double Down: Death by bunless fried chicken (Image via Wikimedia, Credit: Michael Saechang)

When we worry, REALLY worry about whether we will succeed in all the fine and noble things we do behind a laptop, at a meeting, or while we’re on our way to a client site, we don’t have to worry for long: Vending machines, gas station convenience stores, and of course, airport concessions are there with new and powerful intoxicants such as KFC’s Double Down and anything with the word holiday next to it at Starbucks. Thousands of fat and sugar calories later, even a piss-poor Powerpoint deck can start looking snazzy.

When business is bad, well we know the drill there. A post or so ago, I ran through a scenario in which employees increasingly become lost in multiple business reorganizations and shifting quarterly goals. Some find surer footing, some don’t, but the point is that through it all, they can very likely lose themselves. When we don’t know where we’ll be working from quarter to quarter, or whether we’ll be working at all, is it any wonder that we eat, drink, and yes, be merry to make ourselves feel better?

But there is a way out for us (still not sure about Charlie).

If we examine ourselves and our behaviors, really try to understand why we just hit the office vending machine for a Twix, or treated ourselves to a peanut butter shake at Cold Stone Creamery just before a client presentation, or thought that General Tso was a mandatory invitee on order-in Fridays—if we dissected all the things we know we shouldn’t be doing, we’d be well on our way to putting a stop to them.

So, Corporate Survival Tip #34:

Look at everything you put in your body and everything you do to your body, and ask why. If you know it’s a bad thing to do, ask yourself why you need to do it. If the answer is that you can’t imagine life without these things, that’s fine for now. If the answer is that you just haven’t had time to think about these things, that’s fine for now, too. As long as the answer you come up with sounds right to you, as long as you’re truthful with yourself about it, then it’s a start. Over time as you continue to think about these choices, you’ll either end up validating them as good ones or rejecting them as bad ones. When you’re ready, and ONLY when you’re ready, make any changes you think follow from your self-examination.

Accountability is the key.  Once we understand what we’re doing to ourselves and why, we can find the motivation and strength to make changes.

Ironically Charlie Sheen himself underscores this very point in his classic cameo in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. “Your problem is you,” he said to Jennifer Grey’s character.

(Take a look at the minute mark in this video)

Your problem is you. Our problem is us. It isn’t the easiest thing to accept; in fact, Jennifer Grey ended up threatening to cut off one of Charlie’s balls.

But if we can get past the guilt, ire, and self-incrimination, we might just get the help we need.

–          Mike Raven

For decades, James ‘The Amazing’ Randi has offered a ton of cash to anyone who can prove psychic powers. Currently at a million bucks, the prize will go to anyone who can show under experimental conditions, anything resembling telepathy, psychokinesis, paranormal contact with the dead—you name it. (Note that to date, no one has received the money.)

Given that Halloween is fast upon us, I’d like to do some debunking of my own (though true to the spirit of my blog). I’d like to take on what I believe to be nothing short of one of the greatest paranormal cognitive phenomena—a myth nothing short of the business equivalent of Loch Ness: Multi-Tasking!

I will award ONE genuine Halloween Snickers or Hershey bar—your choice—to the first person who can prove the existence of REAL business multi-tasking. Here is how I define multi-tasking:

The big prize awaits if you can prove the existence of multi-tasking. (Image: Mr. Billion/Wikimedia)

The multi-tasker must be able to prove she can solve two intellectual business problems at once. Let me be clear: If you are relaying between the two tasks—say, developing a competitive landscape of the document compliance industry, then switching to developing the financials for a business case, then switching back to the competitive landscape—you DON’T win the candy. Obviously, if you are in a meeting and tuning your boss in and out as you scan your Facebook page, occasionally drifting into your email inbox to respond to some underlings doing your work for you, that wouldn’t qualify either.

To win the loot, you have to be the first person to prove that you can be engaged in at least two intellectual, problem-solving business tasks SIMULTANEOUSLY.

Why? Simple: As I pointed out in my last post, the recession has exacerbated a big problem. Good talent is getting lost in big corporations.  As more and more people get laid off and big companies don’t know what they’re doing from quarter to quarter, those companies are passing more and more responsibility onto people who have neither the skills nor the bandwidth to accommodate the incremental work load.

The employees try to manage their managers’ expectations but what do they hear?

Multi-task! Get it done! Budget your time more effectively! Of course, the implication of all this is that if those employees can’t get it done, then the corporation can easily find someone else to do it. Believable, indeed, given that corporations these days are nothing if not good at firing their own employees and outsourcing to fill the gaps.

Bottom line: All work is incremental. There is no such thing as multi-tasking… unless you can PROVE otherwise.

So, in the spirit of Halloween, let’s tackle the supernatural business dimension, if you will, and see if we can put the multi-tasking myth to rest.

Any takers?

– Mike Raven

 

In all his hand-to-hand matches with stealth government agents and terrorists in which he suffered minor knife slits across his limbs, did 24’s Jack Bauer ever hit the ER for an X-ray and stitches? In all their encounters with the Smoke Monster, or run-ins with the ‘Others’ across sideway-, forward-, and back-flashes, did the Lost castaways ever have to pause to tend to a simple but deep gash that wouldn’t stop bleeding?

Of course not but in my own little reality show, things work a little differently. In my own show, I can’t carry a bottle of Perrier up a flight of stairs without the thing falling through a paper-thin Stop & Shop bag (yes, Stop & Shop, you’re on notice), crashing to the ground, and propelling an arrowhead-like piece of glass upward into my left calf.  Now this didn’t actually hurt—much, anyway.  And it didn’t appear to be bleeding profusely—much, anyway. But it was hurting and bleeding and the problem was that it wouldn’t stop. So, off to the ER on a Friday night where all I could think about was that now I’d have to miss my evening run and worse yet, might have to miss a few more.

I just wanted to run. Image: Francesco Marino / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

As the doc stitched it up, I asked if I’d still be able to run and he replied, “Well, I could tell you not to but you’re a runner. You’re gonna do it, anyway. So, I’ll throw some tape on and try to keep it stable for you. If the stitches dislodge, at least you’ve gotten a run in so no harm done, right?”

I wanted to hug this guy. “Right!” I affirmed.

There you have it: Engagement in its purest form.  All I cared about was making that next run.  And why was I so engaged? Put another way, why don’t I have the same passion for my work?

In my last post, I talked about how real employee engagement is about putting an employee to work on meaningful projects with meaningful outcomes for/with meaningful people that ultimately make a difference both for the organization and for that employee personally. What I implied but did not nearly emphasize enough in that mix is just how critical it is for employees to have a fighting chance to be successful at what they’re doing.

Let’s call this ‘Success Potential.’ If Success Potential is high, then employees become invested in what they do: they know they can get things done and that what they do will be valued. In such situations, employees are wholly and passionately engaged.

If Success Potential is low, if employees think they’re set up to fail, that what they’re working on may or may not be important but cannot or should not be accomplished given the organization’s (sometimes changing) priorities, we end up with a lack of engagement, even disenfranchisement.

Now, it’s true that some low Success Potential situations look high (e.g., for you Mad Men fans out there, remember when Joan is given a promotion in title only? Does she really have what she needs to be successful? Has the organization equipped her with the mindset?) and some high Success Potential situations look low (e.g., for your Project Runway fans, did you really think Michael Costello would go as far as he did; apparently, good designers DON’T need a ruler), but there’s no question about it: Passion, innovativeness, and yes, engagement—all those lovely buzzyworthy words business people throw about—are all tied directly to whether we think we can be successful at what we’re doing and make a difference.

I know I can be successful when I jump on the treadmill, when I flow through my Tai Chi form daily, and when I put good things into my body.  I look better, I feel better, and even better than all those betters, is that I am getting better and better every week.  Success Potential is high, very high, and I build on it every chance I get.

On the other hand, there’s my job with its odd, cold, mutable panorama of things in favor, where, returning to the Project Runway motif, one day you’re in and one day you’re out.  Certainly it’s hard to become engaged when I can’t jump into a project with the same outlook for success that I have when I jump on a treadmill.

So, 3 tips of the day (Tips #63-65):

  1. In the workplace, find stuff at which you can be successful. While this sounds like a ‘no duh,’ it’s anything but. Notice that I didn’t recommend attaching yourself to the boss you think will be the next CEO or looking out for the next big flavor-of-the-month project. My recommendation is actually a little more prosaic: Just look for the thing that you can do well, no matter how small, and which will likely hold its value at least through the next 6 months.
  2. Find personal sources of engagement—life passions, if you will. Within and beyond the workplace, within and throughout your life, find and do stuff at which you can be successful and that you’ll value over time. Good exercise and nutrition are great examples. Do these with gusto and look for other things, too. Engage in all these things relentlessly. Protect them relentlessly from the work-related things that want to diminish or poison them.
  3. Don’t sweat Tip #1. If you can’t find something to be engaged in at work, keep trying or find a different place to work. While you’re doing either or both of those things, always stay focused on your truest sources of engagement: all the life passions you’ll find in Tip #2.

With our focus where it should be—on finding true, personal sources of engagement, let me turn it over to you: What else are you good at the moment you begin doing it? What else can you be successful at as you continue to do it? What else gives you the satisfaction of knowing that it’ll be there to welcome you back, that it will grow with you, and that it will help you grow?

Looking forward to sharing…

All the best,

Mike Raven

I just came out of a meeting with the SVP of New Product Development. He was crying.

No, he had NOT been fired. The SVP (let’s call him Sal) hadn’t lost someone dear to him. Sal hadn’t stepped on a nail or found out that his wife had been sleeping with his dentist.  Sal said, and I’m quoting verbatim, “I’ve never seen this company go through so much pain. I identify with this company, you know.”

It was somewhere around the ‘pain’ part that he began tearing up and smack in the middle of the word ‘identify’ that there was an unmistakable moment of blubbering.

Yes, he’s a three-decade veteran of this company and has seen more here than I ever wish to but I’m sorry: if there is no crying in baseball, then there is definitely no crying in management.

Allow me to invoke a Tom Hanks moment:

There can’t be any crying in either of those two sports, if you will, because when we cry about something, we’re privileging how we feel over what we must do. When we cry, we cave into and indulge ourselves within emotions that can easily drive us to exuberance or despair—two extremes that again, are not particularly helpful in solving problems or moving us forward.

I’m not suggesting we become Vulcans or Tibetan monks but I am suggesting we focus. The fact is that Sal and I had been working together nearly round-the-clock over the last two days and we had one job to do:  get the CEO a Powerpoint deck so he can talk intelligently about some alliance opportunities with another CEO. That was it.

Taking on the pain of the company’s 50,000 employees?  Not his job. As ego-gratifying as it must be for Sal to believe he bears some responsibility for his colleagues’ pain, it’s not his job.  Sal is not the company and the company is not Sal.

Sal cannot save Darth Vader. (Image from Wikimedia)

Turning the latest fire drill into an act of mythic heroism? Again, as personally satisfying and exciting as that might be for Sal, this is not an epic struggle between good and evil. Sal is not Luke Skywalker and the company is not Darth Vader awaiting moral metamorphosis.

The company doesn’t need to be saved. It’s just fine the way it is. Might it die? Sure but that would be just fine, too. Contrary to the narratives we construct for ourselves, companies and things, in general, do not need to be saved simply because they are in trouble or dying. Sometimes things need to be in trouble and yes, sometimes they need to die.

I don’t blame Sal for crying. But I do blame him for losing perspective and focus. Managers are supposed to have that at the very least.

This brings me to the point of this post: Perspective, focus, and a sharply defined scope of responsibility and emotional accountability are positively key to corporate survival. If we can’t tell where our job, our company, and our colleagues end and where we begin, then we’re done: we’ll never have a life within and beyond the organization—a prerequisite, as I have noted, for survival—if we can’t separate ourselves from it.

We’ve all heard the expression, “It’s just a job.” Well, it is. And there’s no crying in it.

-Mike Raven

I’m not sure Lie to Me is headed in the right direction. In that Fox TV series, the lead character, Dr. Cal Lightman, interprets facial and vocal “microexpressions”—facial actions or voice modulations discernible only to the trained or naturally astute observer—to get a good sense of what people are feeling whether they’re lying.

In one scene, for example, Lightman shows a video of a woman talking cheerfully about how she’s ready to see her family, how she’s no longer depressed and is ready to exit institutional care. When he slowed down the video, however, and focused on her face, we can plainly see the smile flanked by momentary facial constrictions, narrowings or strictures that show she is trying to disguise her real feelings literally by turning a frown upside-down, an effect turned right-side-up by slow-mo.

Based on the real-life work of psychologist Paul Ekman, it’s a terrific premise but do Lightman and his team have to descend deep into the criminal underground to uncover dark secrets and lots of people to save?  Fight clubs, masochistic beauty queens, organized crime, kidnapping rings – who needs ‘em when the Lightman Group could be working feverishly (and at a high price-point, I might add) to save a perfectly delightful population of intrapsychically-conflicted, hyper-anxious, and chronically self-obfuscating employees at major corporations?

Try this – Experiment 1:

At your next meeting, look around the room and scan the faces—I mean, REALLY scan the faces.  You may see some smiles but are those really smiles?  Those of you with kids know what a real smile looks like; is that what you’re seeing as you pan across the conference room? Take a look at the ridges above and below the eyes and mouth – what are you seeing?

According to Ekman, expressions of fear are universal. (Image: Maria Yakunchikova "Fear" 1893-95)

If something in those faces doesn’t look quite right but yet seems somehow familiar, try one more thing: try to make those features appear on your own face.  As you begin to recall the last time you’d made that face, you might start to feel something. Even if you don’t, what would you have to be feeling to make a face like that?

Hint: It’s fear.

Well, depending on where you are in your own corporate lifecycle, perhaps it’s fear mixed with contempt. Depending on how you were brought up, maybe it’s fear suppressed with self-loathing. The point is, it’s fear.

Three more experiments:

  1. Listen to the laughter at a meeting. Is that real laughter? Or, does it sound forced? Do you think this is how these people laugh with their friends and family?
  2. Tune into watercooler or drive-by conversations. As I walked from my fourth-floor office to a fifth-floor conference room, I heard two conversations whisper-punctuated with the words, “I’m afraid that…”
  3. What are your colleagues doing as they talk? How are they moving their bodies? During a job interview with a major insurer, a Group VP of Analytics commented, “Oh, when I started here no one called on my group. They didn’t get us. Now, whenever they need to get it right, whenever the CEO needs something, we’re the ONLY ONES they call!” And with that, he threw his right shoulder very slightly forward in two staccato motions. It happened so fast and so subtly that it could have gone unnoticed but like a poker ‘tell,’ it helped me understand something important about the level of fear (and the necessary level of defiance required) in that organization.

So, what are we all so afraid of? Failing. Not living up to the image we have of ourselves. Being canned.  Almost being canned. I could go on and on and probably never come close to the specific things you or I are afraid of every day when we enter the office.

And we could dump a ton of money into psychotherapy and self-examination to figure out why, or get a prescription to manage the tons of symptoms that live off that fear like bacteria on an open wound. Or, we could start living. If we recognize the fear, recognize that that is ALL it is, JUST FEAR, then we can start living.

We lie to ourselves every day when we sit down at a meeting. We laugh when we don’t want to, smile when we feel we have to, and contort outselves into creatures we scarcely recognize.

But we don’t have to. Once I started telling the truth, once I started acting like the person I wanted to be in spite of everything I felt I had to be inside that conference room or manager’s office, I started living.

So, step 1 to surviving corporate America without psychotherapy or drugs:  Recognize that fear dominates much of what we do at work. But, that’s all it is: fear.  Start living.

All the best,

Mike Raven