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When my husband was a child, he couldn’t understand why his older brother would voluntarily go to Hebrew School. Worried he would face the same fate, he asked his mother if he would have to go at some point too.

“When you want to know what it means to be Jewish, then I’ll send you to Hebrew School,” his mother told him. Great, my husband thought, all I have to do is never utter those words and I’m home free.

Cut to:

His brother’s bar mitzvah: a huge, lavish party at an expensive hotel, with dancing, food, drinks, laughter, friends, family, and most importantly…TONS OF PRESENTS and MONEY.

The next day, my husband, eight years old at the time, said to his mother, “I want to know what it means to be Jewish.” And off he went to Hebrew School for five years, at the end of which he got his party, his presents, and some cash.

Cut to the present: He has not stepped foot inside a temple since.

I offer this parable to illustrate the effect of extrinsic motivation in the workplace, that being that the offer of rewards – bonuses, raises – do not create employee engagement, retention, or loyalty. With our eye on the prize, we will work towards the reward dangling in front of us until we get it – we will do the bare minimum to get it – and then we will move on to greener pastures.

This is in opposition to intrinsic motivation, which is inspiring someone from within, when an employee wants to do a good job out of a personal and professional sense of integrity. They want to do a good job for the company and for themselves because they find meaning in their work and that meaning gives them a sense of purpose in life.

It is up to the individual to come to work desiring meaning in their work, but it is also up to the leader to inspire from within.

When an Employee Goes Through the Motions

Neuroscientist Patrick Haggard, at University College London, studied the effects of intentional action vs action that is performed because of directives.

What he discovered is that intentional action creates a warped sense of time. If, for example, you have a button that makes a sound and you intentionally press that button to make the sound you will think the sound comes much quicker than it actually does (a phenomenon called “intentional binding”). This warped sense of time is absent from those who press the button because they’re told to; they have a clear sense of the time interval between the button being pressed and the sound created.

This warped time factor can be neurally recorded and this “neural signature,” as Gopnik put it, is how neuroscientists determine whether an individual feels a sense of agency or not with their decisions.

In their studies, whenever a subject was told to do something the intentional binding neural signature was absent. When a subject acted out of their own free will the intentional binding neural signature was present.

To be clear, If we feel a sense of agency, the neural signature of not being aware of time intervals is present; if we don’t feel a sense of agency the neural signature is absent and we clearly remember the time intervals between action and the result of that action.

The end result is that when the neural signature is absent the subject doesn’t feel as though the decision to, say, press the button was their own. It was an order given to them. And as such they don’t feel like it was they who did it.

How does this affect meaning in the workplace?

The more agency you give your employees the more they will feel that they themselves are doing the work, they are creating and assigning the value to their work, and this motivates them from within because they have a sense of free will.

If their job solely consists of taking orders and doing what they are told they will feel a lack of agency, and this lack of agency will create a gap between themselves and the work being done. They will not feel invested, like their own mind was being used, like they are making their own decisions and creating meaningful work on their own.

They will grow bored, feeling untapped. They will work to not be punished. They will work for the paycheck, and the paycheck only goes so far. You will create employees who feel no sense of loyalty and will not experience any guilt over leaving you high and dry should something better come along.

Inspire from within!

You want to create an aligned, harmonious culture where the people are engaged and feel a sense of loyalty to the work.

Doing so requires replacing our habitual, unconscious day-to-day behavior with a conscious relational philosophy built on heightened social awareness and skillful relationship management. It’s called having a relational philosophy.

Here are some tips for doing just that:

  1. Find out what other interests / passions your people have. And then utilize them. This creates more meaning for their life and feeds back into the company by creating an aligned, sticky culture. Promote individuality so people feel like their specific existence plays a valued role in the organization/company.
  2. Promote psychological safety. Create a comfortable environment where speaking up is nurtured. Feeling safe to be vulnerable, to take risks, to just be can be powerfully motivating. Google conducted 200+ interviews over the course of 2 years looking at more than 250 attributes of 180+ active Google teams. They found the teams that had achieved psychological safety were the most successful.
  3. Create Supportive, Friendly Competition. Focus on how everyone’s individual efforts help the entire team achieve success. Remain alert for unwarranted complaints about others, angry outbursts, backstabbing, finger pointing, and sabotage. Create friendly competition, not an ultimate “win or lose” challenge among team members.
  4. Celebrate Success. Celebrating small wins motivates. It helps teams stay focused on what they are working for, and it gives everyone a chance to reflect on their successes. Take everyone out for drinks or create some time during the workday to acknowledge the wins.
  5. Show Appreciation. Feeling appreciated is a core emotional concern for all humans. It is part of our make-up. A simple thank you, a handwritten note, a pat on the back, or gratitude for someone’s unique contribution can be more motivating than money. If you want to give a token of appreciation, tailor it to the individual: show that you’ve been listening (e.g., a day at the spa, tickets to someone’s favorite band or restaurant that they keep talking about). This makes the gesture unforgettable.
  6. Pay attention to the environment. If you can, build a beautiful, cozy, fun, creative atmosphere for you and your people to work in. Research has shown that environment can be more important and more motivating than money. Our surroundings can inspire our brains.
  7. Hire for cultural fit. You’re building a clan. It behooves you to hire with personality in mind, not just credentials. We spend most of our lives with our coworkers, it thus makes sense for these people to be our friends, people with whom we’d like to get a drink and spend time with outside of work. For proof of concept, look to Zappos. I recommend reading Tony Hsieh’s Delivering Happiness.
  8. Be flexible. For instance, if a remote work situation produces good results from a valued employee, work out an arrangement that works for all parties. Saying no just because it’s never happened before is spiteful. If you can’t reward with money, maybe there are other things you can do to show appreciation – be creative! Think outside of the box.

The tale of Sisyphus is oft-used as a metaphor for drudgery and drone office work. We can all potentially turn into – or feel like we are being turned into – Sisyphus, taking repetitive orders to complete mindless tasks ad nauseum.

But we don’t have to live that way. Our work lives don’t have to be mindless, hopeless struggles. Leaders should play a major role in that pursuit: create meaning in the workplace to the best of your ability, acknowledge successes, and reward the struggle.

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Few children grow up thinking, “Someday I’m going to be a manager.” Truth be told, few adults probably do too.

Management is an elusive field. It’s hard to find the right candidate because, aside from the stature and increase in pay, it typically raises your stress level and negatively affects your interpersonal relationships. Just the word “manager” can conjure negative feelings in employees.

Managers may not have clear visions of how to lead and what to delegate. They may fear a coup of their very position and then become withholding with regard to tasks and responsibilities. They may battle with inner demons of respect and loyalty. Managers are people who are rarely trained in the art of management and thus leave a trail of inconsistency in their wake.

Employees are oft left with the role of self-management in lieu of strong leadership. Navigating inconsistent management is a skill in itself. The good news is it can only help you!

Factors that Contribute to Inconsistent Management

The main ingredient for inconsistent management is a lack of self-efficacy.

Rarely is inconsistent management a case of someone so confident they adhere to the Emerson belief that “consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” More often it is someone who wishes to be perceived as consistent; their underdeveloped self-awareness is the very thing that leads to their erratic decision-making.

In 2010, researchers at the University of Western Ontario (J. Robert Mitchell, Dean A. Shepherd, and Mark P. Sharfman) conducted a study to figure out the how / why behind managerial erratic decision-making.

What they found was the following:

“Erratic strategic decisions are less likely from managers with greater metacognitive experience and for managers who operate in more dynamic environments.

Conversely, erratic strategic decisions are more likely from managers in more hostile environments, especially when dynamism in that environment is low.”

Meaning…

  1. Self-awareness – or the absence of – is one main component for inconsistent management. Managers who do not self-reflect and aren’t aware that they don’t self-reflect will lead to a higher rate of inconsistency. Their lack of self-awareness about how they’re coming to their decisions (past experiences, thought patterns, metacognitive processes) informs the efficacy of their decisions.
  2. Dynamism – The more dynamic the work environment the less inconsistent the decision-making; most likely because decisions have to be made, there isn’t time to deliberate. Given too much time, anyone can second-guess their decisions.
  3. Hostile & Changing Environment – The work environment doesn’t have to be hostile, it can simply be ever-shifting with regard to personnel, protocol, or allocation of space.

And I would add a 4th:

  • Lack of knowledge / experience – If you do not have any past relatable experience to draw upon, chances are you will not know what to do to produce a desired result. You may not even know what the desired result is.

Where does this leave the employee?

Learned helplessness

Learned helplessness is when we are conditioned to think we are powerless to change a bad situation for the better, thus accepting that there is no light at the end of the tunnel.

In the context of inconsistent management, there are two forms of learned helplessness:

  1. When the manager projects an image of incompetence, sending out conflicting messages and confusing directions. The employee is left feeling hopeless regarding the manager’s competence.
  2. When the inconsistent management takes the form of inconsistent reinforcement, meaning complimentary one day and critical the next. The employee may have initially felt competent, but now feels incompetent due to their boss’ inconsistent reinforcement.

Solutions:

  • Speak with HR.
  • Find new employment.
  • Bounce experience off trusted colleagues for confirmation.

It is crucial for the employee to keep their self-efficacy intact. Doing so requires self-awareness that it’s even setting in.

Hopefully they’re reading blogs about learned helplessness. Hopefully they’re recognizing the behavior as inconsistent and problematic and running it by someone. It can be HR or a trusted colleague. They need to confirm their own sanity to ensure the problem isn’t on their end.

Emotional Contagion

A manager with inconsistent moods that lean toward negativity is a form of mild torture; you’re never sure who you’re going to get. The only upside is it it’s a great lesson in learning what you do have control over, which is your own mood. So, start there:

  • Step outside for a moment.
  • Watch a video you know makes you happy.
  • Listen to a song you know makes you happy.
  • Talk to someone that makes you happy.

When to confront your boss & when to let it ride

Good question. More often than not, I’d suggest letting it ride. Inconsistency is likely due to insecurity. Tapping into their issues may threaten them and consequently hurt your professional standing. I recommend:
  • Pick a time when you’re fairly certain you’re on their good side and they’re pleased with you.
  • Pick a time when they’re in a good mood and seemingly open and receptive to the outside world.
  • Pick your battles. Make sure this is truly a situation that needs to be resolved and addressed before you can move on with your work.

Reframe it back to the manager for clarity

If the inconsistency is with direction and conflicting messages, the employee should ask for clarification:

  • Reflexive mirroring. Repeat what they said back to them so they can confirm their own statement and add what you need clarification on. Have the manager give a clear directive so the onus is on them.

For instance…

“I heard that you want the project done asap, but that we should also focus on this other project immediately as well. I want to make sure I do exactly what you want – which should I make the priority?”

When it comes to inconsistent reinforcement, the employee can do the same thing – throw the ball back, i.e.:

“I want to improve and make sure I’m doing the best job – what is the area you feel I need to work on?”

Asking your boss for clarification shows respect and protects you from future misunderstanding. With inconsistency, there are no rules, so you want to do your part to get on as stable ground as possible.

Speaking up for yourself will also embolden you. When you act and express yourself – even if the conditions don’t change – you will change internally because speaking up for yourself has an ameliorative effect on the soul.

When you don’t stand up for yourself or your needs, you tap your willpower. You are left feeling drained, exhausted, and you increase the likelihood of learned helplessness.

——

We can be swayed by titles – manager, boss, CEO, etc – but it’s always important to remember these are not divine kings sent to us from the heavens, they are regular people who were hired into a position.

Though inconsistency and incompetence are infuriating, it’s important to allow compassion and understanding in. This is a person with faults, insecurities, goals, and dreams like everyone.

Perhaps they took on more than they can handle, maybe the inconsistency is a result of trickle-down inconsistency from the top and they’re just trying to stay afloat; perhaps they never even wanted to be in this position but couldn’t resist the pay increase.

Put yourself in their shoes, consider their life, what might be happening in their world. Consider the fact that if they leave and you get their job that a) that might have been one of their fears all along and b) you might not be so consistent yourself.

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Sometimes when my husband isn’t home at the expected time I assume he’s dead on the side of the highway being eaten by wolves.

So far, this hasn’t happened (but that doesn’t mean it won’t).

Hi, my name is Nicole and I am a Catastrophist.

Catastrophisizing is but one of many cognitive distortions we all fall prey to from time to time, sometimes on a daily basis.

Psychologytoday.com defines catastrophizing perfectly into two parts so I’m quoting them:

Part 1: Predicting a negative outcome.

Part 2: Jumping to the conclusion that if the negative outcome did in fact happen, it would be a catastrophe.

It’s interesting that anyone thinks like this because it so obviously doesn’t serve us, either in leadership or in our personal lives. Yet we do, because we want so badly for the good to happen, that we put equal amount of energy into fearing the worst might happen too.

Catastrophizing is – excuse the redundancy – catastrophic for leaders. As a leader you need to be a beacon of resilience. And unfortunately…

Excessive Worrying Reduces Resilience

One of the most important traits for a leader is resilience. Inherent in leading, building teams and building a business are setbacks. Actually “setbacks” has a negative connotation to it; really what we should call them are “events that happen that move us towards the events we’d rather happen.”

It’s part of the game. It’s actually part of life in general and resilience is crucial for your personal life too, but when it comes to leadership, resilience or the lack thereof can make or break you.

You therefore want to build an arsenal of tools that support the tendency of resilience. You want sleep, exercise, a good diet, recuperation time, and a growth mindset to focus on challenges as opportunities.

The irony about anticipating stress is that it creates stress, so you immediately bring into your life the very thing you’re trying to avoid when you worry that it will come into your life.

Assumptions and expectations that cause anxiety arise from our past experiences, what we witness from other people’s experiences, and what we see in society from film/TV/books/magazines/etc.

You might have been fired in a past job and assume you will be fired in your new job. You might have seen someone else get fired and assume you will also be fired. You might have seen someone in a movie get fired for something similar to what’s transpiring in your own life and you assume you will be fired too.

These are all fictions and fiction never fully reflects reality.

Furthermore, the future is a landscape that doesn’t exist. Worrying about the future is the same thing as worrying about anything that doesn’t exist. Would you worry that you’re never going to get to visit the country of Alparnia? Probably not, because it’s a country that doesn’t exist.

Keep your mind focused on what exists, which is the moment you are living. It is the only timeline you can control. This will help build a resilient attitude, which will in turn:

  • grow your self-confidence
  • give you a flair for adaptation and flexibility
  • cultivate the belief that you can influence life events

The Benefits of Anticipatory Anxiety

  • Makes you feel terrible
  • Creates the reality you fear most
  • Raises your blood pressure, stress level, and can lead to disease
  • Stresses out everyone around you
  • Makes you look incompetent, non-resilient, and fearful
  • Emotional contagion will spur others to leave you

Obviously none of these are benefits, but I wanted to label them as such to shine a light on our flawed thinking.

There’s an illusion of strength with your anxiety, that it is giving you control over the eventual outcome. Somewhere in the back of your mind you think “If I worry over it I can effect the outcome I want by thinking of everything I need to do to make sure what I don’t want doesn’t happen.” This is neurotic behavior that only attracts what you don’t want, because you’re only focusing on what you don’t want.

What you do want is nowhere in the equation.

Would you go about making a cake by focusing on all the ingredients that you wouldn’t want to be in it? You’d never make a birthday cake with broccoli, cumin, beef, sesame oil, and a microphone. At least not for someone you love.

Worrying about what you don’t want to happen is putting all of the aforementioned ingredients into a bowl, stirring them together, and putting it in the oven, all the while saying, “I hope I don’t make this cake.” And the only thing you’re doing is making it.

Why some of us are prone to anticipatory anxiety and excessive worry comes down to our core beliefs, which I wrote about here.

How to Deal

1. Take a moment to stop the train. You may have to forcibly take a moment to stop doing what you’re doing and just pause. Sit, breathe, close your eyes, and project what you want coming true rather than what you don’t want.

2. Find Something Immediately that Makes You Happy. It can be a video, a picture, a memory, it
doesn’t matter, just go there mentally, visually. You need to replace the anxiety with different thoughts. For me, it’s animals.

3. Full Steam Ahead. The best method is to proceed as though catastrophizing is something you’ve never even heard about. Make small choices towards your goals; keep putting one foot in front of the other towards the end game. This helps focus on the here and now while simultaneously keeping the anxiety at bay. What you don’t want is to sit in a chair ruminating without taking any action and/or taking preventative action towards a reality that doesn’t exist.

4. Make the Choice. The easiest and hardest part of moving past your anticipatory anxiety is making the choice to move past it. You have to want to move past it; you have to consciously choose happiness over suffering; resilience over stagnation; growth over regression; peace of mind over anxiety. It’s a choice, and the good news is you always have that choice available to you. Make little choices rather than huge sweeping ones. So, agree with yourself to make the choice not to have anticipatory anxiety. It’s not easy, and it’s not an immediate cure, but it’s a start.

Let go of the delusion that your worry is controlling the external world and creating desirable circumstances. Worry is not control.

The solutions, as the saying goes, “are in your head.” You may not permanently solve your catastrophizing, but you can learn to deal with it more effectively.

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I had a situation recently in my business where employees were sending around group emails discussing the outcome of the election. Unbeknownst to them, there were a couple of employees in the mix that held opposing views and they took offense to the emails. One of the folks with an opposing view spoke with me about it and I found myself in unchartered waters.

Apparently I’m not the only one. Lately, employees and CEOs alike are making their voices heard and the consequences are dramatic:

  • Uber’s CEO was initially on Trump’s advisory council but removed himself after facing pressure from within – and from outside – the organization. Uber’s membership dropped by 200,000 accounts as a result.
  • In Philadelphia, Comcast allowed employees to take off work to participate in marches.
  • Mark Zuckerberg began to address the issue of fake news that populated Facebook during the presidential run.
  • A senior executive at Oracle publicly resigned after the CEO joined the Trump transition team.
  • Nordstrom’s dropped Ivanka’s clothing line; #boycott is trending on twitter.

It’s fair to say at this point that the rule of “no politics in the workplace” no longer applies. This can create conflict for teams and coworkers working under the same roof who need to get along and work toward the same goal.

As I wasn’t entirely sure how to handle the matter in my own business, I felt it deserved some exploration. What’s a leader’s role when a divisive political climate enters the workplace?

Given that I’m a shrink, I looked at why first. I figure if you can get a grasp on the why, it’s easier to understand the best intervention.

There are many factors at play but there seems to be two obvious psychological phenomena that are triggering the intensity.

Us vs. Them – Let’s Get Back on the Same Team

When I first moved to Philadelphia from New York, I went to a Phillies / Mets game. New to the city, I was unaware of the fanaticism of Philadelphia sports fans. As I cheered for my Mets, I found myself on the receiving end of jeers and threats from Philly fans. It was the first time in my life I feared getting attacked by a group of lunatics. It was also the first time in my life that I really understood the “us vs them” phenomenon.

The groups we belong to are an important source of pride and self-esteem. Groups give us a sense of social identity, a sense of belonging: feeling pride for your sports team because it’s where you live or were born; being born a blonde or brunette; being born a man or a woman.

With “us vs them” the “versus” becomes prominent. In order to increase our self-image we enhance the status of the group to which we belong. There is nothing inherently wrong with this except when one group starts to perceive the other group as “bad,” “wrong,” or “defective.”

In a non-heightened political climate “us vs. them” can potentially stimulate healthy workplace competition, but the same aspects that promote healthy competition in an us vs. them team-based work environment can backfire dramatically when politics enter the fray.

Once congenial co-workers can become teams of you versus me, us versus them, and ultimately bad versus good. The current political climate has heightened the potential for these workplace chasms; pushing against each other serves to give more power to the struggle.

But this is not the only psychological phenomenon at play.

Confirmation Bias: The Glue that Keeps Us Comfortably Stuck

Confirmation bias has started and sustained wars, prompted consumers to buy things they neither want nor need, and led to some of the worst (and best) business decisions ever made.

You’ll find no better example of confirmation bias than in the emotionally charged world of political opinion. In 2009, three Ohio State University researchers—Heather LaMarre, Kristen Landreville, and Michael Beam—used the satirical Comedy Central show, The Colbert Report, to investigate the subject.

Stephen Colbert parodied conservative politics and pundits, pretending, for example, to have launched a run for the presidency. The researchers asked 332 participants in the study to describe Colbert’s point of view. Those who held liberal opinions viewed him as a liberal and his show as pure satire. Conservatives, on the other hand, saw him as a conservative pundit expressing honest conservative opinions through his satire. In short, the participants’ own views strongly colored their perceptions of the comedian.

We see things the way we want to see things. We hear what we want to hear. We look for information that supports our views and quickly ignore or diminish information that goes against our views. When something as dividing as politics comes into the picture, it highlights this normal human characteristic more than ever and thus, enhances emotions and fuels conflict.

So at the most basic level, these are some of the things making an already tense situation heightened.

So now that we understand the why, lets move on to what to do as a leader.

Unfortunately, I don’t have the answers; this is as new for me as well. However, based on what I know about bias and counteracting bias, here are some things to try and think about.

To show your hand or not

Some CEOs have come out in support of the current administration and some have come out to denounce it. Your company’s image will be affected on either side of the coin.

Whether you choose to show your hand or not, you need to weigh the risks and ensure that it’s in the best interest of your people and your company versus your own interests. Taking sides can have an alienating impact on some and an ameliorative impact on others. If a demand for your voice isn’t requested, then your voice might be best served in a bipartisan fashion.

Howard Schultz, the CEO of Starbucks, publicly endorsed Hillary Clinton, but also sent a thoughtful letter to the entire company after Trump was elected, urging everyone to choose compassion and understanding as we moved forward as a country.

Bernie Marcus, co-founder of Home Depot, published a pro-Trump letter prior to the election, confident that Trump would be positive for business growth.

Amazon’s CEO, Jeff Bezos, was an outspoken critic of Trump during the election process, but continued to sell Trump-related products on Amazon. Post-election, Bezos offered a conciliatory tweet wishing Trump success.

If you do speak out, personalize your story to clarify your motivation. It’s easier to empathize and relate when the narrative is more personal rather than political. I recommend a recent article in The Harvard Business Review, which offered some sound insight into the matter.

See it as a strange opportunity

The current political climate – if it is leaking into your workplace – is a perfect excuse to confront conscious and unconscious biases: biases of which we are unaware but are responsible for interfering with good decision-making, clear thinking, effective problem solving, healthy relationships and even creativity.

It’s imperative for biases to be identified so everyone can spot them when they rear their ugly heads. If we can better understand our biases, we can better counteract them. Use this as an opportunity to teach and train.

You can implement training and workshops that focus on developing self-awareness around biases, and tools to counteract them. This will only make your workforce stronger.

Use it as a chance to flex your empathy muscle

The bottom line is this is rough for both sides. Perhaps too much time has passed at this point but other divisive issues will surely arise in the future, whether political or other.

Use these times to acknowledge and validate. When you acknowledge and validate, it makes people feel heard and understood. It creates a foundation of safety knowing that it’s okay to have differing opinions, as long as respect permeates the culture. As a leader you have an opportunity to set the climate and to model empathetic behavior.

Use Us Vs. Them as a Chance to Unite and RE-Instill an Ideology

Everyone who works together needs to realize that one’s political affiliation does not make them a bad person nor professionally incompetent. Ultimately, the diversity can only help, both the company and the employees of the company.

A diversity of beliefs in a cooperative culture is what you want; it’s what we all want for our society. You can create a microcosm of the perfect society within your organization where diversity is cultivated and respected.

Why would we want everyone to think the same in our organization anyway? That just leads to groupthink, status quo, and the acceptance of the group’s version of “common knowledge.”

A leader’s challenges during this politically divisive time is to bring everyone together, to validate the realities felt by all, and see it as an opportunity for the company to become something more expansive than it was prior.

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We all talk to ourselves when we’re alone. When we’re walking down the street, when we’re sitting in front of the computer, when we’re waiting for our car to come out of the car wash.

And when we talk to ourselves there’s a narrator with a particular bent. Sometimes our narrator is inspiring, but sometimes our narrator confirms our deepest fears for us. Of course it’s always us narrating our own story.

You’d think we’d always choose an inspiring narrator, yet so many of us – myself included – fall prey at times to a terrible, uninspiring narrator. Where does this narrator come from? He/she is born out of our core beliefs.

Our core beliefs are all the ingrained positive and negative thoughts that influence how we think and feel about ourselves, and the world around us. Unless discovered and diminished, core beliefs tend to solidify and resist change.

Here is a list of some common negative core beliefs:

  • I always get the short end of the stick
  • I must be perfect at all times
  • I can never change
  • I must only look out for myself because no one else will
  • I am not a people person
  • I am never listened to or respected
  • I must strictly adhere to my plans

To compound matters further, our core beliefs start to hang out with our cognitive distortions. Cognitive distortions are beliefs our minds tell us to reinforce something that is untrue, and they typically reinforce something negative.

So you might start with the core belief, “This always happens to me” and end up with the cognitive distortion, “This will happen to me forever.” (Overgeneralizing)

Another example would be starting with the core belief, “I am never listened to or respected” which is then cemented in the brain with the cognitive distortion, “I must be boring and insignificant.” (Emotional Reasoning)

Do this enough and you will build a world around you that reflects your inner negativity, which will add to your stress, which will reinforce your negative self-talk, and so on and so forth. It’s a self-inflicted Murphy’s Law. The loop has to stop somewhere.

[There are approximately 15 cognitive distortions that psychologists have sorted out over the years that you can find here.]

How Negative Core Beliefs Affect a Leader’s Reaction to Stress

These negative beliefs and self-talk undermine a leader’s ability to handle stress effectively.

If you take as an example the core belief of “I must be perfect at all times” it’s easy to see how this will create anticipatory anxiety: you will not be perfect at some point in the future.

That anticipatory anxiety becomes a daily stress – either in the forefront or as a constant background buzz. The reaction to that daily stress is to mount even more anxiety and high-wire behavior to avoid the fear from coming to fruition.

Then, should we find ourselves imperfect at some point (which we of course will) we do not have the required cognitive energy to handle the stress as the anticipatory anxiety has already burned it up.

As another example, a leader with negative core beliefs might react to the news that sales are down by thinking, “This always happens to me.” Or in anticipation, “this is going to happen to me.”

Again, this response does not have the required resilience to think about how to change course. It has already deemed the current reality as permanent and unfixable.

We all write scripts for ourselves for how we will act or not act in certain situations. Rather than write yourself as the character that gets killed in the first act, write yourself as the hero who thinks outside of the box, who keeps the negative self-talk at bay.

How Negative Core Beliefs Affect a Leader’s Ability to Lead

When we bombard ourselves with negative self-talk, our anxiety mounts. As our anxiety mounts our stress builds, and it becomes contagious for all around us.

You might have an MBA from Wharton and a law degree from Harvard, but if you are a stress case your peers and colleagues will not notice your credentials; they’ll only notice your stressed out behavior.

Neuroscience backs up the notion that people find it hard to work for leaders who do not handle stress effectively. Everything that goes on in our environment affects the brain’s limbic system (emotional center). So it goes to reason that a stressed out leader will contaminate the emotional wellbeing of those around him/her. Frantic people make other people frantic.

Effective stress management makes you and everyone around you more efficient and productive.

How to Manage Our Negative Core Beliefs

Become Cognizant. Listen to your inner voice. How is it talking to you? Would you tolerate it if a friend talked to you in the same way? Pay close attention to your exact words and write them down. You’ll begin to see how the voice in your head contributes to stress.

Challenge the negative thought. Ask yourself these questions:

  • What is my negative thought?
  • What evidence proves this thought true?
  • What evidence proves this thought false?
  • What unhealthy feelings and behaviors does this thought cause?
  • What will eventually happen if I continue to think this way?
  • What advice would I give a friend who feels this way?
  • What conditions should I accept right now? What won’t change?
  • What can I do to make my thinking more positive?
  • What words will express my new healthy thought?

How to Ultimately Beat the Negative Self-Talk

We don’t have to become Pollyannas to shift our self-talk. Simply by maintaining a healthy dose of realism we can improve our psychological health and ultimately our leadership skills. It is a learned optimism.

1. Get a coach or therapist. If your brain is looping with negative self-talk I highly recommend a coach or therapist to help break the spell. It is a sign of strength to admit you need help and allow an outside perspective.

2. Commit to Your Life. Pardon the new age analogy, but if you were a plant would you be flourishing and robust or would you be withered and half-dead? Get yourself in shape, physically, socially, and professionally. Water the plant! The more you are fulfilling what you see as your innate self the less time you’ll have to listen to the negative self-talk, but also…the less it will actually be talking to you in the first place.

3. Perceive Control Over Situations. You can choose how you react to a stressor and thus exert some degree of control over it. This takes practice, but you have to start. Don’t fret if you aren’t a master at perceiving control over situations at the beginning. You need to create new neural pathways in your brain, which requires repeated tries.

4. View Stressful Events as Problems or Opportunities. Those who cope successfully with stress tend to look at the silver linings as well as the clouds. Plus, once the event happens you have to react to it in some way. Might as well do it in the way where you and those you lead stand to benefit.

5. Give yourself some space. If you find that you are consumed with negative self-talk and cognitive distortions you may need to clear your head with a vacation or some time off. I recognize this may not be possible given your circumstances but see if you can carve out some personal time to re-boot your brain.

The bottom line is how do you want to feel about your life on a daily basis? While it may seem like you do not have control over your thoughts, actually the opposite is true: you do. And in each moment when you hear negativity in your head you have the opportunity to halt it and switch to something that feels good.

There’s no question life throws “unfair” curveballs our way. I’m not asking you to like them, but I am suggesting that once the curveball is acknowledged you don’t dwell on how bad it makes you feel.

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It’s going to be 2017 in a couple weeks and we all know what that means: an influx of New Year’s Resolutions. They often look a lot like the previous year’s resolutions.

“I’ll stop smoking.”

“I’ll stop obsessing.”

“I’ll stop eating badly.”

“I’ll stop being lazy.”

Stopping, quitting, refraining, avoiding – I’ve got news for you: resolutions like this rarely work.

According to a survey published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology, about 45 percent of Americans make New Year’s resolutions but only 8 percent are successful.

Confession: I was the winner of the “Unsuccessful 8%” many years in a row. I struggled to quit smoking, promising myself I’d quit every Monday and every New Year’s Day. I quit smoking so many times that the most excellent quitter became part of my identity. Understanding how my brain works finally helped me kick the habit, but here were some of my very human, very common mistakes over the years:

  • Motivated by Should
  • Propelled By Stopping
  • Fighting against Habit

Motivated by Should

My motivation for quitting was always grounded in “should” versus “want:”

  • I should because my friends and family keep guilting me
  • I should because I smell like an ashtray
  • I should because it’s really cold outside
  • I should because the daily dose of cognitive dissonance feels terrible

Propelled By Stopping

When you focus on stopping or quitting or not doing something that has become an ingrained (overeating, smoking, drinking, overspending, etc.) you fight against your natural, human urge to gain over lose.

Humans are loss-adverse; it hurts us more to lose something than to gain something (e.g. it’s more painful to lose $50 than to gain $50). Therefore, when we frame our bad habits as things we need to lose, we resist with all our might.

Fighting against Habit

To make a resolution stick you have to change. For the brain, change is danger. Change requires neural rewiring and that creates discomfort. Even the prospect of change can create significant psychological discomfort.

The effort to abstain from bad habits compels you to do them more because abstention feels bad. Ergo, you will fight to feel good.

Smoking, laziness, boredom, compulsive eating, overspending – these are all default behaviors based on habitual brain wiring to give you what will make you feel good.

To change we need to create new ways of thinking which trigger new neural pathways, which lead to new default modes of behavior.

With deliberate effort new habits become the default schema for your brain.

Reframe the challenge into something you GAIN.

  • I need to lose weight = I want to gain strength, endurance and flexibility.
  • I need to quit smoking = I want to run three miles without wheezing.
  • I need to stop overspending = I want financial flexibility and freedom.

To learn is to be human.

We begin to learn from the minute we are born.

Therefore, challenging yourself to learn something new flows with the grain of human nature; challenging yourself to lose something you like goes against human nature. Use the word “learn” to counter the effects of the stop language of resolutions. You are not quitting smoking, you are learning how to be a non-smoker.

The Neuroscience Behind Habits

Habits live in the most stubborn of our brain structures: the basal ganglia. The basal ganglia stores useful skills and habits: putting our socks on before our shoes or effortlessly driving our usual route to work.

The basal ganglia can also be a curse: it can cause you to habitually drive home from work along your normal route when you had meant to stop at the grocery store. It contains all of the skills and memories we need to function on a daily basis but could also potentially contribute to keeping you in a rut.

To learn to tie your shoes takes a tremendous amount of initial brainpower, but once learned it consumes very little. As we master these small routines, dopamine rewards us with feelings of pleasure. So we are perpetually rewarded for maintaining our habits, good and bad alike.

When you try to change a habit you activate the prefrontal cortex, a very active part of the brain that helps us focus our thoughts; this requires a lot of conscious mental energy.

The prefrontal cortex is connected to the emotional center of our brain. A firestorm of emotions (fear, anger, depression, fatigue, anxiety, etc) is triggered when the brain senses change. When you think, “I want to change this habit” your brain kicks into protection mode and tries to fiercely protect the habits it has grown to love.

The Bottom Line and What to Do About It

Change is brutal and triggers psychological and emotional discomfort. Change takes time, discipline, a plan and some basic TLC (if / when you have a lapse). Recognize that you will naturally want to hold onto your own personal status quo.

Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit suggests a three-stage process for creating positive habits:

  1. Cue: Since habits are triggered by cues (triggers or signals that tell you to act in a certain way) identify cues that will help you meet your goal. Cues are often centered on location, time, emotional state, other people or immediately preceding an action. For example, if you typically find yourself noshing on junk at your desk every afternoon at 3PM, identify a 3PM cue that helps you learn the new habit (e.g., get up from your desk and go for a 10 minute walk, chug a bottle of water and set a 15 minute timer before you put anything else in your mouth)
  1. Routine: Be very specific about the steps you will take to form the habit. For example, if you want to work on gaining strength, endurance and flexibility, schedule the times you will do your chosen exercise throughout the day and the foods you will be eat that day.
  1. Reward: In order to neutrally embed the new behavior, reward yourself with something related to the habit. Perhaps it’s recognizing the endorphin rush after a workout or the taste of a healthy breakfast following a workout. If you anticipate and associate the reward with the action, your brain eventually craves the reward, further entrenching the habit.

Hopefully this insight will help you if you wake up in February and you haven’t made any progress into your resolutions.

Instead of giving up completely, figure out what you really want to do differently. Frame the goal into something that you are gaining (vs. losing) and learning (vs. stopping).

Respect your brain. It will need some time to incorporate the new behavior into your life.

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In March of 2011 António Horta-Osório became the CEO of Britain’s Lloyd’s Banking Group. By the fall of the same year he was suffering from such acute insomnia that he remained awake for five straight days. With no rest and increasing stress and mental exhaustion, he was forced to seek medical help. He took an extended enforced leave from the company due to stress and overwork.

The results were dramatic; shares in Lloyd’s fell 4.4%, a whopping $1.5 billion reduction in market capitalization.

Horta-Osório eventually returned to the bank in late December, but he forfeited his bonus and was forced to radically alter both his work and personal habits.

There’s a tendency for leaders to power through tough times in the name of getting work done. We may experience the symptoms of physical and emotional exhaustion, but ignore the signs because we have to make a living, put food on the table, a roof over our heads, and shoes on our feet.

We may also not want to admit that we need the rest, as we fear it’s a sign of a weak character, especially in Western Societies.

It’s imperative we pay attention to what is happening inside of us so that we don’t precipitate the decline of our mental and physical health.

Look out for the symptoms of mental exhaustion:

  • Physical: Feeling tired most of the time but finding it difficult to sleep; you get sick frequently; loss of appetite; gastrointestinal problems; more headaches and muscle pains than usual.
  • Emotional: feelings of helplessness; depression; anxiety; irritability; self-doubt; reduced life satisfaction; reduced sex drive.
  • Behavioral: Declining ability to concentrate and focus; impaired decision-making; social withdrawal; self-medicating with drugs or alcohol; unusual procrastination; decreased attention to physical health/wellness/hobbies. 

We sometimes ignore these symptoms until mental exhaustion strikes. In times like these we need to slow down and give ourselves sufficient rest and recovery time.

Look out for the physical, emotional, and behavioral symptoms and then establish new habits that sustain your energy so that you have a system for battling it in the future.

Here are some tips for doing just that:

Let Go of the Guilt Suitcase – Guilt can be a useful emotion as it informs you that something is off, but it also expends a lot of mental energy. It keeps you self-focused rather than able to proactively deal with a situation head on. Letting go of guilt requires practice. It’s not easy. Try visualizing your guilt as a briefcase, dropping it wherever you are, and then walking on. You can throw the briefcase too if you want.

Routinize – Create positive habits. A routine work uniform (think Zuckerberg and Jobs) and a favorite morning breakfast will be one less decision you have to make, allowing the mental space for more important decisions throughout your day.

Exorcise Emotional Vampires – Try to distance yourself from those that are consistently stressed out, emotionally overloaded, and generally negative influences if they are not imperative to your work or family life. And drop the guilt suitcase when you do this! Emotional vampires suck the life out of you and we don’t have that much time on this earth, so why give it away to people that deplete rather than fulfill you?

Be less self-focused. Sounds ridiculous, since who isn’t self-focused, but the more we can attend to life outside of ourselves the less we’ll overwork our own brain. It’s the overworked, myopic self-centered thinking that runs you ragged. If your mind is looping about a past or future scenario go out with a friend to hear about their life. It’ll take you out of your own orbit for awhile so you can return to the task at hand with a fresh perspective.

Exercise. Release those endorphins. You’ll feel better, you’ll look better, you’ll eat better, and your brain will function better. You can do ten jumping jacks wherever you are. It’s hard to think of all your problems while you’re exercising. Your mind needs the time-out from problem-solving to rejuvenate. To borrow a well-known phrase: just do it.

Take a caffeine nap. If you can manage to take a 10-15 minute nap after drinking a cup of coffee there is research that shows this gives you an energy boost once you wake up. A little counter-intuitive but give it a go.

Manage Distractions. Unless your business is placing ads on Facebook cut down on the social media browsing. Every decision and action you make taxes your energy to some extent. Make sure the decisions you’re making for how you spend your time are the ones that will grow your business.

Cultivate a Growth Mindset. Keep a “can do” attitude. It will help propel you forward, focused, and on target. Negativity and self-doubt will tire you out and hinder your progress. Reframe challenges as opportunities. Vigilantly watch your mind to see if you are shutting the door in your own face.

Watch a puppy or kitten video. Seriously. The reason for this is it zaps you into a completely different world immediately. The brain doesn’t know you’ve tricked it and it doesn’t care. All it knows is there’s something making it happy and it feels light and good. It’s a trick and it’s a valid one. If puppies and kittens don’t do it for you try to find that go-to thing that makes you laugh and feel light. Maybe your kids or a viral video. Some light laughter will freshen you up.

If you feel the effects of mental exhaustion creeping in and you have the space of mind to attempt to reverse them that is excellent. You may not be able to let go of the guilt right then and there, you may not be able to go see a movie, or stop the looping thoughts but admitting that you are mentally exhausted in the first place is a crack in the armor. It takes humility and patience.

None of this is easy, nor can it be done overnight. It’s a lifestyle commitment that takes daily practice. New habits, routines, and belief systems take practical application to be incorporated into your life and that takes time and effort.

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If you’re like me you power through your workday without distraction.

You don’t take no for an answer.

You tackle one project after the next.

You feel refreshed at every turn.

You ignore Facebook and texts.

You don’t need snacks or coffee.

You never restrain your words and behavior.

You emote all over the place.

You are so self-confident you never try to impress anyone.

You don’t have fear.

You always keep your eye on the prize.

RIGHT?!?!

Not really.

That’s the life I strive for, where all of my willpower is in tact. In reality, I – and presumably you too – are hit with all sorts of emotional, mental, and biological impulses throughout the day.

Vacations feel so good because we stop exercising willpower. We don’t work, we eat what we want, we drink what we want, we stay up late, we sleep late, we express ourselves, we are free! We keep nothing at bay.

Life often feels like one big test of willpower. Even when you love what you do for a living the 40+ hours / week to stay competitive in the workforce is exhausting, and most of the required behavior to stay on track depletes our willpower.

***

With that said, a recent study led by Carol Dweck suggests that the most effective way to keep your willpower intact is to simply believe that willpower is not depletable.

Dweck’s study tested the longstanding theory that glucose levels and willpower are linked.

The theory states that when you tap your willpower the glucose level in your body goes down; thus, if you were to raise the level of glucose in your body, then your willpower reserve should go up as well.

The study was composed of two groups, both given demanding tasks to complete. Before being given the task, however, Group 1 was led to believe that willpower is not a depletable resource while Group 2 was led to believe that willpower is a depletable resource.

The participants who were led to believe that willpower was not a depletable resource showed no change in their glucose level when faced with the task at hand. Even a boost to their glucose level did not enhance their performance.

But the glucose levels for participants that believed willpower is a depletable resource did drop when faced with the same tasks.

This would indicate that believing willpower is not depletable is sufficient for keeping it in tact. Easier said than done.

Remember that the participants in the study were in a controlled environment in order to prove the researchers’ hypothesis. Once they went out into the world they joined the rest of us in the fight against willpower depletion.

***

We can’t avoid every behavior that depletes willpower but we can at least strive to stay aware of the behaviors in order to improve our productivity.

Here are some behaviors – some avoidable, some not – which we know deplete willpower:

  1. Filtering Distractions – Email, Facebook, Twitter; your office doesn’t believe in doors; your friends keep texting you. Every time you try to ignore or deal with a distraction, your willpower suffers.

Tip: Turn off your technology, close the door (if you have one), buy some noise canceling headphones, alert family/friends/colleagues of your availability. These rituals organize your mind and win your focus.

  1. Resisting Temptation and Impulses – When’s lunch? Is it time for another coffee? Should I organize all of my folders into other folders before I start work? Your brain often wants to do so many things other than the task at hand. Though necessary and healthy, resisting the urges taps your willpower.

Tip: Chunk your day by scheduling tasks/projects that require the most concentration in the morning and those that don’t later in the day. Give yourself a scheduled impulse indulgence chunk of time to let loose and give in.

Sidebar: Given that the average person checks their email up to 74x/day and Facebook every two minutes this is becoming imperative in our modern day lives. They will lose their hold on you once you stop checking.

  1. Suppressing Emotion – This isn’t to say you should cry in a business meeting, but if you generally have trouble expressing your emotions you may not have the necessary willpower to complete a task when you sit down to do it.

Tip: When appropriate, let it out! Learn to express yourself; the self-confidence you will gain is critical for all areas of growth. Seek professional help if need be.

  1. Restraining Aggression – Restraining aggression is part of living on earth, but it does deplete you. If you find that you are restraining aggression left and right try to pinpoint the triggers. Maybe they can be avoided, removed, or resolved.

Tip: Exercise, hit a punching bag, build a soundproof scream room, keep a stress ball on your desk.

  1. Trying to Impress Others –This will wear you out. It’s essentially acting in a play nobody paid to see. Any time your natural personality is stifled you are exercising self-discipline, which taps willpower.

Tip: “Be yourself, everybody else is taken” – Oscar Wilde

  1. Coping with fear – We are all familiar with the energy-sap that fear creates. If you are afraid of someone or something at work your productivity will suffer.

 Tip: Seek professional help if need be. Fear is a lifetime battle but it dissipates when you confront it.

  1. Doing Something You Don’t Enjoy – If you have committed to a job or lifestyle that you don’t enjoy you will forever feel depleted. Doing something you don’t enjoy goes against the natural grain of human existence, which is to seek pleasure and avoid pain.

Tip: If the unenjoyable somethings are small tasks that are part of your workday save them for the morning when your willpower reserve is greatest. If it’s a larger issue, muster the courage to reevaluate your situation. Seek help if need be. You don’t need to live a depleted life.

  1. Selecting long-term over short-term rewards – Here we have the pleasure principle (seek pleasure & avoid pain) at play. You could watch TV right now or you could work on that business plan that could lead to professional and financial freedom down the line. Yes, long-term awards deplete your willpower but they’re well worth it.

Tip: Write down the accomplishments / gains you earned when you selected long-term over short-term. Keep them somewhere as a constant reminder. Or – dare I say it – a vision board that shows the rewards you will reap if you stay on the long-term path.

  1. People Pleasing – People who feel compelled to exert self-control deplete more than those driven by their own internal goals and desires. Speak up for yourself, express your emotions when appropriate, and believe in who you are. It literally makes you mentally stronger. As the American Psychological Association put it:

“When it comes to willpower, those who are in touch with themselves may be better off than their people-pleasing counterparts.”

Tip: Seek professional help if need be. If you find yourself people pleasing, try to evaluate where you can change your behavior and then take small incremental steps towards that goal.

***

Thus, the fact remains that willpower depletion is a necessary part of life in order to evolve, whether personally or professionally. All new behaviors deplete willpower, but they also pave the way for a healthier lifestyle. Each new healthy behavior eventually becomes routine, paving the way for the next healthy installment.

It’s exhausting but you have to start somewhere or you risk getting mired in your old ways.

We all need to be on the lookout for the factors that thwart us. Our lives depend on it!

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One of the hardest lessons in life is accepting that to be good at something we need to practice it. Why we believe we should be good at something immediately is a mystery.

Somewhere along the way we adopted the “you should be good before you’ve started” fallacy.

Comparison compounds the situation.

We are aware of Bobby Fisher before we sit down to learn chess.

We are aware of Mark Zuckerberg before we decide to create a new social media business.

We are aware of Mstislav Rostropovich before we learn to play the cello. I’m just kidding, I didn’t know who Mstislav Rostropovich was before searching “famous cello players,” but you get the point.

Before we start any business we’re aware of all the masters of industry who have come before us.

The first steps of any new, unpracticed endeavor will not be great. That is when the self-judgment and comparison will kick in.

You can stop or you can persevere. Those that persevere become successful, who become skilled, who you can point to and say, “He/she is good at that.” Those that give up not only never become good at said skill they also tend to believe it wasn’t in the cards in the first place.

So were those that pressed on when they hit roadblocks so much better than the rest of us? Most of the time, no. What they did was practice and what practicing does is change your brain chemistry.

It’s not magic, and it’s not just doing something for 10,000 hours, though doing something for 10,000 hours does support the brain science behind the “magic” of practice.

Neuroscientists have discovered that myelin – the white matter in our brains – is responsible for making new tasks become rote.

Myelin is a white substance that covers axons (think of them as cables) that connect neurons. Nerve impulses travel between neurons via the axons and they travel best when there is myelin present. In fact, the more myelin the better.

You can think of myelin as grease on the axons that keeps the nerve impulse moving along to the next neuron. When you practice a new skill repeatedly it triggers particular cells in your brain (astrocytes) to release chemicals that stimulate another group of cells (oligodendrocytes), which then produce myelin.

Thus, practicing something repeatedly increases the production of myelin, which allows nerve impulses to travel between neurons faster and smoother.

Stop practicing too soon and you don’t give your brain the chance to produce the required myelin to make the skill or task rote.

It’s akin to walking an untraveled forest path that hasn’t been cleared. If you’re the first traveler there will be rocks and branches that need to be cleared and your progress will be slow. After enough people walk the same path it becomes smooth. That is what you’re doing with your brain: you’re creating a smooth path for nerve impulses to travel, and that’s what improves your abilities.

So when it comes to practice – rather than think, “I have done this three times and I am not good at this” – we can think, “I have done this three times and I have not yet produced enough myelin in my brain to make this skill easier for me.”

Still, the undeniable truth is that true geniuses do exist. Mozart wrote his first symphony at the age of four. Perhaps he was born with tons of myelin in one area of his brain.

When you’re alive during the same period as a Mozart it can be discouraging. We will forever think, “I’ll never be great.”

And maybe not, but can’t you be very good? Do we all have to be great? I call this the delusion of insignificance: if we’re not amazing then we’re not worthy. We often don’t begin something when we don’t see immediate signs that we’re great – or will be great soon enough.

The secret to staying on track is cultivating a growth mindset, which I wrote about recently.

There are five points worth mentioning that relate directly to practicing a skill and not getting discouraged when you’re not as good as you wish you were as soon as you wish you were:

  • Get pumped about self-growth: Folks who are excited when faced with an opportunity to grow and develop are more likely to take on perceived challenges. Being open to growth means you are evolving; you are alive and kicking – versus stagnating.
  • Reshape your relationship with time: Learning and growing takes time. Be patient; afford yourself the space and time to learn new skills just as you would for a seed to grow.
  • Set Goals: Goals help set the course and structure your path, as well as help to motivate. Set small, accomplishable goals and keep revisiting and resetting throughout the process.
  • Reward: Reward your progress by focusing on the effort you have put in and the lessons you have learned to date, even if you are not there yet.
  • Be Realistic: You’re going to be less than perfect with any new skill you attempt. Be realistic about your progress and remember, you once didn’t know how to talk, walk, write, and eat. These too were all learned skills and they took time and a lot of effort, even if you don’t remember.

*******

I love the Thomas Edison quote, “I haven’t failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” This completely embodies the growth mindset as well as the key to unlocking the magic of genius.

When it comes to leadership and self-awareness, changes to your behavior will initially feel awkward and contrived. For instance, if your body language is off-putting then making a conscious effort to unfold your arms and establish an open stance will feel weird…at first.

If you have trouble engaging a room because your personality is dry, then learning to incorporate stories and humor will feel weird…at first.

Going a step further, if your company culture is built on a foundation of trusting the status quo then it will feel against the grain when you take your first step out of that unhealthy arena…at first.

Those first steps are crucial, but so are the second and third and fourth (and so on) because they create the neural pathways that build your confidence.

In the future they’ll probably come out with a pill that produces myelin in the brain, requiring less practice for a new skill. Until then, sorry to say it, practice makes perfect.

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While you would never hand over your car keys to a drunk driver to take you home, we can all point to times when we’ve handed over the keys to our self-worth to people, places and things.

Maybe a competitor’s business is doing better than yours; maybe a colleague rose up the ranks faster than you; maybe you didn’t land a client or promotion. When these alleged setbacks happen you may feel below par, that you don’t have what it takes to accomplish your goals.

Measuring your self-worth based on the success of others and your own “failures” will ensure that you always feel insecure.

It’s vital to remember that before a person becomes successful there is a period when they are not successful.

In fact, couldn’t we say that about most things?

Before a finish line is a starting line.

Before rain is thunder.

Before a rainbow there’s rain.

Before we walk we crawl.

Do you need more of these? I think you get the point (before there’s a tree there’s a seed – sorry, I couldn’t resist!).

When we disregard the truth of progress we experience professional cognitive dissonance: the projected vision of our success in our minds doesn’t match our actual success. That’s when rationalizations and justifications for why we aren’t where we want to be creep in. These lies we tell ourselves – rationalizations for why we didn’t succeed or falsehoods for why we failed – impair our ability to see our path clearly and do the work we need to do.

Here’s how you can control your perceptions of “failure” and begin disassociating your self-worth with these moving targets:

1. Practice Resilience. Practice getting back up when you fall, professionally or personally. Think back to when you learned to ride a bike. You fell, a lot. Then you got back up and tried again, armed with more skill. Somewhere along the way we forgot this lesson.

There will be many failures on the road to success. Measuring your self-worth against each of these failures will impede your progress. Make the commitment to keep getting up.

2. Counteract professional cognitive dissonance. Accept that the “failures” you experience are part of the process of attaining your goals, not an obstacle to them. If you don’t accept your reality you’re going to make decisions based in delusion, which will create detours for your path to success.

You may start to justify, rationalize, and place blame on external factors. You know, “that client is stupid for not choosing us” versus “let me look at the reasons why we lost that bid.” The minute your brain starts going there, stop! It will only cloud your ability to see where you are, where you need to go, and the necessary steps to take you there.

3. Check Your Assumptions. If you feel down because you are not where you thought you’d be at this point in your career, remember that you don’t know what the road to that destination looks like. There’s no reason to assume you will never make a mistake or fall short; there’s no reason to assume that you are not still on the road to accomplishing your vision.

4. Recognize “being in the game” is half the battle. If you recall the movie “Bull Durham,” the guys in the minor leagues wanted Kevin Kostner – who had fallen to the minors – to tell them what it was like to be in the majors. For Kostner’s character, falling to the minors was a blow to his career and ego, but he was a hero to the guys in the minors who had never been to the majors and probably never would be.

While you were getting down that you didn’t close a deal, there is someone else out there who is jealous that you were even in the running. You’re judging your self-worth on not getting the gig and the companies who were never in the game are judging their self-worth on not even getting to pitch. Where does it end?

Many people have grand ideas and big schemes but never put them into play. Taking action in and of itself is to be commended. Pat yourself on the back for having begun. Take the energy that you’re expending to compare yourself to others (or beating yourself up) and channel it toward analyzing what you can do better next time.

5. Reframe failure as opportunity. Our brains are designed to minimize pain and maximize pleasure. In psychology, this is called the “Pleasure Principle.”

Failure is pain, but opportunity is pleasure. Therefore, frame each failure as an opportunity to understand how to get closer to your goals, rather than signposts telling you that you will never succeed.

Those are the opportunities life is giving you to improve. If you don’t land a particular client, figure out why so you don’t do it again. That’s the opportunity.

6. Talk with someone objective. Look at what you’re saying to yourself. Would you coach someone else like that? There is nothing wrong with getting support and help from others. There is no successful leader or entrepreneur or person that hasn’t called upon the counsel of others. When you seek counsel you will invariably gain a perspective you would not have on your own.

7. Create your own compass. It’s normal to engage in social comparison, but negatively judging yourself based on others’ performance is when you enter muddy waters. Use social comparison to gather information, not to interfere with your own compass.

It would be like pretending that all of the cars on the highway with you are racing to the same destination as you. If you felt that way, you’d always feel like a failure because there would always be cars in front of you and cars gaining on you. We are all going to different destinations. Each of our journeys is unique to ourselves.

No one wakes up one day with a fully formed, successful business or skill out of nowhere. Professional success – and happiness – both require practice and commitment. Just as stocks go up and down, so will your path to success. If your stock is down one day it doesn’t mean it won’t go up again. Don’t sell your shares in your own identity to something external. Keep 100% control of the business that is you.

When you hold the keys to your self-worth, it doesn’t matter what happens in the external world, you’re still in control. How you react to events is perhaps the only thing you can control in life.

Don’t give that away.

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