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Engaging Life ~ The State of Your Attention

May 28, 2015

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To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.” ~ Mary Oliver

The Buddhist teacher, Thich Nhat Hahn, captures the essence of paying attention – deep, sustained, perceptive attention – when he reminds us, “You have an appointment with life – you should not miss it.”

Lately I’ve been keenly aware that life today is filled with endless distractions.  These distractions, internal and external, are not all of my making. But being a creature of habit – I feel distraction creeping up on me and becoming more and more of my default state.

This concerns me greatly.

Perhaps it’s because when you reach a certain age you finally get that you don’t have all the time in the world to squander.  While I am a great advocate for the freedom to occasionally do nothing – I don’t want to waste precious time.

Distractions (what tech writer Linda Stone refers to as “continuous partial attention”) insidious as they are, have become the norm so quickly that it feels like a form of theft.

I watch toddlers so mesmerized by smartphones and tablets that no toy can get their attention. I sit with people for a meal and watch them interrupted constantly by texts and calls.  People drive and text and shop and talk and too few people seem aware of those around them.

Psychologist Philip Zimbardo (The Stanford Prison  Experiments) reports in a new study that boys spend 44 hours in front of a TV, smart phone or computer screen for every half hour in conversation with their fathers.

Distraction, it seems, is now baked in the cake. Read more…

Renewing Our Belief in the Power of People ~ Reprise

May 7, 2015

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I feel the capacity to care is the thing which gives life its deepest significance.” Pablo Casals

 

The more I see others from my heart and not my judgment, the more compassion I have for my fellow human beings.  Admittedly, this is a work in progress.

There’s something poignant about pilots reporting their last passenger count as having a number of souls on board. Maybe we should do that in the workplace – report how many souls work here or how many souls are in this meeting?  

Regardless of your beliefs, using the term feels inclusive – like we’re all in this together. We’re not talent, direct reports, admins, vendors, temps, C-Suiters, or new hires – but souls on a journey – separate and together.

Too many people talk about their colleagues with a mixture of frustration and cynicism.  Too many well-meaning books and articles label people as difficult, unreasonable, dysfunctional – even toxic.

It’s true that difficult, unreasonable, dysfunctional and even toxic conditions within many organizations and institutions produce all sorts of unhealthy actions. These behaviors are often triggered by unresolved emotions and exacerbated by systems insensitive to human needs.   I’ve been exposed to my share of it – at both ends – as an employee and a consultant.  I understand the growing pressures that most workers are up against these days.   I get why so many people feel discouraged and cynical.

How can we expect workers to act with respect, kindness and compassion in workplaces that are cauldrons of anxiety? How can we expect people to thrive in organizations with life-sucking systems and practices that reinforce fear and discourage honesty?

Researchers have found that one relative causal  factor that enables compassion is the degree of safety someone feels.  The biological “switch” that turns empathy and compassion on, works when the “survival” threat systems (fear, anxiety, distress) are turned off. Read more…

Let Nature Heal You ~ 2

April 22, 2015

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“The first and fundamental law of nature, which is, to seek peace and follow it.” ― Thomas Hobbes

Last year on Earth Day, I published Part 1 of Let Nature Heal You.  The piece got a great response and this year seemed like another opportunity to promote Mother Earth. But this year feels very different. Feels like Mom is really disappointed and getting very pissed. While she appreciates the annual celebration, she needs more daily Tender Loving Care.  In fact, she needs some major interventions. She needs and deserves respect. She’s naturally distressed as any parent would be, that’s she’s given so much and is being so badly ignored. Given her treatment, it’s remarkable that she has been so gentle and forgiving for so long.  Like any good parent, she’s always open to change – and not inclined to withhold her love and share her bounty.  She asks only one thing – pay more attention to me – before the hour is too late.  Read more…

Is Real Mindfulness Possible in Today’s Business Culture?

April 9, 2015

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I’m a believer.

Living more mindfully has changed my perspective on life.  I practice (and practice) and I support others, whenever possible, to find the ways that work for them to be more mindful.

My motivation, of course, is deeply personal – as everyone’s should be.

But I have another “agenda.” When I look around at the state of the world, the statistics on depression, violence and on a less dramatic note – workplace engagement – I conclude that something’s got to give.  More mindful cultures, in general, are surely desirable, right?

But when I think of mindfulness pioneer Jon Kabat-Zinn’s classic definition, “Mindfulness means paying attention, in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally,” I have to wonder what the corporate world expects from a more mindful work force?

While a steady stream of articles continue to point out the many benefits of mindfulness, the release of David Gelles, new book, Mindful Work, has created a real uptick in interest from the corporate world.  This should be welcome news to professionals like me who hope to find more receptive audiences for developing greater mindful awareness as a foundation for deeper levels of change.

But I also worry that the overselling and oversimplication of mindfulness will create unrealistic expectations – for the practitioner and the “investor” (namely the business buying the services for their employees). Read more…

Mindful Work – AM to PM ~Reprise

March 26, 2015

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This article was inspired by the work of Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hahn’s book, Work: How to Find Joy and Meaning Each Hour of the Day from the publisher, Parallax Press.

For those of you unfamiliar with the work of Thich Nhat Hanh, known as Thay in his circles, the Zen master, poet, peace and human rights activist was exiled from his homeland of Vietnam in 1966. In the early 60’s in Saigon, Thay founded the School of Youth for Social Services, a grassroots relief organization that helped to rebuild bombed villages and set up schools and medical centers.  The work, based on the principles of nonviolence, led him to international recognition. During his exile, he traveled to the U.S. where he made the case for peace to Pentagon officials, most famously to Robert McNamara, a key proponent of the war’s escalation.

Thich Nhat Hahn’s teachings were instrumental in influencing Martin Luther King to oppose the Vietnam War publicly, helping to galvanize the burgeoning peace movement. The following year, Dr. King nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Since that time, Thay has become a renowned teacher combining threads from several Buddhists traditions to reach an international audience and thousands of retreatants at Plum Village in France and throughout the world.  He’s authored dozens of books which have sold over two million copies in the U.S. alone including the classic, Peace is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life.

I’ve been attracted to the simplicity, practicality and sweetness of Thich Nhat Hanh’s work for many years. That’s why it’s a special pleasure to explore his wise principles as they apply to the topic of work.

There’s little I can say to add-on to this beloved teacher’s work – so I will let his words do most of the talking.  This simple monk’s wisdom shows us a way to think, act and be in our work through the power of the present moment.   Grounded in the real world, Thay teaches that no moment is ever lost – even if we “fail” to act mindfully. The next moment is another opportunity to compassionately start again.

Our great gift, the power of choice, is always available so that we can begin anew.  I like to think about these wonderful teachings as a North Star to help guide my work day.

Here’s a taste of this little gem of a book ~  Read more…

We Need to Belong

March 13, 2015

 

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“We must love one another – or die.”  W.H. Auden

 

I continue to be surprised by the lack of understanding we have about what we humans need to thrive.

This, I’ve found, is particularly true when it comes to the world of work and business.  The driving force behind the business model is still money, which I assume is supposed to cover all human needs.

In most educational systems there is little or no education about human social-emotional development. We’re trained to function and succeed (some critics would argue rather ineffectively) in business environments and institutions where, curiously, there still exists a serious lack of interest in human dynamics.

Along the way to employment, we learn that work shouldn’t be personal, instead a quasi-contractual agreement to perform certain services for compensation.

Although the ground’s shifting with the advent of technology, globalization, social media and neuroscience, a few basic premises still underpin what most people believe about work.  In his book The Shallows, Nicholas Carr writes, “The concept of the adult brain as an unchanging apparatus grew out of, and was buttressed by, an Industrial Age metaphor that represented the brain as a mechanical contraption.”

Carr explains that like steam engines or electric dynamos, it was believed that the nervous system was made up of unchangeable parts with specific set purposes necessary to make the whole function. Set in motion in childhood, they were impermeable to change.  This dogmatic, compartmentalized view of the human mind still drives much of the way we work – and the way we live.

Despite the current attraction-aversion to science (especially prevalent in the U.S.) there is a great deal we now know about human behavior that is not only relevant to business interests, but should be reason to rethink much of how we organize our social/economic systems.  The information, largely without academic controversy, should motivate us to reorganize our schools, institutions, family life and workplaces to address human needs. This isn’t touchy-feely – it’s human neurobiology with major implications for social functioning.

Here’s what we unequivocally know – human loneliness kills. Read more…

5 Things We Need to Tip the Balance for Gender Equality – 2015

March 5, 2015

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March 8th is  International Woman’s Day and this year’s theme is Make It Happen.

So what did we make happen in 2014? 

There’s good news from the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) Gender Gap Report which since 2006 has been measuring gender disparities worldwide in four areas: educational attainment, health, economic participation, and political empowerment.

According to The Global Gender Gap Report 2013, of the 110 countries measured since 2006, 86 percent have improved their performance every year, while 14 percent have widened gaps.

While the WEF reports large gains in closing the gaps in health and education for women, only 60 percent of  economic gaps and only 21 percent of  gaps in political representation have been closed.

Despite a “banner year” for women in U.S. Congressional elections in 2014 (they now make up 20% of both the House and Senate) the U.S. ranking for “high income” countries is 83rd in the world. While most Americans tend to think of the U.S. as an egalitarian culture, women in 63 other countries have been elected as heads of state in the past 50 years. India ranks first having had a female prime minister and president for 21 of the past 50 years.

But attitudes are changing. A new Pew Research report found that the majority of Americans now think that women are just as capable of being good political and business leaders as men. In areas like honesty, fairness, compassion and willingness to compromise – many actually judge women as superior.

In the U.S. there’s no question that high-profile business women like Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and her Lean In “movement” have raised awareness levels and created media buzz. But Sandberg’s philosophy has also generated serious questions about the broader issues women face in dealing with social and economic policies that impede progress.

Dissecting the Lean In ethos in her excellent article in Dissent, author Kate Losse writes, Life is a race, Sandberg is telling us, and the way to win is through the perpetual acceleration of one’s own labor: moving forward, faster. The real antagonist identified by Lean In then is not institutionalized discrimination against women, but women’s reluctance to accept career demands.” Read more…

Building Resiliency through Emotional Awareness ~ Reprise

February 26, 2015

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Resiliency. The ability to spring back from and successfully adapt to adversity. A return to balance. Emotional Buoyancy. Flexibility.

Are we what we feel?

While that may be a rhetorical question, there is truth behind it.  Because advancing emotional understanding is a central theme in my work, these pages have often explored many facets of expanding emotional awareness.

First and foremost, this understanding is predicated on the belief that emotions are intelligent sources of information about our experience.  That’s a stretch for many people because emotions have had a bad rap in this culture.  Read more…

Simplifying in an Age of Complexity ~ Part 2

February 13, 2015

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I spent a lot of time in Part 1 talking about the state of the economy and the ways that we work.  Some readers may have wondered – what’s this got to do with simplicity?

“Work” consumes more time for the average person (especially in the U.S.) than ever – the highest numbers, in fact, since statistics began to measure the average work day.

We’re caught up in 24/7 work cycles made possible by technology and in systems still measuring time rather than energy spent.  The fierce intensity of time is driven by the demands of constantly outperforming last quarter’s revenues. And although automation and the internet have contributed to the economic expansion of the past twenty years, increased worker hours have played a major role.

We’ve accepted the idea that the gains of productivity and efficiency will largely benefit the corporate bottom line since real wages for workers have stagnated over the same period.  At the same time, the cost of workplace stress in annual U.S. healthcare spending is now at 190 billion dollars.

Because the U.S., interestingly, does not keep much data on the correlation between workplace stress and healthcare costs, it’s hard to accurately determine the impact, but most people in today’s  workplace feel the ever-escalating demands and pressures.

When Welsh social reformer Robert Owen came to America in the early 1800’s , he championed the idea of an eight-hour work day, heretical in the era of industrialization. Owen’s idea was based on a simple model 8 hours of work, 8 hours of recreation and 8 hours of rest.  

In 1914, the Ford Motor Company was the first to adopt this idea – with good economic results – and a century old norm was established. And although few salaried people today actually work eight hours, with few having equal recreation and rest time – we’re still hemmed into a routine that has no scientific facts to support its efficacy. In fact, data like the workplace stress figures show that the brunt of the toll of worker “productivity” is falling on employees and the healthcare system.

While you may not be in a position to change workplace demands, you can choose to respond to them differently. There’s nothing smart about working the way we do. There’s abundant science that supports that worker exhaustion is harmful and counterproductive. Most companies  choose to ignore this information or simply do not know how to retool their systems. Despite years of data on employee disengagement, the fear of economic disruption keeps them mired in the past.

The choices you make, however small they may seem, are a form of reclaiming your time and energy in relation to one of the most demanding parts of life –work. Read more…

Simplifying in an Age of Complexity ~ Part 1

January 29, 2015

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Simplifying in a time of seeming chaos may feel counterintuitive.

Who’s got time for the sweet and simple? Don’t we need to work harder, “up our game” and become tougher than ever to survive?

Most people I speak to these days feel a sense of overwhelm. Their lives are filled with pressures and demands. “Busy” has become a socially accepted response when asked the simple question, “How are you?”

Then there is the state of the world.  While some people are so busy and adept at blocking it out – the emotional undercurrent of global anxiety is hard to escape.

While attempts to escape from the world’s clamor may be common, finding ways to move further into the world with different perspectives and energies are not.

However inured to external realities, no one can avoid the major changes happening today that will impact the ways that we work and live. This is certain.

The question is how will we meet those challenges – personally and collectively?

Writing in anticipation of the sweeping changes inevitable in the 21st century, author and sociologist Kingsley Dennis  says, “Some may say we are in the midst of a 3rd Industrial Revolution. Yet rather than referring to this transition as an ‘industrial’ one, I consider this profound shift as a Revolution in Human Being – or rather as a Revolution in Human Becoming.”

Dennis is talking about an internal process that will become the imperative driver for change. We’ve done the outside-in process for hundreds of years and we have the unsustainable results.

These new arrangements, priorities and new emerging forms, says Dennis, will come together “in countless new ways – with innovative changes in our communication, our uses of technology, through conscious awareness, through people-centered action.”

Any sustainable approach to these changes must be met with a sense of personal and collective clarity and calm in stark contrast to the political, economic and social models that prevail today.

If rebalancing is a core value in your model of a livable, sustainable future, then headlines like these, Richest 1% to Own 50% of World’s Wealth by 2016,must become intolerable and unacceptable.

In light of the inevitable changes before us, the case for simplification has been called a revolutionary counter-cultural act.  By necessity and intention, simplification compels us to step out of the dominate narratives of the past two hundred years.

It upends the assumptions and expectations that drive our current economic and social systems and the ways of life they have created. It challenges our thinking about what we believe we need to live satisfying and fulfilling lives. It demands new definitions of “success.”

Simplifying the way we live goes deeper than de-cluttering closets and in boxes and using less plastic products. Moving towards greater economic, social and psychological health will need a restructuring of our economic systems – in order to live with greater balance, equanimity and harmony with the natural world. It starts within – but it can’t end there.

Small is Still Beautiful Read more…

The World Needs More Beauty

January 15, 2015

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I wanted to start the year off writing about what felt most true.

For many people, the world felt like a hard place as we ended 2014. We carry the challenges into a new year hoping for renewal and encouraging signs of changes to come.

Charlie Hebdo. Boko Harum. Growing Political and Cultural Division. Climate Change. It’s there everyday, unless we choose to ignore it and I can’t do that.

As I contemplate this as January unfolds, the same themes keep emerging. Humility. Simplicity. I have to write more about them. Ah and yes, beauty – We Need More Beauty in our World. All of us.

Visiting my archives I find that I did write about beauty a little over a year ago. It’s Not Business – It’s Beauty was among the least viewed of my articles in 2014. Bad title, perhaps?

Well, I am dusting it off again with a new title. Message is the same. Still an important issue.

I get it – we have to make a “living” and that’s getting harder and more competitive in a global marketplace. Beauty is a luxury in such a world. We stop expecting it – thinking about it.

But can we really live without beauty in our lives.  I am not just talking about the arts, either. Beauty in all of its forms – external and internal.  Beauty of thought, of language, of meaning and purpose.  The breath taking beauty of a starry sky. The smiles of people when they feel our appreciation. Watching children play.

There is so much beauty in the world – and this year I am craving more of it.

Read more…

Start with 5 Minutes of Meditation a Day to Change the Way You Work

January 8, 2015

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How about 5 minutes a day of deep rest in 2015?

10 minutes of peace? 15 minutes of renewal? 20 minutes of rejuvenation?

Yes, you can.

Meditation can change the way you work – and change the way you feel about life in the process.

Knowledge about the benefits of meditation isn’t new. Pioneers like Jon Kabat-Zinn began to mainstream meditation into Western culture when he founded the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center in 1980.

Kabat-Zinn was breaking new ground when fresh from MIT, with a degree in molecular biology, he began meditating and created the clinic, The idea of bringing Buddhist meditation without the Buddhism into the mainstream of medicine was tantamount to the Visigoths being at the gates about to tear down the citadel of Western civilization.”

Since that time, meditation has been slowly working its way into the lives and institutions of Western societies.  Research on the medical benefits of meditation has mounted. But meditation, in any form, in the workplace is still in a nascent state. Google broke new ground in 2007 when it invited  Jon Kabat-Zinn give a talk and lead participants in a mindfulness meditation. These days even people like CNN anchor, Anderson Cooper are sold on the benefits of mindfulness practice.

Many in the business world still see meditation as a form of indulgence. It’s still misunderstood as having religious or “spiritual” connotations. And too many workers still can’t find 5 minutes in their 1440 minute day to “just sit.” There is a lot of resistance to just letting go and not doing – even for 5 minutes.

But behind closed doors, in cubicles, parked cars, home offices and even public bathrooms, those at work are putting their computers on sleep, relaxing their bodies and quieting their minds with their own brand of meditation. Read more…

The Power of Silence

December 30, 2014

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For the ancients winter and the passing of the old year signaled a time to slow down, a time for quiet reflection.

Those days are clearly over. In fact, the reality of modern life is that this time of the year represents for many, the busiest of the year.  The list of year-end to-dos seems to get larger every year.

Another “casualty” of modern life is quiet.

Amidst the cacophony of traffic, city noise, giant screen TVs, digital devices and the increasing noise pollution in our workplaces, quiet is becoming a precious commodity in the 21st century.

So rare is real silence that many people cannot even tolerate it. The void of silence must be filled with sound to keep ourselves from ourselves. Read more…

The Joy of Giving Back ~ 2014

December 17, 2014

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Welcome to the annual Joy of Giving Back for 2014.

Nothing feels ordinary in a year like this one. Complexity and change seem to be the norm. Unfortunately, so is need.

It saddens me to hear that those with the most seem to be giving less. This is not a judgment, just a statistic.  It seems that everywhere we turn, someone or some organization is asking for help. That’s because they need it.

In my last article I wrote about the scarcity mindset and its deep impact on how we think and behave. While this is true, there is also serious and often unnecessary deprivation next door and around the world.

After working with several nonprofits, I’d be first to say that private, charitable giving cannot address the deep, structural problems of societies that are riddled  with inequality and corruption. Many argue that writing a check is the easy way out: a way to expiate our guilt. While that may be true for some, we can’t argue with the realities that millions are served in these seemingly small acts of generosity.

When I decided to work on the emerging problem of homelessness in the 1980’s, I, like my colleagues, believed it was a temporary – an emergency – that surely the government, with the aid of the private sector, would seek to eradicate. We worked with honorable naiveté trying to plug massive social holes and disruption even as we realized we were up against a tidal wave of destructive policies that would create a permanent population of the “underclass.”

There are so many ways to give. Donating money is only one.  Staying present and active to the needs of the world is desperately needed. The world needs your skills, talents and energies. Your activism on the behalf of those in need and a planet, imperiled, is critical. Whether local or global, there is someone or something that will benefit from your commitment.

In light of the magnitude of the need we see today, perhaps the writing of a small check seems like a drop in the ocean. But giving is as much for the giver, as the recipient. It connects us with the world. It reaches into something deeper within our souls that evokes feelings that join us with others. It says, I’m in. I’m in with ending the scourge of slavery, I’m in with restoring and protecting the health of our planet, I’m in with protecting human rights for everyone, I’m in for creating a humane food supply and I’m in for not settling that starvation and brutality will inevitably be the lot of those “less fortunate” than me.

Read more…

The Scarcity Mindset is Killing Us

December 4, 2014

 

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Which world view dominates our collective mindset – one of scarcity or abundance?

Which world view dominates your personal mindset?

It’s an important question because this core world view is easily the mother-ship of most of the beliefs that shape our existence.

What you believe; what we believe, determines much of how we act. The world we inhabit today is the making of our collective beliefs.

When we look out there at the world what do we see?  How much do we connect what we believe to the results of our lives? What do we believe about human nature?

It strikes me that we are living in a time of perceived not enough-ness. More of everything is desired, needed, wanted. Not having is one of our greatest fears. Read more…

Seeking Human Kindness

November 20, 2014

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Our lives are not our own. We are bound to others, past and present, and by each crime and every kindness, we birth our future.” ― David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas

Is kindness “compassion in action?”

While there are distinctions made between kindness, empathy, compassion and altruism, most people experience kindness as action.

With kindness we take our cognitive experience of kindly thoughts and act on them.  Regardless of our intentions, acts of kindness put those thoughts and feelings into the world.

You’ve likely heard stories of organized and “random acts of kindness,” – the Robin Hooders that replenish parking meters, the pay-it forward movements that pop up in coffee shops and restaurants, the upscale hair stylist who spends his Sundays giving free haircuts to the homeless, anonymous big tips to supplement the meager wages of most restaurant servers and the college graduate traveling across the U.S. handing out $100 bills to generous strangers who help him.

Tommy Lukrich, a hitchhiking grad, is on a mission to help others, “Helping others is one of my primary passions in this world. Tommy, who crowd funded much of the money he’s giving away is giving and receiving the best that humanity has to offer – its unconditional kindness.

Amid the seemingly relentless bad news of the day, gracious and generous acts of kindness keep patching up the global social fabric in touching and often surprising ways. We’re surprised because many of us have lowered our expectations of our fellow humankind. Too many of us have grown cynical and despairing. Perhaps some of us are a bit judgmental, even suspicious of these altruistic motivations.

Writing on kindness, author and Buddhist teacher, Sharon Salzberg reflects the concern, “On the face of it, kindness can seem wimpy, a cop-out, an excuse to do just a little bit to try to make a difference when so very much needs to be done.” Indeed, feeding parking meters and paying for the next guy’s coffee in the face of headlines that scream 35 million people now enslaved across the world, can feel a bit pathetic.

Given the scope and scale of pain and injustice in the world, it’s important to remind ourselves of the millions of selfless, mostly “small” acts that take place every day. Read more…

The Deeper Layers of Mindfulness

November 6, 2014

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“Realize that you are in there. You must first come to realize that you are in there. From deep inside, you are experiencing the world. You are experiencing your physical body, your thoughts and your emotions. You are conscious and you are experiencing what it is like to be human.” Michael Singer

A recent article in the New Yorker grabbed my attention and lingered with me for days.

In his article, Actually People Still Like to Think, Ferris Jabr describes a study released this July that concluded that given the option, most people would rather voluntarily shock themselves than be left alone with their thoughts.

Jabr goes on to dissect the questionable conclusions the researchers drew and speculates that it’s likely that the subjects (and most of us, I’d say) simply do not like their ‘mental weather.”  We are, Jabr suggests, averse to the unpleasant wanderings of our minds and hesitant to spend much time there.

While one of the study’s co-authors, Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert, declared that People prefer electric shock to thinking,” his sweeping generalization deserves some serious unpacking.

As a long-time practitioner of mindfulness meditation, Gilbert’s hyperbolic conclusion doesn’t completely surprise me.  It takes a great effort for most people to sit with their own thoughts without distraction.  Sure plenty of people seek quiet times – reading, listening to music, cooking, taking walks – but these activities engage the mind and keep it occupied. Read more…

Question The Answers ~ The Importance of Critical Thinking

October 30, 2014

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It strikes me that this is an era of pressing choices – personal and collective.  Simplistic, lazy, rote thinking cannot address the complexities we face.

We’re  caught up in old, polarized, dualistic thinking that is not only an impediment to our growth – but regressive and potentially dangerous. 

How do we make complex decisions in the face of such pressure?

What tools do we need to create mindsets that can address the intricacies of problems we face that were unimaginable a generation ago?   

Important questions that challenge existing models of leadership, corporate and government actions like  climate change, global health crises and deepening income equality are being raised with greater urgency. 

Without critical thinking  – the ability to challenge our own thought processes, beliefs, values and actions – we cannot move forward to course correct and create new paths forward.

I hope you will find this post from the archives helpful in thinking through some of these questions. Read more…

Beliefs Keep Your Emotional Baggage Packed

October 23, 2014

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Ever wonder what’s in that bag?

By now the term emotional baggage is familiar – but what do we think is in the bag?

Surely it’s packed with old hurts, resentments and fears, but unless we go in there and pay some attention to those unwanted feelings – the bag stays full.

If we’re not the type that likes or looks at feelings, the bag can become heavier and harder to carry.

Some of us still believe that there’s no place for feelings in the workplace.

Some of us believe that feelings are soft and prize the intellect over our emotions.

Some believe that if they unpack the bag, even slightly, they’ll unleash Pandora’s Box. 

The bag is not only filled with stuck feelings but also the beliefs that keep emotions in place. Unless we get a clear picture of the forces in our lives that generate and feed feelings, the bag stays packed.  Dr. Miriam Greenspan, author of Healing through the Dark Emotions, tells us, “As much as emotions are in –the- body experiences, they are mediated by socially conditioned beliefs. We just don’t feel, we make sense of what we feel. And our thoughts both trigger and subdue our emotions.”

These mediating thoughts are reinforced by beliefs. For most of us, even a slightly contrary challenge will set up a defense for our beliefs.   If you pay close attention, you can hear the justification for the defense in your self-talk. “I know some of my co-workers get frustrated with my impatience, but it’s just not in my nature to change.” The internal dialogue that all of us have – but don’t pay attention to – is filled with acquittals for our beliefs.

Much of the process Greenspan so aptly describes happens unconsciously and only a conscious commitment to self-awareness of mind and body can bring them to the surface to be healed. Read more…

The Power of Your Presence~Reprise

October 16, 2014

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We long for connection.  Very few of us are content with superficial human contact.

In many ways, technology and the transactional world of business communication has reshaped how we communicate – and how we expect to connect with others.

When we experience the feeling of someone’s authentic (full) presence, we’re often amazed at the nature of the interaction. It can seem too intimate, uncomfortable – unreal. We’ve forgotten what it’s like to be in the presence – to be fully “real” in communication with others.

What do I mean by presence? It’s hard to describe this unmistakable feeling state. You know it when you experience it. For me, it is the sense of connecting (even briefly) with someone’s real being – their essence.

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) the study of bioenergy is receiving increasing scientific attention. This research studies the effect of electromagnetic (EM) heart fields that result in levels of heart-rate synchronization.  It’s already been established that mothers synchronize with their baby’s heart rate, even in utero.

The Institute of HeartMath’s (IHM) research demonstrates that the heart, like the brain, generates a powerful electromagnetic field.  Director of Research Rollin McCraty reports that “The heart generates the largest electromagnetic field in the body. The electrical field as measured in an electrocardiogram (ECG) is about 60 times greater in amplitude than the brainwaves recorded in an electroencephalogram (EEG).”

The heart’s electromagnetic field contains certain information or coding, which researchers are trying to understand, that’s transmitted throughout and outside of the body. One of the most significant findings of IHM’s research is that intentionally generated positive emotions can change this information/coding. Read more…

What Does it Mean to Live in an Age of Empathy?

October 9, 2014

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Three stories led me here today.

 

  •  In a recent PRI (Public Radio International) The World’s host, Marco Werman talked with Ane Bjøru Fjeldsæter, an MSF Mental Health Manager from Norway. Ane, a psychologist, has just returned from Liberia where she treated 8-year-old, Patrick, hospitalized along with his father after his mother’s death from Ebola.  Ane’s self-selected job, as volunteer psychologist, brought her into close contact with Patrick despite the layers of protective gear keeping them apart. “This kid — he was my best friend in Liberia,” says Ane as she shares her relief at Patrick’s survival and his dearest wish for a bicycle when he gets well.  Happily, Ane has been in touch with a Brazilian journalist traveling to the area, who will get Patrick that bike he wants.
  • According to the annual survey conducted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) nearly 35,000 walruses have come ashore in northwestern Alaska because they cannot find sea ice for resting during the warmer months. This phenomenon has worsened since 2007 when large herds were first spotted.  As the Washington Post reported, “What looks like a cuddly gathering — walruses aping, say, “March of the Penguins” — is anything but. Gathered in large numbers on shore, animals can quickly transmit disease. Food can become scarce. Stampedes can kill animals, especially calves. There are also brown bears and polar bears about.
  • Chances are if you’ve lived in the U.S. you’ve been a customer of the “iconic” fast food chain, Dunkin’Donuts. Maria Fernandes, a 32-year-old employee may have even served you – you see Maria worked in three different locations in different shifts. This wasn’t a “lifestyle” choice – Maria like millions of low wage American workers cannot afford to live on the $7.25 per hour she earns.  Tragically Maria was found dead in her car at a convenience store parking lot, where she often stopped to nap between jobs. Authorities suspect Maria died from fumes caused by an overturned gasoline can she kept in the trunk in case she ran out of fuel between shifts. She died in her Dunkin’ Donuts uniform. The company issued a statement expressing their sympathies to her family.

So what do Maria, 35,000 stranded walruses and an eight year old Liberian boy’s recovery from Ebola have in common?  This is the question that has stayed with me for days. Read more…

What Blocks Our Empathy?

September 25, 2014

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Recently my lack of empathy for someone really surprised me.

No matter how I cognitively reframed the subject, I was stuck.  It wasn’t until I became more consciously present to the other feelings  I had about this person – that I was able to soften the picture.

I felt uncomfortable with my lack of kindness in this situation and wanted to explore what was blocking it.  When we feel this way, it’s safe to assume that judgments about others are driving our feelings.  In this case my lens was fixed on specific behaviors that I strongly disliked.

 It’s all I saw at that moment.

One of the most important things I ve learned to regain clarity and climb out of emotional ruts is to activate liberal doses of self-empathy. The judging mind often doesn’t differentiate – it wants a target to seek relief from emotional discomfort. If someone else isn’t the target – then I can be.  When I’m in the self-judging mode I can’t possibility understand why I am reacting to someone else – it’s a vicious loop – I judge myself for judging them.

Physicist Leonard Mlodinow, author of Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior observes, All of our social perceptions that seem real are made up of data from our past experiences, beliefs, expectations and even desires. They are not a direct result of what we experience but rather are constructed by our minds.”

In a culture, attached to the rational and still suspicious of the emotional, a statement like Mlodinow’s can seem incredulous. If my social perception isn’t “real,” what is? How much does my rational thought correctly perceive others? Are my past experiences distorting my perceptions?

“Yes, says Mlodinow, our pasts definitely affect us on a subliminal level. I like to use the analogy of vision to describe how our unconscious might create reality. When you look out into the world, you see what seems to be a clear and 3D image of it. It seems real to you, but it’s not really real. It’s not literally what’s out there. Our unconscious mind is doing all of this processing. It does it instantaneously and without any effort, so we just think that what we see out there is real.”

While it’s unsettling to realize that our unconscious minds drive so much of our feelings and behavior the more conscious we are about those influences the more we free ourselves from repetitive patterns. Our habit, for example, to prove our thinking right (confirmation bias) is  a major factor in reinforcing our “blind spots,” and unless we learn to mindfully unravel our tangled mindset about a situation, we’re likely to keep repeating them.

The great Scottish psychiatrist, R.D. Laing, author of Knots, expresses our dilemma perfectly, The range of what we think and do is limited by what we fail to notice. And because we fail to notice that we fail to notice, there is little we can do to change; until we notice how failing to notice shapes our thoughts and deeds.”  Read more…

We’re Up Against our Mindsets ~Reprise

September 11, 2014

 


know nothing 

Looking around the news of the world, I see three basic “camps.”  I’m thinking of these “camps” as ways of reacting/responding to the fast-changing world we all face today.

  • The first I’ll call the “Stand Your Ground” camp. This camp is generally uninterested in change. It’s mainly reactive to the world as it unfolds, always strategizing how to maintain the status-quo and hold power, however uncertain it feels. There’s little if any curiosity in this camp. Sometimes this camp gets so fearful that it will lose power that it resorts to unhealthy and sometimes desperate actions.
  • I think of the second camp as the “Curious Risk Takers.” This camp is filled with all kinds of diversity of thinkers and doers. Confident and anxious but always moving forward into the unknown, this camp counts the rebels, truth-tellers, iconoclasts, artists, innovators and community builders. They not only see that change (at epic levels) is necessary and inevitable – they relish it. This camp often needs to take better care of itself physically, emotionally and spiritually because they carry a heavy load. Their passion can replenish and drain them.
  • The third camp I call the “Bystanders.” This is the largest camp. It consists of people who sense that big change is afoot, but aren’t sure how to move forward. Many of them intuit that standing  still is no longer possible (as it never was) and they’re nervous about the outcomes. Often people in this camp don’t have the time or interest in understanding the deeper forces at work in reshaping the world as we/they have known it. Some of the people in this camp are too exhausted, just trying to make ends meet, to engage in the larger world story.  

Regardless of what “camp” (or thousands of sub “tribes” we identify with) all of us are subject to the state of our mindsets of the moment.  Everything we do stems from the world of our thoughts and feelings. The only way out is in. Self-inquiry and honest self-assessment is the only way we can expand our world views. The truth is that in the world we are heading into now, we can no longer afford to operate solely from our tribes or camps.  Out inter-relatedness is becoming a matter of survival.  No matter how we feel about the other camps or tribes, we’re in this thing together if we wish to live in some form of a habitable, cohesive world.

No magic will transform the inevitable massive changes that are underway. We will have to rethink and retool our mindsets. We’ll need to expand the range of our feelings and become far more flexible in how we respond, especially to “others.” Maybe you’ve heard the saying, “We’re the ones we have been waiting for?”

As I contemplated these powerful realities recently – this post came to mind.  

Mindsets aren’t a new concept to me. I’ve been working with my own for a long time. I’m now conscious that I’ve constructed walls and obstacles that are buried deep within my thinking patterns.  I’ve also had the good fortune to understand that many of these blocks in my thinking aren’t even my own. I inherited them or was taught them by the powers that be around me as a child, adolescent and less so – as an adult.  As I wrote in Blind Spots, thinking about my past I’m still amazed at what I could not see.  When these blind spots are revealed, I feel myself a little freer – a little more like me.

We don’t teach our children about their mindsets.  By mindsets, I mean that constellation of thoughts, beliefs (assumptions, expectations) that give rise to feelings and result in behaviors.  The closest most mainstream  pedagogy gets to that language is critical thinking.  As a culture we don’t value helping children become students of their own minds.  We still rely on group conformity while praising individual talents.

 

Read more…

How Much Does Fear Motivate Your Choices in Life?

September 4, 2014

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Lately I’ve been reflecting on this question. It’s an important one.

Maybe less important when you’re 25 (though I wish I had kept it in the forefront of my mind at that age) but I can’t think how asking it doesn’t reveal what we are hiding, avoiding or displacing at any age.

Nearly everywhere I look online I see references to fear. Of course, the news is fixated on it – because the clichéd expression – fear sells – has a lot of truth to it.  If theories of emotional contagion are correct, fear spreads in both obvious and insidious ways. If fear is a thing – it is cunning in its camouflage.

A quick glance at some social media maxims speak to the warnings and promises associated with the role fear can play in our lives:

  •  Everything you want is on the other side of fear   I think there’s a measure of truth here. There is so much that we want that we dismiss as impossible because of conditioning.  What I don’t like about glib statements like this is that people can feel less empowered if they can’t take up the Olympic challenge to quickly transform life-long habits of mind.
  • Fears are stories we tell ourselves  This is often true. The amount of fear my thoughts have generated in relation to what was “true” keeps me vigilant to my thought patterns. But, I am also aware that the voice of fear (like any other emotion) can hold valuable truths about any part of experience. There are many things we are adept at denying that are a possible risk to our well-being (health and climate change warnings come to mind) In other words, fears are not always simply tales we spin in our heads. The skill is in discerning the difference and acting carefully in response.
  • Stop letting fear rule your life. Ok, this one is true and not true for me. While I don’t feel hobbled by my fears, I also can see that they are still wasting too much of my life energy. The problem with facile statements like this is that working to transcend our fears isn’t easy. It isn’t simply a matter of deciding we are done with our fears – and moving on – but doing the work to understand why persistent fears continue to stand in our way.
  • Fear is a liar. Like stories we tell ourselves, our inner voice can invent some pretty remarkable tales – yes and even, lies. When that voice says things like, “You’re a failure, a loser, not as good as, not enough, etc.” you can reliably call it a lie
  • There is nothing to fear but fear itself.  President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s 1933 inaugural speech included these famous words when he attempted to both rouse and assure a desperate public that great things could be done during the depths of the Great Depression. I think we can all take away from this memorable line that our fear of fear is often far worse than the event itself – if, in fact, it comes to pass at all.
  •  What would you do if you weren’t afraid?  This one gets me hooked every time. Put it on a plaque on the wall because it asks us a vitally important question that goes to the heart of the choices we make – and don’t make – what would you do if you weren’t afraid?

Well, what would you do? Read more…

The Only Teacher is Self-Awareness

August 21, 2014

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“People travel to wonder at the height of mountains, at the huge waves of the sea, at the long courses of rivers, at the vast compass of the ocean, at the circular motion of the stars; and they pass by themselves without wondering.” St. Augustine

Becoming more self-aware is on its way to gaining the social stamp of approval in Western cultures.  Turns out the classic theme of ancient philosophers and fundamental principle of modern psychology to know thyself – is taking on new meaning.

This is particularly true as postmodern organizational and leadership theories continue to redefine the qualities and conditions necessary for effectiveness within the status quo. Self-awareness has found new support in these spheres because its perceived utility makes it an attractive commodity.

In his Forbes article, Return on Self-Awareness: Research Validiates the Bottom Line of Leadership Development, author Kevin Cashman writes, “Self-awareness is the most crucial developmental breakthrough for accelerating personal leadership growth and authenticity.” Harvard Business Review writer, Anthony K. Tjan describes self-awareness as theone quality that trumps all, evident in virtually every great entrepreneur, manager and leader.”

Findings in neuroscience are also proving the efficacy of the work performance levels of more self-aware individuals. Cashman’s article cites the work of Korn Ferry analysts David Zes and Dana Landis whose research makes a direct connection between leader self-awareness and organizational financial performance.

In their paper, A Better Return on Self-Awareness, Landis points out that the higher ROR (rate of return) of self-aware leaders demonstrates that, “self-awareness is not a soft skill, a nice-to-have. It’s playing out in your bottom line.”

It’s said that “necessity is the mother of invention” – and self-awareness may become a required “skill” to navigate the turbulent waters of today’s complex workplace and more transparent cultural environment.

Let me set the record straight – as an organizational consultant, I’m not in disagreement with Cashman’s points or the Korn Ferry study – I welcome the findings. I consider self-awareness to be the foundation of all self-learning and change.  Without it, we’re doomed to more unconscious choices that create much of the pain and suffering, personally and collectively, that are driving us towards seeking greater enlightenment.

But pursuing self-awareness as just another business tool – however we magnify it’s “value,” leaves us bereft of its deeper purpose and extraordinary life-changing potential. Self-awareness isn’t simply another tool to change habits – but a means for genuine transformation. Read more…

~Time for a Break~

August 1, 2014

It’s that time again…..

Time for some Travel

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Time to Unplug & Read 

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Time for Some Fun

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Time to Eat Lavender Vanilla Bean Birthday Cake  

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A Little Time to Just Be 

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See you sometime in August 

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Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment, subscribe, share, like and tweet this blog.  It’s appreciated.

Louise Altman, Partner, Intentional Communication Consultants

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Knowing What You Really Want

July 25, 2014

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In my last post, Self-Compassion is Just the Beginning, I asked what I consider to be a core question, Have I loved my life enough? Another way of asking this is – Have I loved myself enough?

Either question takes you down the same path.

All of life is driven by needs. Needs energize our life, generate motivation and shape the meaning of our experiences.

Too often we’re on paths without understanding why. How did I get here? When and why did I make the choice to be here? Did I make the choice or did I just drift in this direction – perhaps through my not knowing what I really wanted?

In my coaching and consulting work, it’s common for people to struggle with understanding what it is they really want. Often the process begins with identifying what they don’t want.

Understandably, identifying the first layer of what we want often has a common theme, I want to be financially secure, I want to have a family, I want to be healthy, I want to do satisfying work. All of these universal desires represent the ways (think of these as “strategies” to get what we want) we try to satisfy our core needs.

In her blog, the Fearless Heart, Miki Kashtan, co-founder of the Bay Area Nonviolent Communication Center, writes, “The tragedy of life is that while our needs are so all-important, most of us go through life without cultivating the awareness of our needs nor the capacity to distinguish between our needs and our strategies.”

This is, as Kashtan points out, often the case in recurring conflicts. In years of supporting people to work through conflict issues, I repeatedly found that the inability to distinguish between what we want and why we want it is often at the heart of the emotional knot. I want this behavior to stop, I want this piece of land, I want this policy changed – all represent wants in search of meeting needs.

As we see in our personal and global conflicts, most conflicts stay mired in place because personal and collective needs are insufficiently recognized or even explored. Read more…

Self-Compassion is Just the Beginning

July 18, 2014

love after love

“The moment you see how important it is to love yourself, you will stop making others suffer.”

Buddha, Samyutta Kikaya

 

Every so often something I read goes right to the heart of what I need.

So it was when I discovered this post by author Katrina Kenison titled, Bucket List  (not a term I use or gravitate towards normally) that contained some wonderful gems and a very important question that resonated with me deeply,

“Have I loved my life enough?”

Suddenly it struck me that this might be the most central organizing question of my life now. Have I loved my life enough – have I loved myself enough?

This is the time to reflect on every precious moment of my life without evaluation, judgment and more demands.  This was the time to “greet myself arriving at my own door,” words beautifully crafted by the poet Derek Walcott in his beloved work, Love After Love.

This is the time to hone my skills to be gentler on myself than ever before. This is the time to love myself completely.

In the Era of Selfies, some of you are wincing at the thought of promoting more narcissism in the culture. But loving one’s self – flaws, imperfections, failures, weaknesses, poor choices, mistakes and all – is I believe, indicative of deep personal growth. Read more…

Mindfulness is a Whole Body Experience ~Reprise

July 3, 2014

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“Emotions like grief, fear and despair are as much a part of the human condition as love, awe and joy. Each of these emotions is purposeful and useful-if we know how to listen to them.”     Miriam Greenspan  

Intellectually, I know that emotions live in the body. The research demonstrating the mind-body relationship becomes more definitive each year.  But, primarily I know this because when I stay still long enough to deeply feel my body, I am humbled by the feeling of feelings. Practicing body mindfulness gives me countless opportunities to listen to my feelings without judgment, analysis or resistance. Mindfulness is not simply an activity of the mind, impacting the brain.

Being mindful of the body gives us a glimpse of the profound truth of the experience of our bodies. Is the anger I felt yesterday still present somewhere in my body? Is the chronic impatience I experience the headache I wake up with or the low-back pain I feel intermittently? Is the pain in the neck I feel the irritation and frustration I often feel with a co-worker or recalcitrant teenager?

In Descartes’ Error, neuroscientist Antonio Damasio writes about the embodied mind.  In the book he presents the “somatic markers hypothesis,” which posits that it isn’t only the mind that thinks.  Damasio stresses the crucial role of feeling in every personal decision, “the intuitive signals that guide us in these moments literally come in the form of limbic-derived surges from the viscera.” Damasio refers to these as “somatic markers.” Without awareness of this “whole brain/body” data we operate, in essence, cut off from stored and spontaneous information that is vital not only to our decision-making, but to our overall well-being.

Recent studies from Massachusetts General Hospital, the University of Arizona, Boston University, the Santa Barbara Institute for Consciousness Studies and Emory University found that meditation may influence the way the brain processes emotions – even when you are not practicing it.  According to researcher Gaelle  Desbordes, “This is the first time that meditation training has been shown to affect emotional processing in the brain outside of a meditative state.”  Read more…

Rethinking the Workplace Relationship of the Future

June 26, 2014

Diego Rivera The Worker
Diego Rivera’s The Worker

Isn’t it time to change the dominant stories we’ve been taught about workplace relationships?

They’re old, exhausted and defeating.

They’re based on models of thinking about human motivation and dynamics that have been discredited by modern science. These old stories are steeped in mistrust. They’re hierarchical and parental in nature and based on a belief that the sole motivation for work is monetary.

It’s a story that’s getting harder to sell in an era of dizzying technological speed, complexity and social interconnection. On the critical primacy of social connectivity in the new workplace author Harold Jarche writes, “Creativity will be needed on a large-scale. The key to creativity is diversity – of opinion and options. Connected people can socially create knowledge and most importantly, coordinate action together. This is the incredible potential of the “people” aspect of the Internet of Everything- human connections that scale.”

Today’s mainstream workplace story has little to do with the visionary prognostications that Jarche offers. It’s a story that’s still pervasive and based on ideas about people who are stuck in early 20th century models of the worker as job performer. The old story is kept in place by behemoth organizational processes that keep the artifices of old power arrangements intact, despite overwhelming evidence of their inevitable decline. Read more…

Collaboration: The Essential Emotions~Reprise

June 19, 2014

 

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Successful collaboration is built on a high level of emotional literacy.

Without the capacity to generate and sustain certain feelings, our ability to collaborate authentically with others isn’t possible.

By the time most of us reach adulthood, our emotional repertoire has become habituated.   Emotional habits are then fueled by our thinking process which is also fixed into patterns.  Beliefs are the engine below stoking emotions that are triggered by outside events and social interactions. By the time we reach the workplace, these patterns are typically the set of emotional skills we have to work with – unless we consciously work toward reshaping our mindsets.

Increasingly, today’s workplace “models” are trending towards collaboration.  In many organizations, collaboration is still just a buzzword – the distance between language and practice miles apart.

But there are many companies that are committed to shaping their culture towards more collaboration.  Beyond philosophy, these organizations understand that without collaboration, real engagement is not possible.  Demographic and generational forces and the power of social media and sharing are also driving the trend towards collaboration. Read more…

12 Steps to More Inner Peace

June 12, 2014

 

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 Peace, it does not mean to be in a place where there is no noise, trouble or hard work. It means to be in the midst of those things and still be calm in your heart.”   Unknown

 

 

Lately peace has become a priority for me.

When it moved to the top of my list, I can’t say.  In the spirit of questioning priorities, (something we’d all benefit from) I’ve been asking myself some basic questions about the often elusive state I call peace.

Since, like many of you, I am not practiced in peace as a way of being in the world, I plan to jot down what comes to mind when I think of peace.  I want to understand when and how these moments of feeling calm, centered and grounded come over me.  

I want to learn how to invite more of this sense of total comfort in to my life. This deeply personal state of being is different for each of us, so it’s important for you to think about how these harmonious feelings happen in your life.  Read more…

Mindfulness is Not a Quick-Fix

June 5, 2014

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Now that we’re in the era of praise, hyperbole and misconception about what mindfulness (meditation) is all about – let’s step back and take a look at what we know.

While I’ve often written about mindfulness and personally and professionally endorse its benefits, I’m concerned that the essence of the practice is being co-opted.

Business media coverage of a practice as potentially disruptive to the status quo of stress-filled workplaces is welcome. But too often the discussion is focused on using the tool of mindfulness to do more, make more and get more.

In a curiously convoluted Fast Company article, What Our Recent Obsession with Mindfulness Really Means, author Samantha Cole voices her concern that the corporate world’s recent interest in mindfulness is so pervasive that “there are whole companies that encourage their employees to be more mindful. They drop into yoga poses during mindfulness-drills, and attend expensive seminars on the subject.” According to Ms. Cole, “no activity is safe from mindfulness.”

As a consultant who works with diverse businesses, I must admit, I have yet to find any company where mindfulness “drills” are being held or see department managers dropping into yoga stances.

As for “expensive” seminars, as an advocate and teacher of mindfulness, while I’m pleased to find more people in the corporate world aware of and interested in mindfulness, many are not. It continues to be an uphill sell despite the frustration, frenzy and pressures most employees report as their primary experience. And many of those who are interested still see mindfulness as an adjunct to their work – not a way of doing it.  Read more…

Curiosity~the Go-To Emotion (Reprise)

May 29, 2014

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“The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity.  Dorothy Parker

I was a really curious kid. How about you?

They say all kids (and apparently cats) are curious.

Of course that’s true (I mean about the kids, I don’t know enough about cats to make that claim) but I was a very curious kid. I always wanted to know WHY. Why is it raining here but not there? Why can’t I eat dessert before dinner? Why is the man down the street so grumpy? Is he sick? Will I get sick?  As we all know the questions get more and more complicated.

The kind of answers we got as children probably had a lot to do with the habits we formed about asking questions.  At some point, most children lose interest in asking why.  Even the most dedicated parents tire of responding to a barrage of questions and artfully (and not so) find ways to deflect their little ones’ inquiries.

Many people believe the nature of the average formal education can have the effect of shutting down imagination in favor of standardized learning. Albert Einstein famously said, “It’s a miracle that curiosity survives formal education.”

I’m a product of the generation that often had a handy proverb ready for inquisitive kids like me, “Louise, curiosity killed the cat.” I really never knew what that meant.

This proverb has influenced thinking about curiosity for a long time.  Although the origin of the modern version only appears in print in a Handbook of English, Irish, Scottish and American Proverbs around 1873, the older version dates back to the 1500’s even showing up in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing , What, courage man! What though care killed a cat, thou hast mettle enough in thee to kill care.”

The modern version seems to warn us of the dangers of too much unnecessary investigation or experimentation.  We’re warned of the perils of being too pushy and nosy for our own good.  Fast forward to the 21st century and it turns out that this nosy kid’s insatiable curiosity is now considered a highly valued core strength. Science is discovering that curiosity turns on the brain and leads to creativity and innovation.  The brain likes curiosity. It likes stimulation, variety and the new.

What the elders of my childhood didn’t know was just how much brains love to learn. Brains are constantly seeking new information and making predictions based on that knowledge. In the process, neuroplasticity is strengthening neural networks and using the information to make even better predictions.

Turns out curiosity feeds the cat!  Read more…

Renewing Our Belief in the Power of People

May 22, 2014

every life

 

I feel the capacity to care is the thing which gives life its deepest significance.”

Pablo Casals

 

The more I see others from my heart and not my judgment, the more compassion I have for my fellow human beings.  Admittedly, this is a work in progress.

There’s something poignant about pilots reporting their final passenger count as having a number of souls on board. Maybe we should do that in the workplace – report how many souls work here or how many souls are in this meeting?  Regardless of your beliefs, using the term feels inclusive – like we’re all in this together. We’re not talent, direct reports, admins, vendors, temps, C-Suiters, or new hires – but souls on a journey – separate and together.

Too many people talk about their colleagues with a mixture of frustration and cynicism.  Too many well-meaning books and articles label people as difficult, unreasonable, dysfunctional – even toxic.

It’s true that difficult, unreasonable, dysfunctional and even toxic conditions within many organizations and institutions produce all sorts of unhealthy actions.  These behaviors are often triggered by unresolved emotions and exacerbated by systems insensitive to human needs.   I’ve been exposed to my share of it – at both ends – as an employee and as a consultant.  I understand the growing pressures that most workers are up against these days.   I get why so many people feel discouraged and cynical.

How can we expect workers to act with respect, kindness and compassion in workplaces that are cauldrons of anxiety?  How can we expect people to thrive in organizations with life-sucking systems and practices that reinforce fear and discourage honesty?

Researchers have found that one relative causal  factor that enables compassion is the degree of safety someone feels.  The biological “switch” that turns empathy and compassion on, works when the “survival” threat systems (fear, anxiety, distress) are turned off. Read more…

No Pain No Gain? Rethinking Success

May 8, 2014

 

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We’re living in an age of liminality.  Some of us are aware of it, already feeling its weight and disorientation. The signs are everywhere – if you look.  Liminality is that period of being in-between – the old stories we told ourselves about the future – especially about success – are being challenged, some fading into irrelevancy.

The fugue-like state we’re living is often messy and discomforting.  The old habits and beliefs we learned are in question – our sense of personal identity feels threatened.

If you’ve grown up in Western influenced cultures, your head’s been filled with dictums about the meaning (and methods) of success.  The prolific Benjamin Franklin warns, “Lose no time. Be always employ’d in something useful, cut off unnecessary actions.”  Industrialist and early time-management proponent Henry Ford evoked the American all-or-nothing ethos when he claimed, “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t – you’re right.”  

Some of the most well-known motivational speakers have channeled the early American pioneer can-do spirit.   Dale Carnegie, an embodiment of the rags-to-riches story was a poor farmer’s son who single-handedly invented the self-improvement business.

Carnegie, who created the famous Dale Carnegie Training Course, claimed,  “Inaction breeds doubt and fear. Action breeds confidence and courage. If you want to conquer fear, do not sit home and think about it. Go out and get busy.” 

 And American sports icon, Vince Lombardi’s prototypical 1950’s maxim, “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing,” shaped two generations of thinking about competition and success.

While these men have inspired millions to set their sights higher and stay the course, they’ve also contributed to a legacy of confusion about the nature of work/life and access to equal opportunity. Read more…

Let Nature Heal You

April 22, 2014

get lost in nature

 

It’s Earth Day – a perfect time to reconsider and renew your relationship with the natural world. Think about your connection to nature – how often do you spend time outdoors? Not commuting or running errands, but with the deliberate intent to be with nature.

Even though studies show that even 30 minutes outdoors can boost vitality levels and curb depression, most adults are spending less time outside. And only 6% of our children, aged 9-13, are playing outdoors in a typical week.

We all need to be part of the natural world because we are part of the natural world. Our growing estrangement from nature is unhealthy for body and mind; the gulf between us fraying our bond.

Regular, direct contact with the natural world can soothe, heal and uplift us. This Earth Day, let these great words and visuals inspire you to allow nature to do its work on you.

  Read more…

Acceptance ~ Enabling Peace

April 10, 2014

buddha face

Acceptance has a bad rap.

In cultures where progress and improvement are a constant quest, accepting  what is  seems passive. Those of us who grew up in fix-it, more-is-better cultures still bristle at the idea of  “letting go.”

For a long time I justified “arguing with reality” because I told myself I was a passionate, strong-willed person who was driven to make changes for the better. I still am a strong-willed person with many passions, but one who is practicing loosening my grip. The more I work on the art of acceptance, the more pockets of peace I find opening within.

When we think about acceptance, we’re often thinking about the circumstances in our lives. What we “accept” and what we don’t is usually based on the stories we tell ourselves,especially about who we are and why we are the way we are. These stories can sometimes be excuses for behaviors that may not serve our needs or ultimate outcomes.

Our non-acceptance can be as simple as whining about bad weather on a vacation, griping about a co-worker’s habits or to the inevitable personal challenges everyone must face at some point in life.  We can usually tell when we’re resisting what is  by the way we feel. Irritation, annoyance, anger, resentment, regret and, of course, anxiety. Because so much of our behavior is reactive and not intentional, it is easy to resist what is.  Read more…

Optimism ~ Radical Act or Magical Thinking?

April 3, 2014

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Recently I discovered a quote that grabbed my attention.

According to Alex Steffens, co-founder of WorldChanging.com, who was described in the New York Times as a “designing optimist,”  “Optimism is a political act.”

If you’re spending time online these days, you may be caught between headlines like the upbeat promise to Break Free of Your Struggles in 2 Steps and the dire IPCC report, Climate Change a Threat to Food, Security & Mankind.

The inner conflict between world views brings me back to exploring some basic questions about the nature of optimism, pessimism and the actions they propel. I’ve written before about cynicism and positive thinking but unrelentingly grim news compels me to revisit this territory. 

Steffens’ bold statement raises interesting questions. Don’t get sidetracked by the term political – this is not about partisan politics. Steffens, I believe, is talking about the status quo – whatever it is. Our institutions and systems are badly broken and the paralysis of pessimism isn’t going to fix or transform them.

Steffens is arguing that the very nature of  the conversation about optimism is driven by status quo thinking.  We either believe that we can solve the world’s most pressing problems (and everything in-between) or we can’t.

Steffens believes that “entrenched interests use despair, confusion and apathy to prevent change. They encourage modes of thinking which lead us to believe that problems are insolvable, that nothing we can do matters, that issues are too complex to present even the opportunity for change.  It is a long-standing political art to sow the seeds of mistrust between those you would rule over; as Machiavelli said, tyrants do not care if they are hated, so long as those under them do not love one another. Cynicism is often seen as a rebellious attitude in Western popular culture, but, in reality, cynicism in average people is the attitude exactly most likely to conform to the desires of the powerful – cynicism is obedience.”

In Steffen’s model, the status quo benefits from confusion. “I’m more and more convinced that the instrumentalism in the absence of committed vision always serves the politics of impossibility.” Given the power of institutional culture, how is our thinking about what’s possible being shaped? What are business, government and big data telling us about change and what is possible? Read more…

Listen, are you breathing just a little and calling it a life?  

March 27, 2014

 

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Pulitzer Prize winning poet Mary Oliver’s haunting question should become a mantra for life in the 21st century.

Seemingly inured to stress, too many of us speed through each day without taking the time to stop and ask – what have I traded a day of my life for today? Jumping on the mindfulness bandwagon dozens of articles still ask, “Can you afford ten minutes to devote to the practice?”

Collectively we know that stress is a slow killer but it’s not changing our behavior. How much information do we need before we start shifting destructive behaviors that pose real threats to our personal and social well-being?

Lack of sleep (which new data shows leads to brain cell loss) is endemic. There is no single behavior that is more basic to human performance than sleep. Yet, in cultures like the U.S. where many people believe that sleeping less adds to productivity, the average sleep duration is now around 6 hours.  It’s a vicious cycle – less sleep exacerbates stress which leads to less sleep.

Suicide rates are escalating at an alarming rate surpassing deaths from auto accidents in the U.S. Recently, an inexplicable series of suicides among men, especially younger workers, has shaken the financial sector.   Last August, the finance chief at Zürich Insurance Group committed suicide and left a note blaming the company’s chairman for creating unbearable work environment.

Read more…

5 Practices for Mindful Communication ~ Revisited

March 20, 2014

mindful communication

It’s getting difficult not to bump into the word mindfulness these days. While mindfulness is mostly associated with meditation, I like to think of it as a way of being in the world.

Mindfulness meditation “practice” is valuable – and it will likely have multiple ripple effects in every corner of your life.  A new study at The University of Utah has confirmed its benefits and shown that mindfulness affects stress responses throughout the day. According to researcher Holly Rau, “People who reported higher levels of mindfulness described better control over their emotions and behaviors during the day.”

Magic?  No.  Methodical practice of retraining the brain to respond to stimulus differently builds cognitive flexibility in ways we are just beginning to understand.

In an age of looking outside of ourselves for solutions, mindfulness practice turn out to be the ultimate insider “strategy.” The magic of mindfulness is that it rearranges neural networks in powerful ways. And the great news is that we are the “tool” that makes it possible.  Apps can remind us when to breathe, sit and slow down, but only we can make it happen.    Read more…

BeFriending Anger – The Emotions Series Reprise

March 13, 2014

anger is the outward

“Anger can be a wonderful wake up call to help you to understand what you need and what you value. Thich Nhat Hahn

For seven years I regularly facilitated seminars on conflict resolution.  Most of the group participants wanted answers to problems they saw as the source of their conflict. Usually this had to do with fixing the behavior of another person.

Imagine the surprise when I asked them to reflect on a set of questions that focused almost exclusively on their own anger.

What do you believe about anger?

What is its purpose?

How do you express your anger?

How do you want others to express their anger to you?

How do you repress your anger?

Do you do anything to shut down the anger of others?

If your anger could talk, what would it say? Read more…

5 Things We Need to Tip the Balance for Women’s Equality

March 8, 2014

 taking notes

 

It’s International Woman’s Day again.  How shall we mark it?

Are we making progress? Yes, of course we are. Do we have a long way to go? You bet we do. But before we start taking stock of the state of women in 2014, let’s get our context clear.

We’re not going to talk much about Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer or Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg (author of the controversial book, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead) two icons for a segment of working “professional” women.

Sandberg’s “social movement” Lean In has generated a (healthy) but often contentious debate among women who have greater access to economic and social resources than the average working woman whose median salary in the U.S. was  $37,791 in 2012. (Compared to men’s $49,398)

Dissecting the Lean In ethos in her excellent article in Dissent, author Kate Losse writes, “Life is a race, Sandberg is telling us, and the way to win is through the perpetual acceleration of one’s own labor: moving forward, faster. The real antagonist identified by Lean In then is not institutionalized discrimination against women, but women’s reluctance to accept career demands.”

In her entertaining “rebuttal” article, Recline!, Georgetown law professor and foreign policy analyst Rosa Brooks writes, Ladies, if we want to rule the world, or even just gain an equitable share of leadership positions – we need to stop leaning in. It’s killing us. We need to fight for our right to lean back and put our feet up.” 

As Brooks rightly points out, most women, especially those with children are still expected to work the “second shift” at home, since women still do far more childcare and housework than men.

The problem with much of the analysis on women’s empowerment or “equalization” is that most is focused on a narrow demographic of wealthier, well-educated women whose daily livelihood, rights and safety are often taken for granted.  Mainstream discussions about work are mostly defined by opinion-making elites with emphasis on “glass ceilings” and male dominated boardrooms. There is little recognition that the majority of female jobs: domestic, home care, retail services and other “contingent” work are “undervalued, virtually unregulated and precarious.” 

As Laurie Penny of the New Statesman writes, “While we all worry about the glass ceiling there are millions of women standing in the basement – and the basement is flooding”

Read more…

Living with Permanent Uncertainty

February 27, 2014

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Here’s what I have noticed lately ~ more and more people are talking about living in “uncertain” times.  It’s now called, “the new normal.”

The anxiety over our predicament of uncertainty appears to be a new discovery.

The economic earthquake of 2008/09 rearranged our thinking – and long-held assumptions about the future. We haven’t been the same since; our collective consciousness has shifted and the majority now believe we are living in an era of uncertainty.

Along with the popular acknowledgement that uncertainty is now permanent, comes the recognition that “chaos” is part the new world order.  Writing about his work to help the U.S. military “embrace” a future of uncertainty, Ori Brafman, author of The Chao Imperative: How Chance and Disruption Increase Innovation, Effectiveness and Success,  explains ,  “The military, one of the most structured organizations that has ever existed on earth, has realized that in order to be adaptive it needs to embrace elements of chaos.”

While we don’t know what this means for military priorities and practices, it’s a high-profile signal of a mindset shake-up in the establishment status-quo.

In his excellent blog, Unfolding Leadership, Dan Oestriech offers another example of the changing nature of our reality. In Leading Change in a VUCA World,” Dan points out that to lead change in a VUCA world (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) leaders must be able to adapt and stimulate continuous organizational change.  He points out that earlier models of change management are outmoded top-down strategies designed to maintain control and overcome resistance

Awareness is progress, right? We’re seeing mindsets shift as a society – business, medicine, education – every sphere of organizational life feels the difference and the pressure for change.  We’re not going back to the old world – and more of us know it but aren’t sure what’s next. While organizations and institutional systems will either spend the next years attempting to shore up power and control (fail) or flex and flow experimenting with new models, what will our personal response to a VUCA world be?

Cultures change when people do.  So how do we handle our new collective awareness that living is a state of permanent uncertainty?  Organizational instability is one pill to swallow, personal volatility – quite another. Read more…

5 Reasons Why Business Can’t Afford to Ignore Psychology for Another 100 Years ~Reprise

February 20, 2014

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“The problem with business is that it is afraid of dealing with the business of people.”

  W. Edwards Deming

Honestly, I  don’t get it.

Why is so much of business still in the dark about the basics of human dynamics?

Appyling awareness of human psychology to work is moving at a glacial pace while technology flies by it at the speed of light.

What’s taking so long?

Well, part of the story starts back in 1911 when Frederick Taylor – the “father” of professional management as we know it, propelled his ideas for advancing worker “efficiency.” The Taylor method prescribed a clockwork world of tasks timed to the hundredth of a minute, of standardized factories, machines and people. Naturally, ordinary workers resented having to work faster than they thought was healthy or fair.

Little was known or considered at the time about the “human dynamics” of workers and modern psychology was still in its infancy. In fact, it seems that the “human side” of worker’s needs was viewed as rather inconvenient by some of the industrial leaders of the time.  Surely, the inner workings of the human being were a nuisance at best to people like Henry Ford who complained, “Why is it when I need a pair of hands I have to get the whole man?”

Sorry Henry – that’s just how we work – we fussy messy human beings. We need things like meaning, security, purpose, pleasure, novelty and rest to “perform” at our best.

Sadly, the machine metaphors of Messrs Taylor and Ford still guide many of the underlying processes of the modern workplace. The command and control thinking and practices implemented during that time still drive many management behaviors today.

It’s still not uncommon for business leaders to ask questions like: Read more…

What Have We Learned from 20 Years of Emotional Intelligence ~ Pt.2

February 12, 2014

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Continuing the conversation started in Part 1 – several key questions keep surfacing.

One is the often unspoken tension between EI (Emotional Intelligence) and what is typically thought of as “therapy.” For anyone who has been involved in a therapeutic process, it’s immediately clear that learning and applying EI principles is very different from being “in therapy.”

Resistance to EI in work settings often comes from those who believe that any discussion of “feelings” is akin to the therapeutic relationship.  Organizational aversion to emotions reflects the larger cultural aversion to feelings.  Addressing collective cultural fears, Miriam Greenspan, author of Healing through the Dark Emotions, says, “We’ve mastered the internal regulation processes of emotion-phobia. Ours is a dissociative culture-a culture that separates body from mind, body from spirit, and feeling from thinking. This kind of dissociation is a special requirement of masculinity in patriarchy.”

Ms. Greenspan’s comments surface another interesting layer of the resistance to bringing EI learning into many organizations – men are often the decision-makers at more senior levels.  Many EI practitioners would agree that receptivity is greater among women.  Greenspan points out, “Both men and women are impaired in different ways, by our culture’s disability in relation to emotion and emotional communication. Emotional vitality and authenticity, a mature sense of emotional wholeness and freedom-these human capacities are hard to come by in a culture that doesn’t honor the body and the heart.” Read more…

What Have We Learned from 20 Years of Emotional Intelligence? Reprise

February 6, 2014

Technology and Industry

In 1995, Emotional Intelligence: Why it Can Matter More than IQ by Daniel Goleman was published. The introduction of Emotional Intelligence (EI) generated excitement and hope. Nearly twenty years later, it’s time to look at the progress and future of this work.

As a student of psychology and social systems, EI (Emotional Intelligence) had immediate resonance with my experience and offered some of what I believed was essential for personal and whole systems change.  At the time, there were no statistics to “prove” the efficacy of EI, no “ROI” (return on investment) data to sell skeptics on the value of people understanding their own emotional make-up and acting from that knowledge.

As I quickly began to integrate the concepts into my work, I could see the powerful impact this material had on the people I was working with. Turns out – a surprising amount of people in the workplace wanted to talk about feelings. They needed a framework and a sense of safety to give voice to what they were carrying around in their bodies.

The early days of working with EI were not easy, but gratifying. There were no “tools” or standardized tests to fall back on – just concepts and a willingness to deeply listen to emotionally hungry voices in the workplace. Aside from reassuring some people that  EI wasn’t “therapy,” I found mostly receptive audiences who wanted more. There was little in the way of “how to” in the early days of EI – and quite frankly, there still isn’t.

Clients from tech, the law and the sciences often pushed back. I improved my skills in the art of non-resistance. I found myself gently making the case that there was a place for emotions in the workplace. In fact, the workplace was filled with emotions, though often not the ones that inspired, motivated and supported people.  The “rational mind is everything” meme embedded in so many people challenged the idea that body/mind, thoughts/feelings were a unified system.

In 1998, Daniel Goleman released his landmark article in the Harvard Business Review, What Makes a Leader? The article established the “model” that most EI practitioners would use and offered research results from application of the principles in business settings.

This article and the release of his next book, Working with Emotional Intelligence, lent legitimacy to earlier assertions that EI trumped IQ as predictive of professional success. In his work Goleman was challenging the enduring belief that intellect and rationality alone were the keys to professional advancement. “They do matter,” Goleman stated in the article, “but mainly as “threshold capabilities, that is, they are the entry-level requirements for executives.”   Read more…

Why Neuroscience Should Change the Way We Work~Pt.2 Reprise

January 30, 2014

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Since I published Part 1 in April 2011 the article has consistently been in the blog’s top  10.  I’m grateful for the response and I’ve been inspired to write more about the fascinating, emergent world of neuroscience.

While I am a very informal student of the science, what I’ve learned has reshaped the way I approach my work.  As I wrote in Part 1, given this impressive new knowledge, I expect that slowly, but surely, organizational leaders will come to realize that too many of the beliefs, philosophies, methods, practices and strategies that govern their thinking about human dynamics and work are still stuck in post-Industrial Era mindsets.

While there are critics of neuroscience and its interpretations who worry about the “culture’s obsession with the brain and how we have elevated the vital organ into cultish status, mythologizing its functions and romanticizing the promise of its scientific study,” we’ve already realized great benefits from the science that is clearly here to stay.

What we now know about human development and optimal whole body-brain functioning should not only change the way we manage people at work – but how we raise and teach our children, provide health care, conduct our legal system and structure government policies and institutions.

In Part 1, I focused on the concepts governing management practices that can benefit from developing an understanding of neuroscience.  In Part 2, I want to broaden the applicability of neuroscience to more of organizational life. – specifically, culture. Read more…

How Good is Your Word?

January 23, 2014

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“What I’ve seen today for the first time is unacceptable. I am outraged and deeply saddened to learn that not only was I misled by a member of my staff, but this completely inappropriate and unsanctioned conduct was made without my knowledge.” (New Jersey Governor Christie in his 1st public statement on the “bridgegate” scandal)

“We do not market food to kids.” (McDonald’s CEO Don Thompson in response to a protest by food advocates at the 2013 annual shareholders meeting)

“This position is going to another candidate who has more experience, but as soon as another comes available, I will contact you.”  (A recruiter unwilling to tell an anxious job-seeker the truth)

“I’ll get back to you after the meeting on Wednesday.” (It’s Friday and I am still waiting)

“Great to see you, things are crazy now but let’s get together after the holidays.(Neighbors, who haven’t socialized in years, running into each other at a local restaurant before the holidays)

From the unethical to the prosaic, most of us fallible humans exaggerate or even lie. We make promises and commitments we don’t keep. The gap between intentions and action is growing.  It seems like more of us are willing to stretch the truth these days and that “good old-fashioned” virtues like honesty and responsibility are imperiled.

Many of us still believe that the moral high ground is being trampled on out there – while we keep up the illusion of our own rock-solid personal integrity.  The forces of self-deception are powerful and our inability to come clean about our own moral fault lines is understandable. Read more…

10 Quotes to Inspire Your Work in 2014

January 16, 2014

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The naysayers are already declaring that resolutions for the New Year have failed or inevitably will.  But from what we now know about habits and the brain we understand that unless we motivate ourselves – regularly – our intentions for change are likely to go unfulfilled.

It’s easy to become cynical in these times – even about our own aspirations and possibilities. It’s more important than ever to understand what we believe and how our actions are aligned with our behavior.

Here are ten quotes that can open the fields of possibility in 2014 – and beyond.

  1. “Let us not look back in anger or forward in fear, but around in awareness.”–James Thurber

I recently rediscovered this quote and found such solid wisdom in its practical advice.  Regret and lack of forgiveness often mire us in the past and sap the energies we need to carry us forward.  I’ve often written about fear – the most corrosive and debilitating emotion. Don’t let it dominate you this year.  Thurber rightly reminds us that instead of becoming caught in ruminations of yesterday and the anxieties of tomorrow – to look around in awareness – right now – in the moment at what is.  The present is a potent place to be – let’s dwell in it more in 2014. Read more…

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