HBR: How Smart Managers Build Bridges

How do you manage conflict?  Are you improving your relationships with your directs? Below is a blog from the Harvard Business Review by Charalambos Vlachoutsicos

How Smart Managers Build Bridges

What do you do when the other person simply won’t budge from an entrenched position in which they have a great deal of personal and professional commitment? How do you bridge the gap between your position and his?

Most people try to win the other person over to their point of view by argument. The trouble is, in many cases they don’t have all the facts to fully understand why the other person doesn’t agree. What’s more, the gap may be down to differences in values or cultures that are not particularly amenable to reasoned arguments. Whatever the source of the differences or gaps, when you can’t win by reason, you start to get angry at what you see is the other person’s lack of it, which gets mirrored, and so the gap only gets wider.

The key to avoiding this dynamic is to stop trying to get the person to change and instead get them to open up. The information you get may well encourage you to moderate your own position and thus open the way for a mutually advantageous cooperation. Make them understand your constraints and get them to see what they have to gain by what you propose.

Of course, sometimes, no amount of understanding is going to get the other person to budge and you’re going to have to force progress. At this point, you have to work to bridge the gap in such a way that their main concerns are accommodated so that you can communicate and cooperate productively in spite of and within the limits of your differences. Typically, this involves talking responsibility for the action you wish to make while being prepared to share the payoff and the credit.

Once the gap is actually bridged and you move forward you will pretty soon see that your interactions generate change. Through the give and take of communication, all sides come to feel that at least some of the differences between them are actually smaller and easier to live with than they appeared to begin with.

I built perhaps my first managerial bridge when, fresh out of HBS, I joined our family’s business. Immediately on joining I realized that our warehouse constantly remained out-of-stock of at least five of the thirty-odd products our company carried. This not only caused a loss of sales of the items missing but also had negative repercussions on the sales of all of our products because it drove many customers into our competitors’ arms.

I went to our warehouse and met with the manager who was a very loyal, trustworthy person who had worked with us for many years. He was about 60 years old, knew all our clients personally and had a wide network of potential clients in the market. I asked him why he believed we faced this problem.

He answered that it was because our suppliers took a long time to deliver our orders and, given the global nature of our supply chain, there was nothing we could do about it. I talked to him a little about the notion of forecasting what amount of each product we would need to carry as minimum stock, in order to cover our sales during the time required between the date of placing our order and the date it would reach us.

His reaction was fierce: “If you want predictions go to the Oracle of Delphi,” he told me. “In Greece we do not know what will happen from one day to the next, so we cannot make predictions of how much of each product we will sell.” He would not budge.

Faced with this attitude, I stopped trying to get him to change. Instead, I asked for a worker, some red paint, a brush, and a wooden ladder. I obtained from the accountant the average monthly sales of each product, added a security margin of 20%, converted this quantity to the volume of space required for each product, and drew on the wall a thick red line at the point where the pile would probably be enough to cover sales of the product until our next order arrived.

I assured the manager that I respected his view that predictions in Greece were risky and — this was critical — assured him that the head office would take responsibility for whatever risks were entailed by my attempts to forecast “All you have to do is, whenever you see a red line appearing on the wall behind the stack of any product, is inform me”. Finally, I promised him a bonus for each day our warehouse carried stocks of all our products.

The immediate impact, of course, was fewer stock-outs. But the longer-term and more important benefit from the improvement was that the warehouse manager and I started talking more. He took to visiting me at my Athens office and to ask my opinion on other problems our Piraeus shop faced and to make useful suggestions on how best to address them. Thanks to my action in bridging I had been able to move from talking to the manager to talking with the manager.

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S+B: Three Promises Every Sales Team Needs to Make — and Keep

Are you focusing on what matters to your customers? Are you providing value to build profitable, lasting relationships? Below is a blog from s+b Blogs by Elizabeth Doty:

Three Promises Every Sales Team Needs to Make — and Keep

Customer loyalty has always been the holy grail of organic growth. The fastest way to increase revenue and margin is not to push sales and marketing teams to land new customers, but to stop leaking customers. In their classic study, W. Earl Sasser Jr. and Frederick F. Reichheld found that reducing customer churn by just 5 percent could increase profitability between 25 and 85 percent, depending on the industry. Loyal, satisfied customers usually cost less to serve, are willing to pay for quality, bring more of their business your way, and are more likely to refer other customers.

Today, however, as the sales model shifts further toward subscription-based services, longer-term relationships have become more critical than ever before. Under a traditional, product-driven model, suppliers receive all their revenue up front. But with subscription-based services, customers pay as they go and can usually switch suppliers easily. In many cases, accounts are not profitable for suppliers until the second year. This means suppliers need to ensure they keep customers happy just to maintain their revenue streams over time.

To reduce customer churn, many experts promote techniques for convincing unhappy customers to stay. But what they should be asking is: Why do customers want to leave in the first place? Often, it’s because they feel the company has not delivered the value that was promised. Despite the current focus on continual innovation, what customers tend to value most is reliability, as Reg Price and Don Schultz wrote about in their book, Reliability Rules: How Promises Management Can Build Your Company Culture, Bid Your Brand, and Build Your Bottom Line (Racom Communications, 2009). And, as marketing legend Christian Grönroos has explained, building relationships requires making and keeping promises throughout the process of engaging your customer. The next logical question thus becomes: Who makes promises on behalf of your firm?

Ultimately, it’s your own salespeople who are responsible for your company’s promises. Marketing may craft your brand promise, but your sales team makes the commitments that count for specific customers — what your company will deliver, when, and with what level of quality. In the past, faced with pressure to meet a quota, salespeople might have been tempted to say whatever they thought it would take to close a deal, then move on to the next customer. But sales strategy expert Steve Thompson, who coaches both buying and selling organizations, suggests that “in a world of relationships, a different kind of salesperson succeeds.”

To win in this new world, sales teams need to focus on whether customers are receiving the value promised — and whether their firm is getting credit for the value delivered. Thompson proposes three specific promises that can help any direct-sales business build longer-term relationships.

  1. “I will focus on what matters to you.” The sales process begins with an exploration. What outcomes are your customers trying to achieve? How will they measure success? Without this context, you cannot advise them on the right solution. Unfortunately, customers often find this exploratory phase frustrating. They invest time and share information, but too often, reps do not listen or focus only on the products or services they want to sell. In this type of situation, you can differentiate yourself by taking a serious interest in your customer’s business and aiming to create value throughout the sales process. Thompson explains that “90 percent of the time, the buying organization isn’t clear about what they need. Right off the bat, a sales team can create significant value by helping them clarify their needs.” And if their desired outcomes are not ones you can deliver, you build credibility by telling them who may be able to.
  2. “I will craft the right deal.” The next phase involves crafting and presenting the right solution, and negotiating an agreement. “When salespeople focus on features, the discussion often devolves to price,” warns Thompson. “We turn our products and services into commodities by the way we sell them.” Instead, design a few possible solutions, each tied to a customer outcome. Make sure you can articulate exactly how each component is necessary. Then ask the buyer: Which option do you like best? How could it be improved? Now you are negotiating, but not as opponents. As you work together to adapt your solutions to their priorities, they will gain confidence that you can deliver, and pricing will be based on a win-win division of value. Crafting deals in this way also helps suppliers avoid the need to discount to close a sale to meet a quarterly deadline. For example, as one sales manager told me, “Our most successful sales reps are focused on the customer. These reps do not rush to recommend products until they are sure they would truly meet the customer needs. They are in it for the long term. And that means they can set their own prices.”
  3. “We will focus on delivering these outcomes.” If you want to keep a customer for life, stay invested after the deal closes. This is the moment when most sales reps move on to the next prospect, leaving customers anxious about whether they made the right decision, and operations staff in the dark about the details of delivery. The sales team, which consists of your organization’s promise-making units, needs to be joined at the hip with the delivery team, your promise-keeping units. The sales team, your organization’s promise-making arm, needs to be joined closely to the delivery team. Sales staff can dramatically improve delivery reliability by involving service staff early in the process, which helps service staff know the customer and why they are buying. Once you have delivered, you solidify the relationship by self-reporting on the outcomes achieved. This demonstrates accountability and protects the buyer from a superior who might ask, “What did you spend all that money on?”

Focusing on what matters to your customer, crafting a deal you can deliver on, and providing outcomes all help you build profitable, lasting relationships. Of course, sales teams alone cannot make this shift. It requires organizational changes in management focus, delivery processes, and technology tools — with an eye toward customer retention, revenue, and relationships, not just costs. Sales compensation may also need to change, to reward reps for the long-term relationships they develop. Moreover, as your company delivers more reliably and self-reports, you earn the right to ask customers about new needs. “There is a whole lot of sales pipeline sitting there that companies don’t know about, because buying organizations are not voluntarily offering up the information,” laments Thompson. What richer source of leads could there be than your own happy customers?

 

Hillbilly Elegy

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance is funny and deeply moving. He also talks about the struggles growing up as part of the in Appalachian working class. I would recommend this book to anyone. Below is an excerpt:Hillbilly elegy.jpg

Hillbilly Elegy

Today downtown Middletown is little more than a relic of American industrial glory. Abandoned shops with broken windows line the heart of downtown, where Central Avenue and Main Street meet. Richie’s pawnshop has long since closed, though a hideous yellow and green sign still marks the site, so far as I know. Richie’s isn’t far from an old pharmacy that, in its heyday, had a soda bar and served root beer floats. Across the street is a building that looks like a theater, with one of those giant triangular signs that reads “ST___L” because the letters in the middle were shattered and never replaced. If you need a payday lender or a cash-for-gold store, downtown Middletown is the place to be.

Not far from the main drag of empty shops and boarded-up windows is the Sorg Mansion. The Sorgs, a powerful and wealthy industrial family dating back to the nineteenth century, operated a large paper mill in Middletown. They donated enough money to put their names on the local opera house and helped build Middletown into a respectable enough city to attract Armco. Their mansion, a gigantic manor home, sits near a formerly proud Middletown country club. Despite its beauty, a Maryland couple recently purchased the mansion for $225,000, or about half of what a decent multi-room apartment sets you back in Washington, DC.

Located quite literally on Main Street, the Sorg Mansion is just up the road from a number of opulent homes that housed Middletown’s wealthy in their heyday. Most have fallen into disrepair. Those that haven’t have been subdivided into small apartments for Middletown’s poorest residents. A street that was once the pride of Middletown today serves as a meeting spot for druggies and dealers. Main Street is now the place you avoid after dark.

This change is a symptom of a new economic reality: rising residential segregation. The number of working-class whites in high-poverty neighborhoods is growing. In 1970, 25 percent of white children lived in a neighborhood with poverty rates above 10 percent. In 2000, that number was 40 percent. It’s almost certainly even higher today. As a 2011 Brookings Institution found, “compared to 2000, residents of extreme-poverty neighborhoods in 2005-09 were more likely to be white, native-born, high school or college graduates, homeowners, and not receiving public assistance.”  In other words, bad neighborhoods no longer plague only urban ghettos; the bad neighborhoods have spread to the suburbs.

This has occurred for complicated reasons. Federal housing policy has actively encouraged homeownership, from Jimmy Carter’s Community Reinvestment Act to George W. Bush’s ownership society. But in the Middletowns of the world, homeownership comes at a steep social cost: As jobs disappear in a given area, declining home values trap people in certain neighborhoods. Even if you’d like to move, you can’t, because the bottom has fallen out of the market-you now owe more than any buyer is willing to pay. The costs of moving are so high that many people stay put. Of course, the people trapped are usually those with the least money; those who can afford to leave do so.

City leaders have tried in vain to revive Middletown’s downtown. You’ll find their most infamous effort if you follow Central Avenue to its end point on the banks of the Miami River, once a lovely place. For reasons I can’t begin to fathom, the city’s brain trust decided to turn our beautiful riverfront into Lake Middletown, an infrastructural project that apparently involved shoveling tons of dirt into the river and hoping something interesting would .come of it. It accomplished nothing, though the river now features a man-made dirt island about the size of a city block.

Efforts to reinvent downtown Middletown always struck me as futile. People didn’t leave because our downtown lacked trendy cultural amenities. The trendy cultural amenities left because there weren’t enough consumers in Middletown to support them, And why weren’t there enough well-paying consumers? Because there weren’t enough jobs to employ those consumers. Downtown Middletown’s struggles were a symptom of everything else happening to Middletown’s people, especially the collapsing importance of Armco Kawasaki Steel.

 

HBR: Become a Better Listener by Taking Notes

Are you taking notes during meetings? Sabina explains why taking notes makes you a better listener. Meeting notes will help you make better decisions. Below is a blog from the Harvard Business Review by Sabina Nawaz:

Become a Better Listener by Taking Notes

Team dynamics can make or break a meeting. Have you ever been in a meeting where people interrupt each other, introduce new ideas when they should be building on the conversation, and repeat someone else’s point just to be heard? These communication issues waste time and energy, and usually lead to more meetings to correct misunderstandings, reiterate decisions, or soothe hurt feelings and interoffice tensions.

But there is one thing you can do that can make a significant difference to improving the quality of time you spend in meetings: Listen. By improving the way you listen and understand others in meetings, you can make that time more productive by reducing repetition and misunderstandings.

If simply listening can solve so many problems, why is it so hard to practice? One reason is we’re listening to interrupt with our ideas or rebuttals. We listen so we can jump in with our perspective. Or we’re worried we’ll forget what we want to say if we listen for too long. We focus on our own communication, rather than listening to understand others.

Through my work with executive teams, I’ve developed a simple technique that can help anyone listen more effectively in meetings. I call it Margin Notes. You may already take notes during meetings, but unless you’re using them wisely to understand others and plan your response, you may still fall into the same trap of speaking before you think. Margin Notes allows you to think, process information, make connections between points of discussion, and ask effective questions instead of blurting out the first thing that comes to mind.

Here’s how it works:

  • Set your page with a wide margin and take notes when someone else is talking. In the main body of your notes, capture only what the other person is saying. These don’t have to be verbatim; just jot down the key points. You can accurately quote individuals later.
  • In the margin, capture your ideas, judgments, rebuttals, and questions to each of the points you’ve written down. By marking them to the side, you separate your own thoughts from what others say. It lets you set aside (literally) your own voice and gives you space to listen to others. For example, when your boss excitedly outlines idea after idea for a product launch, you might note in the margin, “Ask about budget” or “Remind about CEO memo.”
  • When you speak, only bring up items from your Margin Notes that haven’t already been addressed and are the highest priority, and cross them off as you go. If you’re unable to raise some topics during the meeting and the items are important to you, tag them for follow-up.

For example, Ari is chief of staff to Brenda, the CEO of a 200-person scientific organization that was struggling. Its main source of funding had been favoring its competitor, and some key people had left to start their own ventures. Tensions were high, and some of the remaining team members were trying to one-up each other in discussions. Others were desperate to take any action as soon as possible. The ensuing miscommunications, high-stakes decisions, and panic led to conflict and unproductive meetings.

Brenda gathered her direct reports to discuss how they might sharpen their efforts in the face of dwindling resources. Ari took these notes following the Margin Notes model:

***

Ari assessed his Margin Notes and focused his questions during the meeting on the most important issues he had jotted down: What are the decision criteria for budget cuts, and should cuts be spread across projects, rather than cutting projects in their entirety? He waited until the end of the meeting to also ask about cuts in infrastructure and marketing.

Then, in a one-one-one with Brenda, Ari tackled some of his other concerns: “We’re an action-driven culture. Do we need to slow down? Do we lose possibilities by not questioning assumptions?” He also noted, “The team doesn’t question you; they just jump into action. Are we relying too much on your judgment alone? Should some of these decisions be passed on to others in the team?” Lastly, Ari observed, “I worry we may not be fostering a culture of healthy conflict. Jennifer seems nervous whenever Josh and John seem to argue, and tends to turn to your guidance.” There were also several points that Ari chose not to raise because they were low priority at the moment. He marked these comments, so if they continued to be an issue, he could raise them later.

Ari’s Margin Notes enabled him to make a considered decision on how to guide the conversation more strategically toward business outcomes, rather than further fuel the competition between John and Josh. He was then helpful to Brenda by reflecting some of the dynamics he observed in a separate meeting. This allowed Brenda to approach the next meeting’s agenda more thoughtfully and adjust her own behavior. Based on Ari’s comments about the team’s culture, at their next leadership team retreat, Brenda facilitated a discussion about their implicit cultural norms. They collectively brainstormed changes to become a higher functioning team during these lean times.

As you take these notes, don’t just write down the facts of the discussion. Here are some things to consider when taking Margin Notes so you can listen better:

  • Write down themes from your main notes. When you listen across topics, what is a common theme? How are they related to each other? What’s the bigger story they’re telling? For Ari, his observation about culture was one of these themes.
  • Capture questions and flag them to ask at the appropriate time. Ari held off on asking the question about cuts across infrastructure and marketing in addition to projects until the end of the meeting so as not to take the focus off the hard trade-offs that needed to be made on projects first. He also took some of the personal dynamics to a private one-on-one with Brenda, rather than openly critiquing other team members in the meeting. This helped him to avoid calling out or embarrassing his colleagues, while also providing an opportunity for Brenda to create conditions for better communication in future meetings.
  • Test assumptions. When someone makes a general statement for the first time in a meeting, examine it from all angles before considering action. Ari considered several assumptions about how the budget cuts could be implemented and whether there were ways to expand funds instead of simply cutting the budget.
  • Pay attention to what’s not said. There’s rich data in both what’s unsaid and what is said nonverbally. In Ari’s case, he noticed that no one asked questions or challenged assumptions; they immediately jumped into discussing specific projects and implementing the budget cut. What’s more, he observed some nonverbal behaviors. When John and Josh talked about their projects, they made eye contact with only Brenda and never looked at each other or other team members. It made Ari wonder if John and Josh were competing to lobby Brenda to consider the merits of their projects over others. He decided to raise this concern with Brenda separately so she could look deeper into these projects.
  • Be discerning about what you ultimately share. You don’t have to share everything from your Margin Notes, especially in a meeting setting. Ari simply asked three questions which shifted the tone of the session. He later followed up privately with Brenda about some of his other concerns, and noted some points that could wait until high-priority items had been completed.

 

Capturing others’ words helps you track what they’re saying, and by writing down your thoughts next to each point, you can ensure you won’t forget important follow-ups while still digesting the conversation. Allowing yourself to listen more deeply to meetings gives you the opportunity to connect the dots, present your ideas more convincingly, and get more real work done in meetings.

Irresistible

Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked by Adam Alter explores behavioral addiction, how it compares to substance addiction and what causes it. There’s a good mix of research and anecdotes in this book. Below is an excerpt from the book that you might find useful:

IrresistibleIrresistible.jpg

Gamification is a powerful tool, and like all powerful tools it brings mixed blessings. On the one hand, it infuses mundane or unpleasant experiences with a measure of joy. It gives medical patients respite from pain, schoolkids relief from boredom, and gamers an excuse to donate to the needy. By merely raising the number of good outcomes in the world, gamification has value. It’s a worthwhile alternative to traditional medical care, education, and charitable giving because, in many respects, those approaches are tone-deaf to the drivers of human motivation. But Ian Bogost was also wise to illuminate the dangers of gamification. Games like FarmVille and Kim Kardashian’s Hollywood are designed to exploit human motivation for financial gain. They pit the wielder of gamification in opposition to the gamer, who becomes ensnared in the game’s irresistible net. But, as I mentioned early in this book, tech is not inherently good or bad. The same is true of gamification. Stripped of its faddish popularity and buzzwordy name, the heart of gamification is just an effective way to design experiences. Games just happen to do an excellent job of relieving pain, replacing boredom with joy, and merging fun with generosity.

 

HBR: How Adobe Structures Feedback Conversations

Are you providing yours directs’ feedback on their performance and opportunities to develop their growth?  Are you having a conversation about expectations? Below is a blog from the Harvard Business Review by David Burkus:

How Adobe Structures Feedback Conversations

Providing employees feedback on their performance and opportunities to develop is one of a manager’s most important tasks. As important as it is, however, it can often get pushed down pretty far on the to-do list. Many leaders face a swarm of pressing deadlines; moreover, feedback conversations can be awkward. Even the preparation for such conversations can make managers feel stressed. It’s easy to fall back on the annual performance review to make sure at least one conversation happens. It’s no wonder many employees report getting no other feedback throughout the year.

But giving regular feedback on performance doesn’t have to be difficult. In fact, there are a few relatively simple formats or templates to help guide the conversation and ensure the discussion is meaningful (and hopefully more frequent than once a year).

One of the best examples I’ve noticed is at Adobe, a company that became notable recently for ditching their performance appraisals and replacing them with informal “check-in” conversations. But, as we’ll see, their framework for a check-in conversation works well for any situation where relevant and valuable feedback is the goal.

For Adobe, a good check-in centers around three elements of discussion: expectations, feedback, and growth and development. When each of these areas have been discussed, then managers and subordinates know they’ve had a meaningful conversation.

  1. Expectations refer to the setting, tracking, and reviewing of clear objectives. In addition, expectations also mean that both parties agree on roles and responsibilities for the objective, and also are aligned in how success will be defined. For Adobe, employees were expected to begin the year with a simple, one-page document outlining the year’s objectives in writing. Regular check-ins became opportunities to monitor progress toward those goals and well as review how relevant they might still be in light of recent events. Regardless of what your own team may start the year understanding, taking the time to regularly review what the goals are, how close individuals are to achieving them, and whether or not those goals need to be changed is a vital step in making sure you arrive at the end of the year (or whatever cycle goals are measured by) with everyone in agreement about how successful a period it has been.
  1. Feedback refers to ongoing, reciprocal coaching on a regular basis. Feedback is the logical next step from a discussion about expectations. Once the goals are clear, and how close to meeting them is established, feedback is how employees learn to improve performance and more quickly achieve their goals. For Adobe, it was important to emphasis the reciprocal nature of feedback. Managers were providing performance feedback but also needed to be open to receiving feedback themselves. Specifically, feedback conversations provided answers to two questions: 1) “What does this person do well that makes them effective?” and 2) “What is one thing, looking forward, they could change or do more of that would make them more effective?”
  1. Growth and Development, the final element, refers to the growth in knowledge, skills, and abilities that would help employees perform better in their current role, but also to making sure that managers understood each of their employees’ long-term goals or career growth and worked to align those goals with current objectives and opportunities. Instead of a simple “year in review” approach, inclusion of growth and development as one element of a “Check-In” ensures that the conversation is centered on future development of employees … not just arriving at a score for the previous period. A vital part of making check-ins successful was not just the forward-looking nature, but also the frequency. If you’re checking-in regularly than it’s much easier for both managers and employees so see progress.

And that final piece might be the key to why check-ins work so well. Researchers Teresa Amabile of Harvard Business School and Steve Kramer conducted a multi-year tracking study in which hundreds of knowledge workers were asked to keep a daily diary of activities, emotions, and motivation levels. When they analyzed the results, the pair found that progress was the most important motivator across the board. “On days when workers have the sense they’re making headway in their jobs, or when they receive support that helps them overcome obstacles, their emotions are most positive and their drive to succeed is at its peak,” they wrote of their findings. “On days when they feel they are spinning their wheels or encountering roadblocks to meaningful accomplishment, their moods and motivation are lowest.” Surprisingly, however, in a separate study of 600 managers, Amabile and Kramer found that managers tended to assume progress was the least potent motivator — citing things like recognition and incentives as stronger motivators.

Looking at the three-elements of a meaningful check-in, it’s easy to see why the system would be more motivating and performance enhancing than the norm. While most performance appraisal systems are backward looking, assigning what is essentially a grade to past performance and spending only minimal time focused on the future, this format centers around highlighting the progress made and the skills and abilities needed to make further progress. Both are mechanisms to provide feedback, but one appears far more motivating.

 

Perhaps most importantly, the beauty of a check-in conversation is that it doesn’t automatically mean abandoning all of the other mechanisms required by your organization. Well-intentioned managers can start holding check-ins with or without an overhaul to the performance management system being used. At its core, it’s a helpful tool for having a more meaningful conversation… and using it regularly might even make the annual performance review discussion more meaningful as well. If you’re looking for a way to provide more meaningful feedback and better develop the people on your team, talking about these three things (expectations, feedback, growth and development) is a great start.

HBR: The Cost of Continuously Checking Email

Are you multitasking? What do you do to stay focused on one task? Below is a blog from the Harvard Business Review by Ron Friedman :

The Cost of Continuously Checking Email

Suppose each time you ran low on an item in your kitchen—olive oil, bananas, napkins—your instinctive response was to drop everything and race to the store. How much time would you lose? How much money would you squander on gas? What would happen to your productivity?

We all recognize the inefficiency of this approach. And yet surprisingly, we often work in ways that are equally wasteful.

The reason we keep a shopping list and try to keep supermarket trips to a minimum is that it’s easy to see the cost of driving to the store every time we crave a bag of potato chips. What is less obvious to us, however, is the cognitive price we pay each time we drop everything and switch activities to satisfy a mental craving.

Shifting our attention from one task to another, as we do when we’re monitoring email while trying to read a report or craft a presentation, disrupts our concentration and saps our focus. Each time we return to our initial task, we use up valuable cognitive resources reorienting ourselves. And all those transitional costs add up. Research shows that when we are deeply engrossed in an activity, even minor distractions can have a profound effect. According to a University of California-Irvine study, regaining our initial momentum following an interruption can take, on average, upwards of 20 minutes.

Multitasking, as many studies have shown, is a myth. A more accurate account of what happens when we tell ourselves we’re multitasking is that we’re rapidly switching between activities, degrading our clarity and depleting our mental energy. And the consequences can be surprisingly serious . An experiment conducted at the University of London found that we lose as many as 10 IQ points when we allow our work to be interrupted by seemingly benign distractions like emails and text messages.

The trouble, of course, is that multitasking is enjoyable. It’s fun to indulge your curiosity. Who knows what that next email, tweet or text message holds in store? Finding out provides immediate gratification. In contrast, resisting distraction and staying on-task requires discipline and mental effort.

And yet each time we shift our focus, it’s as if we’re taking a trip to the store. Creativity expert Todd Henry calls it a “task-shifting penalty.” We pay a mental tax that diminishes our ability to produce high-level work.

So what are we to do?

One tactic is to change our environment to move temptation further away: shut down your email program or silence your phone.  It’s a lot easier to stay on task when you’re not continuously fending off mental cravings. This approach doesn’t require going off the grid for a full day. Even as little as 30 minutes can have a major impact on your productivity.

The alternative, which most of us consider the norm, is the cognitive equivalent of dieting in a pastry shop. We can all muster the willpower to resist the temptations, but doing so comes with considerable costs to our limited supply of willpower.

Another worthwhile approach is to cluster similar activities together, keeping ramp-up time to a minimum. Instead of scattering phone calls, meetings, administrative work, and emails throughout your day, try grouping related tasks so that there are fewer transitions. Read reports, memos and articles one after another. Schedule meetings back-to-back. Keep a list of administrative tasks and do them all in a single weekly session. If possible, try limiting email to 2 or 3 predetermined times—for example 8:30, 12:00 and 4:30—instead of responding to them the moment they arrive.

In some jobs, multitasking is unavoidable. Some of us truly do need to stay connected to our clients, colleagues, and managers. Here, it’s worth noting that limiting disruptions is not an all or nothing proposition. Even small changes can make a big difference.

Remember: it’s up to you to protect your cognitive resources. The more you do to minimize task-switching over the course of the day, the more mental bandwidth you’ll have for activities that actually matter.

 

HBR: Good Leaders Are Good Learners

Are you setting learning goals? Is your company helping you identify your learning opportunities? Below is a blog from the Harvard Business Review by Susan J. Ashford, Peter Heslin, Lauren Keating:

Good Leaders Are Good Learners

Although organizations spend more than $24 billion annually on leadership development, many leaders who have attended leadership programs struggle to implement what they’ve learned. It’s not because the programs are bad but because leadership is best learned from experience.

Still, simply being an experienced leader doesn’t elevate a person’s skills. Like most of us, leaders often go through their experiences somewhat mindlessly, accomplishing tasks but learning little about themselves and their impact.

Our research on leadership development shows that leaders who are in learning mode develop stronger leadership skills than their peers.

Building on Susan Ashford and Scott DeRue’s mindful engagement experiential learning cycle, we found that leaders who exhibit a growth mindset diligently work through each of the following three phases of the experiential learning cycle.

First, leaders set challenging learning goals in the form of “I need to learn how to…” For some leaders, the goal might be to become more persuasive or to be more approachable. With a goal in mind, leaders can identify opportunities to make progress toward it. These could include a new project, an international assignment, a job rotation, or simply striving to approach routine encounters in a fundamentally different way.

Next, they find ways to deliberately experiment with alternative strategies. A leader interested in increasing their persuasiveness, for example, might experiment with sitting in a different place or speaking first or last in a critical meeting. Creating and capitalizing on learning opportunities can be bolstered by having a coach or peer provide feedback and act as a sounding board.

Finally, leaders who are in learning mode conduct fearless after-action reviews, determined to glean useful insights from the results of their experimentation. Candidly reflecting on what went well, what did not go so well, and what might work better in future are essential though often neglected initiatives for learning from experience and discerning what to focus on learning next. Understanding these principles is important for organizations not just because it means that leadership development doesn’t have to be expensive, but also because it means that leadership skills can be systematically learned and practiced.

How can leaders enter learning mode? Leaders can construe setbacks as meaning they have not yet developed the required capabilities, rather than them being just not cut out for the task at hand. They can also avoid the trap of constantly seeking out places and tasks to highlight their strengths, as well as feedback that affirms their innate talents and self-esteem. Simply asking themselves, “Am I in learning mode right now?” can be a powerful cue to wholeheartedly focus, or refocus, on their leadership development, as well as their leadership performance, and thereby truly learn from their experiences.

How can organizations help leaders enter and remain in learning mode? Organizational leaders can help rising leaders focus more on being progressively better than they were in the past, rather than on constantly benchmarking themselves against others. They can model construing mistakes as potential learning opportunities rather than as indicators of leadership inadequacy. In hiring and promotion, organizational leaders might give priority to those most likely to grow and develop in a role. Finally, they might conduct an audit of fixed mindset cues in their organization — such as the use of psychometric testing to select the most “innately qualified” high-potential leaders; forced ranking performance appraisals; and winner-take-all reward systems — and tweak them to focus more on developing than diagnosing leadership capabilities.

The bottom line is that by supporting leaders being in learning mode, organizations can develop the capabilities that leaders need to anticipate, respond to, and continually learn from the stream of emerging challenges to organizational prosperity.