Critical Questions for Becoming a More Effective Leader and Reaching Your Potential

Recently, I came across some notes from a book I read in 2011 that I’d like to share — What to Ask the Person in the Mirror: Critical Questions for Becoming a More Effective Leader and Reaching Your Potential by Robert S. Kaplan:

Critical Questions for Becoming a More Effective Leader and Reaching Your Potential

Vision and Priorities

In the press of day-to-day activities, leaders often fail to adequately communicate their vision to the organization, and in particular, they don’t communicate it in a way that helps their subordinates determine where to focus their own efforts.

  • Have you developed a clear vision for your enterprise?
  • Have you identified three to five key priorities to achieve that vision?
  • Do you actively communicate this vision, and associated key priorities, to your organization?

Suggested Follow-up Steps

  • Write down, in three to four sentences, a clear vision for your enterprise or business unit.
  • List the three to five key priorities that are most critical to achieving this vision. These should be tasks that you must do extraordinarily well in order for you to succeed based on where you are positioned today
  • Ask yourself whether the vision (with priorities) is sufficiently clear and understandable. In addition, ask yourself whether you communicate the vision and priorities frequently enough that your key stakeholders (e.g., direct reports and employees) could repeat them back to you. Interview key employees to see whether they understand and can clearly rearticulate the vision and priorities.
  • Identify venues and occasions for the regular communication, reiteration, and discussion of the vision and priorities. Create opportunities for questions and
  • Assemble your executive team off-site to debate the vision and priorities. In particular, consider whether the vision and priorities still fit the competitive environment, changes in the world, and the needs of the business. Use the off-site to update your vision and priorities and to ensure buy-in on the part of your senior leadership team.

Managing Your Time

Leaders need to know how they’re spending their time. They also need to ensure that their time allocation (and that of their subordinates) matches their key priorities.

  • Do you know how you spend your time?
  • Does it match your key priorities?

Suggested Follow-up Steps

  • Track your time for two weeks and break down the results into major categories.
  • Compare how this breakdown matches or is mismatched versus your three to five key priorities. Make a list of the matches and mismatches. Regarding the mismatches, write down those time allocations that are 2s and 35 and could therefore be performed by others-or should not be performed at all.
  • Create an action plan for dealing with the mismatches.

For example, commit to delegating those tasks that could just as easily be performed by someone else. Decide, in advance, to say no to certain time requests that do not fit your key priorities.

  • After a few months, repeat the preceding three steps. Assess whether you are doing a better job of spending your time on critical priorities.
  • Encourage your subordinates to perform these same steps.

 

Giving and Getting Feedback

 

Leaders often fail to coach employees in a direct and timely fashion and, instead, wait until the year-end review. This approach may lead to unpleasant surprises and can undermine effective professional development. Just as important, leaders need to cultivate subordinates who can give them advice and feedback during the year.

  • Do you coach and actively develop your key people?
  • Is your feedback specific, timely, and actionable?
  • Do you solicit actionable feedback from your key subordinates?
  • Do you cultivate advisers who are able to confront you with criticisms that you may not want to hear?

Suggested Follow-up Steps

  • For each of your direct reports, write down three to five specific strengths. In addition, write down at least two or three specific skills or tasks that you believe they could improve on in order to improve their performance and advance their careers. Allocate time to directly observing their performance, and discreetly make inquiries to gather information and insights in order to prepare this analysis.
  • Schedule time with each subordinate, at least six months in advance of the year-end review, to discuss your observations and identify specific action steps that could help them improve and address their developmental needs and opportunities.
  • Write down a realistic list of your own strengths and weaknesses. Make a list of at least five subordinates from whom you could solicit feedback regarding your strengths and weaknesses. Meet with each subordinate individually and explain that you need their help. In your meetings, make sure to ask them to give you advice regarding at least one or two tasks or skills they believe you could improve on. Thank them for their help.
  • Write down an action plan for addressing your own weaknesses and developmental needs. If you have a direct superior (or trusted peer), consider soliciting advice regarding your developmental needs and potential action steps. Depending on your situation and level in the organization, consider the option of hiring an outside coach.
  • Encourage each of your direct reports to follow these same steps regarding their direct reports and themselves.

Succession Planning and Delegation

When leaders fail to actively plan for succession, they do not delegate sufficiently and may become decision-making bottlenecks. Key employees may leave if they are not actively groomed and challenged.

  • Do you have a succession-planning process for key positions?
  • Have you identified potential successors for your job?
  • If not, what is stopping you?
  • Do you delegate sufficiently-
  • Have you become a decision-making bottleneck?

Suggested Follow-up Steps

  • Create a succession-planning depth chart for your business unit or organization. This document should include at least two or three potential successors for your own position.
  • For each potential successor, write down their key development needs and specific actions you might take in order to develop their capabilities in relation to potential future positions. Work to develop and shape these specific development plans.
  • For those key tasks that you have committed to finding a way to delegate, begin matching those tasks with specific candidates on the depth chart. Make assignments.
  • Categorize delegated tasks in terms of their levels of importance to your enterprise. Based on this analysis, note which tasks need to be done at extremely high levels of quality, and which can be done at “sufficient” levels of quality. Ask whether you have calibrated your level of involvement to this categorization, and remember that “involvement” should often take the form of coaching the subordinate, rather than a direct intervention. Make a commitment to “picking your spots,” to ensure that your direct interventions (beyond coaching) are justified by an appropriately high level of task importance.
  • Ask your business unit leaders to perform this same exercise with regard to their direct reports.

Evaluation and Alignment

The world is constantly changing, and leaders need to be able to adapt their businesses accordingly.

  • Is the design of your company still aligned with your vision and priorities?
  • If you had to design the enterprise today with a clean sheet of paper, how would you change the people, key tasks, organizational structure, culture, and your leadership style?
  • Why haven’t you made these changes?
  • Have you pushed yourself and your organization to do this clean-sheet-of-paper exercise?

Suggested Follow-up Steps

  • Identify a key business unit or function to tryout the clean-sheet-of-paper exercise. Create a small task force based on the selected names from the succession-planning depth chart exercise. Attempt to draw professionals from at least two to three different business units and/or functional areas. Give the team a specific assignment, and emphasize that they should assume that there are no sacred cows to be protected. Make clear to them that while you may not follow every piece of their advice, you want their candid views and most likely will implement at least some of their suggestions.
  • Agree on an appropriate time frame. Take into account that this assignment is not in place for doing their day jobs. Make clear that you are available to answer questions or give guidance, but you plan to stay away from this process in order to avoid influencing their analysis and conclusions.
  • Debrief the group regarding their findings. Also, conduct a post mortem to determine what you and the task force learned from the process of doing this exercise.
  • Develop a specific action plan for implementing at least some (if not all) of the group’s recommendations.

The Leader as Role Model

Your actions are closely observed by those around you. They send a powerful message about what you believe and what you truly value.

  • Do you act as a role model?
  • Do your behaviors match your words?
  • How do you conduct yourself under pressure?
  • Is your conduct consistent with your stated values?

Suggested Follow-up Steps

  • Write down two or three key messages you believe you send with your behavior (versus your speeches). Seek advice from key subordinates and advisers who directly observe your behavior, in order to answer this question: is there a disconnect between the messages you wish to send and those you are in fact sending?
  • Do this same exercise for your key direct reports. What messages is each of them sending about what is truly valued in your organization? Again, make discreet inquiries, if necessary, to do this analysis. Incorporate this work into your coaching of these executives.
  • Think of a situation in which you felt enormous stress at work and regretted your behavior. Write down the one or two issues that created the stress you were feeling- acknowledging that these issues may have had nothing to do with work. How would you behave differently if you could replay this situation? Write down one or two lessons you take away from this exercise.

Reaching Your Potential

Successful executives develop leadership styles that fit the needs of their business but also fit their own beliefs and personality.

  • Are you pursuing a path that is consistent with your assessment of your strengths, weaknesses, and passions?
  • If not, what are you waiting for?
  • Have you developed your own style at work?
  • Do you speak up, express your opinions, and conduct yourself with confidence?
  • Do you encourage your people to be authentic and express their opinions?

Suggested Follow-up Steps

  • Make a list of your three greatest strengths and your three greatest weaknesses. Get advice from your senior, peer, and junior coaches or advisers in order to make sure your list reflects “reality” in relation to your current job and aspirations.
  • Develop a specific action plan to work on your weaknesses. Action steps might include specific job assignments, seeking feedback within your organization, and/or getting an outside coach.
  • Encourage your subordinates to do this same analysis and action planning. Discuss these plans in your coaching sessions for subordinates.
  • Think of a situation in which you were at your best, when you performed extremely well and felt great about your impact. What were the elements of this situation? What tasks were you performing, what was your leadership approach, what was the context, and what other factors enhanced your performance? What lessons do you take from this, regarding your passions, values, and other key elements that help bring out your best performance?
  • Think of a time when you brought out the best in others. What was your motivational approach? What was your leadership style? What other elements allowed you to bring out the best in others? When you reflect on this situation, what lessons do you learn about yourself, including about your philosophy and values, as well as how you might best motivate others in the future?
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Five Kinds of Restorative Breaks

I very much recommend reading When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing by Daniel H. Pink. He offers a small handbook after each chapter. Below is an excerpt for the handbook:

Five Kinds of Restorative Breaks: A MenuWhen.jpg

You now understand the science of breaks and why they’re so effective in both combatting the trough and boosting your mood and performance. You’ve even got a break list ready to go. But what sort of break should you take? There’s no right answer. Just choose one from the following menu or combine a few, see how they go, and design the breaks that work best for you:

  1. Micro-breaks — A replenishing break need not be lengthy. Even breaks that last a minute or less-what researchers call “microbreaks”-can pay dividends.’ Consider these:

The 20-20-20 rule — Before you begin a task, set a timer. Then, every twenty minutes, look at something twenty feet away for twenty seconds. If you’re working at a computer, this microbreak will rest your eyes and improve your posture, both of which can fight fatigue.

Hydrate — You might already have a water bottle. Get a much smaller one. When it runs out-and of course it will, because of its size-walk to the water fountain and refill it. It’s a threefer: hydration, motion, and restoration.

Wiggle your body to reset your mind — One of the simplest breaks of all: Stand up for sixty seconds, shake your arms and legs, flex your muscles, rotate your core, sit back down.

  1. Moving breaks — Most of us sit too much and move too little. So build more movement into your breaks. Some options:

Take a five-minute walk every hour –As we have learned, five- minute walk breaks are powerful. They’re feasible for most people.

Office yoga — You can do yoga poses right at your desk-chair rolls, wrist releases, forward folds-to relieve tension in your neck and lower back, limber up your typing fingers, and relax your shoulders. This may not be for everyone, but anyone can give it a try. Just stick “office yoga” into a search engine.

Push-ups — Yeah, push-ups. Do two a day for a week. Then four a day for the next week and six a day a week after that. You’ll boost your heart rate, shake off cognitive cobwebs, and maybe get a little stronger.

  1. Nature break — This might sound tree bugger-y, but study after study has shown the replenishing effects of nature. What’s more, people consistently underestimate how much better nature makes them feel. Choose:

Walk outside — If you’ve got a few minutes and are near a local park, take a lap through it. If you work at home and have a dog, take Fido for a walk.

Go outside — If there are trees and a bench behind your building, sit there instead of inside.

Pretend you’re outside — If the best you can do is look at some indoor plants or the trees outside your window-well, research suggests that will help, too.

  1. Social break-Don’t go it alone. At least not always. Social breaks are effective, especially when you decide the who and how. A few ideas:

Reach out and touch somebody — Call someone you haven’t talked to for a while and just catch up for five or ten minutes. Reawakening these “dormant ties” is also a great way to strengthen your network. Or use the moment to say thank you-via a note, an email, or a quick visit–to someone who’s helped you. Gratitude-with its mighty combination of meaning and social connection-is a mighty restorative.”

Schedule it — Plan a regular walk or visit to a coffee joint or weekly gossip session with colleagues you like. A fringe benefit of social breaks is that you’re more likely to take one if someone else is counting on you. Or go Swedish and try what Swedes call a fika-a full-fledged coffee break that is the supposed key to Sweden’s high levels of employee satisfaction and productivity.’

Don’t schedule it –– If your schedule is too tight for something regular, buy someone a coffee one day this week. Bring it to her. Sit and talk about something other than work for five minutes.

  1. Mental gear-shifting break — Our brains suffer fatigue just as much as our bodies do-and that’s a big factor in the trough. Give your brain a break by trying these:

Meditate-Meditation is one of the most effective breaks-and micro-breaks-of all.” Check out material from UCLA (http://marc.ucla.edu/mindful-meditations), which offers guided meditations as short as three minutes.

Controlled breathing — Have forty-five seconds? Then, as the New York Times explains: “Take a deep breath, expanding your belly. Pause. Exhale slowly to the count of five. Repeat four rimes.”? It’s called controlled breathing, and it can tamp your stress hormones, sharpen your thinking, and maybe even boost your immune system — all in under a minute.

Lighten up — Listen to a comedy podcast. Read a joke book. If you can find a little privacy, put on your headphones and jam out for a song or two. There’s even evidence from one study on the replenishing effects of watching dog videos.” (No, really.)

Identify the Three Tiers of Noncustomers in Your Industry

In the building supply industry which consumers are considered noncustomers? What are you doing to attract them to your business? The book Blue Ocean Shift: Beyond Competing – Proven Steps to Inspire Confidence and Seize New Growth by W. Chan Kim is an awesome and eye-opening book about moving from red to blue ocean industry.Blue Ocean Shift.jpg

Identify the three tiers of noncustomers in your industry

Now we turn from current customers to noncustomers. Using the three-tiers graphic, shown in figure, (below) as a guide, ask each of the team members to think through and write down their thoughts about who might be in each tier. To help you perform this task effectively, relevant materials and templates are provided for your free download and use at Exercise Templates. Here are the questions you want to ask:

  1. Who sits on the edge of our industry and uses its offering reluctantly and/or minimally?
  2. Who considers our industry and then consciously rejects it, satisfying their needs through another industry’s offering or not at all?
  3. Who could strongly benefit from the utility our industry offers, but doesn’t even consider it, because the way it is currently being delivered makes the industry seem irrelevant or out of their financial reach?

For many people, this will be the first time they’re ever been asked to systematically think through the issues of non-customers. As we have witnessed, if an organization has given thought to noncustomers, it’s usually in terms of their competitors’ customers, not the noncustomers of their overall industry. They ask, “Who are our competitors’ customers, and how can we win a greater share of those who patronize other players?” But this is not the meaning of noncustomers in blue ocean terms. What is key at this stage is getting team members thinking deeply about noncustomers and, critically, letting them discover for themselves how little they may know or have thought about the wider opportunity landscape that exists beyond the current industry’s horizon.

Organizations often become comfortable commissioning and outsourcing large, formal market studies. Hence, it is not surprising that, at this juncture, we’ve often been asked, “Don’t we need to be supported by formal market research so we will know, concretely, who the three tiers of noncustomers are?” In response, remind them that the blue ocean shift process is built on firsthand discovery that will be done when the team goes out in the field. The purpose here is to maximize the team’s firsthand learning and confidence in what they see for themselves in the field. With firsthand discovery, the resulting strategy is likely to be executed strongly, as the confidence that emanates from the team reverberates throughout the larger organization.

Much to their surprise, team members generally find that, by struggling through this exercise independently, they flesh out a rich list of noncustomer groups and are really pushed to broaden their thinking. Equally important, they see how tightly focused on existing customers their strategic lens has been. When people are spoon-fed answers by having reports commissioned up front, they seldom realize what they don’t know, and too often easily conclude that they “got it, knew it, no big deal,” when, in fact, they didn’t have or know it, and it is a big deal. People seldom realize what they don’t know or appreciate the value of what they’ve learned if they haven’t struggled to obtain it themselves. Making people discover firsthand that what they know-and don’t know-is key to getting them to internalize and value what they learn.

After each of the team members has compiled their list of noncustomers, ask them to share their thoughts about whom they put where and why. The objective now is for the team to identify and select the people or organizations they collectively see as the dominant noncustomer group or groups in each tier. Note that team members may continue to feel a bit uneasy, because they’re being asked not only to move away from what they know, but also to share their thoughts in front of their colleagues. Some unease is good, however, because it means that team members are being pushed to broaden their current understanding. As each of the team members contributes their thoughts on each of the three tiers, you should record and post them in front of the group. This allows everyone to see the whole team’s thoughts, which in itself is eye-opening, as they get to appreciate the differences and similarities in how each of them views the same market reality.

As people share and debate their selections and the thought processes behind them, team members’ understanding of who potentially belongs in each tier starts to deepen. So does their confidence that opportunity exists in the untapped demand that lies beyond the boundaries of their industry as it’s currently defined. Typically, as members discuss the validity of one another’s reasoning, a number of customer groups are crossed off, and different sets of customers get grouped together, producing fairly solid agreement among team members as to whom they see as the main non-customer groups in each tier. With this, a good understanding of the industry’s total demand landscape starts to come into focus.Noncustomer in various industries.jpg

The Power Of Moments

I highly recommend reading The Power of Moments: Why Certain Experiences Have Extraordinary Impact by Chip Heath, Dan Heath. Are you creating memorable moments with your customers and memorable experiences in your everyday life?

The Power Of Momentspower of monments.jpg

What are these moments made of, and how do we create more of them? In our research, we have found that defining moments are created from one or more of the following four elements:

ELEVATION: Defining moments rise above the everyday. They provoke not just transient happiness, like laughing at a friend’s joke, but memorable delight. (You pick up the red phone and someone says, “Popsicle Hotline, we’ll be right out.”) To construct elevated moments, we must boost sensory pleasures — the Popsicles must be delivered poolside on a silver tray, of course-and, if appropriate, add an element of surprise. We’ll see why surprise can warp our perceptions of time, and why most people’s most memorable experiences are clustered in their teens and twenties. Moments of elevation transcend the normal course of events; they are literally extraordinary.

INSIGHT: Defining moments rewire our understanding of ourselves or the world. In a few seconds or minutes, we realize something that might influence our lives for decades: Now is the time for me to start this business. Or, This is the person I’m going to marry. The psychologist Roy Baumeister studied life changes that were precipitated by a “crystallization of discontent,” moments when people abruptly saw things as they were, such as cult members who suddenly realized the truth about their leader. And although these moments of insight often seem serendipitous, we can engineer them -or at the very least, lay the groundwork. In one unforgettably disgusting story, we’ll see how some relief workers sparked social change by causing a community to “trip over the truth.”

PRIDE: Defining moments capture us at our best-moments of achievement, moments of courage. Tb create such moments, we need to understand something about the architecture of pride – how to plan for a series of milestone moments that build on each other en route to a larger goal. We’ll explore why the “Couch to 5K” program was so successful-and so much more effective in sparking exercise than the simple imperative to “jog more.” And we’ll learn some unexpected things about acts of courage and the surprising ripple effects they create.

CONNECTION: Defining moments are social: weddings, graduations, baptisms, vacations, work triumphs, bar and bat mitzvahs, speeches, sporting events. These moments are strengthened because we share them with others. What triggers moments of connection? We’ll encounter a remarkable laboratory procedure that allows two people to walk into a room as strangers and walk out, 45 minutes later, as close friends. And we’ll analyze what one social scientist believes is a kind of unified theory of what makes relationships stronger, whether the bond is between husband and wife, doctor and patient, or even shopper and retailer.

Defining moments often spark positive emotion – we’ll use “positive defining moments” and “peaks” interchangeably throughout the book – but there are categories of negative defining moments, too, such as moments of pigue: experiences of embarrassment or embitterment that cause people to vow, “I’ll show them!” There’s another category that is all too common: moments of trauma, which leave us heartbroken and grieving. In the pages ahead, we’ll encounter several stories of people dealing with trauma, but we will not explore this category in detail, for the simple reason that our focus is on creating more positive moments. No one wants to experience more moments of loss. In the Appendix, we share some resources that people who have suffered a trauma might find helpful.

Defining moments possess at least one of the four elements above, but they need not have all four. Many moments of insight, for example, are private-they don’t involve a connection. And a fun moment like calling the Popsicle Hotline doesn’t offer much insight or pride.

Some powerful defining moments contain all four elements. Think of YES Prep’s Senior Signing Day: the ELEVATION of students having their moment onstage, the INSIGHT of a sixth grader thinking That could be me, the PRIDE of being accepted to college, and the CONNECTION of sharing the day with an arena full of thousands of supportive people.

Sometimes these elements can be very personal. Somewhere in your home there is a treasure chest, full of things that are precious to you and worthless to anyone else. It might be a scrapbook, or a drawer in a dresser, or a box in the attic. Maybe some of your favorites are stuck on the refrigerator so you can see them every day. Wherever your treasure chest is, its contents are likely to include the four elements we’ve been discussing:

  • ELEVATION: A love letter. A ticket stub. A well-worn T-shirt. Haphazardly colored cards from your kids that make you smile with delight.
  • INSIGHT: Quotes or articles that moved you. Books that changed your view of the world. Diaries that captured your thoughts.
  • PRIDE: Ribbons, report cards, notes of recognition, certificates, thank-yous, awards. (It just hurts, irrationally, to throwaway a trophy.)
  • CONNECTION: Wedding photos. Vacation photos. Family photos. Christmas photos of hideous sweaters. Lots of photos. Probably the first thing you’d grab if your house caught on fire.

All these items you’re safeguarding are, in essence, the relics of your life’s defining moments. How are you feeling now as you reflect on the contents of your treasure chest? What if you could give that same feeling to your kids, your students, your colleagues, your customers?

Moments matter. And what an opportunity we miss when we leave them to chance! Teachers can inspire, caregivers can comfort, service workers can delight, politicians can unite, and managers can motivate. All it takes is a bit of insight and forethought.

Thank God It’s Monday!: Key Messages For A More Motivated Workplace

Thank God It’s Monday!: How to Create a Workplace You and Your Customers Love by Roxanne Emmerich —  this book which is twenty years old didn’t offer any new insights for me. Below is an excerpt from the book:

Key Messages For A More Motivated WorkplaceThank God Monday.jpg

Here are some of the core messages for change I share, which you will explore in the pages that follow:

  • Commit with all your heart. If you are anything other than a 10 on a 1-10 scale, you are hurting your fellow team members, your customers, and yourself.
  • Be unreasonable with yourself. Be unstoppable going after what you want.
  • Don’t let the little things take you out.
  • Call it tight on dysfunctional behaviors-yours and others: How you do anything is how you do everything.
  • Show you care-colleagues, customers, and vendors. In every encounter, make it obvious.
  • Celebrate every win. It reprograms the brain for more winning.
  • Clean up your messes. If you “blow it,” and you will, restore your integrity.
  • Use powerful and positive language about what you will do and the attitude you expect from others.
  • No more adult daycare! Dysfunctional behaviors must go, whether yours’ or of those around you.
  • How you do anything is how you do everything. live with passion and creativity by reprogramming your limiting beliefs.
  • You can be as miserable or as joyful as you choose. Those who show they care, who appreciate and celebrate, are leaders of their way of being. They keep a culture focused and people thriving.
  • Stop being busy and start doing what matters. Be accountable for results.
  • The fastest way to success and happiness is by giving. Life gives to the givers and takes from the takers; the world has a perfect accounting system.

Try This:

  • Imagine your workplace as one you are eager to come to.
  • Imagine that the only way your workplace will turn around is if you, and only you, are 100 percent accountable for the turnaround. If that were the case, what would you do differently starting tomorrow?
  • Identify the ways in which you are part of the problem instead of the solution-whining about what’s wrong instead of going to the right people with suggestions, shooting down ideas but not proposing ideas for further progress. Be honest. Really honest. Look at your own behaviors with a magnifying glass.
  • Look around and see the fellow employees who are going to need special help to embrace the vision. Use a mirror if you have to.
  • Think about it. Do you really believe? Can you commit to this? Can you make it happen and keep happening?
  • Do you want this enough to help ensure it can happen? What can you do from all levels of your job?

Hit Makers: The “Laff Box”

Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction by Derek Thompson is a quick read. The book is full of stories, and facts on how things become popular. Below is an excerpt:

The “Laff Box”Hit Makers.jpg

In the 1960s, the biggest star in American television wasn’t Mary Tyler Moore or Andy Griffith. By pure screen time alone, the TV talent most present in American living rooms wasn’t an actor at all. It was an electrical engineer who never appeared in front of the camera, but whose work behind the scenes was influential enough that you could hear him almost every minute on about forty shows a week. At one point, he was so powerful, and his work so private, that he was called the “Hollywood Sphinx.” His name was Charles Douglass, and he invented the laugh track.

Douglass was born in Guadalajara, Mexico, in 1910 and his family moved to Nevada when he was a child to escape political unrest. He wanted to study electrical engineering like his father, an electrician with a Nevada mining company. But when he found himself in Los Angeles after World War II, the hot new media industry for a technophile like Douglass was television. He took a job as a sound technician with CBS.

Situational comedies in the 1950s tended to be shot in simple set in front of live audiences. Entertainment often shoehorns past habits into new formats, and indeed 1950s television was basically live radio or theater in front of a camera. But when actors forgot a line or messed up their blocking, the second or third takes of the same jokes wouldn’t elicit many laughs. Weak chortling made a show seem stolid when it was broadcast to audiences sitting at home. This led to the practice of “sweetening” laughs by extending or amplifying the sound of merriment in postproduction.

Douglass was interested in a bigger solution to the problem: He wanted to invent a machine to simulate laughter. This way, shows would never be fully defeated by awful writers, worse actors, dead audiences, or the vagaries of a live recording. For several months in the early 1950s, he listened to audio of laughs, gasps, and applause from several theatrical performances and television.” He recorded his favorite sounds of mirth on analog tape, which he could play with keys he took right off
a typewriter.

The “Laff Box,” as his invention came to be known, looked like a gangly bastardized typewriter, but Douglass played it like an organ. The laugh keys could be pressed together like chords to create more than a hundred variations of audience amusement. In his private studio, Douglass knew how to layer laughter for the right moment during postproduction. As a sitcom gag worked its way toward a ridiculous climax, Douglass would play early chuckles, crescendo to hearty guffaws, and finally leave the invisible audience screaming with delight. layering in the laughs was an art, and Douglass had the only game in town

Douglass’s technology faced considerable antagonism in its early days (and high-minded doubters throughout its existence), but eventually networks realized that canned laughter had several advantages. First, it allowed directors to shoot first and add the audience later. Showrunners began to film television more like movies — inside and outside, with several takes and multiple camera angles. By 1954 Douglass had so many clients that he quit his job at CBS to work full-time with his Laff Box. He owned a monopoly on mechical mirth, but he was a benevolent monopolist, scoring a single episode for just about $100.

The second reason why laugh tracks eventually caught on requires a deeper understanding of why people laugh in the first place — of what makes something funny.

Plato proposed that laughter was an expression of “superiority” over a person or character in a story. Superiority is clearly at work in physical humor and Borscht Belt jokes. “My doctor said I was in terrible shape. I told him I needed a second opinion. ‘All right,’ he said. ‘You’re also quite ugly.'”

But the theory of superiority fails to explain puns, which are funny, at least in theory. “Two atoms are walking down the street. One of them turns to the other and says, ‘Hold up, I think I lost an electron.’ The first atom replies, ‘Are you sure?’ The second atom shouts, ‘Yes, I’m positive!'” This joke has nothing to do with power. The last word of the story arrives as a small yet meaningful surprise. But to explain what makes it funny, a broader theory is needed.

In 2010, two researchers proposed what might be the closest thing that sociology has to a universal theory of humor. It’s called “Benign Violation Theory.” Peter McGraw, now the director of the Humor He- search Lab, and Caleb Warren, now an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Arizona, proposed that nearly all jokes are violations of norms or expectations that don’t threaten violence or emotional distress.

  • “A priest and a rabbi walk into a bar, and they each order a seltzer”: That isn’t a joke, because there’s no violation of expectation.
  • “A priest and a rabbi walk into a bar. They sit down to order a beer. Then they nearly kill each other over irresolvable religious differences”: That’s too dangerously violent for most people to laugh.
  • “A priest and a rabbi walk into a bar. The bartender says, ‘What is this, a joke?”’: Whether or not you personally find this funny, it’s clearly a joke, subverting expectations in a way that isn’t purposefully cruel or violent.

“If you look at the most universal forms of laughter shared across species, when rats laugh or when dogs laugh, it’s often in response to aggressive forms of play, like chasing or tickling,” Warren told me (and, yes, rats can laugh). “Chasing and tickling are both the threat of an attack, but without an actual attack.” By this theory, a good comedian chases with impropriety and tickles with wordplay, but does not deeply wound the audience’s social mores.

Any mainstream system — social behavior, manner of speaking, identities, even logic — can be threatened or violated. But people laugh mostly when they sense that the violation is benign or safe. And what makes something seem benign or safe? When lots of other people are laughing with you. That was the magic of Douglass’s box: It was effective tool of safe public conformity. Hearing people laugh gave audiences license to chuckle, too.

 

Awkward: The Devil Is in the Details

I found Awkward: The Science of Why We’re Socially Awkward and Why That’s Awesome by Ty Tashiro a fascinating book. The book helped me to understand anxiety with social environments. Below is an excerpt:

The Devil Is in the DetailsAwkward.jpg

John Gottman of the University of Washington and his colleagues have conducted observational studies of positive and negative behaviors with married couples and grade-school children for decades. The focus of many relationship scientists has been on negative behaviors such as resentment or withdrawing from conflict, but the trick to understanding interpersonal behavior is about the ratio of negative to positive behaviors. It turns out that positive behaviors can be as small as telling someone he looks handsome, attentively listening to a friend’s small triumph of the day, or surprising a coworker with her favorite cupcakes.

Gottman has found that people keep an informal count of behaviors. He calls this ratio of positive to negative behaviors an emotional bank account. To stay in good standing with others, people need to keep a balance of about four or five positive behaviors to every one negative behavior. Imagine that you do four good things during an interaction with a friend: give an enthusiastic greeting, compliment his outfit, share some french fries, and respond empathically to a concern. Then you inadvertently insult this friend by forgetting that today is his birthday. You would probably come out of this interaction with $0.00 in your emotional bank account with him, which is not bad considering that you could have left the interaction in the red had you not been so nice at the start of the interaction. It’s good to think about leaving interactions without a negative balance because people’s emotional bank accounts charge interest.

Gottman finds that negative balances are not wiped from other people’s minds at the end of the day, but instead carry over to your next interaction. This is bad news if you end the day in the red with someone, but good news if you end the day with money in the bank. When people leave interactions with a negative balance, it has a way of building corrosive resentment in others’ minds, which essentially adds interest to their emotional debt. The good news is that leaving interactions with a positive balance tends to build trust, which is like gaining interest on your deposit.

One strategy is to avoid mistakes, but a focus on trying not to make a mistake has a way of creating persistent anxiety, which is both unpleasant and unhelpful. The best way to leverage the concept of the emotional bank account is to commit to making small deposits of positive behaviors on a consistent basis. Instead of viewing the dozens of social situations and hundreds of cues that one encounters every day as an opportunity for failure, the mindset shifts to capitalizing on routine situations by contributing a little more than expected. Sometimes others view heroic efforts as a disproportionately large contribution, but typically positive efforts both big and small have about the same effect.

When you become the kind of person who first thinks about how to help people rather than how to get something from people, it builds a positive balance in your emotional bank account with others. Over time, that positive balance begins to build trust and eventually faith that you are a good-natured person. The key is to be subtle about your contributions. Most people feel tremendous gratitude when their grandparents slip a ten-dollar bill into their birthday card, but if their grandparents slipped a check for $10,000 into their birthday card, it would actually feel awkward for most people. Subtle deposits could be as small as being more specific when you say thank you or letting others go first when a line forms at a buffet. As a supplement to face-to-face deposits, it’s easier than ever to make “mobile deposits” through a kind text the day of someone’s big test or follow-up message after dinner to say “That was fun, thanks for getting together.”Ackward Table 5-1.png

The reality is that awkward people are more likely. to make small withdrawals from their emotional bank accounts with others because they are prone to mishandling minor social expectations. Awkward people may not notice that their large backpack swung into their friend’s head as they turned to sit down on the bus or they may accidentally disclose the surprise birthday party to the birthday boy. These awkward moments are done without premeditation or malice, but they are still negative and even if people do not say anything, their automated mental accounting system deducts a little bit from the emotional bank account.

These unexpected or accidental withdrawals make it imperative that awkward individuals make a concerted effort to maintain a positive balance through consistently making small deposits that move their balance farther to the positive side in others’ minds, It’s like contributing a little bit every month for social insurance.

Awkward individuals should not let their clumsiness with minor social expectations define them. As both awkward and non-awkward people get older, most of them will care less about surface qualities and instead evaluate people on their Willingness to be fair, be kind, and be loyal. So long as good people feel as if you are trying your best to consistently contribute, then they are willing to overlook a little awkwardness. Whether It’s a commitment to a familial relationship, friendship, or romantic relationship, when awkward people make sure that they find a way to contribute to the broader good, it is the best strategy for creating sustainable social capital.Ackward Table5-2.png