Your brain responds to competition more than you know- choose your motivational tools wisely.

Do you know what drives your urge to compete? Your motivation influences your performance outcomes, whether you acknowledge it or not. 

Wanting to win‘ versus ‘wanting to avoid losing‘ are two subtle yet measurably distinct differences that drive people’s sense of competition. Murayama and Elliot’s (2012) meta-analyses found the effects of competition depend on this difference in the minds of competitors. When someone wants to outperform others by winning, they tend to benefit from competition, but when they want to avoid performing worse than others, competing reduces their performance. Burnette et al’s (2013) meta-analysis found that the desire to win is positively related to goal achievement, whereas the desire to avoid losing is negatively related to goal achievement. Senko et al’s (2017) meta-analysis found that “wanting to win” improves performance only when it’s accompanied by strategies that leverage a competitor’s feelings of mastery. The take-away from these research findings is that “wanting to win” is not enough to protect people from the pitfalls of social competition that provokes fear of losing.

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A primary function of executive coaching is helping people build lasting tactical strategies that motivate behavioral change for goal achievement and peak performance. My coaching practice in Silicon Valley is filled with non-stop competitive people- entrepreneurs, CEOs, venture capitalists, and creative builders leading the edge of tech innovation. Naturally, using competition to fuel new habit formation and improve performance is a no-brainer for many of my clients. But not all tools designed to foster competition  will improve motivation and performance for all people, in all situations. Competition is good for sustaining motivation and achievement only when it reinforces feelings of competency or a person’s intrinsic values beyond winning alone.

Designing life goals through the lens of one’s self-determined values is vital not just for achieving a high success rate but for overall psychological well-being. As one might expect, people generally like to feel in control of their own lives. Self-Determination Theory asserts that people seek and engage activities that satisfy these Three Basic Psychological Needs:

Competence: the feeling of satisfaction achieved through completing a challenging goal. Why does this matter? You get to feel masterful and effective. You get to feel that you’re achieving hard things. (Great for people whose personal pet peeves are ineffectiveness and helplessness!)

Relatedness: the satisfaction you get when you feel understood, liked and inspired by people you care about or value. Why does this matter? You get to feel closer to the people you’re engaging with in meaningful ways. (Great for people whose personal pet peeves are feeling rejected and disconnected!)

Autonomy: the satisfaction you get when you act with a sense of personal commitment and choice. Why does this matter? You get to feel in control and the master of your own outcomes. (Great for people whose personal pet peeves are feeling coerced and micro-managed!)

Cross-cultural research has shown these Three Basic Psychological Needs to be intrinsic to all people’s healthy development, engagement, motivation, and well-being. When these needs are met people achieve greater work performance, less perceived stress, and experience fewer turnover intentions. When these needs are blocked, people are likely to experience negative psychological consequences.

A Behavior Change Technique (BCT) is an ‘active ingredient that brings about behavior change’. BCT’s are often used to build a competitive framework, and can either support or frustrate the three Basic Psychological Needs.

How Different Behavior Change Techniques support or frustrate the ‘Three Basic Psychological Needs’
  • Behavioral Change Technique: Goal Crafting.
    • Build in meaningful ‘whys’ or reaching the end goal of a competition won’t matter. Self-Determination Theory tells us many goals fail to motivate because they aren’t personally relevant, or they provide incentives that help people avoid losing rather than winning for personally rewarding reasons. Helping people craft goals that reflect their unique values reinforces their sense of autonomy.
  • Behavioral Change Technique: Feedback Crafting.
    • Build in useful feedback or making progress in the competition won’t matter. Self-Determination Theory tells us well crafted feedback promotes feelings of competence and mastery. As people monitor their progress through feedback they have the chance to use well-timed feedback for making improvements. Crafting feedback that provides a practical roadmap for making improvements helps people achieve feelings of competency. Encourage how feedback is incorporated to reinforce the person’s sense of autonomy.
  • Behavioral Change Technique: Social Comparison.
  • Behavioral Change Technique: Competition Size Matters.
    • Build a group size that factor’s in a person’s proximity to the top performance to optimize a person’s effort. There’s a reason why Junior Varsity and Varsity teams are still a thing! If you want to get the most benefit from a competition creating small, ability-based groups may be the best way to go. A 2009 study by Stephen Garcia and Avishalom shows competition is most motivating when there are fewer competitors in the comparison pool.

Whether in a work environment or in one’s personal life, people who measure their growth against those with comparable values and abilities experience boosts in motivation and performance. “When we see someone else just like us being able to complete a task and gain the recognition we seek, we up our game to achieve these outcomes for ourselves” according to Jillene Grover Seiver, PhD, professor of psychology, who’s research findings demonstrate the positive influence of rivalry on competition outcomes.

These are just a few of the techniques I use to inspire meaningful motivation through executive leadership coaching. By considering how our innate psychological needs factor into what’s driving our sense of competition, we can achieve greater outcomes with longer lasting results.

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Decoding my personal truth: how to figure out what to do with my life (and still ideally pay my bills!)

These days, people are increasingly using executive coaching for the purpose of ‘figuring out what to do with my life’ (and ideally still be able to afford living in the Bay Area!)  From high-ranking executives at globally successful companies, to startup founders who’ve sold their company and are now free to roam, to Bay Area transplants who’ve grown disenchanted with the tech scene- all have entered my practice ready to decode their personal truth, find their greater purpose, and build a personally meaningful roadmap toward their version of success.

“A man should look for what is, and not for what he thinks should be.”  Albert Einstein

Our personal truth serves as our unique roadmap, helping us navigate toward a future created with purpose.  Every day we make choices that steer us on our personal path- our inner beliefs, preferences, sense of right and wrong all come together to drive the direction we take in life.  In his book Unapologetically You, behavioral science academic and author Steve Maraboli advises us of the importance of this position: “Live your truth. Express your love. Share your enthusiasm. Take action towards your dreams. Walk your talk. Dance and sing to your music. Embrace your blessings. Make today worth remembering.”  

But what if we aren’t sure of what we are meant to do, and our greater purpose seems unclear?  How do we ‘know’ what’s right for us?

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Disenchantment A new Netflix toon with a title that captures the sentiment of many.

How can we be sure of ‘what’s best’ when we make choices for our future?  Some people feel a deep sense of conviction about their life’s purpose- “I was born to make music. I was born to build.  I was born to heal.”  Other people don’t feel this depth of clarity, and take aim for their future by solving tangible problems first- they develop a range of practices, skills and resources to prevent commonly avoided hardships like sickness, injury, poverty, social isolation.  Others feel satisfied knowing they’ve contributed to offsetting the needs of their family, community, or are embodying their religious tenets faithfully.  Even with recognizable success, some people may still wonder if they they’ve adequately challenged themselves to fulfill their personal destiny or greater purpose in life.  How can we ‘know’ if we’ve made the right choices for ourselves? At some point, a person’s experience of happiness and purpose comes back to personal taste, or preference for achievement.

Cultural expectations, opinions of people we admire, and social influences related to the times further shape our notions of what an ideal, purpose-driven, meaningful life looks like.  How have outside influences shaped your assumptions about what you should do with your life?  Without awareness of what’s driving your thoughts, feelings and behaviors it’s easy to get stuck in the habit of chasing goals without fully understanding if it’s personally important to do so. We can distract ourselves by measuring outcomes in size, volume, impact, or accumulation as a marker to indicate the degree of our success.  We may even learn to rely on these outcomes to tell us how satisfied we should feel.   

Three Exercises for discovering personal truth-  how do you ‘know’ yourself?

Cognitive psychology is the scientific study of the mind as an information processor- cognitive psychologists seek to understand human perception- the process of how we experience our emotions, how we develop mental representations, and derive genuine fulfillment from our experiences.  

Bring to mind some of your favorite moments in your past.  When you think about places, recreations, or experiences that you enjoy for the sake of the pleasure they gives you- try to uncover the why behind the attraction, or the feeling they’ve given you.  Identify your preferences in the following areas, simply based on your experience of them: how do you ‘know’ you like them?

  • areas in nature (cliffs, beaches, snowy mountains, open fields, woods, etc)
  • Sounds of specific musical instruments, musical genres, or eras of music
  • Social activities at a party (group games, exploratory dinner conversations, group cooking, dancing, people watching, etc)
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Discovering truth in Silicon Valley

2. Can you identify how external influences or mental representations play a role in how you developed these preferences? 

  • Consider how your family, social circles, workplace or local communities have shaped your understanding of how to best spend your time.
  • How does the narrative you’ve adopted about your personality style (e.g. loner, leader, helper) shape your predictions of trying new experiences and how you’ll feel about them?
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3.  Imagine moving to a society where areas of achievement, compensation for work and the social status of various roles were completely different than what we know them to be now.

  • Can you imagine choosing a role/occupation (a collection of responsibilities and activities) without knowing how this society thought of it?
  • What would you be doing? (Starting an original project? Building a team after evaluating competencies in people? Leading growth?)
  • How much of your attraction to these elements are because you’re familiar and/or been successful in doing these things in the past?  
  • If you found out there was one additional responsibility within this role/occupation that you were apprehensive to take on, what would that be?

These exercises are meant to help you uncover and tap into your personal truth, creating a guiding force for making choices in the big picture of your life path.  Be patient with yourself, track the evolution of your thoughts, feelings and insights throughout the process.  You’re on your way to ‘knowing’ yourself better than ever before.

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Lost a Job or suffered a career setback? Don’t flip out, take these steps.

Today’s job market is faster paced than ever, with swift role changes around every corner.  Learning you’re out of a job, whether it has to do with your performance or not, can be a tremendously stressful life event.  Job loss often ranks among the highest in stress on a list of life-altering events such as a death in the family, divorce, and serious illness.  In other cases, losing a key manager that was positioned to train you and advocate for your career advancement can also feel like a huge setback.

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These experiences can lead to feelings of panic, grief, anger and turmoil about what to do next.  If you let it, getting caught in a tailspin of emotions after a professional setback can keep you from moving forward in a productive way.  Allow yourself a good rant with your friends and family (not your colleagues) about the misery and injustice of it all.  Then it’s time to roll up your sleeves and pull together an action plan so you can get on with your life.  No one wants to stay paralyzed like a deer in headlights after what feels like a dismantling career blow.  If you find yourself struggling to build momentum, consider enlisting an executive coach who can be a strategic thought partner in creating your next career come-back.

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1. Flip the script.  Major changes like the loss of a job or manager who was critical to your advancement can lead to emotionally derailing thoughts, rattling one’s sense of direction and purpose.  When clients in my coaching practice share professional setbacks with me, their emotionally charged reactions are often fueled by the perception that they’ve lost control of their future.  Particularly for the hard-driving, high-achieving ‘Type A’ people that make up Silicon Valley, this feeling is particularly intolerable.  Rant. Breathe. Shake it off. Hit the restart button. Relocate superpowers.

 Adam* had spent the last 2 years pouring all of his time and talent into an early stage startup after leaving a lucrative but uninspiring job at a large corporation.  He’d given up higher compensation for the chance to hone skills and autonomy typically not accessible at his level of professional development.  When the company shutdown unexpectedly as a result of cofounder conflict, he couldn’t stop ruminating about his decision to stay with the startup for as long as he had, and felt cheated thinking of all the financial sacrifices he’d made.

After losing a job, it’s completely normal to re-think every decision you made that contributed to the grim outcome of being out of a job.  People can get stuck obsessing about the past, especially if they feel jilted.  Moving on can feel like an unfair concession,  but dwelling on the past will only impede your ability to start over, not vindicate you.  Take inventory of what you’ve learned, where you are developmentally in your life, and let that inform how to prioritize your next work move.  Ask yourself “how have I changed?  What new insights am I taking with me? What opportunities am I free to pursue now?”  To develop an empowered point of view- flip the script.  Rebuild your narrative about what happened, and what’s going to happen next in such a way that you feel emboldened to turn the storyline into one of courage and success.  This is not to be mistaken for ignoring the role you played in how things transpired, or fail to learn from how you got there.  But those decisions are done and dusted, and now it’s time to move on. Develop a new narrative that captures the best possible scenario.  A few examples to illustrate the point:

Reactive thought: “I sacrificed for nothing, and losing this job is evidence that that my gamble with startups is a failure.  I’ve lost time and money and now I’m behind in life.”

Reframed thought: The calculated risk that I took gave me firsthand, invaluable experiences and insights that I could not have gained otherwise.  I now have clarity on what types of opportunities are best suited to my priorities in life.  With that knowledge I can start again with improved focus and direction to achieve my goals.”  

Notice the different approach to defining one’s progress and success in life- instead of measuring yourself by outcome alone, evaluate how capable you are of responding to life’s setbacks and challenges with aplomb.

2. Work backwards from the future.  Fast forward for a moment in your professional trajectory.  What specific learning and skill mastery will you need to successfully advance?  Staying focused on solutions, flexible problem-solving, and the ability to dig your way out of complex situations will aways be seen as evidence of competency under fire by future employers.

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Catherine* landed a coveted role at a prestigious financial firm after graduating with honors from an Ivy League university.  She was meticulous in architecting her career trajectory, parlaying her work experience to train in a new area of finance under the tutelage of a managing director at a different firm.  When this manager left for a rare work opportunity elsewhere, her chance to develop skills outside her wheelhouse was cut short.  Emotionally immobilized and without a game plan, Catherine was at a loss for what to do next.

When elements outside of our control topple our specific strategy for achievement, it can feel like our route to get from point A to point B has been destroyed.  Take a solution-focused approach and identify alternative routes to stay on target.  Imagine where you want to be two steps ahead in your career path, rather than focusing on what’s directly in front of you.  I asked Catherine to share with me what type of role she would be competitive for had her manager stayed and provided the specific guidance and training she’d wanted. 

“Let’s say you got everything you wanted from the current role you’re in, and now you’re interviewing for your next advancement.  What markers of success can you draw attention to in your interview?  What specific qualities and skills will you need to have demonstrated to be competitive for the next level of growth?” 

Catherine shared that she would need to demonstrate a high level of autonomy in her day-to-day work operations, process communication effectively between various parties involved in decision-making, and show success in developing and maintaining relationships that lead to new business.  From there we mapped out specifics around whom she might target for support and how, identifying internal and external resources for mentorship and learning, and personal routines to help her stay on track.          

None of these approaches are particularly swift or easy.  They take a high level of personal discipline and an ongoing willingness to course-correct when you notice yourself going astray.  Keeping people in your life who are closely aware of your intentions and support your efforts helps!  With practice and mastery, these steps will be to your overfall benefit by helping you cultivate new and effective resiliency skills when life throws you a curveball.

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*Names have been changed for privacy

 

Millennial managers leading startups: their generation’s new face of management.

According to Pew Research center the millennial generation (born 1983 – 2000) now number 75.4 million, surpassing the 74.9 million Baby Boomers (born 1946 – 1964) and Generation X’ers (born 1965 – 1984).  More than one-in-three American workers today are millennials, and have become the largest share of the American workforce.

In today’s current work climate, it’s not enough for millennial-aged managers to focus on productivity for their company’s success.  Employees who share their generational employment outlook expect them to drive the company’s mission with clarity and inspiration, embody a leadership style that supports their work/life balance and self-care routine, and provide opportunities for them to do work that fulfills their passion for making a positive, meaningful impact.  Millennials widely embrace thought leaders like Simon Sinek who encourage them to marry their values and intentions to their work endeavors for lasting fulfillment in their life.  Amid these formidable expectations, it’s easy for a manager who understands the values of the millennial generation to feel conflicted about how to drive productivity while still supporting her employees work paradigms.

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Any manager who leads without a strong sense of direction is destined to fall short of their targeted goals.  A millennial manager I coach in the venture capital space suggested I write an article based on the headway we’ve made in developing her leadership approach to managing her millennial-aged team.  The following Q & A is based on questions she and other millennial managers have expertly hashed out through their leadership coaching work.

“How can I screen potential candidates during the hiring process to reveal their true work ethic?  The nature of our work is deadline driven, and it’s hard to know who will prioritize work objectives over personal objectives.”

How to hire them:  Work ethic fit is critical to a company’s success, because a candidate with mismatched work ethic will negatively impact productivity, disengage other employees, and create inefficiencies for the rest of the team.  Early stage startup culture has influenced new hire expectations – it’s not unusual for employees at startups to serve in multiple roles to sustain rapid company growth periods.  Experienced millennial managers ask potential hires to share how they’ve handled shifting workflow and multiple role responsibilities in prior positions.  “Can you tell me about a time when you’ve asked a manager for guidance on how to prioritize your workload?  Particularly when you’ve thought meeting a deadline was going to be difficult or impossible because of the high volume and pace of the workload.”  This gives hiring managers a chance to learn if the person has experience identifying and solving workflow prioritization with others. By being transparent about their company’s work style and pace, and sharing specific examples of how team members typically ‘get shit done’ they reduce the the risk of hiring a poor fit for their company culture.  Millennial managers recognize the need to reconcile workload with self-care routines, and have learned to ask revealing questions like “How do you deal with burn out or work fatigue?  How have you managed times when you’ve had conflicts with team members?  What are your expectations for personal time off, working overtime, or through holidays?”

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Experts in psychological personality assessment use tactical questions like this to measure what they refer to as ‘faking good’, to detect a person’s willingness to be forthcoming or tendency to present themselves in an unrealistically positive light.  If given multiple opportunities, can a potential hire share a well-rounded work history that naturally includes unmet challenges, times of burn out, and how they’ve learned from those experiences?  Or are they consistently defensive and unwilling to acknowledge when they’ve been challenged or experienced conflicts at work?  Millennial managers seek to hire people who are willing to be direct and forthcoming, understanding this communication style lends itself to effective problem-solving with others.

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“What can I do to inspire my team members to take initiative in their own professional development?”

Millennial startup founders-turned managers understand the desire for personally meaningful work as a motivating principal behind professional development.  Based on this core value, millennial managers can inspire their employees to invest in their own development by encouraging them to cultivate their personal vision of career growth and success.  Managers seeking to inspire their employees ask “What do you enjoy most about their role?  What would you like to eventually do more of, and less of in your career path?”  By understanding what personally motivates someone, what is most rewarding, and how they’d like to see their professional opportunities take shape, a manager can provide support based on that particular vision.   Further, supporting employees in this way and holding them accountable for progress in their role performance will resonate on a deeper, more meaningful level.

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“How can I set the standard for work ethic with my team?  My employees get overwhelmed by deadlines, and it seems to be influenced by low self confidence and their desire to protect their work/life balance.” 

How to drive high performing employees:  When managers find they have an employee struggling to meet deadlines, the situation can put everyone on the defense.   The dilemma of many millennial managers in startups is that most if not all of the employees are highly valued for their unique abilities and everyone’s individual contributions are critical to company progress.  Further, the time and resources it takes to replace an employee and the risk of destabilizing team morale makes opting to solve the problem a frugal first approach.  While some employees may be failing to complete work as a result of prioritizing personal time, others may be failing to meet work expectations for other reasons.

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Through coaching, a millennial startup founder I support resolved how to effectively manage one of her highest-performing employees who’d begun struggling to meet his production deadlines.  After processing her emotions and generating a communication action plan, she began by conveying her high regard for his contributions to the company’s success, giving examples and recognizing his overall growth.  She listened to his perspective about why his productivity had declined without jumping to conclusions, with the intent to support him in finding a resolution that fit both of their needs.  This encouraged him to share openly about what his challenges and mental roadblocks were, and what changes could lead to a return to consistently high productivity.  This inquiry-led communication style led to both of them making a shift in thinking about how he could best operate in his role without compromising future leadership opportunities, provided new ways for him to contribute to deadline completion, fostering a solution-focused dynamic between them as manager and employee.

Many of the millennial managers I’ve supported have found inspiration for their managerial style based on the wisdom of their favorite leaders in tech, turning up their employee productivity and balancing idealism with practicality by:

  • making changes to the types of work an employee is responsible for completing (e.g. shifting an employee from working autonomously on projects to working in a support role to others)
  • providing alternative options for employees’ work evaluations based on their preference (e.g. brief periodic check-ins to ‘debug’ work progress rather than a longer final project critique)
  • building a work culture that encourages employees to take part in decision-making in how they solve problems rather than dictating how problems get solved

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Olympic athletes and entrepreneurs share one critical trait to conquer pressure under fire.

In sports, mental toughness is defined as “the ability to consistently perform in the upper range of your talent and skill regardless of competitive circumstances.”  The 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, Korea have been rife with performances by athletes with well honed mental toughness, giving them the competitive edge over athletes with matched or even higher ranking talent.  Two-time U.S. champion figure skater Nathan Chen was the gold medal frontrunner heading into the 2018 Winter Olympics, only to crumble under pressure during his Olympic debut, underscoring how critical it is for young athletes to harness mental toughness under extreme pressure.  It was a devastating outcome for Chen, the most talented US men’s figure skater to compete in the sport in recent memory. 

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U.S. figure skater Adam Rippon’s incredible grace under pressure has been widely recognized during this winter’s Olympic Games, especially given the level of criticism he’s received for being the first openly gay American figure skater to ever compete at the Olympics.  His positive attitude, willingness to lead with charisma and humor, and champion performances have catapulted him beyond just physical mastery as an athlete.

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If anyone in the business world ever needed mental toughness at their disposal, it’s an entrepreneur.  Investors and other tech industry insiders all agree that startup success is all about mental preparedness, tenacity, and skillful pitch execution under high stakes circumstances.  Entrepreneurs regularly face cutthroat competitors and critics, and must be able to push their ideas and products past consumers resistance to change.  In his most recent book “Executive Toughness,” Dr. Jason Selk discusses mental toughness and other shared traits between sports and business high performers.  Given the self-driving nature of entrepreneurial work, startup founders must exemplify this critical trait to prevail.  In his Harvard Business Review article “How the Best of the Best Get Better,” sports psychologist and former consultant to Olympic and world champions Dr. Graham Jones says, “Obviously, star athletes must have some innate, natural ability — coordination, physical flexibility, anatomical capacities — just as successful senior executives need to be able to think strategically and relate to people. But the real key to excellence in both sports and business is not the ability to swim fast or do quantitative analyses quickly in your head. Rather, it is [mindset] mental toughness.”

After living and working in and around Silicon Valley for more than 20 years I’ve seen firsthand the underpinnings of mental toughness, the stamina it takes to succeed here, and the price those people pay to stay at the top.  Through executive coaching I’ve supported top organizational leaders through pivotal growth periods in life and business, leveraging best practices from peak performance psychology, cognitive neuroscience, behavioral design and critical communication skill acquisition.  

Top 5 best practices for augmenting mental toughness:

  1. Notice the subtle shifts in your physiology and thought patterns, and where they drive your emotions, behaviors and decision-making.  Cultivate control over this chain reaction through mindfulness training, and commit to embodying your most unflappable self in high stakes situations.  Use tools like visualization, auditory prompts and self-directing phrases to tap into deep learning through habit formation.
  2. Prepare confidence-boosting engagement and response scripts to the three most challenging interpersonal situations you face.  This is especially helpful for those who aren’t naturally charismatic, because they serve as a guideline for how to best interact with people. Well-developed and practiced interpersonal responses work to center you, bringing you back to a place of familiarity, reducing socially anxious reactions that can interfere with peak performance.
  3. Develop a relentless and optimistic ‘solution focused mindset’. It is so irresistible to ride the wave of emotion that surges when facing a hard problem. Our brains can get railroaded by our emotions, mimicking the addiction response and diminishing our ability to think critically and generate effective options.  Approach all potential solutions one step at a time, giving yourself time to process your emotions first.  Even mapping out a single step completion is progress and an improvement to the current situation. Remember you can’t solve all problems at once, so choose one and stay focused on it until measurable progress is made.
  4. When you set your mind to do something, find a way to get it done, no matter what. While a relentless solution focus is the mental step, behavioral discipline is the action step that makes effective solutions materialize. In this way, discipline delivers success. Make discipline a habit by looking out for triggering temptations and planning accordingly.
  5. Be willing to embrace change.  Mentally tough people are flexible, constantly adapting in order to solve for best possible outcomes.  Fear of change is paralyzing and a major threat to one’s progress towards broader goals for fulfillment and happiness. 

A backbone of mental toughness is essential for providing the courage and internal compass that top competitors rely on to steer through the challenges they face. It also emboldens them to take on new opportunities for learning and growth- healthy life habits for effectively navigating stress, conflict and crises.  If you can develop mastery in this, you win!

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Smart solutions when productivity stalls- perspective is everything

You know that feeling when you’re stalled by something that needs to get done?  Even the most efficient people face roadblocks in their productivity from time to time.  This is especially frustrating for people who are used to completing challenging tasks with relative ease.  I recently met with an accomplished young gaming engineer for executive coaching to support his exploration of new work opportunities in Silicon Valley.  He revealed that he’d struggled for hours to complete a cover letter email, and this left him feeling baffled and weary about the whole process of interviewing for new employment.  We used the session to get to the root of what was creating this stall in productivity, and generated smart solutions based on his personal strengths.  Strategy and perspective makes all the difference.

Working with the Bay Area’s talented tech community has taught me this- the smartest people take it the hardest when their performance and results don’t meet their expectations!  Many have grown accustomed to things coming easily to them and have quickly advanced in their chosen career trajectory.  Early giftedness in STEM can sometimes lead to people develop an identity centered around being ‘brainy and capable’.  It may come as a shock when something as simple as creating a cover letter sidelines them and deflates their sense of efficacy.

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Why does this happen?  Over time, our strengths get reinforced as our primary means of solving problems because they get us from point A to point B quickly and easily.  Since these same strengths are also tied to our sense of identity and self worth, we become less willing to set them aside and use other methods of ‘solving’.  Tasks that force us to operate outside of our comfort zone trigger feelings of frustration because we aren’t as effective as we’re used to feeling, which stalls our productivity.  A guy who’s honed skills as a talented engineer, fluent in the most sought after programming languages will probably not be as adroit at English writing composition and will likely need to give himself more leeway in completing a thoughtfully composed cover letter.

Apply a smart solutions formula when your productivity stalls:
1. Conscious self-awareness.  Identify the evidence in your life (historically and currently) of how and when you have leveraged your personal strengths to achieve good outcomes.  How did your strengths allow you to perform optimally?  Result outcomes might be found in academic, career advancement, kinesthetic/athletic, social/interpersonal, emotional, musical, aesthetic, experiential, operational or other realms of functionality.

“I can recognize times in my life when my skills and abilities have allowed me to make progress, overcome obstacles, and reach important goals that have led me to where I am now.”

2. Balanced self-acceptance.  Scientific advancements in human cognition and intelligence reveal that all people possess strengths and weaknesses relative to their overall functioning.  To expect to function only by means of our strengths is unrealistic.  Sometimes we must be willing to step back from our most comfortable mode of operating and acknowledge certain tasks don’t call for our ideal skill set.

“This task calls for specific skills that I don’t practice as often (e.g. writing English composition).  I can’t rely on my core strengths to complete it.  I must be willing to feel uncomfortable if I’m to make progress.  So what?  That’s true for everyone sometimes.  If I let this slower pace of progress demoralize me it could stop me from getting from point A to point B.  Any pace will do, as long as I’m trying to move forward.”

3. Realistic expectations.  Plan to break down larger goals into chunks that are achievable and utilize breaks to regain energy.  Attempting to complete a difficult task in one fell swoop doesn’t lead to efficiency, it’s a set up for failure.  When you’re using your brain to work in less familiar ways, expect to take breaks before your mental energy begins to stall so your overall motivation remains strong.  This way you avoid feeling demoralized and progress remains steady.

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4. Shift perspective.  Pay attention to how you’re evaluating yourself- when we only measure our progress based on ‘results’ rather than ‘performance effort’ we can end up feeling ineffective or lose our sense of purpose.  Another coaching client of mine works in a highly specialized area of machine learning/artificial intelligence (AI).  While there has been genuine advances and exciting new applications here in Silicon Valley and other tech hubs around the world, the field remains experimental, and it still requires time-consuming, exploratory research.  Even the most brilliant minds working together face a sense of disappointment when big breakthroughs don’t happen, especially with constant media hype  fueling the AI frenzy.  If you are working on the cutting edge of new scientific discovery, it may be difficult to quantify progress and demonstrate measurable value compared to an ever-changing larger community.  While it’s natural to want to make comparisons, track and measure your contributions by ‘showing your work’ rather than evaluating yourself on outcome results alone.  By documenting your steps in the scientific process, generating strategic hypotheses, testing them critically through observations and experiments you are creating a useful path of ‘knowledge’ as you arrive at Type 1 or Type 2 errors, etc.  Find value in documenting how you’ve made progress to better direct your future paths of discovery.

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5. Prepare to use trial and error.  If one particular process of completing a task isn’t coming together, try a different plan of action.  Step away from a task and let your brain absorb the learning and develop new insights.  Go back with fresh eyes in regular intervals and adjust accordingly, and practice applying new insights.  According to the latest neuroscience,  researchers have discovered that moments of creativity take place when the mind is at rest rather than directly working on something.  Since creative approaches are so crucial to success, be sure to give yourself space from your work efforts.

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Bringing it all together:  Discover optimal productivity methods based on your personal strengths and challenges.  Practice applying a perspective that takes into account all the moving parts and your abilities before comparing your pace to others.  Remember that everyone hits roadblocks from time to time; taking this mindful approach and using smart solutions will help you overcome them as efficiently as possible.

Improve your health and performance with Learned Optimism and you will win at life

What is the difference between someone who consistently performs to the best of their ability and someone whose performance is unpredictable?  What allows someone to effortlessly tap into their peak performance and reach their goals and what compromises a person’s ability to access and sustain it?  One word- outlook.  Martin Seligman‘s groundbreaking research on learned optimism reveals how being optimistic is consistently related to improved health and longevity.  A US study of nearly 100 000 students found that people who are optimistic are less likely than those who are pessimistic to die from Coronary Heart Disease (CHD) or from any other cause over an eight year period.  On the other hand, pessimism has been linked to chronic stress and poor health functioning such as high levels of inflammation, a weakened immune system, increased pain perception, and other signs of physiological and mental dysfunction.  Optimistic people appear to manage stress more efficiently than others so that their stress disappears at a faster rate than those who don’t utilize optimism in their outlook.

Seligman developed a test to help people identify their outlook style (which you can take here.)  If your base level of optimism isn’t very high, don’t panic.  In fact, it means that you are at the level where learned optimism can be the most beneficial!

Executive coaching can be an effective way to learn and adopt optimism to improve your overall functioning and sustain peak performance in all areas of your life.  I typically work with high-achieving young adults in the tech community of the Bay Area/Silicon Valley.  Working with a coach is great for healthy people who are motivated to change what isn’t working, but need some guidance on how to execute strategically and efficiently.

The following tactics outline the basic tenets of Learned Optimism.  Keep in mind that our first reaction to something will always be automatic and happen instantaneously – that’s normal and to be expected!  We can acknowledge our initial reactions to an event without this becoming our permanent outlook on the matter.  That’s where Learned Optimism comes in.  We can cultivate this skill by identifying our first reaction, clarifying how this first outlook might impact our overall ability to problem-solve and perform, and challenge ourselves to adjust our outlook in order to optimize our performance and goal achievement.  With practice, we can improve our mental toughness, which is what helps a person cope with difficult situations, persevere and succeed at a high performance level.

Our outlook is shaped by our individual explanatory style, a psychological attribute that indicates how people explain to themselves why they experienced a particular event, either positive or negative.  There are three components to this:

  1. The permanence of an event – how long someone thinks it will last
  2. The pervasiveness or scope of an event – whether the person sees the event as specific and contained, or global and all-inclusive
  3.  Personalization of an event – whether the person views the event as something that was caused entirely by oneself, others or external factors

Learned Optimism tool # 1 – Adjust TIME outlook for an event.

Find ways to view a negative event as temporary:

  • “The next fiscal quarter will be better.”
  • This is a short-term setback.”
  • I’m having an off day today.”

Find ways to view a positive event as enduring and reflective of personal ability:

  • “I’m on a roll now, because I’ve worked hard, practiced, and now have a winning strategy.”
  • I know I can handle challenging things because I’ve already overcome so much.”
  • “I’ve created opportunities for myself in the past, and am capable of creating more.”

Learned Optimism tool # 2 – Adjust SCOPE of an event.

Find ways to view a negative event as specific and contained to one situation:

  • The next event will work out better because of what I’ve learned this time around.”
  • “I won’t let this personal rejection or difficult co-worker get in my way or stop me from reaching my goal.”
  • Things at my company are rough right now, but my personal life is going well.”

Find ways to view a positive event as global:

  • “Earning this promotion has gotten me on the right path to developing as a leader in the company.”
  • “My management style is more effective since I’ve made an effort to be more approachable and generous with my time.”
  • Taking social risks has been challenging but I’ve learned that overall, people respond well to me when I reach out first.”

Learned Optimism tool # 3 – Adjust PERSONALIZATION to contain one’s responsibility, recognize which personal strengths were utilized, and which external circumstances influenced the outcome of an event.

For negative events, identify your personal accountability, then factor in others’ contributions and the role of external circumstances:

  • “I can see how I contributed to the fight my spouse and I had.  I want to clarify my expectations and work on finding some middle ground so the next time this issue comes up we can avoid a blowup.”
  • “I reacted without communicating beforehand with my team members, which led to a break down in our overall progress.  I will suggest a few temporary solutions until we can figure out a more inclusive strategy.”
  • My company is going through major layoffs, and in spite of the contributions I made that demonstrated real utility, I’ve been informed it’s time to find my next position.”

For positive events, recognize which personal strengths you utilized to bring this event to fruition:

  • “I stayed focused on my goals and was willing to work harder when other people were frustrated and fed up, which helped me move forward and achieve in spite of facing real adversity.”
  • “I’m more comfortable and experienced speaking in front of others than my co-founder, so I took on the responsibility of pitching our idea to investors and now our startup has seed funding.” 
  • “I’ve worked on building up my tolerance for discomfort in social situations, which I believe gave me the confidence to ask out someone I’ve been interested in for months.  Even if it doesn’t work out, I feel good about stepping up and taking initiative.”

Bringing it all together- learned optimism is a winning strategy to get through challenging or unfair situations by shining a spotlight onto where there is opportunity for improved coping, positive progress and effective solutions.  Our initial response to a situation may not be the most effective way to navigate it successfully.  The key to adopting an optimistic mindset is to acknowledge the inherent choice we have in our response.  Learned optimism is not an exercise in avoiding responsibility or ignoring dire circumstances either.  Adopt an outlook that encourages personal accountability, and supports your performance growth in every area of life.  From your education to your work to your health, it is your outlook that predicts your level of success above all else.

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5 winning strategies to improve your likability at work and why it matters

“Likability” has become the X factor that distinguishes people’s success at work as the American workforce grows increasingly competitive and diversified.  Demonstrating a high level of likability goes beyond popularity, and is often cited as one of the most influential reasons behind promotion selection and leadership  advancement within a company.  The ability to come across as likable can lead to why co-workers and managers align with some people but not others. Likable people are more apt to be hired, earn a high level of trust and support from colleagues, and have their mistakes forgiven without injuring their credibility and reputation.  A study of 133 managers at the University of Massachusetts found that if an employee is likable and gives a well-organized argument, managers tend to comply with their suggestions, even if they disagree and the employee lacks supporting evidence.

On the other hand, unlikable people are often unaware of how toxic they feel to others, seem to provoke a combative response in others, and over time, develop a reputation of  being ‘hard to work with, or hard to work for’ even if they consistently demonstrate a high level of technical skill in their work role.

The ability to manage your emotions and remain steadfast and positive in stressful situations has a direct impact not only on your performance, but how likable you are to others.  As tempting as it can be to find fault in others, taking on a non-confrontational problem-solving approach encourages people to work in tandem and collaborate with you rather than react in defensiveness and go into attack mode.  A wise, highly successful manager once said to me “it’s never effective to make people feel wrong, even if they ARE wrong.  Shaming people wastes time and energy and reduces morale- causing people to withdraw or retaliate rather than work to improve themselves.”

TalentSmart has conducted research with more than a million people, and found that 90% of high ranked performers are skilled at managing their emotions in times of conflict in order to remain calm and in control. One of the greatest talents of likable people is their ability to neutralize difficult, unlikable people. They use their well-honed interpersonal skills to help disgruntled people feel supported, valued and useful to a team’s success, motivating them to cooperate with others.  If left unchecked, poorly managed conflict and employee grid-lock will sink a company’s success rate fast.

There are various strategies that likable people use to win their co-worker’s trust, appreciation, and support at work.  “Likability isn’t something you are born with, like charisma. It’s something you can learn,” says Ben Decker, chief executive officer of Decker Communications, San Francisco, a training and consulting firm.  To establish lasting, positive connections with people (whether you like them or not), you’ll need an approach that feels authentic to your interpersonal style. Many clients in my executive coaching practice come in to elevate their emotional intelligence skills to complement their highly developed STEM technical skills.  In the beginning, taking a different approach to interacting with others can feel difficult or artificial, but over time becomes easier to employ once you see the positive impact it has on your work relationships.  Engaging in stable, positive interactions at work will always be easier to maintain than constantly navigating awkward or tense work relationships.

Actionable strategies to increase your likability at work:

  1. Aim to communicate empathically with others.  Negative, unlikable people can be draining when they exhibit hostile emotions without regard for how they’re affecting others.  They aren’t focused on solutions because they feel unheard, and want someone to pay attention to their complaints.  You can avoid coming across as insensitive or unconcerned by offering a few short, empathic statements to demonstrate you’ve listened.  Help them see they’ve made an impact on your understanding of the issues they’ve raised, and you value their opinion.  This form of active listening increases your likability because you’ve demonstrated an ability to tolerate other people’s emotional expressions without negating their experience.  Even if you do not agree with them in the slightest, you’ve helped them move away from seeing you as personally contrary or combative.  Their complaints are not being made to generate solutions at this moment in time, but rather to be heard by anyone who will listen.  Refrain from sharing differences in opinion, which will only trigger a combative response style.  Use phrases to help that person feel understood before ending the exchange amicably.
  • “This does sound like a big problem.  I imagine it won’t be easily solved without some planning.  I appreciate you sharing your thoughts on the situation, it’s helped me get some new perspectives.  I’ll spend some time thinking about how to get the ball rolling in the right direction.”
  • “I think this is a really important issue too.  I want to give it the time and attention it deserves.  Now that I’ve heard your take on it, I feel like I can see how it’s affecting people differently.”
  • “This problem has been hard for a lot of people, but especially you, based on what you’re saying.  It seems like you’re doing the best you can, given the circumstances.”

If ultimately it’s your job to generate actionable solutions to the problems they’ve shared with you, it’s better to give yourself time to strategize, gather information, resources and support to optimize your plan of action rather than to engage in a reactive dialogue that won’t generate lasting solutions, and likely only provoke negative responses.

2.  Make time for small talk.  Positive relationships are born from sharing benign personal details.  Showing genuine interest in others makes you likable.  As someone who’s naturally chatty (with a personality style well suited to being a highly interactive coach versus a traditionally unobtrusive psychotherapist) I always enjoy helping people learn and practice the art of small talk.  Likable people make time to exchange simple personal reflections on topics that most people can relate to- favorite past times or culinary tastes, seasonal or local happenings.  Small talk is a time to compare mutual commonalities with the intent of learning something new about a person.  Sharing parts of yourself through small talk helps people feel familiar and comfortable with you and develop a sense of who you are outside of your work role.  I believe there are a few basic rules of thumb to successfully initiate and respond to others during small talk conversations.  These mini exchanges (think 5 -1o minutes) build upon each other over time, and eventually can segue into more in-depth conversations that are mutually interesting and enjoyable.

  •  Be willing to initiate a circumstantially relevant conversation (for example seeing someone enjoy a cup of coffee/tea is a good time to ask what they prefer, then share some small personal details about your own caffeine habits, add some novel experiences if you can to keep it from being too mundane).  Pay attention to the amount that they share and aim to match it, then expand a bit more.  Find out if there’s anything you can learn from them based on what they share.
  • Be responsive to people when they make an effort to begin a small talk conversation with you, and be inclusive of others whenever possible.   Even if you’re having a hectic day, take time to convey you appreciate their conversational gesture and try to refrain from saying how busy/rushed you feel.  If you really are counting on every spare minute that day, let them know you want to come back to chat with them a bit later, and make a point to follow up in some small way the next time you see them.
  • Ask a few people who know you well (family members, room mates, close friends) how they’ve seen you engage in small talk and ask for candid feedback.  What have they observed in your conversational style that works well?  What might be misinterpreted?  Consider any reoccurring themes with the intention of ongoing improvement so that others have easy, enjoyable exchanges with you.

 

3.  Pay attention to what tends to lighten people’s mood, what puts a smile on people’s faces or brings people out of their shell.  A few seconds of generosity with your energy can instantly warm people and makes you endearing to others.  I’ve had clients tell me they struggle to connect with people they have very little in common with, especially across genders.  If  you’ve ever paid close attention to someone who’s incredibly likable, you’ll see their charm often comes from a willingness to admit to not knowing much about something that someone else has a talent for- they’ll make light of this difference and find a way to joke about being less fashion savvy, less gadget knowledgable or less organized than a fellow co-worker.  Complimentary teasing, when done subtly and with genuine appreciation for someone else’s strengths is a fun, positive way to connect to others and increase your likability.

4.  Keep close tabs on your mood, and get in the habit of making micro-adjustments to sustain your comfort, stamina, peace of mind, and sense of humor.  Top performers understand how even the smallest differences in our mood can shape our response style and influence our ability to be creative, proactive and solution focused, and patient with unlikable people and complex problems.  You’ll want to aspire beyond healthy eating and good sleep hygiene and understand what additional influences can tip your mood in the right or wrong direction.  I recently sat next to Silicon Vally venture capitalist Tim Draper during a fundraiser luncheon for non-profit organization BizWorld.org.  He shared with me a few secrets to his success, including the importance of understanding and managing what influences your mood and energy level, taking extra precaution before going into high stakes meetings, public performances, or making paramount decisions with long term consequences.  By learning what helps you sustain your best mood, you’ll not only increase your likability and performance level, but serve as an inspiration to others who see you gliding through life with more ease and less stress.

  • create a varied and personalized list of self-care strategies and implement them routinely into your daily schedule.  (The list should range by category, e.g. time required, ease of access, supplies needed)
  • learn when to pass on extra curricular activities, social events and spending time with people that drain your energy and mood during times you’ll need to rely on your best performance ability
  • invest in resources that help you streamline domestic tasks that take up precious time and energy- whenever possible and affordable outsource tedious household chores so you can invest your time and energy on making career gains and positive social developments.

5.  Keep your eyes on the big picture and don’t sweat the small stuff.  The most likable people find a way to not let minor annoyances become obstacles to their success, and train their brain to notice positivity, hope, generosity, kindness, improvement and teamwork.  They are comfortable using trial and error, steer clear of perfectionistic or overly-idealistic expectations, keep their goals realistic, recognize growth and gains in themselves and others, and manage to find the silver lining in the most challenging circumstances.  Practice.  Then practice some more.  These are all tactics that take time to develop and can become staples in helping you become more likable and effective in your life and work goals.

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Be Better Than Everyone, Use SMART Goals In 5 Easy Steps

Making Your Goals PossibleThe method of SMART goals (an acronym for the 5 steps of specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-based goals) is one of the most effective and powerful tools used by high achievers to reach their goals — realistically and consistently. Whether you’re leading a 300-person organization, a trailblazing startup entrepreneur, or an individual who wants to gain traction towards a personal goal, learning how to set and utilize SMART goals can make the difference between failure and achievement. 1. Make your goal focused and well-defined. A specific goal has a much greater chance of being accomplished than a general goal.

  • When setting your goal, make sure you can answer the 6 “W” questions: Who, What, When, Where, Which, and Why. The more specific a goal is, the more you can find ways of reaching your target.  Ask questions such as:
    • Who is involved?
    • What do I want to accomplish?
    • Where will this happen? Identify a location.
    • When will this happen? Establish a time frame.
    • Which requirements and obstacles will be part of the process? Identify them.
    • Why am I setting this goal? Nail down the specific reasons and benefits of accomplishing this goal.
  • Know the difference between a specific goal and a vague goal. For example, there is a difference between saying, “I work too much, and feel drained and bored with my life” and “I miss having fun in my life, and want to invest time each week to seek out fun/recreational opportunities that will allow me to feel restored and happy.” When you set a goal to invest in reshaping your work/life balance, track your performance at work and other important areas of your life as a way of measuring your progress as you build pleasurable experiences back into your schedule. This will help you see the direct benefit of the changes you’ve made, allowing you to see the payoff of shifting your behavior. Other examples of specific and vague goals:
    • Vague: Get in shape for the summer.
    • Specific: Join a crossfit studio and attend 3-4 times a week over the next 3 months.
    • Vague: Own a home.
    • Specific: Put 30% of income into savings account for the next 12 months and talk to a realtor.

2.  Have identified metrics for measuring your progress and outcomes. A goal without a measurable outcome is like a sports competition without a scoreboard. Identify specific markers of success to measure your progress and build momentum towards your goals.

  • Ask questions such as:
    • How often?
    • How much/how many?
    • How will I know when my goal is accomplished?
    • What is at the finish line?
  • Set a daily reminder to track and measure your progress:
    • Keep a journal, put up a whiteboard at the office, use your smartphone to download a tracking app — these are all tangible ways to track your development.
    • Make the goal Attainable
  • Draft realistic goals. Based on the present restrictions such as your schedule, workload, and knowledge, do you believe you can attain the objective you set? If not, then set a different goal, one that is attainable for you in the present.
  • Ask yourself the following questions:
    • Are you prepared to make the commitment to reach your target?
    • Are you willing to dramatically alter or at least tweak aspects your life?
    • Is there a more achievable target you are willing to to work for?

3. Choose goals that are attainable. Is your goal a challenge but still possible to achieve? Goals should be achievable. The best goals require you to stretch a bit to achieve them but they are not impossible to achieve. Goals that may have seemed far away and out of reach eventually move closer and become attainable, not because your goals shrink, but because you grow and expand to match them. When you list your goals you build your self-image. You see yourself as worthy of these goals, and seek out experiences that allow you to develop the skills and work ethic that allow you to possess them.

4. Make the goal relevant to your life’s reality. For instance, if joining a certain social organization seems like a good idea, but most of the organization’s activities center around consuming alcohol which is inconsistent with your goal of cutting back your drinking, choose a different organization.  Lack of options/choices is rarely a problem in today’s culture of endless options.  Carefully consider how well your choices are fitting into the big picture of how you want your life to look.

  • Set goals that are realistic. If you are 30 pounds overweight and haven’t trained for a challenging athletic endeavor in 5 years, it’s unrealistic not to mention physically risky to sign up for a triathlon with 6 weeks of training. So set a goal you have a realistic chance of achieving.  Even if someone is motivated and capable of change, their expectation of immediate progress/payoff may be unrealistic, and can lead to a sense of inadequacy and undermine their confidence when moving forward.

5. Ground the goal within a time frame.  SMART goals should be time-bound, meaning they should have a deadline or there should be a date for completion. Setting a deadline reinforces the seriousness of the goal in your mind. It motivates you to take action. When you don’t set a timeline, there is no internal pressure to accomplish the goal, so it gets put in the back burner.  Have a sense of urgency. If you want to raise your credit score to 720, when do you want to raise it by? “Someday” won’t work. But if you anchor it within a timeframe (example: Raise credit from 700 to 720 in 12-18 months), then you’ve set your mind into motion to begin working on the goal.  Within your established time frame, ask yourself:

  • What can I do TODAY to reach my goal?
  • What can I do 3 weeks from now to reach my goal?
  • What can I do 3 months from now to reach my goal?

FINAL TIPS:

  • Document or share your milestones with supportive people in your life along the way to your target. Make a point to pair your milestones with healthy rewards.
  • Remember, there will be days when you become discouraged and ‘not in the mood’ to work towards your goal(s).  This is normal, and does NOT mean you are failing yourself, or your plan.  Getting offtrack does not equal failure, and is not a reason to give up or relent to feelings of hopelessness.  Hit the pause button and take a breather.  High achieving, hard working people still need a break sometimes.  But then get your mind and body back on track, and reconnect with the true purpose behind setting your goal in the first place.  Why is it important to you?  What will accomplishing it afford you in the long run?  Then get back in the game.
  • Don’t forget to enlist people, opportunities and a range of resources that can help you achieve your goal.  Most people feel good about tapping into their strengths, skill sets, and networks to help others grow and achieve.  Help them feel good about helping you by not only expressing your gratitude, but by showing them the positive evidence of their support.
  • Use the power of visualization. Make sure to imagine yourself not JUST at the finish line of your goal(s), but visualize yourself achieving the small steps it takes to get there.  Don’t let there be a huge abyss between where you are now and where you want to be in your fantasies.  Yes it can be indulgent and fun to fantasize about ‘the ultimate fantasy’ coming true, but you’ll benefit more from fantasizing about hitting your goal for the week if it’s actually achievable in the here and now.