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Leadership Mindfulness

Managing Change - When Adaptability Becomes Liability

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I've written in the past about the emotional rollercoaster and how you should think about it for the purposes of productivity and team building.

I got this basic picture from Dr. Alan Watkins in his book Coherence. It is based on the emotional range that we experience during any change, based originally on the stages of grief. For the record, the negative emotions laid out by Dr. Watkins are:

Denial (at the top left)
Resistance
Anxiety
Frustration
Despair (at the bottom)

Yikes. Yes, those are the negative emotions we experience during change.

My original article is here.

Another way that this impacts organizations is that leaders often become extremely adept at handling these emotions in themselves, and this presents two risks:


The first risk is that the leader can be in a very different place on this roller coaster than where there fellow employees are. Leaders often get advance notice and have more time to process. They also may have more experience dealing with change all across their organization.

Employees with less flux in their day-to-day duties may not be used to riding this roller coaster, and so the leader struggles not only to understand why someone isn't already on the right hand side, going up, they miss that the struggle is there at all.

The key tool to avoiding this pitfall is awareness. Are there big changes going on? Expect that everyone is somewhere on this continuum. Talk about it. Ask questions, don't accept "I'm fine" as an answer. People may be coping, people may be struggling, people may actually be fine.

But as a leader you need to know for sure and it may be that someone who is really on the right hand side has some insights that could benefit you or someone else. For this reason alone, don't accept "fine", even if they're fine.


The second challenge is that leaders can believe that they are so good at this that it doesn't apply to them. They may believe that they don't feel the negative emotions or that they know how to speed through the emotions on the left quickly. They probably can do this for small or medium sized changes.

Leaders often thrive on change - this is certainly the mold that our culture has laid out for us.

But what happens when the change is large, unexpected, or drastic? What happens if you aren't used to processing the negative, left-side emotions? What happens if you've become so accepting of the leadership norms of change that the negative emotions are unfamiliar territory.

Today's norms say you can't be afraid, desperate, or angry about change. You can't be anxious, frustrated, or in denial. You certainly can't feel despair. You need to understand and move to acceptance quickly. How else will we lead others effectively?

But things happen. Some times a change seems personal. Some times a change is personal. Sometimes a change originates in the personal sphere and comes crashing into the professional. Sometimes we end up on the left half of this roller coaster, going down, and we don't have the ability to simply fast forward through it.

When this happens we need to accept in ourselves that there is a probably a reason and look for it. It may be that a trusted friend can help, it may be something that you do on your own.

If you are stuck (just as employees, peers, and bosses often get stuck) this is not wrong. This is something that can help you go higher and achieve more when you understand it, work through it, and get yourself on the right hand side, going up.

What's most important is to not let your normal adaptability and capability force you into believing you're somewhere you're not. Leaders ignore their own emotions on the left-hand side at their own peril. You're likely to come off inauthentic and fail to help others on their own journeys if you automatically skip ahead to the right.

This lack of self-awareness can lead to lashing out or feeling disconnected. If you are angry or disconnected people will assume even more negative things about the change. At best this means they will think you are an inauthentic jerk. At worst this means that they'll think you're hiding something, which, in a way, you are.

They will make their own guesses about what you're hiding. Usually what they assume or gossip about will be worse than your own struggles with a big change.

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Leadership Mindfulness

The Imagination Directed to the Relief of Human Suffering

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The placebo effect isn't something I think about very often and when I do it is usually in the context of dismissing it as a trick of the mind or something like that. Maybe the placebo effect is just someone getting better on their own where it would have happened anyway, with no medical intervention at all.

I suspect a lot of us think this way.

But there are people out there wondering why it's happening. Why does the body sometimes heal itself? Can we understand it? What mechanisms are at work? If it is a trick of the mind, why does it seem to happen so consistently?

Here is an article about these individuals:

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/07/magazine/placebo-effect-medicine.html

For a long time, nearly 250 years, we've known about the placebo effect, but we have done very little to study it.

That is changing now.

Experiments are focused on understanding how the placebo effect works, in the hopes of understanding it and putting it to work for the betterment of man kind.

It's a fasciating article and you should read the whole thing.

There are two parts of this article that interesting as leadership examples, and I want to take a few minutes to talk about those.


The origin of our understanding of the Pacebo effect come from 18th century France and involves a famous American.

Benjamin Franklin was part of a panel that was tasked with analyzing the work of the mesermist Charles d’Eslon. Mesmerists (disciples of Anton Mesmer) claimed to heal people of chronic illnesses and pain using a force called Animal Magnetism.

The panel developed experiments where the patients cannot see d'Eslon, thereby separating the effects of the mesmerist from what the patient might be supplying themselves. In doing so, the panel creates the first blind medical experiments and isolated the placebo effect.

The results of the experiment were quite clear: something besides animal magnetism, something the patient's themselves are supplying, is producing the effects of the treatment.

Having been told that imagination produces the effects attributed to his work as a mesmerist, d'Eslon responds:

the imagination thus directed to the relief of suffering humanity would be a most valuable means in the hands of the medical profession.

I find d'Eslon's reaction remarkable as an example of leadership.

I have seen people go to great lengths defending things not very integral to their livelihood and profession. How many times have you seen people defend turf for the sake of defending turf and maintaining the status quo?

D'Eslon, whose career is on the line, responds very differently.

Imagine being told you're a fraud and instead of reacting with hostility, you analyze the data and retrieve the key insight. Instead of defensiveness, instead of anger you simnply extract that conclusion your detractors seemed to have overlooked.

I've seen some people who are cool under pressure, but I've never seen anything like that. It should probably go in the record books under, Most Reasonable, Self-Aware Reaction Too Bad News, Ever.

I'm not sure what happened to d'Eslon after that. But I'd curious to know what such a man did with the rest of his life.

Imagine seeing your work discredited in public and responding with a valuable insight.

He saw the value in the placebo effect and applying our imaginations to relieve suffering.


The second thing that I think we should think about as leaders:

Some pretty brave people applying imagination to something that had been dismissed by medical science for nearly 250 years. As the article mentions, this isn't an easy journey for them. To take a topic that has been dismissed for that long and try to get people to pay attention to it is a pretty amazing feat. There are a lot of detractors, but they think it is important so they are dong it anyway.

We should take a lesson from the strength of people when confronted with challenge - Do we persevere when people question us? Or do we press on?

Those studying the placebo effect are pressing on because they believe there is something valuable and interesting, that medical science can finally come to grips with.

I'm glad that now there are those in the medical profession paying attention to how the placebo effect might be used differently and I'm glad we have the tools so that we can begin to understand it. New tools (DNA sequencing and MRIs are mentioned specifically) give these researchers the ability to peer inside us and look deeper than we ever could before.

But while the technical frontier that has opened, the frontier of human complacency, tradition, and established opinion must still be confronted and there is no new tool for that. There is only courage and perseverance, just as there always has been.


These are both great examples of human beings facing the challenge of change - one story of someone faced with a challenge/change and reacting with equanimity and grace, and one story of those taking on the establishment because of what they believe is the right thing to do.

Both of these are worth thinking about as examples of how to face challenges and show leadership during times of change.

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Leadership Mindfulness

Emotions are at the Core of Firing People, Even at Netflix

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I've been fired from a company I worked for. I've written about it in the past here.

I've also fired a lot of people over the years.

I don't enjoy it. It's not fun. And it's probably going to be one of the worst days of somebody's life. That's how you should treat it. Try to be as humane as you can be.

But I don't have any problem with it - it's a necessary and valuable part of how business gets done. But if you think that you can do it without emotion I think you're missing something valuable.

I came across this article today about Netflix and their CEO, which is what brought all this up:

https://www.businessinsider.com/netflix-ceo-reed-hastings-used-keeper-test-to-fire-product-chief-2018-10

Having a "keeper test" seems like a reasonable thing to do. I wouldn't do it the way that Netflix does, but that's their business. They're a successful company. How they keep their top performers, get rid of people who don't work, and put out an amazing product is their business. More power to them.

My problem with the article is that they say they do this without emotion. If you think you're making decisions without emotion you're not just wrong, you're deluding yourself about how decision making even works. You have to have emotions to make decisions, it's part of it.

If you go out and Google that topic you'll find lots of people saying that you should avoid emotions in decision making. And if you read the articles, they're right - you should avoid making decisions when you're really angry about something and when you're feeling euphoric - those aren't good states to make decisions in. But that's different than saying there's no emotion involved in decisions or you're completely analytical, that just doesn't work.

The trick is to look at data, be analytical, but be realistic about what you're feeling and why.

Often, business leaders have to make decisions with incomplete data.

If you're totally without emotions or gut feel, what are you going to do if you have to make decisions in absence of data?

The best book on this subject is Dr. Alan Watkins' book Coherence - specifically Chapter 3 in the section "Why Emotions are Important in Business".

When Netflix execs say they're firing people without emotion I suspect they really mean they are making these decisions, "without sentimental attachment to things that happened in the past and regardless of what my relationship may be to the person who I'm thinking of firing." That's a mouthful, but it is a lot more meaningful.

So, if I believe that is what they're really saying, why does it matter what was said?

It matters for 2 reasons:

  1. What they said shows a misunderstanding of emotion and it's role in decision making. If you say things like that you are wearing blinders about what emotions you're feeling.
  2. Saying that you make these decisions without emotion feeds the notion that decision makers are robots. I think that is dangerous for company culture and human beings.

If this is true, then they are using some emotions at Netflix to make these choices. What emotions are they (or should they be) using?

They're using emotions that derive from their commitment to the business and its vision. They're trying to build the greatest entertainment company in the world, they really care about that, and they're willing to get rid of people who don't quite live up to that ideal.

Those are probably pretty strong emotions. Strong enough, even, for you to fire an employee who was once successful and now is struggling.

But you definitely aren't making such decisions without emotions.

The question I would ask, but to which I do not know the answer is, "Is one of those emotions fear?" It's hinted at in the article.

I doubt the CEO is doing these things out of fear, though you never know. The rest of the organization could easily be affected by fear of "looking soft" as the article says or by fear of losing their jobs.

If fear is a big part of the emotional cocktail, that is not healthy in the long run.

Whatever the formula is, it seems to have worked thus far.

As it relates to my second point, there is a sense that the ideal CEO is someone who is able to make these decisions like a computer or robot. Does that match someone's ideal? I've worked with a lot of executives and I can't remember one who wanted to be a robot.

Visionaries, yes. Great leaders, yes. Builders of great companies, yes.

Even some who saw firing as a key component of building workplace culture - by which I mean they would never keep people around who didn't work hard and contribute at a high level. But this was not because they were cruel, and not even because they were ruthless in pursuit of efficiency.

No, it was because they responded so significantly to those who gathered around them and shared their vision. The leaders understood the emotional toll it took on those hard working, results-driving people to have to prop-up someone who couldn't cut it.

Non-contributing and failing team members can drain the life out of a team quickly. Suddenly hard fought gains are lost and the team is struggling.

This is to say, emotions were at the very core of why those business leaders chose to remove some team members.

So, I understand the sound byte. I wouldn't have said it that way and it is not what he meant, but I think a lot of people will read that article and see the CEO of Netflix acting "without emotion" and take that to heart.

It's wrong and misguided. I hope that at least some people stop and think about that.

What's a better approach? This is off the cuff, but I'll throw out some ideas about how to deal with emotion in a firing decision process:

  1. What emotions are impacting this decision I'm about to make? Be clear with yourself - emotions are impacting you, which ones are they?
  2. How does this person's performance impact those around them?
  3. Is this person a fountain (someone who brings energy to those around them) or a drain (someone who sucks energy away from teams)?
  4. Are these challenges temporary (life-change driven or tied to a new position) or permanent (a person is constitutionally unfit for a job or role)?

On this last point, it is important to note that people rarely change. And even if you think someone can change, can they change in time to make a difference? The odds are against them changing. Do you want to base your business plan around the need for a person to fundamentally alter their behavior?

It's difficult to change, though I have seen it happen.

But if you've put a person into the position in which they're struggling you owe it to them to at least ask the question.

All of these things relate to emotions. Emotions are important and we can't make decisions without them.

Even as an executive you need to be human. You can't help it anyway.

Acknowledge what you're feeling and why. The most successful executives I've worked with all understood exactly what's impacting them and they have been good at communicating it to others.

They don't let it blind them. They manage it and use it to their advantage.

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Mindfulness Biometrics Technology

Spire Stone - A Wearable Device with Instant Feedback on Stress and Breathing

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In my continued quest for biometric insights and stress management, I recently picked up a Spire Stone. It monitors respiration and it can give you real-time feedback on your breathing patterns. Very handy for identifying and managing stressful moments throughout the day.

Breathe less than 14 times in a minute? You are calm. Your breath is full and consistent. Feels pretty good, doesn't it?

Breathe more than 22 times in a minute? You are stressed. Your breathing has become quick and shallow.

If this happens, the Spire device gives you a small nudge in the form of vibration to let you know.

The great news? You can do something about it. Take deeper, more normal breaths and help your body relax and feel less stressed-out.

I like it because, like FitBit, it gives me a way to impact my health that I can make conscious choices about. Breathing? There's always time for that. And improved awareness leads to small changes that can have a big impact.

With the HRV, brain wave, and sleep devices I've tried, you just don't control those things as directly as breathing or steps.

Spire gives you control over your stress level. Changing your breathing helps you feel less anxious and it can help you BE less anxious by sending a calming signal to all the other systems in the body.

It is a really good device. I've noticed that I don't always agree 100% with its breath count. During meditation I think it over counts, slightly, depending on the position of the device.

I also have had a few false positives on the 'stress vibration'. But not more than 1 a day.

These are very minor flaws in my opinion, and the value it provides more than outweigh these (small) negatives.

The additional awareness it provides to your current breathing pattern is very helpful.

They also have an app with some nice features. They have helpful guided breathing exercises and stats on how much time you were calm, anxious, active, and focused.

Spire has a new product coming out called the Health Tag which is designed to be attached to clothes, more or less permanently (it can be washed). In addition to respiration it also monitors HRV.

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Mindfulness Technology

Making a Simple 'I Love You' Button with the Amazon IoT Button

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The article below is specifically about using the AWS (Amazon Web Services) IoT button to create a simple 'I Love You' button that my kids could use to send a text to their mother while they were staying with me.

While that was a specific idea, the concept could easily be extended for children to send a message to a grandparent, a friend who has moved away, or a cousin who lives in another city. It's not strictly limited to the situation I describe.


As a divorced parent, you often find yourself trying to make the divorce have as limited an impact on your child or children as possible.

One thing they teach you as you are going through that process is that your child ultimately views each parent as key to understanding themselves, and any time you do anything to tear down your ex you're really only hurting your child.

So, last summer, shortly after my divorce was finalized I happened to come upon the AWS IoT button, which is basically an unbranded programmable Dash button. I've written about using it at work here.

As I was working on the pitch for that project, it occurred to me that the button could be used to solve another problem. My children are too young to have phones (my opinion), but it would be nice if they had a way, when they were staying with me, to send their mother a text to say 'Hi Mommy! I love you!' or something similar.

This is easy with the IoT button. Here are the steps involved.

Step 1 - Order Button from Amazon All you have to do is order them from Amazon here.

Step 2 - Use the mobile app to configure the button to communicate Download the setup app for Android or iOS. Next, use the setup app to put your button on your wifi and configure a basic function.

Step 3 - Change the message to your custom message The last step is a little trickier. You need to edit the Lambda function created by the setup app. I won't go in to the details, but it is possible for a person with limited technical expertise to pull off. Certainly, anyone with a technical friend or relative could do it with help.

Essentially you change this:

PhoneNumber: PHONE_NUMBER,
Message: 'Hello from your IoT Button ${event.serialNumber}. Here is the full event: ${payload}.',

To make it look like this:

PhoneNumber: PHONE_NUMBER,
Message: 'Hi Mommy, I love you.',

The change itself is as simple as what I outlined above. It's just getting to the right place that takes a little Googling/spelunking if you haven't done it before.

For kids, this is also a nice, simple introduction to coding where a simple change can be made simply, and without needing tons of additional explanation, deployment, or other fanfare. Just make a change and hit the 'Save' button.

Once done, my boys were able to send their mom a short message and have her know that they were thinking about her. In return, I knew I was helping them build connections and self-esteem and not tearing that down. Here is our completed button, plus decorations:

-iot_button_custom

This is extendable to other situations - absent friends, geographically distant loved ones, parents who might be travelling. Even adults could benefit from having a dedicated 'I love you' or 'I think you're great' button to press from time to time.

Who doesn't need the occasional reminder/short cut to tell our friends and family that we think they're great?

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Mindfulness Leadership

Tools, Brains, Obsolescence

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I just finished watching 2001: A Space Odyssey with my kids and it's a good reminder that technology and tools may not always be what we expect.

Not every tool looks like a cell phone or an AI algorithm. Sometimes a club is a tool also. Hopefully, as business leaders, our use of clubs (both literal and figurative) is rare.

It is useful to consider the club in the following way: A club is different from a spaceship, but they are both tools. Perhaps, as the movie suggests, both rudimentary tools in some sense. If not today, then tomorrow.

People will always make more tools and they can use them in new ways. So people are the real asset in the long run. Humanity.

Humans are tool makers and the mind, while itself a tool, is capable of not only altering the world around it, but of altering itself for the better.

Today's spaceship is tomorrow's club and humanity today is not the same as humanity 1000 or a 100 years ago.

This is our challenge as humans and business leaders - people evolve. Customers get more sophisticated. Spaceships become clubs. Humans persist.

How will you use this to motivate and unlock discretionary effort in your organization? Hint: not like the picture.