Tag decision-making

End Game Analysis: Relationship Principles

This article, and the articles that follow analyze my thoughts on what I am calling my “end game.” You can read more about this concept here.

In the article entitled “Mind the Gap,” I wrote about the importance of having both self and situational awareness when it comes to managing relationships. Since it is difficult to provide explicit guidance across all personalities and situations, a better alternative is to rely upon a set of relationship principles.

The absence of principles is akin to traveling without a map. This approach may be suitable for local exploration, but arguably irresponsible when traveling in unfamiliar territory (at least if you wish to reach a specific destination). Principles allow one to navigate successfully independently of the situation.

Let’s build an initial set by posing the following questions:

Do I feel comfortable with this person?

Is the relationship balanced?

Is the relationship moving forward?

These translate into the following three criterion: comfort, balance, and strength, and are neutral enough where they can be easily applied in both professional and personal contexts. They also follow a natural order (i.e., relationships which make one uncomfortable should probably not move forward by default).

Lastly, since change is ever present, these questions need to be continuously asked. Each assessment should inform whether the relationship is on track or requires recalibration, containment, or termination.

The Black Box.

Over the past two years, I’ve contributed more than 100 posts spanning over 600 different subjects.  For me, writing has given me the opportunity to think about ideas, events and people in new ways.  It has also allowed me to heal.

In some respect, Incubator has been a black box.  The inputs to this “black box” have been my experiences and ideas.  The resulting outputs could perhaps be best summarized via the tag cloud located on the right-hand side of the page; as of the date of this posting, “awareness” and “design” are the two most popular themes.

However, to boil the past two years into this discrete summary would do some injustice to my contributions to date.  Thus, I think it’s important to call attention to several key outputs:

  1. You haven’t believed in yourself as much as you’ve should.
  2. You have a lot of talent, but you are not using it to it’s full potential.
  3. You fail very slowly.
  4. You have trusted others to “make” decisions for you.

To take a lesson from books I’ve read, it’s perhaps more positive to state these outputs in a slightly different way:

  1. Believe in yourself.
  2. Maximize your talent.
  3. Fail quickly.
  4. Make your own decisions.

Of course, these are four outputs – summarizing down to one leaves the following:

You can do better.

Altitude Sickness.

In November of 2006, I decided to climb Mt.Rainier.

Given that I have never climbed a mountain, my first and only concern was ensuring that I was physically strong enough to reach the summit.  Thus, over the subsequent six months I practiced climbing stairs in local arenas, walked for miles in the darkness of winter, and eventually walked thirteen miles with a loaded backpack with forty pounds of weight.  In May of 2007, feeling confident in my physical ability, I packed my gear and headed to Seattle, Washington where I was to meet up with other climbers at the Alpine Ascents office.

I arrived fairly early to the planning session, and given the few climbers who were already there, the relative “intimacy” of the environment helped boost my confidence and comfort level.  Interestingly enough, this level of comfort remained fairly static until three new team members arrived fairly late in the session.  In retrospect, the combination of their collective personality along with the seeming “collapse” of the team dynamic led to a rather abrupt decline in self-confidence.

During the van ride to the mountain, I also noticed that I was becoming somewhat withdrawn from the group.  Being consciously aware of this, I took steps to “return” to my original self and was able to gradually interact with other team members without any problems.  However, it was at the first camp (Camp Muir – elevation 10,188 feet) where things started to become much more challenging for me.  Granted, the physical undertaking to climb ten-thousand feet was both physically and mentally draining, but the real struggle involved not my legs or body, but my mind.  Even though I was with approximately ten other climbers, I felt extremely isolated and alone.

It was only after the climb where I reflected why my primary barrier to reaching the summit on Rainier was not physical, but mental.

A person’s mental state is influenced by a wide range of factors – energy level, family history, personal experiences, etc. – but at it’s core is one’s personality.  Everyone knows fundamentally who they are, but exploring the underlying facets through a formal personality test can further expand one’s awareness of their modes of operation and what they can do to bridge connections with others.  A common and fairly reliable test is known as Myers Briggs, or as it is more commonly known – the Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI).

When I first took the MBTI back in 2000, I was amazed with the results – the correlation to my true personality was striking.  At the time, the test told me that I was of personality type “ISTJ“, which can be explained via the following descriptions:

  • Ways of Gaining Energy: Introversion – You focus on your inner world and get energy through reflecting on information, ideas and concepts.
  • Ways of Taking in Information: Sensing – You notice and trust facts, details and present realities.
  • Ways of Making Decisions: Thinking – You make decisions using logical, objective analysis.
  • Ways of Living in the World: Judging – You prefer to be organized and orderly and to make decisions quickly.

Over the Thanksgiving holiday, I decided to take the MBTI a second time.  This time my results were actually much different – I was now of personality type “INFP” (Introversion, Intuition, Feeling, Perceiving).  Interestingly enough, this change in type felt right.

While there is a free test available online, the benefit of taking the official test is that you are provided with an eighteen-page report that provides in-depth analysis of the key facets of your personality as well as tangible suggestions on how to improve your communication style, ability to manage change and conflict, and ability to make decisions.

Not surprisingly, the introversion element of my personality was a key determinant in my discomfort on Rainier.  Fortunately, I can interact with strangers without any difficulty and engage them in decent conversation, but if I don’t have the ability to (eventually) form any true connections with the people I am with, I am going to start to withdraw.  The fact that I was unable to step away from the group on Rainier to replenish my sense of “self” made it all that much more challenging.

I used to think that my inability to rapidly “connect” with strangers was a deficiency that needed to be overcome.  After much self-reflection and research, I no longer believe this.  To be sure, if I felt this was a genuine barrier that needed to be overcome, then I would take immediate steps to expand my personality “container” to better adapt in these types of situations.  However, it’s important to recognize that all personalities are created equal and trying to “fix” a personality trait because it doesn’t “fit” isn’t necessarily the right thing to do.  A personality isn’t something that needs to be “fixed”.

What is the lesson here?  When faced with new challenges, having inventory of your values, strengths and weaknesses are useful tools, but the true foundation of understanding is a keen awareness of your own personality.  If you take steps to explore your personality through formal or freely available personality tests, explore related literature about your personality type, and integrate the suggestions and information into your mode of operation, you will find that your sense of self will be that much greater and you’ll have an enhanced ability to deal with conflict, make important decisions, and communicate with others who have personality types different from your own.

Total Recall and the “Recovery Model”

In the movie Total Recall, Arnold Schwartznegger is faced with an interesting dilemma – he doesn’t know who he is.

“[…] While evading his assailants, he receives a phone call from someone claiming to be a former friend of his who had been asked to deliver a briefcase if he ever disappeared. The briefcase contains false IDs, money, weapons, devices, and a video player, containing a video disk he left to himself beforehand. Watching it, Quaid starts piecing together his past on Mars as a secret agent. […]” (Wikipedia, “Total Recall“)

When I saw the movie – now nineteen years ago! – I was intrigued with the concept of recording video for the sole purpose of watching it in the future.  It’s only recently where I’ve found a real purpose to employ this concept in real-life.

In the book “Blink“, Malcolm Gladwell focuses on the concept of “thin slicing” – gathering just enough data / information to accelerate decision-making, while still ensuring the decision is “sound”.

Interestingly enough, one of the examples presented in the text shows the downside of “thin slicing” – making rapid (but unconscious) decisions when faced with a life-threatening situation.  From the text:

“Our mind, faced with a life-threatening situation, drastically limits the range and amount of information that we have to deal with.  Sound and memory and broader social understanding are sacrificed in favor of heightened awareness of the threat directly in front of us.

“The optimal state of “arousal” – the range in which stress improves performance – is when our heart rate is between 115 and 145 beats per minute.  After 145, “bad things start to happen”.  Complex motor skills start to break down.  Doing something with one hand and not the other becomes very difficult.  At 175, we begin to see an absolute break-down of cognitive processing.”

From this excerpt alone, it would appear that making quality decisions in these types of situations is next to impossible.  Fortunately, with training and experience, we have the ability to improve our decision-making skills even when time is very limited.  From the text:

“Every moment – every blink – is composed of a series of discrete moving parts, and every one of those parts offers an opportunity for intervention, for reform, and for correction.”

What if, however, we took a reverse approach and conceptually accelerated time even further – i.e. providing a glimpse into the future?  This is where the Total Recall concept comes into play – i.e. recording video in the past for use in the future.

Let’s say that your house has been burglarized or that someone in your family has died unexpectedly.  In all likelihood, you are going to experience a sense of shock that such an event could happen.  The sheer disbelief may leave you somewhat paralyzed wondering what to do next.  Your ability to make effective decisions is going to be very poor.  Even if there are people there to help, you may find it difficult to comprehend what they are telling you.

One solution is to record instructions to yourself in advance of the actual event.

By accelerating time, you now have introduced a dimension of guidance that was previously unavailable.  You are, through the video, a digital representation into your subconscious.  By listening to the instructions presented in the video, you may be able to make better decisions to help you move forward and “survive” that particular event.  Providing guidance, encouragement and empathy in the video is also critical.

When you accelerate time, you have the power to develop effective “recovery models” to allow for enhanced decision-making in situations where one’s judgment and decision-making ability is impaired.

While the examples presented suggest the use of pre-recorded video for “life-altering” circumstances, this concept may also apply to situations where feelings of confidence loss or self-worth become at the forefront – the videos provide a temporary boost and represent perhaps the purest form of self-encouragement.

The Power of Cognitive Dissonance.

One of the design principles conveyed in “The Universal Principles of Design” is cognitive dissonance.  I first stumbled upon this concept when reading “Mistakes Were Made – Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts” and find it extremely interesting.

What is cognitive dissonance anyway?

“Cognitive dissonance is the state of mental discomfort that occurs when a person’s attitudes, thoughts, or beliefs (i.e., cognitions) conflict.  If two cognitions agree with one another, there is consonance, and a state of comfort exists.  If two cognitions disagree with one another, there is dissonance, and a state of discomfort exists.” (from the Universal text)

One of the interesting examples conveyed in the text is the success behind the AOL “free hours” marketing campaign.  Do you remember when just about everyone in the world received one of these free CD-ROMs?  All you had to do was take the time to sign-up using the automated process, and you were granted free access for a limited time period.  It is possible that you may have become a subscriber – albeit temporarily.

What’s interesting is once the free period draws to a close, people are less likely to cancel the service because of the time investment setting up their account.  They are more inclined to have positive feelings with the service to reduce the cognitive dissonance they experience when the trial ends.  This results in paid subscriptions.

While the time investment is a critical factor here, of equal (or greater) importance is the incentiveThe incentive is the free trial period.

According to the authors, “When incentives for an unpleasant task are small, they reduce dissonance by changing the dissonant cognition – “i.e. it is okay to perform this task because I like it”.  When incentives for an unpleasant task are large, people reduce dissonance by adding a consonant cognition – e.g. “it is okay to perform this task because I am paid well”.”

In the case of AOL, the company wanted customers to feel positively about the service – thus, providing a small incentive.

From an advertising and marketing perspective, it is clear that cognitive dissonance is a very powerful weapon.  If you start with dissonant cognitions and then provide immediate paths to alleviate the dissonance, you will have greater success in influencing the potential customer.

The influence of cognitive dissonance goes beyond advertising and marketing – it can also be found in crime investigations.

When it comes to identifying a suspect, detectives are likely (not always) to come to their own conclusions about what happened, and then fit the evidence to support that conclusion.  They will also ignore any evidence that contradicts it.  In extreme cases, officers have crossed the line from legal to illegal actions to reduce dissonance and end up convicting innocent people.  Jurors can fall into a similar “trap”.  In fact, their beliefs become stronger the sooner they reach their own conclusion about what happened.

What’s the lesson here?

For one, being aware of cognitive dissonance is the first step towards a path of better decision making. If you find yourself heading down a path of “self-justification”, your mind is trying to correct your feelings of cognitive dissonance in any way that it can.  You can pause to understand these feelings and choose to take a more constructive approach.  You can also try to identify your feelings of dissonance and try to separate them.  You may discover that it is possible to experience “both” feelings by simply understanding each independent of the other.

Why values are a key component for success.

Earlier this year, I came to a realization that I didn’t have a clear sense of where I was heading – both on a professional and perhaps personal level. After much research and thought, I realized that I did not have a solid understanding of my values, and because of this, my ability to make clear decisions about my future was limited.

While I do not recall the exact source, I found the following excerpt to be very enlightening:

“Research shows that high performance and high productivity are frequently linked to people who work in concert with their values. Some people find that the older they become the harder it is to work or to live when they are out of harmony with their values. Choosing organizations and positions in sync with your values assures both productivity and happiness. Being out of sync can result in sickness, depression, anger, and a sense of disappointment or discontentedness.”

Knowing your values makes it easier to formulate career and development choices. It also facilitates decision-making outside the workplace.

Because there are numerous values from which to choose (here’s a good starting list: http://www.gurusoftware.com/GuruNet/Personal/Topics/Values.htm), it’s important that one take considerable time to narrow down this list into a reasonable “top ten” (or five). One suggestion is that you list all available values and then continuously refine the list by removing ones you don’t feel are “core” to your being.

Once you have the list at a reasonable number, you can then ask yourself – if I could only choose one value, would this be it? By using this type of comparison scheme, you can finalize your “core” values.

If you take the time to pay attention to your values and what’s ultimately important to you, you will find that success is inevitable and you will gain greater enjoyment on the journey.