Whatever Gave You That Idea? : The Misinformation Effect


iStock_000023926936XSmallThe story was told and retold at many events throughout my childhood. It came up at every wedding, every wake, most family events in between. It was the story of how my father’s friend, little Ray (Bucky) Dahmen, all 5-8 and 150 lbs of him, scored the dramatic winning touchdown for Notre Dame to snatch a victory away from Ohio State in the closing minutes of the game. The storyteller was always my father, as his buddy Bucky sat proudly by, grinning at the glowing reports of his heroics. Bucky would fill in the details, how he saw the play unfold and took the risks of his daring moves. (If you’re that little, you better be daring on the football field.) The two old men told and retold the story, always ending the same way. Bucky was the hero who won the game.

One day, after decades of hearing this story, my eldest brother came across the history of the infamous Notre Dame – Ohio State game. To his great surprise, the account of the great play was missing. There was no dramatic last-minute score. There were no daring moves down the field. There was no story.

My brother confronted my father. There was no game saving run by good old number 26 from Youngstown, Ohio, as told to us all of these years. My father’s reaction was a pause, then a whispered plea: “Don’t tell Bucky!”

The Misinformation Effect

Maybe this account can be attributed to two old men wanting their glory years to shine brighter in their golden years. Or, maybe, this is an example of the increasing amount of research on how frequently our memories are faulty. Skeptics will attribute faulty memories to confabulation, or plain old making stuff up to put ourselves in the best light. Confabulation certainly accounts for a portion of faulty memories, but not all of it. Consider just a few other reasons under investigation by researchers:

“Post Event Collective Memory Formulation” – This describes memory acquisition by comparing your recall of events with others who experienced the same event. Narrators who undertake the retelling of what happened have an advantage; their personal opinions or interpretations are more likely to be accepted by the larger group as “fact” and adopted as the collective memory. As a personal case study, think back on a conversation about what happened at a group meeting. Did the group’s collective memory reflect what actually happened, or the interpretation of what happened by the loudest voice?

Emotion – Our emotions distort information we take in and increase our susceptibility to post event suggestibility. The impact of emotion on memory is a root cause of why eyewitness testimony is often wrong. In a Canadian research study, participants were assigned to watch one of three events:  one with highly charged negative emotions, one with highly charged positive emotions, and one evoking neutral emotions. Participants took a subsequent survey that included questions about what they witnessed, with false information planted in the questions. Participants who witnessed events evoking highly negative emotions recalled false details 80% of the time. Those who witnessed positive events recalled false details about 40% of the time. Even those who watched the scene that produced no changed emotions got facts wrong 40% of the time. Emotions, especially negative ones, cloud our interpretation of events.

Inattentional Blindness – We miss things that happen in front of us because we were paying attention to something else. If you are among the millions of viewers who’ve watched the “gorilla” video on You Tube, you know what I mean. Viewers are asked to count how many times two people pass a ball. As the ball moves faster, many never see the gorilla that walks into the scene. Viewers don’t remember something never seen in the first place. The problem is that we look for what we expect, and believe we’ve noticed everything. We never know our original interpretation is faulty, so our recall stinks, too.

Memory is a Lousy Tool

Confabulation, post event collective memory formation, emotional impact and inattentional blindness are just a few of topics under research to explain why our crystal clear memories are often wrong.

Memory is a lousy decision-making tool because it is often faulty. The best recommendations from researchers, as well those of us in real life, is not to rely on memory alone. What does seem to help is to write things down, especially at the end of a meeting or conversation. Share with others in current time to check for agreement. If you must rely on memory, rely on more than recollections of one person. These suggestions may seem tedious. But so are endless loops of “ I did/No, you did not” debates.

A Public Service

This blog is a public service to all of us who will attend a reunion or family event this summer. Now you can honestly understand that your favorite aunt does not have the story of your great misadventure quite right. Or your high school prom date does not accurately recall your teenage social skills. If it’s innocent, assume the storytellers mean well, but are stuck in a web of misinformation. Enjoy the fiction. Don’t spoil it for Bucky.


If you’d like to read more research about memory and misinformation, here are 3 places to start:

Ozuru, Yasuhiro (2004). Formation of collective memory through group conversations: Examining the involvement of “Post Information Effect”. New School Psychology Bulletin, 2004.

Porter, Steven. ( 2003). Blinded by emotion? Effects of the emotionality of a scene on susceptibility to false memories. Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science, July, 2003.

Chabris, C. and Simons, D.J. (2009). The Invisible Gorilla: How Our Intentions Deceive Us. New York: Random House.

Tired of Being a Quitter? Manage The Three P’s.


Photo courtesy of istock photo

Just 49 days ago, we charged optimistically into the New Year, determined to make necessary changes for good.  Armed with determination, advice and plans, we were confident that 2013 would be the year we’d reach the goals that would improve our lives.

Where are you today, six weeks down the road into the New Year? It’s estimated that over a third of people who made 2013 resolutions have given up by now. By June, over 60% of 2013 resolutions have been discarded. The reasons why we give up on the resolutions once so meaningful to us would be an interesting topic. But a more interesting topic is not why people give up on goals, but why others keep going.

The reasons why some persevere and others give up are as individual as the people making those choices. But research from Martin E. Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania suggests a common trait among those who persevere towards goals. The “keep going” crowd tends to be more optimistic than the “give up” crowd. Some are optimistic by nature, which gives them a useful advantage in many parts of life. But the really good news from Seligman’s research is that we can learn to be optimistic, or at least optimistic enough to achieve our goals.

The Mr. Rodgers Legacy

I blame Mr. Rodgers for the bad rap on optimists. (This may make me the first to blame Mr. Rodgers for anything.) He represents a caricature of those perceived to be ill prepared in the dog eat dog, grind it out world.  Mr. Rodgers represents those perceived to be not tough enough, not aggressive enough, not strong enough. We can’t imagine living to his standard of responding to every nasty remark or misguided plan with his neighborly smile and pointing toward the sunny sky.  Nor do we want to.

The truth is, I love Mr. Rodgers. But his style of optimism isn’t really what Seligman encourages us to emulate. Seligman was the pioneer in the concepts of learned helplessness and explanatory style. In his words:

Learned helplessness is the giving up reaction, the quitting response that follows from the belief that whatever you do does not matter. Explanatory style is the manner in which you habitually explain to yourself why things happen. It is the great modulator of learned helplessness.

Martin Seligman from Learned Optimism

In other words, those who give up too easily (i.e. pessimists) explain to themselves that nothing they can do will change their circumstances, so further effort is futile. If the effort is futile, the logical choice is to give up.

Seligman presents optimism as the opposite reaction to learned helplessness. In his view, it’s not that optimists spend their days in Mr. Rodgers neighborhood where the skies are always bright and sunny. It is that optimists have a different orientation when faced with failure. They think about it differently. They talk about it differently. This orientation makes optimists less likely to quit in the face of challenges.

The Three Keys to Learn Optimism

Of all the contributions Seligman has made to neuroscience and psychology, none may be more important than demonstrating the relationship between how we explain events to ourselves and our outcomes. What we tell ourselves about events matters far more than anyone else’s views, no matter their importance in our lives. We can truly be our own best friends or worst enemies.

If you would like more of a best friend relationship with yourself, start by monitoring the “three P’s” in your thoughts: Permanence, Pervasiveness and Personalization. A description of each, along with what the optimist and pessimist may say to themselves during a challenge, follows.

Permanence: Optimists see events as temporary or situational. Observations such as “sometimes” and “recently” show up when they process disruptive events. Explanations could be: My schedule was out of control this week, but I’ll get back to the gym on Monday or There’s a right time to approach my boss. Today wasn’t the right day. Pessimists explain events as permanent. Words like “always” and ‘never” show up in explanations about why they quit. Explanations might be: I never have any discipline about exercise or My boss always ignores my ideas.  After all, if it’s always going to be like this and circumstances are never going to change, why try?

Pervasiveness: Optimists view good events having universal causes and bad events as random occurrences.  They believe life is generally good with occasional obstacles. An optimist might explain: The family is doing well. Everyone is adjusting to the new town. Like my team. The new role has a big learning curve, but I’ll get through it. Pessimists view bad events as having universal causes and good events as random occurrences.  They tend to expect catastrophes to spread from one part of their lives to another. Explanations might sound like: They must have picked me for this job because they were short-handed. I’ll never fit in here with this team. The family is going to have a tough adjustment, too.  Why did I agree to this move?

Personalize: Optimists externalize blame.  When things go wrong, they look for what went wrong in the situation, not themselves.  You might hear“ It was the wrong time” or The competition won” when optimists explain bad outcomes. Pessimists internalize blame. When things go wrong, they often find some way to blame themselves. “ I should have….”or “ Why did I think I could do this…” may explain mistakes.  The continuous self-blame creates a downward spiral in confidence that exacerbates pessimism.

 It’s Not too Late for 2013 Resolutions

We still have 303 days left to achieve 2013 goals. There may be good reasons why you need to change a goal, or perhaps you just haven’t started. But if you’ve just quit at the first obstacles, think about why. Can the way you explain the situation to yourself make a difference? Are the obstacles permanent or temporary? Prevalent or situational? Is the barrier about you or other circumstances? The great news is that you only have to answer these questions for yourself. The way you answer may make the difference in giving up or going on.

What do you think? Can you learn optimism by managing your explanations?  Do you think this makes a difference in outcomes?


Seligman, M.E.P. (1990,1998, 2006) Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life.  New York: Random House.

If you are a Martin Seligman fan like I am, there is a treasure trove of his work here: http://www.authentichappiness.sas.upenn.edu/Default.aspx

Never Too Old For New Habits


This is the third and final post on the theme of habits (at least for now.) To read the first two posts, click here and here.

one new shoe and one worn out shoe

All the pieces are in place. I have goals, some left over from 2012. I know what habits to change to reach them. I selected one keystone habit to change to instill positive momentum. All of this, and two weeks into 2013, I’m stuck.

Easy To Imagine. Hard to Do.
My experience in changing habits may be like yours. We know what we want to change. We know at a conscious level how to do it. But the deeply imprinted routes in our brain that direct our behavior about “what to do when” easily overwhelm our intentions. It’s one of many paradoxes about changing habits. It’s easy to imagine. It’s hard to do.

The good news is that while habits are powerful, they are not our destiny. We often hear habits described as “good” or “bad.” In fact, they are neither. Our brains can’t tell the difference between a good habit and a bad one. We are just wired to see a clue, automate a response, and get a reward. The outcomes may be good or bad, but that depends on the habits we develop, not the process.

The Key to Changing Old Habits is Creating New Ones
If we’re going to have habits (and we are), and we want good outcomes (and we do), then our challenge is to create new habits if the old ones don’t get us what we want.  Our habits never go away. Researchers who reprogram mice to run a maze by putting the reward in a different place find that when they remove the reward, the mice run the old pattern. Think you’re smarter than the mice? Change the reward of being able to fit into your clothes and see how quickly you’ll go back to your version of after school milk and cookies on the couch watching television.

Old habits will always be with us. But for new outcomes, we need new habits.
Charles Duhigg (2012) in The Power of Habit, describes how we can make them. It’s sort of like this:


1. We experience some triggering event. It reminds us of a previous experience. The alarm is sent.
2. We retrieve our automated response. To change a habit, change the response.
3. We get a reward. To reinforce the response, reward it.

My Plan to Get Unstuck
So, if I am going to get my momentum back to reach leftover 2012 goals, I still need to change habits. I need to change them starting with the one key habit that will give me the greatest momentum: getting up one hour earlier.

Starting tomorrow, I’ll have the same trigger. Night will turn to day. (And, if that doesn’t happen, I have bigger problems.) But I will manage my clue differently. I will force myself to get out of bed to get the coffee I want.  (Note to dearest husband: No more whispering Are you ready for coffee yet? as I rest, eyes closed, curled around my pillow. Ignore my pleas. Forgive my reaction when you do.) Reward myself for getting up with a half hour of Italian lessons over cappuccino. (Now that’s worth getting out of bed for. Seriously.) The day after tomorrow, I’ll do the same. Soon, my new habit will be my old habit. That’s how it works.

The Work
Once you understand that habits can change, you have the freedom – and the responsibility – to remake them. Once you understand that habits can be rebuilt, the power of habit becomes easier to grasp, and the only option left is to get to work.

Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit (2012)

What about you? How will you leverage the power of habits? It’s not too late, and you’re not too old, to get to work.


Duhigg, Charles (2012). The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do In Life and in Business.  New York: Random House.

Make Your Habits Your Allies


What would you do if you were unemployed, nearly broke and an emotional wreck? Where would you start to turn your life around? What would you do if you were named as an outsider head of a struggling company with employee upheaval, manager disengagement and on the verge of a stakeholder revolt? In both situations, there is not one thing wrong- there are many things wrong. And all are big things. Any one of these challenges left unattended could lead to your complete unraveling. Where would you start? If you were like people profiled in The Power of Habit (Duhigg, 2012), you would start by changing one cornerstone habit.

Your Personal Search Engine

Habits are like our brain’s search engine. Our subconscious doesn’t evaluate whether a habit is good or bad, it just gets the stimulus and offers up the response. Like Google, put in the stimulus and get back your top responses in behavior. This pattern is ubiquitous. Duhigg cites a Duke study that suggests 40% of our actions during a day are a result of habit. If true, it means that nearly half of the things we do each day are not a result of conscious, in the moment decisions, but pre programmed responses to stimulus.

Get Your MoJo Going

Habits also build momentum. Good habits generate behavior that gets positive responses, generating more positive stimulus. This explains what happened to one of the people profiled in The Power of Habit. Duhigg describes a woman at the end of her rope after a very bad patch in life. She was overweight, unemployed and nearly broke. In an attempt to motivate change, she set a goal to make the trip of a lifetime, which required her to be in good physical shape. She targeted one habit to start toward this goal: stop smoking. By focusing on changing one bad habit, she taught herself to reprogram other habits, too. When she stopped smoking, she had more ability to get in shape. She took up jogging. To keep up jogging, she had to positively change her eating, sleeping and time habits. She had more money so she changed her savings habits. The woman not only took her dream trip, but she had the confidence, and ability, to override old bad habits to go back to school and get a new job.

The same principle worked for Paul O’Neill when he was named the new CEO of Alcoa. He walked into a list of changes needed to restore employee relationships, customer relationships and profitability. What did he do? He focused on safety.  He set a goal of zero injuries and instilled one habit: all accidents must be reported within 24 hours with a plan to make sure the injury never happened again. What were the results? The union was encouraged because worker safety had been a critical issue they felt had been ignored. Leaders had to review lines of communication with their facilities.  Floor leaders had to be alert for safety issues and ask workers for ideas on better environments. By changing one habit, O’Neil set in force the mechanism to change a culture. What happened? Injuries declined, but so did costs because people needed to talk to each other about molten metal waste  (a leading cause of injuries) and faulty equipment that broke down and slowed production. Quality improved, along with customer satisfaction.

O’Neil  leveraged the power of habit by picking one thing that required everyone to re program bad habits into good ones. He summarized his strategy in a few words we could all take to heart:

“ I knew I had to change Alcoa. But you can’t order people to change. That’s not how the brain works. So I decided I was going to start by focusing on one thing. If I could disrupt habits around one thing, it would spread through the entire company.”

Paul O’Neil, former CEO of Alcoa, as quoted in the Power of Habit

Picking The Little Thing That Could Be A Big Thing

I reflected in my last blog post that I was going to keep old resolutions but change habits.  For me, 2013 starts with unmet goals related to my business, my development and my personal life. The one thing they all have in common is the need for more time. So, the cornerstone habit I’m going to focus on changing for 2013 is my use of time. I am going to change a habit to get up one hour earlier each day. That gives me 7 hours per week and 28 hours a month that can be devoted to achieving goals. Who knows what an extra 28 hours a week will do for my momentum?

You may think this is small. But that’s the thing about habits. It’s the small things that set the momentum for bigger things. The woman who stopped smoking found the secret to changing habits that changed her life. Paul O’Neil used a change of habits to convince a bunch of skeptics that they could work together.  The secret strength of habits is going for big outcomes, not big inputs.

What about you? What are the one or two habits you could change that could give you the momentum needed to achieve those dusty resolutions? Think of them and get ready. In the next post, you’ll read how habits can be changed.


References: Duhigg, Charles ( 2012). The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do In Life and In Business. New York: Random House.

Three Forgotten Lessons from the First U.S. Thanksgiving

"The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth"...

“The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth” (1914) By Jennie A. Brownscombe (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As the Thanksgiving holiday approaches in the United States, the story of the first celebration at Plymouth colony will be retold at many tables. Stories will recount how the settlers introduced the British Harvest Festival to the local Pokanoket Indians. In preparation for the feast, the settlers shot fowl and caught fish. Chief Massasoit and a few hundred Pokanokets arrived with five freshly killed deer. Because of the barley crop, the settlers had the key ingredient to brew beer, setting the stage for a celebration with food, dance and games that lasted a few days.

The story of the first U.S. Thanksgiving is inextricably linked with the spirit of gratitude.  The meaning grafted onto its retelling is that the settlers were so grateful to the Pokanokets for their early survival that they invited them over for dinner as a gesture of gratitude (and asked that they bring the deer.) Accordingly, we follow suit to take a day to celebrate with those to whom we are grateful as a legacy of this first celebration.

Trust me, I am all for the practice of gratitude. It’s one practice that’s hard for me to overdo. But the sole emphasis on gratitude as the meaning of the first U.S. Thanksgiving (a term not adopted until nearly three hundred years after the original celebration) causes us to overlook some of the key lessons from that first harvest celebration on U.S. soil.  Clearly, the settlers had reason to be grateful. The fact that any survived the first harsh winter, the plague and hostile conditions is remarkable. But the reasons why handfuls of settlers at Plymouth were even around to celebrate in early autumn has much to do with the decisions they made; decisions that are relevant for today.

Decision One: Don’t Go It Alone

The Plymouth settlers could have followed the path of the French sailors who preceded them to southern New England. The sailors thought they could settle alone without the local tribes. They couldn’t; they died. The wisdom of William Bradford to engage in collaboration vs. arrogant isolation is arguably the key decision that contributed to his settlement’s survival. He made a treaty with the Pokanokets, traded for corn with the Nausets and showed his loyalty to Massasoit. In return, the local tribes tolerated, even helped, the Pilgrims when killing them was a viable option.

Decision Two: Negotiate On The 20% Of Issues Than Make Up 80% Of Differences

The settlers and local tribes had plenty of problems; the biggest being each believed the other would be the end of them. Put that into perspective of a current negotiable issue. Reasons for mistrust abounded. Bradford and Massasoit negotiated a treaty, mediated by Squanto, which was remarkably brief. Its six points began with “We won’t injure or hurt each other” (you must agree this was the big one) and went on to expectations about how each side would enforce the first point. The only point that did not deal with safety was a point about returning borrowed tools.  The treaty did not resolve all the grievances between the Indians and the settlers, but because of it, each side understood they would be safe.

Decision Three: Find the Good in Your Enemy

The first generation of settlers and Native Americans had plenty of reasons not to like each other.  The Indians believed the English would unleash the plague. The settlers thought the Indians to be barbarians. One of the outcomes of the first Thanksgiving is that both sides got to experience the entire community of the other. They found that they were joined together in mutual survival against threats of war, disease and nature. The goodwill between the first generation of settlers allowed the original English settlement to grow and the Pokanokets to nurture an increasingly important ally.

The First Thanksgiving, painted by Jean Leon G...

The First Thanksgiving, painted by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris (1863–1930). The First Thanksgiving took place in Plymouth in 1621. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There are many things about the original Thanksgiving I will not recreate when I host this Thursday. If you are one of my guests, please don’t bring “freshly killed deer.” There will be plenty of turkey. We will have the convenience of cold beer already brewed. And, as much as I love you all, I’m not counting on you staying for three days. On Thursday, we will acknowledge all we have that grace our lives.

I will reintroduce some of the decisions and lessons that allowed the first U.S. Thanksgiving to even be possible. I will reflect on where I can reach out instead of go it alone. I’ll think about how to address the 20% of my needs that will make 80% of my life better, and not hold on to the little stuff. I’ll try to remember that I can find good in people that I don’t really like if I look hard enough. Because I believe those last three lessons from the first U.S. Thanksgiving fuel the abundance for which I am so grateful.

For those of you who celebrate Thursday, Happy Thanksgiving!


Philbrick, Nathaniel (2006). Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community and War.  New York: Viking Books.

Tell New Stories: 5 Questions to Climb Off a Ladder of Inference


Our stories shape our experiences. This isn’t a bad thing. Our stories carry our history – reminding us of lessons we don’t have to painfully relearn and sharing accomplishments that inspire confidence. Personally, I like my stories. They are the mental cryptograms that help me to sort information, make decisions and just plain figure out life.

How we use our stories can get in our way, especially when we encounter experiences and information incompatible with our stories. In fact, marketers and campaign managers count on our stories acting as barricades to new information and perspectives that might change us. Yes, our stories remind us of who we are. And left unchecked, our stories keep us where we are.

Chris Argyris developed a classic model, the Ladder of Inference, which describes how our stories influence our interpretations of experience, and how our interpretations ultimately influence our actions. Argyris points out that we often act not on complete data and experience, but of data we select from an experience. We select data that supports our stories. From there, we proceed through a series of self-selected meanings, assumptions and beliefs that lead us to a self-justified action. An example of how we can climb the Ladder of Inference to the wrong place is below.

To avoid climbing the Ladder of Inference and tumbling over the top, keep your stories in check with these questions:

1. Am I working with all the relevant information I can get?

2. What other possible interpretations can I develop?

3. Who do I trust to help me challenge my assumptions?

4. What would happen if I didn’t believe this?

5.  Can I suspend judgment until I know more?

My stories are my treasures. So are yours. But we are both best served when we can look at new situations and understand that it’s not necessarily like the last situation, nor are we. Let’s open ourselves to new experiences – and new stories.

20 Minutes To Measure Your Life


Can you explain why your life is the way it is? Can you predict what it will be like if you continue to do what you do?

These are just two of the questions considered in Clayton Christensen’s TED Talk: How To Measure Your Life. Invest 20 minutes to figure out what to measure to live the life you want.

It’s Never Too Late to Start Over



The company was a giant in its industry.  It began in 1886 as a symbol of  ingenuity when an entrepreneur saw an “office writing” machine demonstrated at a Centennial Exhibition and decided that he could build a better one. So, Alexander Brown approached two brothers, Lyman and Willard Smith, to design and produce a “newfangled writing machine.” Thus, the “Smith Premier Typewriting Company” was born.

Smith Typewriters soon became one of the most popular pieces of office equipment because of the insight and innovation of the Smith Brothers. It’s because of them we have a standard keyboard today where keys can do double duty through a shift key. We can read text as we produce it thanks to the Smith brothers’ insight that the ribbon should face away from, not towards, the typist. After business losses due to the 1929 market crash, they recovered after introducing a portable machine to be used anywhere. In 1955, Smith Corona introduced the first electronic typewriter that accelerated production with less effort on the keys.  It wasn’t done innovating yet. Smith Corona introduced one of the first Word Processors in the 1980’s, and led the word processing marketing in 1989.  Its word processors introduced us to features we use today, such as spell checker and grammar checker.

In 1990, a Smith Corona marketing executive declared that the industry was in a transition between “word processors and typewriters.” Even though it launched a line of personal computers, Smith Corona believed there would be a strong role for typewriters and word processors as personal computers were too expensive and complicated to use. In hindsight, clinging to the typewriter and word processing market was a fatally bad bet.  One hundred and nine years after Alexander Brown approached the Smith Brothers with his idea for a writing machine, Smith Corona stopped making typewriters and declared bankruptcy in 1995. It has re emerged as a thermal label maker.

When Success is an Obstacle to Change

In its prime, Smith Corona was a success by any measure. It dominated an industry that it began. It produced great products. It innovated.  It was focused. It adjusted its business through a great depression and two World Wars; clearly it knew how to cope with crisis. While I don’t know the entire story of Smith Corona, I can’t help but wonder. Was its success a barrier to the changes it needed to survive?

Smith Corona imagined itself as late as 1990 as a typewriter company. And, it was a damn good typewriter company. From what’s written, the leaders of Smith Corona did not imagine that it could disappear because the need for typewriters would disappear. Smith Corona had to let go of its greatest success to keep itself successful. For whatever reason, it could not.

The White Sheet of Paper Exercise

In his book What To Ask the Person In the Mirror, Robert Kaplan challenges organizational leaders to regularly test alignment to its vision and purpose. He argues,  “Crises have long roots.” It’s not only unnecessary, but also reckless, to wait until a crisis appears to make the adjustments an organization needs to survive.

One alternative Kaplan suggests is to test organizational strategy and alignment in the midst of success, not in imminent danger. Consider a white sheet of paper approach to your organization, starting with the fundamental question: If we started this business today, how would we do it?

What products or services would we offer? To whom?  In what places or regions?

How would we be organized? Who would we hire? What partners would we develop?

What would we need to start doing or stop doing?

Why would people want to work for us and with us?

The white sheet of paper exercise demands deep introspection and perhaps difficult answers. These are the kinds of questions that are easy to avoid when everything is going well.  However, success gives the cover to make any changes necessary while change is possible. The same questions are impossible to avoid in a crisis, when the options may be fewer and resources scarcer.

I can’t help but wonder about the eager entrepreneur who built an industry around a machine he saw at an exposition. How did Alexander Brown and the Smith Brothers think about their company at its start?  Would the Smith Corona story have ended differently if its leaders had the courage to challenge what it meant to produce “a newfangled writing machine” at the height of its success? What can the rest of us learn from their story?


Kaplan, R.S. (2011). What to Ask The Person in the Mirror: Critical Questions for Becoming a More Effective Leader and Reaching Your Potential. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.


What I Gain from Regret


I saw her across a crowded room at a post conference networking event.  It had been nearly twenty years since we had any contact. Our last conversation could be described as “chilly.” At that time, she was my manager. She also represented a few firsts for me -my first female manager and the first manager hired from outside of the company – both anomalies at the time. She saw things differently,  including my preferred career choices.  We disagreed, and I made the changes she wanted more difficult than they needed to be.  After a few promotions, she left the company and we lost touch. Interestingly, as time went on, I grew to understand her view and recognize that she had good ideas – ideas I should have tried.

What is Regret?

My reflections in the moment, that I was wrong and should have tried something different, connected me to the universal emotion of regret. Kathryn Schulz, author of Being Wrong, summarizes the conditions of regret in her TED Talk Why Should We Embrace Regret. Regret, it seems, is the result of agency and imagination. Agency is a personal decision that results in a choice; imagination helps us score that decision to the present. Regret occurs when we imagine the alternative outcome as scoring much better results than the ones we experienced. Psychologists call this counterfactual thinking; think of it as the “if -then” thought process. “If” we had tried something different,’ “then’ something better would have happened. It’s our mental manipulation of the imagined better outcome that produces regret.

 Is Regret Wrong?

Some espouse a view that that regret is to be avoided; that a life free of regret is a desirable goal. This view scares me. Does it mean we should avoid decisions because they require a choice? Does it mean that we live without empathy for others who live with the adverse consequences of our decisions? Does it mean that we shouldn’t reflect and conclude that we could have done better? If so, I don’t want a life free of regret. What I want is to make regret constructive instead of destructive, to make it something that informs my future choices instead of ruminating over past ones.

 Four Reactions to Regret that Keep Us Stuck

Schulz presents four common ways we react to regret that get in our way:

1. Denial – the Make it go away  reaction. This shows up in “I didn’t”, “They did” and other fault-finding statements. When we look for justification, we might just be stuck in denial.

2. Bewilderment –  the How could I have done that? reaction. Listen for this in the overuse of why, how and what questions. When we are looking for that one more fact that will make it all make sense, we are stuck here.

3. Punishment –  the I could kick myself reaction. Punishment shows up in self-blame that the whole mess is entirely our fault; that somehow we lack the infallible judgment  present in everyone else, so we excuse ourselves when we get into messes.

4. The Infinite Loop – Playing the decision over an over again like an infinite loop.  The players are the same, the outcomes are the same we just can’t stop ruminating or sharing our story of woe just to make sure we remember how bad it was.

Positive Alternative Reactions

I wonder if those who say they want to live without regret really mean that they want to live without these four reactions. Fortunately, alternative reactions help us put regret into perspective and serve as a catalyst for an improved attitude. Substitute self-limiting reactions to regret with one of these:

1. Consider what we can control. The article Don’t Look Back In Anger from the May issue of Science presents a case that healthy aging produces constructive responsiveness to regret. (There has to be some advantage to getting older!) Results of experiments show that healthy older people have a better perspective on factors they can control, and as a result engage less in counterfactual thinking that they could have made an alternative choice where all factors would have broken in their favor. The good news is that you don’t have to wait to get older to understand that you will never control all factors in a decision, and the alternative outcome might have just been different, instead of better.

2. Laugh at yourself. Schulz points out the benefits of humor, even dark humor, to force us into a different perspective. When we lighten up on ourselves and others, we can see decisions that turned bad as bumps in the road instead of the end of the road. Self-effacing humor has the additional advantage of encouraging empathy and forgiveness.

3. Use regret as a teachable moment.  Have you heard the phrase: When we know better, we do better? Research from Texas A&M and Idaho State University supports this point. A study shows that one benefit from counterfactual thinking is that it supports self-regulation for the next time we face a similar situation. In practical terms, it means that regret over a failed exam motivates a student to better manage study time in order to pass the next time. If we imagine not only different outcomes, but also different behavior to achieve them, counterfactual thinking helps us make better choices about things we control to improve results.

 A Happy Ending

So, many years later, a wiser version of myself moved across the room. My former manager greeted me with a look of surprise and a smile. The words came easier for me in that moment than they would have years earlier. I expressed regret that I was not more open to her ideas, recognition that in hindsight she was right, and I was sorry for any difficulty I caused her. She was gracious and generous in accepting my apology. Curious about my current status, she even offered advice for my new endeavor. And, this time, I listened.


Schulz, K. Why We Should Embrace Regret  Kathryn Schultz TED Talk

Brassen, S., Gamer, M. Peters, J. Gluth, S., Buchel, C.  (2012) Don’t Look Back in Anger! Responsiveness to Missed Chances in Successful and Non Successful Aging. Science, May 2012.

Smallman, R. and McCulloch, K. (2012) Learning from Yesterday’s Mistakes to Fix Tomorrow’s Problems: When Counterfactual Thinking and Psychological Distance Collide. European Journal of Social Psychology, Jan. 2012, vol. 42 pp. 383-390.

Three Tips to Beat Procrastination


Been putting off charging after your 2012 goals? Try these tips to beat procrastination, all from Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by Roy Baumeister and John Tierney.

The Nothing Alternative
Procrastinators have good intentions, but get sidetracked by something else. They may sit to write and drift away checking emails. They may set aside time to do the report, which is used by reading one more article. If this happens to you, try the Nothing Alternative.

The Nothing Alternative states that you don’t have to do the task planned, but you cannot do anything else with that time.  For example, you schedule time to write for an hour. When the time comes, you can sit there and stare at the wall instead of writing, but you can’t do anything else.  Writing will become the attractive alternative to nothing, which is exactly the point.

Play Offense
Play Offense means that you’ve worked out your strategy to defeat temptation before you meet it.

First, be aware of the things that most frequently get in your way. It could be chatty co-workers, disorganized files, a “jones” for Facebook. Then, plan in advance what you’ll do in these situations. For example, when a chatty coworker insists you stop to enjoy the latest You Tube video, your offense is prepared: “yes, but not now.” It could be something like: “Sounds funny! I’ll check it out tonight. “ Or if disorganization is your problem, your offense can be “When I download a file, it gets to a folder immediately.”

Playing offense doesn’t mean you’ll avoid distractions, just that you’ll be on the right side of them.

Keep Score
Give yourself the same motivation as every elite athlete in the world: Keep Score. Write down every day what progress you’ve made towards your goal. I know, this sounds like drudgery. But reframe it to accountability: accountability to yourself. Once you get the string of days of progress staring back at you, you will be loath to break them. Your first grade teacher was right about the little gold stars. They work!

Try these procrastination busters when distraction gets between you and great moments. You can do it!


Baumeister, R.F. and Tierney, J. (2011) Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. New York: Penguin Books.