I am reading: How We Decide, by Jonah Lehrer

As of this writing, it’s only $2.99 on Kindle, and your experiences are like the blade of a comprehension slicing pair of scissors (more on that in a moment).

I’ve been batching the weave-able reading I’ve had on my To-Read list about the brain, figuring that each book would reinforce my learning retention with the others, and help me learn-through my questions:

  1. The book I started with (not exactly about the brain, but related to it via our ideas): Where Good Ideas Come From, by Steven Berlin Johnson: Review here, on Talking Story
  2. Second was Brain Rules by John Medina (very short review on GoodReads, for now.)
  3. How We Decide is my third. There is a short-but-telling interview with the author on the Amazon page which includes this bit; a memorable analogy:

“Herbert Simon, the Nobel Prize-winning psychologist, famously compared our mind to a pair of scissors. One blade, he said, represented the brain. The other blade was the specific environment in which our brain was operating. If you want to understand the function of scissors, Simon said, then you have to look at both blades simultaneously. What I wanted to do in How We Decide was venture out of the lab and into the real world so that I could see the scissors at work.”

I decided to post this earlier than I usually do (as full book review), just in case you want to read along with me: The price is certainly right! (You don’t need the Kindle device itself; you can download it from the Kindle page to your computer.)

I’m just 15% through it, about to start Chapter 3, Fooled by a Feeling, and so far am liking it quite a bit. Lehrer has a very easy-to-read writing style.

Rosa’s Highlights

As a bit of a mini-reader for your own weaving possibilities, here are the highlights I’ve done in the book so far, thanks to the copy-ease of my Kindle account: (Michael Hyatt wrote up a good how-to here: How to get your Kindle Highlights into Evernote.)

If you decide to read along with me, do add your own observations in the comments — we can talk story about them :)

How We Decide: Introduction

From the perspective of the brain, there’s a thin line between a good decision and a bad decision, between trying to descend and trying to gain altitude. This book is about that line. ~ Read more at location 84

Ever since the ancient Greeks, these assumptions have revolved around a single theme: humans are rational. When we make decisions, we are supposed to consciously analyze the alternatives and carefully weigh the pros and cons. In other words, we are deliberate and logical creatures. This simple idea underlies the philosophy of Plato and Descartes; it forms the foundation of modern economics; it drove decades of research in cognitive science. Over time, our rationality came to define us. It was, simply put, what made us human. There’s only one problem with this assumption of human rationality: it’s wrong. It’s not how the brain works. Look, for example, at my decisions in the cockpit. They were made in the heat of the moment, a visceral reaction to difficult events. ~ Read more at location 89

It turns out that we weren’t designed to be rational creatures. Instead, the mind is composed of a messy network of different areas, many of which are involved with the production of emotion. Whenever someone makes a decision, the brain is awash in feeling, driven by its inexplicable passions. Even when a person tries to be reasonable and restrained, these emotional impulses secretly influence judgment. When I was in the cockpit desperately trying to figure out how to save my life—and the lives of thousands of Japanese suburbanites—these emotions drove the patterns of mental activity that made me crash and helped me land. But this doesn’t mean that our brains come preprogrammed for good decision-making. ~ Read more at location 98

There is no universal solution to the problem of decision-making. The real world is just too complex. As a result, natural selection endowed us with a brain that is enthusiastically pluralist. Sometimes we need to reason through our options and carefully analyze the possibilities. And sometimes we need to listen to our emotions. The secret is knowing when to use these different styles of thought. We always need to be thinking about how we think. ~ Read more at location 108

The mind inspires many myths—such as the fiction of pure rationality—but it’s really just a powerful biological machine, complete with limitations and imperfections. Knowing how the machine works is useful knowledge, since it shows us how to get the most out of the machine. But the brain doesn’t exist in a vacuum; all decisions are made in the context of the real world. ~ Read more at location 120

The goal of this book is to answer two questions that are of interest to just about everybody, from corporate CEOs to academic philosophers, from economists to airline pilots: How does the human mind make decisions? And how can we make those decisions better? ~ Read more at location 131

Chapter 1. The Quarterback in the Pocket

The problem with seeing the mind as a computer is that computers don’t have feelings. Because emotions couldn’t be reduced to bits of information or the logical structures of programming language, scientists tended to ignore them. ~ Read more at location 302

For too long, people have disparaged the emotional brain, blaming our feelings for all of our mistakes. The truth is far more interesting. What we discover when we look at the brain is that the horses and the charioteer depend upon each other. If it weren’t for our emotions, reason wouldn’t exist at all. ~ Read more at location 314

When we are cut off from our feelings, the most banal decisions became impossible. A brain that can’t feel can’t make up its mind. ~ Read more at location 342

When a person is drawn to a specific receiver, or a certain entrée on the menu, or a particular romantic prospect, the mind is trying to tell him that he should choose that option. It has already assessed the alternatives—this analysis takes place outside of conscious awareness—and converted that assessment into a positive emotion. And when he sees a receiver who’s tightly covered, or smells a food he doesn’t like, or glimpses an ex-girlfriend, it is the OFC that makes him want to get away. (Emotion and motivation share the same Latin root, movere, which means “to move.”) The world is full of things, and it is our feelings that help us choose among them. ~ Read more at location 379

The evolution of the human brain changed everything. For the first time, there was an animal that could think about how it thought. We humans could contemplate our emotions and use words to dissect the world, parsing reality into neat chains of causation. We could accumulate knowledge and logically analyze problems. We could tell elaborate lies and make plans for the future. Sometimes, we could even follow our plans. ~ Read more at location 468

When it comes to the new parts of the brain, evolution just hasn’t had time to work out the kinks. The emotional brain, however, has been exquisitely refined by evolution over the last several hundred million years. Its software code has been subjected to endless tests, so it can make fast decisions based on very little information. ~ Read more at location 475

When evolution was building the brain, it didn’t bother to replace all of those emotional processes with new operations under explicit, conscious control. If something isn’t broken, then natural selection isn’t going to fix it. The mind is made out of used parts, engineered by a blind watchmaker. The result is that the uniquely human areas of the mind depend on the primitive mind underneath. The process of thinking requires feeling, for feelings are what let us understand all the information that we can’t directly comprehend. Reason without emotion is impotent. ~ Read more at location 495

Chapter 2. The Predictions of Dopamine

The brain is designed to amplify the shock of these mistaken predictions. Whenever it experiences something unexpected—like a radar blip that doesn’t fit the usual pattern, or a drop of juice that doesn’t arrive—the cortex immediately takes notice. Within milliseconds, the activity of the brain cells has been inflated into a powerful emotion. Nothing focuses the mind like surprise. ~ Read more at location 659

When the ACC is worried about some anomaly—for instance, an errant blip on a radar screen—that worry is immediately translated into a somatic signal as the muscles prepare for action. Within seconds, heart rate increases, and adrenaline pours into the bloodstream. These fleshly feelings compel us to respond to the situation right away. A racing pulse and sweaty palms are the brain’s way of saying that there’s no time to waste. This prediction error is urgent. ~ Read more at location 671

This is an essential aspect of decision-making. If we can’t incorporate the lessons of the past into our future decisions, then we’re destined to endlessly repeat our mistakes. ~ Read more at location 679

Human emotions are rooted in the predictions of highly flexible brain cells, which are constantly adjusting their connections to reflect reality. Every time you make a mistake or encounter something new, your brain cells are busy changing themselves. Our emotions are deeply empirical. ~ Read more at location 708

When the mind is denied the emotional sting of losing, it never figures out how to win. ~ Read more at location 791

Dopamine neurons need to be continually trained and retrained, or else their predictive accuracy declines. Trusting one’s emotions requires constant vigilance; intelligent intuition is the result of deliberate practice. What Cervantes said about proverbs—”They are short sentences drawn from long experience”—also applies to brain cells, but only if we use them properly. ~ Read more at location 813

Even when Robertie wins—and he almost always wins—he insists on searching for his errors, dissecting those decisions that could have been a little bit better. He knows that self-criticism is the secret to self-improvement; negative feedback is the best kind. ~ Read more at location 846

The problem with praising kids for their innate intelligence—the “smart” compliment—is that it misrepresents the neural reality of education. It encourages kids to avoid the most useful kind of learning activities, which is learning from mistakes. Unless you experience the unpleasant symptoms of being wrong, your brain will never revise its models. Before your neurons can succeed, they must repeatedly fail. There are no shortcuts for this painstaking process. ~ Read more at location 882

A bit of early weaving, for resourcing later

  1. Written back in February of 2009: Decision Making: How do you do it?
  2. More in my Talking Story tag on decision-making, and on decisions
  3. My Talking Story tag on thinking
  4. A personal favorite, written in June of 2007: Believe in Your Biology

Biology (and the history of our evolution as humans) is something I have definitely become more friendly with since I was force-fed it in school: I like learning how my own biology can make my own observations more logical, or at least soften them with a more comforting understanding … that scissors-blade effect in action!

Do you ask Good Questions?

Learning to ask good questions is a finely tuned skill that great managers and leaders will master. We started to talk about this a little bit last time… sometimes questions are staged, or otherwise welcomed versus asked outright: Who gives you your Second Opinion?).

Questions are sort of like picture frames: There is a vast array of different ones, and though the painting stays the same once the paint has dried and set completely, the painting can look completely different to you depending which frame you put it in —or if you use one at all.

Or just paint it

Good questions come from good intention

Once you ask a question, the words which ‘paint’ it are said. But how did you frame them, and why?

For example, I have three favorite questions for managers and leaders I interview in coaching assessments before we embark on Managing with Aloha programs (Frame 1). These are also great as questions for the managers you are thinking about hiring, if you share similar values (Frame 2 ”“ I’ll put the Hawaiian values in parentheses):

  1. What’s your calling? (Ho‘ohana as the value of intentional work)
  2. How do you learn? (‘Ike loa as the value of lifelong learning)
  3. What kind of things will you methodically plan? (‘Imi ola as the value of created destiny)

My purpose for those questions is that I choose my customers; I coach people who I believe are ready to go from good to great. It’s more challenging and fun for me, and it’s more useful and joyous for them. Not only do their values tell me what they believe in, they tell me what they are ready for. Within my coaching programs, the values of Ho‘ohana, ‘Ike loa and ‘Imi ola collectively fortify what I consider to be ‘good to great’ readiness in the Alaka‘i framing of the Managing with Aloha way that great managers work.

Thus Frame 2: I am assuming those are the same kind of people that you hire as Alaka‘i managers, right? If you share the value framing of Alaka‘i, you likely believe, as I do, that

  1. Management is a calling, not a title on an org chart.
  2. Managers and leaders are lifelong learners; learning is the good food and nutrition necessary for their growth. No growth, no leadership potential.
  3. The great managers are diligent planners; they are obsessed with lining up those mission arrows which point to the leadership visions they champion.

I think of good questions are those which have noble purpose: They catch people in what they are doing right, and can further build upon; thus they align with my own intention to coach. Good questions do not have that “what do you think you are doing?” tone to them: They are not those Aha! Caught you doing something wrong! questions which embarrass or demoralize people, and get them to shrink when they struggle to answer.

My job as a coach (and yours as an Alaka‘i boss and mentor) is to help them make their weaknesses irrelevant, and I much prefer to do so by keeping my focus diligently (i.e. intentionally) leveled on their strengths instead.

Choose a frame for your painting

Try it. Choose three values you want your managers to have.
(Here are some Hawaiian value suggestions if you would like to use them: Hau‘oli Makahiki Hou: Hawaiian Values for 2009)

Next, write a belief statement for each of those three values: Why is it important to you that each manager on your team embody those beliefs as well? ”If they do, they align with your purpose and thus fortify your organizational culture instead of fragmenting it with a different belief system (which would be a different framing).

Third, turn your belief into a good question of noble purpose: Frame it as a question which quickly tells you if a prospective candidate shares your managerial values or not. If they don’t, they aren’t bad people, they simply are not a fit for your organizational culture, and they need to keep looking for their better match ”“ and you need to keep looking for yours.

Frame 3: Your questions may also work for that long-term manager sitting in their annual performance appraisal with you, if both of you are looking for how past loyalty and comfort can now make the leap to new stretch and a greater leadership challenge.

By the way, if you happen to be looking for a new job right now, you have just identified the three values that you should be looking for in your new boss-to-be. (Frame 4) Remember, there are two decisions to be made in every hiring situation.

Let’s talk story.

  • Do you have good questions to share with us which are among your favorites?
  • What did you come up with as a value and question match-up in this exercise?

Comment here, or via the tweet-conversation we have on Twitter @sayalakai.



More reading from the Say “Alaka‘i” archives:
Alaka‘i Archive Love: February 2009 Update


~ Originally published on Say “Alaka‘i” ~
Do you ask Good Questions?


Talking Story with Say Leadership Coaching

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There are 2 Decisions Made with Every Hire

2010 Update: I made the decision to bring Say “Alaka‘i” here to Talking Story in late May of 2010 when the Honolulu Advertiser, where the blog previously appeared, was merged with the Star Bulletin (Read more at Say “Alaka‘i” is Returning to the Mothership).

Therefore, the post appearing below is a copy of the one which had originally appeared there on January 6, 2009, so we will be able to reference it in the future when the original url it had been published on is no more…

Hibiscus

There are 2 Decisions Made with Every Hire

We are continuing our job-hunting discussions on Say “Alaka‘i” this week” some help for managers who do interviews today: There are 2 Decisions Made with Every Hire

And whichever chair you might be sitting in, you only get to make one of them.

I always ask managers to make a big deal out of hiring, for it IS a big deal: It’s important to the person applying for a position, and it’s important to the organization. When hiring is done right, everything else seems to fall into place too. Conversely, a hiring mistake is one which will often cost you for an awfully long time. For a manager, selecting the people who will work on their team is one of the most critical decisions they make.

However it’s important to understand that the manager doing the hiring only gets to make one out of the two decisions to be made.

The hiring manager gets to make the first one: Will I make a job offer to this candidate or not?

However, the candidate receiving the job offer gets to make the second decision, and I’d argue that’s the one which is actually much more important in the grand scheme of things. The candidate gets to decide if they accept the offer, or keep looking for something else.

Decision #1 is about the job offer.

Decision #2 is about the job acceptance or rejection.

Do you know what the biggest hiring disappointment is?

It’s when a manager gets his or her heart set on a terrific prospect, excitedly makes an offer, and then gets this response: “Thank you very much for the offer, however I’ve decided to take another position with a different company.” When that candidate had left the interview, they weren’t excited enough and the manager completely missed seeing the signs.

Here’s another disappointing scenario, and a more costly one.

The candidate accepts, but within six months to a year they start looking for another position to trade up to, whether inside the company or with another one, because “the job just didn’t pan out to be all that I thought it would be.” The basics might have been covered in an interview, but basics are not enough: What are the reasonable expectations with growth, progression, and future change? A candidate can’t leave an interview guessing, wishing and hoping, but still unsure.

Managers often forget about these less fortunate possibilities, and they neglect to use the interview time wisely. They drill the candidates they interview, ready with question after question that has to do with their job offer, but if that candidate is to be considered, have they had the time to interview the manager about the organization? Have they asked the questions you hope they are interested in, about vision, mission, and values (beyond product, service, skills and knowledge), so that if they are hired, they are completely aware of all they have signed up for?

If you conduct interviews…

…cut the time you allocate for it in half, allocating each half to covering the conversation required for each of those two decisions. Be sure the candidate asks questions of you: You want them to be inquisitive, you want to know how much homework they’ve done researching your company, and you want to be able to gauge both their interest and anticipation of the job’s requirements.

Too-short interviews astound me: I fail to see how anyone can interview a candidate for less than a full hour, and besides, it’s somewhat disrespectful ”“ I don’t care what the position is all about, an interview is a big deal, and it should be treated as such.

Equally mortifying to me is when candidates are scheduled for two or three interviews and you can barely tell them apart at all: There is no progressive conversation planned, and the same questions are asked over and over again, just by different people. Do you really expect them to change their answers?

One more suggestion:

Tell the candidate that you fully realize they have a decision to make too, and that if the interview results in an offer being made, you hope they will make the right decision, for it’s important to you both. Start the interview that way, laying out the expectation for the conversation to follow. Your company cannot be all things to all people: Hiring decisions are about fit, and you might have a great person applying for a position who is not a great candidate for the role they’ll need to fill. Tell them you’re assuming they’ll be honest with you, and you want their partnership so that you both get that puzzle piece on fit placed correctly for both your sakes.

The best strategy a manager can have when preparing for an interview is to assume you ARE going to hire that person. Think of that interview as setting the tone for every conversation you will have with them on each working day going forward: Work on the interview together and establish a relationship of partnership from the get-go.

Worst case scenario you don’t make an offer, and they tell everyone else how exceptionally they were treated anyway. And you never know when a candidate will leave you stating that they are not a good fit for a job opportunity, but they know someone else who is…

This past Sunday we talked about a different scenario…
You’re the applicant, and you’re hoping to secure a management or leadership position: Job-hunting? Don’t apply and fill, create and pitch.