Intimacy with a stranger in 20 seconds

Ten thousand years ago, if you were rejected by your social group you would die. To improve our collective chances of belonging and surviving, we evolved highly sophisticated ways of tracking status of group members in ways that help us cooperate and collaborate. 

Deep in our brains, we still carry this instinctual need for belonging. It may no longer be life or death, but we feel pain when we sense we’re being rejected and we feel better when we sense we’re accepted and safe.

Knowing this can change how you relate to people.

Is it safe?

In The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups, author Dan Coyle asserts that the cultures of the world’s most successful groups “are created by a specific set of skills which tap into the power of our social brains.” The first of these skills is to “build safety,” learning how to exchange signals that build social bonds of belonging and identity. These signals, or belonging cues, communicate three things.

  1. I see you.

  2. I care about you.

  3. We have a shared future together. 

When we exchange these signals, we feel safe and accepted. When we don’t, we feel uncertain and increasingly anxious.

A fundamental human skill

The phrase “psychological safety” may seem more suitable for the laboratory than the workplace or home, but Google’s research into effective teams lists psychological safety as the first of “five key dynamics that set successful teams apart from other teams at Google.” The belonging cues are even taught at elementary schools, using the SLANT strategy

“SLANT” is an acronym that stands for ‘Sit up, Lean forward, Ask and answers questions, Nod your head and Track the speaker.’ It is a simple technique to encourage and remind students on being attentive and active in class. 

The crux of the SLANT strategy is to enhance learning and student performance by creating a behavior incorporating the conscious use of positive body language.

Track the speaker and make eye contact. I see you. Nod your head and ask questions. I care about what you have to say. Ask and answer questions. We have a shared future together. If you think this seems silly or unnecessary, try having a conversation with your child or partner while they’re looking at their phone. How effective is that conversation? How do you feel?

Is it difficult to learn how to do this?

Recently, I heard Dan Coyle speak at a conference in Houston. He’s an insightful, intelligent, engaging presenter - and I had to give a talk after him! I related the exchanges of signals that Dan talked about to the giving and receiving that takes place as you Work Out Loud. In the workshop after my talk, I included an exercise of offering a contribution of appreciation, and a woman in the audience demonstrated how easy it can be to communicate belonging cues.

With a single sentence, she made it clear she was listening to what I had to say, was interested in it, and expected to use it in the future. Writing it took just a few seconds, and it led to a further exchange during the workshop.

But if it’s so easy, why don’t we have more successful groups and positive cultures? Because the hard part - the art of communications and good relationships - is to practice making these exchanges over and over again, reinforcing and enhancing social bonds. That’s the thing most of us struggle with. We forget to say what we feel, we avoid the risk of discomfort, we assume the other person knows.

The basis of human connection is an exchange of signals over time. What signals are you sending?

WOL Circle Guides now in Turkish!

Even the phrase “Circle Guides” in Turkish - “Çember Kılavuzu” - looks and sounds exotic to me. Seeing over 120 pages of Working Out Loud material in Turkish is a miracle!

It’s also a huge amount of work: translating thirteen guides, standardizing words and phrases, coordinating people across multiple timezones, double- and triple-checking for consistency and correctness. All of it by volunteers. Sebnem Maier, who organized the effort, also set up a LinkedIn group for “WOL Türkiye Topluluğu” and requested Turkish readers contact her with any edits or comments.

I asked Sebnem and the team what motivated them to take on such a big project, and here’s what they said. I’m grateful for all they’ve done, and inspired by why they did it. 

***

Since I have started my WOL experience in 2016, I was dreaming to have the guides in Turkish to reach people in my country who may have interest in WOL. So my dream has been fulfilled thanks to the great team who translated the guides with me voluntarily. Now, all Turkish-speaking people have the possibility to experience WOL and I am very happy about it.

Sebnem Maier – Senior manager at Robert Bosch GmbH, WOL Mentor, WOL Co-Creation Team

I felt that it was a simple yet genuine tool designed to help people to understand how to add a human touch to  their digital relations. I just wanted to have more people exposed to it and not be limited by language. We need to get closer and together. In person or on digital platforms. We need to relearn to look and see each other eye to eye, people to people, without boundaries of our limitations.

Nurhayat Ulucan – HR Manager, PPG Turkey

I observed in my Turkish Circle as a moderator that language might be a barrier for some people. For a successful rollout of the method, which is what I aim in my home country, Turkey, and for a better life as the WOL ambassador, it was necessary to have the guides in my mother language.

Rüya Demirtas – Project manager, Process improvement specialist, Bosch Turkey

It is a unique method which helps to discover and to understand your own goals by building relationships. We are happy and excited to help WOL reach more people by helping to translate the guides to Turkish.

Ebru Bakir Kandemir & Zafer Kandemir

As a psychology student, what motivated me to become a part of WOL was the enlightening experience of self-actualization, self-realization and self-confidence with the weekly Circle meetings in a friendly, understanding environment.

Zeynep Taş – Junior Student Majoring Psychology at Koç University in Turkey 

We have been searching for a sharing methodology to organize women's Circles to harness our sisterhood's knowledge and passion to share with each other. WOL will unlock this potential. Thank you John and the team! 

Melek Pulatkonak – Founder of TurkishWIN & BinYaprak  

WOL in Germany: Upcoming meetups, experiments, and more

Ah, Germans. They’re direct, often brusque. They have a maddening insistence on process and structure. Yet underneath their stern exterior I almost always find kindness and creativity. They are also excellent at getting things done, and are a source of inspiration for me and for Working Out Loud.

I’ll make at least five trips to Germany this year including the next ten days in Berlin, Stuttgart, and Darmstadt. There I’ll work on adaptations of WOL Circles for manufacturing and healthcare, and on variations of programs for managers and internal trainers (WOL Mentors). 

When I travel, I always wish I could meet even more people interested in WOL, so on this trip I’ll try something different. With the help of friends in the places I’m visiting, we’ll have informal public meetups where anyone can join. (Click on the city to find out more and register.)

Berlin

Stuttgart

Frankfurt

I’ll return to Germany in June, October, and November for projects and events and will visit these cities again. I’ll add Walldorf and Nürnberg to the itinerary, hope to visit Hamburg and Hannover for the first time, and would love to return to more familiar places like Bonn, Friedrichshafen, and Munich.

All this travel leads to a common question: "Why is WOL popular in Germany?” I think it’s because Bosch, headquartered in Stuttgart, was the first organization to embrace WOL Circles and, just as information and behaviors spread via social networks, WOL spread to other German companies. Now, because many of these companies are global, there are Circle members in 57 countries and the Circle Guides are soon to be published in a 9th language. In short, it’s less about WOL being “German” (whatever that means) and more about the Germans being first. 

Wherever WOL takes me, I’ll always have fond memories of my travels to Germany, and a deep respect and affection for the people there.

Herzlicher Dank! Bis bald!


What would you say to 400 knowledge managers?

Today, I’ll fly to Houston to take part in the APQC Knowledge Management (KM) conference. Many of the 400 attendees have been working on KM for years, some for decades. They’re already experts when it comes to the tools and processes they need. 

But something has been missing. The traditional focus on tools and taxonomies has left little room for a harder challenge: people.

Long-time KM experts like Stan Garfield and Nick Milton have written often about the need for focusing on behavior change and a cultural shift. (In one of Stan’s recent articles, the word “culture” appears 8 times.) To increase both the supply and demand of knowledge, you have to create an environment where people are intrinsically motivated to share and search for knowledge as part of their everyday work. But how?

The talk before mine will have many of the answers. It’s by Dan Coyle, author of the excellent book, The Culture Code. Here’s an excerpt from an APQC article about their interview with Dan. 

I have asked KM leaders what their main objective is for implementing KM.  And, overwhelmingly, the #1 response is to “change the culture of the organization.”  

A collaborative culture feels and works better. Dan’s formula for success focuses on

1) making the environment safe to accelerate building relationships and trust,

2) demonstrating how leaders can use vulnerability to forge reciprocity, and

3) creating a roadmap that gets people onboard for the journey ahead.

WOL is a method for implementing some of these ideas. That’s why the APQC also wrote that “Working Out Loud is KM’s most transformative trend.” WOL Circles give people a chance to do what Dan writes about: exchange knowledge, vulnerability, and more all in a psychologically safe space. And the method helps them practice over time till they develop new habits and a new mindset. As the new behaviors spread, the culture changes.

I hope to give a good talk. More importantly, though, I hope to give each of the 400 attendees something they can use, so they can finally fill in the piece that’s been missing, and kick off culture change movements of their own.

Opportunity can’t knock if it doesn’t know where you live

I was walking through the Frankfurt airport, jet-lagged and rushing to catch a train, when a poster in the terminal caught my eye. I stopped and took a photo. 

An ad from SAP in the Frankfurt airport

An ad from SAP in the Frankfurt airport

The tagline made me think of Working Out Loud, and the resistance I sometimes encounter when I suggest people make their work visible. 

“I don’t like to toot my own horn.”

“Why would anyone care what I’m working on?”

“My work should speak for itself.”

“What if they don’t like it?”

“I’m too busy for that.”

“What if I say something stupid?”

“I’m an introvert.”

And so on.

It’s understandable if you feel uncertain or uncomfortable about “being visible.” But you have many options. What you share, how you share it, and with whom you share it are all up to you.

If you do nothing, however, then you have ceded control over your reputation to others. A bad word from the boss or an unhappy client will have more weight than all your many contributions. If you insist on never showing your work, you have given up the chance to be discovered, and have greatly reduced your own odds. Imagine an artist with no portfolio. Or a writer with no articles or books. How would you know what they’re capable of?

Think about your online presence: your profiles, your projects, your ideas, your learning. Are you and your best work easy to find?

Opportunity can’t knock if it doesn’t know where you live.



Sunday Night Syndrome

The symptoms appear gradually. A slight knot in the stomach. A mounting sense of dread, a feeling of irritation, even anxiety, about what’s about to happen. Sunday Night Syndrome affects an alarming number of people, and it’s beginning to feel like an epidemic. 

A telltale sign is when you say, “I wish I didn’t have to go to work on Monday.” 

I suffered from SNS for most of my life. Sometimes the symptoms appeared as early as Sunday morning, even Saturday night, further spoiling the already too-short weekend escape.

Since everyone around me suffered from the same symptoms, I did nothing about it. Week after week after week. 25 years old, 35, 45, 50. I sat there like the proverbial frog placed in a pot of water on the stove, slowly dying inside, never jumping out.

Do you suffer from any signs of Sunday Night Syndrome? Or know someone who does? The only cure I’ve found is tap into a sense of self-determination, a sense that you have some control, that you’re not a victim. 

It doesn’t have to be a big leap. You don’t have to quit or change your entire life with a bold move. I find such remedies too risky anyway, and not terribly effective. Instead, I recommend a small step, an experiment of a kind: block out one hour every Monday to invest in yourself. 

Maybe you use that hour (less than 3% of your week), to work on a new skill or research a topic you’re interested in. Maybe you use the time to shape your reputation, sharing what you’re learning or doing on your intranet or LinkedIn. Maybe you form a WOL Circle and meet on Mondays, taking advantage of the structure, shared accountability, and support to make progress towards a goal you care about.

Don’t be the frog, waiting to be rescued. If you don’t invest in yourself, who will?

Disengaged at work.jpg

“Learning is my shield against irrelevance”

“No one is immune,” he said. “I fear growing rigid in my thoughts and outdated in my ideas.” I was sitting in a packed stadium, listening to the dean of Northeastern University speak at my eldest daughter’s graduation. I started taking notes.

He talked about several students’ projects and start-ups, applying what they learned to address challenges like diabetes in Honduras and supporting small farms in Kenya. “Learning is a lifelong journey,” he reminded the graduates. 

I might have dismissed the speech as just encouraging words for young people, except that I had read very similar words a few months earlier, written by the CEO of a 400,000-person company.

Learning at Work

For most of my career, I invested much more into making my boss happy than into developing my skills. Though I worked in a highly technical field, almost no one around me read books or did research about what we did. We were too busy. Learning was something you did on your own time, something wholly apart from work. The unspoken assumption was that you were supposed to already know what you needed to know.

The words of Bosch’s CEO, Volkmar Denner, were a radical departure from what I was used to hearing. First, he offered some sobering statistics.

“Lifelong learning is essential… But the truth is that people aged 30 to 44 spend just nine minutes a day on average on improving their qualifications. And for people aged 45 to 64, the figure is even lower — only four minutes.”

The dean had said, “The world doesn’t stop changing, and we must continue to discover and learn,” and the Bosch CEO embraced the need for people at all levels of the company (including himself) to continue exploring and learning as an integral part of the work we do.

“It’s more than just a challenge our children have to face…In the digital world, people who have achieved success in their careers cannot afford to rest on their laurels and refuse to learn anything new. The more successful the company, the more alert its executives have to be to change, and the more they have to preserve their curiosity.

[It is] important to see working and learning as a whole, and to combine the two. This can only work if further training is no longer seen as something that is merely “nice to have” — a seminar every so often, then back to routine. We want further training to be an integral part of company strategy. It is this that is giving rise to new forms for self-organized learning [such as] “Working Out Loud.”

What’s it for?

The Bosch CEO saw learning as good for the individual (“a way of advancing our personal careers”) as well as for the company. The dean saw it as imperative for the planet.

“Inequality, injustice, and intolerance cast long shadows….Use your gifts to eliminate the dark. You are torch bearers in an age that longs for light.”

What about you? Whether you need your own “shield against irrelevance,” are looking for ways to advance your career, or want to contribute to a better world, standing still is not an option. 

What are you learning? Why?

Photo by Ruby Wallau for Northeastern University


How to get better at remembering names

Daria looked at me as if I just pulled a rabbit out of a hat or a coin from behind her ear. “How did you do that?!”  It was no trick, however. All I did was remember her name. But to her it was remarkable.

We were in Germany at a conference, and though we had never met before, her face was familiar. Then, in a flash of recognition, I exclaimed, “I know you!” and mentioned her last name that I remembered from Twitter. It was a bit unusual, so I spelled it out too, to make sure I got it right. 

That moment reminded me how, for most of my life, I told myself, “I’m no good at remembering names.” I figured that, like my bad eyesight or bald head, my poor nominative recall was a genetically-dictated trait.

But then I changed.

A little bit of magic? - Photo by  Mervyn Chan  on  Unsplash

A little bit of magic? - Photo by Mervyn Chan on Unsplash

You are not good at remembering names…yet!

What opened my mind to change even being a possibility was a book called Moonwalking with Einstein. The author, Joshua Foer, is a journalist who became interested memory tournaments, where people compete for prizes based on remembering an extraordinary number of digits or the exact sequence of a randomly shuffled deck of cards. 

Some of the feats seem impossible, until Foer learns a few techniques and begins practicing. He ultimately decides to participate in the USA Memory Championship and (spoiler alert) … wins. Aha! I realized: my memory can be trained.

The Best Tip for Remembering Names

There’s a lot of good advice available for remembering names. The best tip for remembering them is the same tip as for holding a good conversation: pay attention

The biggest problem that most people have, including me, is that in the moment when you meet someone (in person or, as with Daria, online), you are paying attention to so many other things - what you might say, what they might be think of you - that you never really process their name in the first place. 

Dale Carnegie said, “A person's name is to him or her the sweetest and most important sound in any language.” Eighty years later, the Washington Post’s business section cited that quote, and explained why it’s so important to use people’s names. 

“A person’s name is the greatest connection to their own identity and individuality. Some might say it is the most important word in the world to that person.

It is the one way we can easily get someone’s attention. It is a sign of courtesy and a way of recognizing them. When someone remembers our name after meeting us, we feel respected and more important. It makes a positive and lasting impression on us. To not remember a name, especially when someone has had to repeat it several times, is to make that person feel slighted.”

How to Pay Attention

When I meet someone now, I make it a habit to ask their name, and repeat it. If I haven’t heard properly, or I’m not sure how to pronounce it, I may ask them to spell it. For names that are foreign to me, I may ask if it has a certain meaning. Recently, a woman named Chungfeng explained her name meant “Spring breeze” and that people often call her Breeze. How could I ever forget that, or her?

After the initial contact, I’ll pay further attention by using their name whenever I can. Whether it’s in email and social media or in person, instead of “Thanks!” or “Hello!” I’ll say, “Thank you, Sabine” or “Hello, Martin.” It’s such a small thing, and yet that simple act helps me remember their name and further personalizes my communications. 

It’s not fake or a trick. I practice remembering names not to be clever or to get something from the other person. Rather, I view it as a form of respect, a way to say “I see you and care enough to pay attention.” That’s a good basis for any relationship. 


The Coffee Test

Imagine this: You notice a former colleague updated their profile on LinkedIn with a new description, “Looking for a new opportunity.” You haven’t heard from them for a few years, and think back to when you worked together. You remember you got along well, but somehow never managed to keep in touch after you left the company.

The next day, you receive a message.

“Hi! 

It’s been a long time! I hope you’re well.

I would love to meet for a coffee to catch up. I’m ready for a new role, and hoped I could pick your brain.

Would you have any time next week?”

Take a moment and imagine yourself reading this. Which one of the emotions and statements below is the closest match to what you might feel and think?

  1. Happy. I’m glad they contacted me. I’m looking forward to re-connecting.

  2. Mildly positive. It’s good to help out someone in need.

  3. Mildly irritated. Why do people wait till they need something to reach out? 

  4. Angry. So fake! They obviously don’t care about me. They just want something.

Photo by  Danijela Froki  on  Unsplash

What did you choose? 

When I find myself in this situation, I usually experience a combination of emotions and thoughts. I may be pleased that they remembered me, but because their message appears obviously inauthentic, it triggers a negative reaction, even aversion. On top of this, I’m now burdened with responding.

Of course, it’s easy for me to judge the other person and what they wrote. With a bit more reflection and empathy, I can appreciate that they may be in a difficult situation, and they’re doing the best they can.

The problem, though, isn’t with the words they used in their message. It’s what they failed to do before they sent it.

Earning someone’s attention

Primates and many other mammals have evolved highly sophisticated forms of cooperation and collaboration based on giving and receiving, and humans have the most complex systems of all. Our exchanges of attention, appreciation, tangible items, vulnerability, assistance, and more all serve to build a sense of trust and relatedness over time. 

It’s that sense, that development of a social bond, that makes future exchanges easier. Indeed, it fundamentally changes how you feel and think about such exchanges. When there is a lack of exchange over time, as in the Coffee Test, the social bond erodes, and a request for assistance that you might have welcomed earlier is now seen as an unwelcome intrusion.

What do you do?

As easy as it is for me to recognize this mistake in others, I repeat it myself over and over again. When a close colleague left my company, for example, or changed locations, I typically failed to make the required adjustments to maintain the social bond. Even something as simple as the occasional “I’m thinking of you” or “How are you doing?” seemed beyond me. And so, like a door slowly closing, I would be gradually shut off from a human connection I valued as well as all that such a connection makes possible.

This pattern is so common that you can call it “human nature.” Yet we need not be victims of our nature. For human beings have also evolved an incredible ability to learn and adapt, to change our nature by changing our habits. 

Let every cup of coffee be a reminder: Don’t wait until it’s too late. Investing in your social bonds is a habit you can develop, not for some expected return from any given individual, but because it helps you feel good in the present while it enables a richer future, one with more connections and possibilities.


Exhaling on the scale

The first time I noticed it, I smiled and thought, What a strange thing to do. Then I noticed it again the next day, and realized it was an unconscious habit. Every morning, before stepping on the scale, I breath out deeply, as if that will make a difference in the results. 

It doesn’t make any sense. Yet I think I figured out why I do it: it gives me the perception of control without having to do the more challenging work required to affect the outcome. It’s as if I’m telling myself, “Well, I haven’t exercised for the last few days, and I ate and drank too much last night…but I can do this!” Then I slowly blow out a gust of air. Whoooooooosh.

It would be funny except that I do something similar when it comes to work. 

Like many people, I have a fuzzy notion of the important things I’d like to accomplish. Yet there’s usually enough uncertainty or doubt surrounding those things, or they may seem too big, that they trigger anxiety and resistance. To deal with that, I would find myself filling my day with small tasks and activities, chipping away at an infinite todo list. I would feel busy, but all I really accomplished was avoiding the difficult work required to do something meaningful. 

So lately I’m trying something new. Every Monday I have a short call with a friend, and we each share the top three things we need to do during the upcoming week to make progress towards our big goals. We don’t talk about everything we might do or could do. We just list three specific things we will do, work that will move us in the right direction.

On the next call, we’ll talk about what happened in the past week, discuss adjustments we might make, and share our goals for the following week. There’s no judgment or competition. Just learning and encouragement to focus and to keep going. The mutual accountability helps us maintain both motivation and momentum.

A nice phrase to describe what we’re sharing is our “essential intent,” a phrase from Greg McKeown’s Essentialism. The phrase is usually applied to longer timeframes, but I’ve found it useful as a way to describe nearer-term goals, too. What is the essential thing you intend to do this week/month/year/life? Think of it as a way to distill the truly important from the sea of possible activities, and to state it in a way that’s both actionable and measurable.

Reflect for a moment on your own big goals for your work and life. Do you know your essential intent for this month or this week? For tomorrow? Are you doing work what matters, or are you exhaling on the scale?