Sunday, June 15, 2014

Are your employees and customers engaged or just sensitized?

When I was younger, every summer we’d take a boat trip around Lake Michigan.  I can still remember how tedious the first week of the trip felt.  Moving along at 6-10 knots (7-11.5 miles per hour) almost felt like standing still.  By the end of the trip, however, it felt normal.  On days that we’d catch a good breeze and hit 15 knots, it felt like we were speeding along.  After two months on the boat, we headed back for land. Unlike the tedious initial moments in the boat, the first few minutes in the car were terrifying.  Moving along the side streets at 30 miles an hour felt like we were travelling at the speed of light.  Our various reactions to speed throughout the trip were influenced by what psychologists called sensitization.  Sensitization is the way that your brain recalibrates its response to something based on the amount of exposure you have to it.

In a prior entry, I discussed a sensitization experiment conducted by Leif Nelson and Tom Meyvis.  In the experiment, the researchers exposed participants to an annoying noise for an extended period of time.  They then had them rate their level of annoyance with the last five seconds of the noise.  They compared those results to people who had only been exposed to the noise for five seconds in total. The people who had been exposed to the noise for a longer period of time rated it as less annoying.  They were sensitized to it.  What once was very annoying no longer seemed as bad.

Those examples made me wonder if our employee and customer satisfaction/engagement surveys are really just providing us with a measure of sensitization.  I’ve certainly seen sensitization occur within a work environment.  When processes, co-workers, or leaders aren’t effective,  people initially express frustration.  However, over time they just start to live with it and accept it.  The same is true of customers.  These days, I’m greatly relieved when I actually receive my order correctly or when a customer service agent solves my problem on the first try. I barely even pay attention to whether they were nice, friendly, courteous, or efficient.  Getting a high mark from me today is much easier than it was five years ago.

Conventional wisdom suggests that if you are working in a tedious environment, your satisfaction and engagement will continue to decrease.  However, studies on individuals who live with chronic pain find that their pain tolerance increases over time.  After a while, they actually feel less pain relative to the way the initial perceived it. 

Perhaps those engagement or satisfaction scores are really just showing that your people or customers are becoming sensitized to the environment that you provide.

In addition to simply looking at customer service or employee/engagement scores, start asking people to provide qualitative explanations of the ratings.  That way you can find out if a “3” from four years ago is the same as a “3” today.

Unfortunately, there appears to be little research (that I could find) on sensitization in employees and customers. So, clearly these thoughts are just speculative based on how sensitization works in other areas. Yet, it's worth considering.

Remember, numbers don’t always tell the full story. It’s important to understand how people calibrate their expectations so that you can better understand their ratings.  Otherwise, you may be celebrating your ability to beat your customers or employees into submission while thinking you are improving their experience.

Brad Kolar is an executive consultant, speaker, and author.  He can be reached at

Saturday, June 7, 2014

If a tree falls in the woods, does it really fall? Only if Google’s data say so.

Data are just a proxy for reality, they aren’t reality.  As more and more information is being captured, analyzed, and published, this is an important consideration for leaders.  While “management by walking around” might have been the mantra for the 80s, perhaps “data gathering by walking around” should be the theme for today.

In a prior post I warned leaders about only trusting data that was meticulously measured.  Those people tend to miss out on a lot of what is happening around them.

In that post I shared economist Paul Krugman’s story about the development of maps of Africa between the 15th and 19th century [1].  Krugman explained that 15th century maps, while not always accurate on distances and specific locations, were quite accurate on what actually existed across the African continent.  Yet, by the 18th century while Africa’s coastline had become meticulously and accurately represented, most of the interior of the continent had literally disappeared from the map.  The problem was that map makers of the day wouldn’t include things on their maps that hadn’t met their standards for data collection and documentation.  Since the interior hadn’t been explored as extensively as the coastline, the data weren’t as robust.  While what was shown on the map was extremely accurate, the map as a whole no longer adequately represented Africa. 

Of course, in the 15th and 18th centuries, people didn’t have access to the same technology and data as we do today. We now have much more data and information at our fingertips. Certainly we should have a better sense of what the world looks like. Maybe not. 

In his book Freakonomics [2], Steven Levitt tells an amusing story about how, in 1987, millions of children mysteriously disappeared from the US population.  No, it wasn’t a massive alien abduction.  That was the year that the IRS started requiring people to list their dependents’ social security numbers on their tax forms.  People could no longer cheat when claiming dependents.   As a result, the IRS data reflected about 10% less children in 1988 even though the number of children in the US hadn’t really changed (other than natural changes like births, deaths, and turning eighteen).

In 2014 we have even more data than in 1988.  Surely these problems can’t still persist. Yet, they do.  Yesterday, my brother submitted a correction to Google Maps. He is the owner of a new restaurant in Montauk.  However, when displaying the location of the restaurant, Maps still shows the name, reviews, and other pertinent details about the old restaurant.  Within a few hours of submitting his correction, he received the following response:

“Upon reviewing your suggested change, we have decided not to apply your suggested change to XXXX at this time, as we found the existing details to be more appropriate”

How did Google make this determination?  Certainly within the short “review” timeframe, they didn’t actually go take a look. Had they, they would have discovered that the restaurant was not there.  Yet, it's still there in the virtual world which is apparently where Google looked to find it. Just like the map makers of the 18th century, they are letting data define reality rather than the other way around.  Ironically enough their decision doesn't really help anyone better understand reality.  The original restaurant does still exist, it just moved.  So now people can't find the new restaurant that is currently in that location or old restaurant in its new location.  

Big data has many benefits for organizations and individuals.  However, it becomes dangerous when data about reality trumps what is real.  Have you ever been turned down for credit because of a problem in your credit report that didn’t exist?  How long and how much effort did it take for you to correct that?  It seems that it’s much easier to be misrepresented in a credit report than it is to have a misrepresentation corrected.  I once had to prove that I didn’t default on a loan that I never had.  Shouldn’t the burden of proof been on the people who claimed I had the loan in the first place?  My wife was once turned down for insurance due to a rare medical condition that she didn’t have.  We had to go through a three month review process and submit all of her medical records to prove that she didn’t have the condition.  

The ubiquity of data has created a new problem.   It used to be that you had to prove that the data matched reality.   Now it seems that the burden has shifted to having to prove that the reality is real when it does not match the data. 

Data are not reality. They are an approximation of reality.  Your job is to understand what is actually happening around you.  As more of our world and lives become captured in data, it will be even more important to be diligent, thoughtful, and critical of the data you see. 

Brad Kolar is an executive consultant, speaker, and author.  He can be reached at

[1] Krugman, Paul, “The Fall and Rise of Development Economics.” Web. 6 June 2014. (

[2] Levitt, Steven D., and Stephen J. Dubner. "What do Schoolteachers and Sumo Wrestlers Have in Common." Freakonomics: a rogue economist explores the hidden side of everything. New York: William Morrow, 2005. 30. Print.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Don’t forget to seek refuting evidence

“It is hard for us, without being flippant, to even see a scenario within any kind of realm of reason that would see us losing one dollar in any of those transactions.”[1]

--AIG Executive, August, 2007 one year before the financial meltdown of AIG

The first thing to do when you can’t find data that contradict your conclusions is to look harder.

The other day, I received a request to schedule my virtual workshop on Rethinking Data. The workshop is broken into four consecutive modules.  The person making the request asked for the following dates:

Module 1 - July 3
Module 2 - July 17
Module 3 - July 14
Module 4 - July 31

It was clear that she made a typo on the dates since the sessions need to occur in order.  So, what was the mistake?  Can you see it?

It seemed obvious to me that she wanted July 24th for module 3 rather than July 14.  I was wrong. The mistake was on module 2.  She wanted July 7 rather than the 17th. In retrospect it’s clear that the mistake could have been on either date. The fact that I guessed wrong isn't the problem. The problem is that I never even considered module 2 as possibly having the error.  Therefore,  I never even had a chance of guessing right.

I fell victim to confirmation bias.  Confirmation bias is our tendency to 1) seek information that supports our beliefs and 2) stop seeking information once our hypothesis is confirmed.  In the date example, I saw an ascending pattern that had one number (July 14) out of place.  Changing it to July 24 made the sequence work and proved that my hypothesis was “correct.” So I stopped looking for alternatives.

Confirmation bias is an interesting problem. It’s almost impossible for you to see it when it is happening to you.  In fact, when it is happening things often appear to be going quite well.  You have a hypothesis (or belief or conclusion) and your data appear to support it.  In many cases you are probably relieved that you found an answer.

The problem with confirmation bias is that it decreases your understanding of your data while increasing your confidence in that  understanding. 

One of the more famous studies of confirmation bias came from Peter Wason [2]  in 1960.  Wason provided people with a sequence of three numbers,


The participants’ job was to figure out the rule that Wason used to create the sequence.  Participants were allowed to test as many additional three digit sequences as they wanted.  He would tell them whether or not each sequence followed the rule.  Surprisingly, despite the fact that most participants came up with sequences that followed the rule, only about 20% correctly guessed it. 

Confirmation bias prevented them from figuring out what turned out to be a very simple rule.  An analysis of the participants’ test sequences revealed two things about their strategies for guessing the rule.  First, most people offered very few test cases before guessing.  In another words, once they discovered just one or two data points that fit what they believed the rule to be, they stopped testing it with data. 

Second, when coming up with their test cases, many people  tended to only offer positive examples – those that supported what they thought the rule to be.  For example, if they thought the rule was “add two” they might try the sequence 8-10-12 or 22-24-28.  If they thought the rule was “even numbers only”, they might try 8-16-28. 

While this seems reasonable on the surface it’s flawed.  You can’t test your hypotheses or conclusions by only using positive cases.  You need to test cases that contradict your hypothesis to see whether it still holds up.  Doing so in this case would have quickly and clearly shown that they were wrong about the rule.  Instead,  they kept getting false positives for why they believed the rule to be. 

People who tested sequences that didn’t fit their hypothesized rule tended to discover the actual rule much more quickly than those who only tested sequences that confirmed their belief.  in case you are wondering,  the rule is that the numbers need to occur in ascending order. 

Here is another of Wason's experiments.  See if you can figure out the answer.

The following four cards have a letter on one side and a number on the other:

A             K             2              7

The rule for labeling the cards is that if there is a vowel on one side of the card, there must be an even number on the other.  Which cards must you turn over to determine if the rule is true?

Do you think you know?  According to Duca Simone [3] there is a very high probability that you missed it.

If confirmation bias got the best of you (as it does around 33% of people), you chose card “A”.  Your logic is that if card “A” has an even number on the back, then the rule is confirmed and you can stop.  But remember, it’s important to check refuting data as well.  So while Card “A” confirms the rule, it is not sufficient given the other cards.

Since you knew I was up to something, you might have looked a bit deeper.  Confirmation bias combined with a simple logic error might have pushed you (and 46% of people) toward cards “A” and “2”.  There are two problems with this.  First, it is still only testing positive cases.  Second, and more importantly (this is where the logic error comes in), the rule doesn’t say that consonants can’t have an even number.  It just states that a vowel must have one.  Therefore, turning over the “2” card doesn’t actually confirm or refute the rule being tested.  The same is true for testing the “K” card.

The correct answer is card “A” and card “7”.  Don’t feel bad if you missed it, Simone states that only about 4% of people get this right. The “7” card is the negative test.  If it has a vowel on the other side then the rule would be broken  You can’t conclusively confirm or refute the rule without testing a positive and a negative case.

Our brains seek data that support our beliefs.  Once we find that data we tend to stop looking.  That gets us in trouble.  When trying to determine if your hypotheses, conclusions, and beliefs are true, don’t just test data that agree with the hypothesis.  Be sure to also consider data that don’t support the hypothesis. 

Brad Kolar is an executive consultant, speaker, and author.  He can be reached at

[1]Morgenson, Gretchen. "Behind Insurer’s Crisis, Blind Eye to a Web of Risk." The New York Times 27 Sept. 2008, sec. Business Day. New York Times. Web. 3 June 2014. (
[2] Wason, Peter. "On the failure to eliminate hypotheses in a conceptual task."Quarterly Journal Of Experimental Psychology 12.3 (1960): 129-140. Print.
[3] Simone, Duca. "Rationality and the Wason Selection Task:A logical Account."PSYCHE 15.1 (2009): 109-131. Print.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Leadership lessons from Westlake Fish House

Last week I had the opportunity to attend the grand opening of Westlake Fish House in Montauk, NY (  What made the event even more special for me was that one of the owners of the restaurant is my brother, Larry Kolar.  

I’ve always known that my brother was a great chef.  And, as many younger brothers will tell you about their older brothers, I also knew that he was a total rock star!  However, what I didn’t know until last week (although I wasn’t surprised to find out) was that he is also a great leader.

Who would have thought that the leadership consultant in our family would be taking leadership lessons from the chef?  After all, he’s never asked my advice on cooking!

The lessons that I learned from my brother came indirectly.  Most came from talking with his customers and employees.  That made them even more powerful as I got to see my brother through the eyes of those he leads and those he serves (which sometimes is hard to differentiate).

My brother does not have an HR department, employee engagement surveys, or an engagement strategy yet his employees were among the most engaged people I’ve ever seen.  This is despite the fact that he has incredibly high expectations and can be very demanding (anyone who has watched a cooking reality show knows how crazy chefs can be). 

People who work for him want to do well.  They want to be successful. But what struck me as most unusual was that they want him to be successful.  How many employees do you know who genuinely have their boss’s back? 

My brother is a leader in the truest sense.  He is not the leader because he is the owner or because his name is in a “leadership” box on an organization chart.  He is a leader because the people with whom he works want to follow him.

Here is what I learned on a cool April evening, in a cozy new restaurant nestled among the docks in Montauk Harbor.

Respect everyone - My brother treats everyone with the upmost respect.  If you watched an interaction between my brother and any of his employees or customers, you wouldn’t be able to tell what role that person played.  Everyone is important to him and he shows it.  More importantly, he cares about each one first as a person, then as an employee or customer.  He treats people fairly and shows genuine concern for their interests even if that means that he occasionally has to forego a bit on his.

Make it fun.  A restaurant can be a very demanding environment with as much (or even more) stress than any corporate environment.  Yet, he keeps the atmosphere upbeat.  He jokes, he laughs, and most importantly he doesn’t take himself too seriously.  This doesn’t stop him from taking his work very seriously.  He is not shy about letting people know when there is an issue with their performance.  He resolves problems swiftly and decisively.  But, once the problem is solved it is solved.  He doesn’t dwell on it or the individual who was involved and gets back to having fun.  His staff translates those cues into the way they interact with customers.  His restaurant is a place where people, both employees and customers, want to be!

Don’t compromise on your expectations – Despite the laid back and fun atmosphere of the restaurant, the expectations are very high.  Everyone knows what my brother expects when it comes to quality, service, and experience.  They also know that sub-par performance is not tolerated.

I think that sometimes leaders shy away from being tough on their people and holding them to high expectations.  They mistakenly believe that doing so will demotivate their people.  However, being tough is not the same as being mean or disrespectful.  You can be clear about your expectations and hold people accountable as long as you do so in a fair, respectful, and supportive manner.  In fact, people will appreciate you for it.  Often the teachers, coaches, and bosses who people remember the most (and say had the greatest impact) were the ones who were "tough".

My brother doesn’t punish people for not meeting his expectations (he doesn’t sweet talk them either!)  Instead, he talks with them and helps them improve.  He cares less about casting blame and more about how to help people meet his expectations.  In doing so, he’s created a workforce that delivers more than they probably thought possible.  He gives them a sense of purpose, mastery, and accomplishment. He shows that a high performing environment can also be a fun and interesting environment. 

Don’t expect more from others than you do from yourself – While expectations on the staff are incredibly high, they pale in comparison to what my brother expects of himself.  For him, there is no “good enough.”  He drives himself harder than he does anyone else.  He would rather self-assess than self-congratulate.  Most importantly, he would never hold anyone accountable to something that he was unable or unwilling to deliver himself.  I find this to be among his most admirable traits.  I’ve seen too many leaders whose expectations of their people far surpass those of themselves.

My brother never took a course or workshop on leadership.  He doesn’t read a lot of articles and journals that talk about how to be a better leader.  He doesn’t need to.  For him, leadership is not a topic or set of principles that are applied in addition to his regular work.  His regular work is leading.  It’s understanding what he wants and how to get there.  Most importantly, it’s about creating an environment where employees and customers want to come along not just for what they get, but because they believe in and care so much about what and who you are.

Westlake Fish House is going to be a shining star in the Montauk restaurant scene.  Its owner is already a shining star in the leadership scene!

Brad Kolar is an executive consultant, speaker, and author.  He can be reached at

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Leadership Lessons from Holocaust Survivors

Sunday evening, April 27, marks the start of Yom haShoa - Holocaust Remembrance Day.  Here is my annual re-post in memory of the victims and in honor of the survivors.  Leadership begins with respect for all people and a desire to make the world a better place.  Never forget. 
Leadership Lessons from Holocaust Survivors
A leader’s job is to create meaning and purpose for those around him or her.  In his book, “Man’s Search for Meaning”, Viktor Frankl speaks eloquently about the power of such meaning and purpose in a person’s life.  This book should be required reading for all leaders. 
Recently, I was fortunate to hear from a wonderful woman, Cipora Katz.  Cipora is a Holocaust survivor.  She is a woman of tiny stature.  Yet, when she speaks, her spirit fills the room.  Cipora was the fifth Survivor that I’ve had the opportunity to hear speak. 
If you haven’t had the opportunity to hear a Survivor speak, I recommend doing so (and doing so quickly as unfortunately, their numbers are thinning).  These are incredible people who in the course of thirty minutes will provide a lifetime of lessons.  Reading their stories or seeing snippets of a video doesn't capture what makes these people so special.  Watching them in person allows you to see the spark in their eye, hear the conviction in their voice, and feel the burning desire to live that resides in their hearts.
Their stories discuss horrors that many of us couldn’t even imagine yet alone endure.  However, when reflecting on their lives Survivors use words like “fortunate”, or “lucky”.  This must be what Viktor Frankl meant in “Man’s Search For Meaning” when he said that “Man’s search for meaning is the primary motivation in his life and not a ‘secondary rationalization’ of instinctual drives.”  Each of these survivors had a burning, insatiable desire to live.  They understood that their life had purpose even if, at the time, they didn’t know what that purpose might be.
There are five lessons that I took from their stories.  Each provides a way to summon the spark within us even when there is darkness around us:
Frame your world your way
The first lesson I learned is that leadership is about how we frame issues.  We cannot always control the things that happen to us.  However, we can control how we frame and react to them.  We can view them as tragedies that disable us or as challenges to which we must step up.  Imagine a ten year old boy being told by his mother that he must run away and fend for himself in order to survive.  Now imagine him actually doing it.  Survivors overcome.
Create your own luck
The second lesson is to create opportunities for yourself.  Every survivor’s story seems to contain a combination of determination and luck.  There is an old adage, “I believe in luck.  The harder I work, the luckier I get.”  Survivors got “lucky” partly because they capitalized on things that others missed, ignored, or didn’t have the courage to try.  In one story, a complete stranger approached a mother and child telling them to run after him when he gave them a signal.  Perhaps a twist of fate placed that opportunity before them.  But, it was their internal spark that moved them to act on that opportunity when others might have been too afraid of the risk.  Survivors constantly sought a way past the next hurdle and didn't let an opportunity slip by.
Live with purpose
Third, create a purpose for yourself and others – Even today you can tell that each survivor lives life with purpose and meaning.  For some that purpose has changed since their experience in the Holocaust.  But, it is unmistakable.   In the past few years the business world has become filled with advice and articles on “employee engagement”.  Yet, after meeting these survivors, I realize that we don’t really understand what engagement is anymore.  We consider a person who is willing to do a good day’s work for a fair day’s pay as engaged.   Go hear a survivor speak.  Listen to what they say and how they say it.  Watch them.  Analyze how they view (or viewed) the world.  You will leave with a new definition and appreciation of engagement. 
Hold fast to what matters, compromise on the rest
The fourth lesson is about mental agility. Survivors knew which of their expectations to compromise on and which to hold fast.  This allowed them to recalibrate what was "normal" in a world that lost all sense of what was right.  By reframing their expectations they were able to create small successes on a daily basis which gave them the extra energy needed to look ahead to the next day.  Just as today, people who held too tightly to standard definitions had difficulty adapting.  But the Survivors didn't compromise on all of their expectations.  They maintained a clear line on the meaning of humanity, life, and purpose.  Lowering some expectations allowed them to adapt and achieve success, while maintaining the important ones drove their sense of purpose and longevity.
Be self-reliant while supporting your community
Finally, the Survivors understood their role in a broader community but also relied first and foremost on themselves.  They created their own opportunities.  They didn't wait for a handout.  Yet, many of the most touching stories were of people who, despite their own starvation, broke the scrap of bread that they found into as many pieces as possible so that all could share.  This reliance on self integrated with contribution to community provided these people with strength, even when they didn't personally have any left.
Not surprisingly, many of the Survivors that I met and heard from achieved great personal or professional success after the Holocaust.  It wasn't easy.  Many restarted their lives with absolutely nothing.  Their will and passion for life combined with the ingenuity, determination, and ability to overcome adversity must have made navigating the "regular" world somewhat trivial.
No workshop or book will ever provide better lessons than what I learned from listening to these extraordinary people.  Of course, I realize that it wasn't knowledge or skill that enabled these people to do what they did.  It took a spark deep inside of each of them.  You can't build or buy that spark.  But, if you are lucky, perhaps you can capture some of the energy from those who have it.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Trusted advisors don’t interview, they discuss

Achieving trusted advisor status is a primary goal of many leaders. Whether that status is with internal business partners, senior leaders, or customers, leaders don’t want to be seen simply as order takers.  Instead they want to be viewed as a valuable resource in the other person’s decision making process.

Having the wrong type of conversation is one of the biggest mistakes leaders make in trying to become a trusted advisor.  I recently observed a group of business consultants working with a client.  The consultants were trying to help the client improve his people’s performance on a specific issue.  What struck me about the interaction was that it didn’t sound like a conversation.  It sounded like an interview.  The consultants would ask a question, the client would answer. The consultants would then ask the next question on their list or ask for a clarification of the prior answer.  It was mostly a one-way conversation with the client doing most of the heavy lifting.  The process appeared smooth and efficient but it didn’t feel natural. More importantly, it didn’t provide the information or results the consultants needed.  In many cases, the client wasn’t quite sure what to answer.

Often an individual who is facing a problem doesn’t have it fully defined.  Asking good questions can certainly help the person clarify his or her issue.  However, sometimes people simply haven’t thought through the problem well enough to have an answer.

For many people, reacting to an idea or statement is often easier than generating one from scratch.  A good trusted advisor should use a combination of questions, observations, stories, and examples to help facilitate a discussion.  Not only will that help the other person organize and clarify his or her thoughts, it will make the conversation feel much more natural. 

Trusted advisors don’t interview their clients.  Instead they participate in a deep conversation about the client’s business problem.  Listening and understanding should be the primary goal and there is nothing wrong with asking questions.  However, a conversation should be a two-way dialog.  The trusted advisor should be adding to the discussion, not just taking down information from the client.

When you think about the best talk show hosts or interviewers on radio or television, you’ll notice that they don’t actually interview their guests (other than perhaps James Lipton who has mastered the interview).  Most of them carry on a two way conversation.  They use questions during that conversation but they also offer their own insights and observations along the way.  This helps to keep the conversation flowing and often opens up new areas to explore and discuss.  It also makes the interaction more natural and interesting.

If you want to be a trusted advisor, stop interviewing your clients and instead talk with them.  Don’t dominate the conversation – your goal is still to listen and understand. However, help them make sense of their situation by giving them things to think about, compare against, and react.  Not only will that help make the conversation flow, it will help you demonstrate your expertise.  Asking a series of rote questions isn’t particularly hard.  Synthesizing someone’s statements and pulling up a story or example to help clarify those statements demonstrates mastery.

Here are a few tips for shifting from an interview to a discussion:

·         Relate what you are hearing to another client or experience you’ve had
·         Extend what you are hearing by discussing research, articles, or other things that you’ve read on the topic
·         Help the client organize his or her thoughts by providing a model or framework (e.g., “Generally these types of problems fall into one of three categories . . .”)
·         Keep an open mind – you’re not trying to convince your client that your ideas are right, you are just giving him or her something upon which to react
·         Don’t be afraid of being wrong.  It’s ok to be wrong when making sense of what your client is saying.  You are testing your assumptions.  Your client will correct you and will also clarify the issue better for him or herself.  They will also appreciate the fact that you are trying to make sense of the situation. 
People don’t like to be interviewed.  It puts them on the spot, creates risk, and can even be perceived as being confrontational.  People like engaging in conversations.  Our brains work better when reacting and making sense of things in context.  Conversation and dialog provide context, discrete questions remove context.

A trusted advisor's value isn't just based upon helping a client determine the best solution. Sometimes the value is in helping that client better understand his or her problem.  

Try to shift from conducting interviews to engaging in discussions.  In doing so, you’ll learn more, make better recommendations, increase buy-in, and ultimately create a better relationship.

Brad Kolar is an executive consultant, speaker, and author.  He can be reached at

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Maybe we shouldn’t ease people into change

In the episode “Slap Bet” on the sitcom How I Met Your Mother, Barney Stinson loses a bet.  As implied by the name, the winner of the slap bet gets to slap the loser across the face.  Barney is given a choice. He can take ten slaps immediately or five random slaps sometime in the future. Barney’s friend Ted urges him to take the ten immediate slaps.  He thinks that Barney would be better off getting it over rather than living with the constant fear of being slapped.  Barney chooses the five slaps. Who made the right call? Barney or Ted?  From the way that many organizations handle change management, it would seem that Barney reflects conventional wisdom.  We often ease people into change believing that it is easier for them to adjust.  Yet, research shows that perhaps Ted is on to something.  Given that change management is an attempt to help people through the pain of a change, this research is worth considering.

In a recent HBR article[1], Giles Story explains that the anticipation of pain may actually be worse than the pain itself.  In Dr. Story’s experiment, participants were given the choice of receiving an immediate strong shock (sensation of an insect sting) or a more mild shock (tingling sensation) after a waiting period.  70% of the participants opted for the more immediate shock, even though it was more painful.  Dr.Story concludes

“We infer from this that dread – the anticipation of negative outcomes – is a powerful force . . . And we think these findings show that dread is so painful that people will pay a significant price, in the form of more physical pain, to avoid it.”

Giles Story isn’t the only one whose research suggests that people might be better off getting the pain out of the way early.  Researchers Leif Nelson and Tom Meyvis found a similar result in their research[2] on adaptability. They subjected three groups of participants to loud, unpleasant (and uncomfortable) recordings of vacuum cleaners. 

·         Group 1: five seconds of noise
·         Group 2: forty seconds of noise
·         Group 3: forty seconds of noise, followed by a few seconds of silence and then five more seconds of noise

They then asked the participants to rate their level of annoyance during the last five seconds of their experience.  The people who only listened for five seconds had the highest level of annoyance.  The people who listened for forty seconds were least annoyed. Those who had a break and then returned to the sound had a level of annoyance similar to those who only listened for five seconds.  Breaking up the experience made it worse, not better.

Then, they ran a second experiment to understand people’s beliefs about how they respond to pain. They asked a different group to predict how they thought they would feel in the three situations with the vacuum noises (they did not actually run the experiment with them).  Consistent with conventional wisdom, the people predicted that they would be the most uncomfortable with the longer experience.

Nelson and Meyvis concluded:

“These results indicate that though people want to break up negative experiences, this is not always a wise decision. Whereas listening to the noise for an extended period made the noise less aversive, inserting a break made the noise just as aversive as it had been initially, suggesting that the break disrupted the adaptation process.”

Breaking up negative experiences can actually increase their negative impact. This tends to counter the common assumption that it’s best to dole out the pain in small doses. 

These experiments dealt with physical pain.  However, experiments have shown that social pain (the feeling of being left out) registers in the same part of the brain as physical pain[3].  Therefore, it's easy to see how we'd react similarly during times of change or duress.  I’ve often found that the anticipation of a difficult conversation or unappealing event is often worse than the actual conversation or event.

Conventional wisdom tells us that it’s best to ease people into change.  However, research suggests that people are much more nimble and adaptable than we (or they) may think.  Consider that when planning you next change program.  Sometimes it’s easier to absorb a quick slap in the face than it is to wait for a softer hit later on.

Brad Kolar is an executive consultant, speaker, and author.  He can be reached at

[1] Berinato, Scott, and Giles Story. "Anticipating change is worse than feeling it." Harvard Business Review Mar. 2014: 30-31. Print.
[2] Nelson, Leif D. and Meyvis, Tom, Interrupted Consumption: Disrupting Adaptation to Hedonic Experiences (December 2008). Journal of Marketing Research, Vol. 45, pp. 654-664, December 2008. Available at SSRN:
[3] Van Hecke, Madeleine L., Lisa P. Callahan, Brad Kolar, and Ken A. Paller. "Chapter 6: Ouch! You Left Me Out." The brain advantage: become a more effective business leader using the latest brain research. Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 2010. 67-76. Print.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Beware of labels posing as numbers

Quick math test.  What is the percentage increase between “Strongly Agree” and “Agree”?  How much more is “Very often” compared with “Neutral”?  Is “Always” five times better than "Never”?

You can't answer, can you?  You can’t do math on labels.  They aren’t quantities.  We all know that.  Yet, at one time or another, most of us probably have.  That's because sometimes labels look like numbers and that creates confusion.

We often use numbers as short-hand for labels.  This is very common on surveys.  One equals “Strongly disagree”, two equals “Disagree” and so on.  When it comes time to summarize the data, we forget that those “numbers” aren’t really numbers and start running calculations on them.  The answers look real and sound real but they are not real.

The problem is that the distance between points on a non-numeric continuum is not equal.  The difference between agreeing and strongly agreeing with something can be much greater than the difference between being neutral and agreeing.  The difference between never and rarely is not the same as the difference between rarely and sometimes.  Yet, if each of those sets of responses were just one “number” apart, they’d be treated equally in your calculations.  

Anyone who works with employee or customer satisfaction knows that there is almost always a diminishing return.  At some point, increasing your score by even one tenth becomes quite difficult.  Those diminishing returns also don't get reflected in your calculations.

Performing standard calculations on numeric-labels won't completely mislead you.  If more people choose “five” in one instance compared to another and you take an average, the statistics will reflect that increase.

However, you won’t be getting a clear picture.  The change from 1 to 2 is 100%.  However, a person who has switched from being completely dissatisfied to just dissatisfied isn’t really 100% more satisfied.  Depending on where you start, moving 20% of your people from a state of being neutral (3) to being satisfied (4) could result in a change to the average satisfaction score of less than 5%.  That's pretty misleading (although that has as much to do with the limitations of using averages as it does with doing calculations on numeric labels).

The picture is further distorted because in numeric calculations higher numbers carry more weight. Therefore, as you move up a "numeric" scale, each incremental change counts for less since the denominator is increasing.  Going from 1 to 2 is a 100% change but going from 4 to 5 is only a 25% change.  While that makes perfect sense mathematically, it doesn’t make sense when you are dealing with categories.  Moving from four to five is actually much harder than moving from one to two but statistically you’d get less “credit”.

The biggest problem in running calculations on numeric labels is that it creates a false illusion of precision and understanding.  The number 4.24 is very precise. The difference between 4.24 and 4.63 millimeters could be the difference between life and death in a surgical procedure.  However, it's much less clear what 4.24 units of agreement look like as compared to 4.63 units of agreement.  Agreement is a concept not a unit of measure.

This illusion builds upon itself as more calculations are done.  Averages get compared and differences are reported to the hundredths place.  That causes us to believe that we are privy to the most subtle changes that exist in our organizations.  What does a decrease of .17 units of agreement really mean?  It means that there is a little less agreement.  But "a little less" is not very precise.  It's definitely not as precise as .17 implies.

Finally, the illusion is cemented in our minds when the calculations are subject to tests of statistical significance.  The magic "statistically significant" asterisk that is attached to a number creates a false perception of scientific validity and rigor in the analysis. The significance calculations themselves are rigorous. It's the subject matter upon which they are based that is not. You can get useful information from numeric labels but that information is much rougher and more general than your statistics will lead you to believe.

Numeric labels are not numbers.  They should not be treated like numbers.  Instead, work with them the same way that you would with any set of categorical data.  Use frequencies and distributions (that’s actually not a bad idea to do anyway, even with real numeric data).  That will give you a much more accurate understanding of what is happening with your data.

You can’t perform math on a label.  Don’t get confused by labels masquerading as numbers. If you do, you might miss an important part of the picture.

Brad Kolar is an executive consultant, speaker, and author.  He can be reached at

Friday, April 4, 2014

The least amount of data

Business conversations should be about issues, decisions, and actions -  not numbers.  However, sometimes it’s easy to go overboard and not provide any data.  That’s not good either.  If you don’t provide any data, it’s easy for your audience to assume you are just making stuff up.

It’s important that the person to whom you are speaking understands that you have done your homework.  Everything that you say should be based in facts.  However, that doesn’t mean that you have to provide all of those facts up front.

So, how do you strike a balance between too much data and not enough?  Here is a simple rule – provide the LEAST amount of data that accomplishes these three things:

Proves that you have data.  You need a few numbers to demonstrate that you have numbers.  However, hold most of them back.  Offer them when someone asks you to justify a statement or recommendation.

Engages your audience.  Pick data points that are interesting.  You don’t have to prove things that people already know or suspect.  Surprise them with facts for which they are unaware.

Refutes opposing positions.  If you know that your audience is coming armed and ready to tear down your argument, pre-empt them.  Choose data that counters their argument before they have a chance to make it.

You don’t need a lot of data to accomplish these three things.  However, you need some.  Be judicious and strategic in the data that you use.  Save the rest for the appendix or to respond to questions.  That will make your presentation more engaging and more focused.

Brad Kolar is an executive consultant, speaker, and author.  He can be reached at

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Do you want to engage someone? Be interesting!

Using Social Media to Engage Students.  Ten Tips for Engaging Your Workforce.  Are Your Customers Engaged?  Creating Engaging Presentations.

We are inundated with articles on creating engagement.  What’s going on?  Why is everyone so disengaged?  More importantly, why are we all so boring?  The answer is simple . . . to create engagement you must first be engaged yourself.  People are overworked and that they have little time to do just about anything.  As a result our interactions have become superficial and devoid of meaning.  No one engages with that. 

Creating engagement is actually pretty simple and doesn’t require a lot of flash. Just be interesting.  Find a way to tap into people’s interests and passions. 

Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest all engage people.  However, they don’t do it because they are Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.  They do it because they provide an outlet for people to share and learn about things in which they are interested.  Not every page works.  They only work if they meet someone’s need.

Similarly, kids don’t use technology or play MMORPGs just because they are there.  They do it because they are fun.  They provide something interesting and challenging. They give them a chance to advance, improve, and demonstrate mastery.

Courses that have engaged students generally have teachers who are actively engaged in the subject matter and teaching it.  They may use technology, but it is their passion which drives engagement.

You can’t make a presentation engaging simply by adding stories.  I’ve heard some pretty boring stories. Presentations are engaging when the presenter connects with an interest in the audience or challenges them to see their world in a new way.  The best presenters are the ones who have devoted considerable time and effort (i.e., engagement) learning about their topic.  They have the best stories and examples because they’ve experienced the same wonder that they are conveying to the audience.  It also helps when the speaker actually understands what he or she is talking about and hasn’t just memorized a page of “speaker notes”.   It’s hard to engage anyone with content you don’t understand.

And finally, employees don’t suddenly become engaged because they are involved in morning huddles, skip-level meetings, or town hall conversations.  Employees become engaged when they find challenging work that recognizes and rewards their creativity, value, and contribution.  Leaders who have the greatest employee engagement are the ones who have the greatest amount of authentic engagement with their employees.

One of the most enduring and engaging technologies off all times remains the book.  A good book, whether fiction or non-fiction, can hold a person’s attention well beyond the guidelines we often hear for presentations or other interactions (fifteen to eighteen minutes).  That’s because at their core, books engage our minds and emotions.  They aren’t interactive (at least not physically) or flashy.  They don’t offer a tremendous amount of user control.  They don’t connect you with other people to share your opinions.  They just capture our imagination and interests. That’s all they need.  All of the engagement techniques in the world can’t out-perform being interesting.

There is no shortcut to engagement.  It takes work.  Alot of work.  Yet, the work isn’t all that hard. Start by becoming engaged yourself.  Invest time in your work.  Learn about your business, your industry, and your job.  Go deep.  Invest time in your people. Find out their interests, challenges, and passions. Figure out what they need (and forget what you need). Then, adapt everything you do to meet those needs, draw upon those interests, and provide assistance in overcoming those challenges.  That’s it.  If you do that consistently, you will soon see engagement rise.

Stop trying to engage people’s eyes and ears and starting focusing on their hearts and minds.  That’s where real engagement begins.

Brad Kolar is an executive consultant, speaker, and author.  He can be reached at

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Staying in the problem

Let’s face it.  Leader’s like to solve problems.  As soon as an issue comes up in a meeting, there is often a flurry of ideas generated on how to solve it.   That’s not a bad thing. One of the primary jobs of a leader is to make problems go away. This allows his or her people to stay focused on delivering for the customer and the business.

But sometimes, in their desire to get to a solution, leaders miss the problem.  They speak of it too superficially.  The really don’t understand the issue they are solving.  As a result, while their well-intentioned brainstorms on solutions produce a lot of ideas, they often don’t make much progress.

The key to finding a solution lies in defining the problem.  An old quote attributed to Albert Einstein says, “If I had sixty minutes to save the world, I’d spend fifty-five minutes defining the problem and five minutes solving it.”  Most leaders don’t come close to that level of rigor in defining the problem.  In fact, most don’t go beyond a simple sentence or two that describes the issue at hand.

Unfortunately, businesses tend to operate in a world that values action over thought without realizing that the two are intricately linked.  The fear of spending too much time “admiring the problem” or getting stuck in “analysis paralysis” has caused many leaders to swing one hundred eighty degrees in the opposite direction.  They spend almost no time at all on the problem. 

Problems don’t go away without actions.  But, actions only work if they are solving the right problem.

There is a common misperception that defining a problem requires a lot of time which could be better spent solving it.  That’s not true.  While you do have to put in some time to define a problem, in the grand scheme of things, it is still a small percentage of the time and effort that you will spend on implementing a solution; especially if you have to restart three or four times to get it right.

You can define a problem relatively quickly if you focus and ask the right questions.  The following outline will help you define a problem quickly and clearly.

A)      The problem statement
1)       A characterization of the problem and how it shows up in the organization (supported by     data)
2)       An explanation of why the problem matters and needs resolution (supported by data)
3)       The assumed causes of the problem

B)      Solution definition
1)       The overall outcome that you are looking to achieve in solving the problem
2)       The criteria that will be used to assess the effectiveness of recommended solutions
3)       The constraints to which the solution must adhere (e.g., no increase in headcount or cost, cannot deviate from corporate policies, etc.)

Don’t move forward on solutions until each point on this outline has been discussed, understood, and agreed upon.  The time it takes to get clarity on each of these items will be more than made up for by reduced restarts, rework, and disagreements later on.

Leaders should be driven to act.  However, their actions should be motivated by a clear and accurate understanding of what they are trying to accomplish. 

Brad Kolar is an executive consultant, speaker, and author.  He can be reached at

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Up, down and flat – how well do you contribute to a constructive discussion?

Have you ever been in one of these conversations?
Joanne: I'm really concerned about my team's readiness for the upcoming change.  
John: My team has been ready for weeks. 
Julie: Do you think that we've done a good enough job communicating across the organization? 
Frank: I think people are just burned out
It seems like many business meetings resemble a game of whack-a-mole.  One person makes a statement. The next person chimes in on a slightly different topic.  A third person changes the subject once again.  This continues until the meeting or topic ends.

It’s no wonder that so little gets accomplished in meetings.  It’s also not surprising that so many people dislike going to meetings and see them as a waste of their time.

Meetings can be productive.  A good meeting can produce dialog about issues so that an informed decision can be made.  It can create buy-in and understanding.  It can foster engagement and collaboration.  But this can only happen if we change the nature of our conversations.

By being mindful of the way that your statements influence a discussion, you can help improve the overall quality of the meetings in which you participate.

Communication researchers use a simple tool for understanding the nature of a conversation.  They measure "up", "down", and "flat" statements.  The mix and use of these statements say a lot about the nature of the discussion, the power relationships among the participants, and how well people are listening to one another.  Suppose that you are in a meeting regarding a new product launch and someone makes the statement, “I think we need to focus on the 18 to 25 year old, female segment.”  Here are examples of the different types of responses:

Up – Why do you think that segment is so important?

Flat – OK

Down – Can you believe how poorly our last product launch went?

Upward statements extend the conversation.  They facilitate understanding.  They help to uncover issues and drive toward solutions.  They are the statements that drive a productive discussion.

Downward statements subvert the conversation by changing the topic. Sometimes this occurs so subtly that the participants don’t even notice.  As a result, downward statements can be deceptive because they appear to keep the conversation flowing. But, consider the opening conversation in this post.  Joanne received no advice on how to help her team.  John might have had some best practices that everyone could have used.  Julie never found out what people thought about communication across the organization. And, given the pattern, there probably won't be any discussion on burnout.  Despite this, I bet that all four would consider that to be a good discussion.

Flat statements, on the other hand,  end the discussion.  Ironically, many people perceive flat statements as positive because they are often statements of agreement.  However, flat statements shut down discussion and reduce understanding.  There's nothing more to say when someone agrees or disagrees.

For example, in a prior job I was required to meet with an outside consultant once a week. The meetings were tedious and non-productive.  The consultant would start each meeting by asking what I wanted to talk about. Then he'd proceed with no regard to what I said.  One day I had a realization. Not only did he not care about what I wanted to talk about, he didn’t care about what he talked about!  If if I asked him a question (upward response), he would "answer" with a downward response by moving on to whatever he wanted to say next. I think that he just liked to hear himself talk.  I changed my approach from using upward responses to flat responses.   By agreeing with his opening statement on a given topic, I shut him down. The meetings went from an hour to fifteen minutes.  I’m not suggesting this as a best practice by any means.  It was the best I could do in an unfortunate circumstance.  It’s just meant to be an example of how effectively flat responses kill a conversation.  If your goal is to keep the conversation going, avoid flat statements.

A good conversation should mostly contain upward statements.  Each participant should attempt to extend, elaborate, and clarify the discussion. The remaining 10-20% should be flat statements coming at the end of the discussion when it’s time to gain consensus.  In a constructive dialog, there is no place for downward statements.

In my experience (based on an extremely loose analysis), about two-thirds of the responses in business meetings are downward.  The remaining third are split between mostly flat and a handful of upward statements.

Pay attention in your next meeting.  How are you contributing?  Are you helping to improve clarity and understanding?  Are you causing people to lose focus and jump around?  Or, are you simply cutting off discussion and dialog?

Meetings can be productive and useful if they are managed well.  The best management starts at the individual level.  As Stephen Covey said, “seek to understand.”  It may seem like the discussion takes a bit longer, but understanding will create a much faster path to the final result.

Brad Kolar is an executive consultant, speaker, and author.  He can be reached at

Monday, March 10, 2014

Setting context with a logical argument

Trying to gain buy-in for a solution or recommendation can be maddening.  Despite all of your effort, your thorough analysis and rich data set, sometimes you just can’t get people to sign up.

Despite the increased calls for data-driven decision-making, data alone won’t sell your argument.  In fact, data play a much smaller role in people’s decision-making than they think.

People don’t buy data, they buy logic.  The first step in selling a solution is establishing a logical argument for that solution.  If people buy-into the logic, they’ll often buy-in to the conclusion.  If they don’t buy-into the logic all of the data in the world won’t make a difference. 

Poorly defined problem statements are one of the main issues undermining logical arguments.  If your audience doesn’t understand or believe the problem, they will rarely accept your solution.

To create a logical chain from an issue to a recommendation/solution, you must establish three things:

1)       There is a problem to be solved
2)       The problem is worth solving
3)       You understand what is causing the problem

There is a problem to be solved – Nobody buys a solution without first believing that there is a problem.  However, in many presentations the initial problem statement is often overly simplified and doesn’t capture the audience.  For example, a presentation might start with the statement, “We are seeing a significant increase in attrition.”  While that summarizes the problem, it doesn’t help the listener understand the full story.  When did the attrition problem come about?  Have we preciously had attrition problems or is this something new?  Is the attribution problem happening across the entire organization or focused in certain areas?  These types of questions help you create a more holistic picture of the problem.  It helps your audience become more engaged an immersed in the problem.  Engagement and immersion drive buy-in.

The problem is worth solving – Not every problem is worth solving.  Prior to establishing a solution, it’s important to help people understand why they should care about the problem.  Attrition may be high but if it’s not affecting customer service, productivity, quality, sales, or costs, why solve it?  Most people aren’t going to get excited about fixing an attrition problem.  They will be interested in reducing the impact that attrition has on the business.

You understand what is causing the problem – Too often the cause of the problem is skipped over.  It gets stated AFTER the solution is presented as evidence for why the solution makes sense.  However, this creates a logic leap for your audience.  For example, suppose that you’ve established that attribution is a problem and its worth solving.  You then say, “We need to change our reward and benefits programs.”  You just made a huge leap.  How did you get from attrition to rewards and benefits? There are a lot of things that might drive attrition.

If you are telling a compelling story, you audience will be starting to anticipate what comes next.  Once you’ve identified the attrition problem, they will begin to think of potential causes.  If your audience is thinking that t the problem is compensation (or if there are several options on their minds) and you suggest a rewards and benefits solution, you’ve lost them.  It’s hard to change someone’s mind once they’ve come to a conclusion.

Help them along by providing the cause BEFORE stating the solution.  That way you re-calibrate their thinking and assumptions prior to determining whether your solution is right or wrong.  If you do this right the audience should arrive at the solution before you even say it.  When that happens, you’ve won.  The chances of them buying into your solution are very high.  If the solution comes as a surprise, then you’ve not set the context properly.

Setting context and clearly defining the problem are essential to selling a solution.  They are also the part of most presentations that get glossed over or short changed.  While it is important to be concise and to the point, don’t skimp on the context setting. It’s not only where you start to build buy-in, it actually is a major driver of whether you will get it.   

Consider a print ad in a magazine or newspaper.  How much space is devoted to context-setting (e.g., the picture) and how much is devoted to the actual solution (describing the product, service, or company)?  Context creates a story.  People’s decision to buy into your solution is dependent on how well they see themselves in that story.

Once you’ve established the problem and recommended a solution you still have work to do but that is the subject for a future post.

Before you try to sell your solution, make sure that people are bought in to your problem.  If you do, you will have much greater success in gaining buy-in.

Brad Kolar is an executive consultant, speaker, and author.  He can be reached at