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

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Bloom’s real taxonomy and helping leaders succeed

I’ve often maintained that leadership is more about mindset than skillset.  Leaders need skills but the best leaders aren’t the ones with the best skills.  The best leaders are the ones who look at the world, frame problems, and identify opportunities in a different way.

As a result of this belief, many of my workshops are much more about changing perspective and thinking than they are about building discrete skills.  Leaders and executives tend to get that.  They appreciate it.  They seek it out.  It’s what they are looking for to get better.

The problem that I run into is that often my workshop outline winds up on the desk of someone in a training and development department.  More often than not, the following conversation ensues:

“Um, could you tell me a bit more about your workshop?”

“Sure, what do you want to know?”

“Well, it says here that you are going to help them gain an appreciation for the ways that their brains unconsciously misinterpret information.”

“Yup – that part is really cool by the way.”

“Yeah…so…what exactly are they learning?”

“They are learning that the unconscious part of their brain takes in a lot more data and information than does the conscious part. And, while they may think they are focusing on very specific pieces of data to make a decision, the unconscious part of their brain may be actually incorporating other data and information that isn’t relevant.”

“That’s what they are learning?”

“Well, that’s part of what they’re learning.”

“So what do they do with that?”

“They make better decisions.”

“So, you are teaching them how to make better decisions?  Can you make that into an objective?”

“Well, that’s the result although I’m not specifically providing decision making tools so I think that would be misleading.”

“Then how can they make better decisions?”

“Because I’m increasing their appreciation for the way their brain works which will help them think more critically as they work through a decision.”

“Can you give me an example?”

“Sure.  Suppose that you are ranking your employees during the annual review cycle.  While you think you are being objective, you are probably being influenced by your going-in opinion of that employee.  You will interpret someone’s performance data differently if you believe that they are a high performer versus a low performer.  In fact, you may unconsciously manipulate the data in such a way that the exact same data point will justify a good rating for the high performer and a poor rating for the low performer.”

“So you are going to help people make better performance management decisions”


“Can you put that down as an objective for the course?’


“How come?”

“Because that’s not what I am teaching in the course.  This course isn’t about performance management.”

“But you said they’ll be able to make better rating decisions.”

“They will, but they’ll be better at making ANY decision.  They will think better and will have a better appreciation for the unconscious biases that creep into their decision making.”

“You keep saying 'appreciation'.  That doesn’t really sound like a skill.  Our people need skills.  How about this?  I’m going to send you a job aid about something called “Bloom’s Taxonomy”.  It’s really important for building good training.  It shows different levels of learning.  For each level there are a set of verbs that represent that level.  Why don’t you see if you can rewrite you objectives using some of those verbs.  It will help you focus on building skills and not just providing information, or appreciation, or whatever you are teaching.  I think it will make your workshop better.”

“Really? Changing the words in my objectives will improve my workshop?  That’s cool.”

“No, I don’t mean that it will change the workshop, it will just make it easier for people to understand what they are learning.”

[After receiving the attachment]  “But none of these verbs seem to apply to what I am teaching.  I think that if I were to use them, they’d confuse people.”

“How come?”

“Well it seems like these verbs are better suited for performing a specific task or set of tasks. My workshop is about changing people’s perceptions of how they think.”

“Have you actually taught this before?”

“Yes, it typically gets very high ratings and feedback.”


I have this conversation all of the time.  People seem to believe that if you can’t frame your objectives in terms of Bloom’s taxonomy, then you really don’t have an effective course.

But there is a major problem with that perception and with the way Bloom’s Taxonomy has generally been implemented in the corporate training world.  The job aid that this well-meaning person sent me (and the one that is probably sitting on 90% of training and development people’s computers) isn’t Bloom’s Taxonomy.  It’s the Cognitive Domain of Bloom’s Taxonomy.  There are two other, often ignored domains in Bloom's taxonomy. One of these is as, if not more important, in helping leaders and individual navigate the modern workplace.

Bloom’s Taxonomy has three domains:  Cognitive, Affective, and Psychomotor.  Each domain focuses on a different aspect of learning that drives behavior and performance.

The cognitive domain is the one most often used in training.  It is the nuts and bolts of doing stuff, particularly knowledge worker type stuff.  Bloom’s levels of the cognitive domain increase the learner’s capacity for making sense of and using knowledge and information:

·          Knowledge – the ability to recall and define
·          Comprehension – the ability to compare and differentiate
·          Application – the ability to use knowledge to solve a problem or perform a task
·          Analysis – the ability to find relationships
·          Synthesis – the ability to recombine knowledge into new ideas
·          Evaluation – the ability to assess and judge the worthiness of an argument or idea

The cognitive domain is very much focused on the manipulation of knowledge to enable a person to perform a task.  However, it doesn’t address how the person thinks or feels about that knowledge. 

The affective domain is where attitudes, emotions, and feelings are built.  This is where actual behavior change occurs.  Having knowledge or skills doesn’t matter if a person does not believe that there is value in using them.  The affective domain is where you build empathy and emotional intelligence.  It is where you change people’s perspective on the world. 

The affective domain’s levels are quite different from the cognitive domain:

·          Receiving – being attentive to a discussion or issue
·          Responding – actively engaging the discussion or issue
·          Valuing – assigning meaning and purpose (e.g., “worth”) to an idea
·          Organizing – internalizing an idea or issue
·           Characterizing – motiving and driving behavior based upon an idea or issue

Any type of performance requires learning in both the cognitive and affective domains. The affective domain might cause a person to want to do something, but without the cognitive domain they won’t have the tools to act.  Conversely, giving someone tools without attitude also won’t produce results.

Bloom also recognized that there is a physical component to some performance.  For that, he developed the psychomotor domain.  The levels in the psychomotor domain attempt to increase a person’s physical ability to interact with the world.  I’m not going to list them here, but there are quite different from the other two domains.  You can’t teach someone hand-eye coordination with the cognitive domain.  You have to throw a ball at them a bunch of times and give them feedback on how they (and their body) reacted to it!

Bloom's complete taxonomy addressed three distinct aspects of learning – cognitive, affective, and psychomotor.  Problems in one of these areas can’t be fixed using the tools from the others.  Many aspects of performance require at least two if not all three of these domains.

Somewhere along the line, corporate training lost sight of the full taxonomy and began focusing solely on the cognitive domain.  However, in the last twenty years, we’ve come to realize that many of the issues that people face in the workplace are not cognitive (knowledge/skill); they are affective (attitude/belief/emotion). By trying to fit everything into the cognitive domain (and it’s “verbs”), corporate training has effectively stripped out the part of learning that helps us become more human.  Ironically, when we read about the gaps in leadership and employee engagement, most aren’t lack of tools, they are lack of understanding and caring about one another. In today’s world, much of a leader’s success depends on his or her attitude and beliefs.  The verbs in the cognitive domain don’t change attitude, they just build toolsets.  Attitude is about affect.

In many of my workshops leaders don’t take away a lot of new skills. I’m ok with that (as are they). What they take away is an entirely different worldview.  As a result, they become significantly more effective with whatever knowledge, skills, or tools that they choose to draw upon.

It’s time to give Bloom his due.  Stop short-changing the model.  Good training should change people.  We just have to become more sophisticated in the types of change that can occur.

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

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Fight, Flight, or Freeze. Leading when our brain shuts down.

At one time or another you’ve probably used the expression “deer in headlights” when describing yourself or someone else in a stressful situation.  As it turns out that analogy might be more accurate than you think.

In his book, What Every BODY is Saying: An Ex-FBI Agent's Guide to Speed-Reading People, Joe Navarro talks about the three responses that most animals (including people) have to threats.  Most of us are familiar with the first two: fight or flight.  Navarro adds a third to the list - freeze.  He also makes an interesting observation that these three reactions are not chosen ad-hoc.  They are ordered based on your body’s need to conserve energy.  The first reaction is freeze (lowest energy needed), then flight, and finally fight (greatest energy needed).

These responses kick in during times of stress.  They are automatic, driven by the more primitive parts of our brains.  Their presence is often a sign that the thinking part of your brain may be shutting down (or already has shut down).

These responses are so automatic and deeply programmed into our behavior that Navarro used them to guide his interrogations.  He said that people can teach themselves how to tell a convincing lie but their body always gives them away.  Want to know if someone is really engaged when they are talking with you?  Don’t watch their face (it’s easy to nod, give an occasional “uh-huh”, and look attentive).  Instead, look at their feet.  If they are pointed toward the door (or somewhere other than you), the person is in flight mode.  If they are pointed at you, you’ve got their attention.

By understanding and reflecting on these behaviors, you can also assess where you or your team may be during times of stress or change.

Freeze – the goal of the freeze reaction is to avoid being noticed.  Have you seen this reaction in your people?  When in freeze mode people disengage from meetings, stop offering opinions and ideas, and generally fly under the radar.  They are physically present but checked out.

Flight – the goal of the flight reaction is to distance yourself from danger.  Do your people suddenly seem to have a lot more conflicts with team meetings than before?  Are they missing more deadlines?  Do they no longer ask you to review their work?  All of these might be symptoms that your people are starting to “flee.”

Fight – the goal of the fight reaction is to squelch the danger.  In the business world, we don’t fight with our hands – we fight with our words and actions.  The most obvious cases of fight are people who become openly hostile in the workplace.  They can get set off by any little thing. Often what they are arguing about isn’t even the topic at hand.  In other cases they may become very sarcastic.  You may begin to see more personal attacks on you or other people in the organization.  In some organizations, the fight response is more subtle.  It shows up as passive-aggressive behaviors.  The freeze response causes them to go along with the decisions during the meeting but the fight response comes out at the water cooler.

Fight, flight, and freeze show up differently in each person.  Pay attention to your people’s responses so you’ll be able to recognize trouble.  More importantly, learn your own responses so that you’ll know when your brain is being shut down.

By becoming more attentive to fight, flight, or freeze behaviors, you will be better able to determine when your people (or you) are under stress.  More importantly, the behaviors should be a flag that you need to look beyond the surface.  Instead of confronting the person about the behavior (although in some case you’ll need to discuss that too), use the opportunity to have a discussion to uncover the deeper issue.  And remember, these responses come in order.  The sooner you catch one, the easier and more likely it will be to resolve the problem.

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

Saturday, February 22, 2014

How big is your data footprint?

We all have a data footprint.  Your data footprint is the amount of data, both relevant and extraneous that you project onto others when you communicate.  Traditionally, leaders have had a very large data footprint in their presentations.  However, research on how our brain processes information suggests that might be misguided.

Conventional wisdom says that the more data you have the more clear the picture becomes.  However, in many cases, more data actually distorts the picture. 

Here is a simple example.  The two trapezoids below are clearly the same color.

But look what happens when a small amount of additional data is added.

They are still the same color.  Don’t believe it?  Just put your finger across the center section. This is a simple example of where extra data distort, rather than clarify, reality.  

The unconscious part of our brain processes a lot more information than does the conscious part.  It uses all of that information to make sense of what it is perceives.

The addition of the 3D effect on the edges of the trapezoid gave your brain more information with which to work.  Your brain thought it was processing a three dimensional image rather than a two dimensional image. It drew upon past experience and brought in additional data about perspective, shadowing, and lighting to make sense of the picture.  In doing so, it changed how you consciously perceived the picture.  The trapezoids, as taken in by your eye, are the exact same color in both pictures.  Your brain changes the color, not your eyes.

Such distortions don’t just happen with visual data.  In his book Predictably Irrational, Dan Ariely provides an example of “anchoring” – a process by which the brain uses irrelevant data to influence decision making.  He asked people to write down the last two digits of their social security number.  He then described a bottle of wine.  Next, he asked if they would be willing to pay that amount (the last two digits of their social security number) for the wine.  Finally, he asked the maximum price they’d pay for the wine.  When he compiled the data, it showed a perfect correlation between the last two digits and the maximum price that people would pay.  By using the last two digits of the social security number as a comparison, Ariely established an anchor.  When making the decision about the maximum amount they'd pay, the participants' unconscious minds tended toward the anchor.  I’ve replicated this experiment in my workshops with over 1,800 people with the same results:

Last two digits
Average bid

In this case, the anchor didn't necessarily change people's perceptions of the wine's overall value.  A person who would pay between $80 and $100 for a bottle of wine, probably isn't going to go outside of that range.  However, the anchor most likely moved them within their individual range.  When aggregated across all people, the broader trend emerges.

In other cases, anchors can actually change a person's perception of value.  Ariely asked students which subscription option they'd prefer for The Economist magazine:
On-line only:  $59
Print only: $125 
Print and on-line: $125
When given these choices, 84% chose "Print and on-line" and 16% chose "On-line only".  Ariely then re-ran the experiment with different students but changed the options:
On-line only:  $59 
Print and on-line: $125
The "Print and on-line" option that was so popular before only attracted 32% of the students.  The "On-line only" option increased to 68%!  How can that happen?  Why did the students' perceptions of the value of the different options change so dramatically?  The answer lies in anchoring  In the first round, the middle choice, "Print only", created an anchor point.  Students didn't really have a perception of what any of the choices were worth. However, seeing that the "Print only" option had the same cost as "Print and on-line" caused the students to believe they were getting a good deal.  When that option was removed the students lost their reference point and made a more value-based choice (as opposed to the emotional choice of getting a good deal). 

Anchoring is a common phenomenon often causing us to make irrational decisions.  Movie theaters, car dealers, infomercials, and others use it to their advantage to manipulate you into buying or paying more than you should for their products and services. You can't prevent anchoring from happening but the order in which you present data or the number of reference points you provide can influence what gets used as the anchor.

Sometimes even more subtle and unexpected data affect our unconscious decision making.  One study found a strong relationship between the weight of the clipboard upon which a resume was placed and how well recruiters and executives rated that candidate’s credentials.  Negotiation studies find that people sitting in hard plastic chairs tend to be less flexible in their negotiations than do those sitting in softer, more comfortable chairs. 

Our unconscious brains use a lot more data and information than our conscious brain when making decisions.  Because it happens unconsciously, we are unaware of it.  We often fool ourselves into believing that we are focused and that our decisions are rational and based solely on relevant data that we have selected.  But, as the research shows, there is often more data being used in a decision than we think. 

As someone who presents data, your choices play a key role in the amount of extraneous data to which your audience’s unconscious mind is exposed.  Start looking critically at your data footprint.  Your goal should be to have the smallest data footprint that clearly and honestly tells your story.

One thing that increases your data footprint is including numbers or columns on a table that do not directly influence the decision that you are trying to make or support.  Often people copy and paste an entire section of a report into their presentation rather than selectively choosing only the relevant portions.

Another common problem is displaying data in the same manner that it was analyzed. For example, suppose an analysis finds that 18 to 25 year olds spend more money on potato chips than any other age group.  The natural tendency would be to replicate your analysis and create a chart showing each age group with their potato chip spend.  That’s not necessary.  To make the point, only two categories are needed: 18 to 25 and everyone else (the detailed chart can be in included in the appendix).  Better, yet, a simple statement that says, “18 to 25 year olds purchase more potato chips than anyone else” is even more streamlined.

A line graph showing weekly sales performance over the course of a year has over 100 data points on it (52 data points showing the date, 52 data points showing the performance on that date, multiple upward and downward spikes, and an overall trend).  Remember, to the unconscious mind, everything is data.  Any of those data points might be used as your audience's unconscious minds try to make sense of the graph.  The statement, “Sales have trended down over the last year” has only one data point. It’s much harder to unconsciously distort the point.

Less obvious things that increase your data footprint involve non-numeric data that clutter your presentations and reports.  Headers, borders, logos, and other widgets on presentation templates add data.  Some might be needed to provide clarity (e.g., page numbers).  However, a lot of it does not and might be unintentionally influencing people's perceptions.  Perhaps your logo reminds someone of a bad experience they had which is impacting their reaction to your recommendations.  Maybe the color palette that you chose was similar to the one used at their wedding (and they have just gone through a bitter divorce). 

A final way that we increase our data footprint is by not removing once relevant data.  How often do you leave a Powerpoint slide up even though you are no longer focused on the contents of that slide?  Do you wallpaper the meeting room with flipchart pages that are no longer the focal point of the discussion?  All of these common practices increase your data footprint.  Actively manage the information in your environment.  If a flipchart page or slide aren’t meant to be the focal point of a conversation, they shouldn’t be seen.

Become mindful of your data footprint.  Look at your presentations, reports, and meetings more critically.  Assess the amount of extraneous or irrelevant data to which you subject your audience and get rid of it. 

Ultimately, you can’t control where someone else is focused or what information his or her unconscious mind uses in making a decision.  However, you can minimize some of the choices. 

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