Barking Up the Wrong Tree

Why this book?

I have been a subscriber to Eric’s blog called ‘Barking Up the Wrong Tree’ for a couple of years.  He previews a book or two each month which saves me time reading everything.  Eric also links to supportive material that I find useful for deeper connections to leadership and management.  I think you will find his book a synthesis of many good ideas.  If you would like to sign up I forwarded this to you, and you can sign up to get the weekly email yourself here.

Barker, Eric. (2017). Barking Up the Wrong Tree.  New York:  HarperCollins

Defining success, successful employees and companies have a common element.  Connectivity.  Employees who feel connected to colleagues and the company are more productive.  This is not new, but it is nice to know there is research that backs up that belief. This is important to realize and monitor, especially with introverts.  The Bo Peep style of management (leave them alone) will not suffice in today’s world.

There is a myth about doing well in school will automatically result in doing well in business and life. “How many of these number-one high school performers go on to change the world, run the world, or impress the world? The answer seems to be clear: zero.” Although grades signify persistence, performing, and conformity, those qualities may not be best suited for all positions. “Many of the valedictorians admitted to not being the smartest kid in class, just the hardest worker.”

School has clear rules. Life often doesn’t.”  When jobs are less and less well defined, the conformance skill set may need to be expanded to produce the best results.  “Shawn Anchor’s research at Harvard shows that college grades aren’t any more predictive of subsequent life success than rolling dice. A study of over seven hundred American millionaires showed their average college GPA was 2.9.”

Sometimes you need a person who does not play by the rules. Winston Churchill was a maverick.  Going against the grain takes courage and managing them can be a real pain.  However, they can also produce creative solutions.  “Gautam Mukunda research was there are actually two fundamentally different types of leaders.

  1. The first kind rises up through formal channels, getting promoted, playing by the rules, and meeting expectations.
  2. The second kind doesn’t rise up through the ranks; they come in through the window: entrepreneurs who don’t wait for someone to promote them; U.S. vice presidents who are unexpectedly handed the presidency; leaders who benefit from a perfect storm of unlikely events, like the kind that got Abraham Lincoln elected. This group is “unfiltered.”

Being able to manage both kinds of leaders is important to get the best of both while guarding against the worst of both.  Skillful leadership must manage both.  Eric uses a metaphor of orchids and dandelions.  Orchids are beautiful if protected in an environment that is stable.  Dandelions, on the other hand, seem to grow wherever they are planted.  In the time of drought or changing climate it seems that the dandelions in my yard always survive.  My flower, however, is more sensitive to the weather and climate.  So, who are your orchids and who are your dandelions?  Are they in the best place in the organization to produce the best work for the organization?

Many times, we make an assumption about what is good and what is bad.  A story included in the book is about people with autism.  The Israeli Air Force was having difficulty finding soldiers who could maintain focus for long periods of time staff radar installations.  They found a solution.  Recruit soldiers with autism. They had a remarkable ability to maintain focus for long periods of time and staying true to the rules for reporting issues.  Putting people in the right environment can produce positive results.

Brad Bird, Pixar revealed a plan to get more creative people. “Give us the black sheep. I want artists who are frustrated. I want the ones who have another way of doing things that nobody’s listening to. Give us all the guys who are probably headed out the door.” Translation: Give me your “unfiltered” artists. I know they’re crazy. That’s exactly what I need.”  Yes, they can be a pain AND yes, they can be more creative.

The next statement was a surprise to me.  “Studies show people with attention deficit disorder (ADD) are more creative. Psychologist Paul Pearson found a connection between humor, neuroticism, and psychopathy. Impulsivity is a generally negative trait frequently mentioned in the same sentence as “violent” and “criminal,” but it also has a clear link to creativity.”

Here is a question in the book. In some cases, the greatest tragedies produce the greatest intensifies. What do the following people all have in common?

  • Abraham Lincoln
  • Gandhi
  • Michelangelo
  • Mark Twain

They all lost a parent before age sixteen. The list of orphans who became spectacular successes—or at least notoriously influential—is much longer and includes no fewer than fifteen British prime ministers.

Most people know they are not good at everything, but they are good at something. Drucker offers a helpful definition: “What are you good at that consistently produces desired results?”

So, how do people get ahead in organizations?  This view by Pfeffer challenged my fairness value but he is convincing. Jeffrey Pfeffer, Stanford, says managing what your boss thinks of you is far more important than actual hard work. good ol’ ass kissing. Research has shown flattery is so powerful that it works even when the boss knows its insincere.

Pfeffer says we need to stop thinking the world is fair. He puts it bluntly: The lesson from cases of people both keeping and losing their jobs is that as long as you keep your boss or bosses happy, performance really does not matter that much and, by contrast, if you upset them, performance won’t save you.

Ass kissers aren’t the only ones who thrive. Jerks do too. Harvard Business Review reports that men low in the personality trait “agreeableness” make as much as ten thousand dollars a year more than men high in agreeableness. Rude people also have better credit scores.” Eighty percent of our evaluations of other people come down to two characteristics: warmth and competence.

A study by Teresa Amabile, Harvard, called “Brilliant but Cruel” shows there are three categories: “right,” “wrong,” and “everybody does It.” Studies show expecting others to be untrustworthy creates a sell Fulfilling prophecy. It’s not surprising that work teams with just one bad apple experience performance deficits of 30 to 40 percent.

This is why, from my experience, unresolved conflict is extremely important to address.  Left unaddressed, issues fester, grow, and suppress others in performing at their best.  Too often, in an attempt to be nice and get along, bad behavior persists.  Leaders have the responsibility to resolve a conflict.  Otherwise, your best people might remain quiet or leave the workgroup rather than get into conflict.  Thereby, we lose talent when we need it the most.

Looking at the research on the other side of a conflict, what makes us happy?  One, we have already alluded to, social structures that are supportive.  The chemical oxytocin is released when we have positive relationships with people.  The other chemical, that is important in happiness, is dopamine.  When we hit a jackpot on a slot machine, it feels good.  That is getting a dopamine release in the brain.  This is also why any kind of addiction keeps the pleasure coming.

We also get dopamine when someone does a nice thing for us.  A compliment, a gift, some help when we need it.  Receiving does feel good.  AND, what researchers have found out is that giving also results in a dopamine release.  Studies have shown that doing something nice for someone else is pleasurable, even happier than something for ourselves. So, give but don’t get taken advantage of by others.  Takers can be harmful.

Think of jobs or activities in your past.  We have many times worked harder for something or someone else than we would have for ourselves.  This also happens with causes that we believe in.  A passion or cause, that has meaning for us gets our attention and we give time and energy to a positive outcome.

Leaders know that a lot of times meaning comes from stories in the field or something personal.  Stories that we tell ourselves and stories told by others can increase commitment.  Stories for generations have transmitted cultural norms.  What are the stories that people talk about in the organization?  What are the stories people tell themselves about their skills and successes?

Roy Baumeister, Florida State University says, “there’s no shortage of evidence that stories rule our thinking and predict success in so many arenas.”  Stories provide ways to see the world to help us cope.  Stories give us a little separation from total reality in order to process ideas. Change the story and change the behavior. How did Steve Jobs lure John Sculley away from his great job as CEO of Pepsi? He asked him, “Do you want to spend the rest of your life selling sugared water or do you want a chance to change the world?”

So, how do you get a good picture in your mind about success?  The acronym WNGF – Whiny Neutered Goats Fly.  Good games, successful programs are Winnable, have Novel Challenges and Goals, with Feedback along the way.  Think in terms of electronic games as an example.

Barker also quotes Teresa Amabile, who along with Steven Kramer wrote the Progress Principle.   The premise is that making small progress, small wins, can keep the motivation going.  So, how do you keep people you lead making progress which helps keep them in the game? Ask yourself, “What one thing can I do to make progress on important work tomorrow.”

Another concept I think worth noting is Time and Money. When we choose an extra hour at work, we are, in effect, choosing one less hour with our kids. We can’t do it all and do it well. And there will not be more time later. Time does not equal money because we can get more money. As we spend more and more time at work, meaning less and less time at home with family or relationships, consider the price we pay.  As a coach for many years, work-life balance is almost always an issue, especially for hard driving successful people.         

Eric quoted Peter Drucker in his book The Effective Executive.  Drucker says, “The executive who wants to be effective and who wants his organization to be effective policies all programs, all activities, all tasks. He always asks: ‘Is this still worth doing?’ And if it isn’t, he gets rid of it so as to be able to concentrate on the few tasks that, if done with excellence, will really make a difference in the results of his own job and in the performance of his organization. “You can do anything once you stop trying to do everything.”

Some current research on mentors was helpful to me as a coach. Gerard Roche surveyed 1,250 top executives and found two-thirds had had a mentor, and those who did made more money and were happier with their careers. Great mentors and great teachers help you learn faster. Eric Hanushek says that bad teachers over six months of material in one year. Great teachers cover a year and a half. That math isn’t hard to decode, folks. He says you’re way better off with an awesome teacher in a lousy school than vice versa.

Again, relating to coaching and mentoring the work of Underhill was surprising to me.  I take it to heart.  When you relate to someone you look up to, you get motivated. And when that person makes you feel you can do that too, bang—that produces real results. Which is why your employer’s mentorship program, while well-meaning, doesn’t help. Christina Underhill looked at the past two decades of mentorship research and found a striking division. Yeah, formal mentoring made a small improvement, but the real results came from informal mentors—the kind you find on your own.  

So how do you get an amazing mentor who is right for you? Here are five principles:

  1. BE A WORTHY PUPIL, GRASSHOPPER – “here is an old saying: “When the student is ready, the teacher appears. Neuroscience research shows that when an expert speaks, parts of your brain actually shut down. Gregory Berns, M.D. Emory, found that people will actually stop thinking for themselves when a person they perceive as an expert offers them advice or direction “The brain activation results suggest that the offloading of decision-making was driven by trust in the expert.’
  2. WASTING A MENTOR’S TIME IS A MORTAL SIN – Writing a multi-page email to a very busy person doesn’t show you’re serious—it shows you’re insane. So, respect their time and start small. Never ask a mentor a question Google can easily answer for you. Carve this in stone. Scrawl it in blood above your desk. Get a tattoo of it.
  3. FOLLOW UP – Early on, don’t mention the M word: mentor. You wouldn’t ask someone to marry you on the first date, would you? Do what they said, get results, and let them know they made a difference. This is what mentors want
  4. MAKE THEM PROUD – No mentor wants to feel they wasted their time helping you. But there’s a secondary goal here too: to make them look good. And how do you know who is a great mentor? By the success of their students, of course.

            Before we round this out, there’s one more common objection I need to address.

  1. Maybe you’ve fairly accomplished already. Maybe you feel you’re far enough along that you don’t need a mentor. You’re wrong. Atul Gawande is an endocrine surgeon. Every time I look at his résumé I think, Jeez, and what the heck have I been doing with my time? So, in 2011, what did he think the next thing he absolutely needed to do was? Get a coach. Someone who could make him better.

This is for us that have been around for a while. Mentoring a young person is four times more predictive of happiness than your health or how much money you make. So, if you’ve got the skills, don’t just think about who can help you. Think about whom you can help.

In Chapter 5, Marshall Goldsmith is quoted. Successful people consistently over-rate themselves relative to their peers. I have asked over 50,000 participants in my training programs to rate themselves in terms of their performance relative to their professional peers—80 to 85 percent rank themselves in the top 20 percent of their peer group—and about 70 percent rank themselves in the top 10 percent. The numbers get even more ridiculous among professionals with higher perceived social status, such as physicians, pilots, and investment bankers.

Marshall Goldsmith

As the WSJ reports, “Those who stayed very involved in meaningful careers and worked the hardest, lived the longest.” Meaningful work means doing something that’s (a) important to you and (b) something you’re good at. Plenty of research shows that if you do those things you’re uniquely good at (psychologists call them “signature strengths”), they’re some of the biggest happiness-boosting activities of all. A Gallup study reported, “The more hours per day Americans get to use their strengths to do what they do best, the less likely they are to report experiencing worry, stress, anger, sadness, or physical pain.’

One of the last lines in the book is, “The only thing that really matters in life are your relationships to other people.” Not a bad ending.

There are many, many stories and examples in this book.  I highly recommend it.