Self-aware to Self-correct


When the people I engage learn about my classical music background I’m often met with a blended reaction of curiosity and confusion: They’re curious to know what it’s like to play an instrument. But, they’re also a little confused. After all, how does a University background in classical music performance even apply to the business world? To help mitigate their confusion I’ll offer them one music skill I use daily that’s both practical and universal. I tell them it’s even a skill they can learn and develop too. And when I’ve piqued their interest I tell them:

It’s self-awareness.

This answer typically gets a raised eyebrow or frown. It’s mostly because we don’t often associate music with self-awareness. After all, isn’t self-awareness just some kind of existential destination we reach when seeking our place in the universe? (Think: meditating, Yoga, spiritual practice, or a New Age fad.) Well, maybe. But maybe not. I think this is because it depends on where you orient your self-awareness. And, because there can be many orientations of self-awareness (e.g. social, physical, emotional, operational, spacial, aural…), what I’m referring to here is a specific kind of self-awareness: one that’s practical.

To explain, classical musicians develop a practical self-awareness because we must constantly self-assess. And, practical self-awareness is necessary for us to notice and focus on those musical aspects and technical abilities that are not quite on par with the rest of our expertise. From this assessment we determine our practice regimen (i.e. how best to direct time and energy) to bring them up to speed.

For example, an expert flautist’s practical self-awareness can develop to the point of assessing minute and nuanced technical details. Let’s say he notices his trills are inconsistent. His practical self-awareness pinpoints the cause of the inconsistency- a weakness in his right-hand ring-finger. He’ll now direct his focus only on that one finger and run through finger dexterity strengthening exercises (addressing the root cause) until his trilling technique is up to speed with the rest of his musical abilities. To accomplish this, it is not uncommon to spend long hours practicing trills with the intense focus of, say, a surgeon or Olympic athlete.

The point here is that classical musicians use practical self-awareness to objectively analyze the many parts of their skill set. You could say it’s the ability to “multi-cognize” (not to be confused with multi-tasking), whereby the mind has parallel foci. It’s a kind of simultaneous or parallel processing. However, this is not to be confused with what cognitive science refers to as parallel processing. I don’t mean the kind of parallel processing that’s hard-wired in the brain like how our vision is processed through multiple pathways to determine the “what” and the “where.” (See: MIT Encyclopedia of the Cognitive Sciences) The parallel processing I’m referring to is a learned skill that develops over time.

For the musician, this self-assessment parallel processing is like a code script that’s constantly running in the mind’s background. For instance when the performer assesses her relation to the instrument (i.e. as instrumentalist) while at the same time assesses that relationship to the bigger picture (i.e. the ensemble). In other words, expanding the scope of self-awareness. So, what would it look like if we expanded our scope beyond technique and beyond the relation between performer and instrument?

Using our flautist example, it would look something like this: During a performance the flautist’s eyes are mostly trained on the sheet music while simultaneously using peripheral vision to watch the conductor. But, every few seconds the eyes will indeed glance up directly to the conductor. While this is happening, the ears are focused on her own instrument while simultaneously listening to the players around her to make subtle adjustments in pitch, tempo, timbre and volume. Let’s say this is a two hour performance at an outdoor venue where the temperature drops 15 degrees during the second hour: subtle real-time intonation adjustments are required to compensate for the instrument’s physical reaction to the cooler temperature (i.e. the instrument goes out of tune with changes in temperature). And while all this is happening she’ll be engaged in self-assessment by critiquing her overall performance; taking mental notes on certain musical passages and any technical challenges with the instrument that require honing for the next performance.

This is not a one-time occurrence. This self-assessment happens with every performance and rehearsal. And again, because the self-assessment parallel processing code script is constantly running in the mind’s background, it means even outside of the practice room and rehearsal hall we are still self-assessing through self-awareness.

Now, imagine if we adopted and developed this type of real-time self-assessment/self-awareness as common practice in the business world. I’m not referring to general process improvement here. I’m referring to our individual processes (instrument & technique), how we interact with our teams and clients (the ensemble) and our execution of outward-facing activities like high-stakes meetings, negotiations, and presentations (the performance).

What would it look like if you developed and applied a similar type of practical self-awareness in your workplace? How would this impact your work performance? What result would this have on your business or company? How would this impact your life in general?


Shared Governance: Are you’re misapplying it?


Applied illustration of shared governance



Imagine a family of four preparing to go camping for their long-awaited yearly summer vacation. The kids? They’re excited, and each pounces at the opportunity to influence their camping destination-  not to mention all their summer vacation ideas. So mom & dad, influenced by the kids’ enthusiasm, encourage their participation by sharing the responsibilities and tasks to make this the “best summer vacation ever!”  But, before they embark they’ve got to assign essential tasks and roles in order to set their vacation in motion. The roles include: driving, itinerary planning, assembling camp, gathering firewood & fishing.

But first, let’s get to know the family: Dad wears a prosthetic leg and is undaunted by work because he owns a limousine company. Mom is a corporate event planner but is on leave because of her recent epilepsy diagnosis. Daughter is an obese asthmatic 17 year-old who loves Sudoku puzzles. And, Son is an agile dyslexic 10 year-old aspiring artist.

So, in the spirit of shared responsibility here’s how Mom & Dad assign their summer vacation tasks to meet their goal of “best summer vacation ever”:

  • Mom – Driving
  • Dad – Assembling camp
  • 17 yr – Gathering firewood & fishing
  • 10 yr – Itinerary planning

After making the task and role assignments they all high-fived each other because they were happy the delegating took all of 30 seconds and proud of themselves for staying true to the principle of shared responsibility… to the detriment of their lives because three hours into the trip the Mom had a seizure while driving and they all careened over a cliff…

True illustration of shared governance


Head in sand

Ignoring Peer-Accountability

Ok, I admit this is an absurd illustration. What I mean here is shared responsibility within reason. And it may seem obvious to most of us that tasks and roles shouldn’t be distributed “willy-nilly.” Nevertheless, based on my experience, it can happen in  universities. In particular, I’ve witnessed shortcomings in faculty governing bodies in regards to the assigning of leadership roles therein.

To explain, shared governance in the broad sense refers to shared responsibility, accountability and decision making between two or more groups. For example, between a faculty senate and university administration. And, as The Association of Governing Boards of Universities & Colleges (AGB) qualifies shared governance, is “strikingly different from that of business and more akin to that of other peer-review professions.” So, in light of responsibility and accountability, and in the “peer-review” spirit, what I’m highlighting here is the principle of shared governance as applied within a group.

For example, let’s imagine within a faculty senate there are subcommittees, each with a chairperson appointed by the faculty senate president. It just so happens that the senate president is new to his role and doesn’t fully understand the ins-and-outs of governing bodies. So, he appoints chairs either randomly or based on whether he’s already acquainted with them. The result is a “willy-nilly” distribution of assignments (tasks and roles) with no regard for experience or outcomes.

Misapplication of shared governance


Furthermore, let’s say there’s a dysfunctional subcommittee not fulfilling its duties because the chair is misinterpreting or misapplying the subcommittee’s charge (mission). The result is a rouge body making certain decisions out of it’s purview and operating out of bounds. But, say there’s a subcommittee member who witnesses these shortcomings unfolding and predicts negative outcomes. What should they do? They need to demonstrate accountability, meaning (as Patrick Lencioni explains accountability to be in his book The Five Dysfunctions of  a Team) the willingness “…to call their peers on performance or behaviors that might hurt the team.”  But what if this subcommittee member fails to raise the issue by letting it slide? Are they obliged by the principle of shared governance (in the peer-review spirit) to act? (i.e. to point out to their colleague’s gaps in accountability).

Yes. That is, if accountability and responsibility are entailed by the principle of shared governance, then we are obliged by the principle of shared governance to act in accordance with the principle.

Bottom line


Should shared governance be practiced if by doing so means ignoring peer-accountability within a governing body to the detriment of its outcomes? And, why practice shared governance if by dong so means only meeting the minimum definition (and, recalling our fateful family above) thereby distributing tasks and roles “willy-nilly” for the sake of sharing? Therefore, to truly practice shared governance, the bodies of shared governance must themselves be effectively governed by their peers in order to function successfully.This includes: calling-out an uninformed chair, or ensuring roles and tasks are delegated commensurate with its members’ experience, style, qualifications, specialty… To do otherwise may send the body careering over a cliff.

What’s your idea?

Performance Roadblock: Are you a victim of “Stereotype Threat?”

Have you had this experience: You observe a star direct report performing well with stereotype_threat_imagethe rest of your team but notice they perform differently, or even “clam up,” when you interact with them? Could it be your management style? Maybe. But for those of us having a few years experience under our belt managing people we typically adjust our interactions based on the individual. It’s when this fails we are left to wonder about possible causes of inconsistent employee performance.

Management perspective aside, let’s ask ourselves: Have I experienced this? I’m sure many of us have and a few of us may not be aware that we have. Consistent performance is key to our succeeding, so this behavior is roadblocking our success.

Here’s an interesting angle on the issue I came across while listening to NPR. In “How Stereotypes Can Drive Women To Quit Science” the story brings to light something called “stereotype threat,” explaining that “when there’s a stereotype in the air and people are worried they might confirm the stereotype by performing poorly, their fears can inadvertently make the stereotype become self-fulfilling.”

So, if you rule out management style, it could be a psychological phenomenon on the part of your team member. You may want to keep “stereotype threat” in the back of your mind as a possible cause for inconsistent performance and think of a charitable way to approach the situation. Perhaps asking your team member what you can do to help them perform better might be a good place to start in quashing any insecurities or misconceptions they may have about you or themselves.

And this applies to ourselves, too. If you notice your own performance varying relative to the people you interact with you might keep “stereotype threat” in mind as an exercise in self-awareness.

Ideas? Thoughts?

Managing People in Universities


Lately I’ve been thinking about people management skills and its importance for mentoring & managing employeefostering teamwork. And how great managers and leaders foster trust in their teams to succeed in achieving their goals. I’ve also been thinking about how the university environment may need some nurturing when it comes to people management. Although this may seem too bold a statement, I’m speaking from personal observations and – don’t get me wrong – I really enjoy working in the university environment. It’s an inspiring workplace being in the midst of ever accumulating knowledge and diversity of minds.

A university is also a unique workplace. I mean “unique” not just compared to other non-university workplaces I’ve experienced, but unique because there are what I see as three interacting employment spheres: 1. Faculty, 2. Administrators, and 3. Staff. These “spheres” can be viewed as general roles and so, respectively,  the people in these roles are: 1. faculty only, 2. both faculty & staff, 3. staff only.

What does this have to do with people management skills? To start, defining these roles sets the backdrop for those of us reading this who haven’t worked at universities and to point out that the administrator role can be filled by both faculty and staff (typically: faculty administrators aligned with curricular administration, staff administrators are with business administration).  Therefore, because staff administrators may have private sector work experience (and related people management skills), this post aims mostly at faculty administrators who’ve only worked in university environments.

So, in this university environment I’ve observed a disconnect between administrators (faculty appointed to administrator roles) and teams they manage (faculty and/or staff.) It’s a disconnect with the interpersonal relationships that allows teams to flourish. For example, a disconnect between a Dean and her faculty could be that the Dean follows an analytical and formulaic approach to faculty interaction; a “one size fits all” approach. However, this practice discounts faculty’s individual styles and assumes two things about her team:  that everyone has identical attributes and everyone’s attributes are the same as hers.  We can also apply this to a VP and his administrative staff. If ignored, this disconnect can manifest into the dysfunction of teams and low morale. So why this disconnect? I provide two possible causes:

  • Administrators lack people management experience
  • Administrators feel challenged
Administrators lack people management experience


Ok, this may seem too obvious a reason but it can be argued that faculty administrators do have people management experience. To illustrate, let’s suppose the following statement is true: at one time all faculty administrators had mentors (managers) as young faculty (staff) and worked in collaborative environments (teams) on their way to being tenured (results), i.e. faculty were managed like staff and worked in team environments to produce results. Given this important formative experience, I find it interesting this managing/teamwork/results dynamic typically doesn’t translate to their new administrative role. To be fair, most faculty don’t have the same management experiences those of us who’ve worked in the private sector have had. However, by the time in their careers faculty become administrators they’ve been a mentor (manager) and the mentored (managed) at least once. Wouldn’t this be a useful experience most faculty could draw from and apply to their new role?

Administrators feel challenged


In what way do I mean they “feel challenged?”  Timothy F. Bednarz’s posting When Building Trust, Avoid These Six Behaviors brings up an interesting point. He writes, “Lack of trust in the workplace stems from areas that managers are often challenged by.”  I’m going to stretch the meaning of this phrase and replace “area” with “staff” so that it reads: “Lack of trust in the workplace stems from staff that managers are often challenged by.” If this is true it begs the question: Why would they feel challenged by their staff? And, in what way do they feel challenged?

Here’s a possibility: I’ve observed and discovered at least one administrator who treats non-PhD. staff as inferiors rather than team players. Why is this? It could be that because faculty spend many years earning their PhD. they may feel superior to others who haven’t. Perhaps they see this as a rite of passage they hold over their staff? And what happens when someone they manage offers successful solutions or different perspectives they themselves didn’t come up with? Perhaps this is where the lack of trust stems from? And summarized as “I can’t trust their input because they don’t have a PhD.?”  To be fair, I’m interpreting “feel challenged” more like “feel threatened by.”  And what I find interesting is that in the private sector not everyone in management has a PhD (let alone the same background as one another) yet they trust their teams. But, in the university, faculty nurture and mentor their students (who don’t have a PhD.) yet fail to do the same for their staff.



  • Do administrators lack people management experience? Perhaps, but remember: administrators as young faculty were managed like staff and worked in team environments to produce results.
  • Do administrators feel challenged? Perhaps if they don’t trust non-PhD. holding staff, but remember: At least one time in their careers faculty nurture and mentor a student who doesn’t have a PhD.

These two possibilities are not mutually exclusive.  To feel challenged or threatened by those you administer is to lack people management skills. And when armed with these skills the challenging or threatening feelings can cease to be. My point was to illustrate an area where administrators may fall short and that administrators can apply past student mentoring experiences to their current administrative role; a kind of built-in solution they can tap into.

And finally, to help administrators nurture their people management skills here are a few more suggestions to make it possible:

  • Shift in Leadership Culture – University administrators may not realize they lack people management skills and the challenge lies in making them aware. Senior leadership with the help of HR can raise awareness to the importance of people management skills and the role these skills play in the success of the university; i.e. changing the belief that the people management/business part of the administrator role is less important than their greater role.
  • Workshops, Readings, Discussions – For new administrators, an orientation making them aware of management duties and skills is a great place to start.  Refresher workshops for seasoned administrators would be helpful too. Senior leadership can recommend management skills readings and offer opportunities to discuss best practices and share their management experiences.


What are your ideas?

You Said What I Was Thinking: Are you a meeting “deviant?”

Questions While in a meeting have you ever noticed a team member who asks tough, yet constructive, questions? But these tough questions seem so extreme and to-the-point that others feel put-off by a certain candidness? And does the post-meeting water cooler banter revolve around how to exclude this certain toxic team member from subsequent meetings?

Well, if you agree on the need for detoxing your team you may want to reconsider. According to Diane Coutu (May, 2009 Harvard Business Review interview, “Why Teams Don’t Work“) teams need “someone who can help the team by challenging the tendency to want too much homogeneity, which can stifle creativity and learning.” Coutu calls these folks “deviants.”

We may perceive a deviant’s motive as wanting to make waves for the sake of making waves. But in reality, they may have the only objective, and perhaps outsider, point of view vital to a project’s success. Bottom line: deviants ask “why.” So, before we get bent out of shape at our next team meeting over tough questions let’s step back and ask ourselves: Why did this tough, yet valid, question just make me uncomfortable? And besides, haven’t we all at some point thought of a deviant question at a meeting but were too uncomfortable to ask it?  Not so for your deviant team member…. are you a deviant?


Not sure if your project is sound? Have someone shed “shadow” on the subject.

Oblique lightingHave you ever noticed that dust on the floor or a coffee table suddenly reveals itself at sunset as oblique sunlight pours in the window? It’s amazing how a tiny speck of dust or crumb can cast an inch-long shadow. Well, this oblique lighting side effect can be used as a tool. I recalled watching a forensic evidence documentary where attempts to find evidence of tiny blonde hairs, at first pass with conventional methods, returned no results. But, during a second attempt, when investigators dimmed the room lighting and aimed an oblique light source (i.e. setting a bright flashlight on the floor so that projects parallel on the same plane), it revealed the shadows of the blonde hair so they could easily spot the evidence.

Similarly, we can apply oblique lighting techniques in the workplace to issues, projects, decisions and ideas. To be effective, your oblique lighting needs to be from a source other than someone directly and longitudinally above. Remember, the goal is to bring out the shadows and blemishes (i.e. project blind spots and potential short-comings) so your immediate supervisor might only provide a direct lighting perspective that washes out the evidence you’re looking for.

To be effective, your oblique lighting source is best coming from a colleague in a similar latitude (remember our flashlight example above). This can be someone in your office, on your team or even in another department. The goal is to get a perspective from a different angle to reveal potential issues that are not obvious to those of us looking at it straight-on.


What are your ideas?

Would you hire someone without looking at their resume?

interview-questions-employers-good-badAfter reading Eric V. Holtzclaw’s post  Keep Your Best Employees: 5 Steps  I got to thinking about manager/staff dynamics in university settings… and these questions came to mind:

  • Would you hire someone without looking at their resume?
  • Would you hire someone without interviewing them?

Not likely… but similar situations can happen in the university setting. Here’s the landscape: it’s typical for a department to have an administrator, say a VP or Director (manager) and a few admins (staff). Often times a manager leaves for an advanced position after a few years. Their staff remains in place supporting their replacement manager, typically necessary for maintaining workflow continuity, office outcomes and institutional history. For example, new mangers might ask about the office’s function in relation to the greater university. Or, may instead focus on office logistics and details  (e.g. “you will place all my calls for me”, “you will set memos on my desk in the right-hand corner…”) while mapping out “workflow choreography” protocols. And, although the new manager isn’t hiring their staff per se, these transitions occur without getting to know the existing office staff skill sets.

“But, don’t you want to see my resume?”


I once had a new manager who replaced a resigning manager.  About a week before the transition she briefly met with me to introduce herself . It was a, “Hi, nice to meet you. Oh, I hear you like music…” and some smiles. But, during this 20-some-odd minute exchange of niceties she didn’t ask me about my past work experience, or inquire about  my skills or working style, nor did she ask for my resume. In fact, she never asked about any of these even after settling into the office.

Fast forward a few years. I’m placed on an institutional-wide project implementation team and tasked with hiring the data entry team. I knew the routine: create a job description, review resumes, interview and hire. After a few days into the endeavor it suddenly became clear to me that my manager assumed I had no experience with hiring teams when she proceeded to micromanage the hiring process. I even explained early on when creating the job description that I had a few years of experience with interviewing, hiring and managing people in the private sector. This, of course, was on my resume she never asked for. But explaining my past experience didn’t sink in immediately and I had to keep reminding her for weeks and weeks… and still I couldn’t shift her thinking away from her preconception of my supposed inexperience.

Although the outcome was harmless and the data entry team successfully hired, my experience was  frustrating at worst. But what if it were a contrary situation? Let’s say my manager assumed I was experienced and I truly wasn’t. Is this hazardous? No. Not in this instance, but I can think of  possible “hazardous” situations involving performance evaluations or operating heavy machinery, i.e. when careers or lives are at steak. Here, any negative outcomes will surely reflect poorly on the manager’s competence.

The bottom line is this:

  • University Managers need to assess their staffs’ skills and behaviors to best delegate roles and tasks. Failing to do so compromises their leadership role and their office’s mission.


Here’s what I challenge university managers do with their existing staff when stepping into their new role:

1. Managers need to review and discuss their new staffs’ resumes and past job experiences. This includes experiences in the current office.

Yes, this is a no-brainer but new managers can fail to do this: see above. This point is necessary to lay the foundation for the success of your office. I liken this to opening a new toolbox given to you.. You first need  to handle each tool to figure out how to use them before you can best apply them to your construction endeavor… your office mission.

2. Managers need to meet with new staff one-on-one to get to know them, both skill-wise and behavior-wise.

This is a two-way street. making the effort to reach out to staff is key to knowing how best to apply their talents. It’s also key to garnering their trust. To this end, managers can ask them to explain situations where they applied their natural skills and talents to positive results.

3. Managers need to ask their new staff open-ended questions; this is a quick way to experience their communication style.

Open-ended questions give the interviewee license to be creative… and  the onus is placed on them to immediately navigate the conversation. This serves as a real-time window into their thinking and communication abilities. The question can be work-related or casual. For example, I’ve begun interviews by chatting about an interest listed on their resume… This way I can see how they truly communicate using a comfortable topic that puts them at ease.  For example, I’ve hired a great team member beginning their interview with a chat about cooking.


What are your ideas?

Terminations – HR Tips for human experience & personal courage


As a state funded entity, a public university is sensitive to undulating budgets and state funding. So, during this recent “great recession” my workplace, like many other businesses, were forced to make challenging budget adjustments that resulted in tough choices. One of tough choices was the decision to eliminate positions. Although I see position elimination as a natural side effect of capital adaptability in inclement economies, it’s the manner in which we manifest these position eliminations that I take issue.

Is HR prepared to terminate?


A few of my seasoned colleagues recalled that it had been decades since our workplace eliminated positions due to funding. So perhaps it’s not surprising that our staff (some of whom have served over 25 years and like family to most) were being escorted by HR from their termination meeting, to their desk for their belongings and out the door… all in full view of their colleagues and in a matter of minutes. Needless to say, many complaints have surfaced about the manner in which these terminations were executed.  Many of these kind-hearted folks felt mistreated during the termination process, like they were fired for criminal activity.

I say “not surprising” because our workplace hadn’t experienced position eliminations (and resulting employee terminations) in decades so why would our HR department keep up on best practices for terminations? But, after all, it’s called “Human Resources” for a reason. So I find it ironic the human component is often times absent in human resource affairs and endeavors. To be fair, no one wants to terminate an employee. Especially if the task is tossed in our laps by economic forces. Having terminated an employee before I can personally understand the challenge of sitting them down and telling them they’re being let go. Well… for me it was a challenge because of the human/emotional element.

My termination story… as the terminator


As manager of a customer support team I realized that a team member wasn’t carrying his weight anymore and it was affecting team dynamics. I reported this to the CEO who simply said: “well… let him go.” Because we were a small company there was no HR department… so I had to wear the HR hat. I hadn’t fired anyone before and wasn’t prepared, so I searched online for tips on how to let someone go but wasn’t much help. After all, it was the late 1990’s, pre-blogoshpere so not much was posted on the subject.

On the day of the deed I was drained. I couldn’t sleep the previous night from playing out possible scenarios in my head wondering what his reaction would be: angry? argumentative? violent?  But, the deed was rather quick. Here how it played out: A co-worker and I casually sat down with the employee. Next, I gently spoke the typical “I don’t think this company is the best fit for you…. Thanks for your time.” Then, I waited. And the challenge for me was to sit there and witness the welling tears, the shaking hands, and the sighing as the gist of the meeting sunk in… then he stood up, zipped up his backpack and shuffled out the door.

I felt horrible…

I felt horrible because I was so caught up in my own stress that I completely ignored the needs of the person I just terminated.  I had convinced myself he’d be angry so it didn’t occur to me he’d be hurt. To be honest, I can see why my current workplace is taking the clinical approach: if you rely on the process then the human element has less an impact on the one doing the deed. But, the focus ought to be on the person we’re letting go.

Human experience & personal courage


Suzanne Rumsey points out that “…leaders over-focused on process and process metrics may signal a lack of humanity, but what I really think it signals is a lack of organizational and personal courage:  courage to slow down and engage a person at the most basic human level – the emotional one.”

Rumsey’s point hits the nail on the head. If we know lives are being impacted by terminations we can make the “tossing-out” experience less frightening for them.  And we can offer them a softer landing when we practice this personal courage… this “courage to slow down and engage a person at the most basic human level – the emotional one.”


What are your ideas?

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