Cognitive Bias

A lot has been said about cognitive bias, an essential survival route-map our brain is wired with.

I have no intention of adding to the theory today. Let me give you just one practical, personal instance.

Those days, I used to live in Aamchi Mumbai… the Naval Quarters. I studied in a Kendriya Vidyalaya that was a 5 minutes walk from my home, within the security gates of the residential area. I played right downstairs on the inter quarters road where only Navy vehicles plied. In short, I lived in one of the safest places in Mumbai back then. I was almost eight. I was extremely fair. I was a bubbly, gullible and happy go lucky child…a far cry from my personality today.

That never-to-be-forgotten evening, I was playing hopscotch with my friends. An older person, someone who worked with my father, came by and caught hold of my hand. I was wearing a bright red sweater that day… something that set off my skin tone to its most rosy and vibrant tone. That my father bought for me against my mother’s wishes, considering my skin tone. Why am I going on and on about the skin tone ? As you probably know at your own cost, fair skin is an unfair commodity. To people at both ends of this polarization. Even today, but much more so back then.

So this person, whom I knew as one of my father’s colleagues, told me he had a little girl waiting to play with me, back at his house. She was unwell, wouldn’t I please go in and play with her for a little while ? Nowadays, an 8 year old would be on instant alert. But this was 1989. “Uncles” were not strangers yet. 8 year olds had no formal education in stranger danger. As the daughter of a naval engineer, I was privileged. I was living in a small nuclear family, where we four looked out for each other. There had never been a reason to really fend for myself till that day.

He took me to a first floor apartment in the next building. Unease spread through my spine. I barely remember the moment he let go of his firm hold on my hand to open the lock on his door. In that instant, I turned around and ran away, stopping to breathe and think only after I was back home in my room.

For years I analyzed that evening. How did I let myself get that far. What finally alerted me. What changed a gruesome ending to a close call.

My young brain must have stored away that a locked door meant nobody inside, much less an unwell child. My brain knew I was being lied to, though I had no idea. It told me to run, and I listened to it even before I consciously heard it.

And so you and I have Cognitive Bias to say thank you to, for this story told today.

Excellence is Gender-less.

The social media today is replete with stories about Malavika Hegde, the resilient woman who breathed life back into CCD.

Sometimes I wish the couple had partnered through the 2019 CCD crisis.

How many more women with how much more capabilities remain hidden behind their high performing spouses? How many times are the gender roles blindly followed without opening up to stronger and more resourceful possibilities?

Gentlemen, when you next say “Let it be, I will handle it myself” … do reflect if she can bring in an angle you have not thought through. May be you are knee deep in the situation and she has an overview.

Ladies, when you next say “Let it be, I do not have time to learn/understand this” … do reflect if you need to move out of your comfort zone. When it comes to numbers and finances… do reflect on what it is that you are running away from. Life changes from moment to moment. Your personal finance is completely your own business.

And if you are in business, learn the business side of what you do. What works in the market, and to what percentage ? When something failed, by how much did it fail ? What is the margin ? The numbers side of everything.

From a basic fresher interview to the leadership glass ceiling, this one gender difference glares at us … men dig out the numbers beneath the surface scenarios. Women don’t.

Women take the prize for interpersonal skill set. Women in leadership bring better communication and empathy to the team. I have seen this when I was in the corporate trenches, and I have seen it from my trainer’s lens. This is also a fact born out by strong global research.

Numbers and stories, both are learn-able skill sets. And the presence of one does not forgive the lack of the other.

One thought before we end this story. What is it that finally drives women to be efficient and strong, if not ruthless, leaders? What makes us break out of all the diffidence?

What brings out our own version of the CCD story ?

The answer from giants like HBR and Forbes ? Women are relentless advocates for others. When we focus on the people we lead, we are born leaders.

Let us open up to all the possibilities, not just the ones our culture and tradition has thrust open us.

Let us say Yes to new ways of learning, living and leading.

Let us say Yes to life beyond basic biology.

P.S. A few statistics, the numbers that hold up my story :

https://hbr.org/2019/06/research-women-score-higher-than-men-in-most-leadership-skills

Did you know that only 4.9%. of Fortune 500 CEOs and 2% of S&P 500 CEOs are women?

https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/11/un-women-2020-gender-equality/ :

18% – The proportion of chief executive officers who are women, according to a survey of enterprises by the World Bank. Among Fortune 500 corporations, only 7.4%, or 37 out of 500 chief executives, were women (compared to one out of 500 in 1998).

20 – The number of heads of state or government who are women. This is a “slight improvement over the 12 countries with female heads of state in 1995,” the report says. Women’s representation among cabinet ministers has increased almost four-fold over the last 25 years. Although in 2020, gender parity (around 50%) among cabinet ministers has been reached or surpassed in only 14 countries.

36% – The share of elected seats in local government held by women. In most cases, high levels of women’s representation have been reached by legislated quotas. While women’s representation at the local level was higher than in national parliaments (25%), it was not yet close to parity.

47% – As of 2020, 47% of women of working age participated in the labour market, compared to 74% of men. Globally, this results in a gender gap of 27 percentage points. This is similar to the gap observed in 1995, despite a slight decline in participation for both women and men over the past 25 years.

A 2020 analysis by Mercer of over 1,100 organizations across the world found a leaky pipeline for women in leadership:

  • Executives: 23%
  • Senior managers: 29%
  • Managers: 37%
  • Professionals: 42%
  • Support staff: 47%

Face and Ace that Interview

Your IQ has been assessed. It has been found to be on par with the organization’s current requirement. That is when you land an interview. An interview …that final gateway to your dreams, especially if your dreams are of financial independence. How do you ensure the crossover ?

Though most interviews do include technical and aptitude questions, what they evaluate is your EQ.

Do you stop to consider why the interview panel… the HR or the people you may end up working with … hold your entire resume in their hands and ask you “Tell us something about yourself ?”

Are you able to show case your best self in that limited time ? Are your values a good fit culturally or would taking you in create disruptions ? Are you someone likely to stick around for the long haul ?

Does your emotional make-up match up to the challenges of this particular job ? How do you handle stress ? How do you react when you do not have all the answers ? How self-aware are you ?

Are you just smart or are you able to communicate your smartness ? In other words, are you just smart or are you truly intelligent ?

These questions form your key to the right answers.

Tell us something about yourself ? Tell them your latest qualification/ experience and gently tailor it to their job requirement. No hard selling, but call it a gentle nudge or a subtle hook. In the direction that you want further questions in.

Where do you see yourself in five years time ? Most will go ahead and talk about promotions. Few will talk about what they are willing to do to get there. And those few are the ones who will get noticed.

In a “back to career” movement for the women who have taken a break, the Kerala Government has organized a massive job fair (KKEM Initiative). I am happy to be a cog in this giant machinery, part of the effort in Calicut. I train these ladies to face the interviews lined up ahead of them.

These are resourceful, empathic and dedicated people. These women have known and overcome struggles. They would be a great asset for any organization that fits their values and passion. The one thing I felt they do not know is their own worth.

A lady with 23 years of experience says, “Bindu, as you saw during the session, I take more time to respond than others. How do I compensate ?” I ask her why does she have this starting trouble. She says she needs to evaluate and analyze the situation before she jumps into it. And I tell her, see, there lies the positive that you bring in.

The single most important thing I train them in is to re-frame things positively. To see and project the positives in themselves, because nobody else is going to do it for them. To not focus on their negatives while communicating to their prospective employers, because many other people will do this for them.

The other topics included building a non-chronological resume, answering impudent (and possibly illegal) questions like “What if you get pregnant again ?”, aligning their experience towards the current market, answering when they do not know the answer, maintaining a work-life balance once they do start working, time management and decision-making.

Towards the very end a conscientious trainee asked me : “But is this not manipulation ? All this re-framing ?” For a second I was stumped. Then I laughed and replied with a question : “Ma’am, do you wear the same clothes to the beach and to your place of worship ?”

She had her answer. That is the magic of training with these ladies. They are quick and agile to relate and learn. All they need is direction, strategy and confidence.

Cross Culture

Why does an unexpected call from a native speaker of English intimidate those of us who speak English as our second, third or forth language ?

What cultural concepts infiltrate languages and so the communication styles ?

Let me take you through a few of the scenarios that I bring forth in communication trainings for the technical consultant.

Time is at the forefront. The cyclical nature of time in all our cultural lore has rendered time a never ending resource for us. On the other half of the globe, where our tech businesses find traction, time is a very linear concept. People move through strict and narrow time frames.

How does this cultural difference reflect in our language ? A simple “hold on” could be re-engineered to “Let me get back to you with details 1 and 2 in five minutes time.” Or in half an hour or half a day, as the case may be. The idea is to add on specificity to our time frames.

Frameworks of decision-making stem from cultural norms. A more established culture might have stronger infrastructures. So the decisions are made moving inward, deductions from general scenarios to more specific ones. Whereas a culture in flux might make a decision moving outwards, from a specific point to generalities. When these two cultures interact, a question of “how did you arrive at this point ?” might lead us to difficult answers and defensiveness. Unless of course, we sculpt a logical decision making framework as well as an openness to questioning and being questioned.

Questions lead us to the last frontier. There are vast differences in the power distance and the uncertainty index among cultures. Asking a question might be about proving one’s own knowledge or asserting superiority and not at all about curiosity and willingness to be open to change. Sometimes a project moves on for months before root assumptions are clarified through questions; and then the client wonders about the very foundations of the project.

The bigger communication issues stem from deep cultural norms. Solving the smaller language issues alone might not get us long term results. Unless cross cultural communication is learnt as a strategy, any normal day-to-day crisis could throw up a bad playing field.

So let us train the right way, strategically. Starting with a deeper understanding of our own culture, let us move on to the building blocks of the culture that we are trying to relate to. Only after we lay down these foundations, shall we turn to the language itself. This is how we build ourselves a confident and lasting cross culture communication strategy.

At What Level do You Think ?

One night, my little girl comes to my room, long after I had put her to bed. She says, Mom, I cannot stop my thoughts. They are over-running me.

There is a technique in training, the ELI5, “explain it to me like I‘m 5 years old”. The premise is, to master a concept or to understand an idea completely, try and explain it to a little child. Here was my chance to practice this.

So I start off asking her what is she thinking about. She relates to me an entire episode of Archies that she had watched earlier. And says I just cannot stop my mind…it is replaying everything.

I talk to her of horses and trainers. Of how each horse is trained with love and patience. Then relate our thoughts to horses, and our mind to the trainer. Our thoughts are not our mind. Our thoughts are not us. Our thoughts could become our best friends or wild strangers. It all depended upon how we train them. What they are not, is us.

The trainer in my girl got a measure of control over her wild horses that night. With some more hugs and songs and questions and answers… she went back to sleep.

If only it were so easy to re-assure us adults.

Let us talk a bit about our thoughts. How they over-run us without our awareness. Let us build a path to self-awareness. Let us name all our thoughts, but choose and empower only those that work for us.

Naming our Thoughts

What do we do when we are driving and the traffic light turns yellow ? We slow down and apply the brakes. That is the very first technique that we use on our thoughts. When we see them cascading… especially an anger, fear, disgust, or a nasty surprise… we slow down and apply the brakes.

How ? By naming our emotions to ourselves.

If I say to myself, Bindu, you are angry and your angry reactions so far have led to bad outcomes, I will have a far more considered response. As compared to when I am angry and I let my angry horses have their wild run.

As a people, we are not very emotionally literate. We do not have the right words for so many of our emotions. Are we experiencing a Rage, an Anger or a mere Annoyance ? Do we know the exact opposite of Amazement ?

We would not do well in framing equations like Love = Joy + Trust. What emotions does Joy begin and end with ? Where does Fear come from and where does it lead to ? We have been taught many things, but not these basics of emotional literacy.

To us it is a new journey… that can teach us on how to apply the brakes. The right words are powerful enough to stop any emotional avalanche and guide us to respond rationally.

Choosing the Right Thoughts

Our memory is built on association. Associations are based on our perceptions. Perceptions, unlike facts, are based on our understanding and our attitude. Where does all this leads to ? Our ability to re-build our positive self at any point of our life. Shall we learn the steps of this dance ?

Who is the person that we end up talking the most to ? Our own self. What do we tell ourselves about ourselves ? Are we as protective of our own self as we are of our loved ones ?

Choose the positive thoughts. Weed out the ones that we have named and framed negative. If you catch someone repeatedly harassing your best friend, or your family, with variations of “you are not good enough”…. will you stand by and watch ? Or challenge them ?

Then why allow your own thoughts to do it to you ?

Let us start the change…from the “No I am not good enough” to the “Not Yet but I’m learning” to the “Yes, today I can”.

Giving of Ourselves

The difference between who we are today and our most confident and powerful self is the right frame of mind.

Consciously, let us shift our focus away from anxiety and towards excitement. From ourselves to the situation we are in. Towards the people that we are part of.

Once we are confident enough in ourselves, we start the next leg of the journey – to be empathic to others.

A Question

Do you value the questions in your life ? Or do you focus on answers alone ? Are all questions created equal ? Today let us explore our questioning skills, and build ourselves an arsenal of intelligent questions.

There is one particular formula in Physics that I learnt in school. I can explain this one formula to you in great detail at any time of the day….even in the middle of the night if you wake me up and ask. At this point, you would ask…so what makes this formula so special ?

The Why ?

In that particular class, our Teacher, Mr. Narendran, restricted himself to asking Questions. Our class reached the answer all by ourselves. It would have taken Sir five minutes to Explain and Illustrate the formula for Momentum. In that case, my brain would have retained it till the examination. He chose to give us 45 minutes to lead us there. After two and a half decades, I can still recount in detail that particular class and all its lessons.

We look around and see that the answer-ers are the more favored. In the rush of meeting a deadline or finishing a chapter, the brownie points are saved for the conformers, not the disrupt-ors. But then these are rather low hanging fruits.

Let us look at a much loftier example. Someone did ask why the apple fell downward. Active questioning is undeniably powerful.

The right questions can answer for the difference between delivering a wrong project on-time, on-budget and losing the client, or going back to the table with newly learnt facts and earning the client’s long term respect and confidence.

We always circle back to Socrates when we talk about Questions. Let us go back further today.

I looked up the etymology of the word “Prashna”. To those of us, coming from the various Indian Backgrounds, it means Question. It is, however, the stand-in word for “a lesson” , too, in the ancient texts. Sanskrit throws us a googly here…using the same word for a question, a task and a lesson.

At some level, my Physics Teacher knew all this.

So why do we not ask questions anymore ? Many reasons. Let me highlight the most common one.

The pedestal we set our Authority figure on. A parent, a teacher, a lead… they are expected to know everything. We are not used to the Uncertainty of a “let me find out and get back to you on this” or an “intelligent question…can we find the answer together ?”.

One of the first things we learn in our schools is not to put our teachers in a tight spot.

The What-Ifs

Don’t you think we need this change ? To bring in a questioning culture ? To bring the lessons of “Life Long Learning” to our everyday, and extend that courtesy to both sides of every valid question.

Let us look at a few applications

I re-learnt the power of this tool in training practice a few days ago. I used a few slides with a single question on each. After 20-30 seconds of nerve-wracking silence on both sides, my trainees started un-muting themselves and answering. They did me proud. They insisted on debating amongst themselves before I opened up any of my answer slides. When they found out that they had achieved options and answers more suited to their work all by themselves, the energy level in the room went high. I was thanked, for leading them on to find their own answers.

Take a corporate situation like a feedback meeting. Let us make it a negative feedback, the more difficult one. How about asking the why behind any behavior or situation rather than judging a person or a personality ? Takes the weight off both the giver and the receiver. No demoralizing, no de-motivation, no finger-pointing and no toxic grudges.

Let us say we are pitching for a training session. Again, asking the right questions to measure the expected outcomes of the training is the first step. In most cases, I could feel the HR or the L&D really getting on board with their skin in the game.

The How

All of this brings us to the quality of the Questions we ask. Sometimes we ask questions to start off an argument. Because I am in the process of having a very bad day and why should you go free ?

Sometimes the questions are carefully sculpted to bring out and showcase our rather sharp intelligence. Not to take the discussion further.

How do we avoid these traps ? Where are the intelligent questions lurking ?

To start with, there are the 3 questions.

The Why. The background, the supporting facts. The reason why things are the way they are.

The Why behind the Why ? Unless we understand the validity and value of any current situation, we cannot truly better it. The Whys form the Root.

Then come the What-Ifs. What are the changes, the innovations, or the disruptions that come to mind? What would you do differently than yesterday ? What would you do differently from the next person ? Where is your personal touch ?

Why the What-ifs ? To add more value. To leave your mark. To bring in a so-far unconsidered angle. The What-ifs are your big blue Sky.

Then comes the How, the last of the three. How does it translate into your everyday ? How will you deal with the constraints, the risks ? The Hows will decide which of your What-ifs is achievable. The How is the Ground on which you walk.

Approaching any working system with a framework of three questions is a practice that will start you off towards a great adventure with truly great questions.

Dig deep with your questions…they open up your own mind and the world around you.

The simple, Yes/No questions are more suited to open or end a conversation. The true explorations come with the what/when/why/how/where/who. These are the questions that lean-in on our brain, and say “You Sleepy-head, You Cognitive Miser, I’m taking you out for a run today. Go, get your shoes on.”

Sometimes, we do not ask because we do not know how to. We were trying to be helpful, but we have been told our questions were rude. That may be to do with the language. In many languages, the different words for “You” convey the level of respect that we aim for.

While translating to the single “You” in English, we overlook this loss. Adding a Please might suffice… but at some tables the Please is just the price of admission. There are many techniques on dealing with this one. The use of modals (Could you please), the use of past tense (I was wondering if..), the use of vague words (Is it quite alright if..?) and in the more formal and complex situations, the use of may, might or even negatives are the a few.

Dear Reader, having journeyed with you so far in the Question-Land, I leave you now. Right in front of three brightly painted red doors. They open to the Whys, What-Ifs and Hows of your life. Open them to step into an exciting beyond.

And do let me know of any questions that come up… we can learn together.

Listening – The Essential Skill

The building block of all soft skills ? Listening. Shall we find out how much of listeners we are? Note, I didn’t venture anywhere near to “good listeners.” Just listeners, to start with.

We will start with a what, a why and then move onto a how.

The What:

When I began training, I got a lot of feedback. The positive ones being, good flow, good connect. The negative ones ? that I go content heavy. Took me a while to get that I cannot use the same methods of training for one, two, three or four hours. The same methods do not work for differing levels of trainee experience. The methods again waver and vary when the trainees are accompanied by their work supervisors or their learning and development leads.

The levels of depth that I can wade in and convince my trainees to test the waters with me are different each time. Their expectations are different. Their check-in mindsets are different.

Their levels of listening are different.

When I write, I still have the luxury to set my outliers and build the topic with aplomb. Here I can chase a thought like a child with a net shadowing a butterfly.

I just need to make sure to take you along on this stealth journey.

Coming back to listening. Its origin is Germanic, meaning to pay attention. Attention, the currency…the medium, the measure, the store, and the standard flag bearer for empathy. The highest form of human connect.

So, from the building block to the highest form. The steps from listening to empathy. The ladder that is called soft skills.

When, in your life, did you listen best ? What are the levels of listening you currently employ ? When did and why the difference creep in ?

The Why :

As a child, you and I were eager and full of curiosities. We had not formed an opinion of ourselves that we needed to conform to at all costs. We were willing, in other words, to listen.

We were chock full of questions and ready for answers. Now the situation is, we are full of set answers that we are ready to fit into any questions.

Who stopped our questioning ? We saw the parents, the teachers, all our authority figures…they rewarded the answer-ers. Not the questioners. And we, fast learners that we are, shifted our modes.

Only the most stubborn remained questioners. And they questioned even when an apple fell downwards, not flew up. You see, the questioners too have their rewards. Just not immediate ones.

And so we re-learn, at a certain age, that questioning has its place. And once again, we start to listen to the answers.

And the How :

Sometimes, it is a sharply focused listening. Like my daughter does. Her teacher could be talking in the virtual classroom for many minutes and she would be wandering around the house, even the garden… but the moment the teacher utters “Mitra, can you answer?” she flies back to her chair and switches on her video with a smile, “Yes, Ma’am”. And she has the right answer. I was exasperated at her walking around during the classes (I usually am at both my children) ( You will hear of them now and again…they train me as much as I train them). I wondered if she gained anything out of the whole thing ? Then one late night as I was walking around the block, her teacher calls me and asks can I please give the phone to Mitra ? An irate parent has called the teacher and wants to know why she hasn’t taught the last part of a topic. She believes she has but she has lost the recording of that class. And she knows exactly which student would know to what extent she has covered the topic and who could be trusted to give her straightforward answers. Mitra and she have a lengthy chat and bid each other a happy good night. That incident, my dear reader, is what opened my eyes to the level of listening my five year old practices.

Listening deep is one thing. Dead air over the line when you listen deep is something that rattles the other person. So here come some skills to your rescue : verbal nods. Your “ah!” “okkk” “understand…” and the ” and then ?s ” And then you ask questions to clarify anything. Without Assuming. (Our assuming habits ask for a whole new post by themselves.) Go ahead and ask all those questions. The ones you have gathered in your mind while listening, not while multi-tasking or while preparing the correct response right after listening to the other person’s first sentence. Then paraphrase. Repeat to them what you understand, to the level of their satisfaction. This will make your memory stronger. This will clear any small misunderstandings before they go, dress up and come back as big issues. This will build you a huge rapport as a good listener. This will allow you to prioritize and mull over the multiple things the caller…your customer, your client, your lead, your direct report, your colleague….your spouse, your friend, your child, your parent….wants from you as a result of the call.

Then move on to your critical thinking and the active dominant continuations expected out of you.

Unless of course, you wish to climb the ultimate step of the listening ladder. Taking the perspective of the other person. The “I see you” “I hear you” “I feel you” s. Now this is dangerous zone. You take the risk of internalizing a new point of view and changing yourself. Of breaking your wall of limitations that you have built around you over the years.

But then dear Reader, where is growth without change ?? And what is life if not growth ??

Emotions

Are a lot like waves.

They move and they move you.

The thing to do is to stand apart and observe yourself as you wade through them. 

Tough ? Yes…initially.

Once the strong physical reactions recede…the mind works. It barely takes a minute or two to overcome the shaking knees or the incessant swallowing. And then the mind takes over…and it works better, faster and cleaner when you are going through these powerful emotions than it does at most other times.

So the next time you are intensely disappointed or sad or angry or embarrassed or afraid… let it wash over you. Stand back and observe. And then reap the benefits of the powerful workings of your mind.

Do not suppress, divert or react. Observe and take the best decisions of your life.

Gender Speaks

As young girls, are we females taught the healthy way to release our anger ? Or to suppress it as something unseemly…?

Is that what comes back to bite some of us when we grow older and react to unfairness with anger … but soon end up in tears and totally confused how we reached from anger to sadness ?

Why are our actions so at odds with our emotions ?

So many questions ….so few answers.

Why do most men get so angry and loud when they are hurt ?

The oft repeated “Don’t cry like a girl” could be the reason ?

At a young age boys are taught not to express their pain…they have to bundle it up and hide it from the world…after all, they are men. And then it comes out in other forms. Like violence.

So who is responsible ???

The next time you are confronted with a child having an honest emotion, help them express it in their way. Guide them through the stages so they will master it slowly. On how to give in, how much to give in. When, where and with whom.  

And if you are of the generation that has not been taught these things, let me tell you a secret. There is a at least as much that we can learn from the children as we can teach them.

Dear Reader

That moment at the beginning of a new blog : When the Writer answers to you, the Reader, on the Whys of Writing.

Sometimes we write because there is no way to stop the words from pouring out, and we the writers struggle at making sense talking. So there is no way out but to write it out.

Sometimes we write in the angst that nothing makes sense.

Sometimes we write when we know we are evolving and learning…and we so need a journal for our journey. See? Even the two words connect…Journal/Journey. And I am at the beginning of a new journey…I am devoting time and energy to be aware of myself and others around me, to be emotionally more intelligent.

And just sometimes, there is a wild streak that only a woman at 40 knows about…she has given a lot of her years conforming, and she finally needs a room of her own.

Stay with me my Reader…and find out the wings and roots of my Whys !