Overcome Your 'Human-ness' To Succeed and Lead, Part 2

Overcome Your 'Human-ness' To Succeed and Lead, Part 2

Note: This is part 2. For the first four of the 8 tips, lick here for part 1.

A new book contends that to be competitive in today's fast-paced, technology-laden world, leaders and organizations must overcome their "human-ness." "Ironically, being human helps us and hurts us," says Edward D. Hess, a professor at the University of Virginia's Darden Graduate School of Business and author of Learn or Die: Using Science to Build a Leading-Edge Learning Organization. To stay relevant, he says, people must "de-humanize" themselves by overcoming qualities that hold them back from becoming the best thinkers and learners they can be.

Hess says that research in neuroscience, psychology, and behavioral economics has provided an unflattering picture of the way people think and learn. While humans have the capacity to be highly efficient, fast, reflexive thinkers, our "autopilot" thinking isn't very critical or innovative. Instead, it's rather lazy and is hobbled by our egos, biases, and emotions. This, Hess says, is the "human-ness" people must overcome to stay competitive.

What follows are the last four of eight things Hess says people can do to think better, learn better, collaborate better, and emotionally engage better.

5. Rein in your emotions.

Emotions are one of the defining qualities of being human, and they can certainly make life wonderful, worthwhile, and interesting. But when it comes to doing your best thinking and learning, emotions tend to hold us back. Even if you consider yourself to be a very rational person, I guarantee that your emotions affect your attitudes, communications, and behaviors, as well as your approaches to problems, new situations, and decisions.

For example, a real-time critique by a difficult or unfriendly manager can elicit highly negative emotional arousal that adversely affects your listening, processing, and interpretation of what is being said. (In general, negative emotions restrict and narrow cognitive processes.) So instead of sifting through the manager's words to glean useful criticism you can use to improve your work, your anger might cause you to discard everything that was said in the meeting. Alternatively, your self-esteem might take a huge hit, and your feelings of shame and fear might cause your performance to further deteriorate.

Learning to self-manage your emotions is a valuable skill to develop. Tactics as simple as taking deep breaths or taking a walk to reduce physiological stress can help you begin to "tame" emotions. Although we can't completely turn off our emotions, we can deliberately try to think rationally about the situation, causing the emotional reaction to "turn on" cognitive areas of the brain that can "tamp down" emotions. In many cases, this could help us make better decisions and be more open-minded.

6. Stop letting fear drive your decisions.

From an evolutionary standpoint, fear is a good thing. It alerted our ancestors to danger and held them back from making decisions that might threaten the species' survival. But in the business world, playing it safe because you're afraid of the consequences is likely to have the opposite effect. A bolder colleague (or computer!) will step up to take your place. Abraham Maslow aptly stated that an individual would engage in learning only "to the extent he is not crippled by fear, to the extent he feels safe enough to dare."

Fear of failure, fear of looking bad, fear of embarrassment, fear of a loss of status, fear of not being liked, and fear of losing one's job all inhibit the kind of learning that's essential for your long-term job To proceed more fearlessly into the future, you (and ideally, your whole organization) must adopt a different mindset about mistakes.

Learning is not an efficient, 99 percent defect-free process. Far from it. So mistakes have to be valued as learning opportunities. In fact, as long as they don't violate financial risks guidelines and you aren't making the same mistakes over and over again, mistakes can be good. The key is making sure you're learning from them. And the faster and better you are at turning mistakes into learning opportunities, the less likely it is that you will be replaced by some machine. Acknowledging mistakes, confronting weaknesses, and testing assumptions is a reliable strategy for long-term success.

7. Make it (whatever "it" is) less about you.

Looking out for Number One is ingrained in human nature. We instinctively think about how situations and events will affect us and how we can use them to our advantage. I'm not saying you should stop looking out for your own interests, but I am advocating that you make more of an effort to empathetically consider how others are being affected, and how you can all work together to achieve desirable outcomes.

Humans have the best chance of surviving the coming technology tsunami when we band together. We'll need to draw on our collective intelligence to innovate and adapt, and we'll need to work in teams to confront and get past individual biases and egos. In my own work life, I've experienced the power of making "it" less about me. When I started to really listen to my team, to suspend my judgments, to pay attention to others' emotional cues, and to consider their views, my team began to perform at ever-higher and more successful levels.

Making it less about me - quieting my ego - became much easier when I realized that I am not my ideas nor my business beliefs, and that as a leader I don't have to be right all the time. But I do have to get to the best answer all the time, and in many cases that involves others helping me think better. Humility will help you really hear what your customers and colleagues are saying, and humility will help you be open-minded and more willing to try new ways. Both make innovation and entrepreneurial activities more likely to be successful.

8. Stop the time traveling.

The human mind has a tireless ability to dissect past events and project what might happen in the future. This power can be very beneficial when used for good - but too often, we use it for "evil." We obsess over past mistakes and beat ourselves up, instead of learning what we can and on. We stress about future "what ifs" over which we have little to no control - or we plan our responses to other people instead of actually listening to them talk. And in the meantime, we fail to use the present moment productively.

We must train our brains to "be" where we are right now, fully engaging with and responding to our current experience. This is especially important (and difficult) when we're connecting with other people. Consider that while most people speak at a rate of 100 to 150 words per minute, we can cognitively process up to 600 words a minute! To fight cognitive boredom and keep your attention from wandering, listen actively by summarizing what the other person is saying and asking questions for clarification.


I want to assure you that I'm not anti-technology at all. I'm excited by all the tech advances being made, and I think there's room for everyone - man and machine - if we humans focus on developing the skills that are ours and ours alone. As technology drives business change, not only will we have to rewire the way we operate as individuals, but entire organizations will need to be radically restructured in terms of their culture, leadership models, view of employees, innovation and collaboration processes, and more. In this new environment, will you be prepared to use the competitive advantage your humanity gives you?

Edward D. Hess is a professor of business administration and Batten Executive-in-Residence at the University of Virginia's Darden School of Business and the author of 11 books, including Learn or Die: Using Science to Build a Leading-Edge Learning Organization.

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