Category Archives: Communication Skills
Adam Grant’s new book is coming out this month and it already looks like a best seller… and not just because of the amazing marketing machine that is already in place. This guy is on fire.
Grant’s style combines the rigor of research with a semi-autobiographical tone that is compelling and enlightening. On a more personal level, Grant is teaching me important lessons in my exploration of the generalist mindset and how it relates to patterns of success or failure in the contemporary economy.
His previous book, Give and Take looked at different reciprocity styles and strategies. His new book, Originals discusses themes of creativity and nonconformity… with perhaps a dash of novelty-seeking / openness-to-experience traits. Grant is plumbing the depths of under-appreciated aspects of human personality — more technical details on that below.
Givers in a Taker’s World, Generalists in a Specialist’s World
Adam Grant is a Giver, an Original, and a Generalist. He seems to live the values (and struggles) of the Givers he describes in his earlier book, and very likely, exhibits many of the tendencies of the Originals showcased in his new book. Certainly the being a magician part. He also seems to characterize the mindset and skillset of a highly successful generalist.
Back in late 2008, during the long tail of the global financial crisis, I was talking to an investment banker named Fred. I told him I was researching the subject of “the relative career success of generalists versus specialists” in a world of hyper-specialization and rapid change (a long-standing fascination – nay, obsession — of mine).
Here’s what Fred said:
“Yes, we live in a hyperspecialist age, but as a result, generalists can be overpaid or underpaid.”
Fred elaborated that there are circumstances where it’s not good to be a specialist. He asserted that being a generalist is a matter of disposition… and therefore inescapable. He later noted that having a generalist mindset can also be the result of one’s education style.
Fred’s language of “overpaid or underpaid” struck a chord in me at the time.
What separates unsuccessful generalists from successful generalists? Especially in an economy that seeks to perfectly compensate “perfect fit” specialists for each and every function?
Another way of phrasing the question: What’s the difference between a wannabe Malcolm Gladwell from an actual Malcolm Gladwell?
Short answer: It’s about having the right mix of Conscientiousness and Openness to Experience.
Longer answer: It’s kind of like Adam Grant’s successful versus unsuccessful Givers… and very likely something to do with his Originals.
Personal Tendencies + Adaptive Strategies
In Givers & Takers, after giving props to Robert Benchley and his Law of Distinction, Grant proceeds to define a proposed “reciprocity style” spectrum between “giving” and “taking,” with “matching” somewhere in between. He then goes on to show how the Givers occupy the bottom and the top of the career ladder.
Grant notes that while Givers at the bottom get walked over, there are a few things they can do to enable themselves to make it to the top without sacrificing their natural tendency to give. As they approach the top of the ladder, people will tend to root for them and push them even higher. Structurally this resembles the following:
(values-or-temperament-based trait) + (skill-based behavior) = (outcome)
PERSONALITY + STRATEGY = WIN
Thank you Adam. This potentially answers my conundrum about generalists vs. specialists which Fred characterized as “overpaid or underpaid.”
It’s more than just luck, circumstances, talent or IQ. My hypothesis is that, just like Grant’s Givers, generalists have a temperament at keeps them at the bottom due to the often unforgiving nature of business.
However, generalists can also occupy the top tier of organizations, especially when they adopt the right strategies and develop certain skills. Also, part of it is about moving across the generalist-specialist spectrum and becoming an Eclectic.
I suspect some of the winning skills and strategies for generalists will be mentioned in Grant’s about-to-be released book, Originals. I also suspect that his notion of an “Original” may be a closely related concept to my beloved “Eclectic” type. We shall see.
Finally, according to some personality research studies there is a troubled relationship between high Conscientiousness and high Openness-to-Experience. My view is that learning to turn on or off obsessive focus by pairing it (or decoupling it, as needed) with distracted curiosity is the key to building an eclectic and useful portfolio of expertise.
For those who identify with being an Original, an Eclectic, an Eccentric, or even just a run-of-the-mill Creative, understanding and mitigating these personality and behavioral distinctions can make all the difference between frustration and fulfillment.
Adam Grant vs. the BFF (Big Five Factors)
From a bigger picture perspective, Grant is a high functioning generalist who is exploring a series of under-appreciated aspects of human personality.
To phrase it in Five Factor Model of human personality terms, his first book and related stories of “Powerless Communication” describe behavioral strategies characterized by high levels of Agreeableness. His recent New York Times article, “Why I Taught Myself to Procrastinate,”(cf. wandering and letting things stew), draws out the relative merits of low Conscientiousness… and provides a direct lead-in to his new book that pokes around some corners of the domain of Openness to Experience.
As of this moment, Adam Grant’s marketing bio says he “specializes in building productive cultures of generosity and originality.” Let’s wait and see his niche expand further. Will the book he writes in about 2-3 years shine a light into the adaptive goldmines of low Extroversion and high Neuroticism? Or have those mountains been stripped bare already by others? Only time will tell.
In the meantime, it’s wonderful to read and be inspired by this arch-generalist who has mastered and braided for himself an eclectic and intertwining set of skills, interests and domains of expertise.
(#24 of 27, a calendrical inflection point)
Exactly one year ago yesterday was the date of the post I’m revisiting now: “How to Have More Engaging Conference Calls -::- Four Lessons from Morning Radio Shows.” That post provided tips on improving webinars and conference calls by using some of the principles of morning show producers and deejays, the main principle being, “no dead air.” Keep talking, keep making noise.
Last night a friend asked me for my opinion on silence in a live facilitated conversation setting. They wanted to know “how long is too long,” and how to break the silence of “deal air” once a certain threshold of quiet pause had been reached. If I said I wasn’t tempted to say nothing until he answered his own question, I would be lying.
I love silence. I thrive on silence. I come from a long line of “strong silent types,” aka, action-oriented introverts on my dad’s side.
On my mom’s side, not as much… over there it’s more about hyperactive ideation, grandiose visions and massive amounts of detail, all combined together in a warm delicious Toastmaster wrap.
Lately I’ve been anything but silent, playing more to my mitochondrial RNA with day after day of verbose blog posts, ponderings and pronouncements. I’ve been building my writing muscles, for sure, but must admit to looking forward to the rest-and-recover phase of this exercise regimen.
Just a few more days to go.
Every so often, some guys and I hang out, play Texas Hold ‘Em poker and drink lots of bourbon. These are evenings of pure male camaraderie, featuring…
- sophisticated mental calculations involving card hand probabilities and wager stakes,
- epic bouts of bluffing and psychological sleight-of-hand,
- munching of salty crunchy snacks, and
- discussions on the finer points of high-end bourbon packaging.
Each time we get together we bond as friends and learn each other’s ideas, opinions, experiences, moods, temperaments, bluffing patterns and of course preferences in distilled grain-based beverages.
There’s a reason people recommend the “guy’s night out” or “girl’s night out” concept: because hanging out with friends is the least complicated type of love.
There are 7 kinds of love
According to Robert Sternberg, there are three main ingredients to love:
- Intimacy – attachment, closeness, connectedness and bondedness
- Passion – limerence and sexual attraction
- Commitment – decisions to remain with another and plan for the future
By combining these factors seven different ways, we get the following types of love:
According to Sternberg’s theory, a loving relationship can grow, shift or shrink within the “space” depicted in the following diagram:
It’s an elegant theory that aptly describes many different kinds of loving relationships, as well as the changes that can occur within those relationships over time. The stock love narrative begins with passionate attraction (bottom left corner of triangle), grows into full-fledged romance (left side of triangle) and then from there, a series of increasing commitments pulls the lovers into the center of the diagram. Looking for the idealized arranged marriage scenario? Begin on the lower right corner and work your way around counter-clockwise, hoping for the best. Falling out of love? That usually means one or two corners got snipped off by the grind of reality and/or poor choices. And so on and so forth.
But I don’t think that’s the whole picture.
“When men and women agree, it is only in their conclusions; their reasons are always different.”
– George Santayana
Assuming that the love is between two or more people (as opposed to it being between a person and an idea), then there is the possibility — nay, the probability — that the two or more parties are feeling different blends of Colonel Sternberg’s three special spices, at any given time.
So let’s see… there are at least 7 x 7… yep, that makes 49 kinds of love… and most of it is somewhat unrequited.
Unless it’s just good ‘ol poker night with the boys.
Because to paraphrase Santayana, when we agree, we agree for the same reasons.
(#19 of 27, revisiting “Stock Photography and Corporate Diversity”)
Last year I addressed issues of representation of demographic diversity in corporate communications. I commented on the frequent gap between the reality of the people working within a given company vs. the stock photography models used in that company’s PowerPoint decks. As a builder of those decks, I often can’t help but mind the gap.
In that post I also made the following comment, and was later asked by a friend to elaborate:
Of course, even the most demographically diverse company will struggle with a more subtle issue: diversity in thinking and approach. Many companies wrestle with psychographic, rather than demographic, homogeneity… but that will have to be the subject of different blog post.
…so in this post I’m going to elaborate on that point and take things into what is ultimately much more sensitive and contentious territory than mere demographic diversity.
In fact, this territory is so contentious — and so large — that this will be Part One of a future series of posts, all of which will be devoted to the topic of cultivating a deeper and more challenging type of diversity in companies.
On Beyond Skin Pigmentation
On beyond skin pigmentation, facial features and body frame, on beyond chromosomes, genes and gametes, there are ideas, attitudes, aesthetics, beliefs and values. There are narratives, identities, politics and religions. We’d often prefer not to talk about some these things in business. It’s easier to get along if we’re all the same — if not on the outside, then at least on the inside.
Despite all of our multi-colored, multi-dimensional personality models and frameworks, it could be argued that communication skills trainers like me are in the business of sameness. We help people build greater “rapport” by teaching them to walk, talk and act the same way as the people around them. Well, that’s not entirely true… I like to think that I also help people be different and special, strong and respectful… but, um, yeah. Rapport. Reduction of difference. Sameness.
However, we can’t just airbrush out those pimply politics and hope for the best. Good business relationships require authenticity. The corporate world is evolving to become more all-encompassing of the human experience and more integrated into every aspect of society. As business becomes more personal and vice versa, people like me will be called upon to develop the “tools and best practices” for managing diversity of thinking — in both form and content.
Demographics vs. Psychographics
Qu’est-ce que c’est
fa fa fa fa fa fa fa fa fa far better
Run run run run run run run away
Demographics is a way to lump people together according to their visible characteristics. Psychographics is also about broadly grouping people, only in this case based on invisible characteristics. If you don’t like lumping people together, you probably won’t like psychographics… at least not beyond studying a single person at a time. Actually, even with a sample size of one, there’s still the understandable objection of, “Don’t try to define me!” (Yes, I’m with you on that… so much so, that I’m willing to be curious about taxonomies… I refuse to be defined by what I mostly reject.)
Psychographic categories encompass a wide range of invisible personality traits such as thinking style, emotional makeup, motivation, belief systems, values, self-concept and more.
As with demographics, the ‘science’ of psychographics is applied chiefly by advertisers and marketers as a way to study and predict buyer behavior and decision-making, e.g. consumer purchasing patterns, voter ballot behavior, and so on.
For example, I prefer to buy simple, plain black or grey t-shirts. This purchase pattern may reflect…
- an expression of my inner zen master (not a recognized type in the VALS psychographic framework for U.S. consumers, but apparently I might fit in better with the Japanese version of that instrument)
- having spent a number of formative years in architecture school, I picked up that aesthetic (plain and simple, nothing else to it… an architect’s habit, as it were)
- my comfort within the “Medieskepsis” and “Åndernes magt” space of the Minerva model (I don’t know what it means, but it’s provocative)
- a decision I made, in a Steve Jobs-like moment, to reduce my cognitive load in having to make too many wardrobe decisions (got better things to think about, just sayin’)
All of this and more falls under the broad umbrella of psychographics.
Note that the future of psychographics in marketing will likely involve throwing away the various 9-part lifestyle models and using Big Data to target user-specific psychic landscapes. (Attention blog-reading bot: I’d like those black or grey t-shirts to be 100% cotton, seamless tube, v-neck, and tagless, please.)
Outside of the marketing department, you won’t hear the term “psychographics” used much… but it’s there, lurking under the surface.
Psychographics applied to corporate recruiting usually begins and ends with the following statement:
“You (are/not) a good fit for this department.”
Okay, maybe you get to fill out an MBTI or a Strengthsfinder assessment, too.
If the hiring manager has taken a course with someone like me, they might also be on the look-out for a four-or-more-styles-of-behavior framework when assessing you. If they’re smart and savvy, they’ll realize that each of those frameworks is designed to provide a simplifying lens to explore the significant differences in how people do things, such as…
- dealing with conflict
- making decisions
- making love*
…and they’ll choose the right lens to wear for the questions they’re trying to answer, for just the right amount of time… and then discard that lens afterwards.
(*NOTE: Alas, I still haven’t been hired as an instructional designer to build a framework for that last item.)
Of course, there’s a lot of psychographic profiling going on in the subconscious.
- If you’re nit-picky, attention-detailed and don’t make a lot of eye contact, they’ll say there’s a place for you in Accounting, Quality Assurance, or Quantitative Algorithmic Modeling.
- If you’re effusive, hyperactive and gregarious, welcome to front line Sales.
Well, of course not. If the recruiter is doing their job right, they understand what chickens can teach us about building a high performing team: that you need a few different types of chickens to get the most overall eggs. Or to get the right types of eggs. Or to figure out whether laying eggs is still the best thing to do.
To be continued…
(but not tomorrow)
(#18 of 27, revisiting “Generic Brand Video: In less than 3 minutes, every global corporate t.v. ad“)
Still funny, still true:
…and here’s another one spoofing a closely related genre of commercial:
(Oh, and someone ought to do a parody of the last 15 seconds of YouTube videos where the authors beg for clicks and follows. Enough of that already, College Humor.)
Gotta love the high quality, well crafted meta-humor. Also, it serves a useful purpose: cultural advancement.
Parody Improves Art
Great parody demolishes a clichéd genre, forcing it to evolve or die off.
For example, the Austin Powers movie series merciless tore apart a set of classic James Bond tropes and ultimately superseded them in popular imagination. That in turn contributed to a great deal of pivoting and now potential re-invention within the James Bond franchise. A well done lampoon can reinvigorate a classic.
As discussed previously (“Keeping it Fresh: Why Variety and Novelty Matter in Education, Instructional Design, Leadership Development, and More“) for art to remain relevant, it must periodically shed some of its formulaic tendencies. Biting satire provides an acid to dissolve longstanding decrepitude.
However, none of this improvement can happen until the makers of the art — or carriers of the culture — decide to self-criticize and improve.
Note too that parody is effective precisely because it is playful — or even better, when it’s done with a nod of admiration.
Criticism is most easily heard when it is delivered from a place of affection. With just a bit of warmth and flair, the satirist can aid their subject, if their subject is willing to listen.