Tears of Joy and Fears of Disgust

William Blake, the 19th Century spiritual mystic observed — “Excess of sorrow laughs. Excess of joy weeps.”   Now we know why these seemingly incongruent behaviors make sense in the human body.

How you respond with positive and negative emotions indicates how flexible you are when solving problems.

How you respond with positive and negative emotions indicates how flexible you are when solving problems.

Recent theories in evolutionary biology suggest that emotions are quick signals for the people around us about what we are thinking.  If you see fear or anger on another person’s face you may need to get ready to run.  If you see them laugh it may be a good time to ask for a favor.

But emotions have a powerful effect on us.  And the more we try not to express them and hold them in, the longer they impact our thoughts and behaviors.  So there is an evolutionary advantage to letting them move through us so that we come back to a base line of equanimity and contentment.

New research just out this week shows that people who are most affected by feelings of disgust and fear are more likely to think conservatively and are more likely to hang onto those feelings for a long time.  They become fixated on negative feelings.

But the type of people who are more likely to cry when happy events occur are more likely to moderate intense emotions more quickly.   They let themselves be moved and then quickly move on.

It is said that there is a time and a place for every behavior and every type of person.  When is it more important to be conservative and hold your ground?  And when is it important to be flexible and fully feel your emotions?  Which comes more naturally to you?

Success comes from having the ability to choose the right behavior to support the results you are intending.

Let me know what you are thinking.


Conservatives tend to have more intense reactions to negative stimuli:  http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/07/140731145935.htm http://spp.sagepub.com/content/3/5/537.abstract
Dimorphous Expressions of Positive Emotion: Displays of Both Care and Aggression in Response to Cute Stimuli,  in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.  Study co-authors include Margaret S. Clark, Rebecca L. Dyer, John A. Bargh, and Oriana R. Aragón of Yale.     http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/science-news/11227082/Why-do-we-cry-tears-of-joy.html




Engineering People Can Be Tricky

Designing a solution takes time, mental power, and effort.  To engineers and tech people this is obvious when talking about physical reality.  Building a new product or solution you start by analyzing what you are trying to accomplish.  Then you you research and design the new product to meet those specifications.  Finally you convert those designs into a set of processes that build and deliver the needed solution in an efficient manner.

Checking system tolerance

People engineering uses feedforward and feedback to maintain system control and stability.

Scientists, engineers, and tech people are good at this sort of work.  Unfortunately, it is not just THINGS that need to be created.

In fact, I don’t know about you but on the technical projects I work on, problems are about people as much as about things.  Human solutions are generally necessary before engineering solutions will actually work.

Think about the people issues you have to deal with every day.

  • Bosses that never listen to your good ideas, or
  • executives who randomly change the goal or interrupt the project or
  • make promises to customers with deadlines that no one could keep.
  • Subordinates that want to “fix” things without understanding why you’ve done it this way for the past 6 years.  Or
  • bosses who don’t know how to let go, who hover over you or nit-pic constantly so that you don’t have a chance to do your job.  Or on the other hand
  • bosses that you only hear from when things go wrong.

Individual contributing engineers and techies tend to be passive responders.  But leading technical teams means looking around at what needs to be done and taking a proactive action to move the team and the organization forward through solutions to these problems, toward the goals that it doesn’t even know it has yet.  And that means selling those ideas to others.

Do you know how to do people engineering?  Can you elaborate the technical specifications (values) of your top team members?  Do you recognize their process tolerances?  How often do you need to run quality assurance samples on your best colleagues, and the least experienced?

People are not really machines.  But they are systems with consistent patterns of inputs and outputs.  You can learn to engineer people systems, but you have to adopt variation control procedures and feedforward mechanisms.  Otherwise people systems go chaotic.

Making the change from individual technical contributor to team leader starts with upgrading yourself.  Take a hard look at what you do and do not understand about leadership.  Now is the time.  There are skills, behaviors, distinctions, and ways of measuring performance in dealing with people just as there are in engineering and technical individual contributor roles.  Be honest with yourself.  You went to school to get the basic ideas and vocabulary of engineering, science, and technology.  But you have learned your profession on the job.  Self study can take you a long way when you are ready to learn how to lead others.


A Call For Honest Conversation

I would like to hear from you what differences you have noticed between engineering systems and engineering people.  What is similar?  What is different and difficult?

If you want to learn then you are going to have to be honest and admit what works and what doesn’t yet work for you.  Let me hear your thoughts.




Happiness Doesn’t Come From Getting What You Want


Most of you know that I am an expert on motivation and leadership, and the communication skills that leaders use in leading teams and helping gain alignment, commitment, and motivation in team situations.  With this background my friend Russ Taylor asked me to comment on Dan Gilbert’s work and its relation to the NLP idea of “Well Formed Desired Outcomes.”   He asks,

What would you say is the significance of this data for outcome-based change processes, or even on the ultimate value of change as a goal?

And points to Gilbert’s TED talk:



Hey Russ,

Thanks for the note.  Great TED talk.  I have been thinking a lot about happiness and NLP’s concepts of “Well Formed Desired Outcomes” recently in relation to the “well lived life.”  Here is a summary of my thoughts:

First of all, the word “happiness” is a bit confusing because we have only one word for three different underlying concepts.

The first is immediate pleasure, which we call happiness.  For example, “Yum, that is a good ice-cream cone.”

The second is the experience of being fully engaged in a challenging and interesting experience that we feel is meaningful.  As Csikszentmihalyi‘s research shows, we experience these as “flow” states where we get so involved that time seems to fly by and our sense of self seems to merge with the activity we are involved in.  These states are very rewarding, and we think of them as happiness or sometimes bliss, but when we are in them, we are too busy to think about the pleasure we are deriving.

The third experience we call happiness is the pleasure we derive when we look back on some experience or period of our lives and consider how we were living according to our personal values.  This “narrative happiness” describes past experiences in terms of a coherent story.  If we feel we met our values, we feel we were happy.

It is this third type of happiness that is the subject of narrative rewriting, reevaluation, and the “synthesis of happiness” that Dan Gilbert is talking about.

Gilbert and Wilson’s research is important and sheds light on the exaggeration of choice and the illusion that if you get what you want you are going to feel happy.  I don’t think it is surprising anymore that this is not the case.  In fact, setting desired outcomes, like any other expectations, is a surefire way to create suffering.  Think of what the Buddha said.  If you could live totally in the now with acceptance for all that is as it is, then you cease suffering.

This does not mean that all choices are equal, or that freedom of choices is of itself, bad.  Only that if you think that happiness comes from what you get, you are likely to be disappointed.  Some quote I once read seems right to me, “In the end we are about as happy as we set our minds to be.”  (Abraham Lincoln?)

Nevertheless, we are still outcome driven creatures at all levels of experience, from the micro, “I think I will adjust the temperature by opening the window,” to the macro, “I want to be a doctor when I finish school.”  Achieving goals has little to do with happiness, and lots to do with effectiveness, which has something to do with the first two types of happiness but little to do with the third.

The couch potato might not be happy, but that is not because he or she doesn’t produce results, but because when he looks back on his life, he has neither a narrative that satisfies his values, nor the experience of flow states that come when we are fully engaged in an activity that we find interesting.  Doing nothing, and having no goals, however, may lead to the immediate satisfaction when we feel the relief of stress that comes from relaxing, and the immediate pleasure that comes from programmed entertainment, but it doesn’t lead to feelings of long-term fulfillment.

Now if your choices are constrained by circumstances, you may later synthesize happiness by coming to the conclusion that you did what you could with what you had, and in that sense you did your best and lived the best life you could.

But if you perceive that you have choice and don’t make use of it, that is a prescription for regret and lack of happiness.  Though sometimes this regret and happiness is ameliorated by addiction to mind-numbing alternatives like TV or drugs.  Many people have given up hope for any good life.  They try to “get by” with diversions, distractions, and dissociation from life.  But surly this “coping” does not constitute the good life.

On the other hand, setting goals and going after them doesn’t necessarily lead to happiness either.

Perhaps a better approach is to set goals for effectiveness sake, rather than with some expectation that we are somehow going to be happy when we achieve them.  For example, “well-formed desired outcomes” are more useful as communication tools for coming to a shared understanding and a consensual set of agreements between people than they are for generating happiness.

On the other hand, recent research about goal setting has suggested that if you want to be happy AND effective, concentrate your immediate attention on the process rather than the end goal.  (This idea is not new to Buddhists however)   The attitude that comes from taking up the challenge to continually improve your performance at the tasks we are doing leads not only to Flow States (Intermediate happiness) but to long-term happiness based upon narrative review.

When I teach about goals these days, I still teach the Well Formed Desired Outcome Frame questions as a way to build a shared goal between two or more people.  I think it is important, for example, to be able to think in sensory grounded terms about how you will know if you achieve a goal.  And stating goals in the positive so that you are moving toward some target rather than away from some fear is still a useful distinction.  As are ecology and timeframes and all the rest of the well-formed outcome criteria.

But I also teach about the difference between “Ends Goals” and “Means Goals.”  Well-formed Means Goals provide the distinctions for determining whether your performance is improving or not.  When you pay attention and challenge yourself to improve, and when you have a sensory-based measurement that provides feedback about whether you are or are not improving, you are very likely to go into one of those blissful “Flow States.”

By concentrating on the process you are doing and its improvement, rather than the end goal, you find yourself enjoying your task, and you are likely to improve in ways that are meaningful to you and meet your personal values, and so you feel the bliss of being “in the flow.”  Later when you look back on your improvements, you feel that you were meeting your values and so you experience long-term narrative happiness.

Oh, by the way, this is also the path toward excellence of performance and expertise.  Do it for 10,000 hours and you will become one of the more skilled in your field.  But that can’t really be your motivation if you also want to be happy.  But by focusing on the path, the happiness takes care of itself.

That is what I am thinking.  What are you thinking about goals, happiness, and effectiveness?



If you would like to learn more about using Goals to structure success and effectiveness or Mindfulness practices to connect with deep happiness check out my Course Offerings Page or consider the possibility of treating yourself to one-on-one Coaching.


What It Really Takes to Be a Leader

As a leadership coach, trainer, and specialists I am always surprised at how easy it can be to improve performance in most teams.  That is perhaps because so many people in business are not engaged.  Industry consensus is that the main reason for that is poor leadership.  Managers do not really understand leadership.  I guess that this is even more true among the technical and engineering teams that I work with, since so many of their managers rose from engineering ranks and probably didn’t set out to be people leaders.


Leadership always starts with followership.  As the song says, “We all gotta serve somebody.”  So there is always a tradeoff between serving yourself and serving others.  To do this well requires a host of skills.

First of all knowing your own values.  Then connecting with a vision you feel contributes in the world so that you can align your personal values with that vision.

This means you need the communication and questioning skills to elicit and understand exactly what those you serve want so that you can use that as guidance to align your own goals with theirs.  This is one of the top areas where most people fail.  Can you define what those you serve want to see, hear, and even feel that will let them know you are successfully helping them?  For that matter have they even defined it?

Many bosses treat your services much like art, they know it when they see it, but they couldn’t tell you exactly what makes it it is bad or good.

To be a leader you have to know how you and those you serve will define success.

Another key skill of leadership is the ability to negotiate commitments.  To be successful with those you serve you need detailed specifications for your agreements.  Otherwise you will get to the end and find you have built the wrong widget or delivered the wrong service.

You also need to be able to create a vision for the delivery of some products or services that your boss or customer wants and is willing to pay for.  This means that you must always define what you want in relationship and reciprocity to others.

Then you have to generate and communicate a meaningful sounding vision to those people you enroll to help you deliver on your commitments.   You have to help them understand what is required and sometimes even how they must go about providing it to you.  You negotiate agreements and commitment from the people you enroll so that you can assess whether they can and will deliver and to make sure that they do so in a timely manner and with an acceptable level of quality.

These negotiation and assessment skills will make or break you your success.

Leadership comes down to a set of learnable personal and interpersonal skills.

  • Relationship skills to get to know people, establish rapport and trust, and build alliances with others so that you can communicate accurately and work together smoothly
  • Questioning skills to discover and specify reciprocal needs and desires
  • Alignment skills to bring your work in line with what is desired
  • Visioning skills so that your work is useful, makes a difference, and feels worthwhile to you and your bosses. and enroll others to help you deliver on your vision
  • Negotiation skills to establish measurable commitments
  • Management skills to keep the work on track while your people make it a reality
  • Assessment and communication skills to provide appropriate feedback to steer the work and make sure that your people deliver on their commitments so that you can deliver on your own.
  • You encourage your people and reinforce desirable results to strengthen relationships and increase engagement among your team members.

To do this well you organize, plan, and execute a series of personal habits that support achieving those goals you have negotiated.  In this way you deliver on the commitments you make and therefore build trust with those that you serve.  It is a whole lot more than simply being able to articulate a worthwhile vision and enroll others in that vision.

You can learn about these key success habits but to make them your own you need to practice and drill these skills until they become automatic.

That is what I am thinking about today.  I would like to know more about what you think of these ideas.  Drop me a note or leave me a comment.

What Makes Work Worthwhile to You?

What makes work worthwhile?  What about life?

Those moments where everything seems to be fulfilling your life purpose are some times called “Flow States.”  You may have notice how sometimes everything seems to be going your way.  At those moments “you” are dead.  The ego “I” ceases to exist when totally absorbed in the flow of now, with enough challenge that it is not worrying about anything else.  If this focus also happens to move us toward fulfilling our life’s values then something special happens.


To live on the edge of the wave, that razor-thin line where everything you do matters, and everything you think is in service to what you do, and your heart is completely open so that your feelings are as sensitive as possible to what you are trying to accomplish.  This is where the ego I disappears.  Death while physically alive.

I find this a worthy practice.   My clients have been having a discussion about ways to support that fine line and live there more of the time.

It takes more than conscious awareness, though this is necessary.  It takes love and groundedness as well.

Think what could it mean to be in the middle of a technical project fully alive and living with the conscious question, “How can I be in the living cycle of love at this very moment?”  This is a high human aspiration indeed.  What could it possible have to do with solving technical or team or project problems?  This is the sort of question that makes us more than just an animal or an automaton machine.  The living cycle of love requires that we know where that longing is in our body and to tend to it consciously.

It probably doesn’t require that  we work in any particular profession.  Could be computers, or training, or projects, or coaching, construction, accounting, whatever.

When we live our work lives It seems that it is all meaningless and empty, and perhaps it is.  But all that we do can be of consequence.   That is why if work is to have meaning it is important that we learn to create the meaning for ourselves.

Being the senior consciousness is only half of the equation, the masculine or active half.  The other half is the reciprocity of ever-changing feedback cycle of love.  The sacred witness is one side, the cycle of loving compassion is the other.   Both are required to live a meaningful life, to make work really worthwhile.


We need rituals.  Little practices of the mind and body that serve our success.  We need rituals for grounding, rituals for evoking the cycle of love, and rituals for evoking consciousness.

Grounding is coming back to self connected to reality and to highest and best spirit and has to do with finding the stable place within the moving center of the body.

Consciousness is of the mind and the willingness to be at the witness awareness on the cutting edge of the now with presence.

Loving compassion and the cycle of love is holding each other, and one’s self, as sacred manifestations of the life force and tending to us with high expectations and positivity so as to encourage expansion.

What does all of this have to do with leading?  With technical projects?  What does all of this have to do with making meaning from your work or work from your life’s purpose?  I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

Do Ethics Create Success or Is that Just a Sucker Move?

In the dog eat dog world of Western corporate interests, being a nice guy often seems antithetical to success.  Our competitive cultural norms create a reality where to be nice is seen as being “soft.”

But what if being nice is more than just the right thing to do?  What if ethical leadership actually creates the long-term conditions for success?

For example, take the extremely successful technical manufacturer, Lenovo.  You may not have heard of them yet.  But you will.


In the past few years Lenovo has become the worlds biggest maker of personal computers.  They are leading the sales to the developing economies of China, India, and Southeast Asia.  All of this growth has been built on the backs of thousands of workers who have burned the midnight oil to get out record sales and shipments this year.

Their CEO, Mr Yang Yuanging, has decided to do what most American CEOs would find unthinkable.  He is gifting most of his three million dollar plus bonus among his workers.

Lenovo CEOWhy should he share his leadership bonus with them?  He says,

I have reason to believe that 60% of our employees are not fully engaged and involved with the meaning behind what they are accomplishing.  If they were convinced that their organization was doing the right thing and cares about them, which we do, I believe they could be up to 30% more effective.  It only makes sense to take care of the people who are taking care of you.  We can make a bigger difference together than all of us could individually.

In the competition driven economies of the West, we forget that cooperation and collaboration almost always create more synergistic value than dominion and force ever can.  People don’t give their best because they feel coerced to; they give their best because they want to.  People don’t work for money first.  They work for meaningful lives.

Part of a meaningful life is authentically “belonging” to something greater than yourself which you believe in and feel proud to be a part of.  By valuing humaneness and commitment to reciprocity we not only make life worth living, we make more profits and thereby improve everybody’s standard of living.

So consider for a moment —

How are you treating your bosses, peers, and employees?  Are you engendering reciprocal respect, or competitive one-upmanship? 

If humaneness and ethics are of interest to you and your organization, we want to hear from you.  Join the discussion or get involved in one of our on-going professional dialogs.

At Technical Leadership Skills, we sponsor individuals and events where technical, science, and engineering professionals choose to explore the development of authentic and powerful leadership skills.  Our purpose is to help people grow and make a difference both to their cultures and to the bottom line, while treating individuals with authentic respect and appreciation.  Give us a call to find out what new discussions we have scheduled. 512-507-5464.

The 5 most common misunderstandings

…or how I learned to Finesse Language on Engineering Projects to get things done.

In a survey of communication problems across 34 Engineering and IT projects the following five categories accounted for practically all of the communication breakdowns and confusions that affected project delivery schedules or costs.   Do any of these sound familiar from your experience?

  • Assurances Problems
  • Meanings of Goals Poorly Defined
  • Hidden Information
  • Micro Management / Under Feedback
  • Why don’t they care like I do?

Over the next few posts we will look at each of these in reverse order, from least common to most, and suggest actions you can take to avoid these problems on your watch.   Let’s start with the fifth most common behavior that creates business problems.

Number 5:   Assurances given without understanding what they actually mean or entail.  

This most often happens because the team  or sales person, or executive feels they have to “look good” in order to “close” an agreement.  This is the classic “over promising and then under delivering.”

Recommended Solution:   When the other party hints there is going to be a challenge or that they are concerned about a particular problem, believe them!

Don’t claim to be the greatest thing since sliced bread.  Dig in and find out what they might know that you don’t.  And don’t let egos pretend that you can solve issues that the other party has not been able to solve just to get the deal going.

I suppose that there is always hope you will be able to juggle more of the “devil in the details” than they could.  You may be more skilled, knowledgeable, and able to deal with more stress so that you can “fake it till you make it,” but if you aren’t experienced enough to find out up front what those concerns are about in detail, then probably not.

Taking responsibility is a must.  Without taking responsibility, we will never learn because we never admit that there is something to learn.

If you are the technical lead find a way to level with everybody and call out differences of understanding above the table.  Refuse to take responsibility for a project if you are forced to pretend that you know something that you do not.

It is better to do what you have to do now than to get caught in the trap the comes from feigning understanding.  People may argue with you now, but they will definitely remember your ineptitude if you don’t keep to your standards and things go South later.

Next time we will look at how to get everyone singing out of the same songbook when it comes to goals.



►  Next in the Series

Where to Start When Your Leadership Stumbles

To Get Where You Want to Go, We Always Begin by Recognizing Where You Currently Are


One marketing division of an international pharmaceutical company that I worked with, “off-shored” the development and maintenance of their marketing relationship database to India.  The requirements were shared, but they were not tied to specific test plans.

When the multimillion dollar system was delivered, independent verification from the company’s distributors, who would be the users in the field, indicated that the system “worked as designed” but that the design was not practical or useable in their day-to-day operations.   The project was mothballed without final implementation.

Have you seen a project that turned into a learning opportunity  like this before?

Poor leadership is the most common reason for major business mistakes like this.  There is always a specific individual who is responsible for the Leadership of the team, so even little communication breakdowns point back to poor leadership skills.

Leadership comes down to standards, values, negotiation rituals, goals, and human beings.


Your purpose as a leader is to coordinate the interactions and efforts of a group of people to achieve valuable results that the individual persons who make up that team could not achieve by themselves.

Each individual offers their unique skills.  But to create a synergistic effect that generates valuable results in an efficient manner requires your serious coordination.

You put the goals and standards you negotiate or dictate to your team in place to constrain team behaviors so that results are measurable and therefore manageable.

The rituals you establish with your team will determine your effectiveness as a unit in the larger organization.

The way you treat your people will determine whether your team will find their work meaningful, useful, and fulfilling, so that they will become delightfully engaged and give you more of their best.  Or whether they will obligingly provide only the minimum necessary to get by and reserve their best ideas and effort for after work.


Consider taking five minutes right now to write down what you consider to be your team’s:

  • members
  • values
  • goals
  • standards of practice
  • key processes
  • key measurements

When you put these down on paper (or the computer), you will find that more details will come to you than if you only did this exercise mentally.   These emergent details are the “little devils” that you will want exorcise or negotiate with to resolve the issues you’re facing.

That is why a leader needs to take a step back and clarify his or her thinking on a regular basis.  It is the leader’s job to understand the overall  team scope, boundaries, and interfaces within the larger system that is your parent organization.  But your range of influence is primarily within the details of your teams specific processes and procedures.  As Marshal McLuhan said, Leaders must learn to

think globally, and act locally.”

Let me know what you are thinking in the comments discussion (see the green tag), or to engage me directly, give me a call.

Keith W Fail