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What I Learned about Engagement, Motivation, and Leadership from a 13-Month Old – Part I

Mark Gorkin, MSW, LICSW, "The Stress Doc" ™, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, is an acclaimed keynote and kickoff speaker as well as "Motivational Humorist ...Read More

I never imagined that just a few days interacting with my girlfriend’s granddaughter would provide such a dynamic learning laboratory on tactics and strategies for effective, if somewhat unconventional, leadership. My tutor is a bubbly, vivacious 13-month old, with auburn hair and pale blue eyes. It’s hard to resist squeezing this wide-eyed and broad smiling creature with her cute little nose and satin-soft skin. Charlotte is ever curious, likes getting her way, and taking charge of her immediate surroundings. Miss C. will growl like a tiger if you encourage her, yet she’ll hug and snuggle so tenderly with her “Bedtime Bunny.” The little dynamo enjoys playing with and endlessly manipulating blocks and Legos (and also feeding them to you). She only seems to fuss or cry when she’s overtired or when her diaper is over pooped. Oh, and she crawls on all fours on all kinds of surfaces at Road Runner speed.

Having missed out on parenthood, I’ve never before spent this much undivided and intimate time with a one-year old. At some point during my joy and fascination with Charlotte I sensed that there were aspects of our togetherness – our connection, relating, and mutual play – that had implications for building trust, engaging shared exploration and discovery, as well as empathically relating to and positively motivating all manner of adults.

Blending the Experiential and the Conceptual

This exposition incorporates personal OJT, the concept of “Locus of Control,” and ideas from Worforce.com’s terrific, 2012 article, “Actionable Leadership in the Creative Age,” based on a global array of employee/company responses to Skillsoft’s 21st Century Leadership Survey. The study sought leadership attributes and capabilities that will help generate sustainable organizational success and innovation both today and tomorrow. And the “Six Top Leadership Characteristics for the 21st Century”: Global perspective, Forward-looking, Relationship-builder, High integrity, Collaborative, and Open-minded.

However, let me now share my cross-generational, “Charlotte- and Creative Age-Inspired Ten Leadership Concepts, Tools, and Techniques”:

1. Get Down to Earth. Getting on the floor, into the toy trenches with Charlotte, seeing and engaging her world from ground perspective, is bottom-line for building comfort, credibility, and trust. Being down to earth, coming off the authority pedestal (even if only periodically), helps reduce status differences; people can more easily acknowledge their own strengths and flaws when a leader doesn’t try to uphold a perfect image or wear an inscrutable mask. Finding such human and common ground allows folks to eyeball and identify with you, facilitating more open and spontaneous sharing and relating across generations.

2. Be Fully Present and Patient. Not so dissimilar from many adults or teens, little people want attention. And while they cannot be the perpetual center of the universe (despite what they may believe or demand), when in your sphere of engagement…”Stop, Look, and Listen.” Undivided attention gives a clear message: what’s transpiring between us is important to you, to me, and to our relationship…and btw, is being judiciously noted under the watchful eyes of a mother and grandmother, along with significant others. (Think a one-on-one manner of relating affects how others perceive your “people skills” and capacity for group leadership?) Careful attention, especially to a person’s emotional framework and worldview, is at the heart of respect.

Being and Playing with Charlotte

With Charlotte, being fully present means getting up close and first seeing what she’s doing, who or what she’s engaged with, what she’s moving toward (or resisting), or what she’s about to grab…and, of course, if anything is upsetting her. Unless there’s a break in the action, I typically hold off providing her an object to play with. (Actually, I just try “to be” – perhaps in a quietly receptive, “Taoistic” sense – though a smile invariably lights up my face. I don’t want to distract her; I simply want her to get used to my physical presence.) Eventually, I may ask her what she wants to do, knowing full well that message sent may not exactly be message received. However, her subsequent body language, actions, and choices will usually reveal if she likes my suggestion or not. For example, I may hold up a little orange disc, hide it inside a hard-covered book, and then ask Charlotte, “Where’s the disc?” Initially, I have to turn the pages to uncover the disc. But after one or two sequences, Charlotte starts turning the pages. Upon finding the disc, her eyes widen and illuminate wonder. Now she’s hiding the disc in the book, and we’re off and seeking all over again.

The Essence of Presence and Patience

My goal is not to get her to do what I want her to do. In fact, as previously stated, my goal is to be present and patient – to observe what she is focused on or toying with and what subsequently evolves in our interplay. Being fully present and patient means taking the time to recognize and to try getting in sync with the other’s energy, pace, and style of engagement, (e.g., is the individual presently tired, stressed, or alert?; is he or she quiet, reflective, or more of an introvert or active, talkative, or likely an extrovert?). You want to at least acknowledge the other’s psychological state as well as likes and dislikes.

Of course, with adults, acknowledgment doesn’t necessarily mean agreement, but it often aids understanding, especially when you ask trust-building “good questions”: a) admitting you don’t have all the answers and b) showing interest in the other’s beliefs, motives, and actions. A person begins to feel safe and recognized, if not validated when sensing both your head and heart are open and are trying to grasp his or her essence as well as immediate needs, frustrations, and desires.

Finally, for a leader, patience with oneself is also critical: for a period of time, putting another’s needs and concern’s ahead of one’s own without denying your own needs and concerns (both short-and long-term) may well be an emotionally and strategically complex balancing act; actually it’s a maturational skill that takes time and practice, trial and error. (Remember, whether parent or caregiver, educator or leader, when laboring under self-denying and unrealistic expectations or conditions, burnout is typically less a sign of failure and more that you gave yourself away!)

3. Pay Attention to Verbal and Nonverbal Cues. Interacting with Charlotte, who isn’t quite talking yet (she can say “mama” and “dada” and to my girlfriend’s delight, also “nana”) highlights the importance of tuning into her body language – facial expressions, all manner of gestures, joyful or disdainful wiggling, squirming, and shaking – to an array of vocalizations – from squeals and screeches to whines and wails, all radiating personal and interpersonal meaning, whether obscure or obvious. And naturally, mirroring some of Charlotte’s spontaneous, non-stop fireworks extravaganza helps release my own inner child and its verbal and nonverbal exhibition of the primitive and the purposeful, the serious and the silly. I’m wired…experiencing a jolt of brain-body, bi-hemispheric peace of minds; and we are wired – the two of us are bonding, becoming, to use mom’s expression, “good buddies!”

4. Allow Other to Be the Director. As much as possible, I follow Charlotte’s lead, including crawling after her around the living room. I want to know her intentions and maybe learn her seedling aspirations. I choose to embrace, sometimes to chew on (in more ways than one), and build upon the objects she extends, to: a) affirm my appreciation of her valuable offering, b) concentrate on and mutually elaborate the game or task at hand, and c) encourage the construction of our “buddy bridge.” And even when I initiate a game or an experiment, I try to provide the smallest possible clue needed to arouse her attention and focus. I want Charlotte to choose the next step, whether she follows my lead or breaks off into an unexpected direction.

In addition, despite her being just over a year and six inches shy of a yard and, understandably, still a “pawn” – that is, when it comes to much of life’s necessities, highly dependent upon and under the control of others – this little girl is also an “origin” (and an original, as we all once were). I want to support a process of discovery whereby her actions and choices have meaningful impact. Some might suggest that I’m mostly feeding infantile, “I am the world” omnipotence (which is certainly starting to develop at this age, with or without my encouragement). In fact, this “follow the little leader” pattern of interaction is helping cultivate Charlotte’s individual identity, efficacy, and responsibility (see below). Personally, it’s also great fun and relaxing; it is nice turning off the “calling the shots,” adult, analytic motor.

Paradoxically, in the moment our interaction is delightfully playful; yet, at some point, after the fact and fun, poignant reflection hits home. By stirring if not evoking – consciously and not – childhood memories and reflections, my intimate connection with Charlotte is providing a double-edged existential opportunity : a) being compelled to recall extended, hazy, painfully lonely, and darkly fearful times in my childhood – e.g., when I was one-and-a-half, my father had a major psychiatric breakdown and subsequent shock therapy regimen; this was followed by a nuclear anxiety attack and toxic mushroom cloud that enveloped the family for years; also, the stress-filled nights banging my little head against a mattress to shut down the tension and knock myself to sleep, yet, also, b) to courageously embrace these haunting memories and, once again, clean out these ancient wounds while gratefully releasing some “grief ghosts.”

Remember, if one is prepared to do ones headwork, heart work, and homework, all intimate interaction, whatever the generational configuration or role relationship, has this yin and yang – haunting/healing – potential.

Locus and Focus

You might say I’m trying to cultivate Charlotte’s “Internal Locus of Control.” According to Wikipedia, Locus of Control is a theory in personality psychology referring to the extent to which individuals believe that they can control events that affect them. The concept was developed by Julian B. Rotter in 1954, and has since become an aspect of personality studies. A person’s “locus” (Latin for “place” or “location”) is conceptualized as either internal (the person believes that their actions primarily influence or control their life) or external (meaning they believe that their decisions and life are mostly controlled by environmental factors, fate, or luck beyond their influence). For example, in contrast to “external” peers, students who were more internally controlled believed that hard work and focus would result in successful academic progress, and they performed better academically.

Exploring further, when a person with an internal locus of control does not perform as well as expected on a test, they would assign blame to personal lack of preparedness. If performing well, a test-taker would attribute this to effort and ability to study. In contrast, when a person with a high external locus of control does poorly on a test, the individual will likely attribute this to the difficulty of the test questions or perhaps to coming down with a cold. If he performed well on a test, the “external” student might downplay his influence, thinking the teacher was lenient, that most likely all did well, or that he was lucky.

Finally, locus of control has also been included as one of four dimensions of core self-evaluations – one’s fundamental appraisal of oneself – along with neuroticism, self-efficacy, and self-esteem. The concept of core self-evaluations successfully predicts several work outcomes, specifically, job satisfaction and job performance.

5. Blend Immediate Recognition and Purposefully Productive Praise. In today’s electronic hyperspeed world, where the next distraction or burning answer to a question is seemingly at your fingertips, the need for immediate feedback has almost become a craving. If this is the new normal, then the timing and manner of feedback, whatever the authority role, is mission and maturation critical…but especially with young children.

When interacting with a one-year old, I suspect there’s something instinctual about the adult “oohs and ahhs” and immediate recognition garnered by Charlotte’s intended or accidental behaviors. For very quickly her actions stimulate both accolades (that universal chorus of she’s “so cute,” “so wonderful,” or “so smart”) and heightened awareness (for example, eyes on the prize help prevent little heads from bumping into table edges.) But after reading about a research study cited in the abovementioned, “Actionable Leadership in the Creative Age,” at some point, sooner rather than later, in my intentional interactions with Charlotte, I will likely forge a higher synthesis from “accolades” and “awareness” (especially involving my verbal communication). I shall be focusing on and appreciating Charlotte’s effort and determination more than her “wonderful talent” (or “good family genes”)…and have my feedback reflect this change in perception. “Why,” you may ask? (Hint: it has something to do with locus of control.)

Praise Effort and Grit, Not Talent

To provide an answer, let me quote from the Workforce.com article. Carol Dweck, the Lewis and Virginia Eaton Professor of Psychology at Stanford University, led a fascinating study in 1998 in which she and her colleagues gave 400 fifth graders a series of tests, mostly puzzles. The researchers then praised the students in two different ways, using only six words. With half of the group they said, “You must be smart at this,” (or “talent”) and with the other half they said, “You must have tried really hard” (or “effort”).

[Writer Note: Below are self-devised titles for the four rounds of Dweck’s study.]

Round I: Type of Praise Received (TPR) and Self-Perceived Abilities

The first word set awarded intelligence and innate talent, similar to how many of us parents and coaches (me included) get trapped into talking about, and to, our kids. We say how smart they are, or how naturally gifted they are. The second word set praised effort, determination, preparation, grit. What the researchers were interested in was how the kids, depending on the type of praise they received, would view their abilities-as fixed and unchanging, or as malleable and able to grow and change with work.

Round II: Type of Praise Received (TPR) and Preference for Problem Difficulty

In the next round of puzzles, the kids were offered a choice: they could try harder problems or easier ones. Perhaps surprisingly, the kids praised for talent selected the easier problems while the kids praised for effort chose to attempt the harder ones. Why? While we might think that receiving praise for innate abilities would inspire confidence, the Dweck found out that instead we create a form of status-a height from which to fall. If people believe they have special talent and are expected to perform well, the thought of failing expectations becomes a liability. To protect themselves as “gifted and talented” individuals, they will choose easier tasks to ensure they have high performance.

Round III: Harder Problems, Poor Performance, and Subject Cover-up by TPR

In the next part of the study, both sets of kids were given harder problems to solve and both sets of kids performed more poorly. Not surprising, but here’s the interesting thing: When the researchers asked the kids how they did on the problems, the kids praised for talent lied 40 percent of the time, presumably to maintain their social status as “talented.” However, when the kids praised for effort were asked the same question, only 10 percent of them exaggerated their performance, presumably because their ego was not wrapped up in their performance.

Round IV: Retest, Type of Praise Received, Ego State, and Performance Outcome

Here’s where it gets really interesting. In the next phase of the study, both sets of kids were given problems comparable to the original set of problems. In terms of difficulty, this next set was just as challenging as the first. The group praised for talent had just had an ego setback in the earlier round and did 20 percent worse than they did the first time around. They were told they were smart, then they performed poorly, and now when they attacked the same level of difficulty with decreased confidence, they do 20 percent worse. The second or “effort” group, on the other hand, did 30 percent better this time around. For those kids, success was about effort, and failure just meant they needed to work harder instead of worrying about loss of status.

Type of Praise Received and Implications for Locus of Control

For a moment, let’s return to the aforementioned concept,” locus of control” – a core method of self-appraisal. It appears that in Dweck’s study “praising for talent” encourages a more external locus of control – subjects begin to worry about failing expectations (especially in the eyes of others) and maintaining social status. This ego-deflated preoccupation affects choice of problems tackled along with self-report integrity, while also lowering subsequent problem solving performance. In contrast, “praising for effort” is an internal generator and less tied to ego-driven status: again, compared to “‘external’ peers, students who were more internally controlled believed that hard work and focus would result in successful academic progress, and they performed better academically.” Clearly, the means (or perceived method and muscle) don’t simply justify but also fortify end results! Work-Life Application of Process Praise

While the difference between researcher Carol Dweck’s two groups of kids was just six words, keep in mind there are a lot of ways to say, “You must have tried really hard.” Dweck and her colleagues use this kind of effort or “process praise” for encouraging engagement, resiliency, perseverance, improvement, and other processes, including, of course, developing internal locus of control.

Here are some workplace examples of how to convey recognition of grit and perseverance in those around you, modeled on Dweck’s suggestions:

  • “You really prepared for that meeting, and your presentation showed it. You researched the customer’s company and interests, outlined the problem perfectly and presented solutions very well. That really worked!”
  • “I like the way you tried all kinds of strategies on that reporting problem until you finally got it.”
  • “It was a long, hard research assignment, but you stuck to it and got it done. You stayed at the task, kept up your concentration and kept working. That’s great!”
  • “I like that you took on that challenging project for the new business group. It will take a lot of work-doing the research, designing the integration, acquiring the resources, and building it. You’re going to learn a lot of great things”… that will be valuable for yourself and for the company.

Next time you see excellence, praise the effort it must have taken to get there. You’ll not only be rewarding excellence but also building growth and confidence.

Closing Summary

Examining his interaction with an energetic and enthusiastic toddler in, “What I Learned about Engagement, Motivation, and Leadership from a 13-Month Old – Part I,” the Stress Doc outlines the first five “Charlotte- and Creative Age-Inspired Ten Leadership Concepts, Tools, and Techniques.” In a variety of settings, these ideas and strategies will help leaders: a) facilitate confidence and competence, b) establish and evolve a sense of trust, as well as c) internally motivate children of all ages without turning goal pursuit into personal insecurity and status-driven egoals. The “Fab Five”:

1. Get Down to Earth
2. Be Fully Present and Patient
3. Pay Attention to Verbal and Nonverbal Cues
4. Allow Other to Be the Director
5. Blend Immediate Recognition and Productive Praise

Part II will complete your toolkit. Until then…Practice Safe Stress!

Keep Reading By Author Mark Gorkin, LCSW ("The Stress Doc")
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