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Introverts & Extroverts & Christmas

Christmas Cookies

Here are two questions for you: first, are you an introvert or an extrovert? Second, how does that make you feel about the Christmas season?

Mixed bag, right?

I finally bought my own copy of Susan Cain’s terrific book Quiet: the Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. I mention this because I have this theory that the Christmas season is when the differences between introverts and extroverts are in many ways the most obvious. Without going into too much detail, most of us know that extroverts generally love to socialize and are typically energized by crowds and parties and gatherings. Introverts usually prefer to avoid that kind of big-gathering socializing in favor of quiet evenings with a few friends, or maybe staying happily at home with a Windham Hill Christmas CD and a good book. Given those two extremes, my theory goes, introverts have more trouble with the American Retail Christmas than extroverts.

We know that expectations run rampant this time of year. The American Retail Christmas would tell us that our December is incomplete unless we (a) shop incessantly and (b) socialize relentlessly. Christmas, beginning roughly with the dreadfully named Black Friday, is one continuous round of planning, spending, wrapping, partying, traveling here and there, greeting housefuls of family and guests, and on and on. No wonder many introverts struggle to satisfy (and justify) their deep longing for the quiet reflection and gentle presence of treasured friends that should also be part of this season.

Face it: the Christmas of the manger (“How silently, how silently the wondrous gift is given”) has been hijacked, turned instead into the Christmas of the mall. And, I suggest, many introverts thus feel left out, cheated, disenfranchised.

I confess to being what Susan Cain calls an ambivert — reasonably comfortable in both the extrovert camp and that of the introvert. That said, a couple of thoughts: first, as I write this, Christmas Day is a week away. It’s not too late to insist (quietly, of course) on celebrating the gentler, more reflective, more meaningful experience that you long for. And for those introverts who really must have it both ways, Susan Cain’s book gives some excellent ideas on how to be true to your introverted identity while strategically adopting some of the extroverted skill set.

Second, if you’re an introvert burdened with CGS (“Christmas Guilt Syndrome”), stop apologizing! If a quiet night at home with the glow of the Christmas tree fills you with longing, and the office party or neighborhood open house fills you with dread, you’re not weird (even though your party-hearty extroverted friends may want to make you feel that way). If you must make an appearance at the social gathering, for business or personal reasons, go ahead and go — but leave when you can and look forward to the peace of your own home and hearth.

Finally, even though there’s but a week to go until The Day, the centuries old Church calendar provides some welcome perspective. The observance of Advent stands as a quiet counterpoint to the noise of the American Retail Christmas, with Advent’s very introverted emphasis on personal preparation (the internal kind) and expectation of what God is about to do (“Let every heart prepare Him room”). Also, thanks to various feast days and other traditions, Christmas doesn’t have to end on the 25th. Let the observance linger. Leave the tree up and invite friends over. Keep the Windham Hill CD playing a bit longer. While your extrovert friends are collapsing in a collective heap after the breathless rush of another American Retail Christmas, you’ll be quietly energized by the joy of the Christmas observance you’ve always longed for.

So Merry Christmas — and God bless us, every one — the extroverts and the introverts!

 

 

 

 

 
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Posted by on December 18, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

Christmas: the Clash of Expectations

expectations-danger-sign    I love Christmas — always have. But as I get older — I mean, as I mature — I’ve begun to see Christmas in a new light. Over the years I’ve listened to many voices of those whose Christmas memories are FAR different from my own. And I’ve come to realize more fully just what a mixed bag Christmas can truly be. For every person ecstatically dusting off their Nutcracker collection on the day after Thanksgiving, there’s someone else who is looking at the calendar with dread. While for some the upcoming Christmas gatherings will resemble something straight out of Norman Rockwell, for others the season will seem like something conceived in the mind of Norman Bates. It’s either “Christmas Carol” or “Psycho.”

This isn’t exactly new news, of course. In fact, Christmas Angst has probably been written about, talked about and blogged about more than any other Holiday topic. And as I consider the reasons why this is so — why these three or four weeks in December are so emotionally charged — I’m convinced the single biggest culprit is the clash of expectations. The weird thing is, these expectations take multiple forms, and only at Christmas time do they appear to converge! Consider at least four areas where our expectations clash rudely with reality.

First, of course, there are Social Expectations. We attend gatherings of family and friends and neighbors and co-workers, hoping these parties and these people will be different this year. We expect “the most wonderful time of the year,” but that’s not what we get. Generally speaking, our annoying cousins are still annoying and our rude coworkers stubbornly refuse to clean up their act in December. Our high expectations leave us disappointed.

Then, as much as we hate to admit it, many of us face Material Expectations. I think this starts when we’re kids — we really, really, really wanted the bike or the electric train (I’m channeling the distant past here…) but sometimes Christmas morning only brought more socks from Grandma and that new jacket we’d been needing. The pattern, sadly, is set. For many grown-ups the whole gift-giving ritual is laced with disappointment: wrong size, wrong color, wrong fabric, wrong model. Then comes January and the credit card bills — yikes! Meanwhile the marketing machine only feeds our sense of gift-buying inadequacy.

The third and toughest set of expectations for most of us are the Emotional Expectations. Face it: for a lot of people the “tidings of comfort and joy” bring more sadness than joy, more anxiety than comfort. These are emotionally-charged weeks, when not-altogether-pleasant childhood memories come bubbling to the surface and clash with the magazine-photo images of What Christmas Should Be Like. Even for those who are not alone, Christmas can be lonely, as we all know. There’s a glaring disconnect between how we think we should feel and how many of us do feel!

But maybe the one area of expectations most commonly overlooked are our Spiritual Expectations. I’m convinced most of us have a place in our hearts where the meaning of Christmas — “O Holy Night” — really does resonate, even if we’re unaware of it. And isn’t it ironic? The Messiah who came in the most unexpected way possible has always defied expectations. Somehow we fall into the same trap as our skeptical forebears from 20 centuries ago: we think God will blast into our lives with Cecil B. DeMille theatrics and make everything right. Instead He comes in silence and helplessness. Our expectations of a God who will instantly and dramatically fix the broken pieces of our lives come into conflict with the God who enters into the willing heart and begins a slow process of real and often unseen transformation. “How silently, how silently the wondrous gift is given!” This is no God of the Quick Fix. Our expectations go unmet.

So what’s the answer? Well…no doubt there are many. But we should probably start by looking our own expectations squarely in the face and realize that we are too often setting ourselves up for frustration and pain at Christmas time. Instead of asking how we expect others to behave, maybe we should concentrate on how we should behave! The question, “What do I want to receive?” should instead become “What do I want to give?” Rather than focusing on our own emotional lack at Christmas, can we instead seek to encourage others and help them bear their emotional burdens?

And in the spiritual realm, you and I need to be reminded, instead of asking “God, what are You planning to do for me?” to ask, “God, in light of what You have already done for me, what can I do for You?”

Merry Christmas to all!  And may your expectations be rewarded, with surprising joy!

 
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Posted by on December 24, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

Gregariousness is Optional

excited business colleagues      Ah, those overly gregarious co-workers. You’re surrounded by them. Gregarious people are the ones who are highly sociable, highly outgoing, always seeking the company of others. Gregarious people, in other words, are the classic extroverts. And if you’re the classic introvert, your gregarious colleagues probably drive you nuts sometimes. Do they always have to be so — emotional? So up? Laughing so loud and so long? High-fiving each other incessantly? Don’t they ever calm down??!

Well…probably not. And I suspect there are times when that fills your introverted heart with a mixture of irritation and maybe just a bit of envy. Sometimes I’ll bet you’d like to cut loose a bit — or at least cut a little looser. But if that’s not your nature, the subtle pressure you might feel from the extroverts around you can be a bit daunting. So here’s some great news from an excellent book I’ve quoted from before, called Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain. She makes this profound statement: “Love is essential; gregariousness is optional.”

As we’ve pointed out before, our culture tends to idolize the extroverts. We somehow tend to equate being an extrovert with being strong, being a leader, being assertive and taking charge. But experience shows us that is assuredly not always the case! Some extroverts talk a good game but fail to demonstrate substance to match their style. And many introverts outshine their extroverted colleagues and become outstanding leaders in businesses and organizations large and small.

Sadly, in our overly-hyped, extroverted world, gregariousness doesn’t feel optional! While being the out-going one gets you noticed, all too often the introverts feel out-shouted as the clamoring extroverts vie for attention. That’s why I think Susan Cain’s statement is so profound. After she says that “Love is essential; gregariousness is optional,” she goes on to add this suggestion for introverts:

The secret to life is to put yourself in the right lighting. For some it’s a Broadway spotlight; for others, a lamplit desk. Use your natural powers — of persistence, concentration, insight, and sensitivity — to do work you love and work that matters. Solve problems, make art, think deeply…Spend your free time the way you like, not the way you think you’re supposed to.

Where do you shine best — in the glare of the Broadway spotlight, or in the soft glow of the lamplit desk? Each has its place. Each is of equal value.

This notion is even Biblical, by the way. There’s a New Testament verse in Peter’s first epistle that challenges the faithful to use the particular gifts God has given each one of us. In the New Living Translation, this passage says, “Do you have the gift of speaking? Then speak as though God himself were speaking through you. Do you have the gift of helping others? Do it with all the strength and energy that God supplies.” Do you see the difference? That passage means that it doesn’t matter whether your God-given gift is public or private, out in the spotlight or behind the scenes — both are equally valuable and both are essential.

So, let the gregarious folks out there high five all they want to! Meanwhile you introverts can stop being intimidated. Just remember, “Love is essential; gregariousness is optional.”

 
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Posted by on July 21, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

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My Door is Always Open (but my Mind is Always Closed)

Open Door    Ever had a boss who claimed to have an “open door policy” — but nobody actually believed it? Are you that boss, by any chance?

I recall a manager early in my radio days who made quite a point of saying he had an open door policy. He genuinely believed it, too, and he would frequently express frustration that few people took advantage of his Open Door to ask him questions or bring him information. Truth was, all too often whenever someone did dare to come through that open door with an idea he didn’t like, guess what happened? The reaction was scary! This particular manager did not care to have his ideas and policies challenged, and those who did challenge his thinking learned the hard way that they had become suspect. One friend of mine was branded as “not a team player” and ended up leaving the company.

You see, the boss’s door was definitely open — but his mind was firmly closed. Needless to say this was a deeply frustrating trait for all of us, and we soon learned to avoid that “open door” at all costs.

It’s human nature for us to want to have our opinions validated and not negated. I think that’s why we all have a tendency to practice “echo chamber” thinking, where the only people we talk with or listen to are those who agree with us. (This is especially true in media, specifically in the realm of political talk radio.) But I would suggest that “echo chamber” thinking is particularly toxic in the workplace, because it reinforces the notion that the only opinions that matter are those the boss agrees with — and that is a recipe for worker frustration if there ever was one. In many books and surveys about workplace dissatisfaction, one of the leading reasons workers dislike their jobs is that their views, suggestions and opinions just don’t seem to matter. If my views are devalued, the thinking goes, then so am I.

If you work for a closed-minded boss, here’s a scary thought: you may need to be the one to talk to him or her and explain why the open door/closed mind paradox is highly dysfunctional. It’s called “speaking truth to power.”

According to the online Urban Dictionary, it was the Quakers who first coined the phrase “speaking truth to power” back in the 1950’s, as part of their desire to confront the prevailing political establishment. But the idea is hardly new. The Old Testament book of Proverbs tells us, “Kings take pleasure in honest lips; they value the one who speaks what is right.” (Proverbs 16:13)  So while telling the boss something he or she doesn’t want to hear may be scary, if the boss is a person of character and self-confidence, your words will hopefully fall on receptive ears, so long as you speak appropriately. If you decide you need to walk through the Open Door and talk with the boss, here are a few thoughts.

First, be positive and not negative, emphasizing how much your co-workers genuinely want to contribute to building a more effective workplace. Use terms the manager can relate to: productivity, worker output, reducing turnover.

Second, be professional and not overly personal. Don’t say “You hurt my feelings” — ask instead, “Are you willing to consider modifications to your plan that my colleagues and I believe will make it even more effective?”

Third, have a few examples, and write them down. I’ve tried bringing up challenging behavior to a few bosses in my past, only to get flustered when he or she challenged my thinking. Far better to have two or three specific instances than to get tongue-tied and end up with generalities like “You never listen!”

Finally, don’t go alone, but don’t gang up, either. Two people coming to see the manager seems reasonable. Six feels mutinous. There may be strength in numbers, but you may also be sending a message you didn’t intend to send!

One more word: if you currently have a boss whose open mind matches his or her open door, say thanks! Tell her or him how much you appreciate their spirit of openness.  After all, it’s a real blessing to work for someone who values the opinions of subordinates and is willing to consider them — even when those opinions challenge the views of the person in the corner office.

 

 

 

 
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Posted by on July 11, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

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Am I the Only One Who Dislikes Internal Competition??!

Competition     Like you, I have worked for sales managers and general managers who get all excited about internal competition — you know, those annual Sales Contests where the top producer wins and everyone else loses. Typically they have names like “Spring Sales Sweepstakes” or “Las Vegas Extravaganza.” I guess these events are designed to get everyone fired up for sales success.

Well…maybe they do. But in my experience, one thing these contests don’t do is build teamwork. I don’t mean to sound contrarian, but I hate sales contests! I’m convinced they do more harm than good.

Now before you label me un-American, since we Americans love a winner and all that, let me add that a contest with multiple winners where everyone has a shot at winning the Big Prize is fine. Nothing wrong with incentives — I’ve spent most of my career in an incentive-focused environment. But incentive and competition are two different things. In an effort to get your sales team fired up, are you inadvertently sowing seeds of mistrust and an unhealthy competitive spirit between people who are supposed to be pulling together? Your poorly thought-out sales contest may end up with unfortunate unintended consequences.

In my experience with salespeople and sales teams I have always placed a high value on healthy teamwork. Having a bunch of hard-charging Lone Ranger types, each looking out for Number One, has NEVER been my preferred route to sales success with the teams I’ve led (which probably explains why I would last maybe thirty seconds working on Wall Street!). Teams support one another. Teams collaborate. Teams aren’t afraid to share ideas and leads. Teams build each member up when things are tough and challenge each member to work more effectively. In short, teamwork is a highly-prized value, so anything that undermines teamwork is probably a bad idea. Including most sales contests.

By the way, depending on your sales environment, well-crafted territories can also build teamwork. I once worked for a national firm in which each of the sales reps had a large, defined territory, resulting in a high level of collaboration. If I traced a lead to a home office in Chicago, I knew I would be passing that lead along to my colleague Mark in the Chicago sales office. I also knew if he found a lead and traced it to the Pacific Northwest, he would pass that lead along to me. We all watched out for each other and worked together for the good of the company. Later, however, after I left that firm, I heard that they had done away with territories, leaving each rep free to pursue leads wherever they were in the country. So guess what? Mark and I would have gone from being collaborators to competitors. Maybe I’m dumb, but that doesn’t sound smart.

So, sales managers, if you want to incentivize your team, go for it! But why not come up with a set of prizes or bonuses or whatever in which everyone can win? Set goals commensurate with each salesperson’s experience level and billing potential. Avoid the Darwinian “I win, you lose” approach that I fear is still too common in many sales environments. I predict your organization will reap the rewards as the spirit of teamwork is enhanced. And if you think I’m being a competition wimp — well, you may be right. Still, why not try it and see if it works? I’ll bet you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how well your team does when they really are working as a team!

 
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Posted by on June 27, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

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The Power of Possibility

2014 SUA GRADUATION    His name is Jesse. That’s him in the back row, left hand side.

Jesse’s life has included a whole host of economic, social and academic challenges. When Jesse was in his former high school, a big, suburban place, he says he was that kid in the back of the classroom, slouched in his seat, never making eye contact, never contributing, and barely passing. He was the one teachers didn’t think would make it, the one sure to drop out and become yet another statistic. But then something dramatic happened: Jesse changed schools. He came to a much, much smaller place called Seattle Urban Academy. There in that more intimate, more individualized, more personalized environment, he began to shine. The bright young man hidden behind that veneer of past academic failure slowly began to show himself. Jesse became the eager, interested, funny, inquisitive person he always had the potential to become. Just a few weeks ago, he wore his cap and gown and received the high school diploma he had wondered whether he would ever receive — and now he has his sights set on a career in web design.

Jesse’s story is a classic failure-to-redemption tale. Each of his classmates could describe a similar personal voyage. What changed? Well…in my view it was a whole host of things — but it boils down to the Power of Possibility. Jesse came to an environment where — for the first time — he was exposed to a world of bright options for his future, and he was equipped with the tools to turn those never-before-experienced dreams into reality.

Please don’t misunderstand:  by “the Power of Possibility,” I’m not suggesting you put a picture of a Ferrari on your refrigerator. Frankly I don’t place much stock in the mystical power of visualization. I would simply submit that, for any of us to achieve anything worthwhile, we first have to (a) know what positive things the future could hold and (b) believe we have a realistic chance of attaining that future. For Jesse, struggling at his former high school, the future looked bleak, holding little if any prospects for a rewarding and successful life. He was mired in the trap of perceived failure. When he came to SUA, for the first time he began to see that he was smart, not dumb, and capable (with hard work) of achieving real academic success. Not only that, but he was also surrounded by teachers and tutors and fellow students who believed in him and who were standing by to help him along the way.

Jesse spoke at his graduation ceremony. He said, “Some people … said we wouldn’t make it. We, as a family, stand here to say they are wrong. We turned our failures and struggles into our means of success.”  The crowd responded with tears and cheers.  The road for students like Jesse is seldom smooth, and some of these young men and women have had a lot to overcome. But thanks to the Power of Possibility, combined with the magnetic pull of a clear and compelling vision, academic failure is transformed into forward motion, strong achievement and ultimate success.

For you and me the lesson is clear. We may not face the kind of challenges a young man like Jesse has had to face, but nevertheless we may find ourselves mired in a self-imposed attitude of chronic failure. Maybe you’re the manager of an employee or even a team who feels that way. Maybe it’s a spouse or adult child or a close friend. The Power of Possibility means that a strong, affirming vision can begin to propel us forward. Yes, we may need to swallow our pride and become part of a support group that will help us along the way — this isn’t supposed to be a solo journey. But we can do it. And if I start doubting the Power of Possibility, I’ll think of Jesse.

Henry Ford said, “Whether you think that you can, or that you can’t, you are usually right.”  Good point.

 

 
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Posted by on June 23, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

Help Me Understand!

Birds     Quick question: how much of the interpersonal conflict you experience in the average day is based entirely (or almost entirely) on misunderstanding? If you answered “about 99%” then join the club.

It seems to me, thinking about a typical day, that I seldom get into real conflict over what I would call issues of substance. Oh, sure, now and then we’ll find ourselves in an honest, substantive argument about “real issues”…but the kind of conflict that drives us nuts, especially between co-workers, friends, even spouses, is the kind that is generated and perpetuated by one misunderstanding after another. He says something she misunderstands, which prompts her to say something he misunderstands, which causes him to react, which causes her to react, which quickly escalates into (a) a full-blown screaming match, or (b) the chilly fog of the silent treatment.

Nowhere is this more evident than in marriage, that closest of interpersonal relationships. My wife and I teach a marriage course, and without going into too much detail, one of the fundamental starting points for couples to understand is that men and women hear things differently. If I say something to my wife that she perceives as somehow unloving, she will react, sometimes with angry words, glaring eyes and confrontational gestures and body language. She’s reacting because I’ve hurt her feelings and she’s trying to connect with me in order to resolve things; but instead of realizing that, I get offended because her response seems controlling and disrespectful to me. I feel like she’s mothering me, scolding me, and trying to control me. That’s not her intention at all! But in the heat of the moment, do I stop and consider the source of her hurt and her anger? Nope — I get defensive and react to her reaction, and the cycle starts to escalate. My (unintentionally) unloving behavior triggers her (unintentionally) disrespectful reaction, which causes me to behave (unintentionally) even more unlovingly, which triggers an even more (unintentionally) disrespectful reaction, and so on in a spiral of angry conflict.

In his classic Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey says, “Seek first to understand — then to be understood.” Nowhere does this apply more urgently than during conflict. In order to break the cycle of misunderstanding, I need to stop reacting and start thinking, “Where is this anger coming from? How much of it is due to my insensitivity? Can I defuse the anger by owning up to my share of the responsibility?” Asking these questions is the first step toward breaking the cycle of misunderstanding.

My opinion based on years in the workplace is that some of these male-female differences apply outside of marriage as well as inside. Men, in my experience the women with whom you interact will tend to value face-to-face communication, and they will often want to talk through arguments in detail and bring things full circle. Women, sometimes the men you work with will go silent on you, not because they are trying to be difficult but because they may be angry and need time to collect their thoughts and cool down. Give them some space! Men may also be the ones to say “Drop it! Forget it!” during conflict, because, for them, the issue is resolved. It’s over — let’s move on! This can be highly frustrating if you’re the one who wants to talk it out, until you realize that he doesn’t need to talk it out. When he says, “Forget it,” he means it!

This is a topic that we could discuss endlessly, of course, but the point is clear: if you’re in the middle of a conflict, will you be the one to break the cycle? Remember the old-fashioned signs at the railroad crossings, the ones that used to say “Stop! Look! Listen!”  That’s a great recipe for defusing conflict. If you can learn to stop reacting, start looking and begin really listening, you can figure out the root cause of the misunderstanding and steer the relationship back onto firm ground.

 
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Posted by on June 17, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

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