Anxiety Goggles

Lance Fear, Leadership, People Leave a Comment

We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are — Anonymous

A friend of mine recently went skiing. She’s not a brand new skier, but is still a self-described novice. She explained this as she shared a video her husband took of her coming down the mountain. As she explained it, she had felt at the time that she was flying down the blue/intermediate run at breakneck speed. Humorously, the video showed her moving at a much more … measured … pace. The point of her sharing the story was the hilarious gaping chasm of difference between her sense of dangerously speeding down the slope as she experienced it, and the much more pedestrian reality.

That difference is Anxiety and its distorting effect on how we view what’s happening to us in a nutshell.

Whether it is fearing the consequences of falling down the side of a mountain, or the insecurities of answering for a negative result to one’s boss, the anxiety we feel about the situation actively warps our perception of what is actually happening in the situation. We end up afraid when we should be excited, nervous when we should be calm. Think of it like an emotional version of the stroboscopic effect in photography/videography, which creates some real-looking but unrealistic images for our brain to process. Here are two mind-bending examples:

That is what anxiety does to your emotional picture.

Worse still: when we are surrounded by others who are all feeling the same anxieties, the distortion effect amplifies as we share our experience with others. Each person’s anxious state confirms the same for others. In this environment, a person who isn’t exhibiting the same symptoms of stress isn’t looked at as a person to follow — “She’s not worried. Let’s take a deep breath and calm down too.” — but as an anomaly — “She doesn’t act like she cares at all. What’s wrong with her?”

This is a recipe for overreaction and a shortening of focus. On the mountain, this means going slower than you really need to and laughing at yourself after. In business, it means reacting to the noise of short-term volatility instead of the longer-term signal (more on this in a later post). In social relationships (whether marital or political), it means shadow boxing against what we know the other really means instead of simply dealing with the face-value of things they are actually saying.

Having worn anxiety goggles like this a time or two in my life (yes, that’s me in the image at the top), there are two things I’ve found that help tremendously in social/professional environments:

SELF-AWARENESS – simply being aware of this phenomenon and the possibility that how you are seeing/experiencing the situation may not match up with the reality of the situation is a huge first step. This enables you to take the goggles off for second, step out from behind anxiety’s distorting effect, and consider the possibility of a different take on what’s in front of you than what your emotional vision is telling you.

SELF-WORTH – when you develop a healthy sense of who you are that is independent of what you do and the praising or criticizing judgments of others, anxiety loses an effective angle on you. No longer can anxiety kick your amygdala into high gear by screaming in your head “WHAT DOES THIS MONTH’S BAD PERFORMANCE SAY ABOUT YOU?!?!?!”

That last one is an important point to realize. The more we allow our sense of self-worth to be tied to the ups and downs of performance and other’s judgment of it, the more havoc anxiety can wreak — not just in our head, but also in our actual ability to perform. By believing that external judgments of our performance define our value, we actually make it harder for ourselves to perform at our potential in order to secure those praiseworthy judgments we seek, according to research at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research (or “the M-word up north” as my Ohio-born-and-bred son now says).

college students who based their self-worth on external sources–including appearance, approval from others and even their academic performance–reported more stress, anger, academic problems, relationship conflicts, and had higher levels of drug and alcohol use and symptoms of eating disorders. …

College students who based their self-worth on academic performance did not receive higher grades despite being highly motivated and studying more hours each week than students who did not rate academic performance as important to their self-esteem, Crocker found. Students who based their self-worth on academic outcomes also were more likely to report conflicts with professors and greater stress.

“They feel motivated to do well in academics, but having their self-worth on the line doesn’t help their performance,” Crocker says. She speculates that students who base their self-worth on academic performance might become anxious and distracted and threatened by feelings of failure, and, as such, their anxiety might then interfere with their memory.

Anxiety about external judgments doesn’t just work on individuals like this; it does the same thing to entire organizations. As Simon Sinek describes in his book, Leaders Eat Last:

In fact, the more financial analysts who cover a company, the less innovative the company. According to a 2013 study that appeared in the Journal of Financial Economics, companies covered by a larger number of analysts file fewer patents than companies covered by fewer analysts. And the patents those companies do generate tend to have lower impact. The evidence supports the idea that “analysts exert too much pressure on managers to meet short-term goals, impeding firms’ investment in long-term innovative projects.” Put simply, the more pressure the leaders of a public-company feel to meet the expectations of an outside constituency, the more likely they are to reduce their capacity for better products and services.

For leaders, whether of families, teams, or multi-national corporations, the takeaway is the same: if you want your kids, team members, or employees to maximize their performance through a clear view of what they are facing, then leading in a way that removes anxiety rather than creates/inflames/uses it is the only answer. Three suggestions:

  1. Don’t overreact to the noise of the moment — people are already inclined to do that. Be the example of calm focus on the bigger issues and longer term.
  2. Separate judgments of performance from valuations of people — whether in reaction to a child’s test score or a sales team’s monthly result, putting people on the emotional rollercoaster of “you’re great when your results are good / terrible when they are bad” adds the variable of psychological anxiety to the already complex problem of performance. Be the simplifier of problems, not the complicator.
  3. Don’t make your personal approval the goal — as social animals, people are wired to seek acceptance and avoid rejection. Don’t exacerbate this by allowing people to think pleasing you as the leader is the point of their job. Keep them focused on the accomplishment of the mission before them, and not on your own emotional state about them.

Silence Isn’t Golden

Lance Fear, Integrity, Leadership Leave a Comment

“Change starts with voices.” — Tony Reali

Over the weekend, a long-time friend from my school days launched a blog, and left her comfort zone in the process. An occasion like this is a good reminder of the benefits and hurdles to being an open book.

We all have our own insecurities and fears, issues and hangups. Despite this fact, we all tend to believe ours are unique — not in the “you’re unique and special!” kinda way, but in the “everyone has issues, but man, do *you* have ISSUES!” way. As a result, the impulse to hide our weaknesses keeps us quiet, afraid to be judged by our flaws instead of our strengths. This, like nearly everything Fear has to say, is a lie used by the Enemy to keep us from speaking up, because he knows three things that he desperately wants us to forget/ignore/be ignorant of:

1) Talking about our “stuff” is therapeutic — it starts us moving in the direction away from the cloak of Shame and towards other people in our community who can provide the care and encouragement and perspectives needed to begin healing/overcoming.

2) At the same time, speaking up lets those in our network of connections who are feeling the exact same things know that they are not alone either. It also models for them what it looks like to operate as the subject of our life’s sentence, and not its object: we do things to and with our fears, not the other way around. This helps others begin doing #1 in their own lives.

3) The more we do this, the easier it becomes, creating a flywheel effect of healing and empowerment. These are the things that leave an impact, much as light does to the darkness, and salt does to the meal. (Matt. 5:13-15)

The path that led me to giving a public speech (!!) about the emotional effects of my getting fired was a long and hard one. During my year of unemployment, I was utterly terrified to talk about it, as if giving words to it gave material substance to the awful feelings of shame and doubt about myself as a professional, as a husband, as a father, and as a man. No doubt this played a part in my remaining unemployed for so long, as the tension of protecting something — even if completely understandable — inevitably shows up in the pressurized moment of a job interview. Even after returning to work, it would be some time before I was comfortable enough to talk about it. Before I arrived at that place, there were moments of painful embarrassment, like the time an opposing defense attorney brought up what had happened as a means of shaming me into a more favorable plea bargain offer. (Yes, that really happened … and it was the closest I’ve ever come to being in a physical altercation as an adult.)

It’s tempting to keep our insecurities hidden and explain it as an act of being private rather than afraid. But, as my TEDxDayton comrade Scot Ganow explained, the value of privacy isn’t in keeping things secret, per se. Rather, it is in the power to decide the terms (what, when, how, etc) of disclosure. Being private doesn’t necessarily mean being quiet, but being afraid always does.

When it comes to the things we are most insecure about, the benefits of taking the risks of exposing ourselves to others are too great to let Fear win. God has given us all journeys full of both triumphs and failures, and voices with which to share them. Let us use them all so that others may find courage to do likewise.


Predicting Trouble

Lance Forbes Leave a Comment

Originally posted at

It’s been just over three weeks since an oversized rodent named Phil was hoisted aloft by men in top hats and deemed to have predicted six more weeks of winter. Surprisingly, Phil’s not the only groundhog making a name for himself in the seasonal weather forecasting game. Ohioans have their own “Buckeye Chuck” … and he, too, predicted six more weeks of winter. (Evidently that’s the verdict when Chuck simply refuses to show his face to the camera-wielding world.)

So, how have their predictions fared? Halfway through that six-week period, and … well … take a look for yourself:

There are many things I would call days like last week in which the low temperature averaged about 10 degrees higher than the average high temperature, but “winter” isn’t one of them.

Whether you like 75 degree days in February or hate them (yes, people like us that exist), the month is about to end, and that means ushering in that time of the year when predicting the future takes over the American cultural landscape: March Madness is only two weeks away. Two weeks until office productivity nosedives as copy machines turn into bracket production machines and everyone thinks their bracket full of predictions will be the one that wins it all.

Of course, everyone knows that most will get their predictions wrong most of the time. Forget the perfect bracket — it’s nearly impossible just to get all of the Final Four teams right.

These failures of forecasting aren’t surprising. In fact, they are fully expected. Whether in weather or in sports, everyone understands that a divergence between the predicted outcome and the actual outcome points to a problem with the prediction, not the outcome.

Obvious as that is, there is one arena where things are often viewed quite differently: the world of corporate performance and financial analysis. There, the predictions of the professional analysts are couched as “expectations,” “ratings” and “outlooks.” When a company arrives at the quarterly earnings reporting period with results that are short of those predictions, the shortfall is viewed as a sign of a problem with the company rather than with the predictions themselves. The comparison of the two goes something like this: the professional analyst has studied the data inside and out, and by applying his expertise and the wizardry of math to the data, he charted where the company should have arrived at, performance-wise. On the other side of the ledger is the company, which simply failed to do what the data said should have been possible.

What seems laughable in nearly every other context — that the entity producing the outcome is at fault for failing to fulfill the prediction — is commonplace in the world of financial media. Imagine how different the modern corporate landscape would be if financial predictions were subject to the same expectations of failure as in other walks of life? Instead, the prediction tail wags the performance dog, and we end up with outcomes like this:

One recent survey of 400 corporate finance officers found that a full 80 percent reported they would cut expenses like marketing and product development to make their quarterly earnings targets, even if they knew the likely result was to hurt long-term corporate performance. – Lynn Stout’s The Shareholder Value Myth

Think about that: Four out of five finance executives would take actions they knew were destructive to the company’s health in order to arrive at a target that was, at the time it was set, a prediction of future performance. Astonishing, and yet not surprising all at the same time. When performance is judged by whether it aligned with the predictor’s forecasts (whether those predictions come from without, or within), then it is utterly predictable that measures will be taken to achieve that “success” … even unhealthy ones.

Even a lying groundhog can see the trouble with that.

Fake Arguments

Lance Communication Leave a Comment

I’m working on a couple of posts that are bit longer than usual. The topics I think are important and merit the extra effort in both writing and reading. Hopefully, when they’re done and posted, that will prove to be the case. 🙂

In the meantime, Seth Godin has words today worth reading about all the yelling at each other going on right now. And, as he notes, so too does this crew:

The One Question Nobody Is Asking About Education Secretary Betsy DeVos

Lance Forbes, Leadership, People Leave a Comment

Originally posted at

There have been few developments since the election of President Donald Trump that have generated as much heat as his nomination of Betsy DeVos to be Secretary of Education … and that’s saying something. Measured reactions about DeVos have been rare, as both Left and Right have cast her ascension to the top job at the Department of Education in the boldest of terms. Point your browser to the right, and you will read how DeVos will break the iron grip of teacher’s unions and transform the efficacy of America’s schools; aim your Twitter feed to the left, and DeVos will all but set actual fire to America’s schools by selling out poor children to greedy corporate titans who seek to run charter school like the sleaziest of slumlords. While the opinion page of Fox News labels DeVos “an inspired choice,” the New York Times editorial board headlined its opposition thusly: “Betsy DeVos Teaches the Value of Ignorance.”

Opposition to DeVos can be intensely fact-based, aimed squarely at the combination of a lack of any experience with an ideological commitment bordering (or maybe surpassing) incurious rigidity. So, too, can support, as cases can be made for the policy choices DeVos represents regarding school choice (whether via charter schools or voucher programs).

Mostly, though, it has been hysterics that have ruled the conversation, and it’s clear that isn’t going to be ending anytime soon, as today’s episode showed. What was a protest movement to prevent DeVos’ confirmation by the Senate has now evolved into a resistance force physically preventing America’s Secretary of Education from being able to enter a public school in America’s capital city. (Ideological opponents like prior Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, both tweeted opposition to this tactic.)

Throughout this entire drama, amidst the questions of policy preference and the influence of wealth, one question has been ignored by both the opposition and supporters alike: Can she lead?

It is easy to get caught up in the weeds of policy debate and the volleys of partisan tribal warring and forget this much more anodyne but no less important question. The Department of Education is a small cabinet-level agency by Federal Government standards, but it is still a large organization with over 4,000 employees. If Secretary DeVos is going to do anything to America’s schools — for good or for ill — it will be through the actions of those 4,000 people. Getting the people in that large organization to reverse course and move in a radically different direction will not be as simple as having different beliefs and priorities. Secretary DeVos will have to do several things as the new leader that will be monumentally harder than merely surviving a Senate confirmation hearing:

Establish Credibility

Secretary DeVos’ lack of personal experience with any public school, anywhere, for any reason, is well documented. The department employees she now leads all know this as well, and it is likely very different than their experiences. Working for the Department of Education at any level of government is not likely a career choice for anyone not experienced with and believing in the mission of America’s public schools. If Secretary DeVos hopes to get anything done, she will have to find ways to bridge the public school experience gap and earn the listening of her new employees to what she has to say.

Build Trust

While credibility is what opens ears, it is trust that opens minds. Set aside the public protests and partisan fights. If the department’s army of career education professionals don’t trust Secretary DeVos’ motives behind her contrary views about the current system of public education, they won’t follow her up the mountain of Change she is tasked with scaling. This challenge is not just limited to the federal employees working on public education. Any real change DeVos hopes to achieve will require the trust and cooperation of state and local public education professionals across the country. Building trust among that group, over whom she does not have the power over things like employment and pay, will be as hard as it will be crucial.

Persuade Skeptics

The real challenge in leading is not in motivating fellow believers in the cause to do the work necessary to bring it forth. “Preaching to the choir” is hardly a challenge, after all. The true test of a leader is in getting the cooperation and expenditure of effort of those who disagree with either the mission or the tactics … or even both. Making decisions is what leaders do, but decisions alone do not make following happen. Leading isn’t lobbying either, where resources and access are the name of the game. Even if she succeeds in gaining credibility and building trust, Secretary DeVos won’t make any impactful change unless she can convince the administrators, policy makers, and teachers serving America’s school children that they should not only listen to her, and trust her; she also needs them to agree with her, at least enough to participate and compromise in order to fulfill the challenge and promise she delivered to her new team on Wednesday:

My challenge to you is simple: Think big, be bold and act to serve students. And I will promise you this: Together, we will find new ways in which we can positively transform education.

What Betsy DeVos believes about the policy of “school choice” is known. Whether Secretary DeVos can actually do this leadership task remains to be seen. This is an important question to keep in mind. Leadership is an amplifier, after all, increasing the impact of both positive and negative actions taken. If Secretary DeVos isn’t up to harnessing the amplifying power of her new role as leader, then the scope of the change she can accomplish will be diminished. If she isn’t an effective leader, Betsy DeVos will neither save American public education, nor destroy it.

Can she lead? Until we know, perhaps some national calming down is in order.