The Top 5 Questions HR has on Technology

Discussion posted by Mike Briercliffe

Summary compiled by Cris Wildermuth


129 comments (as of 09/24/13)


Questions or Comments on “Making it Easy”:


The gist of it: What is “easy” and intuitive for an IT person is not necessarily easy for non-IT professionals.


·         Why can't IT people design programs that are easy to use by non IT people? It seems to me that when IT people suggest that a program is intuitive, they mean it is intuitive to someone who already has a pretty broad understanding.


·         HR IT systems are in most cases complicated and offer expanded options which are not used by end users. And a question is: How to design a simple and easy to use (for end users like managers, employees) HR systems? How to combine declared needs (design) with IT solutions (tools) and common sense and simplicity (final product)?


·         With my practical mind, I sometimes struggle to understand why a programmer or programming company would design a system where the GUI is at best, overwhelming for someone with limited system experience.


·         How can I make the tool easy for senior management, supervisors and employees to use? Show benefits, safety and ease.


Questions or Comments on “Integration”:


The gist of it: People want one system to do it all.


·         System integration and data consistency is always a challenge. So what are they doing to ensure that all their systems (HR, Payroll, Recruiting, HRIS, Reporting etc.) talk to each other with minimal human intervention, that everyone in the Organization is working off the same data at any given moment, and multiple entry of the same data in different systems or modules, (wastes time and effort, leads to inaccuracy and inconsistency), is avoided?


·         When will we see a technology integrated solution to attract, hire, manage and engage direct hire and contract workers on the same platform? Further, when will we see a procurement tool that has an applicant tracking system (ATS) embedded as part of the tool?


·         There are no systems out there that can do all of what is required to maintain HR and payroll. This is the foundation of comprehensive HR Administration and record keeping. I have seen companies run 3, sometimes 4 systems to be able to store this info.


·         Not only in HR but elsewhere in the business we often have multiple sets of numbers (data) It needs to develop a system that uses 1 set of numbers, from new hire set up, payroll, production, training and more. Enter once and it is done. The other question I would ask is about integrating social media into the different systems.


·         Yes, the most nightmare experience in my past years, we employed one system for EE basic data, one for performance management and talent management, one for payroll. Of course, every system we need some same basic data (I think you know what these are :)), the frustrating thing is that there is few interface among systems. Meanwhile, we even keep our leave status manually in EXCEL!!


·         Will there ever be a fully integrated, "end-to-end," HR solution?


Questions on Interactions between HR and IT:


The gist of it: People wonder how these two groups of professionals can communicate better. There were various comments on whether HR participates in IT design decisions and/or how HR could best help IT.


·         Perhaps the thing to do is select an well versed experienced HR professional with some accounting experience and convert them into IT folks....then they might understand what we need!


·         I would ask how and what representation of real HR practitioners have when it comes to the design and development of HR and HCM systems. Considering the limitations we have in most HRIS as end users, it is quite clear to that, HR professionals contribution in the initial design and development before the product goes to the market is very limited.


·         Similarly, what HR issues frustrate IT professionals most, and are there easily accessed or creative solutions that can meet the needs of both? How can the two compromise?


·         Also, what are the most frequent competing goals, objectives and strategies between IT and HR?


Questions or Comments on People and Technology:


The gist of it: Some members were frustrated that the IT systems designed for HR do not capture enough about the complexities of human beings.


·         The IT function is a support function to HR. IT should provide tools to record, track and quantify those items to which numerical values can be assigned. People (employees) and their innumerable talents, foibles, attributes, personalities, moods, feelings, motivations are not so easy to quantify. IT needs to remember that employees are not little robots, they are human beings!! There are many intangibles that IT cannot comprehend about HR in general. A great beginning to your IT conference would be to remind the IT world that their very valuable role is to support HR and that IT does not run HR, but that HR may rely on IT for metrics for its decision making.


·         When we talk about IT solutions for HR management, generally the first thing that comes to our mind is quantitative/measurable/hard data, However, the core of this subject is purely soft/qualitative in nature based on human emotions, commitment, trust, psychological contract, dedication, attitude, abilities, capabilities, etc.  How can you link both sides in the best possible manner?


·         When are vendors and end organizations going to realize that having candidates respond to a job posting by forcing them to enter lots of information (…) only deters quality candidates from applying at all? The best candidates will not be bothered, nor should they have to do anything more than send their resume to a real person who actually reads it (even it is a 5 second glance). Over thinking and over automation in HR is for the most part a disaster. How is getting back to basics being addressed?


Questions or Comments on Confidentiality:


The gist of it: There were some questions/concerns around confidentiality/data protection.


·         I would like to know what precautions/measures can be taken to protect sensitive employee personal information. What can be done to ensure this data cannot be hacked into or accessed by those who are not authorized access to it, putting the employee and the company at risk.


·         How the data can be secure as it is a confidential data. Although the IT professionals will talk about ethics but an HR should ask for some strong steps or options to actually save the data.


The question I’d really like to know “what is this all about”:


This was an isolated question but I got really curious…


·         It’s official ... Millions of productivity dollars a year are wasted by people wrestling with formatting documents, reorganizing indents, bullet points and paragraph numbering. This is the dirty little secret of the software industry. Yes nowhere near as exciting as clouds, dashboards and the ultimate talent management system but still, many people quietly and openly range at the anonymous guy with the dirty T shirt somewhere in a development lab who developed the code for indents, paragraph numbers and pagination. Training people hasn't worked and is clearly not the answer ('damn', said the vendors product marketer). How can you save hours and hours of wasted time and diminished productivity with the mind numbingly mundane but central issue of document formatting.








Please fight back

Since Friday afternoon - when I first heard about the Sandy Hook massacre – I have founght overwhelming feelings of sadness, anger, and despair. Sadness at the state of our humanity. Anger that more has not been done to protect those children and others to come. Despair at the complexity of the problem.


I know, as I write this column, that most of you share these feelings. Of course we don't all agree on the solutions - indeed, I'm sure we're about to have a lively political debate on what to do next. I welcome this debate. I hope this debate IS indeed, lively, and further hope that we don't forget - that we don't EVER forget. Not this time.


I dedicate this blog today to the little victims of Sandy Hook Elementary and to their heroic teachers. Let’s take a moment to look at their pictures and memorize their names (you can find them here: )


We weren't there to protect those children with our lives. We didn't use our bodies as shields like Anne Marie Murphy. We didn't desperately try to send the coward elsewhere like Victoria Soto. We didn't run towards danger disregarding our own safety like Dawn Hochsprung and Mary Sherlach. We weren't there to do anything at all - and were powerless to protect the victims or their families from unimaginable grief. Regardless, there is much that we can do right from we are. We can take the time to THINK - searching the depths of our consciences to understand where we truly stand. We can fight our discomfort and ENGAGE in civil yet honest conversations, expressing our views and listening to others. We can ENGAGE even when others' views make our skin crawl and our blood boil. This is, after all, too important of a time for any of us to retreat into the safety of our own unchallenged beliefs.  


Finally, once we feel that we have a better understanding of this complex problem – one that defies simple solutions – we can gather the courage to LEAD. We LEAD even if we lack the formal authority or mandate to participate in government discussions. We LEAD, even if we do not belong to formal think tanks. We LEAD by making our voices known - loudly. We LEAD by organizing others. We persevere - no matter what. We take ownership of our broken society and we refuse to be silenced.


I should be wishing Happy Holidays to our community this week. Instead, I leave you with three words.


Please. Fight. Back.











Kingdom Tycoons Simulation


We had a blast this weekend with the Kingdom Tycoons simulation in the Ethics Class.  The discussions were simply amazing!  A heartfelt thank you to the students who helped me put this together and to the class who participated so beautifully - you guys made me proud to be a professor and made my job so rewarding...

Here is an explanation of what I did.  A disclaimer: This is not a terribly original idea - simulations like the one that I ran "pop up"  under different names and with different scenarios and rules.  As a colleague in the Linked:HR group rightfully pointed out, one could say that I " somewhat" reproduced the scenario pioneered by teacher Jane Elliott in Iowa thirty years ago (for those unfamiliar with Ms. Elliott's work, go to ).

At the end of the day, what I was trying to do was differentiate people into three groups (upper, middle and lower class), give them different set of resources, and then watch what happened.

Basically what you should do to reproduce what I did is:

  1. Come up with a way to differentiate people into 3 groups: Upper class (I called this group "The Dukes,"  middle class (I called this group "The Knights") and lower class (I called this group "The Peasants").
  2. How do you differentiate? Truly it doesn't matter - any game of chance will do.  However, come up with a system in which *some* skill matters but it's mostly about luck and the beginning set of resources. Give some people more resources to play than others - maybe better cards or more game pieces or whatever makes sense in the game you picked. Then watch - usually people with a better "beginning"  have a better chance to win. For instance, imagine a game of poker in which some folks start with a bunch of Aces and others with a variety of low cards.  Further imagine that in said game some people are given more chips with which to bet than others...
  3. After you differentiate, send people to different parts of the room and give them different sets of resources. In my version we celebrated the accomplishments of the Dukes and showered them with "stuff" (including boxes of donuts and decorations for their table).  The "Peasants"  had basically nothing - the "Knights" were somewhere in between.
  4. Next, give them something to do. In my version, they had to build a prototype of a new kingdom using Lego pieces (and yes, the Dukes by then had far more pieces than the Knights, and the Peasants had none whatsoever).
  5. Somewhere half way through the process, give the class the opportunity to rewrite the rules of the game (in my version I told them they could rewrite the "Constitution."  That's where it gets REALLY interesting - in my class, the Peasants wanted total equality, the Knights wanted a complicated change of rules that would involve more "mentoring" of the Peasants and more social mobility, and the Dukes wanted... nothing (duh).  A fair amount of "charity"  happened, with Knights pressuring the Dukes to contribute more resources.  Really - fascinating.  In approximately 2 hours I created a scenario that gave us a weekend of deep discussions on opportunity, merit, the role of "luck,"  and... what leaders can and should do about it.


Good luck! If you come up with a different version, how about sharing what you did? Also, let me know what happened!






How do you spot a nightmare?

An interesting discussion started this week in our Big Five Group has to do with the "Dark Side" of the personality (click here to access the discussion or join the group to contribute to it!). Specifically, one of our group's members, Dr. Gordon Curphy, wondered if the Big Five personality traits allow us to find "team killers" - people who "destroy team morale and cohesiveness" (thank you Dr. Curphy for your contribution!)

Dr. Curphy's question got me thinking: Are there traits on the Big Five that would allow us to predict organizational gremlins? I'm talking about people whose general behaviors would make most people uncomfortable - perhaps people who are abrasive, rude, arrogant and yes, unethical.  Yikes.  Have you ever worked with someone like that?

As I write the question, however, I can see all sorts of problems in trying to "identify" a nightmare.  Here are just a few:

Nightmares are Relative
Nightmarish tendencies could lie in the eye of the beholder! I could call "arrogant" someone whom others see as "charismatic."  A "rude" person could simply be more direct than I am or disagree with me on a variety of key areas. How about unethical? That's tougher but still possibly relative - I could judge as "unethical" behaviors that others would find perfectly reasonable. More importantly, I might be more likely to judge as "unethical" something that is likely to damage my interests.  In other words: Possibly, differences between my personality and the personality of the nightmare in question govern my own perceptions.

Nightmares have Mirrors
Maybe I'm the nightmare... or at least part of it! For instance, if two people are equally low in accommodation / agreeableness and equally high in need for stability / neuroticism they could disagree vehemently... who is the nightmare then? Both of them?

Nightmares bring Gifts
A "nightmare" could actually bring something good to the table.  For instance, a tad of arrogance could work well if it translates to the outside world as rightful pride in the organization.  The same person who is perceived as "abrasive" to the team could sell this same team beautifully to outside clients. Unless the situation is extreme (or perhaps even pathological) a combination of personality traits is unlikely to be all bad under all circumstances.

Nightmares are Complex
Finally, a "nightmare recipe"  may require more than traits.  Instead, nightmares may require an explosive combination of traits, values, and motivations. Case in point: Consider someone who is ultra high in need for stability / neuroticism (i.e., reactive, nervous, and prone to anger), ultra low in accommodation / agreeableness (a challenging "limelight seeker"), ultra low in trust and tact, somewhat dry and unfriendly, and ultra high in need to "take charge" and in perfectionism. Before you say "ouch," however, consider the possibility that this same person is exquisitely self-aware, having participated in countless coaching sessions and in 360 exercises. As a result, this person may have learned to compensate for his/her tougher tendencies.  Further, this person's goals and values could serve as powerful motivators to control his/her behaviors. After all, the relationship between traits and behavior is not that perfect - two people with similar trait tendencies may still behave differently (for a better review of "additional layers" impacting behaviors, the reader is directed to the fabulous work of Dr. Dan McAdams).

In summary - diagnosing nightmares is far from simple.  Even if everyone in the team agreed that person X is a nightmare he/she could still have important redeeming values - or, alternatively, something in the system could be exacerbating someone's natural tendencies. Perhaps, therefore, our thinking on this topic might go beyond "how to diagnose a nightmare."  We could also figure out how to diagnose nightmarish conditions (does the system bring the "worst" in everyone?) and relationships (how incompatible is this particular team?).  Further, we might learn how to best communicate about nightmares.  How can a team member approach a colleague and say "Houston, we have a problem, now let's talk"? 

Your thoughts?






The Health Disconnect

The statistics included in the article “The Economic impacts of Obesity in the Workplace” (sponsored by Alere) are sobering: “Obesity is associated with 39 million lost work days, 239 million restricted-activity days, 90 million bed days and 63 million physician visits per year” ( ). Next, I read in “Wellness as a Business Strategy (sponsored by Keas): The threat isn’t coming from foreign competition, rising energy costs or regulatory uncertainty. It’s coming from within—in the form of obese, sedentary, stressed, unproductive, disengaged and chronically ill employees” ( ).


Here is a summary of what I’ve been reading: The health situation is dire and does impact the bottom line. Organizations should seriously address the problem and consider initiatives to reduce obesity, eliminate tobacco and drug use, and promote a healthy lifestyle.


It’s part of my job, however, to be both skeptical and curious. My skeptical side wonders if organizations are “really” serious about this problem. My curiosity then leads me to the following question: Has this whole discussion on the impact of health reached organizational leaders?


Here’s why I ask: A “no pain” solution to the employee wellness crisis does not seem to exist. Instead, wellness-serious organizations may need to address issues such as long hours , toxic leaders, unsafe work conditions, poor training, and so on. Lack of wellness is not ONLY caused by employees who eat too many French fries. For instance:


  • A 2006 Australian study by Ostry and colleagues found that working long hours was positively associated with higher BMI.
  • In the same year, a Japanese study by Nishitani and Sakakibara identified relationships between stress and obesity. Indeed, anxious workers’ eating patterns were similar to those of obese individuals.


This week, I challenge my Linked:HR colleagues to share experiences / examples of a possible DISCONNECT between organizational wellness initiatives and organizational stressors. Specifically:


  • When have you witnessed organizational “health initiatives” run counter to managerial demands and organizational resources?
  • What do you think could/should be done to better “connect the dots” between organizational culture and employee wellness?


Tip: Ask these questions in an informal survey within your own organization. You might be surprised by your findings.


Happy learning!







Off the Beaten Path in Recruitment: Use of Social Media and Learning & Development for NON Applicants?

“Google” the expression “war for talent.” You’ll get 1,630,000 results. Sadly, however, global unemployment is alive and well. Currently there are around 200 million unemployed individuals around the world (source: International Labor Organization). So… what gives? Where is the “war”?


Of course, many will tell me that I have it all wrong. The war is about “talent” not “employees.” “Uncovering talent” within a HUGE applicant pool, however, is hardly an easy proposition. Faced with hundreds or even thousands of potential employees, we could take the “easy” route – ignore all candidates whose resumes don’t include “word x,” whose degree is not exactly “z” or who haven’t attended the CEO’s preferred university. Sounds familiar? In other words: Even though recruiters have the applicant pool of their dreams (NUMBERS wise only…) we could still be picking the WRONG talent.


Today I thought I could use the power of networking to address two “crazy ideas.” Please DO tear them apart… tell me why they wouldn’t work. And then… think of ways in which something “within them” COULD work? (there’s typically “something usable” in any idea, after all…)


Crazy Idea # 1: Use Social Media to Track those who are NOT hired.


Taleo’s “Social Recruiting Guide” (a sponsored research report on the effective use of social media for recruiting, download at ) suggests that social media provides recruiters with a relatively low cost alternative to find “hard to reach” candidates. My question, however, has to do with those who are NOT hired. Can we keep in touch with them through social media? Can we find out what they are doing? Can we use that information to monitor our selection processes? Attorneys in our Group: What are the legal implications of tracking non-applicants?


QUESTION FOR DISCUSSION: How can we use Social Media to track the not hired?


Crazy Idea # 2: Use Learning & Development as a Recruitment Ally.


We think about the INTERNAL use of L&D… and that is reasonable. After all, our L&D departments are not tasked to “train the world.” New technology, however (i.e., elearning, virtual “eworlds,” webconfering, etc…) has made it easier to greatly expand the reach of our L&D initiatives. Why do it? A few thoughts: Making our L&D programs available to NON employees might help us build a “great employer” brand, attract talent (the type of talent who CHOOSES to learn), and increase our global outreach. A related quote by Elizabeth Yarnell: “Virtual learning has leveled the playing field and offered learning opportunities to all employees regardless of their location” (download the sponsored report “Keys to Developing a Successful Global Learning Program” at ). That’s great but... Can we level this playing field even further? Can we invite NON EMPLOYEES to our sandbox? Is there value in that?


QUESTION FOR DISCUSSION: How can we use L&D to attract talent?


A final thought: Perhaps it’s time to turn the table and ask those who were NOT hired… what COULD you have done for us? What did you do AFTER we rejected you? I’d love to hear our own Member stories.


QUESTION FOR DISCUSSION: What happened AFTER you were rejected? How did you grow? How did you contribute to your field?


As you reflect on your rejection stories, please refrain from using actual company names or people… keep it anonymous to protect the innocent, the guilty, and yourself… this is a public forum, after all.


I’m REALLY looking forward to your thoughts on this one!


Happy Learning!


Dr. Cris Wildermuth, EdD, SPHR

Community Chair, Linked:HR

Follow me on Twitter:








Open Doors to the Certification

Call this a "quick" road map for certification.  Are you planning on obtaining your PHR/SPHR/GPHR certification in 2012? If so, you may find this hyperlinked power point presentation useful. The presentation includes the why, the how, and tips for the certification.  You will find within it tips for resources and direct links to the key locations at the HRCI webpage.


The presentation includes a preliminary summary of the results of the survey conducted on certification with Linked:HR Members about a month ago.  The in-depth results will be ready in the spring. One of my graduate students will be reviewing the qualitative comments (there are hundreds of them) and conducting complementary interviews.


I will be updating this presentation during the next month - if there are additional tips, resources and ideas you'd like me to add, please enter them in the comments below. 


I hope you find this document useful!


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What did my father teach me about leadership?

He was a proud Commander in the Brazilian navy, a man in love with his country and deeply committed to his family.  As I reflect on Commander Horacio de Mello e Souza today, I think of the leadership lessons he taught me - the indelible lessons I carry with me today and hope to teach my daughter. 


Lesson # 1: Integrity

Integrity defined my father.  He made every decision - personally and professionally - with the unwavering determination to be a man of integrity.  My father followed the integrity path when it hurt him, when it hurt his friends, and even when it cost him a much beloved career in the Navy.  Honor first - always - no apologies, no politics, no half-way measures.  Today, as I face life's inevitable moral dilemmas I ask myself: What would my father do? What is the honorable course? Almost twenty years after his death, my father is still my moral compass.  


What has your own father taught you about integrity? As a leader, what do you teach your followers about integrity? Are you their compass?


Lesson # 2: Service to Followers

My father focused far more on his followers than on those above him.  He would fight for the little guy always - the sailor, the worker at the factory, the administrative assistants at the office. He would fight for the less powerful followers with gusto, ignoring politics and his own interests.  


What has your own father taught you about service to followers? As a leader, who comes first - your followers or "higher up" people in your organization? Would you defend your followers even if that cost you your own career aspirations? 


Lesson # 3: A Sense of Adventure

His eyes would light up as he told stories of danger, excitement, and exploration. He was always ready for adventure - even when "adventure" meant hauling a huge log onto a boat only to discover the log was rotten and had to be thrown back to sea.  Life was too short to be lived in fear.  

What has your own father taught you about adventure? As a leader, do you transmit to your followers the joy of discovering? Can work itself be joyous and exciting?

Lesson # 4: Friendship, Always

 He was forever loyal to his navy buddies - best friends forever, in good and bad times, when they drove him crazy and when he loved them.  In fact, I believe he always loved them.  Friends were everything to my dad.  Friends mattered more than rank or money or politics.  


What has your own father taught you about friendship? How does friendship support your own leadership journey?

Happy Father's Day, Commander Horacio, wherever you are.  Thank you for your lessons and for your compass.  I wish your granddaughter could have sat on your lap to hear about adventures and imagination - but hope she can learn something about who you were by reading this blog.


Tell us about your own father... what did he teach you? What does he still teach you? How did he impact your leadership style?








When is Training Appropriate?

Tonight I'm planning to ask a group of my students: When is training appropriate? When is it justified?


I am planning to share with them the following interactive presentation (see below): A fictional case study of a desperate business owner and a couple of well-intentioned (but sometimes clueless) consultants.  Can you help me complete it? Can you make it better? I'd love to have your input to improve this presentation!


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Collective Wisdom: A Summary of Linked:HR's PHR/SPHR Tips

I have just spent about an hour reading all comments in the thread I posted a couple of weeks ago on the tips for the PHR/SPHR certification. As promised, here is a summary of what I read. Thank you so much to all the contributions (108 of them)! If I missed anything important in the summary or if you'd like to add something to this compilation please add it to the comments!


The following preparation resources were mentioned (the links provided are from


A disclaimer is in order: I am not connected with any of these organizations, individuals, or resources.  I'm not connected to either - I simply searched for the titles/authors in the Amazon site for the convenience of my readers.

Preparation tips


The following preparation tips were offered:

  • Complete several practice tests (one colleague said: "online test till you drop!")
  • Start early - one colleague suggested starting a month prior to test. Personally I started much earlier than that, but then I'm a specialist, so I had a steep learning curve.
  • Study at the FEDERAL LEVEL (unless you are taking the California test).
  • As you study, pay attention to the weight assigned to your level (for instance, for the SPHR the strategic module carries A LOT of weight).
  • Use the flash cards provided by the SHRM Learning System.
  • Find a study buddy or a study group.
  • Remember that SHRM does not write those tests and SHRM is independent from HRCI - use several resources as you prepare!

The test site

Here were some of the "sanity tips" provided by colleagues on the test site experience:

  • Several people endorsed the recommendation to bring ear plugs. Yes, the center may provide an alternative but it may not be as comfortable. The ear plugs need to be the "safety" kind (not the ipod kind with strings)
  • Climate control may be an issue - especially since people's temperature preferences vary! Some colleagues advised "layering up." This may sound like a simple advice, but it matters... you don't want to be distracted by being too cold or too hot.
  • You can't take anything with you inside the testing room.  Colleagues reported having their pockets emptied and being asked to remove their watches.  Someone said that she could not take her cough drops in. In my site they provided tissues, but one could only take in one tissue at a time. Bottomline: If you need special acommodations contact the testing organization early to explain your case and have your specific questions answered. My experience - confirmed by colleagues - was that the testing administrators are very strict about what you can and cannot take with you.


During the test

Colleagues recommended the following "best practices" for doing well in the PHR/SPHR test:

  • Reread each question - it's easy to get "tripped" by a small detail.
  • The "marking" feature is excellent, use it! One colleague, however, recommended that you answer questions as you go even if you plan to return. The four hours go fast and you don't want the stress of having many completely unanswered questions.  On the other hand, if you're really stumped, don't spend too much time in one question - go with your gut and mark it for later review.
  • Use the "strike out" feature to get rid of answers you know are wrong
  • Look for the "most right" answer - often there are at least two right answers, but one is "better" than the other.
  • Take the time to take a break, stretch, drink water (time doesn't stop)
  • Sometimes your experiences (or the practices at your organization) may be different than what the HRCI considers to be a "best practice." While it's impossible to completely overcome that problem, reading HR books and materials (including the SHRM Learning System) may help.
  • Questions are at synthesis level - you are unlikely to be asked simply for facts. Instead, you are likely to answer "what if" sorts of scenarios that combine items from multiple modules.


A few colleagues asked for clarification of "synthesis" level. This is from "Bloom's Taxonomy of Learning" and is actually part of the Body of Knowledge (so you do want to read more about Bloom!). For staters, take a look at this page I quickly found via Google:


Notice how at the "synthesis" level, you are not simply regurgitating what you read.  Instead, you are combining various "pieces" of the information in order to solve complex problems. How do you prepare for that? My best advice is to look for case studies in various college level HR books (the SHRM Learning System also has a nice Case Study at the end of all modules).  Completing the HRCI online practice assessment may help you get a sense of the types of questions you're likely to encounter.


Thanks again to all who contributed and BEST OF LUCK to everyone getting ready for the next window!






Passing the PHR / SPHR Exams - Answers & Tips

Wow - I'm amazed by the response to my blog on tips to the SPHR exam - and thankful for all of you who entered more ideas and testimony.  There were so many great questions that I thought it would make sense to write another blog with my answers! I'll try to group the questions by "themes":


What can you do if you're not a good test taker?


Here are some "test taking" suggestions - maybe one of them will work for you.


Tip # 1: Practice

Test taking is a skill like any other skill. Look for all and any practice tests you can find (remember that your public or local college library is likely to have lots of human resources books, each of them including test questions at the end of each chapter!). In particular, remember to time yourself and to practice answering long tests - completing 225 questions in one sitting is quite different from answering a few questions at a time.


Tip # 2: Answer the question before reading the options

Three of the four multiple choice answers provided are designed for one purpose and one purpose only: Distract you from the real answer. If you are an experienced HR professional and have prepared for the test thoroughly, you should be able to answer many of the questions before analyzing the options - and by doing so  you may reduce the chances of "falling" in any of the planned test traps.


Tip # 3: Treat the test as a puzzle

As a professor, I have seen incredibly bright and dedicated students perform very poorly in tests - especially multiple choice tests.  The word "test" conjures all sorts of memories in people and may cause considerable anxiety. It may help you to tackle the test as a problem solving exercise - a puzzle of sorts.


Tip # 4: Use the "check out" option extensively

A key to success in multiple choice tests is to rule out distractors.  Sometimes it's easier to know that something is dead wrong than it is to know that an item is "perfectly right." If you already know some options are not possible, then get rid of them - that will allow you to focus on the options that really matter.


Tip # 5: Remember to READ the question thoroughly

As I worked on practice tests I can't tell you how many times I made silly mistakes because I did not see words such as "NOT" or "EXCEPT FOR." Many of the questions ask you to identify which item IS NOT correct rather than which item IS correct.  If you go too fast you may choose the first "correct" item you see instead of finding the one "incorrect" item. 


Tip # 6: Don't assume that an item you have never seen is correct

I often recommend to my students that they "think as professors" and start creating their own tests.  This will help them see how one creates items, how one writes distractors, etc.  For instance, sometimes distractors are completely false - they refer to legislation that doesn't exist or terms that are never used.  If you don't recognize an item do not assume it is correct! In fact, if you are experienced, studied diligently, and do not recognize an item, it's more likely that it doesn't exist!


How detailed is the test? For instance, are there lots of "Supreme Court Cases" or other specific legal cases?


First, a disclaimer: No one can tell you exactly what's in the test. For starters, we all agree, as we take the test, that we will not share any of its questions.  Secondly, the questions are randomly generated - so the questions I was asked may be quite different from the questions you'll be asked.


With that said, I personally did not see too many "nit-picky" stuff in the test. It was far more strategic, practical, and application-based than I expected. In fact, I was pleasantly surprised - I thought the questions were quite interesting. I agree with what one colleague said in the comments to the blog - focus more on the impact of the Supreme Court Cases than on details (for me, however, remembering the impact of each case without context was almost impossible - it helped me to go visit the Oyez Supreme Court Case page I mentioned earlier and read about each case).


My understanding is that the PHR version includes more "fact based" questions than the SPHR one does - but even the PHR exam is supposed to be "application" based.


How much should you study? Does the SHRM Learning System include a study plan?


Cindy D. asked how much she should plan on studying. Cindy, that's a very indidvidual question, and it's likely to depend on your level of experience, test taking skills, and formal knowledge of HR.  I personally did study a lot. How much is "a lot"? In my case, off and on for a year (including participating in several study group sessions and a weekend-long course), several hours per week for the last 6 months (including weekly sessions with my study buddy and regular weekly readings), and almost non-stop full time during my month of break from school.  Do you need all that? My gut is that if you have a lot of generalist experience you probably won't need that much. Remember, I'm a specialist, not a learning "from scratch" the laws and processes many of you know in your sleep took me a lot of time, pain, and effort.


I don't recall seeing a "study plan" in the SHRM Learning System. However, the online version does include practice questions for each module, flash cards, a power point presentation, and lots of other resources. My "study buddy" Jim Foord did a terrific job of creating study plans - that was immensely helpful to both of us.


Whatever you do, I can't say this enough - do not rely on one resource only.  The SHRM Learning System is great, but it's not a catch-all.  The SHRM Practice Tests are helpful but seemed to me to be more "fact-based" than the "real thing." Also, internalizing information may be easier if you read about it in different texts, including different examples, etc.


Uff - I guess that's what I have for today.  I need to go back to Linked:HR and see the many comments in there - and possibly summarize them in the next Blog! By now I need to focus on my students at Drake University and get those classes prepared!


Good luck to all of you and CONGRATULATIONS on those who obtained the certification!









Guest Blogger: Three Lists for the SPHR, by Jim Foord

My friend Jim Foord was the BEST study buddy ever... I just wish we lived closer to one another (we're in opposite sides of the country!) so that we could open a bottle of champaign together.  Jim sent the text below with three lists: a) Things I wished I had known about the testing facility, b) Things I wished I had known about the exam, and c) Things I am glad I knew! Thanks, Jim, for the great contribution and for your FANTASTIC help during the study time!


THREE LISTS, by Jim Foord


Things I wished I had known about the testing facility:

  • That I did not need to worry about what I brought with me, as they have lockers for anything that is not allowed at your test workstation
  • That I would not be allowed water at the test workstation.  I hydrate a lot, and not having water was like not having my security blanket :)
  • That I could show up early and start before my assigned time.  I was cooling my heals waiting for it to reach 11:30am.  When I went in, they allowed me to start right away.
  • That bathroom facilities would be available in the center, but that any breaks you take counts against your 4 hour time allotment.
  • That I would have to basically show the test center staff, each time I entered/reentered, that I had nothing in my pockets by literally turning them inside out.  This was required each time I reentered after using the bathroom.
  • That I would not be allowed any snack at the testing workstation.  I could, of course, take time to eat something during a break, but again that counts against your allotted time.

Things I wished I had known about the test environment:

  • That you get up to 15 minutes to learn how the computerized test interface works, and that is way more than enough time for anyone to become comfortable enough to start the exam.
  • That one of the best parts of the computer interface was that you are able to electronically line out answer choices that you know are not correct.  When taking a paper exam, we take this for granted, so it was very nice that they have built this function into the exam.  I can’t imagine taking the exam without this feature!
  • That I would be allowed to either mark questions that I was not sure about, or simply leave them blank, and the system would keep track of these for me.  Also, it would have been helpful to know that when you go back to a previously marked question, and submit your final answer, you need to click the mark button again to turn it off.
  • That you can choose to leave a question completely blank.  And, if you do so you will have a group of questions at the end that will be categorized as no response.  This helps you gauge how much time you will need on your second time through to get these questions answered.  Note, I knew about the marked feature, however, it is probably something we should write about as many people might not learn this in the course of their preparation.
  • That I could have brought ear plugs.  There were quite a lot of people making noise, which at times became distracting.  I learned about this after I took the exam.
  • That one of the staff members would be walking in and out of the room about every 15 minutes.  It took me a few of her trips until I was able to tune her out.

Things I am glad I knew about the exam:

  • That I would most likely need the entire 4 hours, even though in the practice exams, with a full 225 questions, I barely took 3 hours.  It takes longer in the real environment, probably due to second guessing and stress.
  • That practicing for the exam by answering questions is probably the best way to prepare for the exam;  after you have completed your reading.  And, that practicing with a clock to ensure you stay within the time allotted for each question is a great way to get a feel for the timing your need to achieve to finish in time.
  • I am glad I tried a few different strategies for taking the exam, so that I was able to decide what the best strategy for me, personally, was the best way to go.  This strategy turned out to be to go through the exam on my first pass answering only the questions I either absolutely knew, or was pretty confident I knew.  For the later, I marked those, and for questions that for whatever reason made my head spin, I simply clicked next.  By doing this I had 3 categories when I completed my first pass; answered questions, marked questions and no response questions.  My second pass consisted of a review of all the questions that I did not respond to, some of which I answered and some I answered and marked.  On my third pass, I reviewed all marked questions.  After my 3rd pass, all questions were answered and all marked questions were no longer marked.







The Marathon is Over! Tips for the SPHR Exam

After months of books and tests and books and tests (and tests) I finally took the SPHR exam and passed it.  Seriously... there's nothing like the feeling I got when I read the word "pass" on the screen.  It was an exhausting process - but all in all, I feel it was worthwhile. Mostly I learned so much and learning is never wasted. I'm also proud to join other colleagues who also completed their SPHR. We'll make our profession stronger as we take our certification requirements seriously.


While I have the experiences "fresh" in my mind I thought I would jot them down. These experiences could help someone else - I know how eager I was for information and tips before I took the test! I will divide my tips into four categories: "Experience," "Resources," "Preparation," and "The Big Day." 




The HRCI has changed the experience / education requirements for the test for the 2011 windows (click here to visit the HRCI page). Now a candidate for the PHR needs at least 2 years of exempt experience (with a Bachelor's degree) and a candidate for the SPHR needs at least 5 years of exempt experience (with a Bachelor's degree).  The experience requirements take into consideration education level - for instance, a candidate for the SPHR who has a master's degree needs only demonstrate 4 years of experience.


With that said, of course experience matters - particularly generalist experiences.  While specialists are allowed to sit for the exam (click here for an approved position list) the road towards certification is much tougher for specialists. I know. I was there.  My specialty area is Training and Development.  Thus, I prepared for the Human Resource Development module quite easily... yes, I still needed to brush up on some motivation or leadership theories but nothing major.  However, modules on Compensation and Benefits and Labor Relations absolutely baffled me.  I had to start from scratch - and bring it all together without having been there.  I can't tell you how hard that was.


With that said - it's doable... just much harder.  Basically, if you're a specialist you can expect to spend more time reading, talking to people, and asking real world questions. 


One tip as you consider taking the exam - register early right when your "window" for registration opens.  The slots in the testing centers close fast, and you may be forced to take the exam earlier than you'd like or (as was my case) in a different town!




The SHRM Learning System is probably the best preparation tool you can find.  It's pricey - but well worth the price. One particular strong feature of the SHRM Learning System is the access to the Learning System's Website.  The Website includes flash cards, over 1000 questions, a pre and a post-test, a great Case Study and other super valuable resources.


Even though I strongly recommend the Learning System, however, I hardly recommend that you stick only to it.  Most people will tell you that expanding your circle of materials may improve your chances - not only because of the content of various books but also because of the comments, cases, exercises, etc.  Here are some of the materials I particularly liked:


Anne Bogardus - SPHR / PHR Certification Study

Larry Phillips - SPHR Exam Prep

Lisa Guerin and Amy DelPo - The Essential Guide to Federal Employment Law


I also checked out several government websites including






Each of these sites includes fact sheets, faqs and other great resources.  Finally, one of my favorite resources for Supreme Court cases was the Oyez site, put together by the IIT Chicago Kent College of Law.  You can search any Supreme Court case and see basic information - hugely helpful. 




A lot of colleagues choose to join one of the SHRM Preparation Courses or a course offered by a local university or college. I haven't done that, but folks who have told me that it was worthwhile. Taking a class may allow you to discuss "real life" issues with colleagues (and those "real life" applications are likely to REALLY help you come exam day!)


I did have the opportunity to participate in the preparation course offered by my friend and colleague Tom Mobley (thank you Tom!).  Tom's course "got me started" (I participated in it early in the game) and gave me a great "road map." Tom's tips and bonus tests were also very helpful. If you live near Cincinnati, OH, you may want to check Tom's program out.


Here is something I did that made the difference between passing and not passing: I found a WONDERFUL "study buddy," Jim Foord.  While Jim lives in California and I live in Des Moines, IA, we still managed to meet weekly for several months.  We used mostly used skype and Go to Meeting to connect.  


Working with Jim helped me immensely for several reasons.  First, Jim did a fabulous job of putting together a study plan. Since someone else was counting on me, I knew I had to stick to the plan.  Second, discussing the study questions with someone really made it real.  Third, Jim and I supported one another as the "goings got rough" - when we got tired or frustrated or thought we wouldn't make it.  Even if you are fortunate enough to take a class or participate in a more formal training, I strongly recommend finding a "study buddy." 


A few tips as you prepare for the test:

  • The SPHR is very practical (I haven't taken the PHR, so I can't speak much of it - I'm hoping other people will comment below and give their feedback).  The questions are more likely to be "application based" and require a higher level of understanding.  You need to be ready to combine the information from several modules. This means that no set of books or tests will "completely" do the trick (that's why I used several!)
  • How can you prepare for the "practical" side of the SPHR? Of course experience will help you the most - but say you're a specialist like me, with a lot of experience in one area but not in all? Well, then you'll have to substitute that actual experience by a LOT of insight into OTHER PEOPLE'S experience.  How did I do that? I talked to people. I asked lots of questions. I focused on the "non-factual" areas of the books I read (case study discussions, real life examples, author's commentaries, etc.).  
  • One thing that really helped me was to complete the non-multiple choice exercises in Larry Phillip's book (the book included some application exercises at the end of each chapter).  Answering non-multiple choice questions forced me to think more deeply.  If you work from the SHRM Learning System do not neglect the "Case Study" included in the Online Resources.  It's great, and does bring it all together.
  • The SHRM Learning System questions and practice tests do help - but they are not enough. Frankly, the real exam is harder than the SHRM Learning System practice exams (also more practical).  I completed several other exams including the tests included in the Bogardus and the Phillip's books.  However, the one exam that came closest to the "real thing" was the exam offered at the HRCI site. You can complete 10 "free" questions or purchase a set of two exams. It's a little pricey but I felt it helped me.
  • Success in this exam depends not only on experience and knowledge but also on test taking skills.  The options are tricky - you're expected to find the "best" answer, and the "best" answer is hardly obvious.  If you're not the greatest test taker, practice answering as many exam questions as you can. In particular, you need to time yourself - it will make you feel far calmer if you know that you can complete 225 questions in 4 hours without a problem (actually, you should try to be able to complete 225 questions in 2 hours - why? because you'll want to review the questions you marked - and that by itself will take a couple of hours!). 
  • With that said, stop taking exams at least a couple of days prior to the test. Otherwise, you'll worry yourself sick.  Remember that no practice exam is exactly the same as the exam you'll take - so completing a thousand of them the day before the exam is not helpful.  
  • The day before the exam have some R&R. Do something fun. Go to bed early. The exam is pretty cerebral and takes a lot of "thinking" power.  The worst thing you can do is go to it tired.




So now you've studied (hopefully with a study buddy), completed lots of practice exams and are ready for "the big day." Here are some last "words of wisdom."

  • Visit the site beforehand - know where to park, and if possible go inside and ask a couple of questions. For instance, I found it super helpful to know details such as what I would and would not be able to have with me (tip: you can have nothing, not even your own watch or a box of tissues!), where I would store my purse, whether the site provided tissues, etc. 
  • Unless you live very close to the site, consider staying at a nearby hotel. I loved that I was only 3 minutes away and didn't have to worry about traffic. You don't need the extra stress.
  • One of my BEST ideas was to take a pair of disposable ear plugs (about the only thing they let you take inside).  The environment can be a little noisy and distracting. There could be someone next to you coughing, typing away, and the exam administrators come in and out fairly frequently. Having ear plugs available really made a difference to me. 
  • The computerized exam system is awesome - for starters, you're able to "mark" questions for later review and "cross out" options that are clearly wrong. I used both options extensively! The system allows you 15 minutes for a tutorial - go ahead and take it! Not only it will help you understand the system better, it will also calm your nerves.
  • The first time I went through the exam I tried not to "overthink" or spend too much time on each question. If I got a little stumped I answered with my "gut" and marked the question for further review. 
  • I marked many questions - some because I wasn't 100% sure and wanted a second look, some because I really didn't know. The only questions left "unmarked" were the gimmies - the ones I found really easy (no, there weren't too many of those).
  • I finished my first "try" at all questions within the first couple of hours. At that point I got up, got out of the room (you have to sign out, but you are able to take a little break), even drank half a cup of coffee.  I stretched and got back in. Yes, the clock kept "ticking" while I was on break - but those ten minutes really helped reenergize me for the final push.
  • During my "second round" I went through all the questions I had marked. I used the "cross out" option very extensively - sometimes I managed to cross out all options and find an answer by elimination! Often, however, there were at least two answers that seemed equally reasonable.  That's when you have to stop and ask yourself what the question is really testing. Sometimes I closed my eyes and willed myself to "think as a business woman" (many questions are strategic in nature or combine an HR specialty with the need to think strategically).
  • When you're done reviewing a "marked" question, make sure you "unmark it" - this will tell you that question is "really" done.  I still went back one more time to a few questions I still had marked. 

Now comes the scariest time of all - once you "unmark" and answer all questions, you'll need to "finish"! I can't remember the name of the button - but there's a button you click when you're finally "ready." To make things worse, the system then starts asking you a bunch of survey questions on your experience (yikes).  By then my heart was beating fast and the last thing I wanted to do was to answer any questions! 


At the end of it all, the system will quickly calculate whether you passed or not.  You won't know "how well" you passed (or how close were you to passing if you didn't pass) until several weeks later.  Seeing the "pass" word is something else - I had to sit back and smile for a few minutes just to sink it all in.  If you don't pass, however, know that you can complete it again (there are no limits to how many times you can repeat the process). 


I hope these explanations and tips help you! Do you have any comments? Would anyone care to expand on what I said? Do you agree or disagree with anything?















What Twilight: Eclipse Taught About Leadership

If you live on Planet Earth you probably have heard of the "Twilight" phenomenon.  "Twilight" is a series of four books written by Stephanie Meyer. The first two books - "Twilight" and "New Moon" - became block buster motion pictures and attracted huge crowds. The third movie, "Eclipse," premiered yesterday evening.


This morning my daughter and I joined a cheerful (and mostly female) crowd to watch an early show of "Eclipse." Both of us were in a good mood.  Maggie teased me once again about how boring the movie was going to be. I tried to convince her to read the books.


We have been playing this mother-daughter game for a while now.  Maggie may not like the movies but clearly enjoys being the designated "mom's companion" for movies dad can't stomach. I fully admit the story line is silly (and that's a generous statement) but enjoy the escapism of it all.  Even workaholics need their time off.


Of course I could try to blog about the more "serious" messages embedded in the film. For instance, two groups of mortal enemies - vampires and werewolves - finally got together when they found a common enemy they could both fight and a common hero they could both protect. I'm sure there's a leadership message in there somewhere.


I won't, though. That was not my  leadership lesson today. Instead, I learned that I can take a morning off. The world doesn't fall apart. My students don't dispair.  Linked:HR (the LinkedIn group I manage) still thrives. And while everyone survives without me, I hold my daughter's hand, giggle at some of the sappy lines (and there were many!), and build one more precious memory.


All in a morning's work.









Guest Blogger! Adaptive Leadership, Adaptive Challenges, and Adaptive Carolyn


I'm happy to post here the blog of one of my students, Carolyn White. Carolyn is taking an Adaptive Leadership course at Wright State University.  To learn more about Carolyn's journey, visit her webpage!


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The LinkedIn Case: Adapting to Change

The current changes in the LinkedIn group structure provide us with an interesting laboratory case to explore reactions to change. First, a brief overview of the case: LinkedIn, a very large professional networking site, includes a powerful "group" feature.  Some of the LinkedIn groups are quite large - for instance, I manage Linked:HR, the largest of the LinkedIn groups, currently with over 280,000 members worldwide.


Recently, LinkedIn informed members that big changes were in the air (visit the official LinkedIn Blog to better understand the changes). As I reflect on the changes and on my reactions to the changes, I realize I'm falling into common change leadership traps.


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Teamwork and Leadership

Teamwork.  When teams are productive, the results can be almost magical.  At best, team members take turns bringing good ideas, polishing old ones, helping one another think. 

I left class today wondering how well the class teams are "gelling."  I know I can't see it all - there could easily be problems under the surface. What is my role in all this?

As I write this I wonder if, once again, I am failing to "practice what I preach."  Today we talked about the myth of the "almighty leader" - the idea that a leader-hero can solve all problems.  We discussed the complexity of adaptive problems and the power (and tenacity) of a system.  "The leader can only solve problems on his/her own," I suggested, "when the problems are technical - when the leader knows the answers."

Team success, however, requires adaptation. Team adaptation.  People must learn to build a common vision, design a team process, and share information productively.  People must learn to trust one another and encourage one another. It's hard work.  I cannot solve team problems on my own any more than I can "make" someone learn.

So what should I do? Should I let it go? Leave people to their own devices? Hope for the best?

As I write this blog I realize that leaving people to their own devices would represent an abdication of leadership.  So no - I probably shouldn't ignore any warning bells. What I probably should do is bring this to the balcony.  The class as a whole could embrace one more opportunity for leadership. One more chance to use the class as a laboratory for real life.

Note to self: Next balcony (a.k.a. class) we examine teamwork! And perhaps... who was it that offered moderation services? Negotiators and moderators, you're about to take on a new project!






The Power of the Class

As I prepare for next week's Adaptive Leadership class I reflect on the culture of the group yesterday. I wonder if people are starting to get comfortable with one another.  Are the groups "gelling"? Is each group starting to forge its own identity?

Yesterday we discussed culture - the rituals, taboos, and symbols that support the values underneath.  Looking back, I wonder how I could help the class see that all these components of culture support something. Rituals are not empty - they exist to ensure that the key aspects of the culture are preserved. Did we miss that amidst a smorgasboard of activities and discussions? Did we all learn as much as we could in the time we were given?

Ah... the worry again. I can't help but worrying after each class, wondering whether I'm giving my all, wondering whether my all is enough.  I reread the last paragraph, however, and notice the word "we." Did "we" learn? Did "we" get there? Did "we" miss something?

Teaching is a team activity. IA course is not built by the professor alone.  Instead, a course is built as the group interacts, vibrates with the new knowledge, responds. A course is taught by the collective power of the class.

Perhaps that's the answer to my worry ... make it a collective worry.  We should all worry about using the class time as productively as possible, learning as much as possible, going as deep as possible. We have 5 weeks - let's make them count, guys.






Teaching Adaptive Leadership is not for the faint of heart...

As I reflect on the first Adaptive Leadership class this quarter I need to admit - being a professor means coming to terms with not knowing. There is so much out there ... so many leadership authors whose work I haven't touched, so many articles I haven't read, so many leadership experiences I haven't tried.  There is also so much to know about teaching.   Each quarter brings a new batch of students with unique learning styles, needs, and expectations. Am I helping them? Would they rather have a more traditional instructor? Am I lecturing too much? Too little? Are my activities too crazy?

On Tuesday I asked my students to dissect my syllabus and critique it. That's a classic first activity for the Adaptive Leadership Course following Heifetz and Linky's "Case in Point" method - a method of teaching leadership that uses the classroom as a leadership laboratory.  I want to invite students to really own this course. After all, as I explained to my students, there isn't a "Syllabus Bible" out there.  We dream stuff up and hone stuff up and pray it will work.  We do our best - but we don't really know if our best is enough.

"Go ahead," I told my students. Make changes. Tell me whether the point division is ok.  Tell me whether the syllabus is fair. I waited as the groups discussed - the buzz in the room was just great! Then I sat at the back of the room and tried hard to shut up and let the volunteer class leader do his job. Ah, that was hard. I wanted to get up and say something. The discussion was taking forever and I was getting worried. Are people getting bored? Is this working? Do they hate it? What if they suggest something crazy? What will I do then? I don't have a clue.  I just hope they don't suggest something crazy (uff - they didn't).

As I write this I smile. I wonder if my students realize that I worry all the time. I probably woudn't mention this in most classes (should I?) - but this is Adaptive Leadership, after all. This is where the leader gets to be vulnerable and open. This is where the leader accepts that he/she doesn't know it all, doesn't do it all, doesn't get it always right. This is where we all get to stand on the balcony and look at ourselves. My fellow leaders and I.  The whole class.

I tell you what - teaching Adaptive Leadership is not for the faint of heart. Instead, it's downright scary.






Square Pegs, Round Holes, and Learning Organizations

Ok, it sounds simple.  Learn how to plan.  Focus on efficiency.  Follow through on your actions.  Develop the habit to specify the steps of your projects and anticipate your future needs.  Enhance your own objectivity.  Who wouldn’t want to learn to be thorough, efficient, and effective? Who wouldn’t like to use time more efficiently or learn to manage his or her priorities perfectly?


There’s just a little glitch... those competencies, while admirable and useful, will drain the life blood of some of us.  Simply put – some of us are not wired that way.  Some of us crave the very flexibility and spontaneity that make careful planning (and follow through with the planning!) a real challenge. 

I’m talking about personality. 


Personality can be defined as a set of observable and fairly consistent behaviors.  Personality changes little after about age 30, and impacts our “energy” for developing competencies.  For instance, if your personality is flexible and spontaneous you probably have low energy for planning, organizing, and following through on your plans. That doesn’t mean you can’t learn to plan your days or organize yourself better – but it does mean that it won’t be easy.  You’ll need to want it really badly, and you’ll probably need some coaching. 


Recently, personality researchers such as Bob McCrae and Paul Costa from the National Institute of Aging in Baltimore have agreed on five “clusters” that encompass most personality traits.  This “set of clusters” is called the “Five Factor Model” (FFM).  The five clusters are:


  • Need for stability or negative emotionality (N) – our level of resilience when experiencing and/or reacting to stress
  • Extraversion (E) – our tolerance for sensory bombardment, the level of social interaction that we crave
  • Originality or openness to experience (O) – our focus on innovation versus efficiency, our interest in the “new and untested” versus the “tried and true.”
  • Accommodation or agreeableness (A) – the way that we react to conflicts or disagreements, our tendency to “stand our ground,” “seek middle ground,” or submit to others’ wishes.
  • Consolidation or conscientiousness (C) – our level of spontaneity and flexibility versus our tendency towards discipline and a focus on predefined goals.


Of these, the set of personality traits that most impacts our ability to plan and follow through on our plans is Consolidation.  Some of us have “single processor minds” that go straight towards a pre-established goal.  High Consolidation people are typically efficient, disciplined, and focused. 


So – why can’t you just hire people like that? That would solve the problem, wouldn’t it?  Yes, it would... but then you might end up with a work environment devoid of flexibility, spontaneity, and spur of the moment changes of direction.  Can you imagine a step-by-step Improv? Or a carefully planned conflict facilitation? Oops.


Learning organizations require the presence of a multiplicity of personalities, including the flexible and spontaneous free spirits, the organized and disciplined planners, and everyone else in between.  It is vital, however, that we all "learn to speak" the personality language.  After all, not all personalities learn the same way, have the energy for the same things, or even hope to succeed in the same competencies.


HR Leaders are in the people business.  It is virtually impossible to do what we do and not understand people.  If you really want to understand people, start learning about personalities.... and never mind whether you plan your learning step-by-step or just swing it!






The Under Cover Boss, The Captain, and the Leader

One of my favorite shows this season is "Under Cover Boss." In today's episode, the CEO of an Amusement Park Complex visited his parks across the country and tried a variety of jobs for size... he became a server, a cleaner, and a greeter. He was trained by employees with whom he would never otherwise have come in contact. He learned about their heartaches and determination. He was humbled by those from whom he learned.


The show often brings tears to my eyes.  I guess for once I see a show in which CEOs get it.  They get what moves their organizations forward. They get that without people in the trenches their organizations would collapse. The get that they are responsible for people... not just balance sheets and deals and stock values.


So often in the HR world we become cynical. We talk about Theory Y and how people really want to do well - and yet we spend our days polishing new regulations and policies and procedures that make absolutely sure no one will do something wrong on the company dime. We have endless meetings with our legal counsel. We make sure we know exactly what we should include in that applicant contract so that we are forever protected should we per chance want to do something we probably shouldn't be doing in the first place.

Worst of all, we assume our people are disposable. We use terms such as restructuring and reengineering and reoptimizing. We hide behind business words and protest that we have a responsibility towards our stock holders. We rationalize it. We make it work.

But in all this rationalization we forget for whom we are responsible.  We forget that as leaders we are the captains of our ships.

Captains don't leave the ship with a golden parachute while their people drown. Captains don't throw half the people overboard so that the ship won't sink. Captains drown with their people or bring them safely to the harbor. Captains take responsibility for the power they were given and the privileges of such power.


What sort of captain are you?






Four Meetings

For the past half hour, Jane and Mary, respectively the customer service and the sales manager at organization ABC, have tried to solve a problem related to one of ABC's major customers.


“The customer feedback form is incomplete,” Mary says.  “My sales reps cannot gather enough background information when visiting their customers.  ABC had a major problem and this was not expressed in the form.  I understand that you are doing the best you can, Jane.”


“Well, I understand your concern, Mary,” Jane answers calmly, “and you know that I value your opinion.  Here is my perspective, though: My employees already have a hard time completing that form.” 

An observer who happened to stop by in the meeting room would fail to see anything wrong. Jane and Mary’s discussion is polite and professional.  Both individuals take great pains in following the rules of courtesy, using words such as “understand,” "value," and “perspective.” 


In reality, however, Jane and Mary are unlikely to solve their problem. Eventually they will just adjourn, check the meeting off their list, and move on. 


Heifetz, Grashow, and Linsky in “The Practice of Adaptive Leadership” suggest that a typical office discussion involves four separate meetings.


The first meeting occurs before the meeting as Jane and Mary exchange ideas with their supporters.  It may surprise the outside observer to learn that customer service forms are not a very important topic of discussion in that first meeting. Instead, Jane may feel unrecognized and undervalued by Mary and by the company CEO.  Mary, on the other hand, may feel that Jane does not support her sales efforts.


The second meeting takes place in Jane’s and Mary’s heads. For instance, here is a sample of Jane’s internal meeting: “Mary is always recognized as the ‘company savior’ and no one realizes the hard work my staff does.”  Mary’s meeting, on the other hand, involves Mary’s quota difficulties, the current economic crisis, the pressures suffered by Mary’s department, and Jane's inability to understand her business needs.  


The third meeting – a long, tedious, and inefficient conversation about customer service forms – involves two very polite and political (even if untruthful) versions of Jane and Mary. 


The fourth meeting will take place after the meeting, when Jane and Mary return to their supporters and continue chatting about issues unrelated to the customer service forms.


We have all been there. We talk to our supporters because we need to vent.  We fail to tell the truth to those whom we oppose because it is politically risky and personally scary to do so. We spend time discussing issues that do not really matter because bringing up what does matter is unthinkable. We fail to resolve problems because we cannot possibly bring them up.


Why does this happen? Why can’t people just be “honest”? Four possible answers occur to me.

  • Some people simply detest conflict. The need to vent and “get things off one’s chest” is real – but such venting is far more comfortable behind closed doors, involving only a trusted confidant.
  • Speaking up is politically dangerous. Others who spoke up in the past have suffered dire consequences.  Thus, the perceived benefits of “speaking up” are trumped by very real risks.
  • Relationship building is not encouraged. Some people are simply not comfortable enough with one another to speak their minds.
  • There is no clear process that invites and supports real conversations.

Leaders must come up with such a process.  Further, leaders must learn to recognize signs of mistrust and discomfort with real conversations.  Some of these signs include:

  • Excessive politeness and use of “canned” comments such as “I understand your position,” “I hear that you are upset,” and “I have a different perspective.”
  • Impromptu meetings are quickly disbanded when outsiders arrive.
  • Meetings include long conversations about seemingly unimportant (albeit innocuous) topics.


Don’t get me wrong. Politeness is important.   I’m not advocating that basic rules of courtesy be ignored in the workplace.  When people are real, however, they may speak more informally and filter their words less.  Ask yourself – how do you tell a trusted friend that you disagree with him/her? Do you say “trusted friend, I fully recognize that you have a different perspective from mine and I value that”? Or do you just say “sorry dude, but that really won’t work…”?


Heifetz et al.’s “four meetings” are not only inefficient – they are dangerous.  When team members fail to discuss what truly bothers them, they cannot possibly reach synergy.  Further, conversations behind closed doors are likely to breed mistrust, fuel gossip, and create organizational factions.






I'm leaving for Pasárgada, where the king is my friend

Manoel Bandeira, a renowned Brazilian poet (1986-1968) wrote a well-known poem called "I'm leaving for Pasárgada". In Pasárgada, Bandeira explains, "I'm the king's friend." In Pasárgada I will ride my bike and bathe in the sea, and lay by the river side. In Pasárgada life is an adventure.


As I get ready once again to leave the familiar and move to a new place (my family and I are moving to Des Moines, IA in the Summer) I think of Pasárgada. I think of a place where once again I do not know the king or the queen. I remember my arrival in the United States some seventeen years ago.


When I arrived in Ohio as a newly wed, I had no idea I had just arrived from Pasárgada. Do you need a job? Your sister knows someone at company X and I hear they're hiring over there. I call company X, find the connection, secure the interview. The interviewer smiles and asks me if I know so and so Mello e Souza (my full name is Cristina de Mello e Souza Wildermuth). I don't, but it doesn't matter - the connection has been established.  "Must be your cousin," the interviewer suggests. Then he asks where I had gone to school. I tell him I studied at the Santo Inácio high school and PUC University. He knows both institutions, of course. He even has friends from Santo Inácio and thinks PUC is an excellent school.


I didn't necessarily feel priviledged in those days. My family was not rich. I had my share of crappy jobs and crappy bosses. I worked hard for what I had. What I didn't understand then is that one's network is invaluable. One's network opens doors. One's network is like a set of trump cards. 


Then I moved to the U.S. - and the trump changed.  The Mello e Souza name was not only unknown, it was hard to pronounce and sounded foreign.  Colégio Santo Inácio? What in the world is that?


Losing my network made me realize that no one - and I mean no one - can win it all alone. We get support from family, friends, and loved ones. We get help from our school name, from our Alma Mater, from the Church group. We get help from our mom's friends and from dad's cousin George. We get help from our look, our accent, our place of birth. We connect.


Losing my network also made me stronger. I had to learn to rebuild. I found new connections and new pathways to relationships.


Now, as I move once again, I'm ready. Life will be an adventure in my new Pasárgada.








We sat on the floor and peeked under the bed. We found a bag of doll clothes first and then a box of rag dolls. We spent some time dressing them up, trying new combinations of purple and pink and funky patterns. Then, curious, we looked under the bed again. 


The large box was ugly on the outside and partially torn. Inside, we found beautiful porcelain dolls of various sizes. The Mexican señorita had large brown eyes and lustrous lashes. Then there was a redheaded cowgirl,  a heavily made up beauty from Puerto Rico, a Brazilian cangaceira (a typical character from the Northeast), and a collection of Disney miniatures. We laughed as we uncovered a very old Russian doll I got when I was 6 years old. By now her porcelain skin was almost entirely white and her cheeks an unatural red. "I used to think this was the most beautiful doll in the world," I told her.


"Not very pretty now," I laughed. She giggled and agreed.


Last we opened a smaller box loaded with stuffed toys. I pressed the hand of the very purple Barney who knew her name and sang "You are special." We laughed some more.


I don't know how long we played. It was magical and unforgettable for both of us. Then I kissed her goodnight.


We work on our schedules and make sure we have achievable and measurable goals - racing after raises and promotions and making darn sure someone knows what we achieved. We spend hours on the computer. We fight. And as we fight for one more recognition and one more article and one more praise we forget our real treasures - the ones under the bed, the ones inside carboard boxes, the ones colored with joy and memories.


Suddenly, whatever I was going to write about tonight doesn't seem important at all.









The Man in the Glass

The other day I was chatting with my mother about engagement and rewards. I was explaining that my engagement did not depend on the opinions of others – it depended, instead, on my own pride, commitment and DNA. Engagement is about me and about what I was born to do for a living.


Mom then reminded me of an old and favorite poem called “The Man in the Glass.”  She found it for me on the Internet. The first part of the poem goes like this:


When you get what you want in your struggle for self
And the world makes you king for a day,
Just go to the mirror and look at yourself
And see what that man has to say.

For it isn’t your father or mother or wife
Whose judgment upon you must pass.
The fellow whose verdict counts most in you life
Is the one staring back from the glass.


My mother is right. The Man in the Glass has everything to do with engagement. Those who are engaged do not excel in their work because of external rewards – bonuses, gift cards, or “employee of the month” certificates. They do not go above and beyond because someone out there will give them a medal. Instead, they do it because of their own sense of purpose.


Don’t get me wrong – recognition is likely to help. Recognition gives us a sense of being valued and valuable. Recognition calms fear and uncertainty.  Recognition tells us there is someone who cares that we worked so hard or for so long. In order to improve engagement, however, recognition has to mean care. It has to involve true appreciation. Otherwise it’s not recognition – it’s just compensation.


Even the best kind of recognition, however, will not be as strong or as powerful as our own recognition.  That person in the glass does more for our engagement than anyone else.


And perhaps… that is the message we need to send our colleagues. Stop expecting others to engage you. Stop waiting for others to cheer you up.


Instead, start focusing on that person in the glass.






The Hero: A Self Coaching Story

Martha woke up with the absolute certainty that she could no longer do it. There was too much pressure. Too much stress. Every day, every meeting, every decision… all eyes were always on her, expecting her to save the day, expecting her to be the leader, the hero, the idea machine. And whenever she caught those eyes staring at her she had to shake the absurd feeling that they were staring at someone else.


“I wonder what they would think of me,” she pondered, “if they knew how totally clueless I feel.”

Because she did feel clueless. Out of her element. Like someone expected to swim with no water and no feet and no lessons. She felt like the world was expecting way too much of her, and she felt like a failure because she couldn’t provide it all – or be it all.


She had tried all sorts of ideas. Training programs – some of them very good. Books – all of them with the greatest of ideas. Multisource assessments. University courses. The answers were always the same. Take risks. Calm down. Keep your goals in mind. Be honest. Be fair. Be focused. So she tried to do all those things and be all those things. she tried it all and tried it all the time.


And it really was all the time. She was always working. Working or trying to work – or thinking about work – or worrying about work. Work consumed her life. Gone were her hobbies, the things she had once enjoyed doing. She couldn’t remember the last time she had had lunch with a friend or thrown a party. She didn’t spend weekends out of town and didn’t take vacations. She didn’t purchase casual clothes – everyday clothes were just work clothes that had lost their shine. She didn’t own a dog because dogs took time and she traveled too much. She didn’t have a boyfriend and hadn’t had kids and she was beginning to wonder whether a normal life would ever happen to her.


And yet… all that effort didn’t seem to pay. The company was still in trouble, in spite of her efforts. Sales were way down. Costs were high. Layoffs might be inevitable in the near future.


Failure. Failure is defined differently by different types of leaders. If you are the type of leader whose only focus is the bottom line, then failure means a worse than expected (or needed) bottom line. But she was a different type of leader. Her definition of leadership success included the success of her people. Even if the company made it, even if a promising new product succeeded, even if she was lauded as the greatest CEO ever to have walked the earth – she could not feel successful if she didn’t take all her people with her. All of them. Letting some go was not acceptable.


Finally she had hired a coach – a top gun. The coach came to see her every week, and every week the coach asked her the same question. What is most important? What do you need to do now? The coach encouraged her to let go of guilt and to think like a businesswoman. Think of the business, he said. Think of the goal. Think of the bottom line. What is most important?


For a while, coaching was helpful. If nothing else, it gave her an hour a week to focus on her needs rather than on everyone else’s. The coach functioned as a surrogate boss, the boss she did not have. The coach asked her the tough questions no one else would ask. She liked him. After a while, however, she started postponing the coaching sessions. Maybe tomorrow. Can we have it next week? So sorry, but I have an important meeting… and then she finally decided to let go. She had no time for coaching. She had no time for questions and doubts and insights. She had real work to do.


Her head was throbbing again. Lately her headaches had intensified and become full blown migraines. She tried Eastern and Western medicine, combined acupuncture and Tylenol and still the headaches persisted. And the nausea. And the feeling that she could no longer go on.


Martha got out of bed slowly and stared at her image in the mirror. She felt tired and old. She had aged the last 4 years. Her hair was grayer than before. There were two straight lines between her brows, lines that looked even deeper in the morning. Her skin felt dull and dry to the touch. She was still an attractive woman but her mirror told her otherwise.


She turned on TV for some company and heard the anchor say something about heroes. Someone had saved a kid from a burning house. Someone else had given everything he had to a needy family. “Some hero I am,” Martha thought.


As always, her laptop was on. She hardly ever turned it off at night – she hated not being able to reach her emails quickly, and sometimes worked until she fell asleep. She touched the mouse automatically. Martha had developed the habit of checking her emails first thing in the morning, before even drinking coffee or having breakfast. Of course that meant that often she had neither coffee nor breakfast… and left home way later than expected. Oh well – “that comes with the territory,” she thought.


Strangely, this time she did not turn on her email. Instead, she clicked on Microsoft Word. A blank document stared back at her, deliciously empty.


“Martha’s Journal,” she wrote. A journal? Who the heck has time for a journal?


She pressed on, undaunted. Today she would make the time. She wrote the date. Then she stared at the screen some more. And wrote “today is the first day of my life as a hero.”


“As if I needed more pressure,” she thought, but just for a moment. Somehow the sentence didn’t give her pressure. It gave her a strange peace. “Today is my first day as a coach,” she wrote on. “As my coach.”


She paused. My coach? What on earth… “if I couldn’t make it with a hot shot coach who only coaches CEOs what makes me think I can do it on my own?” She ignored her own criticism and continued. “Today I will start pulling from within. I will start asking myself questions and taking the time to hear my own answers. Today I’ll stop expecting anyone else to know what I know already.”


“Wow.” Martha felt a strange vibration from within and forgot about her headache. She had been feeling lonely and empty and miserable… and now, out of nowhere, came some exciting energy. “Today I will be my own leader – the best leader ever, because I know my needs and my weaknesses and my motivations better than anyone else…and become I care about those needs and weaknesses and motivations. And as my own leader, I will help me solve the problems that can be solved. I will, however, understand that not all problems will be solved. I will do what I can to help my people but I will accept that I can’t help everyone. Today I will act like a hero and accept that I am human.”


It couldn’t be that simple. Her problems were horribly complex. It wasn’t only her business – it was the economy, the world, the stock market. She couldn’t possibly think that she could come out of all that unscathed simply by becoming her own coach.


Her answer came fast and furious – and crystal clear. “You won’t come out unscathed. Neither will the company. You will find a solution, though. And it will be the best solution you could find. Not a perfect solution – but a good one.”


Hunger finally hit her. With a newly found sense of balance she saved her work and took the time to get ready. She took a nice warm shower and picked her favorite outfit. She made coffee. She cooked some eggs. She stared at the snow falling and felt warm inside.


“Today is my first day as a hero,” Martha repeated out loud, “and I’m finally my own boss.” Then she smiled broadly, her early headache forgotten, and left to work.







First Impressions and Personality: Should we Trust our Gut?

I can't imagine what life would be like without my glasses. Quite fuzzy, I suppose. Glasses definitely make my life more comfortable. So comfortable, in fact, that I often forget I have them on.


Personality is like an old and comfortable pair of glasses. I don't plan to be an extravert. I don't wake up and think "hum, I think I will be original today." I just experience life from an extraverted and original vantage point.  The problem is: I could easily judge others according to their proximity or distance to my standards. In this sense, people are not just extraverted or introverted; original or conservative in absolute terms. They are simply more or less extraverted and original than I am. 


That gets me thinking of "gut" reactions. People often say - quite proudly - that they "trust their gut." They just know when people are good or bad, trustworthy or dishonest, safe or dangerous.  Problem is - how can we be sure our "gut" intution about someone is not, quite simply, a reaction to this someone's uniqueness? Couldn't a strong dislike simply signal difference?


I don't trust my gut. My gut is surprisingly unreliable. My gut has told me to stay away from people who later became close friends.  My gut assured me people hated me when in fact they didn't. My gut has steered me in the wrong direction more often than I could count.  And that's all right. I don't know. Each human encounter brings the danger and fascination of the unknown ... and the learning that comes from new discoveries.


Life would be boring if I always just knew.










A matter of fit: What does love have to do with it?

I love teaching.  Like everyone else I may have days of tiredness and frustration. Overall, however, I love what I do.  I love saying I’m a professor.  I love meeting with students and can typically do so even when extremely tired. In fact, more often than not, students energize me.

Why do I love teaching so much?  Here are some possible reasons:


  • I am a huge extravert. I hate being on my own and can easily network in a crowd of strangers. Teaching gives me the social interaction I crave to be happy.  Under certain situations, however, I am quite happy to be on my own – and some comfort with solitude is important as I conduct research or write.
  • I am supremely independent.  A very rigid hierarchy would just about kill me.  Professors have bosses, of course – but the typical academic boss is also worried about his or her own research and teaching, having no time for micro management.
  • I can get quite anxious. As a sales person I would be miserable – always worrying about the big sale and easily taking rejections personally.  That same nervous edge, however, works quite well as I teach.  Nervousness adds just the right amount of empathy for my students’ problems. I can understand when they freak out – I’ve been there!
  • I am hugely original and curious.  Curiosity is a gift for a professor.  After all, we constantly need to read, study, research, find stuff out.  My curiosity makes it easy for me to transmit passion for learning.


These are just a few areas of perfect “fit” between who I am and what I do. And that’s exactly what engagement means.  A perfect fit. A tight connection.  The conviction that I was born to do what I do. 


As I write this, I wonder if there is a downside to so much love. Of course. First, love makes it personal.  If you take away my classroom and my students you’re not only taking away my livelihood – you’re taking away my persona.  Second, love makes it vulnerable. People can hurt those who love. Third, love makes it intense.  Workaholism is a serious threat.  


Ask yourself: Are you deeply in love with what you do? If so - how can you protect yourself from the vulnerabilities of love? If you find out… please tell me. For now, I’m happy to take it all – love, fear and pain. My students make it worthwhile. Engagement makes it worthwhile.






Ask Three Times: The Humorous Side of Cultural Interactions

Years ago, I traveled around the country running diversity sessions for a major accounting firm. A frequent co-facilitator in those sessions was my friend Rich Grote (Rich, if you’re reading this… here’s to you!)


Rich used to tell funny stories about the culture of his small home town in Minnesota. One of these stories had to do with the need to “ask three times” before any offer was taken seriously.


“Where I come from,” Rich told us, “we always had to ask three times. Here is how this works: Suppose I offer to take you to the airport in the middle of the night. I say: Hey, would you like me to take you to the airport? You should never assume I really mean it… unless I ask again.” Rich went on to say that he discovered the cultural rules were different in Washington, D.C. the hard way.


“A friend told me he was taking the 5 a.m. plane,” he recalled. “Of course, I made the mandatory nice offer to take him to the airport. I fully expected him to say ‘oh, I wouldn’t want to bother you, I’ll take a cab’ or something like that. I was just being nice! Instead, my friend said ‘that would be great!’ I found myself driving in the highway at 2 in the morning asking myself: What the heck just happened here?”


Rich’s home town and my native Rio de Janeiro have something in common. I’m not sure we ask “three times” exactly, but we do frequently make offers we do not mean. For instance, someone could vaguely say “Aparece lá em casa” (do “show up” at our house!) without any expectation of having someone take that offer literally. A “real” invitation, after all, would obviously go beyond asking people to “show up.” Obviously? Really? Or should I say culturally?


I once had a funny incident around the “ask three times” rule. Coming home from the university, I had a flat tire. I confess I am terrible with cars (ask me where the engine is and I’ll look puzzled) and have no idea how to change a flat tire. I was, therefore, pretty relieved when a truck driver stopped and offered to change my tire. The relief I felt, however, could not possibly overcome my strong cultural programming. Someone offers me help? First, I have to make sure the offer is “for real.” My answer to the truck driver? “Sir, I wouldn’t want to inconvenience you.


Now, a Brazilian truck driver would probably “read me” perfectly well. Here is a possible answer: “It’s no inconvenience, really!” (offer number 2). At that point, I would respond with my best “damsel in distress” smile: “really, are you sure it wouldn’t be a bother?” The driver’s expected chivalrous retort: “Not a bother – it will be my pleasure!” (offer number 3). Ok, now I can accept your offer in good conscience. By the way, the entire interaction just described assumes that the truck driver is a male (as is still often the case in Brazil). Female-female interactions would likely follow different cultural rules (probably a more “sisterly” discussion of help).


Of course, the Ohioan truck driver who stopped to help me had no idea of what he was expected to do. As soon as I said “but I wouldn’t want to inconvenience you” he said “ok then…” and went back into his truck, leaving me alone on the side of the road with my flat tire.


Don’t you worry – the story ended well. Fortunately, I remembered Rich’s lessons about Minnesota. Shortly thereafter, another truck driver stopped and made the same offer. I immediately said “Yes! That would be great!


Now, before you ask – does every person from Rio de Janeiro expect someone to “ask three times”? Is every Ohioan truck driver that direct? Of course not. Cultural rules reveal a certain tendency of a group. These are not individual rules. People’s personalities and personal experiences also play a key role in their reactions and behaviors.


Culture matters, though. Applying a cultural rule can be instinctive and immediate. I didn’t stop and think before telling the driver “I wouldn’t want to inconvenience you.” I didn’t play chess or consider what his interpretation of my reluctance could be. I just responded the way I was raised to respond. I played my role. I did my part.


Next time I am stuck on the side of the road, I’ll know what to say. In the meantime, note to self: Learn how to change a flat tire!







Thou Shalt Not Brag: Does Culture Impact Performance Appraisals?

This weekend I did something I had been procrastinating for months: I completed my yearly evaluation form. I did it on the last possible day... it's due tomorrow! The fact is I hate completing my yearly evaluation. Now, before you wonder what the problem is, I can tell you what the problem isn’t. I did not have a bad year. I did what I was supposed to do. I do not expect any big problems or surprises in my yearly evaluation. Instead, my procrastination is a sign of the profound discomfort I feel when evaluating myself. Why? Because in my native Brazil I grew up following a powerful rule: Thou shalt not brag.


The cultural rules I grew up with did not only prescribe what I was supposed to say or not say about me. There were also unspoken yet powerful rules about how I was supposed to behave when others praised me. For example, suppose someone praised me for an outfit I had just purchased. “Oh, this?” I would answer… “I bought it in a sale!” I certainly wouldn’t agree… and even most certainly I would not bring it up! The “Thou shalt not brag” rule also applied to artistic talents or professional achievements. If someone said “you are talented!” I was supposed to smile, thank the person for the praise, and disclaim. “I am still learning,” I could say or “I have a wonderful teacher.” A great professional achievement? It wasn’t me. My team did it. My boss helped me. Someone else contributed to it.


Cultural rules involve an intricate web of unspoken rituals and behaviors that are perfectly logical to the members of the culture. In the examples above, my Brazilian counterparts would not necessarily attribute my denials to actual humility. Instead, both parties knew perfectly well how to interpret one another’s behaviors. They were supposed to praise me. I was supposed to downplay the praise. They were then expected to insist (if the praise was truly legitimate) and accept my denial as further proof of my accomplishment. In this complicated cultural game, everyone knew his or her role.


Then I moved to the United States. On the surface, U.S. American and Brazilian cultures may not seem that different. Professionals dress similarly. People celebrate some common Holidays. By the time I arrived in the U.S. (right after getting married to an American citizen) I had already visited the U.S. on several occasions. I had participated in two or three professional conferences. I knew how to behave… or thought I knew. Cultural differences, however, may be subtle. Further, they are often unwritten, unspoken, and instinctive to the members of the culture. No one could tell me “Thou shalt not brag” no longer worked. People did not know it did not work because they did not know that rule existed in the first place. I was expected to brag – not so much that I would be considered arrogant, but just enough. A touch of bragging was now perfectly acceptable. A touch of bragging meant I had what it took to succeed… and knew it. My disclaimers and protestations did not mean courtesy – they meant, instead, self deprecation (at best) or maybe even lack of self confidence. I was now expected to not only brag but also to bring up my accomplishments in meetings and during discussions with my boss.  Did you achieve something great? Let others know. Are there opportunities for awards? Ask to be considered. Do not expect others to praise you. Take initiative. Show that you care.


And that brings me back to what started today’s blog: My performance appraisal. By now I have lived in the U.S. for long enough that you would think I learned the new cultural rules. I should be able to fill out this form without a problem. I should be happy about listing my accomplishments. I should look forward to the meeting with my boss. Instead, the old lessons of my childhood and youth are still strongly imprinted in my brain. I am still groaning.


My only consolation: This only happens once a year.

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