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Three things a skeptic should know about neuroscience

Three things a skeptic should know about neuroscience

Below is the reaction between octane and oxygen that takes place in the internal combustion engine.  Will that help you repair a car?  Will it help you win a Grand Prix?  Perhaps not. Systems can be analyzed a number of levels from the quantum to the cosmic.  Does knowing that your cortisol is elevated help you deal with stress?  Does knowing your amygdala is activated when afraid make it easier to cope? Does knowing the “love hormone,” called oxytocin, exists make you a nicer person?

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    Reading today’s neurohype, you might conclude that the true path to a great life is a course in neuroanatomy, or biochemistry.  And unlike much pop leadership pseudo-science, lots of what is written in the neuroscience world is reasonably accurate scientifically.  But although “true,” is it really useful?

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    Among all the ten syllable words and grandiose promises, some neuroscience is very useful. Below are three simple things I think business people should know that derive their validity from findings in neuroscience.

    1. Mindfulness rocks

    Mindfulness conjures up images of saffron robes, or new-age hippiedom. Yet, in the world of self-help aphorisms, and things gurus advise, mindfulness stands way, way above the crowd.  In contrast with its woo-woo image, there is more hard scientific evidence for its effectiveness than just about anything else in the self-help world.  

    What do I mean by effectiveness? It has been shown to improve depression, ADD, anxiety, and stress.  But maybe you are not mentally ill, so what does it do for healthy people?  It improves attention, focus, and emotion control.  More abstractly, mindfulness strengthens our metacognitive, or executive functions.  It makes you much better at observing yourself in action, and much better at self-correcting deficits in thinking, feeling and acting.

    We are all mindful some of the time.  Recall those moments of maximum clarity, focus and engagement.  If you are like me, borderline ADD, those moments are too few, rare even.

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    My brain needs training and that training is meditation.  Meditation is to mindfulness as practicing free-throws is to basketball.  To return from distraction, lack of focus, and not being present, first you have to notice, then you have to come back.  If you are like me, however, you can spend an entire morning distracted.  The faster I notice, the faster I can return to my zen-like focus and being present.  Sure, it will quickly disappear: “I wonder what is happening on Facebook.” But because I’ve practiced my free throws, I might notice more quickly, and come back more quickly.  Or, perhaps not even go there.

    Wise leaders cultivate perspective, can handle stress, react less and create more, and are generally in control of their moods.  People have often said that when you talked to Nelson Mandela, so great was his focus and attention on the moment that it felt as if you were the only person in the room.  That kind of presence is part of the mindfulness package.

    If you worry that it will take 10 years of an hour a day to “get there,” think again.  In a recent study, some mood management and focus benefits were realized after just 5 days of 20 minutes of meditation per day.

    Back in the day, we used to have smoke breaks.  Perhaps, in the 21st Century, it will become commonplace for people in workplaces to say “I’m just gonna go sit for ten minutes.”  Some companies are taking it seriously: Google runs a program, called Search Inside Yourself, that has mindfulness at its core.  It has been a small part of the dozens of leadership programs I’ve run during the last decade, most of which have been for very senior investment bankers, but based on current research, I’m giving serious thought to making it more central, perhaps even the core of the leadership work I do.

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    2. Inauthenticity stinks

    Ever listen to someone saying something enthusiastic or positive, and it just feels wrong? While we are listening to words, our brain is processing micro gestures, posture, tone, inflection, cadence and other non-verbal cues.  We now know of a structure called mirror neurons that fire in synchrony when people do things as if we were doing them ourselves.  That means that humans understand each other and relate at a deeper level than just information (word) processing.

    To communicate powerfully, to inspire and persuade, all of that must be aligned. That means you have to believe, at the deepest possible level, all you are saying. Pretending (that you are excited when dejected, or confident when afraid) works poorly. To boot, it can be hard work, under pressure, to keep the game face on.

    This finding speaks strongly to another leadership buzzword: authenticity. Although the word is misunderstood and overused, there is fundamental truth at the heart of it.  Inauthenticity smells, and the leader needs to do the internal work to align thoughts, feelings, and actions to produce an authentic presence.

    3. A tip and a tool to make you smarter

    The human brain is superb at processing, but poor at juggling numerous items in “working memory.” The more juggling you do, the less present, focused, attentive and sharp you will be when you need to be. Working memory can get clogged by to-do lists, calls, worries, and creative ideas. Tip: create the practice (or habit) of clearing out working memory and dumping all that into a safe place. Just doing this “mindsweep” thoroughly once a week can yield improvements in concentration and clarity of thought.

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    We call this “distributed cognition” and in today’s distraction-fest world, having tools at your disposal that enhance cognitive function, in this case easing the strains on working memory, is critical.

    There are two information-overload problems solved by one incredibly powerful free app: Evernote.   The first problem Evernote solves is multiple information sources: meetings, phone calls, websites, email, post-its, voice-mail, and social media.  You want an app that with one-click will save and intuitively categorize it all in a snap no matter what it is.  One click, wherever you are and it is saved, and indexed. Onto the next one.

    The second problem is that we cannot afford multiple storage systems.  If you make a note on your tablet, you don’t want to go hunting for it a few hours later when you are in a cab with just your phone.  Evernote syncs your “dumps” and all those other inputs across tablet, PC, laptop and smart phone instantly. You now can safely park that great new product idea, knowing it won’t be forgotten, and attend 100% to the moment.  You can insta-clip that website you bumped into (when you ought to be doing something else) and get back to what you were doing.

    Neuroscience is in its infancy, but a deeper understanding of the brain can help leaders in daily situations such as these without having to learn arcane neurotransmitters and the names of cortical structures.  These are just a few examples, so I am curious what students of Neuroscience and behavior would add to this list and what managers make of the usefulness of these concepts. Let us know in the comments!

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    Published on September 16, 2020

    12 Practical Interview Skills to Help You Land Your Dream Job

    12 Practical Interview Skills to Help You Land Your Dream Job

    Today, with many companies going remote—at least until there’s a COVID-19 vaccine—technical proficiency is a vital skill for every interviewee to master. You may be asked to interview for a job on Zoom or Microsoft Teams. The way you handle yourself in the online interview (your interview skills) will say much about your ability to work from home efficiently.

    Does your workspace look clean or cluttered? Is the area free from noise? Is your home office well lit?

    Once hired, you may be asked to organize meetings on Zoom and other platforms. Along with mastering the technology, you will have to learn to follow certain protocols.

    Now is the time to get up to speed on your technical skills. Learn which interview skills are needed for the particular job for which you are applying and practice them.

    Online learning sites, such as LinkedIn Learning and Udemy, offer courses for free or a nominal membership fee. If you are a DIY type, make use of training videos offered through your particular digital tools.

    Additionally, demonstrating that you have these 12 interview skills will help you land your dream job.

    1. Organization

    When you work in a brick-and-mortar office, some of the organizing is left to others. Your direct supervisor may host a Monday morning quarterback meeting where each worker reports on the progress on their tasks.

    When you work from home, much of the organizing will be left up to you. To a much greater extent than before, you will need to develop a schedule and stick to it. Some tasks may be faster to complete from your home office where you don’t have other workers competing for your attention.

    Conversely, you may find that some tasks that would have gone quickly in an office seem to take forever from your home computer. Your phone may ring a lot, which can distract you, or you may have kids and a spouse who inadvertently disrupt your schedule.

    To do: Set a schedule and stick to it.

    To discuss during your interview: Be specific. Point to the interview skill you utilized to create a schedule for a complex work project and followed it.

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    2. Flexibility

    You set a schedule for the completion of your tasks, but your prospective boss gets their work done between the hours of 2:00 and 8:00 a.m. Your West Coast partners are three hours behind your East Coast partners, and one of your partners lives in England while another lives in Australia.

    Feedback and collaboration (see point 3) may need to happen asynchronously. Be the flexible candidate—the person who is willing to occasionally disrupt their schedule for the greater good of the team.

    For extra credit: don’t just look up time zones, look up whether they observe Daylight Savings Time.

    To do: Be flexible about meeting times.

    To discuss during your interview: Highlight a time when you worked on a team where members lived in different time zones. Discuss your processes.

    3. Collaboration

    As recently as six months ago, before the pandemic raged around the world, collaboration wasn’t quite as essential as it is today. In a remote office setting, collaboration doesn’t just mean working well with others—but actually sharing documents and editing them online on time.

    Several cloud-based tools, such as Google Drive, Basecamp, and Trello, enable the type of collaborative teamwork that most companies want today.

    To do: Download the correct software and practice using it.

    To discuss during your interview: Discuss how you worked remotely with a group. Share how you overcame certain challenges.

    4. Poise

    Murphy’s Law states, “Anything that can go wrong will go wrong.”

    When things do go awry, keeping your wits about you will demonstrate your consummate professionalism under fire. This will show your future bosses that you will be able to work well under the pressures of remote work.

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    What could go wrong, you ask? You might be muted without realizing it—your Internet connection may not be robust, your headphones may blip out, your cellphone may ring, Zoom could have an outage. The list goes on and on.

    To do: Make sure you have the most up-to-date versions of Skype and Zoom uploaded.

    To discuss during your interview: Consider highlighting a time when a project did not go as planned. Demonstrate the interview skills that allowed you to rise to the challenge.

    5. Communication

    Your ability to handle online communication is one of the top critical skills you will need to thrive in today’s remote workplace. Download Slack if you haven’t already. Get used to toggling to a different form of online communication if one of your tools fails.

    When it comes to the preferred format for your online interview, demonstrate proficiency by offering several different options. Give your phone number, Google Chat Hangouts name, and Skype ID.

    To do: Familiarize yourself with video conference and online chat tools, such as Slack, Fleep, or Workplace by Facebook.

    To discuss during your interview: Be prepared to share the online communication tools you’re using and examples of how you use each one.

    6. Good Computer Hygiene

    Setting up a backup system for your computer files is one of today’s crucial requirements for working in the digital age. Storing documents that can be shared by team members is also an efficient way to work together on presentations, articles, and reports—although studies show nearly one-third of employees avoid them because of the time it takes to find documents.

    Be prepared in your interview to indicate your experience utilizing this technology, describing how you organize and store files using cloud-based collaboration tools. How do you keep track of links and tabs? Do you use Dropbox? Google Docs? Confluence? Others?

    To do: Take inventory of the cloud-based document sharing and storage systems you know and use.

    To discuss during your interview: Describe the document sharing tools and backup systems you utilize—both for personal protection and professional file sharing.

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    7. Proper Meeting Etiquette

    Today, presenting yourself virtually has its pros and cons. While you only have to show a professional persona from the waist up (make sure to straighten up your office space behind you), you must boost your energy to show that you’re engaged in the discussion.

    Make your voice as upbeat as possible. Have your talking points at the ready and be careful not to ramble on, as long virtual meetings easily become tiresome. Use the mute and chat features to avoid interruptions.

    To do: Once you know the meeting platform, make sure you have it mastered before your interview.

    To discuss during your interview: Offer to share your screen to show an example of a work project— while at the same time demonstrating your prowess with video conferencing tools.

    8. Respecting Feedback

    In the age of working remotely, there may not be as many systems in place to obtain feedback (such as yearly performance reviews). Workers may need to ask for feedback, while managers may need to give more feedback than usual as the team adjusts to working off-site. Respecting feedback is on top of the interview skills list that you should learn.

    Taking a proactive approach with giving and receiving feedback and incorporating it into your work style is a desirable quality that your employers will note.

    To do: Reflect on the positive feedback you’ve received from past employers to bolster your confidence.

    To discuss during your interview: Share a time when you received feedback that made you grow in the job. If you’re a manager, share a time when you gave feedback to an employee who needed to better their job performance.

    9. Project Management

    Staying on task with projects has evolved far past a to-do list, with electronic tools that can track time, manage team workloads, and even do the client billing. While your prospective employer may have its preferred project management program, your experience with any of the various options—whether it’s Basecamp, Teamwork, Smartsheet, or another—will be applicable.

    To do: Know which project management software is likely to be used by the industry in which you’re interviewing, and familiarize yourself with its features.

    To discuss during your interview: Highlight a project management feature that is particularly useful in helping you excel in your work, and explain how you utilize it.

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    10. Staying up to Speed

    Employers expect their remote workers to be technically proficient so that technology runs smoothly and doesn’t create work disruptions. Bosses count on remote workers to know enough about their systems to manage them without relying on the help of overworked IT staff.

    To do: Make sure you have a fast internet connection and have a back-up plan, such as a second computer or other tethered devices.

    To discuss during your interview: Note that you are diligent about keeping your computer and software up to date.

    11. Attention to Cybersecurity Issues

    “Virus” is a loaded term these days. Spreading a computer virus in your company, however, will not only bring productivity to a halt, but it will also make you a pariah. While working from public places using free Wi-Fi (with uneven security provisions) has waned, in pre-pandemic times, coffee shops accounted for 62 percent of Wi-Fi security breaches.

    To do: Keep antivirus software updated and don’t download software without verifying its authenticity.

    To discuss during your interview: Emphasize your awareness of cybersecurity risks and your care in taking necessary safety measures.

    12. Teamwork

    Work relationships now mostly happen in virtual settings, yet employers value team-oriented workers.

    Being a part of a team gives you a sense of connection and shared purpose. A well-honed team understands how mutual reliance makes the sum of its parts greater than when individuals act on their own, improving the end product.

    To do: Take stock of your attributes as a team player and where you can cultivate skills that will enable you to work more collaboratively.

    To discuss during your interview: Inquire about the company’s culture and how it encourages a sense of community despite working remotely.

    Final Thoughts

    Preparing for remote positions available in today’s job market will mean honing your interview skills to highlight your technical abilities as well as your adaptability. By adhering to these To-Do’s and perfecting your online interview skills and charisma, you will rise above the competition and win over any prospective employer.

    More Tips to Improve Your Interview Skills

    Featured photo credit: Christina @ wocintechchat.com via unsplash.com

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