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Pic Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Pic Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Do you know anyone who always gets their jobs done, is never behind on any commitment, keeps their promises, raises their children just like it's best for them, has never missed a deadline, balances their nutrition and checkbook, has time for regular exercise, and looks impossibly well groomed doing it all?

I don't.

Instead, I know many good people with great intentions, who find it hard to say "no", and who feel bad about themselves when life's circumstances get in the way of them finishing off their hopelessly overfilled plate of responsibilities.

Whatever our circumstances, we all have something we think we should be doing, but aren't. We do other stuff instead of that one thing, because we'll get to it later, we're just not quite ready yet, we don't feel like it, etc. In university, I took on extra shifts at the bar and even cleaned my room, dusted, and de-cluttered my desk before sitting down to write that essay. In life now I read books, write emails to or call my friends, and check up on internet gossip instead of going to the gym, preparing next week's blog post, or getting more into marketing my services. 

Let's be honest for a second - when you think you should be doing something but you're doing something else, you know you're procrastinating. You are aware of it, even if you're in denial - your subconscious knows what you're up to when you make a choice and spend your time and energy elsewhere. You do this thinking you'll feel better because obviously you prefer / it's easier / it's more fun doing what you're not supposed to.

But the truth is, procrastinating hurts your self-esteem in the long run.

Why? Because whether it's imaginary or not, the priority and importance you place on this task you're not doing won't go away by not looking at it.

Wow, those were quite a few negatives in one sentence, let's see if I can word it differently: Avoiding the gym, the conversation, the email, whatever thing you are not doing will haunt you until you do it. It won't matter that your house is hoovered or all your laundry is ironed, you'll still feel like you haven't accomplished anything today, because you didn't do what your mind tells you you should have.

More on that tomorrow. 

(From the archives, first published November 2008) 

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5 Tips for effective cross-cultural Communication

20130202-180627.jpg You think the golden rule of “treat others the way you want to be treated” works when you’re crossing cultures?Think again.

Your new hire from Mexico has just arrived at your Houston office. You’ve shown her her desk, talked about her objectives, she’s had newbie orientation about your company’s sexual harassment and privacy policies, and you plan on checking in again in a couple of weeks. She’s back in your office after 10 days handing in her resignation. What happened?

Talking very broadly here, reminding you to take every generalization with a pinch of salt: people are different and there are always exceptions to the rule. However, cultural research has shown that Mexicans tend to prefer a different style of leadership than Americans. In America, freedom and equality are held in such high esteem that any close supervision or micromanagement is considered patronizing. “If I need help, I’ll ask for it, and I can do this alone!” seems to be expected, accepted, and respected in most positions. Team work is encouraged on paper, but what often happens is the task gets split into various pieces that each team member works on individually; the team leader then patches the contributions together into a more or less coherent whole. In other words, give an American a goal to work towards, a deadline, and leave the way of achieving the task up to them.

The Mexican lady from our example, however, is likely to expect and appreciate some more detailed attention. I know of some cases where the person in question went hungry for a few days, because none of the coworkers showed her the way to the cafeteria. She counted on her colleagues to take her in and show her the ropes, explain the unwritten politics and make her feel welcome, because that’s what she would have done. People take care of and pay attention to each other differently in Mexico, for example, within the first week of our stay in Aguascalientes, we were invited to have dinner with colleagues, met their families, parents, and in-laws. These were invitations from peers, mind you, because different levels in hierarchy form sometimes quite insurmountable boundaries. But that’s another story.

Can you imagine, then, what being left alone for two weeks meant to her? In a new job, by the people she’s supposed to be able to depend on? She didn’t recognize the intended discretion and respect for her competence to figure out her own way, on the contrary, I’d venture she felt completely abandoned.

Understanding cultural differences could have helped both parties enjoy a much smoother transition. Next time you hire someone from another country, here are some tips to make sure you’re both on the same page:

1. Get cultured

To avoid offending not just your international employees but also your international customers, make sure you and your team leaders are aware of cultural differences. Get trained in the basics and have systems in place to periodically refresh your knowledge. Have a coach or cultural trainer on hand for specific ad-hoc questions about how to handle situations that have come up.

2. Encourage diversity

Create an environment where all employees feel valued and respected. Invite your employees to share details about their cultural preferences amongst each other by bringing in food samples, labeling office items in their native language, or sharing stories. We only fear what we don’t know, and learning about our colleagues’ backgrounds will facilitate a friendlier work environment.

3. Offer training

Your understanding other people’s culture is the first half of the cake. Help them understand your preferences by offering periodic cultural training workshops. Either individually for expatriates coming over with their families, or group sessions for international teams who have identified communication or team work issues. Awareness combats misunderstandings and provides a language to articulate differences. Let’s face it, sometimes people don’t get along and it’s nothing personal, it’s cultural.

4. Don’t assume anything

Chances are, Mexicans will appreciate more detailed instructions on how you’d like them to achieve their goals, as well as more personalized contact to make them feel welcome. You won’t know until you ask. Maybe they’ve studied in the States and quite like their individual freedom. Make more information available to new hires, set aside some time to go for lunch with them and the new team (they might feel uncomfortable having lunch with the boss alone), have a conversation, or assign a work-buddy for them to turn to when questions arise. Remember, "assume" sometimes means making an ass out of u and me!

5. Use feedback

Your people on the floor and your customers will tell you how to keep them happy if you ask. Keep it confidential and anonymous, and if the same suggestion comes up repeatedly, do something about it. As a successful business leader you’re probably doing this already, I’m just here to point out that once isn’t enough, just like one training won’t be sufficient. Follow-up to facilitate follow-through with action steps.


Daily Survival Kit


Daily Survival Kit

daily survival kit
daily survival kit

This is a gift we received at our last Toastmasters meeting, where the Toastmaster shared her New Year's resolution: She's going to pay it forward, and share any inspiration she receives with others.

The bag probably looks a little strange just from the photo, but here's what the card says:

Daily Survival Kit

TOOTHPICK to remind you to pick out the good qualities in others.

RUBBER BAND to remind you to be flexible, things might not always go the way you want, but it will work out.

BAND AID to remind you to heal hurt feelings - yours or someone else's.

PEN to remind you to make a list of your blessings every day.

ERASER to remind you that everyone makes mistakes, and it's ok.

CHEWING GUM to remind you to stick with it and you can accomplish anything.

MINT to remind you that you are worth a mint!

CANDY KISS to remind you that everyone needs a kiss or a hug every day.

TEA BAG to remind you to relax daily and go over that list of blessings.

As you can see, I've taken her resolution on as my own - passing this on. Feel free to do the same! :-)

Image by magicatwork, Flickr, Creative Commons License.



Expat holidays

Planning your relocation can hit significant snags when you least expect them. Right now is one of those periods: many Europeans are on vacation, taking usually at least two weeks off at a time - a concept that is pretty much unheard of in the USA and therefore not anticipated. For arriving expats that might mean your colleagues or bosses aren't available to help you set up shop. For expats in the planning stage this might mean the arrival of your household goods might be delayed, or that real estate agent who was supposed to show you around is out of the country. Tip: As soon as you know when you're supposed to move, check the international calendar for significant events and ask your in-country contacts whether to expect any disruption in service.

As you are going on an expat assignment, you should also be aware of which nation's holidays you will be expected to follow: those of your host, or those of the country that sent you. Here's an interesting piece about how likely some nationals are to even take their holiday allowance. When asked my opinion, I'll always say to maintain a healthy work-life balance, and that includes taking time off to recharge. And by time off, I mean no laptop, no blackberry, just being. Unwinding.

Another important event is currently influencing the Muslim population around the world: the fasting of the holy month of Ramadan began yesterday. If you are an expat in a predominantly Muslim country like the UAE, Saudi Arabia, or Egypt, it would be respectful not to eat or drink unless you're in private and can't be seen. In fact, it might be against the law to eat or drink where it might tempt Muslims, and you might get into trouble and be arrested. Read about a personal account about Ramadan in Turkey here.

If you are working with Muslims in a Christian or secular society, I invite you to use opportunity to learn more about their tradition. Fasting from sun-up to sun-down does mess with one's ability to concentrate and it might make people short-tempered. You can support your friends and colleagues by practicing your own understanding and patience, and the Chicago Tribune wrote a piece about just that here.

Eid Mubarak, and thank you for your comments below!


Positive Thinking


Positive Thinking

This is a speech I gave at my last Toastmasters meeting that was very well received (a tad longer than other articles I've written, but presenting it only took 5 minutes 30 secs). Remember Toastmasters International is an organization that helps everyone improve their presentation and public speaking skills in a fun and relaxed environment. If you have a talk or presentation coming up that you'd like to prepare for, check out a meeting near you!

Positive thinking is one surefire way to happiness. Are you happy?

There’s a saying that loosely translated from German goes like this:

Mind your thoughts, as they become words. Mind your words, as they become actions. Mind your actions, as they become habits. Mind your habits, as they become your character. Mind your character as it becomes your destiny.

I’m not sure who came up with it, but they had a point. And you’ll notice that they explained a causal relationship between your thoughts and your destiny and thus your level of happiness.

Let me give you a quick overview of what’s ahead. I’ll start by quoting a philosopher and taking his message one step further. Then, I want to share a little information on three points: one, your brain doesn’t know the difference between what’s real and what isn’t. Two: you can control the messages that you send it, and three: I’ll share some tips on how to make those messages more positive.

Renee Descartes, the famous French Philosopher coined the phrase, “I think, therefore I am.” At a time where other philosophers were questioning everything, “is this really a table?”, “will the sun rise again tomorrow?”, “what is real?”, Descartes took apart his house of beliefs brick by brick and came to the conclusion that the mere fact that he was thinking about thinking meant that he must, indeed, exist.

This is where I (and many others before me) go a step further and say “we exist the way we do, meaning: our lives are what they are, because of what we think”.

Thinking occurs in your brain, and your brain doesn’t know the difference between what’s real and what isn’t.

Who here has ever had a dream that seemed very real, or woke up screaming or sweating from a horrific nightmare? Because your brain cannot differentiate between what’s real and what isn’t, it sent the message to your adrenal glands to pour out the hormone and prepare you for fight or flight even though there was no real threat present. (Your brain also doesn’t register the word “no”, e.g. if I tell you now NOT to think of a red balloon, what do you think of? ...which is why it's so important to make your goals out as positively worded statements, but that's another story.)

While you’re sleeping, your subconscious is in charge, but while you’re awake, you can directly influence what messages you send to your brain, so you better make them positive. Actually, let me precede the following example with this little nugget: your brain also likes things to be true and make sense.

So, if you bump your leg on the coffee table and tell yourself “I'm such a clutz!”, your brain will go looking for ways to make that statement make sense. That means it’ll remember past instances where you’ve fallen down or bumped your leg or dropped something, and in future it’ll apply the same label, and the more evidence it can come up with, the more it becomes true that you really are a clutz. That is the self-fulfilling prophecy everybody's talking about. The alternative here is to turn that negative thought around and look at the event through a different lens, a less judgmental one. For example, you could recognize that the coffee table wasn’t in its usual position because you had cleaned and moved it earlier, or that you were preoccupied with thinking about the speech you have to give at the next Toastmasters meeting and hence weren’t paying attention to where you were going. That makes you many things - a dedicated toastmaster, a clean housekeeper, but not a clutz.

Now, how can you improve the level of your positive thoughts? With these following tips:

Be nice to yourself. What does your inner voice usually say? How do you talk to yourself? Are your thoughts helpful and supportive? Or - the test of all tests - would you speak to your best friend the way that you speak to yourself?

Furthermore, try and notice when you’re not being nice and simply stop those negative thoughts, and turn them around into something positive, like with the housekeeping or dedicated Toastmaster mentioned earlier. As with speech-making, continued practice will make perfect, so give yourself some time and patience. Last but not least, focus on the positive things that are already in your life. Every evening write down, relive or simply remember in all its glorious detail at least three things that went well that day, that you were proud of, that made you happy. This exercise will put you in a positive state of mind, and once you’re in a positive state of mind, you know your brain will do the rest and find more positive things to make sense of and perpetuate that positive and happy state you’re in.

At the end of the day, your thoughts are your business, I just wanted to make sure you're aware that every single one of your thoughts contributes to you shaping your own destiny, and that you can take control and decide what you are prepared to do for your own happiness, whichever form that may take, by being nice to yourself, turning bad thoughts around and focusing on positive things.

Til next time, good thoughts!

Image by Li-Ji, Flickr, Creative Commons License.