Behaviors that Help/Hinder Good Decision Making

“Behavior is a mirror in which every one displays his own image”
–Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Have you ever encountered the situation where one member of the team regularly dominates a discussion?  I have.  You may note that this member has good insights yet is lacking in interpersonal skills.  You may have also seen some minor friction between this person and other members of the team.  The challenge to a leader is to take action to address the undesired behaviors and reap the benefits offered by the member – yet what sort of action?

I pondered over this recently while reflecting on this very situation occurring with the team right now.  While rummaging through materials on leadership, I re-encountered a list from one of my workshops while I was in the NASA leadership development program.  The list entitled Effective Decision-Making Behaviors contained a column of behaviors that help, next to a contrasting column of behaviors that hinder.  Sure enough, several of the behaviors that hinder were on display yesterday.

OK, so much for book learning.  What action should I take?  How shall I bring awareness to these effective decision-making behaviors?

I chose an approach based upon one of my values, that of learning.  I made a copy of the list and handed it out at the start of the team tagup this morning.  I said this to the team: “All, we’re about to embark on a series of decision-making events over the next two weeks to finalize our strategy.  I’d like to share with you a list of behaviors that help decision making and contrasting behaviors that hinder.  For me as a leader, I deeply value learning, yet to borrow a phrase  from the late Richard Feynman, for me the learning process is not complete until I share what I learned with others.”  From there, the team read through the list, and the person who yesterday exhibited the behaviors that hinder pointed at one of them and spoke up: “Yes, that one is me, and so is that one, and so is that one!”  We all laughed together and shared our perspectives on the list.  From there, we worked together and made tremendous progress towards choosing our procurement strategy, with very few incidences of behaviors that hindered good decision making.  I’d call it a very successful day, one in which I felt an extremely good case of exhaustion at the end but a very warm satisfaction at what we accomplished.

The leadership process, I am discovering, is “organic” – by that, it’s not a simple application by rote the things that I’ve read.  It’s sometime trial and error, and it’s not a one-time-application-and-everything-will-be-rosy-from-here process.  I’m sure we’ll experience lapses and will need reinforcement of the behaviors that help and respectful identification of behaviors that hinder.  This will be my challenge in the coming days and weeks as we move closer to agreeing upon our strategy and seeking approval of it from the Agency.  It’s gonna be a fun ride!


Behaviors That Help Behaviors That Hinder
Listening to others’ ideas politely, even when you don’t agree. Interrupting people in mid-sentence.
Paraphrasing the main points made by another person before you respond, especially if you’re about to contradict the person’s ideas. Not acknowledging the ideas that others have put on the table.
Praising others’ ideas. Criticizing others’ ideas, as opposed to giving them useful feedback.
Building on others’ ideas. Pushing your own ideas while ignoring others’ inputs.
Asking others to critique your ideas, and accepting the feedback. Getting defensive when your ideas are assessed.
Being open to accepting alternative courses of action. Sticking only to your ideas and blocking suggestions for alternatives.
Dealing with facts. Basing arguments on feelings not substantiated by evidence.
Staying calm and friendly towards colleagues. Getting overly emotional; showing hostility in the face of any disagreement.
Behaviors that Help/Hinder Good Decision Making

Groups versus Teams

“Teamwork is the ability to work together toward a common vision. The ability to direct individual accomplishments toward organizational objectives. It is the fuel that allows common people to attain uncommon results.”
–Andrew Carnegie



My team has been together for a few weeks, working together on our procurement strategy.  Already I am amazed at what we’ve accomplished so far.  Even more amazing to me is the manner in which those accomplishments have occurred.  It is as if the purpose of the group crystallized around a commitment to action that is leading to some immediate-term “quick victories” tied to our aligned purpose for being together.  And it seems to me that all I did was “set the table” by having a dialogue with my team: we agreed upon our team’s purpose and how it fit into the larger mission of our organization, we shared why this task and purpose were important to each of us, we identified what results we needed and what actions needed to happen now.  From there the team members spontaneously grabbed items individually or as little sub-teams and got going.

This gave me pause.  What is different now versus other times I’ve been in leadership roles?  After all, I was in a minor leadership role at NASA for eight years prior to embarking on the NASA leadership development program and to a source evaluation board prior to my current leadership opportunity.  What is different now than before?

One item in particular that caught my eye as being different centers around the collection of people I was leading.  No, I don’t mean personalities, I mean this, simply: it is the difference between a group and a team.

What is a Group?

A group is a collection of people who come together to communicate, tackle a problem or coordinate an activity.  Even though the members may meet frequently and regularly, they’re still a group and not a team because as a collection they have specific traits.  In most groups, individual members operate under their own separate motivations and work to achieve independent goals.  Their independent goals may or may not even be related at all to the goals of the group or larger organization.

So, can’t effective leadership direct and guide the group to achieve its ends, to align the motivations into a common purpose?  Sure, yet this points to another characteristic of a group: leadership and decision-making power typically resides in the group chairperson.  The individual members operate at various levels of empowerment beneath the chairperson depending on their position, standing, or – heaven forbid – seniority in the organization.

The final key characteristic that defines a group for me is that little or no time is devoted to building relationships inside and outside the group, and issues of cohesion and trust are rarely (if at all) addressed by the members of the group.

When I consider my previous opportunities to lead collections of people in a professional environment, I was leading groups.  Heck, my title was even Group Lead.  It was true – I was leading individuals who had individual assignments, particular goals each was trying to meet that may not have aligned with the goals of the group or larger organization.  A NASA Associate Administrator once told me that a group is a collection of people united by a common travel agency.  In my prior leadership roles, I was indeed in charge of a collection of people united by a common travel agency, and nothing more.

How is a Team Different?

In contrast to a group, a team is a collection of people who come together to achieve a clear and compelling common goal that they have participated in defining.  To the members of a team, that goal is more important than their own individual pursuits.  It’s this factor that gives a team its cohesion.

A team also creates a set of norms or rules of behavior that defines the agreement on how the team members will interact with each other.  While a group may be run by a chairperson, a team runs itself by norms created by the members.  Team members also cooperate to plan and coordinate roles.  Their work lives are linked together, and they depend on each other.  (They “cooperate to plan and plan to cooperate.”)  When team members have differences of opinion, they tend to have a dialogue about the ideas rather than argue points of view.  They aren’t out to gain personal victory, but to arrive at the best solution for the good of the whole.

While the members of a group generally have only the level of authority inherent in their position within the organization, teams seek and attain higher levels of empowerment.  Drawing on each other to make better decisions, a team typically evolves toward greater autonomy in managing its work.  Whether teams are created to stay together for just a few meetings or for years, they tend to develop more trust and openness than do most groups.  Members have bought into the idea of working together and have made a commitment to common action.

When I reflect upon the fundamental differences between a group and a team, I realize I am experiencing the latter, perhaps for the first time in my career where I’m in the nominal leadership role.  It feels different than before; previously, I felt more of a struggle to mold the collection of people into some sort of coherent force.  Here, I am observing a natural flow as we move forward, committed to action, achieving results, and feeling very positive about how those results are leading to our compelling goal.  I feel tremendous confidence that we’re on the right path here.  Can it be this simple?

(This entry is dedicated to Ingrid Bens, who introduced me to the differences, and to my current team, for allowing me to experience the positive side of the difference.)

Groups versus Teams

The Leadership Model in the Unfolding Universe

“The ability to perceive or think differently is more important than the knowledge gained.”
–David Bohm





I’m leading a new team on an effort to arrive at an approved strategy for work critical to our organization.  So, what are we to do?  More directly, what am I to do as the team leader to get us started?

For guidance, I look to the leadership model of alignment, action, and results, about which I wrote in my previous blog entry.  OK, the approved contract strategy represents the result we want.  Check.  Next, the key question to ask is, “why does this result matter to us, both individually and organizationally?”  For that, we can look inward to our personal values and how they align with the mission of the organization.  Alignment.  That is another of the three elements of leadership.  Check number two.

The alignment and result do not exist in a vacuum.  For the situation my team and I face, our alignment and the result we seek exist within a framework of regulations and expectations of policy and decision-makers external to the team.  Within that framework exists the freedom for innovation and creativity to choose our own path of actions necessary to achieve the result.  Action.  Element number three. And there we have it – alignment, action, and result.  Checkmate.

Or is that really it?

When I consider the leadership model of alignment, action, and result applied in an unfamiliar context with a new team, I feel some uncertainty.  (What is an “approved contract strategy”, anyway?)  So far, it feels like a struggle to identify the alignment of everyone and the necessary actions to undertake to achieve the result, if all even agree upon the result in the first place.  I’m feeling that now with my team.  Maybe I’m just impatient, but I can’t help but wonder, “what is missing?”

Ever since I first encountered, embraced, and applied the alignment, action, and result model of leadership, I watch for it in action around me.  Often I see it quite easily.  I also noted situations where leadership failed because one or more of the elements of the model were missing.  Yet despite the obvious successes and failures I observed, I find that I still struggle to put the model into practice when I’m dealing with a context of uncertainty.  Sure, I can identify my values and how they align with the mission of the organization.  I usually can identify compelling, measurable results, and can envision achieving them through a series of actions.  Yet each of these seem to float in space, separate, and unrelated to each other.  What are the ties that bind?

Recently, I found a glimmer of hope – a possible next step on my journey of discovery.  This is still a work in progress, clearly, yet I see tremendous potential in what I am about to introduce.

I encountered works of Joe Jaworski and David Bohm that indicate how I might find “the ties that bind.”  The foundation is rooted in quantum physics and some rather bizarre yet profound implications from discoveries made over the last few decades.  In particular, one that I recall from my own schooling in quantum theory pertained to the EPR paradox as an illustration of how quantum mechanics violates classical intuitions.  In the EPR thought-experiment, a measurement at one end of a quantum mechanical system immediately tells the observer the state at the other end of the system, which seemingly violates the “no signal can travel faster than the speed of light” law.  Bohm extends the multi-dimensional quantum world proposed solution to the EPR paradox into the everyday world via connections and dialogue.  In his view, everything is connected to everything else.  Through these connections and the dialogue of people with each other, we are a part of and participate in the emerging reality that constitutes the unfolding of the universe.  There is a lot more to explore with regards to Bohm’s work, yet just this little bit offered a path of hope for the leadership model in my current situation.

If I consider the three elements of the leadership model as vertices of a triangle, I can envision connections that tie together the elements of the leadership model into the means for the team to participate fully in the unfolding of the universe.  A team, through dialogue, can share individual values and establish the shared vision that forms the cohesive alignment of individuals into the single alignment of the team.  Again, through dialogue, the team can decide upon the actions necessary to create the compelling result desired.  The team can identify and rally around the agreed-to common goal.  Good start.

Next is to provide the connections between the vertices of the model, which serve as the conduits through which the universe unfolds.  The connection from alignment to action is through commitment–in words and in deeds–of the team rooted in its alignment, galvanizing itself and others around it to action.  Through action, we connect to the results we seek by participating in (“actualizing”) the emerging reality.  Finally, the results connect back to our alignment through the larger sense of purpose, or “grand will,” we feel, sense, or believe in that gives meaning to our participation in the unfolding of the universe.  This also has a feel of “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” which gives me further encouragement that I’m onto something here.

Alignment, action, and results, connected together by the commitment, actualization, and larger sense of purpose of the people involved….  I see revisiting this topic again as I delve further into the works of Bohm, and allow for more time for my team’s particular corner of the universe to unfold.  More to come, soon!

(Many thanks to Pam Fox Rollin for providing the encouragement to me to share this piece.  Thanks, Pam!)

The Leadership Model in the Unfolding Universe

Leadership: Alignment, Action, and Results

“If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.”
–John Quincy Adams





All of you reading this have a capability to demonstrate leadership and to be recognized for it in a way that far, far exceeds any perceived requirements in age, experience, position, or mystical “they” who decide who’s in and who’s out as far as being a “leader.”  NASA is actively seeking leaders who can lead this Agency during the Constellation era, as the last of the Apollo veterans retire and the Shuttle veterans start to depart as well.  I’ll share with you how I define and display leadership and what I am looking for in one who displays “leadership.”  In the end, I want to convince you that being a leader is both learnable and recognizable.

First, let me build upon a comment I heard from one person that “…leadership is an action and not a position.”  Good start.  Indeed, part of leadership is action – more specifically, taking action and galvanizing others to action.  Yet action without reason is activity without productivity.  Something has to result from that action, and that essential item is that the action must be intrinsically linked to a compelling, measurable result.  The result has to matter, is evident and obvious to everyone, and has impact.  The accumulation of such results taken in a larger context lead to outcomes that can change society.

So, in thinking about the leaders around you, who are the ones that take action and galvanize you to action?  Can the leaders around you, or you for that matter, articulate the measurable results you are trying to achieve?  Can you say, “this tool will play a key role in assembly of the ISS” or “my work here is going to save the American taxpayer roughly $100 million a year” or some other example like that?  Can you, or the leaders around you, converse about the larger outcomes you are trying to achieve? “I am contributing to the knowledge of humankind” or “I am establishing the first footholds in the colonization beyond Earth.”

There is one more ingredient in my definition of leadership.  Put very simply, it is that thing, that motivation that gets one out of bed each day to do the things we do at NASA.  It is the alignment of an individual’s personal values with what we’re trying to accomplish as an Agency.  A true leader knows her personal alignment and engages others in conversations about their alignments with the purpose of the organization, group, or team.  It is a willingness to share personal values and how those align with NASA’s mission.  An associate administrator told me that, “people self-select into NASA because they believe in the mission.”

So, do you? Do your leaders? Do you even know?

Another person said that, “…we need less thinking that leadership requires a position and more thinking [that] PEOPLE are our greatest asset.”  You BET!  It is people who have values that align with a larger purpose, who initiate and galvanize others to action, who generate the compelling results that lead to outcomes that give meaning to why we’re here.  This has nothing to do with age, experience, position, generation differences, or any of that.  It is simple, you can learn it and do it, and others will recognize you for it by calling you “leader.”

In closing, I’d like to share an experience I had with a co-founder of a non-profit agency in Washington, DC, one that gives meaning to what I described above.  She said that the mission of her non-profit agency is “to end the harmful institution of children worldwide.”  Wow, talk about a mission!  I could tell from her words that she believed deeply in that mission, and that her values were strongly aligned with that statement.  Yet, I asked her a pointed question: “on day 1, did you have a clue as to HOW you were going to do that?”  Her answer: “No”.  Yet that didn’t matter; she didn’t let that paralyze her into inaction.  She began a program of working with international governments to “rescue” orphans from various orphanages and get them adopted in the US.  She had to adapt to ever changing rules, sometimes starting all over again.  Despite battling through countless changes in rules, numerous bureaucrats and never-ending red tape, she slowly starting making progress, getting tens, then scores, then hundreds of children placed into caring families in the US each year.  She has the alignment, the action, and the results to show for it.  She is a true leader in my book.

So, again I ask you… Do the leaders around you exhibit alignment, action, and results?  Can you?  If you can, others will notice by calling you “leader.”

(This entry is dedicated to Cindy Zook and John Riordan, whose help set me on my current path to leadership.  Thank you both!)

Leadership: Alignment, Action, and Results

Self-Reflective Phrases

“Tell me and I’ll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I’ll understand.”
–Chinese proverb






During my time in the NASA leadership development program, I learned to become more self-aware of habits and mannerisms conducive to strong and capable leadership, and those that run counter to it.  This was not a direct topic of the program; instead, it was one that “I stumbled into” as I wrestled with my own challenges of being in Washington, DC away from home and trying to get as much as I could out of the experience.

During the course of this ongoing self-discovery, I became self-aware that I spoke certain phrases, which led to a discovery of my reflected underlying behaviors and self concepts.  I’m sure I’ll discover others as I continue.  Here are the ones I’ve discovered so far:

“I think…”

While I was in DC, I was fortunate enough to attend a speech by President Bush, and I reflected upon it afterwards while walking back to my apartment.  I was impressed with the clarity of his personal alignments and values that he exposed during the speech.  In particular was a phrase he used repeatedly: “I believe…”  I reflected in particular on that phrase, “I believe…”, and alternated that in my mind with one that I catch myself using quite often: “I think…”.  “I believe…” is so much more powerful and non-negotiable in nature, that it deals with the fundamental convictions and character of a person.  It conveys the deepest connection of the alignment of one’s values with the mission of the organization.  In contrast,  “I think…” conveys a state of mind that is open to debate or is not as rooted, is open to suggestion, interpretation, or even persuasion to an alternate point of view.  At times, “I think…” is appropriate because it does accurately reflect my state of mind at that moment.  However, I find I over-use it.  Could it be a crutch to avoid taking a stand or to avoid offending another person?

Now, when my mind shifts into “I think…”, I’ll pause quickly and decide if that is the best phrase to convey my state of mind, or if a different phrase better communicates my state of mind:  “I believe…”  “I want…”  “I propose…”

“I’m not sure…”

This phrase is a more recent discovery.  I am willing to acknowledge that I don’t have all the answers, despite the fact that I feel this drive to have all the answers.  So, I took mental note of each time I said, “I’m not sure…” over a two-week period.  Here are the phrases I arrived at after the fact along with a question concerning my state of mind:

  • “I don’t know…” (and feel like I should?)
  • “I hesitate…” (because I don’t know the answer?)
  • “I am not confident…” (and am holding back out of fear?)

Now, when I am tempted to say, “I’m not sure…” I’ll strive to substitute a more precise statement to represent a truer state of mind and feeling…even if it means admitting I don’t have all the answers!

Self-Reflective Phrases