I have always said that Continuous Quality Improvement is the cross section of Analytics and Sales. We have to use analytics to identify problems, then sell others on the problems we find. We identify gaps in data collection, then sell others on collecting that data. We brainstorm solutions, then sell others on implementing them. You see, Quality Improvement managers can’t actually affect the change. We are not what W. Edwards Deming called “Process Owners,” and therefore our job is to affect change for positive results, yet we are entirely dependent on others to drive change and implement it.
Too often, those of us in CQI roles let our analytical minds rule the roost and lose sight of the emotional and human calculations required for the inherently collaborative nature of quality improvement and Plan Do Study Act change management projects.
Enter Gilbert Eijkelenboom and his book People Skills for Analytical Thinkers. Eijkelenboom takes us on a journey from our own self-discovery, through behavior change, and onto interactions that wield influence. He uncovers the value of emotional intelligence to ensure analytical thinkers can sell their messages not only to the rational brain, but also to the emotional brain, which is by far the larger driver of decision making. People always say they “feel” good about a decision. Analytics helps us get to feelings, which are required before decisions happen.
Discovering My Own Algorithms
Eijkelenboom introduces us to the concept of our brains as a series of algorithms. Our brains receive inputs and quickly process them to create behavioral outputs. Evolution has taught us that the quicker we can automate our responses the better positioned we will be in fight or flight scenarios. However, in creating a self-awareness of our own algorithms we have an opportunity not only for positive changes that make us more appropriately reactive to others, but it also opens the doorway for us to understand how others may react to us.
Here is a passage from the book about recognizing algorithms:
You can see your brain as a set of algorithms. All situational variables are taken as input and processed into an output. Next to factual variables, emotional variables are always part of your algorithms. Therefore, the better you understand what makes your emotions go up and down, the better you understand your algorithms. And the better you understand your algorithms, the easier the interactions with other people become. You become powerful when you can tap into both your rational brain and your emotional brain. Embrace emotions and use them to your advantage; that’s how you increase your emotional intelligence.
As I began to reflect on this concept using some of the tools Eijkelenboom suggests, I was able to discover that I have a particular algorithm that triggers when I feel I have lost control of a meeting, but only those meetings that are my responsibility. I have been able to isolate a difference between meetings that I am responsible for, and thus the de facto leader of, versus meetings that I am a participant to someone else’s responsibility.
Adjusting My Joker Algorithm
In these meetings that I am responsible for, I tend to feel a building of emotion when others begin to dictate the direction of the meeting, even if they take it in the same direction I was headed. My emotional algorithm triggers and all I can think about is how I’m responsible for making sure that certain material is covered and that is now in jeopardy because someone else has suggested the next topic. The resulting behavioral output is relatively predictable from me. I begin focusing less on the content of the topic and more on how I get back control. And just like that, my algorithm has taken me away from the things I value. I value meaningful discussion on important topics that will produce positive change. Yet, when I feel I have lost control of a meeting I am unable to focus on what matters.
Here I have what Eijkelenboom calls a “Joker” algorithm that I am targeting for behavioral modification. I will be looking for future opportunities to adjust my algorithm to retrain my instinctive behavior in these situations. The next time I receive the input that someone else is beginning to steer the discussion of the meeting, rather than shut down until I regain control, I want to assess if the meeting is still headed in a positive direction and if so, stay engaged in the substance of the discussion instead of sitting outside of it waiting for another chance to step in and lead it. I don’t mean to let meetings go off the rails, but if the only thing happening is my emotional reaction to loss of control, I would rather my algorithm make an assessment before allowing myself to become paralyzed to the meaningful topic at hand.
Are you a serious person?
So, I started the week prepared to tackle the world with my new found algorithm awareness, prepared to focus on recognizing my own algorithms and looking for opportunities to fine tune them. That is until a new colleague of mine forced me into a late stage chapter of Eijkelenboom’s book about sharing with others.
I had a virtual meeting to teach a new director at our company how to use our virtual meeting software, which I have done a dozen times since COVID lockdowns began. It’s a lot of “look in the upper right hand corner for the icon,” and “you should see something that looks like two arrows pointing away from each other,” etc. Needless to say, I was ready to get going and was just about to launch right into it when my single audience member jumped in ahead of me with a question. “Tristan, are you a serious person?”
It was incredibly disarming. Of course I’m a serious person!! I wanted to scream, but who admits to that. But wait, I’m not always serious, but I was about to be Very Serious. I’m not even sure if I got an answer out. My new colleague let me off the hook, and jumped in again to tell me that he was a silly personality that liked to goof around. And it hit me. I just read about this the morning before the meeting. It was Eijkelenboom’s section that people would like to know your preferences.
People don’t have a “Please tell me how you prefer to interact” sign above their heads. However, everyone wants better social interactions. And the more other people know about your algorithms, the more opportunities they have for improving interactions with you. Don’t keep your preferences to yourself because you’re afraid to bother the other person. Instead, realize that sharing your preferences helps the other person understand you!
He was sharing his algorithms with me and probing me for mine. I think I eventually answered something to the effect that I’m not always serious, but was able to quickly pivot from what I was planning to be a very routine walk through of various click-paths into an actually conversation with a new acquaintance.
We got through what we needed to, told a few stories, laughed at self-deprecating jokes about not being a “technology person.” But what we really did was connect. My response to the question, are you serious? was at least enough to suggest that I was in some part very serious about my work. I wish I had shared a more articulate version of this, but nevertheless, a week later we were both in our KPI review meeting with the larger team and he kept things moving for me and I kept things light for him. There was a mutual understanding and respect for both our styles.
My new colleague is very much a process owner, and our working relationship is off to a great start that will benefit both of us when it comes time to kick-off our first PDSA change cycle. We have established a feel for each other and how we interact productively together. That can’t be measured.
If your in Quality Improvement for Health and Human Services you need to read People Skills for Analytical Thinkers by Gilbert by Gilbert Eijkelenboom