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We’ve all found ourselves dreading going into the office on days we know we are going to have an uncomfortable conversation. Whether it’s asking for a raise, disciplining a subordinate, or requesting that your boss stop micromanaging you, there doesn’t seem to be a clear, easy way to have these difficult conversations. Should I start with a strong lead or work my way into the conversation? How do I make sure that all the points I want to cover are covered? How do I go about ending the conversation?
Fortunately, we’re taking the guesswork out of preparing for these conversations by offering some do’s and don’ts for having critical conversations.
Want more career development resources? The NextGen Leadership Development Program could be for you. Learn more about what you can get out of the program here.
Quick, what’s the capital of Australia? No Googling! (And no points if you’re Australian—that means the information is more meaningful to you, which means you’re more likely to know it). Did you get it? Or are you sure you learned it at some point, but forgot right around the time that you forgot how the Krebs cycle works? In his new book, Learn Better, author and education researcher Ulrich Boser digs into the neuroscience of learning and shows why it’s so hard to remember facts like that one. Boser explains why some of the most common ways we try to memorize information are actually totally ineffective, and he reveals what to do instead.
Because we’re all getting dumber in the age of Google, I interviewed Boser recently about what people can do to boost their memories and skill sets, even if they’re long past flash-card age. An edited transcript of our conversation follows.
Olga Khazan: What does it mean to learn something? Is it to memorize something? How do you know when you’ve learned something?
Ulrich Boser: Really what we want to do is to be able to think in that way, so that it shifts our reasoning abilities. If we want to learn to learn to become a car mechanic, you want to learn the reasoning abilities of a car mechanic. My favorite example of what it means to be expert, are the Car Talk guys. Because it’s such a weird thing, people call them and they have a car problem, but the Car Talk guys can’t actually see the car. Someone will call and be like, “I have this issue with my Buick, and it makes this weird noise,” and they’re able to solve the issue.
They’re thinking about their own Buicks, their own car problems, to help you solve your car problems. You want to learn the systems, or the analogies, of the relationships between things in a certain field, and how they interact with each other. Then ultimately you gain that knowledge so that you can shift your own thinking, so when you see a new problem you’re better able to solve it.
Khazan: You mentioned things that don’t work, like highlighting a lot, or skimming your notes before a meeting. Why don’t those work?
Boser: Re-reading and highlighting are particularly ineffective. They’re just passive, and you are just kind of skimming that material. It makes you feel better. You feel comfortable with the material, but you don’t really know the material. Doing things that are a little bit more difficult, that require you to really make connections, is a better way to learn. [You might] explain things to yourself, [or] simply quiz yourself. If you’re preparing for a meeting, you’d be much better off just putting the material away and just asking yourself questions. It gives you a false sense of security, that kind of re-reading.
Khazan: Why is teaching other people such an effective learning strategy?
Boser: It’s not that different from explaining ideas to yourself. Self-explaining has a lot of evidence. You’re explaining why things might be interconnected, and why they matter, and those meaningful distinctions between the two of them. The other thing that’s particularly helpful about teaching other people is that you have to think about what is confusing about something, and how you’d explain that in a simpler way, and so that makes you shift the way that you’re thinking about a certain topic.
Khazan: You mentioned that learning is, by necessity, really difficult. Why does it have to be so uncomfortable?
Boser: I think there’s so much stuff out there now that’s like, “Learning’s supposed to be easy, learning’s supposed to be fun!”
If I ask you, what’s the capital of Australia? Do you know what it is?
Khazan: [Breaks into a cold sweat.] Is it Sydney? I don’t know. It’s probably not.
Boser: No, it’s not Sydney. Another guess?
Boser: Nope. One more.
Khazan: Oh my God, I can’t believe I don’t know this. What’s another … Brisbane? I have no idea, I’m so sorry.
Boser: Yeah, it’s Canberra.
Khazan: Oh my God.
Boser: I had this experience with a researcher. I was in your spot, where I was like, “I’m so embarrassed by this. I should know, this is a major country.” The difficulty of that is going to help you remember it. I’m not going to promise you that you are going to remember the capital of Australia 10 years from now, but it’s now a much more salient fact. It’s something that’s a little bit more meaningful to you.
Both of us probably, at one time in the world, had this fact come across us, but it wasn’t meaningful, it certainly wasn’t an embarrassing situation. In my experience it was a source being like, “Do you know this?” I’m trying to be like, “I went to a fancy school, I should know this information.” It became salient to me. Part of the reason that learning’s supposed to be hard, or a little bit difficult, is it makes memory work a little bit more.
The other reason that learning should be difficult is that, when we’re a little bit out of our comfort zone, we are a little bit more challenged, and that helps us develop skills. We see this a lot in games. Part of the attraction of even a shoot-em-up game is that it’s always getting a little bit more difficult, and that way it’s building on our skill.
Khazan: What’s the most effective type of feedback that you could be getting in order to learn better?
Boser: What is helpful is that [the feedback] comes close to when you perform the task, and that it requires you to generate an answer. You don’t necessarily want to simply give people the answer, because then they haven’t really made that information meaningful to themselves. By forcing you to make these wrong guesses [about Australia], when you heard the actual answer, it made it more meaningful to you.
Khazan: Why is it helpful to distribute learning over time?
Boser: I find this one really fascinating. The basic thing is, we forget, and we forget at a very regular rate. People underestimate how much they forget, and people who are able to revisit their learning at a regular rate end up learning a lot more. There’s some good software that does that. Anki is one, and they have, I think, a really nice model, which is, you’re learning at your rate of forgetting. If we know that you’re going to forget details like the capital of France in three months, you would revisit that material at that particular point in time. What’s surprising about it is, this isn’t new. This is stuff that dates back to the 19th century, but we really just don’t use it in schools or in colleges, even though we know that people forget a lot, and they forget at this very regular rate.
Khazan: I was really interested to read about Bill Gates’ Think Week, where he reads all those white papers in a secluded cottage. Why does he do that in that way, and what can other people learn from that?
Boser: He just sort of squares away and has these moments of quiet in order to develop new skills. I think we really underestimate the role that deliberation and reflection plays in learning. To a degree we know it, this is why you think of things in the shower or right before you go to bed. You have these moments where your brain is thinking through the day, making connections, and what’s important, I think, for people who are trying to learn more effectively, is to make organized time for that. We’ve seen some schools have students do more reflections on their learning. There’s one or two studies that have even found that reflection can be more effective than practice itself.
Khazan: How can I get better at remembering peoples’ names?
Boser: One thing that helps with memory is if they’re emotional. You will not forget the name of the person that you gave your first kiss to. I don’t think this is, of course, a very practical solution to this problem.
The other thing that you can do is try and hang that information on other information. Say you want to remember the names of your boss’s daughters, you can see if you can wrap that information into other information that you already know. If you like the Knicks, and his daughters are named Kelly and Neely you can be like, “Oh, the first two letters of the New York Knicks.” That’s another way of making that information more meaningful to you.
On Wednesday, February 1, 2017 six DHS employees from FEMA, USCIS, and NPPD chopped onions, potatoes, and more to help feed those in need in the DC area. If you would like to volunteer with your fellow DHS colleagues, please contact DELBoard@hq.dhs.gov.
For many individuals thrust or drafted into the role of initiative or project leader without a formal background in project management, expect a steep learning curve and bumpy ride.
In spite of the popularity of project management training and the growth in the number of certified professionals, most projects in organizations are led by functional or technical experts tapped to pull a team together and make the magic happen. The magic, in this case, is successfully completing the initiative on time, under budget and at the right level of quality.
Experienced project managers everywhere are smiling externally while secretly writing your project obituary in their minds. Yes, the road ahead is rocky. In this article, I frame the challenges and offer some getting started ideas and resources.
Understanding 5 Big Challenges
While some might suggest that I am cynical starting out by describing barriers and headaches, I prefer to think of myself as pragmatic. Forewarned is forearmed. And we’ll offer solutions to each of these obstacles in subsequent posts.
1. The words, “I want you to lead this project” are the beginning of a quest for success that may at times feel like Jason’s quest for the Golden Fleece of mythology.
You are right to be excited about the opportunity—it is a vote of confidence in you and your abilities and a fantastic opportunity to show your firm’s managers what you are capable of doing with a big initiative. And then, you should be scared. Or at least a little nervous about the realities of making this work.
The early steps you take in establishing a strong foundation for your project, including crystallizing the scope of the work; assessing the needs/issues/obstacles of the people touched by the project (stakeholders) and getting started properly with your project team and sponsor are critical. You get one chance to start this out properly. My advice is to secure a great resource to give you some context for your work and consume it quickly. My recommendation is the non-text I use in teaching my MBA courses in project management: “The Fast Forward MBA in Project Management,” by Eric Verzuh, 5th edition. It grows larger with each edition; however, Verzuh’s great content is distilled for mere mortals operating without project management experience and certification.
2. Your success is dependent upon a group of people who are already overworked and overstressed. You know that excitement you have for this new project? No one else feels the same way. Your new team members may very well groan out loud when they learn they’ve been assigned to your project team. For some, it may well be the second or third project team they’ve recently been “invited” to join.
You will be competing for minds, hearts and time with all of the other priorities your new team members are struggling to navigate. Success is 99.9 percent about your ability to form a productive team out of a group of frazzled, reluctant contributors. We will spend a great deal of time on the topic of developing and leading a team. I wrote: “Leadership Caffeine for the Project Manager—and anyone else responsible for leading teams, groups, or committees,” just for this purpose.
3. Your biggest ally is your executive sponsor—if you have one. And in cases where your organization offers this valuable resources, know that your executive sponsor likely has little real understanding of what this role is supposed to do. And let’s not discount the fact that you don’t have any experience in working with and managing executive sponsors.
If you don’t have an executive sponsor, you need to get one. If you have one, you need to quickly define roles, accountabilities, communication protocol and identify the initial steps the sponsor can take to improve your odds of surviving the first month. Run, don’t walk to my podcast (with transcript): How to Survive and Thrive with Your Executive Sponsor.
4. Your hastily assembled project team will want to jump into the work within the first 20-minutes of your first team meeting. After all, everyone is busy, and this is just another item on their list.
Measure twice, cut once. Part of the foundation for project success is in the upfront project planning and team development process. You and the team have some work to do before you jump into the detailed work. It’s time to work on scope, stakeholders and work definition, who’s going to do what and how the work will be coordinated.
5. Your skills as a diplomat will be severely tested. The people project managers reference as stakeholders—anyone impacted by your initiative—can be some of your biggest supporters and fiercest adversaries. Others will be passive obstacles. You will need to move beyond your noble view to your initiative and actively engage friend and foe alike. Skip this step, and you will die the project death of 1,000 slights.
Yes, this is the dirty sounding issue of power and politics in the world of projects. You have little choice but to enter and play. The trick is learning to play while not compromising your principles.
These are just a few of the challenges you will encounter, but get these right at the start of your initiative and your odds of success rise dramatically. And don’t let all of the talk of potential doom around every corner dampen your enthusiasm for this work. Even your project manager friends understand this work—while incredibly challenging—is genuinely exhilarating.
Art Petty is a coach and consultant working with executives and management teams to unlock business and human potential. He writes the Leadership Caffeine blog.
Civilian federal employees got a welcome holiday surprise last week: a larger pay increase than initially projected.
In a letter to the Senate and House leaders, President Obama announced a revised plan for locality pay increases, to take effect January 1. The average pay increase will be 2.1 percent, instead of the 1.6 percent increase originally submitted in August.
“Civilian Federal employees made significant sacrifices as a result of the 3-year pay freeze that ended in January 2014,” President Obama wrote. “Since the pay freeze ended, annual adjustments for civilian Federal employees have also been lower than private sector pay increases and statutory formulas for adjustments to the General Schedule for 2014 through 2016. However, keeping our Nation on a sustainable fiscal course requires tough choices.”
Obama said his decision to request a larger increase in locality pay came after Congress approved a 2.1 percent raise for military personnel.
“When the final 2017 National Defense Authorization Act set the military raise at 2.1 percent at the end of November, NTEU contacted key members of Congress to ask them to urge the president to change his original proposal to 2.1 percent,” said National Treasury Employees Union President Tony Reardon, as reported in Stars and Stripes. “It was our view that the federal pay raise wasn’t a done deal and could be adjusted.”
Will Wages Rise in 2017?
The PayScale Index, which measures the change in wages for employed U.S. workers, forecasts year-over-year wage growth of 1 percent for the fourth quarter of 2016. That’s the lowest forecast for the year to date.
Of course, workers who are making their personal budgets for the coming year want to know whether wages will increase in 2017. According to WorldatWork’s annual Salary Budget Survey, the answer is yes — but not much. The survey projects average salary budget increases of 3.1 percent for 2017.
It’s also worth noting that those numbers are from May 2016. A lot can change in a few months. For example, the jury is still out on how the results of the U.S. presidential election will affect wage growth, employment, and the economy.
Most Feds Could Save $2K or More By Switching Health Insurance – Pay & Benefits – GovExec.com
Does open season make your head hurt? Weighing your health insurance options—and all the potential scenarios under which you might need care—can be overwhelming. But before you throw your hands up and opt to stay with the plan you already have, know that you could be leaving some serious money on the table and still fall short on coverage when you most need it.
Consider this: Most new consumer driven, high deductible health insurance plans offered to federal employees provide significant savings over almost all traditional insurance plans. What’s more, those new plans protect enrollees against high costs as well or better than most other plans. That’s just one of the takeaways from the new Consumers’ Checkbook Guide to Health Plans for Federal Employees.
“Many popular plans may not be the best choices for coverage this year,” the nonprofit Consumers’ Checkbook said in a release announcing the guide. “Most federal employees and retiree families can save $2,000 or more if they make any of several choices that rank high in the guide—and still get high-quality service and be protected against catastrophic health care costs,” according to Consumers’ Checkbook.
The guide evaluated 20 health plan options, over 200 health maintenance organization options, local plans available in specific geographic areas and several plans restricted to certain categories of employees. It’s plan comparison tool allows users to evaluate potential costs based on demographically similar health-care usage data. The guide also rates plans based on a number of factors, such as how well the plan coordinates with Medicare, whether it is best for families or single people. Separate ratings for retirees show how much they could save or lose depending on whether they are enrolled in both Medicare Part B and one of the plans available to federal retirees.
Among the guide’s findings:
The guide is available online at www.GuideToHealthPlans.org and in print; many agenies offer free access for employees.
Article from GovExec.