Is there a goal you’re trying to achieve and fear is holding you back? Is there something about your leadership behaviors that you would like to change? Delegate more? Network better? Here’s how a science fair project helped me change some of my own behaviors.

I was helping my 13-year old daughter with her science fair project a few months ago.  Her project was doing an experiment about whether the color of a person’s clothes impacts others’ first impressions of them. I was enlisted to persuade 115 unsuspecting shoppers at a mall to answer a question for this project.  What do science fair projects have to do with leadership?

What do science fair projects have to do with leadership?

As an executive coach one of the toughest challenges I help my clients with is supporting them in going after goals that both excite and scare them. This often involves changing their leadership behaviors.  Many of our leadership habits are fairly embedded in our psyches and changing them takes us out of our comfort zones – so we are often paralyzed by fear.

Here’s how I used this science fair experiment recently to push myself out of my comfort zone.  I’m an introvert who would much rather go to the dentist for a root canal than attend large networking events. I had an event the other day that I felt I absolutely needed to be at and yet I just couldn’t get myself excited about exchanging meaningless pleasantries with 500 complete strangers while munching on little cocktail sandwiches. So I decided to apply the seven steps of the science experiment to my dilemma.

Seven Steps of A Science Experiment

1) Define learning objective – My learning objective was simple.  I wanted to see how I can be more comfortable and effective in “networking” mode.

2) Do background research –  I had read a lot about networking but what really caught my eye was recent neuroscience findings about “mirror neurons”. These are a part of our brain that drives how we unconsciously mimic the behavior of others. We affect each other by our energy (e.g. when one person yawns so do others).  What I understood from this research is that if I was showing up at networking events looking like I’d rather be at my dentist’s office, others probably wouldn’t be very excited to approach me either.

3) Create a hypothesis – My hypothesis was that if I got my own attitude right, I could actually have a good time and be effective.

4) Gather Your Materials – The only material I needed to gather was to bring the right mindsets (“It’s just an experiment. You’re not doomed to networking hell for the rest of your life”, “These people are friendlier than your dentist”) and decide on specific behaviors I would try: “Be friendly first”, “If someone doesn’t reciprocate, move to the next person”.

5) Do the test – I managed to practice the mindsets and behaviors. My focus was on my own practice and learning, rather than any specific outcome of number of people I needed to exchange cards with.

6) Analyze results – I was able to be comfortable and effective.  In fact, several people I knew come up and warmly greeted me. I walked up to several people I didn’t know and found a couple of great collaboration opportunities.

7) Draw your conclusion – My hypothesis worked. I learned I needed to shift my own attitude and behaviors first in order to have a different experience. When I did that I could be more effective.

Why Science Experiments Work

1) They are set up so there is no “standard” of success or failure.  Success is not achieving a certain outcome. Success is learning what will help you achieve a certain outcome.  It takes away the fear of failure.  If we learn something, we declare success.  We are able to try a lot of new ideas and move quickly through what works and what doesn’t because we are not paralyzed by fear.  The philosopher Goethe said very wisely “Whatever you believe you can do, begin it; boldness has genius, power and magic in it”. Or as Nike says “Just Do It”.

2) They reward curiosity and open thinking – When we are in learning mode, we learn more.  Neuroscience research shows that when we ask questions it activates different centers in the brain and causes new synapses to form.  The next time around I will re-apply what I learned but perhaps try other techniques for being comfortable and effective in group settings.

3) They focus us on process rather than outcome – In my experiment I was focused on what I could control and influence (which is my own attitude).  When you do your experiment, focus on leadership practices (see below) that you can apply to the situation and let the results be what they are.

So the next time you’re trying to get out of your comfort zone to try new behaviors or even a new idea at work – just pretend you’re doing a science fair experiment. You never know what you’ll learn. The more experiments we do, the more we learn, the closer we move toward our goals.

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Additional Information

What’s Your Leadership Practice

Showing 5 comments
  • Seema Shams

    Thanks for these helpful tips. Am already thinking of how to apply them to my next ‘challenge!’

  • Sumitra Singh

    Many thanks for these helpful tips. I believe these will help me to face any challenge.

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