Sunday, 2 November 2014

Why a bonus might be a bad idea

You have a business problem to solve or a new project to get live. In order to make sure your people deliver, you decide to offer a bonus, stock options or some other incentive to get the job done. This might be a really bad idea and here is why.

Way back in 1945 Karl Duncker had his candle problem experiment posthumously published. It was a task based on problem solving. Participants were given a candle, some matches and a box of tacks. They were then asked to fix the candle to a cork board on the wall. They needed to do it in such a way that when lit, the candle wouldn't drip wax on the table underneath the cork board.

The solution (spoiler alert), is to use the box holding the tacks as a candle holder, attach the box to the wall and put the candle in it. Most people solve this eventually but they solve it a lot quicker if the tacks are out of the box and the box is seen as a separate piece of equipment.

When the tacks were in the box the participants saw it only as a tack-box, not something they could use to solve the problem. This phenomenon is called ‘Functional fixedness’.

Sam Glucksberg added a very interesting step to this in his 1962 paper, “Influence of strength of drive on functional fixedness and perceptual recognition”. He decided to incentivise people to solve the candle problem. One group got money for solving the problem, the quicker they solved it, the more money they got. Another group were offered nothing, they were just asked to solve the problem.

When the tacks were presented outside the box (making the solution more obvious) the group that were incentivised out-performed the group that were paid nothing. This is what we would expect, rewarding results improved performance.

However, when the problem was presented in its more complex form with the tacks in the box, the incentivised group did significantly worse than the group paid nothing. Incentives killed performance and results. The bonus for getting it right back-fired big time. Participants with no financial incentive took 7:41 minutes to solve the problem, the people who were incentivised, took 11:08 minutes to solve the problem.

Glucksberg found that not only did the financial incentive make people slower at problem solving, the slowness increased with the incentive. The higher the monetary reward, the worse the performance. This was not a one off, the result has been replicated over and over in other experiments.

The key point is that incentives narrow our focus. When participants are incentivised, they can’t see the solution to the problem (the box holding the tacks). They think mechanically not creatively. Narrowing our focus inhibits this creative thinking and gets us straight into the task as we see it.

The lesson here is that if your employees have to do something straightforward, like putting regular parts together or following a specific instruction on an assembly line, financial incentives work well for these mechanical tasks.

However when we need do something that requires any creative or critical thinking, financial incentives damage performance. When we need to think out of the (candle) box, offering a financial incentive keeps our focus in the box. We don’t see the big picture and solutions prove more elusive.

For the types of jobs many people have in the 21st century knowledge economy, bonuses and incentives are a bad motivator. Worse than not getting results, they damage performance, it’s not that they don’t do any good, they actually do harm.

Giving a bonus to software developers to get a project delivered on time or Business Development Manager to get a new commercial product live or a Marketing Executive to hit a sales figure are all the types of tasks that Glucksberg and others have shown, suffer when people are incentivised.

This has been well documented and repeated since 1962 and yet pretty much ignored in most management strategies. It is a mistake that companies continue to make today, more than 50 years since Glucksbergs first publication. 

It could go some way in explaining the disastrous performance of our banks, which had a well embedded bonus culture in senior management, the guys who should have been watching the big picture. It may explain why many well-funded start-ups disappear shortly after venture capitalists arrive. Most VC funding involves the current management staying on for a while and the company or its share price hitting incentivised targets for set time period. The creative thinkers that set up and got the company going now have their creative thinking dimmed and their focus narrowed by VC penalties or bonuses.

The next time you offer or are offered a bonus think again. Fifty years of research suggests that you will lose sight of the big picture and your days of thinking outside the box could be over.

Daniel Pink has an excellent TED talk which covers this and is well worth a listen.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

The Bigger they are, the harder they fall

We have all heard the cliché ‘The Bigger they are, the harder they fall’. Some recent research backs this up. Jennifer Marr and Stefan Thau in the Academy of Management Journal looked at how high status individuals coped with drops in performance.

Marr and Thau suggest that the people with the bigger reputations find it more difficult to work through and deal with a an episode of poor performance. Part of their research involved a field study of professional baseball players. They found that although low-status players’ performance quality was unaffected by status loss, the quality of high-status players’ performance declined significantly after losing status. Guys who were not very well regarded were not that bothered about a poor performance but the marquee players took it much worse. If you are a golfer, think Tiger Woods or Padraig Harrington.

In a way this makes complete sense. Individuals who have the pressure of being the best in their field have more much more to lose when their form dips. Their professional ranking, commercial value, earning potential etc make the stakes pretty high compared to the low achievers who may have very little to lose from a bad day out.

However, there is more than professional ranking and commercial opportunities at play here. High status individuals also have more of their own identity mixed in with their achievements. Being World No.1 or a top professional athlete is part of their identity as a person. When this is threatened or removed then who they are in the eyes of the public and how they see their own identity is potentially damaged.

This can also have lessons for the work place. If a sales person is hitting record targets and is employee of the year one year but then runs into a dry spell the next year, their performance can really dip and fall off a cliff. Like the baseball players or golfers, they come under professional and personal pressures that threaten both their livelihood and identity.

It is not all bad news. Marr and Thau found that self-affirmation restored the quality of high-status individuals’ performance after a dip. Getting them to remember that they still have the skills, ability and track record to be successful makes a difference. To use another sporting cliché ‘You don’t become a bad player over night’.

So keep an eye on your star performers and if you see a dip, remind them that they still have it, they are still good at what they do and their worth as professionals or as individuals is not damaged. The dip will hopefully only be a glitch and your star performer will quickly get their ‘A Game’ back on track. 

Saturday, 4 October 2014

The Smart Look - Eye Contact

We go to great lengths to put our best foot forward in meetings and demos. We get the agenda right, have all the props in place, make sure the environment is up to scratch and we are quick to remind our audience of our capabilities and track record.

This however may not be enough. A study at Northeastern University looked at how people rate our intelligence and capabilities. They found that making eye contact with the audience is key. The researchers had people watch short videos of strangers talking to each other. They were then asked to rate the intelligence of the strangers in the video. People in the video who made more eye contact while chatting were perceived as more intelligent.

This ties in with research from the University of Michigan which found that people who avoided eye contact were rated as socially awkward, deceptive and insincere. Interestingly though this was for men rather than women. Women who avoided eye contact were seen as unattractive and disagreeable. Not good results for either gender.

So even if you get the presentation right, the pricing right, making good eye contact is an important part of sealing the deal. You need to get the intelligence and sincerity message across.

While on the subject of perceived intelligence, being well dressed and looking good is a perquisite. Research by Zebrowitz and colleagues is one of many studies to establish a link between attractiveness and how smart people think we are. People who are seen as attractive are also seen as more intelligent. Scrub up, wear the good suit and make eye contact, you can’t lose.

Saturday, 27 September 2014

Ever been interviewed by a bus driver?

When preparing for an interview, many people focus on having prepared answers for how they deal with challenges, how they maximise their experience and how they articulate what they can bring to the new organisation.

These are all important things. Equally, employers have interview questions prepared to get these answers and perhaps also have a few psychometric tests in reserve to identify the most suitable candidate.

Having done a good few interviews over the years and seen this in action, I was impressed by an article in the Wall St Journal which took a simpler and perhaps a more insightful view on screening candidates.

Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh explained how they use the shuttle bus driver as a key part of the recruitment process. Many of their candidates come from out of town and they send the company shuttle bus to collect them at the airport. There is usually a full day of interviews before they are dropped back to the airport. Before any decision is made on hiring, the recruiter gets a report from the shuttle bus driver. Regardless of the formal interviews, if the bus driver wasn’t well treated, the candidate does not get the job.

What Zappos are doing here is gauging how well people interact with others in a real world setting, not some lab based personality test. The same idea could be applied by asking the receptionist how a person behaved when waiting to be called in or asking an administrator how the person acted when finalising the interview times, contact numbers etc.

As an employer this can compliment the more formal aspects of the recruitment process and perhaps cut through some of the prepared answers to get a real insight into the candidates social skills. As a candidate, be aware that you are always under scrutiny, even if it is the receptionist or bus driver asking the questions.

Sunday, 14 September 2014

The Future is more valuable than the Past

We care more about the future than about the past. Several studies have shown that we value events in the future more than we value equivalent events in the past.

The nineteenth century American author Herman Melville (he of Moby Dick fame) is often quoted on this – “The Past is dead, and has no resurrection; but the Future is endowed with such a life, that it lives to us even in anticipation.”

As one study puts it, the person who buys a cookie and eats it right away may get X units of pleasure from it, but the person who saves the cookie until later gets X units of pleasure when it is eventually eaten plus all the additional pleasure of looking forward to the event. Looking forward to stuff increases the enjoyment we get from it and hence we value it more.

In research by Caruso and colleagues they found that students wanted more money for a mundane job they would do in the future than for one they had already done in the past, and mock-jurors awarded more money to an accident victim who was going to suffer for a year than who had already suffered for a year.

The results consistently show that once something has happened, we value it less than we did in the lead up to an event. This has a few practical implications for how we pay for services and compensate clients or employees.

If you work in the legal profession, it may be wise to get compensation agreed for your client before they recover from their injuries. If you are drafting a service level agreement with a supplier you would be better off having any punitive reimbursement amounts agreed in advance rather than calculated afterwards. If you are trying to get a bonus organised, get it agreed before you achieve your targets rather than after, don’t go into your boss looking for a rise because you have had a good year. Once it’s in the past your boss won’t value it as much as he might have done six months earlier.

There is also another point to note here. If we plan stuff in the future and take the time to think about it or actively anticipate it, we will feel better. A supporting study by Bryant has found that people who devote time to anticipating enjoyable experiences report being happier in general. Bonuses and compensation aside, it pays to savour. 

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

We come up with more creative solutions for others

In work, some managers have a tendency to assign a problem or issue to a specific subordinate. It literally becomes ‘their problem’ and it’s up to them to solve it. Some would see this approach as one that encourages responsibility and ownership of the task in hand. In other words, if you make someone directly accountable, they will be more motivated and perhaps more effective in coming up with a solution.

Some research however casts doubt on this approach. Being too close to a problem or being personally involved in it can affect our ability to come up with creative solutions. This is based on an idea called the "Construal Level Theory" - the notion that distance from a problem provokes a more abstract thinking style.

Evan Polman and Kyle Emich at New York University examined how we are more capable of mental novelty when thinking on behalf of strangers than for ourselves. They conducted four studies involving hundreds of undergrads.

In one study they found that participants drew more original aliens for a story to be written by someone else than for a story they were to write themselves. In another study, participants thought of more original gift ideas for an unknown student completely unrelated to themselves, as opposed to one who they were told shared their same birth month.

When it came to problem solving the trend continued. Participants were given a tower puzzle. They were asked to explain how one could escape a tower by cutting a rope that was only half as long as the tower was high. (The solution is to divide the rope lengthwise into two thinner strips and then tied them together). Participants were more likely to solve the problem if they imagined someone else trapped in the tower, rather than themselves.

This could explain why we sometimes surprise ourselves when giving advice or solutions to others. We are more likely to be creative and think in an abstract way when sorting out someone else’s problem rather than our own. This could impact on how we assign problems (like the tower puzzle) to co-workers. Perhaps we could construct the task so that they see it as someone else’s problem but one they are asked to help solve.

Next time you have a problem to delegate, try and create some healthy distance between the conundrum and the person coming up with the solution. You might see improved results.

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Shake it up - New faces help group creativity

We all know it’s good to shake it up a little every now and again, to introduce some new faces to different areas of the business or to assign people to new roles. We see it at government level in cabinet reshuffles, we even see it in sports teams where a few fresh faces gets the whole team playing differently.

I recently came across some research in this area from Hoon-Seok Choi at Sungkyunkwan University in South Korea and Leigh Thompson at Northwestern University, USA. They looked at how new faces impact on a groups level of creativity.

The study examined the creativity of 33 three-person groups across two tasks. The idea was very simple. After the first task, half the groups exchanged one of their team for a newcomer from another group. The other half of the groups kept the same personnel throughout. The first task got the groups to think of as many ways as possible to categorise 12 vegetables into subgroups (e.g. can be eaten raw vs. cannot be eaten raw). The second task asked the groups to think of as many uses as possible for a cardboard box.

There were no differences between the groups for the first task. They all came up with roughly the same number of sub groups for vegetables. However, when it came to the second task, the groups who swapped one of their members then went on to think of significantly more uses for a cardboard box, and significantly more different kinds of uses, than did the groups who’d kept the same members. Further analysis of the contributions made by each individual showed that the new guy on the team increased the creativity of the two original team members.

There could be downsides to this however. For example you could break up a well-balanced group, you could introduce personality conflicts or create leadership rivalries. Getting back to sport teams, you might see this go wrong when a manager tinkers too much with a winning team.

That aside, if you have a group that needs to be creative or innovative, try and mix it up a little. Fix any conflicts as they arise. Those fresh faces and new perspectives not only bring new inputs but also get the incumbents thinking more creatively. 

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Motivation via The Goal Gradient Effect

Charting progress is important. If you are a software developer, keep a list of the bugs you fix and knock them off one by one. If you are cold calling, keep track of the calls made and hopefully a few sales too. This sounds a bit obvious, we are likely to track work we have completed. The point here however is that it’s a good idea to visually display the work completed as progress, so you can see a list or some other evidence that you are getting places. This is known as the Goal Gradient Effect.

An article on Business Insider explains this in a neat way. It cites a study in the Journal of Market Research which looked at a coffee shop that uses frequent buyer cards. Regular customers were given frequent buyer cards. Each time they bought a cup of coffee they got their card stamped. When the card was filled they got a free cup of coffee. However there were two different scenarios:

Card A: The card had 10 boxes for the stamps, and when you get the card all the boxes are blank.
Card B: The card had 12 boxes for the stamps, and when you get the card the first two boxes are already stamped.

The research looked at how long it would take to get the card filled. Would it take longer or shorter for scenario A vs. scenario B? After all, you would have to buy 10 cups of coffee in both scenarios in order to get the free coffee. So does it make a difference which card you use?

The results say it does. Card B gets filled faster than Card A. It is the Goal-Gradient Effect in action.

The goal-gradient effect was first noticed in research with rats where they would run faster as they got to the end of the maze and closer to their food reward.

The goal-gradient effect makes us accelerate our behaviour as we get closer to our goal.

The take-way here could be these two points. Firstly, the closer we get to our goal the more motivated we are. Therefore structuring peoples work schedule (to have goals tangibly close and not weeks or months away) or sales targets becomes an important part of ensuring people are motivated and pushing themselves.

Secondly, the progression towards a goal can be an illusion or contrived (as shown the in coffee shop research). Giving someone a ‘head start’ or making it look like you can start progressing straight away improves motivation. Getting back to the software developer, give them some short ‘easy’ bugs first to get the ball rolling. For the cold caller, have the early targets based on getting the sales script right rather than closing any sales.

For the marketing people, maybe the coffee shop customer behaviour has lessons for how we distribute loyalty card points or explain bulk purchase schemes. We like our goals, almost as much as our coffee. 

Thursday, 28 August 2014

More information doesn't neccessarily improve our decisions

You have decision to make, you decide to confer with a colleague who is well informed and a good logical thinker, an all-round bright guy. Sounds like just the person you need. Perhaps not.

A study by Nyhan and colleagues at Dartmouth University looked at how people can come to hold false beliefs. The study provided parents with comprehensive information about vaccines. The idea was to counter the false beliefs that some people have about the links between vaccines and autism. The better informed people become, then the more willing they would be to vaccinate.

Interestingly this was not how it turned out. Having people well informed, giving them more objective facts, didn't make people more likely to vaccinate. People just used the additional information to support or rationalise their pre-existing view point. Worse still, it gave them ‘evidence’ to hold their views a little more tightly. They became more polarised and extreme in their opinions.

In one way this is not surprising. It touches on a number of well-known biases such as the confirmation bias, where we take information that suits us and ignore everything else. It also highlights how our thinking is very much guided by our belief systems. We tend to use facts to feed our beliefs.

In another study Lewandowsky and his colleagues at the University of Western Australia had participants read a report about a robbery at a liquor store. Everyone read the same report, but in some cases racial information about the perpetrators was included and in others it wasn't. In one scenario, the suspects were Caucasian, and in another that they were Aboriginal. At the end of the report, participants were told that the racial information was incorrect and should be ignored.

Participants were then asked to recall details of the robbery (type of car used) and also to speculate on aspects of the crime (who may have carried it out, why was violence used).Separately, participants took part in an assessment of racial prejudice against Aboriginals.

All the participants recalled the details of the crime. However the participants who scored highest on racial prejudice continued to rely on the racial misinformation that identified the robbers as Aboriginals, even though they knew it had been corrected. They answered the factual questions accurately (type of car, times, what was taken) but still relied on race when speculating on who carried out the crime.

This is similar to Nyhans study. Providing facts and correcting the record does not change beliefs that easily. It is not that people are ill-informed, it is that they use facts to bolster what they believe.

The point here is that being well informed or getting access to more information may not improve our decisions or choices. We simply follow our beliefs. If we are good logical thinkers then we will be able to neatly organise the facts to create a decent argument as to why our beliefs are right. 

The smarter we are, the better we can weave our supporting argument. This is why we see relatively smart (and in fairness some dumb ones too) people pro and anti global warming, liberal and conservative. They have beliefs that are not shifted by information and can create a logical rationale to support their stance.

Getting back to where we started, rather than choose someone who is very well informed or really smart when conferring, find someone with an open mind (they can still be smart), who does not have strong beliefs on the subject matter in hand. Give them the facts and you may get a more objective appraisal, as long as your own beliefs do not get in the way.

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Surface Acting, a silent meeting killer

Ever been in a meeting and felt one way but acted another? Most of us have. This behaviour is also quite common in the medical profession when a doctor fakes empathic behaviours toward a patient. They act concerned because that is expected, deep down they might be more worried about their waiting list or getting home on time.

Psychologists call this ‘surface acting’. I recently read an interesting BPS article on how surface acting affects meetings and employee burn out.

It referenced a study in the Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology which focused on how masking our real feelings could negatively affect our contribution to meetings and our long term well-being.

The central idea is that surface acting requires significant self-control and this puts a strain on our mental resources. This can prove distracting and restrict the attention we give to what is really going on in the meeting.

The study collected online data from 178 participants from a variety of roles with a range of meeting regularity (from just over 2 per week to less than once per week). Participants rated items like 'I tend to fake a good mood when interacting with others in the meeting’ to produce a surface acting score. This score was negatively associated with their rating of typical meeting effectiveness, in terms of networking, achieving work goals, or learning useful information. The more they surface acted, the less effective they found the meeting.

It gets worse, the long term consequences of surface acting were also measured. Participants who indicated higher surface acting felt emotionally exhausted and were prone to burnout. Acting one way and feeling another was emotionally draining, both in the meeting and afterwards. Habitual surface actors were more likely to have an intention to quit their job at short notice. That is not good for anyone.

Guess the point here is that masking how you really feel in work, while required every now and again, it not a good idea in the long term. If you chair meetings try and make it possible for people to express how they really feel. They may be a little more attentive and focus better on the agenda items or discussions.

Aside from meetings, if your organisational culture requires people to surface act or hide their feeling on a regular basis e.g. when dealing with customers, superiors, other departments, be aware that burn out and sudden departures may follow. If this is hard to avoid and the ‘customer is always right’, then give staff some recovery time and let them vent a little. Everyone might feel better and get more done.

Saturday, 2 August 2014

To Do or to Have?

You are after a hard week, it’s the weekend, time to treat yourself. There is the temptation to go a restaurant or maybe engage in a bit of retail therapy. You might pick up a new gadget, clothes or some other reward, to make yourself feel better. 

You see this approach used in some advertising campaigns. You are encouraged to “Go out and buy yourself something nice”, the ad tells you that you have worked hard all your career, now it’s time to think of yourself, you deserve a new BMW or a designer watch. As the people in L'Oreal Paris say,  'Because you're worth it'

Research suggests that you may be better off leaning more towards the restaurant idea rather than the clothes or gadgets. Leaf Van Boven from the University of Colorado and Thomas Gilovich from Cornell University addressed this in their article ‘To Do or to Have? That Is the Question’.

They defined experiential purchases as those “made with the primary intention of acquiring a life experience: an event or series of events that one lives through,” while defining material purchases as those “made with the primary intention of acquiring a material good: a tangible object that is kept in one's possession”.

Some items fall between these definitions, for example buying a new bike or a TV, where we get both the goods and a new experience. That said, most people surveyed were able to decide if recent purchases were in the ‘Do’ or ‘Have’ box.

When participants were asked which of these two purchases options made them happier, 57% of respondents reported that they got greater happiness from their experiential purchase, while only 34% reported greater happiness from their material purchase.

Similar results emerged when participants were randomly assigned to think about a material or experiential purchase they had made in the past. People contemplating a past experiential purchase reported being in a better mood than their colleagues contemplating a past material purchase. This suggests that experiential purchases produce more lasting hedonic benefits. The buzz from the experience lasts longer and is more durable than the buzz from getting a new material item.

Of course you do need to choose your experiences wisely. Buying yourself tickets to the Opera if you prefer a football game may not work very well. The idea is that you may feel happier going for a nice meal or some event rather than picking up a new pair of shoes. Better still, the buzz from the experience will last longer than the more temporary hit you get from picking up the clothes, shoes or gadget.

Thursday, 31 July 2014

No time like the present

We are biased to getting our pleasures in life in the here and now. This is known as the ‘Present Bias’. Unlike the kids who could resist the marshmallow in Walter Mischels experiment, most of us are unwilling to put off getting what we want. Economists have noted this and describe the effect as Hyperbolic Discounting.

Essentially it means we are suckers for a discount now or a low ball entry price, even if the long term price is pretty high.

A 1998 study by Read and van Leeuwen investigated this by asking participants to make food choices for today and for next week. When it came to next week, 74% of participants decided on fruit. But when thinking about today, 70% chose chocolate. Putting off the treat was not on the menu.

Getting back to the economists, their modelling of this has influenced how many services and goods are presented to us. You can get a new iPhone for a really low price but must sign an 18 month contract with a minimum monthly package. Getting the iPhone now is very attractive, though the long term cost over 18 months can be quite expensive. Similarly you will hear advertisements for new cars which only cost €100 per week. Again, that sounds very attractive, though the long term part of the deal is often based on Hire Purchase or relatively high interest rates.

The take away here is that we fall for the ‘get it now, pay later’ deals. Like the participants in Read and van Leeuwen’s study, we are more concerned about today than next week. We are willing to spoil our present selves at the expense of our future selves.

If you are selling, then tap into this Present Bias or Hyperbolic Discounting, if you are buying, be wary of the discount offers and try to think a little more long term.

Sunday, 27 July 2014

Will that promotion or new job make you feel happier?

Are you working hard to get that promotion or new job in the hope that it will make you happier? Do you drive home from work thinking that if only you got that lotto win and could quit your job, you would be happy? Maybe it’s time to think again.

Daniel Gilbert at Harvard University has done a lot of research on “Affective Forecasting” of what we think will make us happy in the future. In other words, how good are we at predicting our future happiness or other emotional states.

In his 2007 book ‘Stumbling on Happiness', he goes into this in some detail. It turns out that we are really bad at predicting what will make us happy in life. His research consistently found that the things we do in search of happiness like moving house, changing job, winning the lotto don’t make us feel happier, though we expect that they will.

Gilbert links this to the strength of human resilience. We are not the delicate beings which self-help books or day time TV would have us believe. When we suffer real tragedy or disaster, we often recover more quickly than we would expect to. We can rediscover happiness. This is a good thing. As a species it makes us more adaptive and helps us cope with the woes of life.

The downside is that good things which happen to us are also less effective in the long term than we might think. Winning the lotto, getting the new job or house, doesn't feel as good or last as long as we expect it will. Resilience works both ways. We rebound from distress but we also rebound from joy, back to how we normally feel about life. 

According to Gilbert, if you want to know how happy you will be in the future, look at how happy you are now and that will probably answer your question.

This is not to say that we can’t aim to feel happier, we can. It’s just that we overestimate how much happier a specific item or event like a new car, job or house will make us feel. It is not that simple. Moving house or job to spend more time with loved ones or earning more money to do more of the things we enjoy, can make us happier, as long as these things are important to us.

These events or changes are more like an opportunity for happiness, but it is an opportunity that we routinely waste because the things we think will make us happy often don't. If that extra salary from a new job is spent on a bigger mortgage and the rewards and stressors in our life have increased in equal measure then don’t expect to feel any different.

If you are wondering if the promotion, job or some other windfall will make you happier, look at what is important in life. Ask yourself if the resulting change will allow you to do more of these important things. If it does then great, if not, then maybe focus on a change that will.

Monday, 21 July 2014

It's OK to check your smartphone

So do you take a sneaky look at your smart phone in work every now and again? Would you do it if the boss was watching? How would you view a colleague you saw checking their phone regularly during the working day? It turns out that maybe we need to take a relaxed approach to this. Sooyeol Kim at Kansas State University got 72 employees to put an app on their phone that tracked their usage throughout the working day.

While it might sound a little big brother like, the findings were interesting. The employees averaged 22 minutes on their phones during a standard 8 hour day, or just about 5% of their work time. In case you think 5% is a bit of a waste, it’s less than the time we spend at water coolers or bathroom breaks (which we rarely take a dim view of). Considering a lot of people eat ‘al desko’ and only take minimal meal breaks, the 22 minutes per day seems fair enough.

Sooyeol Kim also looked at how people felt once their day was done. The workers who took smartphone breaks were happier after their days work. The researchers suggest that the smartphone breaks, even if they are just for a few minutes, allow us to feel connected with family or loved ones. The odd little game or reading the sports news can be a welcome distraction from the stress of the job. This can help us get back into work a little more refreshed.

There are other studies out there which suggest all distractions are bad for productivity and that it takes us a while to pick up where we left off. From a pure productivity point of view this may well be true. However the Kansas State study is more concerned with our well being. While productivity may be a little down, the employees might feel better, be less prone to burn out or other stress related conditions.

This could lead to a more sustainable way of working, beyond smartphone breaks. It could well apply to any similar micro breaks that we take. So the next time you see someone taking the scenic route to the water cooler or checking their phone, don’t judge them. Try it yourself, you will probably feel better at the end of the day. 

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

You Can Do It

Ever tried talking to your self when the going gets tough? Maybe you should. This technique known as ‘self talk’ has been shown to improve self control and boost morale. However when your back is to the wall, a deadline is hurdling towards you and the pressure is on, are you better off telling yourself ‘You can do it!’ or ‘I can do it!’?

The BPS reports on some worked done by Sanda Dolcos from the University of Illinois which seems to favour the ‘You’ approach. She got 95 psychology undergrads to imagine they were a character in a short story. The characters were presented with a number of choices and decisions to make. The students were asked to write out the advice they would give to themselves if they were in a similar situation. Half the participants were instructed to use the first-person "I" in their self-advice, the others to use the second-person "You". Once they had given their advice, the participants completed a series of anagrams. Those who'd given their fictional selves advice using "You" completed more anagrams than those who'd used the first person "I" (17.53 average completion rate vs. 15.96).

In a similar study, 135 students were asked to write down self-advice to encourage exercising more over the next two weeks. Those who referred to themselves as "You" in that advice subsequently stated that they planned to do more exercise over the next two weeks, and they also went on to report more positive attitudes towards exercising, than those students who referred to themselves as "I".

Referring to yourself as ‘You’ seems to be the way to go. One possible reason for this could be that it reminds us of receiving support and encouragement from others, especially in childhood. It may also be a little more assertive, as if you are ordering yourself to behave in a certain way.

Either way, when an awkward software bug lands on your desk or the boss drops a ridiculous presentation on you at short notice or your budget gets slashed, tell yourself ‘You can do it’. Maybe you can or maybe you can’t but however hard is, your chances may be improved. 

Monday, 30 June 2014

Compliance is all about Freedom

We all try different persuasion techniques from time to time. It could be to get a sale, to get a colleague to swap shifts or to get a buddy to go for a beer. You may have some tricks or techniques that you think work better than others.

There is one technique however that seems to work best of all. It is the “but you are free” (BYAF) compliance-gaining technique. This operates by telling the target that he or she can refuse the request.

The key thing here is reminding people of their freedom to choose. By emphasising their freedom you are letting them know that it is OK to say No and you are not forcing them into anything. They have a free choice.

Christopher J. Carpenter reviewed 42 psychology studies (covering 22,000 people) using this technique. His meta-analysis showed that this simple idea can be pretty effective. Across all the studies it was found to double the chances that someone would say ‘yes’ to the request.

The meta-analysis shows how people donate more to good causes, are more likely to partake in surveys or lend someone the bus fare if they are caught short.

Try it for yourself, I think it's a good idea but it's up to you.

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Truth & Photos

Ever been in a position where you were designing a brochure and wondered whether you should put in a particular photo? You might have decided against it because you felt a generic photo might look bland or you had trouble getting a photo that fitted well with the point you were trying to make.

It turns out that the choice of photo might not really matter that much, the important thing is to have a photo and almost any kind will do.

The BPS reports on a study involving New Zealand and Canadian students which found that including a photo with a statement made us more inclined to believe a statement accompanying the photo was true. The participants were given a series of statements saying if well known and obscure celebrities were either dead or alive. As fast as they could, without compromising their accuracy, the students had to say whether each statement was true or not. Crucially, half the statements were accompanied by a photo of the relevant celebrity and half weren't.

The statements with the photo were rated more likely to be true. As the researchers put it, the presence of the photo seemed to "inflate truthiness".

Another study with 70 New Zealand undergrads was similar but this time uninformative photos accompanied obscure general knowledge facts. For example, "Macademia nuts are in the same evolutionary family as peaches" was presented alongside a photo of macadamia nuts that provided no clues as to the veracity of the statement. The same effect was found - the students were more likely to wager that a fact was true when it was accompanied by an uninformative photo

So if you are designing a brochure and have testimonials that say your software is best of breed or your customer service has an approval rating of 99% or your deliveries are always on time, include a photo of a PC, Customer Service Agent or Delivery Guy. Generic non-descript photos are no problem, it need not be actual people or items. People will be more likely to rate your claim as true.

The same could be true for how you design websites, how politicians design election material or how you organise your eBay shop or any other on-line profile you may have. Any kind of photo will "inflate” the "truthiness" of your proposition. Guess I should have included a photo as part of this post.

Sunday, 22 June 2014

Work Out Creativity

The positive impact of aerobic exercise on physiological function is well publicised. The benefits for the cardio-pulmonary system has been extensively studied and validated. There have been several population level fitness programs to target obesity.

Until recently, there was very little research on exploring the potential benefit of aerobic exercise on mental processes and structures. One potential benefit of aerobic exercise where the research was very thin on the ground is in the area of its potential effects on creativity.

Creativity is a much sought after and encouraged thought process. Creativity plays a key role in the establishment and sustained competitiveness of many organisations. In a world where many jobs are in a state of flux and there is a constant churn of new technologies and ideas, the ability to use this change in a creative way is a vital skill.

A study in the Creativity Research Journal looked at how exercise can improve our ability to think creatively. The researchers got half the participants to work out to an exercise video and the other half to just watch a video. The people who worked out performed better than their video watching counterparts when it came to a creative thinking test. The researchers used the Torrance Test of Creative Thinking (TTCT) which examines divergent thinking and other problem-solving skills. Responses are then scored on four scales- Fluency, Flexibility, Originality and Elaboration.

So it appears that if you need to kick start some creativity, get a work out program going. If you are hiring for a creative role, it might help to have candidates that exercise on a regular basis. As an article on Psychology Today put it, “Sweat is like WD-40 for your mind-–it lubricates the rusty hinges of your brain and makes your thinking more fluid. Exercise allows your conscious mind to access fresh ideas that are buried in the subconscious.”

Monday, 9 June 2014

An Initial Boost

These days is it not unusual to see CEO’s giving presentations in casual tee-shirts or jeans. We've seen Mark Zuckerberg do it, Steve Jobs often strode the stage with his sleeves rolled up and Michael O Leary of Ryanair only seems to wear a suit when he is watching his race horses run. Even the average SME CEO is more likely to wear an open neck than a tie. Informal is the new formal.

This move away from formality involves more than fashion sense. There is also a tendency to informalise names. We see it in politicians with Tony Blair or Chuck Hagel, in business with Jeff Bezos of Amazon, Brad Smith from Intuit, Larry Page at Google. It is not hip to be square or so it seems.

I recently came across some research which put me thinking about this. It is possible that formality is not completely dead. The research suggested that middle initials are associated with intellectual ability. A professor might be Michael D. Clark, while your local shopkeeper might be Michael Clark.

A publication in the European Journal of Social Psychology looked at seven studies and found that the display of middle initials increased positive evaluations of people's intellectual capacities and achievements. The people with the middle name were thought of as smarter and more likely to be serious professional achievers.

It seems that if you are looking for some credibility in a professional or academic setting, it’s possible that an initial might give you a boost. If you are considering writing few magazine articles or blog posts on serious topics why not throw in your middle initial and bask in the academic glow. If you want to add a bit of gravitas to the business card, put it in there too. In this case it is hip to be a little bit square and use that initial. You can still wear the tee-shirt.

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Use a Pen to get the Point

So you can picture the scene, people gather in a room for a meeting, the laptops open up and as the agenda is worked through, the hum of the keyboard is heard as people take notes of the major points, tasks and agreements. We can often type faster than we can write, so using a laptop for note taking allows a more complete record of what was said and more detail to be recorded. Using the laptops in meeting would appear a great idea. Hence it is a familiar sight. 
It turns out that the story may be a little bit more complicated than that. Research by Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer from Princeton University and University of California, Los Angeles suggests that hand writing notes may be more effective than the laptop option.
They conducted a number of experiments where they had students take notes in a classroom setting and then do a test which checked for recall of factual detail, their conceptual understanding of the material, and their ability to synthesize and generalize the information. Half of the students took notes with a laptop and the other half wrote out the notes out by hand.

The students on the laptops took more notes and recorded more detail. However, those who wrote out their notes by hand had a stronger conceptual understanding and were more successful in applying and integrating the material than those wielding the laptops.

The improved understanding among the pen and paper users could be a function of ‘Levels of Processing Theory’. The idea is that the physical act of writing involves more cognitive effort and thinking about what to write is a more deliberate act. As we cannot write as fast as we can type, we need to think about the key points, be more discerning about what to write and more accurate in our summary of events. We need to understand what we are listening to. 

While a fast typist can record everything that they hear, they are not thinking about the content as much, they are merely producing a written record.

If you want to trap all the detail, crank open the laptop and work away. If you want to understand and recall the points made, use the pen and paper. Laptops are optional and don’t feel corporately under-dressed if you show up with just a refill pad and Biro at your next meeting.

On a separate point, this may have implications for the increased use of laptops and tablets in the lecture theatre or training room . While the volume of notes may increase, the level of understanding may not. If you do give a class or provide training where you are trying to get key conceptual points across, insist on the pen as the weapon of choice.