Monday, 26 May 2014

Work can be funny

We have often been told that laughter is good for us. There are several studies backing up the positive effects of laughter on our mental health and general well-being. I've previously blogged on how laughter and humour can replenish willpower.

I recently came across a 2010 study in the Journal Psychological Science which looked at how positive mood affects our performance. A team led by University of Western Ontario psychologist Ruby Nadler showed participants three types of videos.

The first group got to watch a ‘negative’ video featuring coverage of a Chinese earthquake. The next group got to watch a ‘neutral’ video featuring the ‘Antiques Road Show’. The third group got to watch a ‘positive’ video of a laughing baby.

Each group were then given a test where they had to classify novel stimuli. This was to gauge their creative thinking and problem solving. The third group came out on top with the researchers suggesting that positive mood enhances creative problem solving and promotes flexible thinking

The theory is that cognitive flexibility is enhanced by positive mood. It improves our ability to take new information and apply it to things you already know about. Watching funny things draws us into humour where we use abstract thinking, entertain comparisons and develop perspectives we might not get from regular behaviour. Humour gets our brain moving and that improves our cognitive function.

The next time you have a few minutes to spare before a meeting, maybe go on YouTube for a giggle rather than take a last look over your less than hilarious PowerPoint presentation. Your cognitive flexibility and problem solving skills might get a boost. Now that's no joke. 

Monday, 19 May 2014

A little acknowledgement goes a long way

I have known a few mangers in the past who paid lip-service to the idea of ‘valuing peoples contribution’. You don’t need to be a genius to know this is a motivational killer.

In his book The Upside of Irrationality“, Dan Ariely describes an experiment where he puts some science behind this all too familiar situation.

The researchers paid participants to identify and circle instances where the same letter appeared side-by-side on a page of text. They were paid on a descending scale, the highest amount for the first page they completed and less for each page after that until they figured the money wasn't worth it and they quit. People were randomly assigned to groups that would have one of three variations on this basic idea.

The first group wrote their name on page and the examiner looked over the page and verbally acknowledged the work before placing the page on the pile of worksheets.
The second group did not write their name on page. The examiner just placed the finished page on a pile without looking at it or acknowledging receiving it.
The third group did not write name on page. The examiner immediately placed their finished worksheet in a shredder.

If it was just a matter of money, each group should quit working at approximately the same pay rate (remember the descending pay rate). The results showed that the group that had its work shredded when handed up, stopped working at almost twice the pay rate than the group that had its work fleetingly acknowledged. The group that had its unnamed work placed on a pile without acknowledgement stopped working at very nearly the same pay rate as the group that had their work shredded.

The similarity between the last two groups is interesting. “Ignoring the performance of people is almost as bad as shredding their effort before their eyes,” Ariely says. “The good news is that adding motivation doesn't seem to be so difficult. The bad news is that eliminating motivation seems to be incredibly easy, and if we don’t think about it carefully, we might overdo it.”

It is striking how little acknowledgement it takes to motivate people. Just taking a little time to acknowledge and thank employees is critical to maintaining a happy and productive staff. This can be more effective than payment incentives and expensive corporate culture projects. A little acknowledgement really does go a long way.

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Who is Trustworthy?

Who do you trust? Why? How much do you know about trust? It is worth thinking about. Trust shapes how we conduct our relationships, who we work with, many of the choices we make. Trust plays a part in big moments in our lives. It’s there when we sign a contract, make a large purchase or exchanging wedding vows.

So given the importance of trust, is there anything we can do to generate it? A study by researchers at Harvard Business School and Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania suggests that if you want people to see you as trustworthy, try apologising for situations outside of your control. This could be simply the weather or a delayed bus or a traffic jam.

The researchers had a male actor approach 65 strangers (30 women) at a train station on a rainy day to ask to borrow their mobile phone. Pretty big ask from a complete stranger, particularly given how we value our smart phones these days. Crucially, for half of them he preceded his request with the superfluous apology: "I'm sorry about the rain!" The other half of the time he just came straight out with his request: "Can I borrow your phone?" The superfluous apology made a real difference. Forty-seven per cent of strangers offered their phone when the actor apologised for the rain first, compared with just nine per cent when there was no apology. That is a big win for the fairly useless apology.

In a different angle, an often quoted study by Professor William Hampes in the Europe Journal ofPsychology looked at the relationship between humour and trust. It found that those who scored high on a test that measured their sense of humour for social purposes were considered more trustworthy. Humour and trust are key components of emotional intelligence and are associated with satisfying and healthy interpersonal relationships. Plenty of arguments have been defused by a well timed joke or a humorous explanation. It could also be that people who can tell a joke are a bit more likeable and therefore we are open to trusting them.

On the other side of the coin, if you are wondering who you can trust then go with your initial reaction. Research led by David DeSteno at Northeastern University suggests that when it comes to deciding whom to trust, our first impressions can be quite accurate. Trustworthiness is linked to specific kinds of non-verbal cues and we are hard-wired to pick up on these and recognise trustworthy people.

So if you need to earn trust with someone you have just met, try out these options. Crack a few jokes and find something to apologise about. It works, trust me.

Sunday, 11 May 2014

We care about what we do - a Lego Lesson

Sometimes in work you can feel like a cog in a wheel, working away on your specific task, over and over again without ever seeing the finished product. This could be an admin assistant processing orders or marketing material or it could be a computer programmer writing server side functions for some application.

Dan Ariely, working with Harvard University has thought about this and asked the question, “Does Seeing the fruits of our labour may make us more productive?”

The researchers had participants build characters from Lego’s Bionicles series. All the participants were paid decreasing amounts for each subsequent Bionicle: $3 for the first one, $2.70 for the next one, and so on. However, one group’s creations were stored under the table and disassembled after the experiment. The other group’s Bionicles were disassembled as soon as they’d been built. They were built, taken apart and built again and again and again. “This was an endless cycle of them building and we destroying in front of their eyes,” Ariely says. This is not unlike Paul Newman digging and filling in the hole in the classic movie ‘Coolhand Luke’.

The results between the two groups were very interesting. The first group (who saw the end product which remained intact) made 11 Bionicles, on average, while the second group made only 7 before they quit (in case you are wondering Paul Newman quit digging the hole too).

The point here is that while reward did not differ i.e. one group were not paid more or had better working conditions or other motivational perks, seeing the fruits of their labour seemed to lead to greater productivity and a willingness to keep on going. Just being given the same task over and over with no tangible end product to look at, seemed to dull enthusiasm and results. You could speculate that this group may have felt that they were just assembling but not really creating anything.

The lesson here for the work place is that we may need to think of work as less of an assembly line where each person does their bit and instead give staff a chance to see what their contribution creates. That could be allowing admin staff to see marketing feedback or meet with clients and see the difference they make in getting a sale. It could be having the computer programmer seeing how safe, fast or easy their functions make the system for end users.

This could explain why some start ups find it easier to get staff to work long hours, take on multiple tasks, often with minimal additional financial reward. I’ve worked in a few start ups where this was the case. Perhaps in these scenarios, staff see the difference they make to the big picture, growing the company and building a product that end users enjoy. To paraphrase Ariely, “They see the fruits of their labour”.

Make some time for staff to see the point and end product of their work. Efficiency is more than figuring out ways to doing more stuff. How we think about our jobs and what works means to us plays a big part in motivation which in turn drives job satisfaction and productivity.

Saturday, 10 May 2014

Creativity in a bottle?

Ernest Hemmingway  is reported to have said “When you work hard all day with your head and know you must work again the next day, what else can change your ideas and make them run in a different plane like whisky?” Famed authors David Foster Wallace, Edgar Allan Poe, and Truman Capote were also heavy drinkers, along with several musicians including Beethoven. So the question is, does a few drinks help creativity?

Andrew Jarosz set about researching this. He got 40 male social drinkers aged 21 to 30. All were required to avoid alcohol and drugs for 24 hours prior to the experiment and to avoid food and caffeine for 4 hours prior. Half the participants were allocated to the alcohol group and were given enough vodka to achieve a blood alcohol concentration of .07 (approximately two pints of beer for the average man). The other participants acted as controls and consumed no alcohol.

Both groups then did a Remote Associates Test (RAT) . This type of test is frequently used by psychologists to measure creativity. The test is called a Remote Associates Test because it measures the ability to see relationships between things that are only remotely associated e.g. what word is associated with the words 'pay’, ‘call’ and ‘line’? the answer is ‘phone’.

The research found that the drinking participants solved more items on the Remote Associates Test compared with the non drinkers participants (58 per cent vs. 42 per). It got better, they also solved items quicker (11.54 seconds per item vs. 15.24 seconds). The people with a few drinks also seemed to have a more intuitive experience and reported solving more items through ‘Eureka’ moments rather than analytical analysis of the words.  

It is worth noting that people with a few drinks on board performed worse on working memory tasks, though this would be expected. The point to consider here is that a few drinks or mild intoxication may help relax our thoughts and stimulate creativity. Clearly drinking to excess would undo this so moderation is key.

If you are trying to tease out a situation that requires some out of the box thinking or need to come up with a creative approach, treat yourself to a glass of wine or a beer and see if creativity kicks in. If you are having a working lunch then maybe have a little more than coffee tea and water on the menu.

Thursday, 8 May 2014

Don't underestimate yourself

You may have read about the ‘Dunning Kruger Effect’ which outlines why incompetent people do not realise they are incompetent. Guess we could all think of a few people we've worked with that would fit into this theory.

There is however another scenario, the ‘Worse than Average Effect’. The idea here is that when we are good at something we assume other people are good at it too. We don’t give ourselves the credit for being particularly good at complex tasks and can even assume that loads of other people are probably better than we are.

A study from J Kruger found that we can underestimate our ability  for something difficult like playing chess, telling jokes or computer programming. At the same time we overestimate our ability at seemingly easier tasks like using a mouse or riding a bike.

The take away here is that when it comes to staff self reporting their ability on tasks or project work, take into account a possible tendency to underestimate how good they may be at the more complex items such as system design or process management and over estimate how good they are easier tasks like logging time records, drafting project plans, organising meetings. 

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

What to expect when you're an expert

So, do you value the opinion of experts? If you do then maybe you need to do so with some caution. A 2007 study gave 40 students a memory test consisting of eleven animal names and eleven body parts. There was also a twist, all the animal names were also NFL team names, like dolphins, colts, seahawks and bears. The group was divided into those who knew their NFL pretty well and those who didn’t, essentially NFL experts and NFL non-expects.
When the results of the memory test for the two groups were compared, the NFL experts remembered more of the animal names than the non-experts, while there was no difference between groups on the body parts test. Interestingly though, the researchers also tested for incorrect answers. They looked at NFL animal team names and body parts that were not part of the original test.
The results indicated that the experts were much more likely to make incorrect guesses than the non-experts. The researchers suggest that this may be a memory error. The domain-relevant information (or expertise) of the experts, got in the way of their accurate recall of the animal names. There was no difference between groups in body part experience, false answers were about even between groups on that test.
The point here is that experts have expertise in specific areas (NFL) but this does not improve performance in other areas (body parts). You may have a consultant who is an expert in financial management but this is no guarantee of success in marketing management and visa versa. Expertise is not necessarily transferable. 
Experts may also have such a depth of their specialist area that this may inhibit their thinking. They see everything against the backdrop of their expertise and this can impact on their reasoning, memory or how they approach problems. Just like the NFL experts, they may perform no better in more general tasks and indeed even under perform in their own areas.
The take away from this is that experts need to play to their strengths and focus on their own domains of knowledge. Keep an eye out for a few more mistakes that you might otherwise expect. That’s expert advice. 

Is less really more?


Monday, 5 May 2014

Boring is not all bad

Barack Obama has a well reported practice of never wearing anything other than blue and gray suits. According to the president, “I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make too many decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.” This ties in with the idea ‘Don’t sweat the small stuff’.

A study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology has another take on this. The authors tested the idea that making many choices impairs subsequent self-control. The study used a limited-resource model of self-regulation and executive function to determine if decision making depletes the same resource used for self-control and active responding. In 4 laboratory studies, some participants made choices among consumer goods or college course options, whereas others thought about the same options without making choices.

Making choices led to reduced self-control (i.e., less physical stamina, reduced persistence in the face of failure, more procrastination, and less quality and quantity of arithmetic calculations). A field study then found that reduced self-control was predicted by shoppers' self-reported degree of previous active decision making. Further studies suggested that choosing takes a greater toll than just deliberating.

There are a few lessons in this. Like Barak Obama, try to focus your limited patience and executive function on the stuff that matters. Spending time at the deli counter figuring out what sandwich to have is not a great idea if you have to go back to the office and make some complex or important decisions on how to manage scarce company resources.

If you are a retailer, you could provide a variety of choices and have customers making decisions just for the sake of it. This may lower their self control and get them to spend a little more freely.

 If you are a consumer and have just made a load of decisions e.g. where to park, whether to buy on credit or pay cash or whether to take out an after sales contract or not, be wary of your self control. It could be on the slide and you may be about to buy something you don’t really need.

If you see some guy in work wearing the same suits everyday and eating the same boring lunch, he could be the go to guy for some of those big decisions or someone to trust with that big marketing budget where self control could be tested.