Is there a limit to how many friends we can maintain?

Posted November 3rd, 2014 in Articles, Blogs by admin

Networking—both live and virtual—is the rage today. And our contacts, especially on social networks, are often referred to as “friends.” As networking events, meet-ups, and the business that promote them expand, people boast of how many of these “friends” they have in their real or online networks.

Is this all sound and fury signifying nothing, or real human connections that bring us real benefits? Does our ability to manage complex social connections—love lives, work colleagues, childhood friends, and acquaintances—explain why we have such large brains?

The answer, at least according to British anthropologist and evolutionary biologist Robin Dunbar, is yes.

But there’s a catch.

Dunbar posits that there is a cognitive limit to the number of relations that any one primate can maintain. In his book, How Many Friends Does One Person Need, he argues that you can only keep friendships with about 150 people at any given time, because “this limit is a direct function of neocortex size, and … this in turn limits group size where stable interpersonal relationships can be maintained.” Dunbar says his number of 150 “refers to those people with whom you have a personalized relationship, one that is reciprocal and based around general obligations of trust and reciprocity.”

Dunbar argues that this number has not, in fact, changed much throughout history and that it applies to social media on the web just as it does in real life. If anything, his research is supported by outlets such as Facebook—according to that site’s official figures, its average user has about 130 “friends.”

Dunbar even goes as far as to say that anyone who claims to have more than 150 real friendships is “suspect,” as the quality of those relationships must deteriorate as the social group expands.

Our theoretical circle of 150 is not a homogenous social group, Dunbar explains, but rather consists of four layers, or “Circles of Acquaintanceship,” which scale relative to each other by a factor of 3—an inner core of 5 intimates, and then successive layers of 15, 50 and 150. With each successive circle, the number of people included increases but the emotional intimacy decreases.

The concept of usefulness can impact inclusions or exclusion in the group of 150. Psychologist Mark Vernon, author of The Philosophy of Friendship, argues that everyone likes to be useful to their friends, but feeling that a friend is using you is the first sign of a relationship’s decline.

People who claim to have a circle of hundreds of “friends,” either live or online, may be making a claim that flies in the face of research, or simply trying to inflate their sense of importance.

So, how many friends do you have?

What’s Behind Every Great Man or Woman?

Posted November 3rd, 2014 in Articles, Blogs by admin

Successful people are often thought of as being solely responsible for their success. Yet, when we study patterns of promotions, financial compensation, status and career success, it is their partners who may be exerting a bigger influence on their success.

This is the conclusion of new research by Joshua Jackson and Brittany Solomon of Washington University in St. Louis, which will be published in the journal Psychological Science. The researchers based their findings on a five-year study of almost 5,000 married people, aged 19-89. In 75 percent of the sample couples, both partners worked.

Jackson and Solomon analyzed data from study participants who took a series of psychological tests to assess their scores on five broad measures of personality—openness, extraversion, agreeableness, neuroticism, and conscientiousness. They also tracked the on-the-job performance of working spouses using annual surveys measuring occupational success.

They found that workers who scored highest on measures of occupational success tended to have a spouse with a personality that scored high for conscientiousness—whether or not both spouses worked, and regardless of gender. “Our study shows that it is not only your own personality that influences the experiences that lead to greater occupational success, but that your spouse’s personality matters too,” Jackson contends.

While previous research has shown that people desire romantic partners high in agreeableness and low in neuroticism, Jackson argues, “Our findings suggest that people should also desire highly conscientious partners.”

Why is conscientiousness so beneficial?

Based on additional analyses, the researchers examined how conscientiousness related to outsourcing, emulation, and relationship satisfaction. Having a conscientious spouse allows for greater outsourcing, or having a partner take over some of life’s minutia, which is associated with earning more money, the researchers concluded.

This research is an interesting contrast to work done by Rutgers University sociology professor Deborah Carr, who concluded in her own study that, when it comes to a happy marriage, the more content the wife is with the long-term union, the happier the husband is with his life—no matter how he feels about their relationship. “I think it comes down to the fact that when a wife is satisfied with the marriage she tends to do a lot more for her husband, which has a positive effect on his life,” said Carr. “Men tend to be less vocal about their relationships, and their level of marital unhappiness might not be translated to their wives.”

Carr and Vicki Freedman, a research professor at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research, co-authored a separate study published in the Journal of Marriage and Family on marital quality and happiness among older adults. Both papers underscore the narrow focus of too many media profiles of highly successful people—particularly men—in which their success is often solely attributed to them, or to their personality or leadership traits. Our view needs to be much more inclusive—and contain less hero-worshipping.

Why goal setting can do more harm than good

Posted November 3rd, 2014 in Articles, Blogs by admin

We have all heard this advice: Set goals if you want to accomplish anything substantial. That advice comes from personal coaches, self-help gurus, management consultants, managers and executives and is deeply imbedded in leadership practices.

In organizations, “stretch goals,” or “hairy audacious goals,” as a management motivational and performance strategy, is widely practiced. Yet, there is evidence that goal setting may actually be counter productive if not a waste of time.

Our society, at both the individual level and in organizations, has an obsession with goal setting, particularly “stretch” goals or “audacious goals.” We tie goals to accomplishment. In our culture, an individual or organizations cannot be considered successful unless goals are achieved. And the usual motivation method used by leaders to achieve these goals is the continual focus on “improvement,” “bigger and better,” through harder and harder work, and increased productivity. And the way to measure that success is to measure goal attainment.

The following is a typical template for goal setting:

  • Write down the goals;
  • Make goals specific and clear;
  • Indicate how you’ll measure goal accomplishment;
  • Have goal timelines and deadlines;
  • State goals in terms of specific outcomes or results;
  • Attach rewards, incentives for attainment and punishment for failure.

The support for setting goals has reportedly come from both academic/research sources and popular self-help sources. With the respect to the first, researchers reportedly surveyed the graduating seniors from the class of 1953 at Yale University. They asked if the class members had written goals for their future. Three percent did. The rest did not. Twenty years later, researchers were said to have gone back to the surviving members of the class. They discovered that those with written life goals had accumulated more wealth than all their classmates put together.

The only problem with this powerful finding is that there was no such study. Researchers at Yale and members of the class of 1953 all swear they never conducted or participated in any such study.

The second source of support has come from such self-help sources as The Secret, which encourages people to set ambitious goals through a process of visualization. There is no study that I am aware of that demonstrates a causal link between visualizing goals and their attainment.

Despite the popularity of goal setting, there is compelling evidence that regardless of good intentions and effort, people and organizations consistently fall short of achieving their goals. More often than not, the fault is attributed to the goal setter. But the real problem may be in the efficacy of goal setting itself.

What’s Wrong With Setting Ambitious Goals?

Aubrey Daniels, in his book, Oops! 13 Management Practices That Waste Time And Money, argues that stretch goals are an ineffective management practice. Daniels cites a study that shows when individuals repeatedly fail to reach stretch goals, their performance declines. Another study showed 10% of employees actually achieved stretch goals. Daniels argues that goals are motivating people only when they have received positive rewards and feedback from reaching them in the past.

The Center For Disease Control estimates that 34% of Americans are overweight and a further 34% are obese, which means almost 70% of the population are dangerously unhealthy. That’s a curious result, despite the proliferation of weight loss programs that usually focus on weight-loss goals. The easy explanation would be to attribute fault to individual for lack of will or effort. But the problem may be inherent in the validity of goal setting.

Sim Sitkin a Duke University business school professor, completed a study of stretch goals, and found they were most likely to be pursued by desperate, embattled companies that would have difficulty adapting if the goals failed. He says: “We conclude that stretch goals are, paradoxically, most seductive for organizations that can least afford the risks associated with them.”

L.A. King and C.M. Burton in an article entitled, The Hazards of Goal Pursuit, for the American Psychological Association, argue that goals should be used only in the narrowest of circumstances: “The optimally striving individual ought to endeavor to achieve and approach goals that only slightly implicate the self; that are only moderately important, fairly easy, and moderately abstract; that do not conflict with each other, and that concern the accomplishment of something other than financial gain.”

Adam Galinsky, a professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management and one of the authors of a Harvard Business School report called Goals Gone Wild,” argues that “goal setting has been treated like an over-the-counter medication when it should really be treated with more care, as a prescription-strength mediation.” He argues that goal setting can focus attention too much or on the wrong things and can lead people to participate in extreme behaviors to achieve the goals.

The authors of Goals Gone Wild, have identified several specific negative side effects associated with goal setting: “An overly narrow focus that neglects non-goal areas; a rise in unethical behavior; distorted risk preferences; corrosion of organizational culture; and reduced intrinsic motivation.”

Maurice Schweitzer of the University of Pennsylvania and Lisa Ordonez of the University of Arizona, co-authors of Goals Gone Wild, have studied the psychology of goal attainment, and in several experiments have shown that when people self-report their achievement of goals, if they are not entirely successful, a significant percentage of them lie to make up the difference.

One inherent problem with goal setting is related to how the brain works. Recent neuroscience research shows the brain works in a protective way, resistant to change. Therefore, any goals that require substantial behavioral change, or thinking-pattern change, will automatically be resisted. The brain is wired to seek rewards and avoid pain or discomfort, including fear. When fear of failure creeps into the mind of the goal setter, it becomes a “demotivator,” with a desire to return to known, comfortable behavior and thought patterns.

Examples of Goal Setting Gone Wrong

In the early 2000’s , General Motors had set a goal to capture 29% of the American auto market. It even produced corporate pins for people to wear with the number 29 on them. Needless to say they never achieved that goal, and without a government bailout, GM may not have even survived.

In the early 1990s, Sears gave a sales quota of $147 per hour to its auto repair staff. Faced with this target, the staff overcharged for work and performed unnecessary repairs. Sears’ Chairman at the time, Ed Brennan, acknowledged that the stretch goal gave employees a powerful incentive to deceive customers.

Or take the Ford Pinto. Presented with a goal to build a car “under 2,000 pounds and under $2,000 by 1970, employees overlooked safety testing and designed a car where the gas tank was vulnerable to explosion from rear-end collisions. Fifty-three people died as a result.

In the late 1990s, specific, challenging goals fueled energy-trading company Enron’s rapid financial success. Dan Ackman, writing in Forbes compares Enron’s incentive system to “paying a salesman a commission based on the volume of sales and letting him set the price of goods sold.” Even during Enron’s final days, Enron executives were rewarded with large bonuses for meeting specific revenue goals. In sum, “Enron executives were meeting their goals, but they were the wrong goals,” according to employee compensation expert Solange Charas. By focusing on revenue rather than profit, Enron executives drove the company into the ground.

Max Bazerman, a Harvard Business School professor and co-author of Goals Gone Wild, argues the following in the study:

  • People can focus so much on reaching the stretch goal that they fail to realize how this has dumped other work on their co-workers.
  • With goals, people narrow their focus. This intense focus can blind people to important issues that appear unrelated to their goal;
  • A related problem occurs when employees pursue multiple goals at one time. Individuals with multiple goals are prone to concentrate on only one goal;
  • Overemphasis on short-term thinking. Goals that emphasize immediate performance (e.g., this quarter’s profits) prompt managers to engage in myopic, short-term behavior that harms the organization in the long run;
  • People motivated by specific, challenging goals adopt riskier strategies and choose riskier gambles than do those with less challenging or vague goals;
  • Goal setting can promote two different types of cheating behavior. First, when motivated by a goal, people may choose to use unethical methods to reach it; second, goal setting can motivate people to misrepresent their performance level—in other words, to report that they met a goal when in fact they fell short;
  • Goals create a culture of competition. Organizations that rely heavily on goal setting may erode the foundation of cooperation that holds groups together;
  • As goal setting increases extrinsic motivation, it can harm intrinsic motivation – engaging in a task for its own sake;

So What’s The Alternative?

In his classic article, “Small Wins,” psychologist Karl Weick argued that people often become overwhelmed and discouraged when faced with massive and complex problems. He advocated recasting larger problems into smaller, tractable challenges that produce visible results, and maintained that the strategy of “small wins” can often generate more action and more complete solutions to major problems because it enables people to make slow, steady progress.

In their recent book, The Progress Principle, Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer build on the same argument and clearly demonstrate how even the smallest, most mundane steps forward — for example, achieving clear consensus in a meeting — can motivate and inspire workers. Ever wonder why people will so often write down an item they’ve already completed on theirto-do-list? It’s so that they can have the satisfaction of immediately crossing it off and experiencing the sense of progress.

Focusing on small wins in combination with process improvement will driveyourorganizationforward without the negative consequences of stretch goals. However, this approach requires a willingness to abandon the “ready, fire, aim” approach to problem solving. The heavy lifting has to be done at the outset — a deep understanding of the current condition is a prerequisite for true improvement. This approach also requires a subtle — but critical — shift in focus from improving outcome metrics to improving the process by which those outcomes are achieved.

If You Must Set Goals

If you must set goals, consider these questions to guide you, suggested by Max Bazerman:

  • Are the goals too specific? Narrow goals can blind people to important aspects of a problem. Be sure that goals are comprehensive and include all of the critical components for firm success (e.g., quantity and quality);
  • Are the goals too challenging? What will happen if goals are not met? How will individual employees and outcomes be evaluated? Will failure harm motivation and self-efficacy? Provide skills and training to enable employees to reach goals. Avoid harsh punishment for failure to reach a goal;
  • Who sets the goals? People will become more committed to goals they help to set. At the same time, people may be tempted to set easy to reach goals;
  • Is the time horizon appropriate? Be sure that short-term efforts to reach a goal do not harm investment in long-term outcomes. For example, consider eliminating quarterly reports as Coca-Cola did;
  • Consider how might goals influence risk taking? Be sure to articulate acceptable levels of risk;
  • Consider how might goals motivate unethical behavior? Goals narrow focus, such that employees may be less likely to recognize ethical issues. Goals also induce employees to rationalize their unethical behavior and can corrupt organizational cultures. Multiple safeguards may be necessary to ensure ethical behavior while attaining goals (e.g., leaders as exemplars of ethical behavior, making the costs of cheating far greater than the benefit, strong oversight);
  • Can goals be idiosyncratically tailored for individual abilities and circumstances while preserving fairness? Strive to set goals that use common standards and account for individual variation;
  • How will goals influence organizational culture? If cooperation is essential, consider setting team-based rather than individual goals;
  • Are individuals intrinsically motivated? Assess intrinsic motivation and recognize that goals can curtail intrinsic motivation;
  • Consider the ultimate goals of the organization and what type of goal (performance or learning) is most appropriate? In complex, changing environments learning goals may be more effective.

The Psychological Manifestations

Finally, there are psychological manifestations of not achieving goals that may be more damaging that not having any goals at all. The process sets up desires that are removed from everyday reality. Whenever we desire things that we don’t have, we set our brain’s nervous system to produce negative emotions. Second, highly aspirational goals require us to develop new competencies, some of which may be beyond current capabilities. As we develop these competencies, we are likely to experience failures, which then become de-motivational. Thirdly, goal setting sets up an either-or polarity of success. The only true measure can either be 100% attainment or perfection, or 99% and less, which is failure. We can then excessively focus on the missing or incomplete part of our efforts, ignoring the successful parts. Fourthly, goal setting doesn’t take into account random forces of chance. You can’t control all the environmental variables to guarantee 100% success.

The other problem is that goals are often cast in the image of the ideal or perfection, which activates the self-judging thinking of “I should be this way.” This counteracts the positive need for self-acceptance.

And if the goal is not attained, we can often engage in thinking we are failures, not good enough, not smart enough, not beautiful enough, etc. So the non-attainment of goals can create emotions of unworthiness.

We must also make a distinction between our intentions vs. goals. An intention is a direction we want to pursue, preferably with passion. My experience is that people are often confused, and unclear about the intentions of how they want to live and achieve, and therefore a focus on goals doesn’t assist them with clarifying their intentions.

When I work with people as their coach and mentor, they often tell me they’ve set goals such as “I want to be wealthy,” or “I want to be more beautiful/popular,” “I want a better relationship/ideal partner.” They don’t realize they’ve just described the symptoms or outcomes of the problems in their life. The cause of the problem, which many resist facing, is themselves. They don’t realize that for a change to occur, if one is desirable, they must change themselves. Once they make the personal changes, everything around them can alter, which may make the goal irrelevant.

There’s an old saying: “you don’t get what you want in life, you get in life what you are.”

 

Anti-Intellectualism and the “Dumbing Down” of America

Posted November 3rd, 2014 in Articles, Blogs by admin

There is a growing and disturbing trend of anti-intellectual elitism in American culture. It’s the dismissal of science, the arts, and humanities and their replacement by entertainment, self-righteousness, ignorance, and deliberate gullibility.

Susan Jacoby, author of The Age of American Unreason, says in an article in the Washington Post, “Dumbness, to paraphrase the late senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, has been steadily defined downward for several decades, by a combination of heretofore irresistible forces. These include the triumph of video culture over print culture; a disjunction between Americans’ rising level of formal education and their shaky grasp of basic geography, science and history; and the fusion of anti-rationalism with anti-intellectualism.”

There has been a long tradition of anti-intellectualism in America, unlike most other Western countries. Richard Hofstadter, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1964 for his book, Anti-Intellectualism In American Life, describes how the vast underlying foundations of anti-elite, anti-reason and anti-science has been infused into America’s political and social fabric. Famous science fiction writer Isaac Asimov made once said: “There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”

Mark Bauerlein, in his book, The Dumbest Generation, reveals how a whole generation of youth are being dumbed down by their aversion to reading anything of substance and their addiction to digital “crap” via social media.

Journalist Charles Pierce, author of Idiot America, adds another perspective: “The rise of idiot America today represents–for profit mainly, but also and more cynically, for political advantage in the pursuit of power–the breakdown of a consensus that the pursuit of knowledge is a good. It also represents the ascendancy of the notion that the people whom we should trust the least are the people who best know what they are talking about. In the new media age, everybody is an expert.”

“There’s a pervasive suspicion of rights, privileges, knowledge and specialization,” says Catherine Liu, the author of American Idyll: Academic Antielitism as Cultural Critique and a film and media studies professor at University of California. The very mission of universities has changed, argues Liu. “We don’t educate people anymore. We train them to get jobs.”

Part of the reason for the rising anti-intellectualism can be found in the declining state of education in the U.S. compared to other advanced countries:

After leading the world for decades in 25-34 year olds with university degrees, the U.S. is now in 12th place. The World Economic Forum ranked the U.S. at 52nd among 139 nations in the quality of its university math and science instruction in 2010. Nearly 50% of all graduate students in the sciences in the U.S. are foreigners, most of whom will be returning to their home countries;
The Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs commissioned a civic education poll among public school students. A surprising 77% didn’t know that George Washington was the first President; couldn’t name Thomas Jefferson as the author of the Declaration of Independence, and only 2.8% of the students actually passed the citizenship test. Along similar lines, the Goldwater Institute of Phoenix did the same survey and only 3.5% of students passed the civics test;
According to the National Research Council report, only 28% of high school science teachers consistently follow the National Research Council guidelines on teaching evolution, and 13% of those teachers explicitly advocate creationism or “intelligent design;”
18% of Americans still believe that the sun revolves around the earth, according to a Gallup poll;
The American Association of State Colleges and Universities report on education shows that the U.S. ranks second among all nations in the proportion of the population aged 35-64 with a college degree, but 19th in the percentage of those aged 25-34 with an associates or high school diploma, which means that for the first time, the educational attainment of young people will be lower than their parents;
74% of Republicans in the U.S. Senate and 53% in the House of Representatives deny the validity of climate changes since despite the findings of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and every other significant scientific organization in the world;
According to the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress, 68% of public school children in the U.S. do not read proficiently by the time they finish third grade. And the U.S. News & World reported that barely 50% of students are ready for college level reading when they graduate;
According to a 2006 survey by National Geographic-Roper, nearly half of Americans between ages 18 and 24 do not think it necessary to know the location of other countries in which important news is being made. More than a third consider it “not at all important” to know a foreign language, and only 14 percent consider it “very important;”
According to the National Endowment for the Arts report in 1982, 82% of college graduates read novels or poems for pleasure; two decades later only 67% did. And more than 40% of Americans under 44 did not read a single book–fiction or nonfiction–over the course of a year. The proportion of 17 year olds who read nothing (unless required by school ) has doubled between 1984-2004;
Gallup released a poll showing 42 percent of Americans still believe God created human beings in their present form less than 10,000 years ago;
A 2008 University of Texas study found that 25 percent of public school biology teachers believe that humans and dinosaurs inhabited the earth simultaneously.
In American schools, the culture exalts the athlete and good-looking cheerleader. Well-educated and intellectual students are commonly referred to in public schools and the media as “nerds,” “dweebs,” “dorks,” and “geeks,” and are relentlessly harassed and even assaulted by the more popular “jocks” for openly displaying any intellect. These anti-intellectual attitudes are not reflected in students in most European or Asian countries, whose educational levels have now equaled and and will surpass that of the U.S. And most TV shows or movies such as The Big Bang Theory depict intellectuals as being geeks if not effeminate.

John W. Traphagan ,Professor of Religious Studies, University of Texas argues the problem is that Asian countries have core cultural values that are more akin to a cult of intelligence and education than a cult of ignorance and anti-intellectualism. In Japan, for example, teachers are held in high esteem and normally viewed as among the most important members of a community. There is suspicion and even disdain for the work of teachers that occurs in the U.S. Teachers in Japan typically are paid significantly more than their peers in the U.S. The profession of teaching is one that is seen as being of central value in Japanese society and those who choose that profession are well compensated in terms of salary, pension, and respect for their knowledge and their efforts on behalf of children.

In addition, we do not see in Japan significant numbers of the types of religious schools that are designed to shield children from knowledge about basic tenets of science and accepted understandings of history–such as evolutionary theory or the religious views of the Founding Fathers, who were largely deists–which are essential to having a fundamental understanding of the world, Traphagan contends. The reason for this is because in general Japanese value education, value the work of intellectuals, and see a well-educated public with a basic common knowledge in areas of scientific fact, math, history, literature, etc. as being an essential foundation to a successful democracy.

We’re creating a world of dummies. Angry dummies who feel they have the right, the authority and the need not only to comment on everything, but to make sure their voice is heard above the rest, and to drag down any opposing views through personal attacks, loud repetition and confrontation.

Bill Keller, writing in the New York Times argues that the anti-intellectual elitism is not an elitism of wisdom, education, experience or knowledge. The new elite are the angry social media posters, those who can shout loudest and more often, a clique of bullies and malcontents baying together like dogs cornering a fox. Too often it’s a combined elite of the anti-intellectuals and the conspiracy followers – not those who can voice the most cogent, most coherent response. Together they ferment a rabid culture of anti-rationalism where every fact is suspect; every shadow holds a secret conspiracy. Rational thought is the enemy. Critical thinking is the devil’s tool.

Keller also notes that the herd mentality takes over online; the anti-intellectuals become the metaphorical equivalent of an angry lynch mob when anyone either challenges one of the mob beliefs or posts anything outside the mob’s self-limiting set of values.

Keller blames this in part to the online universe that “skews young, educated and attentive to fashions.” Fashion, entertainment, spectacle, voyeurism – we’re directed towards trivia, towards the inconsequential, towards unquestioning and blatant consumerism. This results in intellectual complacency. People accept without questioning, believe without weighing the choices, join the pack because in a culture where convenience rules, real individualism is too hard work. Thinking takes too much time: it gets in the way of the immediacy of the online experience.

Reality TV and pop culture presented in magazines and online sites claim to provide important information about the importance of The Housewives of [you name the city] that can somehow enrich our lives. After all, how else can one explain the insipid and pointless stories tout divorces, cheating and weight gain? How else can we explain how the Kardashians, or Paris Hilton are known for being famous for being famous without actually contributing anything worth discussion. The artificial events of their lives become the mainstay of populist media to distract people from the real issues and concerns facing us.

The current trend of increasing anti-intellectualism now establishing itself in politics and business leadership, and supported by a declining education system should be a cause for concern for leaders and the general population, one that needs to be addressed now.

Are we hardwired to be positive or negative?

Posted November 3rd, 2014 in Articles, Blogs by admin

Are we hardwired to be positive or negative, particularly during difficult times? That’s a question that has been asked by many researchers and it has an impact on our beliefs about motivation and behavior. Research findings on this issue have significant implications for leaders and workplace culture.

The capacity to emphasize the negative rather than the positive has probably been an evolutionary phenomenon. From our earliest beginnings, being aware of and avoiding danger has been a critical survival skill.

The concept of negativity bias is not new. Early research has led to theories such as The Prospect Theory, which evaluates the way people make choices when there is a known risk. So negativity bias and the Prospect Theory advances the idea that people are more likely to choose things based on their need to avoid negative experiences, rather than their desire to get positive experiences. This phenomena has been examined by researchers such as Roy F. Baumister, Ellen Tratslavsky, Kathleen Vohs, and Catrin Finkenauer. These psychologists concluded negative experiences or the fear of them has a greater impact on people than positive experiences.

Paul Rozin and Edward Royzman showed in their research that the negative perspective is more contagious than the positive perspective. A study by John Cacioppo and his colleagues showed that our attitudes are more heavily influenced by bad news than good news. Other researchers analyzed language to study negativity bias. For example, there are more negative emotional words (62 percent) than positive words (32 percent) in the English dictionary.

In our brains, there are two different systems for negative and positive stimuli. The amygdala uses approximately two thirds of its neurons to detect negative experiences, and once the brain starts looking for bad news, it is stored into long-term memory quickly. Positive experiences have to be held in our awareness for more than 12 seconds in order for the transfer from short-term to long-term memory. Rick Hanson describes it in this way: “The brain is like Velcro for negative experiences but Teflon for positive ones.”

A recent study by Jason Moser and his colleagues at Michigan State University, and published in The Journal of Abnormal Psychology have found brain markers that distinguish negative thinkers from positive thinkers. Their research suggests that there are in fact positive and negative people in the world. In their experiments they found people who tend to worry showed a paradoxical backfiring effect in their brains when asked to decrease their negative emotions, which Moser said, “suggests they have a really hard time putting a positive spin on difficult situations and actually make their negative emotions worse even when they are asked to think positively.”

Christopher Nass, a professor of communication at Stanford University and co-author of The Man Who Lied To His Laptop: What Machines Teach Us About Human Relationships, argues that we tend to see people who say negative things as being smarter than those who are positive. Thus we are more likely to give greater weight to criticism than praise.

Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentimihalyi contends that unless we are occupied with other thoughts, worrying is the brain’s default position. This is why, he says, “we must constantly strive to escape such ‘psychic entropy’ by learning to control our consciousness and direct our attention to activities which provide ‘flow’ activities which give positive feedback and strengthen our sense of purpose and achievement.” His views echoes those of Martin Seligman and Rick Hanson who both make the point that while negative emotion always has the ability to “trump” positive emotion, we have to learn how to keep negative emotion in check by amplifying positive emotions.

My particular interest in this research as an executive coach and leadership trainer is the application to leadership behaviors and workplace culture.

Here are some suggestions for what may make leadership strategies more effective in the workplace:

  • Don’t tell people who seem to be inclined to be negative to “think positively”, as that may actually make it worse for them; instead, the leader can ask them to think about the problem or issue in a different way using different strategies
  • Be conscious of the viral effect of negative people and how they can “infect” positive people, and take actions to minimize their effect
  • When positive events or interactions occur, the leader should demonstrate and encourage others to do so as well, savoring the positive experience for a longer period of time
  • As a leader, demonstrate and encourage others to be mindful of “triggers” that can stimulate negativity by reflecting on whether the negative situation has been exaggerated or blown out of proportion, and how it can be calmly managed
  • Avoiding over-analyzing or ruminating on past negative events; rather focus on what can be done in the present in a proactive manner

Leaders need to focus on the small wins and progress on a daily basis, and take time to celebrate those, rather than waiting for the end of a project or extended period of time before celebration; this also means providing regular and frequent positive reinforcement for successful work

If negative feedback or criticism is necessary, leaders should give it first, followed by positive comments or feedback, not the other way around as many leaders tend to do in organizations

Remember that it takes 5-10 positive events to counterbalance one negative event.

Slowing Down Can Increase Productivity and Happiness, Part 2

Posted November 3rd, 2014 in Articles, Blogs by admin

Part 1 of this article identified the related problems of busyness, workaholism, fast decision-making, multi-tasking and narrow perspectives on time. This article focuses on strategies for slowing down.

Reconceptualizing How We Structure Work

University of California, Davis professors Kimberly Elsbach and Andrew Hargadon have suggested that we find ways to balance our workday activities with a mix of “mindful” (cognitively demanding) and “mindless” (cognitively facile) activities. Giving the mind a rest from high-stakes responsibilities and strategically doing simple (but necessary) administrative or hands-on tasks give us freedom to take control of our schedules and maintain momentum with less cognitive strain.

More broadly, the philosophy of “slow work” challenges the unsustainable practice of doing everything as fast as possible and offers an alternative workplace framework for energizing people and helping people better align their personal and professional priorities. It urges us to punctuate our routines in ways that might initially appear to compromise productivity but actually enhance long-term creativity.

How Doing Nothing Can Actually Be Productive

A new study published in the March 2014 issue of the journal Psychological Sciencesuggests that simply having the choice to sit back and do nothing during your day-to-day grind actually increases your commitment to a certain goal, and may even boost your likeliness to achieve that goal.

“The funny/interesting thing is that most people think that making a ‘do nothing’ option salient at the time of choice will result in people being less persistent,” study co-author Dr. Jeffrey Parker, an assistant professor of marketing at Georgia State University. The study included three separate experiments in which more than 100 men and women were put into different groups to complete a series of online cognitive tasks. Some of these groups were given the choice to complete one of two tasks or “opt out” of participating. The other groups were not given a choice to “opt out.” All of the participants were offered a payment for doing the tasks, making the “opt out” choice unappealing. At the end of the tasks, the researchers found a major difference in the performance of people who had a choice to opt out, and those who didn’t.

In an article in the New York Times, management guru Tony Schwartz cites research that shows downtime, napping and sleep significantly contribute to performance enhancement.

Practical Slowing Down Strategies And Habits

Practice mindfulness meditation. Mindfulness meditation research has been shown to not only be beneficial for stress reduction, but also help your brain develop a greater capacity for cognitive tasks, attention and focus. Many organizations are now incorporating meditation practices for employees into the workplace.

  • Live a mindful life. Beyond the formal practice of mindful meditation, engaging in mindful life practices such as focusing being in the present; withholding judgments; not having attachment to expectations; practicing gratitude and compassion; behaving in a non-reactive manner; developing open-heartedness; being curious with “beginner’s mind;” developing self-acceptance; and developing patience.
  • Protect your focus time. Block chunks of time on your work calendar for focusing on tasks that require intense concentration, and make it clear to others to not interrupt you. Doing so signals to others that you are serious about accomplishing specific goals and are therefore prioritizing the tasks needed to accomplish them.
  • Seriously reduce or eliminate multitasking from your work routine.As Part 1 of this article describes, multitasking seriously reduced productivity. This includes the discipline of not being “on” all the time by checking your email and social media platforms.
  • Vary the location of your work. Taking your work offsite to give yourself a radically different experience that could spark some inspiration. If you work in a large city, take advantage of the myriad of public spaces such as parks, coffee shops and plazas that are accommodating to workers with plentiful seating and free Wi-Fi. A public setting can positively change your perspective and help you put things in broader context.
  • Block in reflection time. Rather than the always focusing on the immediate tasks of doing what is required or expected, taking a regular block of time each day or once a week to reflect without actually doing anything, on your feelings, your long range goals or vision for the future, uses a different creative part of your brain that is beneficial for satisfaction and stability.
  • Co-work with others for a day. This involves connections between people looking for space in which to camp out for a day or two and organizations that have space to share. This model connects like-minded people looking for creative inspiration through a mix of different work experiences. Organizations are also finding that this model of welcoming outsiders into their communities brings fresh perspectives to their people.
  • Eat mindfully. Eating more mindfully can be a meditative practice. Chew every bite slowly, analyze tastes like you’re a foodie, and generally savor the experience. Don’t view eating as an interruption into your activity filled life and something you need to finish quickly so you can get on with more important things.
  • Do nothing when you wake up. Rather than immediately jumping out of bed to shower and rush to work, or hurriedly checking your messages on your computer or phone, taking 10 or 15 minutes to just lie there and notice your thoughts without engaging with them, helps you ease into the day with calm.
  • Stop overscheduling your family life. More activities in the absence of quality slow time do not make for a better life either for you or your family. Having unscheduled, spontaneous and unplanned time for yourself and your family is critical to work-life balance.
  • Learn how to say no. Saying yes can open you up to new possibilities challenges, but saying yes all the time makes you needy and can reinforce an external source for your self-esteem. Saying no can gives you a chance for me-time–an hour when you don’t have to keep any commitments or please anyone else, or a half-hour when you can just kick back and do absolutely nothing.
  • Walk more and drive less. Park the car and try walking to different places. Walking helps break the conditioning that wasting time was more critical than wasting focus. Deliberately taking walks may reduce your time, but it forces you to slow down your thinking so you can focus when you need to.
  • See time as a flexible flow from the past to the present to the future. This means seeing time as continuous and elastic rather than separated and broken into intervals. Learn how to set your internal time clock, which is inner directed, and separate from the external time clock. You have the capacity to slow down or speed up time when the context or situation demands it using only your mind. Understand that people and organizations have unique time rhythms. You can adapt to and influence that rhythm. This means learning how to recognize when the two are out of sync, and how to synchronize the two.