Category Archives: Psychology

Why your next project is doomed from the start

wednesdayYou have an important meeting next Wednesday. Your boss sends you an email to say the meeting is being moved forwards by two days.   So do you put it in the diary for Monday or Friday?   This was a question posed at an excellent talk on ‘the science of time’ at the Cheltenham Science Festival last week.   I, as well as about 50% of the audience put my hand up for Monday, but the other half insisted it must be Friday. So why the discrepancy? And who’s right?

Well there’s a psychology at play here.   If you see events in the future as moving towards you (maybe it’s something you’re not looking forward to, like a dental appointment or a difficult meeting) you’re more likely to process the message as the event moving further towards you.   In this case, you’d assume the meeting was now on the Monday, giving you less time.   However, if you see events as you moving towards them, you are the one thrusting ahead and therefore the event moving “forwards by two days” will feel more distant, hence Friday. Try it out with your colleagues.

The presentation last week also touched on what is known as the ‘planning fallacy’ – the tendency for people and organisations to underestimate how long they will need to complete a task, even when they have experience of similar tasks over-running.   Imagine that you were given two tasks to complete – one quick but boring and the other time-consuming but rewarding. Now imagine that you could do one tomorrow and one in six weeks time, what choice would you make?  Most of us would choose the quick/boring task first. We’d put the time-consuming task off in the (mistaken) belief that by then we’d have more time. But of course, we rarely do.   We don’t take into account the fact that in six weeks time there will be other unexpected things taking up our time, and that we’re likely to be just as busy as we are now, if not more.

The planning fallacy, first coined by economist Daniel Kahneman in his bestseller Thinking Fast & Slow, can be seen everywhere in business, and indeed in government where ambitious budget and spending forecasts routinely fail to take into account delays, obstacles and unexpected events.  Here’s a quote:   “When forecasting the outcomes of risky projects, executives too easily fall victim to the planning fallacy. In its grip, they make decisions based on delusional optimism rather than on rational weighting of gains, losses and probabilities.   They overestimate benefits and underestimate costs. They spin scenarios for success while overlooking the potential for mistakes and miscalculations. As a result, they pursue initiatives that are unlikely to come in on budget or on time or to deliver the expected returns – or even to be completed.”   What I learned last week is that, whilst we tend to exaggerate our own ability to forecast the future, we tend to be more pessimistic about the forecasting of others.  If I asked you to predict how long it will take you to complete a detailed task, and then asked an uninvolved observer to say how long they think you would take, the observer would almost certainly choose a longer, and probably more realistic, timeframe.

It’s worth us communicators understanding the impact of the planning fallacy, but we probably also fall under its spell just as easily. Company strategies, annual plans, change projects all come with timelines attached, but be honest, how often are these timelines realistic?   Project managers are notoriously over-ambitious when forecasting. I can barely think of a single project I’ve worked on that’s delivered on time and budget. Perhaps the trick, when forecasting how long something is going to take, is to ask someone else how long they think it will take you and use that figure. It’s probably more accurate.

Why we remember songs not strategies

Rush_2112In the car this morning I listened to an album I haven’t heard for probably 30-odd years (2112 by Rush).   Now, it was great to listen to some vintage Rush after all this time, but what was really striking was the fact that I found myself remembering the words and singing along ( I couldn’t reach Geddy Lee’s pitch but I gave it a good try).   How could I remember the lines of songs I haven’t heard for three decades?   I then turned on the iPod and found myself singing every single line of Joe Jackson’s Fools in Love.     If you asked me to write down the lyrics now I’d struggle to remember the first two lines, but put me in the context of the song itself and it all comes flooding back.    Why is that?   Why do song lyrics stick?

Here, the context is everything.   The human brain holds about one billion neurons, which combine to make over one trillion connections, and each connection helps to store multiple memories.   Our brains prefer to store data in patterns, so music provides a simple, handy ‘package’ of data – words, sounds, tunes, inflexions, tones, narratives etc – which can be stored in pattern form.    Revive the memory of one part of the pattern (the music) and other parts will be retrieved (the lyrics).   Our early ancestors knew this when they told their stories on the savannah.  The ability to pass down traditions, beliefs and knowledge to future generations was vital to preserve the continuity of the tribe, but the spoken word was unreliable and easily forgotten.   If a tradition was to survive over many generations it would need to be ‘packaged’ for passing from one person to another in a more reliable way – say through a powerful visual image, a story or a song.    So tribes would develop chants involving alliterations, repetitions and rhymes that could be easily remembered and repeated.   This tactic of preserving knowledge and tradition is still employed by aboriginal tribes in Australia and others around the world.

So those of us in the business of getting messages to stick have surely found the answer – put the company strategy to music?   Well, don’t laugh because some companies have done it, but it doesn’t have to be quite as drastic as that.   Music does tell us something about the way we remember and how we can exploit our brain’s fondness for connections.   I’m reminded of a story I was told many years ago on a neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) workshop….

The annual sales conference of a struggling photocopier company was fast approaching.   Sales performance was dire and managers were seriously worried about morale.  A rival company had recently introduced an all-singing all-dancing photocopier that simply blew away all competition.  It was beautiful, sleek and hi-tech … and most sales reps knew the game was up.  They couldn’t possibly compete with this new kid on the block.    What could managers do to avoid next week’s sales conference from turning into a wake?   The day arrived.   The hall was full of depressed, worried and vanquished reps.   They were expecting a kicking.  Or the chop.    The lights went down.  The dry ice came up.   Two men in brown coats wheeled something onto the stage covered in a sheet.    The spotlight shone brightly as the sheet was pulled away to reveal …… the competitor’s photocopier.   There in all its glory, shining brightly, beautiful.    The crowd sat in silence, dumbstruck that here in front of them was the very cause of their depression.  How could the company do such a thing?    Suddenly, at full volume, the hall fills with the first few bars of Peter Gabriel’s Sledgehammer.    More brown-coated men walk on carrying (you’ve guessed it) sledgehammers.    The first blow is struck as plastic and metal flies off in all directions.   Then another and another.    As the music gets even louder, the sledgehammersledgehammers rain down on their prey.   The pristine photocopier is now a tangled, battered mess.   The crowd are on their feet.  Some jump on their chairs pumping the air.   The atmosphere is febrile.  At the end of the song, the hammerers slowly walk off, leaving the shattered shell of the competition for all to see.    There’s a pause.    The crowd are excited.    Then the boss walks on, kicking a piece of debris in his path and says to the assembled reps “so, how do you feel?”.     He explains that underneath each of their chairs is a cassette tape and that he’d like them to play it in their cars when they’re out on the road.  It only contains one song, on both sides.   Of course, it’s Sledgehammer.    In the following months, the company’s reps beat all previous sales records.  The company survives and ultimately prospers.

So this is an example of anchoring.   Using a song or a mental image to bring back a memory and catalyze action.   Powerful stuff.   Messages are more likely to stick if they can be attached to a pattern, or ‘schema’.    Think of one thing and it triggers a connection and revives another memory.   Our challenge is to be creative in how we set those patterns, package the message and anchor the experience.    Music and business – not obvious bedfellows but maybe we have something to learn here?

What to do if your boss is a psychopath

office-politicsWhat I love most about the Hay Festival is the eclectic mix of stories and ideas you can be exposed to in a single day.  On one day last week I started in the morning at a talk about Socrates and ended it with a rock concert.    In between I learned about how WW2 prisoners escaped from occupied France by crossing the Pyrenees, what Michael Vaughan thinks of the forthcoming Ashes series and the latest advances in neuroscience.  I listened to a former Archbishop of Canterbury and the director of the British Museum talk about imagery in religion, watched Simon Schama moan about the teaching of history in schools and saw my daughter getting inspired by the great Michael Morpurgo.   And that’s just one day.   One of the talks I was most looking forward to was the psychologist Oliver James discussing his recent book Office Politics:  How to Survive in a World of Lying, Backstabbing and Dirty Tricks.    I read the book a few months ago and found it to be an entertaining study of office behaviour, if not a little worrying.   According to James, the only way to thrive in business today is to learn the art of office politics.

He suggests our offices are patrolled by a ‘dark triad’ of psychopaths, Machiavels and narcissists.   The psychopaths have no conscience and will do whatever it takes to climb to the top.  The Machiavels will manipulate colleagues like pieces on a chessboard, while the narcissists are so full of self-love they’ll offer promotions to anyone who tells them how great they are.    Recent research in the US showed that psychopathy was four times commoner than normal in a study of 200 American senior managers, while a British study revealed significantly more narcissism in senior managers than patients in mental hospitals or inmates in a secure prison for violent offenders!   While the labels and descriptions may seem a little colourful and over the top, the stories in James’s book (based on real life interviews with office workers) are certainly familiar to us all.   What’s more, James insists we all use office politics every day, whether we’re aware of it or not.   We instinctively know that we stand a better chance of getting promoted if we can get the boss to like us, and good political skills will increase the chances of gaining that awareness, popularity and trust.   Simply by laughing at the boss’s jokes, asking about weekend plans or referring to the fact that we worked late, we’re playing the game.   And there’s no shame in that, says Oliver James.

So how do we survive this nasty, backstabbing world of office politics?   You can’t beat them, says James, so you may as well join them.    According to him, there are four key skills we must learn:  astuteness (being able to read the signs), thespianism (knowing how and when to act), networking (carefully nurturing relationships) and sincerity (or, more specifically, the appearance of sincerity).     There are some pretty ruthless and unsavoury characters in James’s book but he insists they are real people in real jobs.  He also believes they exist in every office, and he’s probably right to some extent.  We all understand the term ‘office politics’ and we communications professionals arguably come up against it more than most.   We almost certainly play office politics more than we’d let on too.  There is clearly a ‘political’ dimension to the work we do and the whole employee engagement agenda is riddled with tactics and behaviours that could be described as manipulative.  I’ve even met a few comms professionals in my time with clear psychopathic tendencies!   We internal comms people tend not to talk about office politics as much as we should.   It’s not the same as culture.   We know office politics exists but we tend to work around it rather than confronting it.   Maybe it’s time to take it more seriously?

We introverts can be good communicators too

introvertAbout 48 hours before I will start getting butterflies.  I wake up in the night and go over it again and again in my head.   I lose my appetite and my concentration.   On the day itself I will steel myself and rehearse constantly in my head.   I’ll try techniques to calm my breathing and half-heartedly attempt some positive thinking exercises.   I’ll prepare a Plan B in case I get dry-mouthed and lose my thread.   There have been times when I’ve completely stopped mid-sentence and forgotten everything, including who I am.   As the moment draws near I drink water, breathe deeply and try to look relaxed, even though inside I’m fighting demons.   My hands shake, my heart pounds and my stomach tightens.   And then I step up to the podium.

For me, this is a typical run up to giving an important presentation.  I hate doing them.  I hate public speaking.   “But you run a successful communications business” I often say to myself.  “And you used to be a radio sports commentator, broadcasting to thousands of people.  Speaking to large groups should be bread and butter to you.  How can you possibly hate presentations?”.  I just do.   I’ve never liked speaking in public.  I’m an introvert you see.  I tend to be the person in the meeting who sits in the corner, listens to everyone else having their say and taking it all in.  Then I’ll speak at the end.  Part of me feels that, as a consultant, I should be doing all the talking and taking control, speaking up in a confident and purposeful tone.   But often I just sit there and listen, working it all out in my head.  I sometimes see an opportunity to contribute but then I’ll hold back when someone louder or more forceful gets in before me.   Next week I’m going to be at the Hay Literary Festival.   At the end of the talks and presentations the audience can ask questions.  I’m usually dying to put my hand up and ask a question but I never have.  Not once.  The worst part about running your own business is having to ‘sell’.   I’m rubbish at that. If I go to a conference, which is rare, I’ll be the one in the corner pretending to be on the phone in the breaks.  I just can’t work a room and approach strangers.   I admire those people who can, but it’s not for me.  And I’ve never made a cold sales call.  Too nervous.

I’ve always considered this introversion to be a fault (and bad for business!), a part of my character I should try to fix.  But then I read Susan Cain’s wonderful best-selling book on introverts* and now I feel at peace with myself.   Introverts (or ‘high sensitive’ people as Cain describes them) tend to be more observant, more creative, more reflective, more philosophical and more intuitive.  They are less likely to take risks, be swayed by material gains and give in to the ‘buzz’.   They have greater empathy and are better listeners.   They are better at delaying gratification and spotting subtleties.  It’s about time these characteristics were valued, says Cain.  If we’d had more introverts at the head of governments and banks in the last ten years maybe we wouldn’t be in such a mess economically.   It’s time to stop trying to turn introverts into extroverts, she says, pointing to the trend for open plan offices and classrooms, and the obsessive celebration of celebrity.   We revere great orators, confident speakers and socialites.  But for every ‘life and soul of the party’ taking all the plaudits, there’s a quiet group of introverts in the corner having a meaningful conversation.  Or the one who turned down the party invite to read a book.

We imply that good business communicators should be able to work a room and excel on a platform.  But what about listening, empathy, intuition, creativity?   Us quiet types are often better at these things than you loud people.  But actually, it takes all sorts.   Extroverts and introverts need each other.   Selling a message and engaging an audience is not all about craft and performance.   Yes we need the leaders but we need the listeners too.   There’s a quote in Susan Cain’s book that really resonates with me as a communicator.  It’s from a man called Jon Berghoff.  Jon is a super-successful, record-breaking salesman … but he’s an introvert.  He’s quiet, shy and wouldn’t say boo to a goose.  He listens far more than he talks.   So what’s the secret of his sales success?  “I discovered early on,” he says, “that people don’t buy from me because they understand what I’m selling.  They buy from me because they feel understood.”   And that, ladies and gents, is how you get engagement.

* Quiet – the power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking, by Susan Cain

Am I weird to not use Facebook?

I don’t have a Facebook account and I’ve never used Twitter.   Does that make me unemployable and socially inept?  A bit weird even?   And as a communications professional, am I wrong to not embrace the social networking tools that will increasingly dominate the internal corporate communications environment?   Should I be worried?   Apparently, employers are increasingly using Facebook to check on the ‘back story’ of job applicants … to see what they are ‘really like’.  In the US, some employers have made staff hand over their passwords or ‘friend’ their bosses so they can be snooped on.   Some commentators are even suggesting that people without Facebook accounts are loners and potentially dangerous, based on the apparent fact that a number of recent serial killers, including the Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik, didn’t use Facebook.   Oh, how lovely.    In my defence, I am a big user of LinkedIn for professional networking purposes, and as you can see, I do blog … so I’m not a complete Luddite (actually the English Luddite movement of the 19th century is misunderstood.  The Luddites weren’t anti-machinery for the sake of it, they were protesting against the exploitation of workers and the lowering of standards caused by the introduction of textile machinery).    It’s just that Facebook has never been an attraction to me*.    I really value friendship and so maybe there’s a part of me that worries that having lots of virtual ‘friends’ will devalue the currency of my ‘proper’ friends.   I dunno, I’m no psychiatrist.   So is there something wrong with me?   A recent study in Australia examined the personalities of people with and without Facebook accounts.   People with an account were found to be more extraverted and narcissistic, whereas those without an account were found to be more conscientious and shyer.   They found that those without an account experienced more social loneliness, but those with an account experienced more family loneliness.   I can see the logic there actually.   So what are we to deduce from this?   If you use Facebook, chances are you’re more outgoing and sociable – probably quite confident and maybe even a little egotistical.   For some employers, that’s a good set of characteristics.   On the other hand, if you don’t use Facebook, you may be more hard working and more focused on the job – equally attractive qualities.    So should us non-users be stigmatised or celebrated?   Personally I don’t care, but as social networking increases its profile in the workplace, I do think we need to remind ourselves that organisations, like communities, are made up of many different personality types.   The integration and mix of channels will be just as important in the future as it’s been in the past.

* Mind you, if I did use Facebook I’ll be telling my ‘friends’ that I went to see the brilliant movie Argo yesterday and I’d be urging them to go see it.   I’d try to resist telling them what I had for dinner, how cool I must be for having so many friends and sharing my views on the election of police commissioners zzzzzzzzzzzzz.   

Mobiles in meetings … bad idea

I’ve decided to change my ways.  The other week I was in a meeting with about ten people around a large table.    Eight of the ten people sat down, took out a pad of paper and then plonked a mobile phone (sometimes two) in front of them on the table.    I’m afraid to say I was one of them.    I feel bad about it now because I never stopped to consider what message I was sending out to the other people in the meeting (nor did they).   It says “I’m having a conversation with you but if my phone rings or I get a text message I will treat that communication as more important than the interaction I’m having with you”.    Now I read at the weekend that studies carried out by psychologists at Essex University show that mobile telephones can damage relationships even when they are not being used.   The research shows that if a mobile is visible during a conversation, people feel less positive towards the other person.   The psychologists said that the presence of mobiles during meetings or conversations affects the closeness, connection and quality of the communication, especially when the topic is “personally meaningful.”    They say mobile phones trigger thoughts about wider social networking, reducing the level of empathy in face to face conversations.   Empathy is something we should be worried about in the workplace, especially us communicators.  Managers and leaders are increasingly lacking the empathic skills to connect with their people.    With mobiles and smartphones, I’m sure there’s a macho, hierarchical element to it as well – “look at me, I’m in a meeting but I need to be near my phone coz I’m so important.  Look at how critical I am to the running of the business. I can’t miss a thing.”    In the particular meeting I was in, none of the phones rang and I didn’t hear a text alert, so the operational aspect of the meeting wasn’t disturbed.   In many ways, that underlined the triviality of the “phone posing”.    So I’ve vowed to never have my phone on display during a work meeting again.  It’s not big and it’s not clever.

The Change Communications Hierarchy of Needs

In 1943, Abraham Maslow famously introduced us to his ‘hierarchy of needs’ – a psychological pyramid of human motivation starting with basic physiological needs at the bottom (breathing, food water etc) through to safety, belonging, esteem and finally self-actualization a the very top.   The hierarchy has become one of the best known and most referenced psychological theories regarding human motivation and change.   So, inspired by Maslow, I’ve put together my own version of the ‘hierarchy of needs’ in the context of change communications.  In many ways, this is just a different take on the change curve, but here I’ve tried to map out the communication needs of workers facing organisational change.  The key point here is the importance of understanding what people go through during change and why their communications needs reflect their own psychological motivations.   So here we go …

Let’s start at the bottom, with what we should call security.    A natural human reaction to any change, or threat, is made in the gut via the oldest and most primal part of the brain.   Actually, it’s the amygdalas to be precise (see my recent post on this).   The instinctive question is ‘what does this mean to me?’ and almost certainly the psychological response will be to perceive the change as a threat.  The first priority then for our audience is to evaluate the extent to which the change will impact their security – will I still have a job, will I earn less money, will I still be able to support my family, will I lose what I value?    From the comms perspective, any other message is likely to fall on deaf ears, or its value will be muted.    But it’s unlikely that we’ll be able to satisfy these needs immediately – especially if the change has a negative people impact – so our focus will be to establish the basics around why the change is happening, what the future looks like and how we intend to get there so that people can internalise and interpret accordingly.   Support, clarity, dialogue, listening, reassurance, empathy and patience is the name of the game here.  Only when our people have this need satisfied, or at least acknowledged, will they be ready to move on.

The next question is ‘OK, so even if I don’t lose my job, will my role change – will I have to do something different?’.   This will spark a whole range of exploratory questions to ascertain the level of threat and the likely impact of personal change.  The key focus here for the individual is to find out exactly what will be different so he/she can come to a conclusion about what it means to them.   Of course, some people may welcome the opportunity for change because they may not be happy in their current role or may seek change or advancement.   Some people may even want to leave the organisation entirely  (although they will only do so if they can satisfy their need for security, like a big fat redundancy cheque!).   The comms need now moves to picture-painting, answering questions, conversations, timescales.  There will be frustration if needs aren’t met, so expect that and plan for it.

The needs then become more nuanced.   I think identity will come next.   So having satisfied the first two needs around security and role, the next big question will be ‘where do I fit?’.   This means understanding more about what the organisation will look like in the future – what team and department will I be part of?   Status will play a part here too.   Will I come out of this change in a better position, with a clearer sense of purpose, with good colleagues around me?   How will I contribute to the organisation?   Here is when we need to  ramp up the engagement.   People will begin to feel part of the future so they’ll be seeking answers around ‘what it will be like’ and what the wider organisation will look like.   It’s probably only at this stage that they’ll start showing true engagement around the big picture as they contemplate their position within it.

So next will be what I would describe as value.   If I’m satisfied up to this stage, I have reassurance around my security, I have an idea of how my job will change and I know more about where I fit.   So now I’m needing to know more about how I’ll do my job in the future.   What new skills will I need to learn?  Will my skills be valued in the organisation (and in the marketplace)?     To meet needs here we’ll need to provide clarity around things like operating models, capabilities and training.   Engagement will increase here as individuals look to understand what’s expected of them in the new world.

Which takes us onto the penultimate stage of my little pyramid – opportunity.   As our people gradually have their core needs met, they will start to look beyond the ‘here and now’ to what comes next.   They will seek and explore opportunities from the change, so their needs will become more forward-looking and personal.   They may ponder opportunities for advancement, they may seek new challenges and they may have ideas to contribute.  They may also be keen to play a more active role in shaping the future so this is a good time to engage them with opportunities to get involved.  By now, they’ll be through the change curve and exploring what the future holds.

Finally, we come to the top of the tree – fulfilment.   Like Maslow’s final stage of self-actualization, this is about the need to reach ones potential.  In our context, this is achieving that level of engagement that leads to mastery, commitment and the pursuit of excellence.    We all have a need to be the best we can, but we must understand that other needs come first.   As change managers and change communicators, we have to be patient, plan our interventions and work hard to satisfy our audience’s needs.   I’ve always believed that change communication is as much about understanding human behaviour as it is about good communications practice.   I hope this explains why.