Conscious and Subconscious Persuasion – Election Time!

quotescover-PNG-49I was away last weekend and also am for the next one, so will only be putting up a couple of shorter posts this week and next. Anyway, it’s probably a good thing for me to be more efficient with words from time to time!

When I started writing this blog, I always had it in mind to write about a couple of experiments on persuasion. I’m prompted to write it now by all the pre-election campaigning that’s going on in the UK – and the many attempts to persuade you to give them your vote (and any of the parties with enough money available have spent it on finding a way to convince you). I’m only going to touch on two concepts within the world of persuasion (just to get you going), which show we’re not quite as rational as we think and can be easily tricked into doing what someone else wants (or we can easily convince someone else!).

Give a Reason, Any Reason

In 1978, Langer and Blank performed an experiment that revealed we aren’t quite as clever (or aware) as we like to think.

The basic set-up was that just as someone wascopier about to use a photocopier, an experimenter would turn up and ask to use it first. The study was a 3 x 2 design – the 3 reflecting different statements the experimenter used and the 2 being the level of inconvenience to the subject. The 3 statements were: 1) No explanation – “Excuse me, I have x pages. May I use the Xerox machine?”; 2) Placebic explanation (i.e. an explanation that adds no information) – the statement was the same, but added on “because I have to make copies”; 3) Genuine explanation – the same as statement 1, but with “because I’m in a rush” to explain the requirement for pushing ahead. The 2 levels of inconvenience were generated by varying the number of pages to be copied – this was either 5 or 20.

Naturally, you’d expect (or at least I did) the people to see straight through the placebic explanation – of course you need to make copies or you wouldn’t be at the photocopier! Yet when the inconvenience was small, adding on “because I have to make copies” made a significant difference to whether the subjects let the experimenter push in front of them; 60% of people given no explanation complied, compared to 93% for a placebic explanation and 94% for a genuine explanation. So not only did adding a placebic explanation persuade people, but the logical explanation wasn’t any better!

At least we’re a bit better when it matters more; when the request was for 20 pages the placebic and no explanation gave the same result (24% compliance), while the genuine explanation boosted compliance to 40%.

This reveals our ‘automatic processing mode’ that simply looks for logical patterns in stimuli, whether there’s any real content to those stimuli or not. When we perceive that the impact on us isn’t too big, we stay in this automatic mode and are only aware of whether what’s being said sounds like reasoning, not whether it’s actually convincing. The pattern of speech ‘I need to do x, because y’ normally provides a valid explanationScreens, so we think one’s been provided – even without considering the content. When we feel like there’s a big impact, then we switch on and consider the validity of the information provided. The difficulty is that all sorts of things feel like they’re not that important, particularly in a world where most information comes to us through a screen.

And just to show that this isn’t an abstract, experimental situation (in fact their paper argues lab-based psychology experiments might push people into the ‘switched-on’ state, giving unrealistic findings) you only need to look back to the Budget speech this year (let’s be clear that each and every party is playing these games). George Osborne proudly stated that “We have also decided to become the first major western nation to be a prospective founding member of the new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, because we think you should be present at the creation of these new international institutions” – where the ‘because’ clause tells you absolutely nothing you wouldn’t have known from the primary clause.

Adding an explanation, of whatever level of relevance, will make you more persuasive and taking a step back to think about what you’ve really heard can make you less persuadable.

Manufactured Accuracy

The pique technique takes the opposite approach to persuasion – it tries to force you into your switched-on state when your automatic response isn’t what the persuader is after. This is done by making something about the request unexpected, so that it jolts you to think consciously about why the unexpected quest is being made.

Santos, Leve and Pratkanis looked at whether this technique would work for beggars trying to get money from passers-by – a scenario where the majority of people say no. They created two types of request: 1) unusual or 2) typical. In the unusual category, the beggars either asked “can you spare 17¢” or “37¢”, while in the typical category they either asked for a “quarter” or “any change” (17  and 37¢ were both used to make sure any difference in response wasn’t just due to value requested – they lie either side of a quarter).

Don't just ask for one of these
Don’t just ask for one of these

People were almost 60% more likely to give money to a beggar if they made an unusual rather than typical request. Not only did they give more money, but they also showed significantly more interest, revealed by a higher level of inquiry about the beggar’s situation. By surprising people into actively engaging with the request, the requestor was able to increase the chance of getting what they want.

It appears the specificity of the request prompted people to think about why the request was being made – it forced people to think of the human story behind the request. Someone must need 17 or 37¢ for a specific reason; their bus or train fare? A specific item of food? It feels too specific to just be random. The technique of pseudo-precision is also regularly used to give the information authority – we feel like someone must know what they’re talking about if they know their figures to two decimal places (even though chances are it’s just as likely to be a guesstimate as anything else).

Conscious, Subconscious and How it Matters to Me

The two experiments below highlight a number of concepts:

  1. We can be persuaded to do something either consciously or subconsciously
  2. When we’re processing a request subconsciously, the content of the request can be less important than the structure of the proposition
  3. If the impact on you of fulfilling a request seems small then you’ll probably process it subconsciously (and if large you’ll probably process it consciously)
  4. You can prompt someone to consciously process a request by making something about the request surprising
  5. When you get a surprising request you try to work out why that request is made

If you’re trying to persuade someone (and don’t have any moral concerns about whether it counts as manipulation) then you end up deciding whether to target the conscious or the subconscious based on level of impact and likelihood of agreement.

For me, I’m more worried about being the person who is persuaded – and the only thing we can really do about that is look at everything we’re told (that we care enough about to invest the effort) through a critical and analytical lens.

Only a Taster

This is only a brief taster on the art of persuasion and I’ve not even touched on some of the most famous and influential areas here, such as authority bias (where level of impact on you also appears to be a moderator) and social influence. I’ll touch on some of those topics in future blogs, but hopefully I’ve given you something to think about – particularly when somebody’s trying to get you to do what they want.

Who’s in Control? – How your Locus of Control Affects You

Dr SeussIn my last post, about Attainable Greatness, I looked at how we evaluate both ourselves and other people. When it comes down to evaluating yourself through that lens, then it really comes down to whether you believe in yourself and whether you have control over events; is everything random or do you have a decisive role to play? This is what we mean by ‘locus of control’ – how much influence does someone believe they have over events that affect them. In that previous post, I spoke colloquially about some of the benefits of being internally referenced – here I’ll try to put some evidence on those bones, make it clear it’s not a one-sided thing and put in a few more practical tips.

Locus of Control – Internals and Externals

Julian Rotter first wrote about locus of copower-plantntrol more than 60 years ago, as part of his work on social learning theory. Everyone’s belief about where control lies sits somewhere on the spectrum from extremely internal – where the belief is that one’s own abilities and performance determine all outcomes – to extremely external – where the belief is that factors outside one’s own control determine all outcomes.

While people will tend towards a certain position on this continuum, they will, under certain circumstances, sometimes behave differently. This can be due to their personal history, where people have come to learn that they do or do not have some control in specific circumstances. As with everything else, a person’s behaviour is a combination of their personality and the environment. That’s not to imply that someone’s locus of control can’t change over time, as well as across environments – otherwise this article wouldn’t exist!


This is the first reason why locus of control matters – feeling in control of your life is a strong predictor of happiness. Ronald Fischer and Diana Boer conducted a meta-analysis of 420,599 people from 63 countries to explore the drivers of well-being. This looked at whether wealth or autonomy (i.e. the level of control you believe you have over what is happening) was more important to well-being. There was no direct relationship between well-being and wealth, but there was a strong link between well-being and autonomy (there was a link between wealth and well-being where wealth enabled autonomy). Strickland looked specifically at the relationship between locus of control and happiness, as well as creativity, and also found a positive relationship between being internally focused and feeling good about things.

An exception that proves the rule

The logic behind these findings is fairly straightforward – if you believe that you have control over your life then there’s a point in doing stuff, whilst if you feel like you have no control then you might as well be anyone else or do nothing at all. This logic is supported by the two exceptions to this control-happiness relationship; Verme identified religious belief and marriage as correlated with both increased well-being and reduced control. That is as you’d expect – those with a strong religious belief derive purpose in serving God, even while God is determining their fate, while marriage also provides a joint purpose and related loss in personal freedom.


No SmokingLocus of control has also repeatedly been shown to have an impact on health, across a range of different areas. Weiss and Larsen showed that, when combined with a high interest in your health having an internal focus makes people engage in more health protective behaviours (it is worth keeping in mind the value facilitator as a risk of being too internally focused – if you don’t value something yourself then you’re unlikely to do anything about it, whatever other people say). More specifically, Balch and Ross found that “internals” had more success losing weight, while Shipley found a positive relationship with success at giving up smoking.

Interestingly, Cross, March and Lapsley found not only that an internal locus of control led to an improved health outcome for those with arthritis, but also led to lower arthritis-related costs. Internals were both delivering a more effective and more efficient outcome. The reasoning here is even more straightforward – internals take action to improve their health and they look into what is most likely to work. because they genuinely think it’ll help.


Bringing this back in line with my normal focus, there’s also a relationship between locus of control and leadership. Anderson and Schneier found that:

  • Leaders are more likely to be internals than externals
  • Superior performance was achieved by both internal leaders individually and groups led by internals as a whole
  • Internals showed an instrumental, task-oriented approach, while externals showed a more socio-emotional style

This is also pretty understandable – I’d rather have a leader who believed that we had a chance of influencing things than one who didn’t!


While there is a weight of evidence showing that locus of control has an impact, there are also some questions about how strong that impact is and whether there are other factors that divide internals and externals into more sub-groups.

There are clearly situations where being an internal isn’t positive. If you view your outcomes as negative and feel that you control outcomes, then it’s likely that you’ll blame yourself – and if that remains your thought process it’s very easy to get into a depressive mindset (it’s my fault, it will always be my fault and whatever I do it’ll still go wrong). Some things are out of our control, however much we try to influence them. So internals with a negative self image are unlikely to see the same benefits as those with a healthier view of themselves.

king-canuteAt a less clinical level, people with an internal locus of control can come across as very arrogant to those who don’t think in the same way due to their belief that they dictate outcomes – they can have a King Canute holding-back-the-tide style (I’m sticking with the myth here; the link is so I feel I’ve given King Canute a fair shake). You might also come across as arrogant because you genuinely have a distorted view of yourself (i.e. the opposite of the risk of becoming depressed).

We mentioned another risk earlier (in relation to health) – if you’re very internally focused with an internal locus of control and don’t deem something important, then you’re likely to neglect it, whatever everyone else thinks. This can further distance you from others due to your absence of interest in their views.

There is also some research that suggests the happiest people are actually those who are bi-local – those with a balance of external and internal loci of control. They can brush off things that go wrong as out of their control, but feel responsible for things that go well (while this might make you happy, it’s not necessarily recommended for realism).

How to Become More Internal

Despite these question marks, most people are still more external than research suggests is good for them (both at work and in broader life). The hard bit, however, is trying to make that shift. Below are three ways that we can make that change.

Setting Goals

Gaa lmap-34524_1280ooked at whether having weekly goal-setting conferences had a positive effect on academic performance. To separate out the effect of goal-setting from having weekly discussions, he also had one group of students have weekly chats without goal setting and a final group with neither. He found goal-setting had two impacts: 1) it led to better academic performance; 2) it appeared to move people towards having a more internal locus of control.

So by setting ourselves “good” goals we can shift ourselves to thinking in a more internal way. Goal-setting is a huge topic, and not one that I’m going to cover in depth in this blog. There’s a lot of stuff online (e.g. this), but I’ve recently been reading ‘Great by Choice’ by Jim Collins and Morten T. Hansen, where one of the consistent themes is organisational goal-setting. Collins and Hansen describe it as ‘the twenty mile march’, but the concept is this – organisations (and presumably people) who perform best are those that set a consistent target and deliver against it. If the environment is with them, then the organisations held back and built up reserves during the good times, while in a bad environment they pushed on and still met their target. This is transferrable to individuals; we need to set ourselves targets that we can achieve in good times and bad, so that achievement really is within our control.

I believe that goal setting plays a role in a couple of ways. Firstly, the process of considering your goals forces you to think about what is achievable and what you control, and secondly, achievement of those goals “proves” to yourself that you do have control.

Think Through Your Options

Either by yourself or with a few trusted people think about a situation in which you feel that you have no options (or, if that’s too personal or tough, then think about a situation that might occur in future). Then write down the full list of options that you have/had – don’t rule out anything as too wild or wacky; we’re looking for as many options as possible. When you have that list think about whether the options would have (or will) change the outcome in any way, however small or indirect the impact is.

When the time comes that you’re faced with an out-of-your-control feeling, use the same process – think about all the options that exist, think about the consequences of choosing them and then make an informed decision about which one to take. By repeating this process on multiple occasions it’ll gradually become automatic to think about your options – and you’ll begin to realise that you have at least some control.

Monitor Self-Talk

We all have thoughts that pop into our mind from time-to-time. Sometimes they’re useful (e.g. a reminder about something that we thought we’d forgotten), sometimes they’re positive (e.g. noticing that you’ve just done something great or having a spontaneous idea), but for most people a significant chunk are negative. They might tell you that what you just did was really, really stupid or bring you back to a moment of humiliation, embarrassment or failure from years ago.

face-535774_1280As you most likely know from experience, just telling yourself to stop thinking those negative thoughts doesn’t work – in fact it has the opposite effect. So don’t try to stop the thoughts, but merely observe them. Be aware of your self-talk and consciously note it. Keep doing this over time and you’ll start to listen to the self-talk, but consider it like any other external stimuli – you’ll begin to separate your conscious from these spontaneous thoughts rather than identifying those spontaneous thoughts as “you”. In that way you can respond to any negative self-talk from a position of distance, and therefore more logically.

This is useful as a general tool, but in this context it gives you the opportunity to address the negative self-talk which says “I have no choice” or “what I do really doesn’t matter” – another chance for you to take control.

Over to You – Do any of you have any tips or ideas on how to feel more in control?

Attainable Greatness – A Different Measurement of Individual Performance

john-wooden-99jpg-88739e635e76f992_largeJohn Wooden was arguably the greatest College basketball coach of all-time; a ten time winner of the NCAA national championship, the holder of an 88-game winning streak and basketball Hall of Famer (as both a player and a coach). As coach of UCLA, he helped develop some of the most celebrated players in NBA history, including Lew Alcindor (who later took on the name Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) and Bill Walton. As a fan of both sport and organisational performance, Wooden on Leadership was one of the earlier books I read on leadership and productivity. Some of the concepts in the book are fairly straightforward (though his followers wouldn’t let you believe it), but there are a few topics that have changed how I think about things. One that I’ve tried to take with me is “personal” or “attainable greatness”, particularly when organisations are assessing their employees’ performance and I’m assessing my own.

Conventional Assessment

cyclists-601591_1280Firstly, a bit of context. We tend to identify performance by comparing people against each other. This is the easiest way to do things; just look at everyone’s achievements and those with more or better ones have performed better than the others. Society trains us to think like this, whether through sport, exams or any other competitive task. Through this lens, the ‘greatest’ performer is the person with the most and/or best achievements.

This approach is helpful for some purposes, particularly because it intends to provide objectivity and a comparison in assessing performance. It  provides a quick and easy way for an organisation to review its workforce, enabling it to make better informed recruitment, promotion (taking account of previous caveats) and firing. It clearly has a place in performance assessment, but there are a few reasons why it shouldn’t be our sole methodology; firstly (and obviously), it neglects potential; secondly, it is ineffective for motivating people; thirdly, raw ability (in whatever form) is outside of an individual’s control; fourthly, it can drive leaders’ focus on recruitment and firing rather than teaching/training; and fifthly, it makes life fairly frustrating (because some people just can’t perform ‘well’ enough).

Personal Greatness – For the Business

recite-grijsoThat brings us to Wooden’s concept – “Personal Greatness”. To him “personal greatness is measured against one’s own potential, not against that of someone else”. By looking at the world through this lens, you start to see people as having achieved a certain % of their potential rather than just seeing their raw performance.

I find this a very empowering perspective, probably more so due to my own flaws. Before it became part of my mindset, I used to get hugely frustrated with people who simply weren’t naturally talented at what they were doing. Thinking about personal greatness makes me a lot more balanced.

It forces me to think about people’s abilities, their strengths and weaknesses in order to assess their personal greatness. While I, like everyone else, make mistakes (e.g. often underestimating people’s capabilities) in these judgements, it at least drives me to think about people in a more detailed way.

This leads to a range of benefits – it gives me a way to think about where to focus time, effort and money in order to help people develop. It  helps me identify people’s niches; the work they’ll enjoy and do most productively. It really helps manage my frustrations as well – or at least better direct them… More of my concerns are now aimed at those who aren’t fulfilling their potential, rather than those who can’t perform any better than they already are. It means I push the right people and appreciate the personal greatness successes of those who I’d have failed to recognise previously.

Personal Greatness – For the Person

CERN - switzerlandI also find the concept empowering when looking at myself. If I stand in a CERN laboratory, then it’s likely that I’m one of the least intellectual people in the room. If I try to judge my intellect by comparing myself to those CERN scientists, then I’m going to think of myself as very stupid. If I then go to a nursery school and only compare my academic abilities to the kindergarteners’ current ability, then I’m suddenly going to believe I’m a genius.

Depending on your personality these scenarios can have a range of impacts – some people find it motivating to try to catch up with more able people (although that effect is likely to wear off if the gap is too big or lasts too long), while others become determined to stay ahead of the pack. Others can just feel it’s pointless to try if they’re lagging behind, while others become lazy if they’re ‘the best’. Whatever the impact, relying on the environment leads to a very unstable view of yourself.

man-220968_1280On top of this, people often determine their ‘worth’ or ‘ability’ through external evaluations. Yet everybody evaluating you has some reason to do so, which is likely to bias their judgement. For example our family and friends want to build our confidence (think Dragons’ Den or the X Factor),  while our boss wants us to do what they want (whether that’s seek a move or stay with them) and even allegedly neutral people tend to be desperate to say something insightful (even when there’s nothing sensible to say).

By looking at your personal greatness, however, you have a consistent target – to, in cliched terms, be the best that you can be. If you can be honest with yourself and stop relying on external evaluations of yourself (often a very difficult step) then you give yourself a stable goal. By being more internally referenced, you become more self-sufficient (as long as your self-evaluation is realistic – there’s always a risk of being too down on yourself), as you don’t need external validation. It enables me to be more resilient when faced with the views of others, while also making me more relaxed about situations where others will judge me (in the purest form, it means there’s no more pressure presenting to a Board or sitting at a desk – the pressure is only to deliver against your potential).

Conclusion – How Personal Greatness Fits In

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Coach WoodenPersonal greatness is a concept that can help individuals, businesses and employees. Businesses need to think about the purpose of evaluating an employee when thinking about how to evaluate them – a manager doing normal management should be using personal greatness to get the most out of people, while firing clearly has to be a comparative decision. Employees can think about their own personal greatness to better understand themselves and find their most fulfilling career. Most importantly, people can use personal greatness throughout their life to become more resilient, more emotionally self-sufficient and take control.

Are You Afraid? – Trends in Fear At Work

recite-1ahvv1gThroughout history leaders, including those of the military, business and state, have used fear to make people fulfil their wishes. Paul Austin, CEO of Coca Cola between 1966 and 1980, once described his management style as liking “to pull all the legs off the centipede and see what he’s really like” and saying that “a certain degree of anxiety and tension has to exist for people to function at the highest level of their potential”.

Fortunately, between our increased understanding of people and the re-balancing of power between leaders and followers (such as the ability to move and the acceptability of moving between employers, the reduction in severe poverty in states with developed welfare systems and the increased accessibility of knowledge), the majority of organisations have moved away from a fear-based model.

Now, fear can be a short-term motivator, but, as we saw with the impact of money on motivation, extrinsic motivators tend to lead to both long-term and short-term problems – and the impact of fear is much more extreme. Fear has a broad range of negative impacts, from reduced quality to distorted organisational learning and from a fear of attempting anything new (as Steve Ross noted above) to “disastrous financial performance”.

Given the above, and our own common sense, hopefully we all agree that fear is not a long term management strategy. In this article, however, I want to highlight a few trends in fear in the workplace, starting with how prevalent it is, but then focusing on people’s fear of redundancy.

Seventy Percent Believe That Raising Concerns Will Have Adverse Consequences

Fear has a number of definitions, but here I’ll keep it as broad as possible – “an unpleasant emotion caused by a threat”. There have been a number of studies that fall within this and show how amazingly common fear is in the workplace.

caution-454360_1280In one study, which involved interviewing 260 people from 22 organisations, the researchers sought to identify what percentage of individuals feared that raising on-the-job concerns may result in adverse repercussions. Amazingly, 70% of those interviewed confessed to having this anxiety. The majority of these highlighted sensitive issues that needed resolution, but which everyone is too scared to talk about. The feedback mechanism between staff and ‘management’ is essential to continuous improvement, so if 70% of staff are afraid to raise concerns then there must be substantial potential for both employers and employees.

To add to this, findings from the 2012 UK Skills and Employment Survey showed that 31% of employees were fearful of unfair treatment at work, while 52% felt anxious about losing their job.

It’s clear that fear, in some form or other, is prevalent at work. Given the negative consequences of fear and the extent of fear in the workplace, this becomes an area that we should invest in improving.

Public Sector Employees Feel as Insecure as Those in the Private Sector

architecture-2892_1280The survey mentioned above showed another trend, which, while understandable, reflects a new challenge for management within the public sector. This study took data from 5 different years – 1986, 1997, 2001, 2006 and 2012 – and compared public sector and private sector responses on a number of questions. One of these questions asked whether people feared losing their job and becoming unemployed. In 1986, 2001 and 2006 the private sector clearly feared redundancy more than those in the public sector. In 1997 (potentially in line with uncertainty due to the general election) both sectors felt equally secure/insecure. In 2012, however, public sector insecurity was significantly greater than that in the private sector. It will be interesting to see whether this trend continues, or perhaps the gap broadens further, with increased austerity.

Some might argue that this has been too long coming. and that the public sector has been far too comfortable, but, irrespective of your personal views, it represents a new challenge for those managing within government. There is an opportunity to harness this shift, particularly for people who have become too relaxed in their role and need a jolt, but it’s important to provide clarity and confidence to those who are performing well. As discussed in this post, it’s about the right approach for the right people, but there may be substantial opportunities for the public sector to learn from private sector colleagues, given their experience of handling a workforce concerned about this uncertainty.

In contrast to this, fear of unfair treatment (formed of anxiety about arbitrary dismissal, discrimination or victimisation by management) was significantly higher in the private sector than the public sector throughout, suggesting learning opportunities in the other direction.

Women are Less Worried About Losing Their Job

Alongside the Skills and Employment Survey, Glassdoor run a quarterly employment confidence survey in the UK and US, giving us a much more frequent and up to date picture. Please accept my apologies for being a tad parochial, but I’m going to concentrate on the UK stats.

woman-41891_1280One of the consistent trends in both these surveys is that women are less worried about losing their job than men. Stereotypically, men are over-confident and cocky, while women often miss out on career opportunities by being overly anxious – so what’s going on?

There are a range of possible explanations, but one piece of evidence shows a clear example of a third factor being in play. Those in part-time work are significantly less worried about being made redundant – and that applies equally to men and women. However, there are a higher proportion of women than men in part time positions, so the overall women’s average anxiety level is pulled down by this higher proportion of part-time workers. I’ve not seen, unfortunately, results for men and women in similar jobs, so don’t know what the like-to-like comparison shows.

It’s worth mentioning, however, that the gap appears to be closing between men and women – while men consistently express higher anxiety about losing their job, the Skills and Employment Survey showed a much bigger increase in anxiety for women than for men between 2006 and 2012. Again there are open questions about whether changes in type of employment played a role.

As a brief aside, while men displayed less confidence in keeping their job, they consistently displayed more confidence across a range of other questions, including the positivity of their business’ outlook and the chance of them getting a pay rise.

Our Fears Fluctuate

Graph and handThe Glassdoor survey suggests that the percentage of people fearing for their job varies hugely quarter to quarter – in 2014 the results were 21% in Q1, 29% in Q2, 19% in Q3 and 35% in Q4. 2014 was, unfortunately, the first year when Glassdoor separated out UK results, so we don’t know whether this pattern of rise, drop, rise repeats year on year (e.g. could our anxiety be seasonal?) or whether being concerned is very sensitive to external factors.
Whatever the reason, it raises some questions about snapshot surveys and how useful they are for judging employee anxiety, particularly trends. It suggests we need a broader range of data (both number of people surveyed and number of surveys) than the survey above has so far, if we want to draw strong conclusions about trends. Organisations that compare year-on-year employee survey results should be aware of this high level of variation.

You’re More Likely to be Fired Than I Am

While it’s not surprising (we tend to think we’re the best at everything), it’s good to see the data – we believe that other people are more likely to be fired than we are. The Glassdoor survey shows that, despite the variation in anxiety, a consistently higher percentage of people are concerned about others being fired than are concerned about losing their own job. Over 2014, the gap was at least 7 percentage points (i.e. at least 20% more people were concerned about others’ jobs than about their own) every quarter.

None of These Fears Are Universal

tree-57119_1280To reiterate a focus from my previous post, there are different groups of people with different points of view. For example, we’re not all worried about losing our job – in Q4 2014 35% feared redundancy, leaving 65% who did not. At the same time, 39% said they would leave their job if they did not receive a pay rise in the next 12 months – presumably the majority of these weren’t feeling too negative about how their employer sees them! And we’re even optimistic about how our organisations will perform – 34% thought things would improve for their business, compared to only 11% expecting things to get worse.

What Does This All Mean? 

We’ve seen that fear negatively impacts on your business and we’ve had a look at some of the trends in fear. The statistics show that fear matters – with such a high proportion of the workforce worried about something, it’s an area where we can make a difference. We need to think about who’s afraid, how we want them to feel and how we can help staff feel more productive emotions (as well as better emotions for their own well-being).

What Can We Do?

The focus of this post has been on trends – specifically in relation to fear for losing a job, but also, hopefully, some broader learning about how we can look at phenomena.

It wouldn’t feel complete, however, without at least giving a few pointers on how to make things better (and a few links with some more detail):

  • Make self-awareness essential
  • Promote emotional intelligence
  • Encourage honest and constructive confrontation
  • Be more transparent and provide clarity where possible
  • Give up unnecessary restrictions and controls on your staff
  • Practice facing fear
  • Train on the basics – and rely on them when the going gets tough
  • Develop an open environment at work – encourage conversation, laughter and positive emotional expression.

Feel free to add more – particularly any practical examples!

The Pygmalion Effect, the Impact of Expectations and the Importance of Context

Pygmalion by Jean-Baptiste Regnault, 1786, Musée National du Château et des Trianons
Pygmalion by Jean-Baptiste Regnault, 1786, Musée National du Château et des Trianons

The Pygmalion of Greek myth was a sculptor. He carved an ivory statue – Galatea – so beautiful and realistic that he fell in love with it. At the altar of Aphrodite, the goddess of love, he wished that she would come to life, as he had no interest in other women. When he returned to the statue, she came to life and they went on to marry and have children. His name has been lent to the Pygmalion Effect – the more positive the expectation placed upon someone, the better they perform.

The Pygmalion Effect

This is also eponymously called the Rosenthal effect, after Robert Rosenthal, who conducted a number of experiments into self-fulfilling prophecies. In 1968, he, alongside Lenore Jacobson, published “Pygmalion in the Classroom”, incorporating a study at Oak School in California. In the experiment they randomly identified around 20% of the students as having particularly high potential for the coming year and they then informed the teachers about these particularly talented individuals. The results showed that, for younger pupils, being labelled as high potential delivered a statistically significant improvement in IQ increase above and beyond that achieved by ‘normal’ students. Thus the first evidence for the impact of expectations on performance was found and a new area of research was born.

This study, however, created just as many questions as answers – why were only the younger children affected? Does that mean expectations play no role for adults? Could it be due to teachers giving more support to those students (and thus less to the rest), meaning the effect can’t be used to benefit everyone in a group? Was any effect due to the teacher’s expectations or was it due to the students identifying themselves as a strong performer?

Research at around the same time (1968 and 1970) by Major Wilburn Schrank looked into these questions, to varying extents. He used similar treatments to the experiment above, but Schrank’s experiment was conducted at the US Air Force Academy Preparatory School (ages 17 and over) and labelled whole ‘sections’ (i.e. classes) as more or less talented. In the 1968 study the teachers were told the labels were authentic, whereas in the 1970 study they knew it was random, while everything else was kept the same. In the 1968 study, the same effect was seen as for the younger pupils at Oak School, showing that the impact of expectations continued beyond youth and that whole groups could benefit (One major caveat – there was no control for how much effort the teachers invested in each group outside of the classroom, such as lesson planning). In the 1970 version there was no effect, revealing that  teachers’ expectations were the key variable rather than the students’ beliefs. This still only looked, however, at a narrow age range and a very specific work environment.

In 2000, both Nicole Kierein & Michael Gold and Brian McNatt conducted meta-analyses of the Pygmalion Effect within work organisations, providing us with some more thorough answers. Kierein & Gold looked at 13 different studies within organisations and found that there was a significant effect (for the statisticians out there, the overall effect size was a d value of 0.81 – for the non-statisticians, Cohen said anything over 0.8 represented a “large” effect), while McNatt looked at 17 studies, finding an effect size of 1.13.

So overall we can be confident that, when looking across a whole population, there really is a Pygmalion Effect. It is not, however – and as ever – that simple…

The Opposite – Golem’s Emergence

Every silver lining has its cloud, and the Pygmalion Effect’s counterpoint is the Golem Effect – if we have negative expectations of someone then they are dragged down by them. In fact, both meta-analyses found that the Golem Effect exceeded the effect size of its Pygmalion brother (to reassure readers that psychologists aren’t too evil, the Golem Effect isn’t tested by randomly designating people as incompetent. Researchers ask managers what their expectations are for their staff, and then actively tell them that their expectations should be average rather than low for a randomly selected portion of those designated ‘low expectation’. Therefore the ‘control’ group is the one that experiences the Golem Effect and the ‘treatment’ group is de-Golem’ed).

A representation of a Golem
A representation of a Golem

Therefore restraining the negative is at least as important as maximising the positive. This is particularly important if expectations are part of a zero sum game (i.e. if designating some as ‘high expectation’ means others become ‘low expectation’). This can happen naturally; we baseline our expectations based on the people around us and then judge people relative to the baseline. If you suddenly start working with an exceptional employee, then you might reasonably wonder why the others aren’t as good – even though before working with the exceptional employee you thought they were all fine.

That’s one reason why holding expectations for a group can be useful, particularly if it’s the group who’s performance is most important to you (and, equally, the group which is most influenced by your expectations). By placing expectations on a group you avoid the need to compare members within that group to define your baseline.

Differences Matter

It turns out that the Pygmalion Effect, while prevalent, varies in size depending on who you are and the environment you’re in. The meta-analyses found three specific moderators on effect size (I really can’t emphasise enough that it is only possible to identify moderators that we record, by definition, so we’re unlikely to see anything too subtle. Only the very basics about participants are normally recorded – there are a number of other potential, but unproven, moderators).

The first moderator they identified is gender. Both analyses found that men were more strongly influenced by expectations than women. It seems likely that this is a societal and cultural effect – and these analyses are now 15 years old and relate to research older than that. Senior levels within organisations were more male dominated then and men had increased opportunities; this may have motivated men towards trying to fulfil expectations or the men in leadership positions may have invested disproportionately more in ‘high expectation’ men – the reasons aren’t clear.

More recent research (2008) by Gloria Natanovich and Dov Eden showed that the gender of the ‘expecter’ was not, at least in a specific environment, an important variable, while also suggesting that ‘expectee’ gender didn’t matter either. As workplace culture becomes increasingly balanced, these results suggests that biases in Pygmalion effect will gradually fade away. In the interim, however, we need to be aware of how workplace biases can play a role.

Secondly, effect size is influenced by initial expectations and/or performance. The lower the initial expectations, the larger the impact of the Pygmalion Effect. This follows logically – the greater the scope for change in a variable, the larger any effect should be.

Thirdly, workplace environment has a significant influence. In particular, both analyses found a stronger impact in military environments than in other workplaces. Perhaps this is due to the hierarchical environment in the military leading to people investing more in living up to their manager’s expectations, in comparison to the less ingrained and less linear (you’re not as strongly ‘owned’ by any one person) relationship in non-military organisations.

There are individual differences everywhere
There are individual differences everywhere

This reflects a broader concept – which stretches far beyond the Pygmalion Effect – that I believe could use a lot more attention; analysis of the differences in the impact of psychological phenomena on different groups (here I am simply defining a group as a number of people who share any specific trait). It is both easy and useful to have a global analysis; it provides more straightforward actions, while only needing random samples from the total population to identify an effect. It’s also controversial and complicated to start to look at actions that would be targeted at specific segments. It could, however, help both employees and employers and it is, in my opinion, something we should explore.

Maintaining Awareness

As a final twist in the Pygmalion tale, we need to think about assessment of the quality of someone’s performance. In general terms, our perception of performance follows this equation (this applies equally to products as it does to people):

  • Perceived Performance = Actual Performance – Expectations

Therefore the higher our expectations, the lower our perception of the quality of the same actual performance (for example, if I bought a watch for £10 and it broke after a couple of years then I’d think that was fair enough. If I bought a watch for £500 and it lasted a couple of years, then I’d feel ripped off).

The Pygmalion Effect means that raising expectations of employees (or students) can lead to increased actual performance, as we know. But if the increase in expectations is larger than the increase in performance, then we can still end up perceiving a decrease in performance. Therefore we are disappointed in delivery, probably express this to others and suppress future performance.

We need to be aware of this and do what we can to act to correct against it. Using objective metrics enables us to make direct comparisons, but mostly we just need to reflect on this when thinking about how individuals (and groups) are performing.

By understanding our expectations, and how to use them, we can improve performance, increase individual motivation and appropriately recognise people for their successes, making this a topic worth exploring – after all, Pygmalion did, eventually, get the girl.

Reaching “Final Placement” – The Peter Principle and Promotion

In 1969, Laurence Peter and Raymond Hull recite-1d0uoeywrote the satirical management book “The Peter Principle: Why Things Always Go Wrong“, and, its key principle is only becoming more relevant. That overarching concept is “every employee tends to rise to his own level of incompetence” – i.e. we each get promoted until we’re no longer good at our job and then we get stuck in that role forever more. This leads not only to organisational ineffectiveness, but also employee unhappiness and anxiety. There are multiple plausible explanations for this and, helpfully, some research which explores the reality of the Peter Principle.

The Peter Principle

The greatness of Peter and Hull’s book was the balance between genuine insight and off the wall comedy. The theories within it were both intuitive and hugely readable. My training, however, is as a skeptical scientist, so I wanted to find a bit of evidence to support it.

In theoretical terms, there are a number of models, from Faria (2000) to Lezear (2001). Pluchino, Rapisarda and Garafalo (2009) even ran an agent based simulation that showed that promoting people at random was better than promotinstockvault-teacher-and-formulas147814g the best current performers – though it’s worth noting they won an Ig Nobel award (it did assume that: 1) you promote the most competent from their current roles; and 2) that performance in current role doesn’t predict performance in the job above). These only show, however, that the Peter Principle is possible, not that it actually happens.

Dickinson and Villeval (2007) showed that the Peter Principle exists in a lab setting, as long as performance has both random and skill-based elements to it. This not only showed the Peter Principle at work, but also that it became stronger as the importance of the random element increased. Further it showed that using a promotion rule (i.e. people got promoted when they hit certain performance criteria) was still better than self-selection – as we’ve seen in other posts, people are bad at making judgements, particularly those relating to their own ability (in this case, a particular problem was attributing chance-related performance to their own ability).

Finally, alongside the many anecdotal examples, there has been some research into the real-world presence of The Principle. Barmby, Eberth and Ba (2006) conducted a review of over a decade’s worth of data from a large financial firm – this indicated that there was a drop in performance after promotion and that 2/3rds of this could be accounted for by the Peter Principle. Earlier Abraham and Medoff (1980) found that subjective performance was lower the longer people had been in a job, while Gibbs and Hendricks (2001) found that raises and bonuses fall with tenure – both these findings reflected that the people who performed worse in their role stayed their for longer (or that staying in the role too long decreases performance). Together these pieces of research suggest that people in a role for a long time are worse at their job, while those who get promoted perform worse at their next job.

The Many Theories Behind the Peter Principle

There seems to be, therefore, a consensus that the Peter Principle is a real world occurrence. There is not, however, agreement over what creates it. Explanations are many and varied, including: the change in skills required between different roles; regression to the mean; a reduction in motivation after a promotion; promoting people out of the way; strategic incompetence; and even that super-competence is less desired within an organisation than incompetence.

Different Jobs, Different Skills

The most immediately logical reason for a person to perform worse after a promotion is where the new job demands different skills to the last one. A common example is where those who are great at actually doing work are then promoted into a management role, but this applies each and every time someone moves into a new role.

This is particularly relevant in competency-based promotion systems, which are designed to try to emphasise cross-cutting skills, increase the available candidate pool and generate common standards across an organisation – clearly worthwhile goals. For organisations that have committed, however, to a largely competence based recruitment and promotion system, such as the UK Civil Service, this presents a real challenge. How can you really assess their ability to use very different skills, relying only on their past experience? Either you have to accept that you recruit people who already have experience in the same kind of role (defeating a key objective of the system) or you have to accept that you’ll sometimes promote people who don’t have the skills you’re after.

Our Culture

Our society constantly informs stockvault-ladder125723us that it is a positive to climb the career ladder, meaning promotion becomes an aspirational thing. This can lead to people either: a) being unhappy in roles that they’d really enjoy, if they didn’t have the weight of aiming for promotion hanging over them; or b) moving from roles that they are happy in and into a job they hate because it was a promotion.

To compound this, we’re hugely uncomfortable with the idea of either an organisation depromoting someone or someone choosing to move back to an old role. That can lead to people being fired, when we know they can be highly productive within the organisation, or staying in a job they hate until they retire, when they know there’s a job within the organisation they enjoy. One of the bravest people I know chose to take a demotion out of a management position back into their previous role – as a result they’re also one of the happiest.

This is a too broad a topic to digest here, but tools that can help include the recent focus on mindfulness, openness in the workplace and emphasising any successful examples.

Not Incompetence, but Stress

The Harvard Business Review wrote in 1976 (“The Real Peter Principle: Promotion to Pain”) that the problem didn’t arise due to people failing to have the right technical, academic or interpersonal skills to succeed, but due to them moving into a role where stress and anxiety suppresses them. This drives both an organisational decrease in productivity and an individual loss of well-being. Be aware that this doesn’t always become apparent through stereotypical over-emotional ways (e.g. temperamental behaviour, crying in the office), but can also be expressed through increasing passivity and detachment.

Returning to Normal Performance

Lazear argues that the Peter Principle is simply due to regression to the mean, and those involved in promoting failing to recognise that there is variation in performance (i.e. the regression fallacy). He argues that, as a promotion suggests a performance standard has been met, performance is likely to be lower in your new role. You are promoted because of your exceptional performance, which means either your ‘normal’ performance is exceptional (or better) and you were performing normally or that your ‘normal’ performance is less than exceptional, but that, for a period of time, your performance deviated from the mean by enough to reach that exceptional hurdle.

If you’re in the second group, then after promotion your performance is likely to regress back to the mean, so your performance is likely to be below the expectations when you were promoted. This is particularly apparent in the sporting world because you can measure someone’s performance – as an example, between the start of the English Premier League in 1992 and the end of the 2012/13 season, 33 players scored 20 goals in a season (the unwritten benchmark for a top quality striker). Only 12 of those were able to do it more than once; the vast majority regressed back to the mean.


This is a subset of the underestimation of variance in people’s performance, but here I’m only referring to variation due to luck (rather than our own performance). Given that this is a subset of the above, it again has a particular impact on competency-based systems.

As a purely anecdotal example, about 2 yeaDice and Poker Chipsrs ago I was working on six outline business cases with one other person. We shared the workload and both contributed to all of the proposals, but eventually had to (for process reasons) decide who was in the ‘lead’ for each option, so we split them down the middle – 3 each. I would have judged our work as of near identical quality. Yet, due to circumstances beyond my (or his) control, ‘my’ three business cases were accepted, to none of his. For my ‘success’ I received both praise and the highest performance marking, but due to my colleagues ‘failure’ he was largely forgotten.

It was only luck that separated us, but people judged us only on the outcome not the quality of work in getting there. This bias towards outcome is prevalent and it’s easy to get blinded by big numbers and impressive endings, but it’s important to take a step back. We neglect the role luck played in the candidates’ successes and failures – and, as Dickenson and Villeral showed earlier on, the bigger the role luck plays, the larger the effect of the Peter Principle.

Lost Interest After Promotion

This is a fairly obvious one – people work as hard as possible to get a promotion and once they’ve achieved that they no longer have a clear goal so lose motivation. I won’t spend too long on this, as I wrote about motivation in this post, but it makes particular sense in the context which that article set – not only is the motivation of promotion removed, but the focus on achieving promotion is also likely to reduce your intrinsic motivation in doing the job itself.

You’re Too Good; It’s Showing Us Up!

This one takes us back to Peter himself recite-k60xka– he stated that “in most hierarchies, super-competence is more objectionable than incompetence.” This one is impossible to find evidence for, beyond the anecdotal, but the argument is this – people who perform too well (or would clearly be better at their seniors’ jobs) disrupt the hierarchy of an organisation. The organisation fights to maintain that hierachy by acting against these who are “super-competent”. Therefore managers find spurious reasons to not promote staff or to avoid giving them strong performance reviews (this circular nature is part of what makes it difficult to find evidence – the response to super-competence is to find a way to deny any super-competence).

Further, peers often become suspicious of over-performers and can leave them isolated, which can result in organisations losing some of their most talented staff to places where they feel more ‘normal’.

Move Someone Up – and Out of the Way

Another slightly cynical one,recite-n50n5v but one lots of us have seen – people get promoted because their current business area wants to get rid of them. There are arguments that within certain types of firm (such as technology), it’s a organisational theme rather than just one-offs; people are moved into management because they lack the specific skills to do the skilled front-line work. Putt’s Law and the Successful Technocrat, published under the pseudonym Archibald Putt,  pursues exactly this theory – incompetence is “flushed out of the lower levels” leaving two kinds of people in technology, “those who understand what they do not manage and those who manage what they do not understand”.

As a slight aside, it’s worth noting some of the more innovative thinking about organisational structures – Joel Spolsky proposes that we should move away from the concept of a central management team being the top of an organisation and move towards it being ‘led’ by those doing front-line activity. In his world view (tinted towards technology, clearly) the ‘management team’ should not believe itself to be an executive, decision-making function, but a support function. Therefore it should be seen as “administration” – they do the things that help work get done. I’ll have a look at some organisational structure concepts in later posts.

“Strategic Incompetence”

Jared Sandberg came up with this termrecite-1mh30tn, while writing in The Wall Street Journal  (sorry, can’t find a link). His description was this – “Strategic incompetence isn’t about having a strategy that fails, but a failure that succeeds. It almost always works to deflect work one doesn’t want to do—without ever having to admit it.” He meant this in a range of situations, including people simply choosing to be terrible at a specific task (say, doing the ironing)  so they don’t have to do it anymore. In this context, however, we’re talking about when the most suitable people for promotion choose to perform badly enough to avoid it. This might not be by failing in their core responsibilities – presumably a major driver for doing this is that you enjoy your job more than the one you’d be promoted into – but can be by purposefully showing themselves to be unsuitable for the next step up, such as refusing to engage in the expected ‘networking’ activity or acting out at team events.

This behaviour results in less suitable people being promoted, but does mean that individuals using strategic incompetence avoid the Peter Principle – by purposefully avoiding promotion they avoid being moved up into their maximally incompetent role (or “final placement” as Peter called it). It opens up an interesting topic, e.g. is this an effective personal strategy (as you avoid the stress noted above)? Or could it even be good for the organisation as a whole (as you have people in roles where they’re still highly competent)? This leads on to my final section; how can we try to avoid, or at least dampen the effect of, the Peter Principle.

Is There Anything We Can Do?

Here are a few thoughts, to provide a starting point, on how we can counter the Principle:

Focus on Proof of Performance in the New Role – Sorry for stating the blindingly obvious, but this is still the main area where organisations go wrong. The focus should not be on how good the employee has been, but on how good they’re going to be in the new role (which can clearly include consideration of previous performance). One way to do this is to complement competencies with tailored tests (whether specific skill, situational judgement, personality, or scenario-based testing). Another way is to really narrow down the focus on competencies to the new role. This often means trying to forget about the outcomes and concentrating on the elements of the process that are relevant.

Finally, it’s often possible (though you need to consider whether the role merits the cost) to run some sort of “real life interview” over a couple of days, by assessing performance in a more life-like scenario. This can include the obvious – like asking candidates to research and deliver a presentation or analyse some part of your business – but can also involve something a bit different, like allowing them to genuinely perform a business operation for a short period or giving them some funding and letting them show what they can deliver with it.

Adjusting for Luck and Regression to the Mean – We need to avoid focusing purely on outcomes, particularly where luck is a major determinant. By asking people with knowledge of the area where the candidate’s competencies comes from, you can start to assess the impact luck could have had. To adjust for regression to the mean, we need to avoid just relying on a few one-off examples or merely someone’s performance over the last period – find ways to take a range of information on board (and simulate their real-world performance, as suggested above). Allowing someone to merely present a few of their highlights is bound to give a very unbalanced picture of themselves (and is likely to be biased against those who deliver at a high level consistently – they’ll appear worse than those with occasional exceptional work, even if they deliver indifferently most of the time. On a different note, it’s also biased towards those who are comfortable lying).

Have Genuine Skill-Specific Career Paths – This is a fairly well-trodden road, but still a worthwhile one and still one that is poorly executed. Organisations need to recognise the value of specific skills to them – and accept that sometimes people can still be worth the big bucks without having to manage people. By opening up different career paths (rather than the typical process of starting as a worker, becoming a skilled worker, then managing workers), organisations can make the most of their people, while rewarding them appropriately. One of the skills that is often forgotten about is the ability to manage well – this is a skill in itself and should be recognised individually. Just because someone is a great manager, it doesn’t mean they’ll be a great strategic thinker. This is where I think Joel Spolsky’s approach can help managers; acknowledging a distinct “administration” function of a business leads towards the acceptance that specific skills are needed to keep everything else operating.

Typically organisations start this process in good faith, but let it become contaminated as other areas of the business want to have roles at the newly created level – until eventually it just becomes another level across the whole organisation (which is a worse than neutral result, as it simply adds an extra layer into the hierarchy). The purpose behind creating a specific career path must be clearly defined and that purpose must be maintained for the organisation to get a pay off.

Probationary Promotions – This is a cultural (maybe even societal?) challenge, as it would remove the big-deal nature of promotion and make movement both up and down an organisation more common. It is, however, clearly the best way to know whether someone can really do the job; and let’s them know whether they want to!

Generate Movement – There’s a simple solution to people getting stuck in jobs that they’re ill-suited; create a system that forces movement onto people. This has downsides – you’re also moving people out of jobs they’re very well suited to, some people like feeling settled and you break up teams that work well together – but it does avoid people staying in their “maximum incompetence” role. A number of firms do this, through a couple of ways; some companies have firing and promotion for fixed percentages of their workforce on a regular basis, whilst others just have mandated ‘rotation’ periods (e.g. everyone has to move role every two years).

Taking Responsibility for Yourself – We all need to look after ourselves a bit more and really think about our career moves and what we want from it. In reality, I get that it’s very difficult not to get swept up in the excitement of being offered a new position and the societal belief that moving up an organisational ladder is a good thing (never mind the money!). We need, however, to go into new jobs with our eyes open and as prepared as possible – we should think about the possibility of promotion early and consider what we want from work. We can’t just lay the blame at our employers feet if we find ourselves in a job we don’t enjoy – we have to take some responsibility.

So what do you think? Are there any other reasons the Peter Principle exists? Is it, to some extent, inevitable? And, most importantly, is there anything else we can do to mitigate it?

The Fallacy of Precision And Why We Shouldn’t Worry About It

recite-a89dy0Last week I was involved in some forecasting work – both looking at projections for the outside world and the delivery we’d expect within the organisation. As discussions persisted in pursuit of spurious accuracy, I was reminded of a few things: 1) Humans crave certainty (or the illusion thereof); 2) We are consistently pretty bad at estimating the impact of events and the likelihood of them; and 3) that doesn’t matter because the real value of planning and forecasting isn’t in creating something perfect, but the act of planning itself.

A Craving for Certainty

One of the basic drives for mankind is the desire to have an explanation to what’s going on in the world (and pretty much any explanation is better than none). In an evolutionary sense, it’s easy to think why  – you’d be paralysed into total inaction if you didn’t quickly abstract patterns from the environment to inform your future actions. Without drifting too far into philosophy, inductive reasoning can never provide absolute proof, but someone who chose not to use it would be entirely incapacitated.

Arie Kruglanski described this as a road-sign-63983_1280desire for ‘cognitive closure’ and defined that as “individuals’ desire for a firm answer to a question and an aversion toward ambiguity”. Kruglanski conceptualises this in two stages: 1) “seizing”, where we grab information in order to come up with an explanation (‘urgency tendency’); and 2) “freezing”, where we try to hold onto our explanation for as long as possible (‘permanence tendency’). Alongside this conceptual work, research by Tania Lombrozo has shown that we react to uncertainty by spontaneously generating possible explanations, and, more interestingly, we let this bias our decision making – once we have an explanation we start to assign value to it, as if it were evidence itself.

There’s also neurological evidence that shows the impact ambiguity has on us. A 2005 study showed that levels of ambiguity correlated positively with amygdala and orbitofrontal cortex activation, and negatively with the ventral striatum. This reflected ambiguity creating a burden on our decision making faculties, leading to reduced reward sensation and even causing a fear response.

This leaves us desperate to find a precise answer when faced with uncertainty, and when we come up with it we really don’t want to let go. To try to counter this, we need to firstly be aware that we’re craving an answer, even when it’s impossible to have a definitive one. Secondly, we have to try to accept a more open-ended solution – for example, using a range when calculating benefits or presenting options based on different scenarios. Thirdly, when you’re coming up with possible hypotheses then note them all down; it helps keep you aware that there are other possibilities, enables you to moderate your forecasts (by comparison with what the other possibilities would suggest) and forces you to think about the evidence that drove you to decide upon ‘the’ explanation (so that you can review whether that evidence still holds up as time passes). Fourthly, monitor the real-world outcomes against the world your ‘explanation’ would lead to – it’s not meant to get us down, but force reality upon us; when we come to making our next explanation, we often forget how accurately (or not) we’ve forecast in the past. 

An Inaccuracy in Estimation

wrong-way-429723_1280This is a huge topic – much too large to cover in any detail here – so I’ll only highlight a few of the ways in which we make mistakes. It’s worth noting that I’m not denying the utility of some of these biases; they can enable us to take action when inaction might prove fatal, make us more optimistic (and hence driven to take action) and make decisions quickly.

Illusion of Control – We believe that we have more control over events than we really do. Langer showed that, even where we know – rationally – that outcomes are random, we still feel we have control. One experiment either allowed participants to choose their own lottery ticket or gave them a ticket that had been selected for them. The two groups were then offered the opportunity to switch their ticket and enter a different lottery, which offered better odds of winning. Those who chose their own ticket at the start where far less likely to switch into the new lottery, despite their increased chance of winning – they appeared to think that they were “good” at choosing. This effect is seen in a range of scenarios and differs from general over-optimism – it is a belief that we have control over things and this improves the likelihood of positive events.

Overconfidence Effect – We are more confident in our own judgement than we should be. There are three elements to this: 1) overestimation of one’s own performance; 2) overestimation of one’s ability relative to others; and 3) overestimation in how precise our estimates are.

Confirmation Bias – We look for evidence that supports our hypothesis. This means we constantly build support for our theories and ignore anything that would disprove them.

Availability Heuristic – The reliance upon what comes to mind in making a judgement. This makes us biased towards things that spring to mind, such as those that are particularly salient, have happened recently etc.

Overall, there’s not too much we can do to counter these biases, apart from being aware of them and trying to mitigate them through our awareness. For example, to counter the availability bias you can try to separate out the assessment of relevant topics from the forecasting itself – by drawing out all those topics you can make them all available. Or to counter the overconfidence bias, you can bring in others (outside your normal working area) to assess those same tasks or events (although maintaining awareness that they’ll also be overconfident in their judgement = and potentially it’ll be even more extreme).

The Real Value of Planning (or Forecasting)

One of the bias’ that I left recite-4yab89out above was “planning fallacy” – the consistent underestimation of the amount of time it takes to deliver a project. There are a number of possible explanations for this, including some of the biases above (illusion of control, overconfidence and availability). Not only do we show planning fallacy all by ourselves, but organisations often encourage it even more. We tend to underestimate delivery time because we don’t put enough ‘slack’ in our plans, yet managers, customers and executives want to drive delivery plans to be as short as possible – they want a justification for every block of time and “because something is likely to go wrong” doesn’t normally cut it. Further, we’re normally asked to, seemingly sensibly, build our plans on the set of outcomes that seems most likely. So we take each individual action and judge whether it’s more likely to be delayed or not – and most individual events are more likely to go smoothly than not. The problem is that, in aggregate, it’s likely one of the things will go wrong – we just have no idea which one. That means the most likely single set of events may well be everything going right, but the chance of that is, let’s say, 20% – each other individual set of events is less likely, but the chance of something going wrong is still much higher than nothing going wrong.

The rest of this post might seem to be a bit of a downer, but here’s the positive – it’s not as important to be accurate as we feel it is. The process is more important than the answer you come to. At a superficial level, it’s not worth worrying about the last few percentage when developing estimates – we tend to be building on top of so many assumptions that it’s a false economy (it’s a good example of Pareto’s Law – most time is often spent on the fine, and low value, pseudo-accuracy). Thinking in terms of a realistic range is much more helpful than spending hours generating a falsely precise figure. If the world progresses in the world you expect then you’ll be in the right ballpark – if it doesn’t you’ll be off massively anyway.

At a deeper level, there is value in planning because you mentally simulate whatever series of events or plans you’re looking at – as Dwight D Eisenhower said “No battle was ever won according to plan, but no battle was ever won without one… Plans are useless, but planning is indispensable”. The process of planning (or forecasting) forces you to think about the factors in play – you have to think about the requirements, the dependencies, the risks and how you might mitigate them in more detail than you would otherwise.

psychology-544405_1280There’s a skill to doing this properly – your ability to mentally simulate a scenario is limited by two key factors: 1) your imagination and 2) your knowledge. Both of these can be helped by bringing other people into your planning process (you can use the time saved by being less concerned about the fine detail of your benefit or forecast figures). You need to use diverse groups of people to get the most out of planning – to broaden imagination it’s important to bring in people with very different experiences to your own (we tend to think within our own paradigm, which is set by our experiences) and to broaden knowledge we require subject matter experts in areas across the plans’ elements (e.g. if you were building a football stadium, you don’t only want people who’ve built football stadia – they’re useful, but you also want people with knowledge of delivering large construction projects, of the leisure/entertainment industry,  of turf and the conditions that impact on it etc.).

The more you’ve simulated both your preferred option and your range of options, the better prepared you are to deliver the project – whether it goes to plan or (infinitely more likely) not.

When things go wrong we often worry, unsurprisingly, about things having gone wrong. But that doesn’t generate progress for the project (although it might deliver some learning). Mental simulation leaves you more prepared to handle events when they go off the expected path because you don’t have to rely on impulsive decision making – you already at least have a rough idea of what to do.

Worry Less About the Output and More About the Process

Planning is a hugely useful thing to do, but only when time and effort is spent in the right way. Desperately hoping to get your delivery schedule right to the exact day or your benefit figures to a precise figure leaves you on a hiding to nothing – there are too many unknowns in the world and we have all sorts of biases in our reasoning. We just have to be more laid back about that (as well as relaxing about whether people meet our own projections – if we consistently over-deliver, then it’s because we’re consistently under promising).