Don’t Just Do Something, Stand There!

To cut or not to cut...
To cut or not to cut…

The title of this post comes from a paper by Andrew J. Foy M. D., where he looks at the use of a specific piece of medical equipment (a pulmonary artery catheter) as an example of where physicians are biased towards taking action, despite their being no evidence that it helps – this is known as intervention bias (which we encountered briefly here).

People are, in certain conditions, biased towards taking action, even when all the evidence shows that doing nothing would lead to better results. Unfortunately, things get more complicated; under different conditions people show “omission bias”, where they’ prefer doing nothing. So what are these biases, when do we show them and how can we get around them?

Intervention/Action Bias

A significant segment of the business world has become very uncomfortable talking about intervention bias, since the publication of “In Search of Excellence” by Tom Peters and Robert Waterman Jr. That book, which is genuinely one of the seminal texts on management, highlighted a “bias for action” as one of the eight themes of high level performance. It in-search-of-excellencerevealed that, across a range of businesses, it is those who are prepared to challenge the status quo and attempt new things who are most successful – without action and risk-taking there’s no progress. This can make leaders feel concerned that either a) awareness of intervention bias diminishes a bias for action or b) people won’t understand how the two are compatible.

These two concepts do fit together and awareness of both is important. The bias for action that Peters and Waterman wrote about relates to having the courage to decide to explore something; the decision to try something new. Intervention bias (or “action bias” – as opposed to the desirable “bias for action”) relates to failing to reliably evaluate whether that action is or will be better than doing nothing.

We should talk about intervention bias; it can have extremely serious consequences. Three meta-analyses (quoted in Foy’s paper) of the use of pulmonary artery catheters found that their use was actually associated with increased mortality rates, except in one specific type of case (those complicated by cardiogenic shock) where it made no difference either way. Robert Myers found that government suffers from intervention bias in setting agricultural policy (specifically the setting of price support levels), meaning government isn’t spending its money effectively. Anthony Patt and Richard Zeckhauser found the phenomena in relation to conservation and the environment. It’s even seen in football goalkeepers!

Intervening gives us a sense of control, even though it’s only a false sense. We also have a natural desire to do something when things seem to be going wrong; sitting around doing nothing doesn’t feel like a plausible option. Sometimes, however, we have to ride out a storm. We noted how businesses struggle when they move away from their fundamentals in the post I referenced earlier – when things start trending downwards businesses suddenly try to open up new markets, sell different products/services or hire and fire staff at random.

Omission Bias

On the other hand, there are situations where people have a strong preference for doing nothing over action. There are the obvious social situations where this occurs (e.g. when you’re new at work you’re much less likely to suggest changes than a few months in), but it’s also seen in broader, and more worrying, situations.

blind-eyeBazerman, Baron and Shonk found omission bias in the drug-approval policies of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, in resistance to beneficial trade agreements (replicating Baron’s earlier finding) and in the neglect of world poverty (also found by Unger). Ritov and Baron found that it resulted in people failing to vaccinate their children – parents chose not to vaccinate even though the risk of death from the disease was much higher than the risk of harm from the vaccine (they preferred the lack of action).

This is related to the status quo bias, where we favour things staying the same over change. Samuelson and Zeckhauser found this in a range of scenarios, while identifying some handy examples. When New Coke was in the testing phase, executives could imagine their bonus growing exponentially as they saw the taste test results (190,000 tests were done at a cost of $4m); people loved the sweeter taste of New Coke over traditional Coca Cola. Unfortunately they didn’t account for status quo bias and the better flavour didn’t make any difference – consumers were attached to Coca Cola and the combination of marketing and a more desirable taste made no difference. Executives made the mistake of expecting (or maybe just hoping for) a rational response.

When Do We Show Each Bias?

Each of us are different in which of these biases we show and when we show them, but there are some circumstances that increase the likelihood we’ll favour one of these biases over the other.

This is because action bias and omission bias are not really opposites at all, but derive from the same thing (Patt and Zeckhauser again). People show action bias because they attach greater value to positive outcomes that they’ve played a role in than those they haven’t. And people show omission bias because they attach greater value to a negative outcome that they’ve played a role in than those that they haven’t.

Personal involvement amplifies the salience of both positive and negative events, so we seek action where we anticipate a positive outcome and we avoid it where we think the outcome is a negative one.

This amplification throws our judgement off, so we sometimes prefer to take action that achieves a lesser benefit than one which could be achieved if we did nothing at all and vice versa. This feeds through to the framing effect, as shown by Kahneman and Tversky.

Kahneman and Tversky drafted positively  and negatively framed versions of the same life or death scenario – 600 people have a deadly disease – and gave participants two treatment options to choose from (the table below, taken from Wikipedia, is a neat way of presenting it):

Framing Option A Option B
Positive “Saves 200 lives” “A 33% chance of saving all 600 people, 66% possibility of saving no one.”
Negative “400 people will die” “A 33% chance that no people will die, 66% probability that all 600 will die.”

The mathematically-minded amongst you will notice that these all have the same average outcome – running through the numbers leaves 400 dying.

That’s not how people responded thougpositive-455579_1280h; in the positively framed scenario, people preferred the certainty of saving 200 lives (selected by 72%), while in the negative scenario people preferred having some chance of nobody dying, even if it risked everybody dying (chosen by 78%). Given what we saw above, this makes sense – people attach so much value to positive outcomes that they want the certainty of getting a positive, while people abhor a negative so will take the risk of everyone dying for the chance of everybody surviving.

Can We Do Anything About It?

I’ve previously mentioned using your null hypothesis (or “do nothing” option) as a serious option when assessing making a change. This helps you handle both action and omission bias – it forces you to consider it as a possibility when you get over-excited about doing something positive and it makes you do a proper analysis of the impact of doing nothing, when you’re trying to avoid doing something negative (even though the outcome of action would be less negative than doing nothing). Even when we show omission bias, we’re not actively choosing to do nothing; we’re choosing to avoid doing something.

I’ve seen a lot of business cases with a null hypothesis in. Almost all of them put it in out of obligation, rather than with any serious consideration – there should be as much analysis of this option as any other. What are the trends that we’re already seeing? What are the chances that something prompting action was a fluke event that will fade away? What would the resource not tied up in delivery of the active options be capable of delivering otherwise? (Businesses often use net present value, but this only works properly if the do nothing option has been analysed seriously).

I introduced framing earlier because it has a role to play here – not in nullifying the biases, but harnessing them. If you frame a situation positively then you are more likely to see action, while if you frame things negatively then you won’t. If we are looking for people, for example, to put forward ideas for change, then we need to frame that around the positives that can be gained rather than the negatives that can be avoided – for example, we shouldn’t be saying that ideas have helped us get less things wrong, but that they increase the number of things we get right. And if we want people to seriously consider not taking action – such as the medical example I opened with – then we need to highlight what could be lost by quotescover-PNG-66taking action.

So we should think about action and omission bias both in relation to ourselves (where we’re trying to limit them) and others (where we might be trying to either limit or harness them). The next time people around you start to flap or panic, think about the situation and which of these biases are being shown, and you’ll significantly increase the chance your organisation makes a good decision.

Making Your Environment Work for You

Deepak ChopraAt the moment I’m trying to lose a bit of weight. Lots of people ask how difficult I’m finding it, but the truth is it doesn’t feel too hard. The reason, aside from my very supportive girlfriend (which is a big reason!), is that we’ve changed things at home to make it easy. We’ve got rid of all the unhealthy food, got me comfortable trainers and clothing, used a fitness app and tracker to make sure I’ve got an accurate impression of what I’m doing and eating and made sure we pick up nice ingredients for our healthy recipes. I also make sure I take lunch to work to further reduce any temptation. In combination, it’s actually more effort for me to be unhealthy than healthy.

Surprisingly, to me, some people seem to think making things so easy is a from of cheating – the thought process seems to go something like “if you really wanted to lose weight then you should be able to do it anyway”.

That kind of thinking is fairly endemic, at least in British culture (I’d be interested in thoughts on other cultures). It seems that our belief in the “stiff upper lip” means that we think we should just get on with things and that making something easier is the “wimps” way out. You can see this across a range of areas, including public understanding of mental health, sporting performance and in the workplace.

Evidence shows, however, that changing our environment can enable us to achieve more. We all only have a limited amount of willpower and we can change our environment so that we focus that willpower where we really need it.

Outside the Workplace

Having these in sight appears to help you lose weight

Under manufactured, experimental conditions, environmental cues can have a quite drastic effect on our ability to achieve what we want. To stick with dieting for a second, Mann and Ward – research which I also quoted here – set up rooms with cues that either promoted eating (e.g. lots of delicious food around the room) or encouraged restraint (e.g. scales and a diet book) and put dieters in a room with a high fat milkshake. They were told it was a taste test and should drink as much or as little as they like. To ramp up the effect, some of the dieters were made to remember a 9-digit number; a cognitively challenging task.

Under those conditions dieters with “eating” cues drank twice as much milkshake as those with “diet” cues. They found similar results with those trying to quit smoking (although when not doing a cognitively challenging task, smokers revolted against “stop smoking” cues and smoked more – this replicated other results and is a really interesting finding for health advertising). And the only difference was the behavioural cue.

That was, however, a pretty artificial situation. Gittelsohn, Rowan and Gadhoke moved this into a real-world environment; small food stores. By advertising healthy foods, promoting health messages and increasing the availability of healthy produce, a range of stores found that people bought healthier produce, sales increased (between 25 and 50%, while the only store that looked at the effect over time found that this was a sustained effect 6 months after the promotion ended) and increased health and food-related knowledge.

IAT Example
A computerised IAT example

There’s lots of evidence in lots of different fields, so I’ll keep it relatively brief, but one of the most striking is racial bias. Lowery, Hardin and Sinclair used the implicit association test (IAT) to test racial bias. The IAT asks people to pair up Black or White names with positive or negative words and tests the time it takes people to do this. A pro-White/anti-Black attitude is indicated by the degree to which a) Black names are more efficiently paired with negative than positive words and b) White names are more efficiently paired with positive than negative words. A pro-Black/anti-White attitude is reflected by the opposite. The IAT can reflect attitudes that people aren’t consciously aware they hold, revealing our subconscious beliefs.

In order to test the impact of cues on racial bias, participants sat the test in the presence of either a black or a white experimenter. This had a significant impact – people showed more automatic anti-Black prejudice with a white experimenter than with a black experimenter. The presence of a black experimenter didn’t reduce the speed of matching negative words with Black names, but did significantly increase the pairing of positive words with them. At a subconscious level people related the role of an experimenter with positive traits, and the race of the experimenter caused people to link the positive traits to the race in general.

Cues, which participants weren’t even consciously aware were influencing them, managed to change their subconscious biases and their actions. And yet Kim found that people couldn’t fake the results of the IAT even when trying to do so. Conscious attempts to change performance actually had much less of an effect than environmental cues.

It’s clear that your environment can have a big impact on you, whether you’re conscious of it or not.

In the Workplace

There are clearly lots of non-physical elements to productivity at work, but here I’ll carry on the theme of focusing on the physical. I’ve covered some (to give one example) of those mental and social elements in the past and I’ll cover more in the future, but for now let’s stick with the work space itself.

There are the obvious “hygiene factors” – the workplace being the right temperature, having working equipment, professional behaviour by fellow employees etc. – but I’m looking to go beyond that to things that raise performance beyond average.

Kompier and Cooper found that, in Europe at least, the literature suggested that changes aimed at the general work environment were the least common of the 4 types of stress prevention interventions taken by organisations and that obtaining good analysis of the efficacy of these environmental interventions was a real struggle. So there’s not exactly a wealth of evidence.

That’s partly why I chose this topic. There must be more we can do to make ourselves (and our organisations) more productive and it feels like a relatively undiscovered field, despite the many weird and wonderful workplaces.

Erma BombeckAnyway, on to the information we do have. Two studies looked at the relationship between plants being present in an office and productivity. The first of these, by Lohr, Pearson-Mims and Goodwin (worth being aware that the study was from the Department of Horticulture and Landscape Architecture) found that in a windowless environment, for a one-off task, the presence of plants improved reaction time by 12% (the proxy for performance), reduced stress (including lower blood pressure) and made people feel more attentive. The second, by Larsen, Adams and Deal, found that plants made people feel happier, like the office space more and feel more productive. However, they also found that their participants were actually slower with plants than without – despite what they perceived. Nothing conclusive then.

There is, however, a lot of discussion about the pros and cons of open-plan offices. Those that look at the transition from a room-based office to open-plan tend to show a negative response from employees and reveal that this negativity can last over 6 months. Studies looking more generally at open plan offices have found a number of downsides, ranging from Canada Life’s finding that it can negatively affect health to Steelcase’s finding that it can significantly reduce productivity, primarily due to distractions. Now it’s true that open-plan offices aren’t just about individual productivity – they’re about being cheaper to run, easier to fit more people in, flexible enough to expand and contract to employee numbers quickly and looking busier/better than any other option – but some people also argue that it’s about collaboration.

Haynes found that this collaboration vs distraction conundrum was at the core of how people viewed the workplace. Collaboration was the feature perceived to increase productivity most, while distraction was seen to be the most productivity suppressing feature and different people viewed the same workplace as those two things. We’re again encountering one of the recurring themes of this blog – people are different and tasks are different. The environment that works best for me might not work best for you and the environment that suits me when doing creative work might not suit me for doing number crunching.

Innocent Office
The Innocent approach won’t work everywhere

The most important thing is to design the workplace to suit your staff and your purpose rather than trying to be like someone else. Google-style offices are very en vogue at the moment because they’re different, but they only work where they fit your work and your workforce. As a very simple example, younger people expect more flexibility in how they work than older employees – although that’s riskily close to one of those simple stereotypes.

Finally, it’s worth noting some findings by Black and Lynch. Their research found that specific work practices made much less difference to productivity than how any change in working practice was implemented. We should be working with our employees when considering workplace changes, so that we tailor to the workforce, fit with our purpose and then implement those changes as soon as possible. There’s no silver bullet, but by exploring options and studying how those options suit you, it’s possible to deliver radical change to your performance.

Some Practical Tips

Despite the above, I feel like it’d be unfair of me to have you read this far and give you no practical help, so here are just a couple of my favourite workplace environment strategies:

  • Step away from your email – we’re all addicted to email at work and we feel the need to look immediately whenever something new pops into the inbox. That means we’re constantly flicking through different tasks, never focusing enough to do any of them justice. The truth is that emails almost always aren’t urgent and if they are then someone will call you if you haven’t replied urgently. We should only be checking emails sporadically; let’s say one flick through of 10 minutes every hour. The rest of the time we should be forgetting about it. Shut down the email service you’re using, print stuff out and move somewhere else or use a website blocker to stop you being in your email all the time – whatever works.
  • Give yourself visible reminders of what you want – It may seem a bit cheesy, but it’s worth producing notes that emphasise what it is that you want to achieve. Written notes are better than online ones too; they simply have a bigger impact. It’s easy to get drowned in the every day and forget about progress.
  • Try working in different places – Test places out with different kind of work. A coffee shop might be great for writing (stereotype alert), but bad for working up a spreadsheet. A park might work for something, a library, your home, work etc will all better and worse with different tasks for different people. The only way you’ll know what works for you is having a go.

If you have any thoughts on how we can make the most of the workplace then please pass them on – I’m only trying to give a taster with those bullets, so feel free to build on them.

Thanks for reading,

Watch Out for the HiPPO – Avoid Automatically Doing Whatever the Boss Thinks

Will Rogers QuoteIt can be hugely frustrating at work to have your opinion cast aside so lightly when the boss thinks something different. They’ve fallen foul of the law of the HiPPO – the Highest Paid Person’s Opinion tends to win out.

The term HiPPO was coined by Avinash Kaushik in Web Analytics: An Hour a Day, to explain what happens if there is an absence of data (as an aside, I feel like it’s worth mentioning that Kaushik donates all proceeds from that book to charity). If you’ve ever been in a meeting where people have looked to the chair or the most senior person for a decision because there’s not enough information to make an informed choice, then you’ve witnessed the HiPPO effect in action.

Why Does the HiPPO exist? – The Followers’ Role

A hippo from San Diego zoo
The other type of hippo – from San Diego Zoo

There are some sensible reasons why people might choose to agree with the most senior person – they may well be more knowledgeable or skilled at that particular task; after all, they have been promoted to that senior position (though we’ve already seen that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re great at what they’re doing now). It might also be the safest place to be for your career, depending on how open-minded your boss is…

This can, and does, result in bad decisions being made, as well as employees becoming disengaged. It happens because of a few different biases (such as the desire to conform and loss aversion – we value not looking stupid over being right), but the big one is authority bias.

Authority Bias – We have an in-built tendency to believe those who we perceive as “experts”. It’s completely understandable for the basic functions we need to keep society going – listening to your seniors about what to eat, how to look after children etc – but it does leave everyone thinking in exactly the same way. That’s not great for making big steps forward in business.

One of the most famous psychology experiments of all time provides a terrifying example of how obedient we can be to authority, known as the Milgram experiment. The set-up for the study was that the participants were helping with an experiment about learning – they were to administer electric shocks, of increasing strength, to the learner when they got an answer wrong.

However, both the researcher, who oversaw the participants’ performance, and the “learner” were actors looking to test how far people would go with the shocks. So the participant and the learner were put in different rooms and the experiment began. As the shock increased the “distress” of the learner rose too – eventually the learner stopped responding at all.

The shock generator used in the Milgram experiment
The shock generator used in the Milgram experiment

Amazingly, 26 of the 40 participants, with encouragement from the researcher (both beforehand, with an explanation of why the experiment was so important, and during the experiment, with reminders that they need to carry on, if the participant started to hesitate) proceeded to the maximum shock level – long after the learner appeared to be either unconscious or dead. Those involved in the study did whatever the scientist told them, even though it meant they “killed” somebody – which is pretty scary. The experiment was then repeated in a number of different studies and the results showed the same thing again and again; people do what they’re told by authority figures.

To emphasise this obedience effect the study was conducted in a lab and the researcher wore a lab coat, but it highlights how biased we can be to authority. At a more facile level you probable see advertisers trying to use the authority bias every time you watch tv – there’s always some doctor or dentist recommending this or that skincare/toothbrush/whatever somebody’s trying to sell.

In a meeting room we see the same thing; when there’s uncertainty we tend to look to the most senior person to decide.

Why Does the HiPPO exist? – The Leaders’ Role

Self-Serving Bias – This is where our cognitive or perceptual processes are distorted in order to maintain or increase our self-esteem. Most likely we’ve all felt this at some time, whether it’s initial resistance to negative feedback, remembering more about our contribution than others or seeking out information to support our own theory (which I try to bear in mind when writing, but I’m most likely still guilty of).

There have been some challenges to the universality of the self-serving bias, so Mezulis, Abramson, Hyde and Hankin conducted a meta-analysis of 266 studies, all of which had results on how people attributed positive and negative results (to fit with self-serving bias we’re expecting positive results to be deemed as more due to oneself and more likely to happen again than negative outcomes).

(For context, the most common methodology for testing attribution is to make someone do a test, then give them a random set of results, but the participant is told that they are genuine. They are then asked to assess what influenced their performance and the researcher judges whether the factors chosen are internal or external).

There are global differences in self-serving bias
There are global differences in self-serving bias

They found that the self-serving bias was universal, but that the scale of it was influenced by a number of factors – children and older adults showed a big bias, while those from the US showed a bigger bias than those from Western Europe, with Asians showing an effect that was smaller still.

They also found supporting evidence for one of the main theories for why the self-serving bias exists – that it enables better mental health by distorting reality to make us feel better – because those with psychopathology had a smaller bias, with depression the lowest bias of all the conditions reviewed.

Further research, by Campbell and Sedikides showed that the self-serving bias is magnified when our self-perception is under threat – i.e. if you’re challenged then your bias gets even greater. For example, if someone sees themself as in charge, but feels like their authority is under threat…

This bias is closely related to confirmation bias (searching for, interpreting or recalling information that supports your beliefs or theories), choice-supportive bias (the tendency to assign positive attributes to a choice, after the choice has been made) and egocentric bias (the tendency to believe that we are more responsible for outcomes than we are and that other people think like us).

In summary, this means that leaders have a tendency to believe their own hype – they get a distorted view of their own abilities, using their promotions, previous achievements and the common support of their juniors as evidence. They start to really believe that they’re more capable than the other people in the room – particularly when those surrounding them agree with their opinions.

So the juniors tend to agree with their seniors, and this adds to senior people believing in their superiority. It’s easy to see that this quickly becomes a viscous cycle, so what can we do?

What Can We Do About It?

Find Data – The term HiPPO was created to describe what happens when there’s a lack of data, so this is an obvious one. Preparing objective evidence is a great way to take the emotion and opinion out of a wide range of situations. You need to stay aware of confirmation bias in order to make sure it’s a fair discussion, but evidence will almost always win out over a strong opinion.

Try to think creatively about what data is out there – if there’s not exactly what you’re after then try to come up with a proxy. Has something similar happened before? Is there something in a different sector that is useful? Any academic research (use a specific academic search engine, even if it’s only Google Scholar)? And if there’s nothing that can give a hint, then it’s always worth proposing a trial. This doesn’t only relate to your own ideas/thoughts – if you’re at a meeting and you can feel the HiPPO moving in, then suggest that the group try to find some data to enable an informed decision. 

Alfred P SloanSeek Disagreement – Alfred Sloan, the long-term president, chairman and CEO of General Motors, had a strong belief about making decisions; they shouldn’t be made until someone had expressed why the “preferred” option might not be the right one. As you can see on the right, he actively used to delay decisions if he didn’t feel there had been enough disagreement – a pretty amazing commitment.

When we’re in a position where we are the highest paid person then we should follow his advice. We should be encouraging people to disagree and be as open as possible. If needed, ask people to play devil’s advocate. You can do this when you’re not the HiPPO too – seek a wide range of views. There’s a natural tendency to be positive about your own ideas, so you need others to supply the balance; however uncomfortable, it’ll pay off longer term.

Seek Consensus – I accept this seems like the opposite of the above, but I’ll explain why they are complimentary. Here I’m referring to trying to build support for, or disagreement with, a concept before the formal meeting happens.

At Valve, they tried to remove the HiPPO by getting rid of bosses entirely. The idea was that if there were no more bosses, then the best ideas would win out rather than the organisation just doing what a few senior people at the top say. People simply have to convince others to work with them on their ideas – theoretically a true idea meritocracy. To facilitate it, people even have desks that wheel around, so they can join up with new “teammates”.

While that’s clearly only suited to a limited number of fields (and if you push people who work at Valve, you can still detect a hierachy even there), it is an extreme example of something that’s relevant to us all. If our idea is good then we should start talking to people about it before getting to a decision point – find out whether people will support it, while also discover some of the flaws in your plan. By the time you get to the crunch time meeting, you already know that others in the room think it’s a good idea and you can bring them in to offer support. The risk of the HiPPO is reduced when there is broad group support.

So we should welcome disagreement, so that we can see flaws and improve our ideas, but we should seek concensus in order to reduce the risk of a flash decision from the highest paid person leading to a viable idea getting flushed away.

Everyone slips up from time to time
Everyone slips up from time to time

Remind Ourselves of What’s Gone Wrong Before – The self-serving bias means that we’re much better at remembering our successes than our failures. Most of the time that’s useful for our mental health – as seen in the relationship between depression and reduced self-serving bias – but it  isn’t helpful in the workplace.

To perform as well as possible, we need to remember what went wrong in the past. Firstly, it helps us avoid making the same mistakes again and again (e.g. organisations continually expect projects to deliver without delays – for reasons we explored here). Secondly, and more relevant to this post, it reminds us that we’re not perfect. We can only increase our chances of success by making the most of the people around us, but sometimes we need a reminder.

Remind Ourselves of the Role others have Played – We find it easier to remember our own contributions to successes than those of others. That same research found showed that it was truly a memory effect; when participants were given reminders about the role others played, they attributed less of the success to themselves and more to others. We should note down how others have helped us, as well as what we’ve done ourselves. We should aso ask other what they think they contributed, so we can both celebrate their successes and give ourselves a prompt about how others help us. Combined with the action above, you reduce the chance that you’ll be the person playing the HiPPO.  

Finally, if you want a specific example of a HiPPO then have a look at this Forbes article.

When The Pressure Rises, Rely on the Fundamentals

For a number of the major sport leagues this is crunch time – the European football, rugby and basketball seasons are coming to an end, we’re in the middle of the NBA (basketball) and NHL (ice hockey) playoffs in the US, cycling’s Grand Tour season has just begun and the Indy 500 is fast approaching. The pressure cranks up and results matter more than ever. For sportspeople and their coaches, the desire is to do something special to match these elevated circumstances – do something outside their norm in order toFootball Stadium reach a level they can’t normally reach. That’s just as true for those of us outside the sporting elite – whether it’s a significant project, opportunity, job interview or anything else that leads to something we particularly desire, when the pressure’s on we feel like the best response is to do something extraordinary.

As the inspiration for this post, I’m returning to John Wooden (who I introduced in my post on Personal Greatness), who recognised this effect in himself.

In basketball this temptation to tinker manifests as coaches trying to make last minute tweaks to playing style and putting more plays in the playbook, even though there teams haven’t practiced them through the season. Wooden found he was doing exactly this “in preparation” for the College playoffs, and that this was damaging his team’s performance – so he stopped. There was already enough pressure on his team without piling on more new learning, particularly when there was no time to practice it in game situations. This was one of many steps in John Wooden becoming the most successful NCAA basketball coach of all time.

People shift away from their basics under pressure
People shift away from the basics under pressure

This is just as relevant in the workplace as in sport. In Great by Choice (which I first mentioned here – and is a statistical comparison of high performing companies with lower performing rivals during change) Jim Collins and Morten T. Hansen identified that sticking to your principles was a major differentiator between the great companies and the okay ones.  Yet when leaders feel under pressure or are near to a major event (like sealing a big client) or feel under threat (like a challenging environment for the business), they often try to do something different to normal – they move away from the principles that made the organisation strong in the first place.

This is often due to “intervention bias” – humans are predisposed to taking action rather than letting things be, with the effect increased by the importance of what’s going on. I think everyone knows the feeling of wanting to do something (in fact, anything!) when you’re waiting. We tend not to think about what would happen if we do nothing; instead we just try to think of the best active choice. This effect is seen in a range of scenarios, including those where it’s extremely important, like medicine.

In order to mitigate this desire for action, you need to make sure the null hypothesis / counterfactual (i.e. what would happen if you did nothing) is seriously considered as an option. Choosing to do nothing often feels difficult, particularly if you’ve invested time/money/effort in getting to the decision-making stage (we’re not very good at rationalising sunk costs – hence why people often continue with concepts that have already been proven to be flawed), but it can be the right thing to do.

That, however, doesn’t explain why it’s particularly bad to intervene when under pressure – beyond it sometimes being a bad idea and any impact being amplified by the importance of the event.  There are another few features which mean we’re worse at handling new information when we’re under pressure: 1) when under pressure (or facing a large reward) our attentional focus narrows and 2) for tasks that we’re well-trained at, thinking about what we’re doing makes us perform worse.

Itunneln my earlier post on the effect of pay on performance we saw that incentives can cause a narrowing in our focus – we can still perform well at straightforward tasks, but worse at anything that requires reasoning. We hone in on what things are “meant” to do. We see the same type of effect when people are under pressure (out of interest, you also see it when someone’s drunk) – our attentional focus narrows, meaning that we are able to consider fewer stimuli than normal. It’s entirely understandable; if you’re being chased by a lion then you want to focus on escaping, not on the beautiful wildlife across the savannah.

It does mean, however, we should be keeping things simple when people are under pressure. We can only concentrate on fewer things, so forcing people to focus on something new will reduce their ability to perform well at what they already know – and it requires more attention to do something new than something old, so the displacement is much worse than one for one.

In addition, for skills that we’re well practiced at we perform worse when we think about what we’re doing (when we’re unskilled we’re obviously better when we think about what we’re doing). Think about when you’re riding a bike; you can probably do it without thinking. But if someone told you that you were only allowed to turn your bike in line with your conscious actions, then you’d struggle – subconsciously we make a small turn of the handlebars in the opposite way we want to go, before then turning the “right” direction.

When we’re under pressure we’re more prone to thinking about what we’re doing. Adding something new forces us to think about what we’re doing, including the tasks we could previously do well. Yet again, sticking to the fundamentals makes us perform better when we’re under pressure.

quotescoverSo the next time you or your organisation have got something important coming up, stop and think about what you really need to do; consider both the counterfactual and the skills you – and, if relevant, your team – have. If you want to try something new, then it’s better to do it when it doesn’t matter too much. You always have lots of options, but when the pressure’s at its highest, it’s best to stick to the basics!

The Role of Genetics in Stress Response – Would You Want to Know Your Workforce’s Genetic Strengths?

After a couple of less detailed posts, this one’s more science-y; I’ll look at a specific gene, how it relates to our response to stress and what the broader implications might be as we discover more relationships between our genome and our performance. My gene of choice is COMT, because it’s well studied, we understand what it does and it has two different types (“alleles”) that have a clear impact on performance.

The Science Bit – COMT and Dopamine

A representation of the COMT enzyme
A representation of the COMT enzyme

The COMT gene is the template for Catechol-O-methyltransferase (aka COMT – if that name means much to you then you’re a better person than I!). The COMT protein is an enzyme that degrades catecholamines (another name not to worry about). Catecholamines include – and this is where things start to get more relevant – dopamine, adrenaline and noradrenaline.  The latter two are famed for their role in the “fight or flight” response to threat, but here we’re focusing on dopamine.

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter (i.e. a chemical released by nerve cells to send signals to other nerve cells) which plays a role across a number of functions, including motor control, motivation, reward, arousal and cognition. For this article, we’re going to narrow down again to look at just one of these functions; cognition. The relationship of dopamine with cognition is described as an “inverted U-shape” in the literature, but I call it a “Goldilocks” relationship – if there is either too little or too much dopamine in the Prefrontal Cortex (the part of the brain that is responsible for “executive functions” – our most advanced cognitive processing) then cognitive performance decreases.

The inverted U relationship
The inverted U relationship

To trim the scope of this article down further, let’s look only at one of the environments where dopamine is released – when someone is under stress. I’ve chosen stress because it applies both in the workplace and more generally, it’s a time when people’s behaviour varies greatly and people often comment on others’ ability to cope with stress. Dopamine is released both in physical and  non-physical stressful situations in animals and humans.

That leaves us here: 1) dopamine is released during stress; 2) the COMT gene produces COMT enzyme, which breaks down dopamine; 3) dopamine has an impact on cognition (where too little or too much hinders performance).

Where Differences Arise

This all interests me because the COMT gene has a number of different alleles, resulting in the creation of different types of COMT enzyme in different people. The best studied of these are two alleles that vary by only one nucleotide (the building blocks of DNA) within the whole gene – one allele has guanine, while the other has alanine. This results in a difference of one amino acid (the building blocks of protein) in the COMT protein, giving two different and functional versions of the enzyme – one containing the amino acid valine (which I’ll call the Val variant), while the other contains methionine (which I’ll refer to as Met). These alleles are co-dominant, so people can be Val homozygotes (two Val alleles, producing all Val variants), Met homozygotes (two Met alleles, producing all Met variants) or heterozygotes (one Val allele, one Met allele, producing both variants).

You’ve probably seen this coming – the Val and Met variants of the COMT enzyme breakdown dopamine at different rates; in fact the Val variant gets through dopamine at 3-4 times the speed of its Met counterpart.

Different Genotypes for Different Situations

Following the logic through, the type of COMT enzymes that you have will play a role in when you will perform best. If we simplify level of stress into high stress and low stress situations and look at those with Val or Met respond, then you end up with these four scenarios:

  • low stress + Val = low level of dopamine broken down quickly = too little dopamine = low performance
  • low stress + Met = low level of dopamine broken down slowly = good level of dopamine = good performance
  • high stress + Val = high level of dopamine broken down quickly = good level of dopamine = good performance
  • high stress + Met = high level of dopamine broken down slowly = too much dopamine = low performance

And these scenarios aren’t just logical, but evidenced. Under normal conditions, Val homozygotes perform worse than Met homozygotes at standard tests of executive function. Under stressful situations, either adjusting the scenario or the task (here it’s making people flick between different tasks) Val homozygotes perform better.

This (massively simplified) analysis would split people into three groups – those who perform best in stressful situations (Val homozygotes), those who perform best in relaxed situations (Met homozygotes) and those who perform best in the middle ground (heterozygotes). The two extreme groups are sometimes referred to as “warriors” and “worriers” if you want to have a look for some more detail on this – though they’re not names I’m fond of because they would seem to infer that being a Val homozygote is better than being a Met homozygote.

Just Part of the Picture

There are a lot of different factors in play...
There are a lot of different factors in play…

Before moving on to what this might mean for the workplace, it’s worth explaining how drastically I’ve simplified the above. Firstly, there are a huge number of other factors that impact on dopamine sensitivity and absorption – for example, oestrogen can increase dopamine levels, there are a number of other enzymes which play a role in breaking down dopamine (monoamine oxidase and aldehyde dehydrogenase, in case you’re interested) and there are a number of other steps in determining dopamine levels (sensitivity to environment, creation, receptors etc). Secondly, there are a wide range of other factors that determine how someone responds to a “stressful” situation (not least whether you actually interpret that situation stressful). Thirdly, the rate of dopamine breakdown by COMT enzyme has wider effects than just moderating our response to stress, e.g. the Val variant is linked with alcoholism. Finally, there are a number of other versions of the COMT gene (and thus the COMT enzyme), like rs737865 and rs165599.

What Does This Mean in the Present?

quotescover-PNG-39Primarily, this acts as a reminder that we need to be aware of individual differences. I think the COMT-stress relationship is a great reminder of this for a few reasons. The fact that we’ve found two alleles which  impact on our performance provides a clear line of sight between cause (genotype) and effect (whether you perform better under stress or under normal circumstances). People often think of individual differences as “wishy-washy” things, but this is a good reminder that they’re not necessarily the kind of things that can just be changed overnight. Stress is an area where this kind of thinking is very common – people are often very derogatory about those who “can’t cope under pressure” and “pull it together” is a fairly common refrain, but this shows it’s not as simple or straightforward as that.

I also like the example because it highlights that differences between us give us different strengths and weaknesses – you can’t characterise either of the COMT alleles as fundamentally better than the other. If we assume that everything else is the same, then those with Val variants perform better than those with Met variants under stress, but worse under normal circumstances. Those with Val variants are more likely to be seen as a “man for a crisis”, while those with Met variants are more likely to be perceived as self-motivated.

If we understand the strengths and weaknesses of ourselves and others then we can increase the chances of us all finding our niche – or shaping ourselves to fit a desired niche.

If You Could Know Everyone’s COMT Genotype, Would You Want To?

Before reading on, think about the question above; there’s a lot to consider.

Genetic-discriminationThe advantages of knowing are obvious: an increased ability to put people in a better position to succeed and be happy; an improvement in the performance of your teams; and an enhancement to your company’s approach to recruitment. If the opportunity to access this information was available, it would be very difficult to resist. Imagine recruiting and being able to complement CVs, competencies, test results, interviews etc. with genetic information that provided an indicator of a candidate’s likely success – would you say no?

But the negatives are also powerful: as highlighted above, we only see part of the picture in relation the allele-outcome relationship; we also miss the impact of experiences on people; there’s a risk of putting people into a “box”; we’d likely remove diversity in skills from the workforce (with all the related negatives); and the more difficult to define, but very uncomfortable, concern about what discrimination means in this context.

I don’t know if I could resist – and there are already accusations that some companies are using other tools in slightly disturbing ways (e.g. this interview, where Clive Boddy says that he was told a corporate bank used higher scores on psychopathy tests as a positive for recruitment). I think we’ll need legislative barriers (like the Genetic Information Nondescrimination Act in the US) for us to control ourselves, but maybe you’re more optimistic than me.

Do you think genomics has a role in the future of our organisations? And do you think it should?

The Pareto Principle – What (or Who) is Worth the Effort?

As promised, this week’s is just a short one. It’s also more conceptual and less scientific, so a little lighter on experimental research (maybe I’m taking something from this post) – it’s a look at the Pareto Principle and how we can use it to be more efficient.

Vilfredo ParetoThe Pareto principle is named after Vilfredo Pareto, an economist who showed that 80% of the land in Italy was owned by 20% of the population. It turned out that this wasn’t the only thing that followed the 80:20 pattern; a wide range of phenomena showed that around 80% of the effects were related to approximately 20% of the causes (including, so the story goes, that 80% of peas came from 20% of pods).

Given how widespread this distribution seemed to be, Joseph Juran, a management consultant, proposed that this was a generalizable concept. He saw a huge number of possible applications for the principle – and it’s come to be known by a number of names, including the 80-20 rule, the law of the critical few and the principle of factor sparsity (because there are a limited number of factors that have a substantial effect on the outcome).

In reality, it’s unlikely that the ratio will be exactly 80-20. For example, the UNU-WIDER 2008 report on global inequality showed that (based on 2000 data), globally, the wealthiest 10% owned 85.2% of the wealth. The general principle, however, holds – the critical few things, people, events etc. can deliver the majority of your results, cost you the majority of your time and/or determine your success.

Wealth in the US
Wealth distribution in the US – the reality, what Americans think it is and what they’d like

In the 4-hour Workweek, one of the big steps Timothy Ferriss took to reduce his working week was follow the Pareto principle. His sport nutrition firm, BrainQUICKEN, regularly served about 120 customers and Ferriss was working 14 hours a day, 7 days a week.

He had enough, so decided to analyse what he was getting from his customers. He found 5 of those customers accounted for 95% of the firm’s revenues, so he honed in on that part of his business – quartering his hours while doubling his revenues.

But he didn’t save all that time just be focusing on the “good” customers; he also identified and then stopped serving the “bad” customers. They delivered very little revenue, but took up a lot of time in unnecessary (from Ferriss’ perspective) contact and required lots of “urgent” attention.

brainquickenTo me, that was where Ferriss stepped off the well-trodden path. Most small or growing businesses become so desperate for customers that they’ll take on any client. They think that it’s a failure to be unable to deliver what every customer wants, but, as BrainQUICKEN showed, there are some customers it’s just not worth having.

The Pareto principle is often spoken about, as I’ve done above, in relation to businesses (partly because there’s more funding for research on this and partly because there are genuinely loads of applications, e.g. it’s also relevant to a workforce – your top 20% need to be looked after and your low delivery, resource intensive 20% moved on) and external/global factors (like distribution of wealth). I think it’s even more important to us as individuals – and not just in relation to work.

We spend huge amounts of time on tasks that don’t add much value to us (where I’m defining value as anything that we desire – happiness, wealth, power, love etc). We do this in a couple of ways: 1) we do things that deliver very little benefit; and 2) we speQuote on Prioritisationnd too much time/effort/money on doing things that are worthwhile, but the marginal gain of spending that extra resource is negligible. I can’t cover all the reasons people do that here, given there are hundreds of textbooks on that, but it’s fair to say we’d be better off if we did less of it.

By looking at the things we do through the lens of the value those actions deliver, we can start to work out which actions deliver our 80% of positive outcomes and which actions take up our 80% of effort. This allows us to become more and more efficient – whatever you want to achieve.

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.