Thursday, December 12, 2013

This is a Career Health Warning

It’s that time of the year again when the jolly fat fella dons his red suit and improbably squeezes himself down the chimney to leave his prezzies. It’s not surprising he gets overweight given the number of cans of beer and bits of cake we’ve left for him over the years. Probably explains why Santa has gone a lot more virtual in recent times. Dancer and Prancer et al get fed but much more in line with the caveman diet with carrots and water left for them. The cat used to drink the milk so we gave up on that. Needless to say, with their exercise and diet they are nice and slim. There’s a Christmas message in there somewhere I guess but one that will quite rightly be ignored.

Christmas and the end of the year is a sort of psychological ending to a chapter: the promise of a new start and a fresh look at things. It’s the opportunity for a career change and a bonus perhaps. This can be vastly accelerated by getting really sloshed at the staff Christmas party and telling the boss what you really think about her performance in 2013. Dead set guaranteed to get you a nice pay out as you look for the nearest Centrelink office. A quick grope of the new admin assistant’s bum works a treat too, as does making suggestive comments about what can be achieved on a photocopier. An imitation pole dance to the sound of Justin Beaver (pun intended) might not get you a golden handshake but it may take a rung or two out of that career ladder. Incidentally, psychological groping of the boss by gratuitous flattery as you sway from side to side with a stupid smile on your face is not likely to be taken well, either. Do not on any circumstances tell dreadful jokes. If you find yourself doing any of these things you are best advised to simply immediately faint on the spot and blame your impending diabetes and the Christmas cake.

Great thing alcohol. I’ve often thought that they should issue warnings on the TV similar to the RBT ads around this time of the year. It would be a valuable community service and save many a career. Personally, when I was in management roles, I would have one light beer and bolt. One reason was to avoid people saying things they shouldn’t and the other was to avoid doing the same thing. A nice dose of ethanol to the brain can completely block out that nice man in my frontal lobe that controls emotions and judgement. As a boss there are a trillion things you don’t say and do to people through the year and there is a real risk of a NLTMYLD moment. For those not familiar with this acronym it is, ‘Now listen to me you little dipstick’ (substitute little and dipstick for any adjective or adverb you wish-those starting with the sixth letter of the alphabet are best). Those with what is known in psychology as Dipstick (or other substitute) Build Up (DBU) can be particularly prone to outbursts of NLTMYLD.

It is also the time when we show our gratitude to others for being…..well, just for being a great colleague, employee, employer, friend, support person. There is some lovely research showing that couples who consistently demonstrate gratitude for the small things that are done for them by their partner have much more satisfying relationships than those who don’t. Rolling of the eyes and other dismissive expressions are more likely to mean a relationship is off in the direction of the Titanic.

The gratitude thing also works in workplaces for similar emotional reasons. We like to be acknowledged and we like to feel that we are a valuable member of the team. If people feel valued they are more likely to be engaged in their work and, hence, more productive and, very important in this world, innovative.

So, let’s all show our gratitude this Christmas to those we work with. Better still, make it a New Year’s resolution to show gratitude more often.

Thanks to everyone that has read my blogs through the year and those that have engaged me in vigorous conversation. It has been great and I’m already looking to a fun and productive 2014-have lots of new ideas in the pipeline.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

The Psychological Contract at work, at work and in relationships

I’ve been working with a number of organisations and individuals undergoing change recently. Not that that is anything new given that change is really the new normal for not only workplaces but our personal lives too. In fact, I don’t refer to change as something out of the ordinary anymore but as the standard: it’s what happens.

Despite it being a constant, humans can find change very difficult to handle, particularly if they are not prepared and have a personality type that is not very open to new experiences (known as Openness to Experience in the Big 5 personality traits). One of our basic human psychological needs is the need for certainty. Some need it less than others but most of us like to be able to predict the near future at least. We also like variety but only in doses that we can manage and control: risk with a twist as I call it.

Another factor that is not talked about much is the psychological contract. We all know what a formal contract involves. It is a written agreement. At work, it is the job description and in a marriage it is probably the vows although you could debate whether they are legal or psychological. The psychological contract is unwritten and is based on perception. When we join a new workplace or new team we watch what happens and form a view about how people are treated and how they treat one another. We can also arrive with expectations about how we should be treated and these two perceptions are thrown into the mix and we end up with a psychological contract. The same can be said for relationships.

Not all psychological contracts are positive. I’ve worked in industries where there is a lot of bullying behaviour but because this is the established norm not many people complain. Instead they learn to put up with it and are more concerned with job security than they are with the negative behaviour of others.

A breach of the psychological contract can have devastating consequences that are, for many managers and colleagues/friends/partners hard to understand. Our brains, having formed impressions and expectations about how we are to be treated by others, reacts very badly when these pathways are disturbed. In effect, we have a stress response to change. The emotional parts of our brain are brought into play and we feel any one of a number of feelings such as anger, sadness, disappointment, fear or helplessness, for example.

Trust is a great example. Most of us know that we find it hard to trust someone again when they have let us down. It is mostly the emotional part of us that is the barrier to trusting again because the stress related to being let down feels so bad: we don’t want to risk again. Breaches of psychological contact extend much further than trust of course.

The most obvious and very damaging breaches of psychological contract involve bullying, favouritism, people being singled out, sudden change in employment status, unsubstantiated claims being made against people, blame and so on. I’ve been involved in many very problematic and expensive cases involving worker’s compensation and worse where people have been severely damaged by breaches of psychological contract.

Any change, such as in a relationship or in an organisation, where suddenly (or maybe even slowly) expectations are shifting from a previously established pattern can result in a breach of psychological contract.

Things are not happening as the way they have in the past and I don’t like the feelings that this is evoking. So, I’ll either ignore it (denial), get mad and throw the toys out the cot, be passive-aggressive, be helpless, white ant the change if I can, or become anxious. None of these are particularly useful and are very uncomfortable for other people.

The important thing is to remember that psychological contracts are very powerful, as the psychological research on expectations shows us. The brain does not take kindly to its established pathways being overridden. It doesn’t know what to do and reacts with stress.

So, one of the things I have found helpful, although still potentially tricky, is to have early and focused conversations with people about potential or even ongoing change. The conversation involves describing the new world and the changed expectations. Then I ask the person how they feel about it and let them talk about it before asking them how it will change what they do. I have him or her describe the change in their behaviour in detail. Then it is important to talk about whether this will be easy or hard for them and what can be done to make it easier. Follow-up is critical for those who see that this is not going to be easy and who are resistant. For those who react badly I ask them what is making them react in this way and what barriers there might be that we can overcome.

Essentially, this is a process of rewriting the contract, rewiring expectations. No easy task but better than simply expecting people to sink or swim. It also acknowledges that people’s feelings are important.

Having said this, there are other reasons why people don’t change and choose to swim against the tide. If all measures have honestly been taken to help the person deal with the change and its sequelae, then more confronting measures might need to be implemented.

We live in a world where life and love is subject to change and part of living in it is learning how to deal with this harsh reality.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Moving Out of the Comfort Zone: Making Something Happen

In a previous life I refereed football (the round ball type that some anarchists call soccer) after a very undistinguished playing career. Some would say that this lack of ability extended to refereeing but this is beyond the scope of this little piece. A friend of mine, who umpired baseball, would sometimes appear at games to watch. I suspect he has a very high tolerance for boredom. After one very uneventful, tame premier division football game in Lismore Bill and I were having a beer. Having a rather quirky sense of humour he asked me why I didn't liven the game up a bit and make it more exciting for spectators and players alike.

I was a bit dumbfounded. My role, so I rather naively thought, was to adjudicate in an unbiased way and to stop a bunch of people high on testosterone from hurting each other.  Well, silly me! He told me that in baseball the umpires would commonly make a controversial call when a game was stagnating, becoming a bit of a yawn. This, naturally, would get spectators and players a bit excited-naturally.  So, if nothing was happening in a game, as Bill explained it, umpires would make something happen. Maybe it wasn’t all umpires and maybe it was just Bill being mischievous.

Apart from the obvious humour in this conversation, I have found it immensely useful in the work that I do/did as a psychologist, therapist and organisational consultant/change agent. Humans have an interesting habit of getting into what I call merry dances. They are merry because everyone is happy. It is a dance because the parties, and there can be anything from two to several people involved (as in line dancing, for example) who fall into a predictable pattern of movement together. A shift from the pattern, as in false step, creates havoc, chaos and embarrassment as the participants cope with confusion. Some effort has to be made in getting back into the rhythm of the dance, to recreate the sublime sense of order.

This, of course, can be very functional. Routines are helpful and we are creatures of habit. We like certainty and habits mean that we can conserve energy by doing things without much thought. If you think of stressful days where you’ve had to do things that are new or different, where routines no longer work, you’ll recall how tiring they can be.

But dances can also be dysfunctional. Conspiracies of silence are the archetype of this sort of dance. Instead of dealing with a problem, negative behaviours, poor performance or, perhaps, the inaction and frustration that occurs when we can’t find a solution, we ignore, avoid and dance. Another example is the ‘elephant in the room’, a variation on the conspiracy of silence. Everyone dances around the fact that someone is a bully, ineffective or behaving badly: an unhappy, but convenient waltz. Inaction and boredom are their own dances that serve some sort of purpose but are inherently dysfunctional.

These dances can occur in all sorts of settings. In classrooms where there are minimal expectations of performance and in return the teacher is not bothered or in training settings where incompetence is ignored for a similarly quiet life and the required fee. In workplaces in which consultants sanitise reports and research so that it doesn’t create too much angst and, therefore, continued work: experienced consultants know exactly how to do this. In coaching and counselling where there is no progress but the client is seen to be making the effort and the coach/counsellor is the support act. In all sorts of situations where the brief is some sort of change needed but the dance is substituted rather than deal with unpleasant truths or hard work. 

So, when nothing is happening or the merry dance is being played out, why not make something happen? The reason why we mostly don’t do this is that it is going to be uncomfortable for both the dance breaker and the dancers. Humans are not big on being uncomfortable. Even more importantly, what will others think of me. After all I want to be liked. And, of course, as mum always told us: be nice.

Sometimes, when we need or want to create change we need to do something to interrupt the dance. Psychotherapists understand this very well and are prepared to use very innovative and seemingly outrageous, at times, methods to make change happen. Hypnotherapy works a lot like this: it catches people unawares and changes the dance steps.

As managers, educators and even family members, do something out of the ordinary. It doesn’t have to be outrageous but when you get brave enough and imaginative enough it might be. Maybe just pointing out the elephant is enough. Perhaps it is a funny story. An activity, maybe. Changing the environment. Moving the chess pieces around the board. Alter the rules. Create a little, not too much, uncertainty.

Change the routine, the habit, the dance and watch what happens. Magic.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Changing the leopard’s spots

I remember reading, some time ago, about a guy who had a large South American python. Not one of our Australian carpet snakes but one of those big ones that make ours look like garden worms. It turns out that he raised it from a baby and they got on like a house on fire: not sure how they did walkies and that sort of thing but they were friends. That is, until one night he woke up with the beast wrapped around him and it’s jaws over the top of his head. It seems that no matter what he thought his relationship was with his friend, it was still a python. And I guess, you should always remember to feed your pets: otherwise they get annoyed.

A question I get asked a lot is whether or not it is possible to change someone’s personality. This is often in the context of a relationship or at work, and especially about those in leadership positions, where someone’s behaviour is posing problems. And mostly it is of the type, ‘Please can you sprinkle some fairy dust on them and make them into somebody else’. Fair question and often asked in a moment of quiet desperation, of the Thoreau kind.

By definition personality is tricky to shift, given it is a set of enduring traits. These traits define patterns of behavioural and emotional responses to events. The sticking point is the word ‘enduring’: they are rather persistent. So the short answer is that it often takes something impressively confronting, even catastrophic, to change a strong personality trait. As the old joke goes, How many psychologists does it take to change a light bulb? The answer is ‘one’ but the light bulb has to want to change.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      

Changing a personality trait is not as easy as changing a single behaviour or even several behaviours. So, for example, a person might have a tendency towards being what in the Big 5 is called Conscientiousness. People high on this trait like to be planned, make lists, tend to take great care about things, like facts and are systematic. A person, like me, who is low on this trait is the opposite. So, I might be able to force myself to make plans and lists, to use spread sheets and Gantt charts, but I’d rather not. It is stressful for me. But it is unlikely that I would ever become high on the trait as I am likely to avoid work or relationships where I would be required to be high on Conscientiousness. And I am unlikely to ever change from being an extravert. But I can curb my tendency to ‘think out loud’ in meetings, for example, and to recognise that I need to give introverts time to process information before expecting an answer.

We can modify traits when they are more marginal and when desire is strong. Under stress, however, there is a tendency to revert back to our previous predilections. It can be hard work changing ones traits, being aware all the time of what we are doing, catching ourselves so that we don’t slip and then applying the new behaviour. If the behaviour becomes a habit then we are well on the way to permanent change. So, yes, it’s possible to tinker around the edges, which is what happens with the massive industry around personality profiling, coaching and leadership programs.

One of the more difficult tasks I get as a psychologist, and the most frustrating, is working with people who don’t understand the impact they have on people around them. Because they have no insight into their own personality, they don’t have any chance of knowing what they are doing. When we are confronted by our real ‘self’ humans have a tendency to get defensive, to protect the ego. So getting insight can be a difficult business. It takes a rather special event to get beyond this barrier and it can be quote painful. People who have had personality disorders throughout their life and who eventually start to get insight later in life can be more prone to turn to alcohol or even self-harm when they realise the havoc they have created in their life was of their own making.

So, what can you do: about that over-controlling person at work or in a relationship:  with someone who cannot plan at all and is always in chaos: when your boss is agreeable (another Big 5 trait) that he avoids making decisions because he is too busy socialising; about the extrovert who will never stop talking and seems to change their mind in the middle of a conversation; to help someone who is so closed to new experiences that they cannot see the value of new innovations and creative staff; and about the manipulative bully?

The answer is, not a great deal other than quietly lead them to understanding the impact of their behaviour if you have a close relationship with them, or to confront them head on. Both of these approaches can be problematic and occasionally may work. In the end, though, the motivation to change has to be present and even then the task may not be easy. 

Having said that, the recent work on training the brain and evidence-based psychological methods have been shown to work, where the person recognises the need to change and are prepared to put in the work.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Belling the Cat: When integrity and fear meet

I recently asked a group of young parents to pose a moral dilemma to their children aged between the ages of 6 and 8 or so. Not a scientific experiment you understand but curious nonetheless and I kind of knew the answer. The dilemma was around whether or not a teacher should give a certain child a negative school report. The child had been very naughty, was not doing her reading assignments and so on. The problem was that the child was related closely to a very powerful person who could cause the teacher to lose her job or at least get into trouble. What should the child do?

Well, the overwhelming response from 9 kids was that she should tell the truth. It is a rather well known that kids have a rather well developed moral compass at a relatively young age for a lot of reasons. Not least of these is that they have learned good moral responses from reading stories and parents tend to be pretty good about reinforcing the right and wrong message.

However, there is something that happens when we get to adulthood. Somehow the moral GPS gets a bit off course. This seems particularly true, although not exclusive, to organisational life.

It is fascinating to me that many organisations, without a hint of irony, flash words around their websites and strategic plans like integrity, honesty, doing the right thing, values, truth and so on from the Dictionary of Ethics smorgasbord. Yet, when it comes to telling the boss that he or she has a zit on their nose, or even worse, criticising the behaviour of senior people or the organisation itself as a whole, the powerful wind of self-interest, of fear, sweeps all before it.

There are two aspects to this of course. The first is that many managers are not very good at accepting criticism. To be fair, this is a normal human condition. We are all narcissistic to a degree and being criticised is a hard thing to accept. But one might think that being able to be self-reflective is a pre-requisite to being in a management role. Even more important, at least from an organisational point of view, is the need to improve organisational effectiveness for survival and to prevent disaster.

What can happen, and happens more often than it should, is that managers shift from defensiveness to attack and divert the criticism elsewhere: often towards the victims (if there are any) or the conveyer of the message. Again this is normal human behaviour but one would expect a higher level of sophistication among, particularly, senior managers. In fact, emotional maturity should be a pre-requisite. Interestingly this is not a trait seen in the emotional intelligence literature. But I digress. There are other defence mechanisms of course including denial, rationalisation, and so on, but projection is by far the most commonly used not just by managers but by people in everyday life.

The second issue has to do with our willingness to state what may well not be received well. This requires a think called courage. And, as one might expect is part of the moral menu of many organisations. Now, in the wrong environment (see above) this can be a real difficulty and who could blame one for not being prepared to speak up? Interesting dilemma and I wonder what the kids would say. The other side to the coin is why would one want to work in an organisation that didn’t stick to its values, that was a moral vacuum and where there was no willingness to learn and improve. Who wants to live in the organisational equivalent of a gulag?

Having been an organisational consultant for many years the moral dimension of what we do can be very confronting too. Sometimes, and inevitably, one is placed in a position where deciding to take on a particular piece of work or reporting issues that will not be received well can challenge one’s personal integrity and values. After all, one has to work. Now at the end of my working life I am less concerned about this than I used to be and am rather more inclined to walk away or to bell the cat if required than I was when I was much younger-and hungrier. It is naturally and normally human to think about one’s own survival.

The biggie of course is where is the line on compromising oneself? On compromising one’s organisation? Elephants in the room can be pretty scary fellows. It can be really ugly when you are the source of the elephant.

But as parents, what would we advise our children to do when faced with a moral dilemma or how to deal with criticism? Seems a reasonable benchmark to me if we are going to overcome our tendency to narcissism and self-interest.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Failing mental models of management and leadership

I’ve never been much of a fan of Senge and his book the Fifth Discipline largely because he didn’t attribute much of his work to some important non-Americans such as Russell Ackoff, and Fred Emery, among others. However, he simplified the notion that people are largely habitual in the way they think with his idea of ‘mental models’. It does seem the case that humans get a way of behaving in their head and then have a lot of trouble changing it, even if what they are doing is not working for them. Sometimes people don’t even see that they are the cause of the problem: the trees are definitely in the way of seeing the forest.

It’s pretty amazing that many CEOs, senior executives and managers all the way down the food chain don’t understand some fundamental things they need to do to improve employee engagement. This, despite the overwhelming evidence that low engagement results in low productivity, poorer quality output and, where it is an issue, poor safety behaviour. For those more familiar with the term employee engagement is similar to job satisfaction and both share similar factors in the various measurement tools used to evaluate them.

I’ve come across a few organisations in the past few months where ‘management’ consistently fail to engage their direct reports, their ‘team’, in the basic activities of: sharing purpose and making sure everyone is singing from the same song sheet; shared strategic planning; shared review of operations and achievement of the plan; participative decision-making; continuous improvement; and problem solving. All of these are, along with the meeting of a bunch of fundamental human needs, are known to increase employee engagement and, its sequelae.

It seems that this failure of the basics of management occurs for a number of reasons. The first is lack of knowledge: the manager simply does not know anything about management and doesn’t know what to do. This is the classic unconscious incompetence. The manager manages simply bumbles along using a mental model they got from somewhere, usually watching someone else who managed them. There has been no effort to learn anything about management. The second is owning a mental model that was obtained from an airport book shelf and that is now used for every situation. Mostly the model is incomplete and the recipe is untested and tried. But, the manager persists, believing that they have the right formula for success. This might be command and control or micro-management, for example. The opposite turns out to be true. In effect the mental model is poor. Next we have the person who just happens to believe that humans are rather pathetic and that leaders are born and not made. They have a divine right to lead and to be lord of their domain, all powerful. This is one of a number of personality flaws that often dominate the thinking of some managers and drive their behaviour. Then there is the psychopath in its various forms, where the motive is personal gain, the exaggeration of self, self-aggrandisement, power, and the manipulation of the pawns on their personal chessboard.

In all cases, the science of human behaviour and what little management science there is ignored or, at best, simply not accessed due to ignorance. What is more interesting is that these problems can be pointed out when there is a crisis relating to performance, staff turnover, or an employee discontent but there is no effort to change. More often than not the manager or CEO looks like a kangaroo caught in the headlights.

The science of managing people needs to be promoted and management needs to be seen as a skill just like medicine, engineering or other professions. Otherwise it cannot ever be considered as a profession in its own right. Thus far it is an occupation where many simply follow the edicts of their personality. Many managers simply are not aware that what they are doing is counterproductive.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Simple Things We Do Matter

Key Points

  • We can affect how others feel and behave in everything we do
  • Mindful actions can have powerful outcomes
  • You don't need to be a leader to change people's lives
  • We are all immensely influential whether we like it or not
  • That influence can be negative or positive: it's our choice

Yesterday I had to go to the doctor’s surgery. Now this sort of an event can be anxiety producing for many people for lots of different reasons. In my case I wasn’t overly nervous but I was having a nasty procedure being done, had not been to this surgeon before and was in an alien environment. The receptionist I dealt with (there were two) was very curt, never looked me in the eye, was unwelcoming and clearly didn’t care at all about me, the patient. I sat down to fill out a form she gave me and dutifully returned it with my Medicare card: same response.

The nurse came to get me and she was as cold as ice too: distant, no warmth, probably wished that I was not there and that she was somewhere else too. She prepped me and I waited quietly until the surgeon turned up. He was pleasant, calm and very reassuring but, typical of many surgeons, made no attempt to create rapport or involve me in what was happening: even though it was to me. By this stage I had decided that there was a nasty affliction that had caught hold in this organisation, and perhaps even this corner of the globe.

Being a psychologist doesn’t necessarily mean that one has the capacity to do what one preaches. You’ve all heard the saying about the cobbler’s children, I’m sure. I’m just as likely as the next person to mishandle my life. But, in this case the mindfulness that I talk about incessantly at the moment kicked in and I decided to take control, for my own good. So, I sought to engage with the surgeon, as a starter, and after a few probes found out he had a new grand child. I won’t go into the step by step way we got to this but it had to do with using those influencing skills that we have all learnt in workshops at one time or another: mirroring, priming, that sort of thing. It turned out the nurse has eight. Clearly the folk breed a lot in this part of Queensland.

In a flash the temperature in the little operating theatre went up a few degrees and got even warmer as we discussed the wonders of love, a second chance at parenting and so on. Interestingly the surgeon had previously been huffing, puffing and snorting, not so quietly, as I bled all over the place. He couldn’t use adrenaline in the anaesthetic because it doesn’t like me and I take medications that stop me clotting. I had also insisted he take a very wide excision, twice the recommended size based on some recent research I had read. He had a agreed but clearly having patients being involved in decisions about their treatment was a bit of an alien concept. Once we got into the grand kids he told me how well I was doing, that the bleeding was not so bad, and all was well: I obviously had his approval. I’m confident he did a better job as he became a bit happier, although I have no evidence for this other than the research (see below). We will never send each other Christmas cards but it was a much better experience for all of us than it might have been.

There is ample evidence that a positive relationship or experience with medical staff improves the outcome for the patient in all sorts of health settings. This includes even outcome from surgery where interaction is clearly minimal before and after the operation. In addition to a caring interaction (warm) in which the focus is on the patient other factors are, a positive attitude, confidence on the part of staff, an expectation that all will be well, provision of information and a sense that all is under control, are important. Most of this is about expectancy of course.

I think there is every reason to suspect that this sort of behaviour can affect all sorts of outcomes, not only those associated with health.

Same thing happened with the reception area. Within half a minute of concerted effort on my part the receptionist was chatting about her garden and how the rain would help, smiled and was looking me in the eye. The other soul quickly joined in.

Drew Dudley has a neat TED talk that you may have watched. It’s quite short if you haven’t and is worth a look. He talks about how we can have a powerful influence on others, and sometimes never know it. That we ordinary folk can affect others. That we don’t need to be ascribed leaders to do so.

I wonder how often we miss this opportunity to try and lift others, to be aware that we can make a difference. The trick I guess is to get out of automatic mode, what Daniel Kahneman calls Fast Thinking, and get into Slow Thinking where we can take control of ourselves, our situation. This requires effort, of course, willingness and a little bit of mindfulness.

It is quite likely that at a subliminal level at least, we can affect not only how people feel but also the outcomes of projects, organisational objectives, and events of all sorts.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

The Limitations of Linear Thinking in Organisations

Key points:

1.     Linear thinking takes no effort
2.     Humans like finding causation when there is none
3.     When we can’t find an explanation for something we make it up
4.     Emotion gets in the way of good thinking
5.     We are not as logical as we like to think we are
6.     There are ways we can improve how we make decisions

Humans have a habit of thinking in a linear fashion. It’s not hard to know why we do this. Like a lot of human mental activity, it’s a short cut that saves us effort and energy: like fast thinking that Daniel Kahneman in ‘Fast Thinking, Slow Thinking’ talks about . We like to think in terms of, ‘this leads to that, then that’. It also makes a complex world easier to understand even though we may be operating off false assumptions a lot of the time.

Humans like to find causation even when phenomena are only associated. This is a common error we make that when things occur close together in a temporal way. We make a giant cognitive leap to make one cause the other when, in fact, there is no relationship between them at all, other that they occurred at roughly the same time. The other mistake is to assume that if we change one thing then it will change another. A more critical error is that changing something will not have unexpected effects. This is one of the lessons of complexity theory and the difficulty of predicting effect. Small events can lead to huge change (the butterfly effect) and seemingly large events can have miniscule effect. Restructuring comes to mind in the latter case and making a poor management hire in the former.  

Explanations are important to us and if there isn’t a convenient one at hand then we find one: hence our predilection for superstition in all its various forms.

The problem with linear thinking is that it is not always as logical as we like to think. Recent neuroscience research has shown that emotion plays a huge role in what we like to believe is logical thinking. It appears that’s we make decisions largely based on how we feel about the situation and then use logic to rationalise it afterwards. This happens in nanoseconds but occurs in that sequence nonetheless. It has long been known that we will be swayed by the opinion of someone we admire or respect (and vice versa) rather than consider the facts. The effect of powerful people in groups on opinion is well known from the research on group-think and the Asch experiments. The Challenger explosion that killed six astronauts a school teacher and the more recent Deep Water  Horizon oil explosion in the Gulf of Mexico are powerful examples of how our ability to make decisions can be deeply flawed. These might be extreme examples but we make the same mistakes that occurred in these cases everyday in organisations with less catastrophic results but results nonetheless: poor ones.

As managers in organisations we like to think that our decisions and views are based on logic but that is often far from the truth. That is why it is recommended that decision-making needs to be a participative activity using some of the techniques found in process and system thinking such as the Search Process, for example (there are many others). We need to make sure that people who feel free to criticise, and some who are good at it, are included in the process. The facts need to be sifted through time and time again and checked against the final decision to make sure that it is indeed based on logic and not a single person’s preference.

In a famous experiment by Weick and Sutcliffe they looked for a highly hazardous environment to examine decision-making and organisational behaviour. They chose the deck of an aircraft carrier with planes zooming in and out on a moving platform, tons of highly inflammable fuel and, of course, explosive devices of all sorts. One of the findings was that in that workplace expertise outranked rank. It is a great reminder about the fallibility of thinking you are THE decision-maker, and about the problem of power when one is in a leadership position. Certainly, someone might have to make a final decision when the weight is balanced. However, some managers like to think that they have a divine right to rule, to decide. We know the psychological effect that power has on people. Lord Acton was right on the corrupting effect of power, not in a moral sense, but in the way we assume superiority. It is a flaw in the way we think about organisational management that we EXPECT a single person to take responsibility for decision-making.

So, when we think we are thinking, we should, surely, think again.