Tuesday, July 30, 2013

It takes two to tango: emotion is contagious

Key points:

1.     Emotions profoundly affect our behaviour
2.     Emotions are contagious in relationships, families and organisations
3.     Managers/leaders can affect the mood and, hence, employee engagement in their organisations
4.     We can control our moods
5.     Great leaders make a difference to those around them

We, a group of Rotarians in Iluka-Woombah NSW, Australia, put on a stage production for the local community every two years. It is a major fundraiser for our two small villages and for international aide projects. It takes months of rehearsals and preparation, and is, necessarily, also a lot of fun.  It gives a bunch of extroverts a chance to act out and the introverts an opportunity to challenge themselves, although they may see that idea a little differently. The show is mostly comedy and we send up all sorts of famous singers and acts with extravagant costumes and interpretations.

Our opening night was last Friday, a full house. The dress rehearsal a few days earlier had been a bit of a mess so the cast were a little nervous and also keen to do their best. The director worked hard to fire everyone up and there was a group huddle on stage before we started, a bit like football teams: motivational. Normally, our Friday night crowds are a bit quiet so we expected that we would need to work hard for laughs: lots of effort needed.

Right from the start the crowd were right into the show, laughing, whooping and responding. With that we were away and played right up to them. It was a great night and everyone enjoyed themselves, cast included.

The next night, Saturday, we expected the crowd to be lively with higher levels of blood alcohol. So, we didn’t work so hard. And the crowd was much quieter than we expected with a different demographic than normal. It was all a bit flat. It was difficult to work hard and when we did the response was less enthusiastic than we expected. People still enjoyed the show and the feedback was great, but the cast were a little deflated. Thus, we had two different experiences.

This all made me think about how our moods feed off each other, quite subconsciously. When people are feeling flat, dysphoric, or unmotivated, it can affect how others feel. Even though, initially, a person might be feeling quite good, they become dragged down. Similarly, when someone is cheerful, motivated, they can lift people around them. I suspect this is true for a whole bunch of emotions including anger, grumpiness, feeling energised, and so on.

There is some research evidence to support this notion of emotional contagion and there is a nice summary of it in Psychology Today at: http://
bit.ly/130Z2CP. It seems that we do indeed mimic or take on the emotions of others. I suspect that this may be personality based in that some people are more likely to ‘catch’ emotions from others such as people high on the agreeableness and extraversion traits.

Environmental psychology has been around for a lot longer than this more recent work on emotional contagion. It is the study of how humans are affected by their surroundings. For a long time now we have known that weather can affect behavior and the fact that people living in countries that have long, dark winters have high rates of seasonal depression. Unpleasant workplaces and living environments can have detrimental effects too on mood, productivity and performance.

So, it is not surprising that we can ‘catch’ emotions from others around us. The implications for this in relationships, families and organisations are pretty clear I think, so I won’t go into too much detail. But clearly we need to be careful about the company we keep. For many years now I have tried to avoid noxious people where possible, even eschewing friendship where necessary. Noxious people make me feel bad.

Managers/leaders in organisations can probably go a long way to setting the tone in their sphere of influence. An unhappy, grumpy manager who is having a bad hair day can create a bad case of emotional flu that will spread throughout the department and reduce engagement. The converse is also true. If motivational techniques work for sports teams, and I can assure you that they do, perhaps we can learn something about this for making work places more pleasant to increase employee engagement. All it takes is a bit of mindfulness and effort. Perhaps this is what great leaders do: life their people by their behavior.

Lastly, and I’ll write more about this in my next blog, there are ways to control our emotions. In effect it is possible to fake a positive emotion and the end result is that we actually start to feel better: our mood lifts. But more of that next time.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Rearranging the Deck Chairs

There are myriad examples in the psychological literature describing how humans make assumptions that are quite illogical and fly in the face of facts. These assumptions are largely based on convenience and lazy thinking. In the world of organisations and leadership, the one that I like a lot is the restructure.

Hands up all those who have experienced an organisational restructure or two in their careers. And leave them up if they had minimal or no impact on organisational capability or function whatsoever, other than perhaps providing a vehicle for rearranging personnel. In fact, it is for this latter, rather thinly veiled human resource management process, that restructuring is probably most useful. It certainly has little use for anything else.

Interestingly, public sector organisations seem to be the most prone to this disease of periodically rearranging the deck chairs, sometimes in epidemic proportions. However, private sector organisations are not immune from catching the disease. The illusion (or should it be delusion?) seems to be that by restructuring will lead to improvement, a more comfortable feeling or, more likely, impression that all is in control. Often it is the result of a new CEO who needs to pee on the corners of the patch to claim his or her turf. It often is a means to replacing the unwashed with one’s own acolytes. Restructuring is often used when an organisation is faced with a large new project, product or imperative. Other times a restructure results when fortunes are failing. And sometimes it just seems the thing to do. Whatever the case, the restructure does not substantially change anything other than the organisational chart.

More often than not, restructuring is executed badly, like many change processes. There is often lack of consultation with people and no deep involvement. It is usually managed ‘top down’ rather than ‘bottom-up’ and, overall, is mostly poorly planned. Worse is that it is not associated with any sense of fitness of purpose, a vision. Usually, employee engagement is diminished by restructuring and a wave of cynicism sweeps through the organisation.

Pretty well everyone by now must have seen Simon Sinek’s TED talk on the What, How and Why of what we do. If not, have a look-it is a great presentation. It is the Why that drives success. It is the emotional driver, the thing that makes us get our of bed in the morning with a rush of energy, not just because of a full bladder. We can tell people What we do and How we do it, which is how we sell things but it is the Why of what we do that motivates, that results in creativity, flexibility, adaptation and innovation.

Rather than mindlessly restructure, it is far better to concentrate on vision, purpose, the Why. Then restructuring can make sense, once everyone in the organisation has ‘buy in’, which they will if it has been planned well and using the right principles.  All of which are well documented.

Nonetheless if the homework has been done well (which it is often not) then there will be only one choice. The new organisation for the 21st century is much flatter and flexible, with small autonomous ‘business’ units in which people can be creative, innovative and largely organise themselves. It will involve participative democracy, open systems thinking and devolvement of responsibility and accountability. Each ‘business’ unit will engage with its own clients, manage it’s own projects and be self-managing. The new model will be based on psychological and neuroscience research, rather than using myth and magic of the old paradigms of command and control, which are artefacts of the industrial revolution.

Anything other than this is nothing more than just moving the deck chairs around and a waste of effort, time and money. And credibility and employee engagement.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Organisations and management: is it time to embrace the future now?

For some time now, like a number of other observers, I have had the view that the structure and function of organisations is deeply flawed. The same can be said for how we understand management. The main reason for having this rather controversial and, no doubt, confronting opinion is that the prevailing model does not take into consideration the psychological, anthropological and sociological evidence about under what conditions people function best.

The way in which we run our organisations, at least those larger than about 30 people, is an artefact of the industrial revolution. Anthropologists will tell you that when we were living in the swamp and peat bogs a tribe of about 50 people was about the maximum size and many were less. While not wishing to return to these ‘good old days’ a small tribe is easy to manage with a single leader. Any bastardry by a member of the group was hard to hide and there was less risk of things like factions and power groups. Leadership was a simple matter of the strongest, smartest, charismatic, or just all round powerful person being in charge until challenged. I guess a class system of some sort or other has been around for a long time. For the sake of this blog I’ll steer clear about whether this was the best model for everyone concerned. What is true is that it was the way it mostly worked. I’m also not advocating a return to this state of affairs in the 12st century.

Where things became a bit more complicated was when tribes became larger. For the sake of this blog let’s skip societies and just talk about organisations because they are indeed, at least in the eyes of sociologists, tribes or societies. They use the same lingo to describe them such as culture, norms, values and so on. The normal, natural system to which humans had become acclimatised for a very long time didn’t work so well. The route of least resistance to managing a large organisation was to adapt the model we already had and which probably resembled common practice in military circles at least in rudimentary form. The system was to appoint lieutenants and split the organisation into small groups. This is the typical hierarchical system that we know so well today.

What we have known since about the 1950s about how humans function best in workplaces is that this model may not be the best. More evidence since then is growing exponentially to support this view. I’d like to predict that organisations in the future will have a very flat structure. They will function around teams that will be fluid and flexible, and based on projects. People will engage in projects according to their expertise and one person will lead that project. After the task or project has been completed the team will break up and the cycle will repeat. Leadership will be based on expertise for that particular project or task, not on an assumption that one person has a special set of abilities. There may be more than one leader on a team providing different skills. In fact you see model working perfectly well in sporting and other social clubs across the globe. The key is to have small tribes (teams) and not allow them to get too large. Managers will not have an exalted status.

Yes, there will need to be coordination and a new way of thinking about pay structures. And yes, people will work well without formal bosses to crack a whip. Cracking whips does not work as a motivator, except in the short term. People are engaged and motivated when they have a reasonable level of autonomy, a clear purpose with to which they feel aligned, challenge, certainty, rewards, the required skills and a chance to improve their abilities, a safe physical and psychological environment, the capacity to be innovative and creative, a sense of belonging (tribe membership), and feel valued.

As for leadership. I think that everyone has the capacity to be a leader given the right context. I am a fair to middling leader when there is a need to be creative, to think outside the box. I like ideas. Sadly, my skills are lacking, as is my motivation, when it comes to a maintenance role. I’m lousy at it. Some people are great leaders when attention to detail is required, and others when we need a grand design.

I wonder whether or not it is time to make the future come to us rather than wait. Is it time given the world in which we now live where uncertainty, rapid change, communication speed and modalities, access to information and personal empowerment, are increasing exponentially to change our organisations to suit? There was an attempt to do this through systems thinking in the 80s and 90s with the propositions of organisational democracy and self-managing teams, but it ran out of puff.

Perhaps now is the hour.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

What organisations can learn from the near disaster that was QF 32

Most people would remember the potentially catastrophic events involving QF 32 on November 4th 2010. For those who do not, it involved an engine failure that resulted in extensive damage to a new Airbus 380 that had just taken off from Changi Airport, Singapore. A crash was probably averted due to the skill of the pilot, Richard Champion de Crespigny, and other crew on board as well as the robustness of the aircraft. There was no loss of life or injury on board and the plane landed safely back at Changi, albeit in a less than pristine condition.

There are many things to learn from the episode and it is worth reading the book about the event, simply called QF 32, written by the pilot. But what motivated this blog was an interview I heard on ABC Radio of de Crespigny by Richard Fidler. One of the things that the pilot talked about was the level of on-going training and checks that pilots undergo. They must test their skills in a simulator every 4 months. Not routine stuff but extreme situations and emergencies, like catastrophic engine failure. Then there are regular cockpit checks or what sound like audits, medical tests every year and the need to demonstrate specific competencies for different types of aircraft. Pilots are expected to walk before they are allowed to run through supervised experience, and demonstrated capability before moving up in the ranks. Clearly the motivation for such stringency has all to do with consequences.

So why should management or leadership be any different? In some cases the consequences of poor management or leadership can be just as catastrophic.  Situations such as armed conflict and workplaces where there is high risk, like oil and gas rigs, for example, come to mind. It is also true that the impact of poor management and leadership can be extremely harmful (personally catastrophic) on those who are being led or managed, and to the organization itself. Textbooks and airport recipe books on management and leadership often ignore this unpleasant potential. The literature on leadership fed to the public tends to be more about the positive aspects of what good leaders do. Much of it is froth and bubble with little scientific basis: but that is the topic of a future blog.

Poor management and leadership can result in high levels of stress in people that results in: feeling generally unwell with fatigue and dysphoria as the main effects;  severe physical illness; psychological illness such as depression, anxiety and substance abuse; low self-esteem; poor job satisfaction; and relationship problems. Clearly this means that there will be less than optimum job performance.

From an organizational point of view poor management and leadership results in poor employee engagement. It is well established that this means reduced productivity and quality of work. Other issues involve conflict and poor teamwork.

Given these outcomes of poor management and leadership one would expect the same high level of training, quality of professional development, checking of performance, and accountability that occurs with pilots. In fact, organisations often have a very low level of expectation and poor monitoring in all these areas.

The question is whether or not this is morally, ethically or professionally appropriate. And is it work the risk?