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.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Controlling Feelings and Emotional Contagion

In my last blog I talked about emotional contagion: an awful infection where the mood of a person can rub off on other people and create either a positive or, sadly, a negative atmosphere. This happens quite out of our awareness, like a lot of things that affect us, and it may be that sometimes we never quite understand why we feel particularly euphoric, good, grumpy or just plain bad. I think that managers/leaders are in a position to exert a very powerful influence on the mood in their organisation. In fact, the capacity to be aware of one’s mood and then to regulate it has been shown in some interesting research by Martyn Newman to be a necessary feature of good leadership. It can be taken that the obverse is true.

So, I did promise in that blog to mention how one might control one’s mood. The ability to regulate feelings is a common feature of clinical work and with elite sports people. Both these groups of people have an interest in being in control: the former because they want to feel better and the latter because they want to perform at an optimum level. Perhaps there’s no real different in the goals of either group. I’ve used this technique for anger management, anxiety control, getting over being grumpy and controlling those out of control moments.

The key to controlling one’s feelings, as I’ve mentioned before, is being aware of how one is feeling at the time. Taken from the Buddhist notion of being in the moment, this ability as become known as mindfulness. Most of us, for most of the time, are on automatic pilot, controlled by our unconscious mind as we rush hither and thither trying not to feel totally overloaded. Our conscious mind has a limited capacity or RAM (for the computer minded) and it can get overwhelmed if we try to pay attention to too much at a time. To prevent the cup running over our unconscious mind takes control.

The problem with this, and we’ve all seen it, is the snappy remark, curtness, withdrawal, the snarl, even a dressing down. Some people start talking more, almost hypomanic, and seem to be on a high. Others just disappear behind their desk and headsets. After such an event recovery of trust and respect can be very difficult. Auto pilots are sometimes very naughty people.

Mindful people are aware of what they are feeling and, to a certain degree, thinking. If you are good at it then you are really tuning into this moment, not the last ten mins or yesterday, not tomorrow or what you are going to have for lunch, but right now. Really mindful people really pay attention to what others are saying, they focus, rather than thinking about what it is that they are going to say. They know how to listen.

I once met a man who was to become Prime Minister of Australia. He had tremendous charisma and most of it came about because he really paid attention and I felt as if I was really important to him when we shook hands and exchanged information. After an hour long meeting with 20 people he was able to remember everyone’s name and summarised our discussion-no notes taken at all. Maybe an eidetic memory helped but he was certainly engaged.

The ability to control emotions then, and therefore resist emotional contagion, is to be aware of changes to your emotional state. The next trick is to pull yourself up. One way of doing this is to say ‘STOP’ in your mind. Then have a brief conversation with yourself. It can be along the lines of, ‘I don’t need to feel like this. It won’t help in the end and it is better if I am in control of my emotions.’ Or, ‘I need to stay calm right now and not get carried away’. Sometimes, with anxious feelings, it is enough to simply say, ‘OK, I’m anxious right now but I don’t have to let it stop me doing what I need to do. I’ll just ignore it and carry on’. You can make your own scripts up but they need to be positive and not self-deprecating.

It is helpful to learn a quick relaxation trick to help with the next bit, although it is not essential. Learning to breathe with your diaphragm is a neat technique to relax or gain control. Find a small round (if possible) rock in your garden and put it in the freezer. When it is nice and cold find a quiet place, lay down, pull up your shirt and place the rock directly on your belly button. It will focus your attention. Then practice breathing in by pushing the rock upwards with your tummy and then breathing out slowly. Don’t breathe with your chest-just your tummy. Breathe normally, not deeply, and breathe once every 5 or 6 seconds-you can time yourself if you like.

Make sure you breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. Nasal breathing appears to release chemicals that relax us if we do it for around five- mins or more. If you practice this for about ten-mins you’ll find yourself pretty efficient at diaphragmatic breathing. I learnt to do this when I was in my late twenties and it has been a powerful way of controlling my feelings, particularly anxiety.

Then, when you have had a talk to yourself, as above, you can then just breathe with your diaphragm. Nice and slow, nice and easy.

The last little trick is to congratulate yourself when you have been able to bring your feelings under control.

Like most things, practice makes perfect.