Thursday, February 27, 2014

Out of the Comfort Zone and Into Creativity

It has been a long-standing habit of mine to do some quirky, creative activity at the beginning of workshops. The purpose of this has been to stimulate the creative parts of the brain. The research evidence is that if you can stimulate these creative bits the effect will last for a couple of hours and enhance whatever it is that you are doing.

These quirky activities inevitably take people out of their comfort zones: some more than others depending on personality.  Some research hot off the press has shown that change, moving out of one’s comfort zone can, in its own right, stimulate creativity. The reasons for this are not quite clear. But it would appear to me that it has something to do with being forced to respond to ambiguity, the abnormal, something different: a part of how we adapt to our environment. When things are ho-hum, predictable, we have no reason to step outside of our habits, proven ways of doing things. The threat of change makes us think of options.

My intuition and some research about stress would suggest that there is a Goldilocks effect operating here. That is, too much change and overwhelming change would have the opposite effect and paralyse people. So, there is the need to get it ‘Just Right’, as in Goldilocks’ porridge.

This has some fairly obvious implications for leaders in workplaces. Change the approach, context, environment and delivery, and introduce a small degree of unpredictability, if you want creativity. Move people out of their comfort zones by challenging them, change roles, moving teams around, shifting responsibilities. I have often thought that having people stay in the same jobs for a long time is potentially unproductive and likely to be disengaging.  Now there is evidence suggesting this is likely to be true.

Research has also shown that some people respond to quite traumatic, or very trying experiences with increased creativity. It seems that adversity provides an opportunity to rethink one’s world, to see it in a different way and then to creative behaviour.  Of course, this does not happen to everyone in the same way.

That people behave differently when confronted with change or adversity may be explained by one of the Big 5 personality traits known as ‘Openness to Experience’ People high on this trait tend to like new experiences, a break in the routine, kite flying, manageable change. Those low on this attribute are the opposite. They like predictability, and tend to be conservative. Most people are situated somewhere in between these extremes. As Tony Robbins has pointed out, people like change and problems but only those that that they like. In my view, it is those that can deal with change and problems they don't like that are the most adaptable.

Lastly, if you look at organisations that are highly creative, they tend to do things somewhat differently than those prescribed in the traditional, ancient textbooks on organisational behaviour. They could be described as quirky, and certainly, non-conservative. There is a lot to be learnt from them: if you’re game.

So, some interesting research that can be directly used in the workplace, and elsewhere for that matter, to provide optimum conditions for creativity. The tricky bit will be doing this if you happen to be a leader that tends towards the low end of ‘openness to experience’, the more conservative. Will you be able to do something that is completely out of your comfort zone?

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

I used to be uncertain but now I’m not so sure

The desire for uncertainty is one of several basic human psychological needs. But unlike its sibling, certainty, it is very much dose related. We like variety but only that which we can comfortably control.  How we react to uncertainty, to the vicissitudes of life can tell us a lot about ourselves and others.

People respond to chaos in different ways. You may be one of those who uses it as an excuse to clean out all the kitchen cupboards and line them with nice clean, pretty paper. The washing will be even more neatly pegged out on the line. Chaos can trigger a rebuild of the car engine some other autistic activity. You probably will start making lists: long ones with lots of detail. The diary will suddenly fill up. Your tolerance for the slightest deviation from protocol, process or policy will be regarded with a sharp look, even a snarl. This response is an attempt to obtain a feeling of being in control: of something, anything.

There is another group who respond rather differently. You are already chaotic and you become even more so. The kites that you so often fly become even larger and balloon out with vast amounts of air as they navigate the clouds. You’ll suddenly start a new project and expect everyone to down tools and ignore the chaos around them. Whatever project management skills you may have used, or been coerced to use in the past, will go completely out of the window. You are lost with your fellow passengers in a foreign town in a car late at night with nowhere to sleep but asking directions is the last thing you’ll do.

Needless to say, each approach has a habit of completely unsettling the other. Basically, the two groups are seeing the world in completely different ways. Of course, they were doing this before the uncertainty started but increasing stress tends to cause us to revert more to type. Conservatives become more conservative and liberals more liberal. The religious become more entrenched in their beliefs and the secular become more fascinated with proof. Dogmas become emphasised. This is not a complex idea. Humans make up hypotheses all the time about how the world is operating and then find solutions that best fit their existing values, attitudes and beliefs: what we call schema.

More tellingly, though, uncertainty can reveal some rather more unsettling, on the one hand, and encouraging, on the other, personality characteristics. People with a higher than average degree of narcissism (we are all at least a little bit narcissistic), for example, are more likely to respond to uncertainty and inconvenience with anger. Certain personality types will be overwhelmed by anxiety for a variety of reasons: fear of abandonment; loss of control; previous experience with severe anxiety; fear of loss; and an intense biological reaction to stressors, for example. You’ve no doubt met the micro manager whose need for control becomes extremely neurotic in the face of chaos. And you’ve seen people who turn inwards, into their shell, ostrich with head in the sand as the world around them is exploding. Self-medication with alcohol is another neurotic response.

Then there are those who step up to the plate. Uncertainty reveals their stickability, stoicism, humour, ability to plan and organise, apparent calmness, and concentration. These people are likely to be highly resilient, having learnt to be so from surviving life’s hard knocks in the past. They are confident in their own ability. They may well be anxious and uncertain about the potential outcomes. They may even think that success is unlikely. But they forge ahead in any case and people follow them.

I once worked on an exciting project involving a collaboration between a large health organisation and a university. A fellow was seconded to the project to work with me from the health department and he had previously held a very senior position with a large research staff and a huge budget. Ours was a start up with very modest beginnings, although it became a great success. Fairly early on in our project I asked him once when things were not going well and we were struggling whether or not he missed the power, the influence that he once had. His response was very telling, ‘If I want power I’ll go and get it’.

You can tell a lot about people by the way they handle uncertainty. In fact you can tell a lot about how people meet any of the human needs. We all have the same needs but make different choices about how to achieve them. Some are positive and some are negative. Most of these choices are based on emotion. But that is a story for later on perhaps.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

On Gossip and Manipulation in a Socially Networked World

Humans are good at gossip. By gossip I mean, taking things that people say at face value and being influenced by them. I suspect we have been gossiping ever since we emerged from the swamp. That, ‘Thaal cannot be trusted during a mammoth hunt’, has been doing the rounds in its various forms for thousands of years. It transpires of course, that Thaal is a popular, and strong figure in the tribe and is a threat to the chief’s power. It is more than likely that the chief in fact is the one not to be trusted during a mammoth hunt: such is the mechanism and power of gossip. In psychological parlance much of gossip has to do with self-interest and projection.  

Want to influence a board member before an important meeting? Make sure you are on their Christmas card list first and then sidle up to them over the water cooler and suggest a particular view about an issue. If they like you, respect you or you have some sort of power, then whatever information they have on the matter will be pushed aside, manipulated by your opinion. And this can be quite an unconscious thing on both sides, unless you are awake to this sort of phenomenon.

So, we are more likely to believe what someone whom we admire or has some influence over us says, rather than be swayed by the facts. Conversely, we are less likely to be convinced by someone whom we dislike. Such is the importance of the power to influence. Sadly, humans can be influenced by all sorts of people who have no genuine right to have influence, such as media personalities, movie and TV stars, and sports figures, for example. Their opinion can be very attractive to us and don’t let the mere detail of facts get in the way. The various media formats understand this very well, especially glossy magazines, as do advertising agencies as they manipulate the public taste, public fashion, and ultimately what we buy.

Gossip, these days, has taken on new forms. Its essence is the same but now it can be found on every type of social media that’s out there such as Twitter, Facebook, Linkedin, Pinterest, Google Plus, Timbir, Flickr, MySpace to name but a few.

Over the silly season break I had several instances of gossip at work in social medie and I have no doubt you have seen this happening too. What I saw were allegations about fairly well known figures and events circulated through social media going viral. People would get really hot under the collar and rant about the person or event, poor out their vitriol and pass it on to the next person to do the same.

However, a little bit of research discovered in each case that the allegation was false. Several of them came from online satirical magazines. Someone clearly didn’t get the satire and sent it out on their network with a nasty comment. Because they probably have some influence over their ‘followers’ or ‘friends’ no-one else bothers to check the facts. And away we go, gossip on a grand and global scale. A far greater reach than Mr Brown, the town gossip: an amateur by comparison.

What is worrying is the amount of information, not just gossip, that is circulated via the internet, that has no basis in evidence but we listen to, simply because it came from someone with influence. How many decisions do we make that ignore the science but go with misinformed opinion? But how serious can this be? In my view this can be very serious for all manner of leaders, no matter what enterprise they happen to be in.  For example, if I hear one more person say that they don’t believe in climate change or I don’t believe smoking causes cancer I shall throw a very big tantrum.

It’s also true that you can look at some information or an argument that appears on the face of it to be very compelling and based in science but that needs to be treated with caution. This issue came up with a colleague only this week who was interested in a piece of ground breaking research-good research as it turns out. But science is a naturally cautious activity. What I said to him was that without a good grasp of statistics it is possible to think that a piece of research one is reading can be taken as gospel, when in fact its findings need to be taken much more cautiously. In fact, one often finds that a blogger, journalist or other writer takes the findings of research and inflates them beyond what the researcher every intended. Not dishonestly, but just not understanding some research basics.

So, some important lessons here about decision and opinion making. First, always go to the science or at least someone who knows the science well and make decisions based on facts. Second, recognise the power of influence and how to use it wisely. Third, recognise when you are being manipulated and how others are influencing you. Fourth, embrace the principles of participative democracy when making important decision-making. No matter how high your IQ is, more informed people make it higher. Lastly, recognise human frailty, that we are not as smart as we think we are.