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Motivation

Self-talk and persistence. What do you say to yourself?

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When I decided to embark on a marathon it was not the result of a strong desire or goal. I can’t remember having a clear plan or even a strong drive. It was just something that I decided to do one day.

I was never encouraged much either. Most people thought the whole idea was a whole lot of effort for not really much reward. You potentially damage your body, waste a lot of time training when you could be spending time with family and friends. Nevertheless, I kept one foot in front of the next and somehow got to the end.

In the last few kilometres, I experienced pain I didn’t expect. It was unpleasant. The voice inside my head was ‘never again’. But I decided to run another one the year after and have since retired.

I realised that there’s a lot to learn about how you can motivate yourself during a run (or similar activity) using self-talk.

Here are some things I would say to myself that helped me persevere.

 

The Postponement Self-Talk

…or I’ll just get this one out of the way today

When I was pounding the side of the road week after week in preparation, I sometimes enjoyed the time to myself and the satisfaction of running great distances. But then there also many days I persisted out of recognition that I simply needed to clock up the kilometres.

When we think of someone who is motivated, it suggests enthusiasm and positivity. A motivated employee, for example, is someone who surely enjoys his or her job. But, of course, motivation is more about being goal driven.

You can feel flat, tired, and even outright depressed but still work towards a goal tirelessly. In part, you are postponing the rewarding experience. You won’t feel great today but tomorrow you’ll feel better having got through the difficult days.

I’m probably not alone as a runner who sometimes feels obliged to run not because it is enjoyable. If anything, you are probably less likely to pursue many goals if the aim is for pleasure. Pleasure and enjoyment are often fleeting experiences that are fun but if you anchor your motivation to fun then the moment it stops being fun, the faster you will give up.

 

The ‘Switch-off’ Self Talk

Why is this taking so long…

When I set a goal to run six kilometres, that last kilometre sometimes feels longer than it should. Strangely, I start to check the time and expect the kilometre to move past much faster. But if the goal is 12 kilometers, this kilometre feels different. It seems trivial, smaller, and easily overcome. In context to the larger journey, it doesn’t feel as long.

I liken this to a trip from Melbourne to Sydney. The flight is short so we end up expecting to be there faster. Twenty minutes into the flight and we start checking the time. But if we travel overseas, our minds expect a long journey, we switch off and time can seem to move more swiftly.

If you expect something to be quick and easy, you will get frustrated much more easily. Instead, if you assume that something is going to take a lot more time and effort, you may be more tolerant of keeping a slower pace (pardon the pun).

This essentially means that you also need to sometimes switch off your self-talk when you are persevering at a task. If you constantly check-in on how much progress you are making, it can make it feel like it’s taking forever.

 

The Lying to Yourself Self-Talk

Just one more and I’m done…just one more…just one more

One way you can persevere with a task is simply lying to yourself. You might have a rough idea that something will take a long time but you refrain from committing to yourself the long-term goal and simply agree to meet smaller goals.

As a runner, you can lie to yourself about a big run. You can plan to run 20 kilometers but say to yourself that you’ll do 15 and then stop. Then when you hit 15, you can always add one more kilometre to your run. Of course, at 16, you can add one more and so on.

When training I would be in a constant negotiation with myself. Part of me knew I would be running 20km, but I could stop myself from being overwhelmed by doing a deal with myself, renegotiating the extra kilometres as the goal got closer.

Selecting your work goals is important but it’s essential that you can slowly add to an idea or improvement one step at a time (pardon the pun). It’s important that you don’t overwhelm yourself with ambition otherwise your mind will not be able to cope with the stress. Persistence is not about being the most driven, energetic and enthusiastic. It may simply be the ability to gently keep moving along.

 

The Acceptance Self-Talk

Perfect. Now an excuse to rest

Obstacles aren’t bad luck or fortune. In my training on both occasions I was burdened with blisters, cramps and the occasional cold. People who end up running marathons don’t avoid injury and illness. They actually expect it as a part of the training. I once had a week off due to a chest infection but thought about it as forced, guilt-free rest rather than an obstacle.

There are, of course, many obstacles in life that are truly debilitating, unlucky and unfair. But for many of us, we receive as many lucky moments as we do problems that can be overcome. Motivation can be about turning the problems into opportunities or, at the very least, accepting them and running forward (pardon the pun) regardless.

When I have been injured, I would initially be frustrated and try to run through the injury. This often led to a slower recovery. The best strategy is to accept the problem and use the time/change to do something else.

 

The Bigger Picture Self-Talk

I can catch up tomorrow

There is nothing more demotivating and impossible to achieve than a long-winded, detailed plan. Human beings seem to have convinced themselves that more step by step detail will ensure success. But what tends to happen is life throws in so many curve balls, the ins and outs of the plan are too hard to execute.

Instead, setting some high-level goals that are more flexible to the day-to-day changes is best. In running, you can set a comprehensive training plan for each day, right down to where you run, what to eat, how to recover and so on. Or, you can simply set a goal like ‘I will run at least 50 kilometers this week’.

This is a ‘bigger picture’ mindset. It allows you flexibility to meet your goals however you like.

A goal like this means you can have an off day on Monday but still recover the kilometres on your planned rest day. If you too stringently set a time, distance and place for each day, you can easily get frustrated if it’s raining or if you had to stay back at work. The plan can’t be followed and you run the risk (pardon the pun) of giving up.

 

The Finish Line

In short, pursuing goals with persistence involves a psychological game you need to play with yourself. You sometimes need to lie to yourself, counsel your thoughts, negotiate different outcomes, and even outright lie. If you are prepared to do this, you may just get to the end of the race (yes, pardon the pun one last time).

Not interesting in having you mind blown? Stop reading now

in Editor Pick/Media Psychology/Work Psychology by

Ok, so if you’re not in the mood for having your mind blown, stop reading right now.

Still here? Ok, here we go.

The universe is about 93 billion light years in diameter. Given that light travels at 300,000km per second and this means one light year is about 9.5 quadrillion kilometres, I won’t even try to express the size of the universe. In short, it’s big, and it makes us incredibly small.

Ok, you’ve probably heard all this before, right? Apologies for the ruse. You already know the universe is big, complex, weird and terrifying/amazing all in one. Your mind is probably not blown at all. But it should be. Because the universe is incredibly awe inspiring. Let’s not forget that.

Like most people, you’ve probably siloed this confronting idea in the deep, dark recesses of your mind and have got on with your morning coffee and emails. Good for you.

If you don’t spend your days working in astrophysics, it is understandable that you probably don’t want to think about this too much. It can easily make your day feel rather pointless in the big scheme of things. It can easily make the activity across the globe and time itself trivialised.

Even when writing this blog, I really needed to make an effort in bringing in the universe example, rather than something more accessible—say, Donald Trump—as it overwhelms me even to think about the universe and existence even for a few small moments. Yet, I seem to allow time for Trump. What a strange fellow he is. But how strange that we can’t stop writing and talking about him whilst something like the universe is there crying out to be noticed.

So, I’ll do you a deal. I’ll get on with writing this and you’ll get on with reading this and then we can return to our simple, coffee-drinking, Netflix-watching, Facebook stalking existence, which is just so much more enjoyable.

But if you take the time to remove yourself from these smaller activities, it is truly amazing to consider we we are a part of something much greater and inspiring than our morning cup of coffee. The universe, and similar concepts that are much bigger than ourselves, promotes awe, recalibrates the ego and can connect us with our peers, society and culture.

Awe is what got the man to the moon as people watched on from the comfort of their homes. It inspired science fiction shows and films, elevating the unknown and passion for space exploration.

Research from the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology indicates that awe can also be used for our more immediate and modest goals.

Across several studies, they demonstrated that priming participants with a scenario or memory that inspired awe also promoted more ethical behaviour, generosity and values associated with others and nature, rather than Trump-like ambition and power.

According to the researchers, awe makes us feel ‘smaller’ and connects us with a broader purpose and collective. In one study, simply reflecting on a large Eucalyptus tree subsequently promoted the prosocial values of individuals compared to those who reflected on an office building. Presumably, even nature—its history, complexity and connectivity—can inspire awe.

It seems that efforts to promote teamwork and collaboration within workplaces could be better spent on ensuring the workplace has these moments of awe. All the better if a workplace can anchor its entire vision, purpose and goals behind something bigger and awe-inspiring.

Too often I see workplaces take the easy way out. It is easier to examine an environment that is deficient in behaviours, values, communication, and business plans. It’s much harder to diagnose a problem with purpose and inspiration.

It’s no wonder we notice others so quickly reaching for the computers and smart phones. These are not people who are caught up in an awe-inspiring workplace. Their internet connection is more valuable because it connects them with people, ideas, creativity, and fun.

Many workplaces seem to recognise the importance of vision and purpose as each year they produce plans and write strong ‘purpose’ statements. But how often are these documents really awe-inspiring? The visions and purposes are most often mediocre that are interchangeable with many other organisations. They are basic enough not to offend and vague enough so that the workplace’s activities easily align with the goals. Employees often don’t care too much about the workplace vision and goals and get swept up into the day-to-day tasks that have more immediate implications.

But let’s get back to work now. As important as it is to be inspired, we also have a day job, emails to write and coffees to drink. We have Facebook posts to draft and LinkedIn accounts to manage. Perhaps the universe has a grander purpose that even makes sense of all these emails, status updates and coffees on planet earth?

Ok, now what’s Trump up to today…oh dear.

Don’t blame me. The ‘system’ wrote this

in Editor Pick/Work Psychology by

My friend was holding a can of soft drink and as he checked his watch he poured the drink on his foot. A person in my line of work—Human Factors—would call this ‘human error’.

How would we interpret the situation if, instead of laughing, I simply rolled my eyes and lost respect for my friend?

What if they ruined their shoes?

What if it left a puddle on the ground that led to someone slipping over?

What if after slipping over the person cracked their head and died?

What if that unfortunate person was also holding the cure for cancer and now this silly act of tomfoolery had led to the unnecessary suffering and death of people all over the planet?

But let’s say my friend knew they were going to pour the drink on their foot. It might be for a laugh and to get a reaction—to play the clown. This would no longer be an error but a form of intentional behaviour. That is, there is some additional calculation of the brain that determines the behaviour is a worthy idea.

So now, instead of being a catastrophic event caused by a harmless error, my friend is culpable. That few seconds of planning and intent is everything.

The cause of the event can be found in the deep, complex recesses of my friend’s brain. Somewhere in there neurons fired in unison and sent signals to my friend’s wrist to twist and pour the drink. Somewhere in this brain there is something to blame and assign fault.

Alternatively, the blame is elsewhere. It could be attributed to the broader system. My friend may have been trying to impress me with their sense of humour. So, he was under peer influence.

The soft drink can manufacturers could be blamed as they designed the can. They also failed to display a warning message that these kinds of events could occur.

The surface on the footpath may be to be partly to blame. Surely, it shouldn’t become slippery from a small amount of liquid.

Local councils may have under-invested in the quality of footpaths due to a broader systemic issue related to funding.

The funding was the result of an economic downturn and, yep, we were willing to tolerate the possibility of soft drink-related deaths so we could save a few dollars.

Perhaps even the broader culture is to blame. After all, we live in the age of YouTube videos and Facebook where individuals love to play the fool to get some much-needed applause from their peers.

Of course, if we play out a genuine scenario where an error—as harmless as it can be—led to true catastrophic events, the same basic logic is often applied after the event. What plays out time and time again is the extent to which a person caused a problem and how much of this was caused by the ‘system’.

I feel deeply uncomfortable with blaming individuals even when they choose to do silly things. This is because I sometimes do silly things myself. Likewise, I feel deeply uncomfortable with blaming the ‘system’ as it leads to a whole host of other implications.

Importantly, blaming behaviour on the ‘system of influences’ suggests that we must also accept that success, bravery, creativity and acts of kindness are the result of the system. Nevertheless, we often seek to praise and reward individuals when they demonstrate these positive attributes but can quickly revert to blaming the system when they display poor behaviour.

Is the system causing these things or not? I’m not sure we can have our cake and eat it too.

The heart of my discomfort is probably related to the concept of free will. When we seek to blame individuals for their mistakes and punish them, we must also assume that they have the free will to choose this action.

When we blame the system, and argue a complex series of events over time culminated in the event, making the individual a passive participant in the transaction of soft drink homicide, we imply that the individual does not have free will.

Systems thinking might be seen as a cover for deterministic thinking.

Deep down we want to blame people because the idea that we don’t have a choice in the matter is also alarming. If I do not have choice, then what am I? And can I celebrate my successes? Who’s typing this blog anyway? The system?

And if people generally feel more comfortable blaming others then this is ultimately a product of the system too. So, we have a deterministic system that basically advocates free will. Is your head spinning with this pop-philosophy?

There is, of course, a softer conclusion to draw. We might argue that individuals have choice but are heavily influenced by their past and immediate surroundings. Somewhere in my friend’s brain, the system has contaminated their intentions but those neurons still have the capacity to side-step the infection and come up with an alternative.

The individual, according to this view, triumphs over the system. But, then again, how did the brain achieve this? Aren’t those neurons ultimately a product of the person’s genes, development and experiences? That is, all elements of the system anyway?

So, when I see someone actively trying to force blame on individuals, I believe we are no better at understanding individuals—perhaps much less so—than we were thousands of years ago when ancient philosophers debated free will and determinism.

Deep down, they are reconciling their discomfort with determinism like the time Aristotle pretended to spill wine on his foot to get a good laugh…

 

What Super Mario Bros teaches us about motivation

in Editor Pick/Media Psychology/Work Psychology by

People who were around during the moon landings often tell me what it was like that day. I don’t really have a moon landing story. But I can tell you about the time I was a kid and I first witnessed the launch of the video game, Super Mario Bros, on my friend’s television.

There were the obstacles, jumps, magic mushrooms and endless falls down bottomless pits. Quirky sounds triumphantly proclaimed growth, progress and victory. Goals were signalled with flags and celebrated with fireworks.

Enemies came from below and above. Each one had its own personality. You could jump on the head of one enemy and squash it but the next one would be covered in spikes. Another would duck its head in its shell, which would then ricochet off a wall and return to knock you over.

Kids all over the world were hurling their controllers around the room desperately trying to get this tiny little Mario sprite to reach the goal of rescuing the princess. Nobody really cared who the princess was or why she was even captured in the first place.

There was no genuine reward other than the pure satisfaction of getting to the end. Forget all the textbooks on motivation. Nintendo had captured it in a bottle, like lightning.

 

Gamification…not that gimmick again!

Let’s jump forward say, 20 years or so. The term ‘gamification’ took hold and spawned some innovative ‘game-based’ problem-solving approaches as well as setting millions of eyes rolling. It was gimmicky, like a typical management fad and seemed to trivialise our important day-to-day jobs.

My eyes weren’t rolling, though. The eight-year-old in me was grinning. I suspect I wasn’t the only one. Somewhere between adolescence and adulthood—whenever that transition is finalised—we all shift from embracing fun to becoming very serious about work. Work isn’t a video game. It’s business. And business is a serious affair, Dr Duck.

For those of you unfamiliar with gamification, the idea was to use the elements that make a video game so engaging and apply them to the way we go about work. The best gamification has already been applied without you realising it. There are the subtle movements and sounds your phone makes when you activate it. The various apps you use have adopted gamification principles, like including avatars, scores and rating systems.

Fortunately, gamification doesn’t have to be a management fad in my line of work. As a psychologist, I became curious as to the underlying mechanisms that make video games so engaging. Here are a few observations:

 

Meaningless scores and progress

Video games are addictive because they provide an ongoing sense of progress. I remember adults observing Super Mario when I was a child. They seemed to link the objective of the game to the score in the corner.

The score, however, was never the goal. Unlike earlier video games, like Space Invaders, where high scores were presented on a screen, in Super Mario Bros the score was never compared to other users. It was the mere feeling of progress that was motivating.

Adults filtered the goal of the game with their own orderly logic. There had to be some reward in reaching the end. However, like any good job, the work in of itself was the reward.

 

Power mushroom sounds

In a recent job I was informed by the IT professionals that office computers shouldn’t have sounds as they are distracting. No doubt this was correct but I grieved the lost possibility of using sound as subtle motivator.

Think about how often sound enriches our experience. There’s the sound of unwrapping a present, the crunch of fresh popcorn at the cinema, the satisfying click of the mouse, the music the pumps through your headphones on the train or when you go for a run.

Think of how much less impact a film like Star Wars would have without the blaring themes of John Williams or Darth Vader’s creepy breathing.

Super Mario Bros was known for its joyful tune as well as little blasts of sound effects for everything you did. Grab a mushroom and the game makes a satisfying sound signifying augmentation. Get hit by a bad guy and the music makes noise representing sorrow and misfortune.

The sounds are like a commentary on the drama and reinforce positive performance.

 

The bottomless pit learning curves

Super Mario teaches us a lot about learning too. When you first play the game, you die…a lot. It’s annoying but with every new try, you make it a little bit further and there are milestones that help you on the way. Doesn’t that sound like how a workplace should function?

Unfortunately, with most workplaces, we hire ‘qualified’ and ‘competent’ people so we don’t have to go through all that. Human beings are sometimes treated like assets that are installed and then simply operate as per specification.

Imagine what our environments would be like if they were designed to allow people to make lots of mistakes so they could upskill and learn? Think about how you really learn. It’s usually through experimentation, trial and error and asking people. How many workplaces embrace, let alone tolerate, errors?

 

Nintendo Controller Simplicity

It’s often assumed that when we introduce a new system or procedure, we need to train people and give them documents. This, to me, is a sign we probably haven’t designed the new solution to be as simple as it needs to be.

I recently overheard a conversation in a workplace where someone said, ‘I feel like we are designing everything around human error and that’s just not right.’ I resisted the urge to butt in and say, ‘Yes it is!’ Design is everything.

When I played Super Mario for the first time it was simple. The controller had a few buttons, clearly labelled and designed for your thumbs. You pressed start and off you went, learning along the way.

When was the last time you used a workplace system that worked as well? It was probably your Smart Phone, which was designed with the same mentality as a video game.

This frustrated employee didn’t like the idea of continually designing the system to work around the quirks and limitations of people. People needed to work around the system.

But that’s why video games are so much fun. You aren’t spending all your time trying to work out how to play. Someone’s already spent the time working that out for you. You just start playing.

 

‘Your princess is in another castle’ humour

What makes something funny? It’s when we expect an outcome but are surprised by an alternative. Video games are often surprising and have a good sense of humour.

Super Mario has various castles to conquer and when you reach the end, you are informed, ‘The princess is in another castle.’ The anti-climax is amusing and triggered many kids to scream and laugh at the television with frustration. Get to the end of the entire game and the princess says ‘…but our princess is in another castle…just kidding.’The developers had fun making this and have designed it so you will have fun too.

In workplaces, we are careful to strip out the jokes and humour from the products and solutions we develop. Sure, we make jokes along the way and have fun. But why do we want to sanitise our documents, systems and surroundings from good old fashioned fun? When was the last time you read a communication from an executive or CEO that wasn’t carefully crafted and devoid of any humour?

Gamification re-introduced some of these ‘fun’ elements to work. When it is done well, the fun and gaming elements are integrated seamlessly. When it’s done badly, it results in gimmicky trophies, medals and scores being slapped on a dashboard. As with any workplace initiative, gamification also needs a lot of attention and effort to make it work. Humour can be a part of a solution. It just needs to be done well.

 

Pokemon Go…back to work

I’ve never really liked the term work-life balance. It implies work is something we have to do so we can enjoy our real lives.

People like to quarantine fun and work. Video games are fun and need to be limited. Growing up, we had time limits on how long we could play a game. After all, the game was robbing my time that could have been better spent on more important stuff like exercise and school. Who would have thought that as an adult I would be able to use and apply all those wasted hours on Super Mario?

Today, I’ve noticed the same fear of smart phones and tablets. There was the probably the same fear of television and no doubt radios and story books. Recently, there was world-wide enthusiasm as well as condemnation of Pokemon Go. Although I didn’t jump on either bandwagon my only thought on it was the eight-year-old in me—‘That looks like fun.’

Meanwhile, I watch as my daughters learn from YouTube and effortlessly navigate their Ipad. They’ve learned to create incredible playdough, beautiful artwork and craft from the online media.

Like video games, I’m not so fearful that they are wasting their time. I am more curious as to how all of these amazing technologies will be further integrated into our lives in the future. My eldest has already started to ask me to show her how to create drawings using the computer.

The technology isn’t a distraction. It’s progress.

Thank you for reading this blog but my insights are in another castle…just kidding.

Seven Dwarf leadership styles. Which one are you?

in Editor Pick/Work Psychology by

My first job ended with a triumphant walk out. I threw my Safeway name badge on the ground and never returned (except to buy things later).

This was not to be a trend in my career nor was it a sign of my immature youth. It was in response to a manager who lost his temper and decided to grab me by the arm, drag me across the store and berate me in front of customers. Let’s call him Grumpy.

Grumpy had an up and down personality. He was volatile one day and gregarious the next. Research suggests that an unpredictable personality is worse than someone who’s just difficult or unfair all the time. Uncertainty is the best friend of anxiety and worry. At least with a bad tempered person, you know you’ll be unhappy.

On this particular occasion, he was grumpy because someone had been stealing all the painkillers from Aisle One. When I approached him, he was standing in the corner of the aisle on a covert operation to catch the thief red handed.

Apparently, when I interrupted the critical mission, he thought it was appropriate to drag me across the store and give me a dressing down in front of the customers. I walked away, a little shook-up and a bit angry and proceeded to go back to work.

Grumpy wandered by a few minutes later with a jovial smile. ‘False alarm’, he said.

It was only when a younger colleague joked about the incident and Grumpy’s temper, that all the lightbulbs in Aisle four went off. ‘That wasn’t right!’, said a young pre-doctor/pre-psychologist (i.e. me). The badge fell to the ground and I only ever returned to stock up on bread and milk.

Then the phone calls came through. Grumpy was terrified I’d report him to Safeway management because he was under probation for sexually harassing a female colleague at another store.

In retrospect, it may have been appropriate to report him but, like most people, you just want to move on to something new and forget the past.

The only benefit of being man handled and embarrassed was Grumpy gave me a glowing recommendation when I applied for my next job.

It would be easy to think that Grumpy was the exception. With all the managers—senior and otherwise—across the globe, true leadership is a pretty important but is hard to find. Here are a few leadership styles that I’ve observed.

Sleepy

Sleepy leaders are those that are essentially asleep at the wheel as the workplace and world around them changes. They are personified by the worst kind of decision—indecision. Ideas are brought to them to improve their business and they fail to see the potential. Poor performers pass under their radar and may even be promoted. The sleepy leader is uninvolved and inspires apathy from their followers.

Sneezy

Sneezy represents the distracted leader who becomes so preoccupied with their immediate circumstances they are as effective as someone having a sneezing fit. I remember one leader who just couldn’t sit still in a meeting to hear a briefing. He’d wander around the room, interrupt you with side stories and even massage your shoulders. I used to liken it to trying to have a discussion whilst someone is juggling and swallowing swords in front of you.

Bashful

The bashful leader is simply lacking self-confidence and steel. I worked with a colleague who felt deeply uncomfortable when their manager confided in them about how they didn’t feel like they could lead. This manager would worry, feel ineffective when they made decisions and were concerned that their team didn’t respect them. Every leader has doubts, nerves, and fears. A leader should be self-aware and honest but, let’s face it, we don’t want to work for someone who doubts themselves all the time.

Dopey

The dopey leader simply makes poor decisions or does not have the subject matter expertise to have an educated opinion. I recall a manager who was facilitating a workshop after a major safety incident. The manager commanded the room and started writing a list of punitive and ineffective actions on the whiteboard. They were commanding from a place of ignorance. A sensible leader needs to defer to the experts and facilitate. A dopey leader makes the decisions from a place of complete ignorance.

Happy

Everyone loves the happy leader who inspires laughter and fun in the workplace. At best, these leaders can help motivate and promote a positive culture. At worst, however, they may not always be realistic and can even side-step issues that drain their energy levels. When I worked in the public service, I observed many a happy leader worn down over time by their worried, more conservative colleagues who wanted to tackle the difficult issues. They would sometimes joke or make light of a situation as their concerned counterpart was more interested in getting an outcome than feeling good about it.

Doc

Then there’s Doc, the natural leader. They don’t necessarily have any particular characteristics that stand out other than the fact that everyone listens and follows them. Workplace psychologists have long studied the various traits, styles, motivations, and thinking that goes into a ‘Doc’.

Docs don’t worry too much but worry just enough. They’re happy enough but happiness isn’t their priority. They’ve got the smarts but rely on their peers as well. They take action and have the guts to do the job without being too overconfident.

Oh, and they usually don’t man handle their employees.

What I learned selling shoes at Myer

in Editor Pick/Work Psychology by

‘Hi, I’m after a pair of shoes. Preferably in black.’ I’d heard this one a few times. I was, of course, surrounded by black shoes in one of my first part-time jobs at Myer.

There were also many times when a customer would explain how his feet were different sizes…like almost every customer who came in. I also lost count of how many people asked me about the perils of foot odour. Fortunately, 99 per cent of the feet that walked through the department were odourless.

Although I did not realise it at the time, I had learned more than how to convert a US into a UK size. It was five years of workplace boot camp. Here are a few memories:

Corporate programs are not usually very good

Too often I sat in training and corporate programs highlighting impressive new changes on the way. There was the time I was instructed to look longingly into my colleague’s eyes for exactly one minute. We were being taught about the importance of eye contact. Unfortunately, my colleague was deeply uncomfortable with this activity and literally spent the awkward minute staring off to the side.

We were then instructed about the new ‘three metre’ rule where you must offer a customer assistance if they come within your radius of three metres. My fellow employees scoffed at this behind closed doors, saying it would make serving one customer impossible if they were stopping to offer every other customer help on the way back to the shoe reserve.

I kind of liked the idea of these activities but always found them a bit patronising and forced. In the past, I’d always preferred to work with leaders who got to know you and took to the floor with you rather than the ones educating you from a distance with elaborate programs.

Workplace protocols almost always end up getting in the way

One of the most annoying times in any workplace is where office protocols fly in the face of logic. We had one new Christmas casual rock up for work a few times and then completely disappear. HR called him and he’d say he was on his way in and then he’d never show up. He had decided to simply have a bit of fun with them, leaving us in the lurch.

The protocols and processes within the organisation kept him on the roster, even though it meant we’d be guaranteed to be a person down on our busiest days. It seems the rosters were automated and because this employee had technically never resigned, the roster would continue to allocate him hours.

Workplaces make innovation too hard

It’s the mantra of most organisations these days. Innovate! Disrupt! All ideas are good ideas! However, most organisations constrain new ideas by removing any kind of freedom to be innovative. In our trusty shoe department we were not allowed to touch the displays. This was the role of a ‘visual merchandiser’.

The chaos in organising and administering the shoes reserve during peak periods often resulted in large boxes of odd shoes every few months. Often, the different styles were differentiated by tiny graphics or codes, which meant they got mixed up and were harder to find.

On one particular day, I had an idea to colour code all the different styles in the shoes reserve so it was easier to tell the shoes apart. When shoes supplier arrived one day she was so impressed with how easy it was to find a style, making her job easier as well.

I took the idea further and renamed the shoes with long codes after Seinfeld characters. A ‘Kramer’ in a size 10 was easier to find than shoe 22034527728 when shoe 22034527732 was sitting right next to it.

Meanwhile, my own manager simply pulled me aside and said, ‘Can you stop scribbling on the boxes?’.

It’s not all about the customer

After another corporate training program, we were shown a video of a fishmonger’s shop where every employee was dancing, motivated and happy. The message wasn’t exactly clear but I guess management were trying to say, ‘Why can’t you be more like them?’

I’m not sure what inspired the fishmongers. I also agree it would be great to work somewhere with that kind of buzz (but perhaps not the smell). I remember the union loyalist muttering quietly under his moustache, ‘They just don’t get it do they?’ regarding the middle managers.

Another of my colleagues worked full time and after several years of Christmas ‘muzak’, like Jazz in the House, he had enough, asking management to turn the music down. They counselled him and suggested that maybe there was a deeper issue that needed to be addressed.

What my colleagues were trying to express was that they found the environment demotivating. Corporate programs were all about delighting customers but never about improving the morale of staff.

Choose recognition rewards wisely

In many ways, the old pat on the back is the best reward. If you try to provide a tangible reward it may simply draw attention to how much an organisation is willing to spend on its employees.

In one particular year we had made some huge profit. I believe it was about $1million in one weekend. No doubt, this was across all stores in Australia.

As I exited the store that evening, the managers were standing there with party hats and handing out our prize: a mint lolly we could take from a basket. I think it was great to recognise and involve staff but the appearance of cheap mints being handed out was hardly a major motivational tool.

Next thing I knew staff were grumbling about how a $1million profit translated into a few dollars for mints.

Workplaces are filled with characters

I worked with a lot of characters. There was that union loyalist who stood cross-armed at the back of the shoe reserve only occasionally serving a customer. He knew his rights as an employee, always encouraging staff to avoid wearing the standard dress attire (‘They can’t make you.’) and to dob in managers who would state otherwise.

There was the quirky, long-time employee who had worked in shoes for what must have been well over a decade. He’d wander about laughing hysterically at his homophobic, sexist and racist remarks, sometimes occurring all at once or in combination.

One Christmas we had two trainee doctors sign up for the extra cash. One was easy-going, funny and a hard worker. The other thought the work was beneath him and was quick to cut people down with an arrogant comment. These attitudes probably told me much about the kind of doctor each would become.

As with all first jobs the most memorable things were the friends and the memories of working alongside them during the Christmas periods and over a few hundred weekends. Today many of us still stay in touch. The best man at my wedding was a guy I met at Myer.

The shoe department also supported many on their journey to their next careers, including two registered psychologists, a surgeon, a talented arts and craft entrepreneur, and a weatherman.

These days when I am working to improve organisations I always start at the point of the person who actually has to do the real work. If you can’t motivate the frontline everything else falls in a heap.

Oh, and I can easily convert a US size into a UK size.

Please forward this blog to anyone who passes by within three metres. And don’t forget the eye contact!

 

Dr Nicholas Duck is a blogger and founder of Opposite

Opposite-2

6 times to try the opposite at work

in Editor Pick/Work Psychology by

Don’t trust your anxious gut

It can often be difficult to differentiate between our gut—our intuition—and anxiety. Intuition helps us detect patterns and leads to moments of insight. It can guide us through difficult interpersonal and personal issues.

Many individuals, however, believe they are trusting their gut when they are really being manipulated by their internal worries and fears. Unlike intuition, anxiety narrows our focus, makes us fret about the near future, and leads to avoidance behaviour.

Anxiety keeps you in jobs that are making you miserable. It makes you avoid public speaking and standing up for yourself. It creates a wall between you and others out of fear of embarrassment.

When you experience anxiety, your best course of action is to do the opposite of what the anxiety is telling you.

You should go for that new career, speak up, and lower your guard with others.

Start the day with something challenging

Most of us ease into the year, the month, the week and the day like we are getting into a hot bath. It’s easier to email a few people or file some documents then move into something challenging once we’ve warmed up.

The opposite is to jump straight into something challenging.

Indeed, research suggests that when we start each day with a couple of tasks that are mentally demanding we are more alert and attentive later in the day.

Allow yourself to feel sad

I recently watched a video taken at my daughter’s kinder, summarising the year. The video solely focused on happy moments, as you’d expect. No parent wants to see a video depicting children crying, sitting alone, or looking sad.

We like to quarantine sadness as an anomaly or deviation from the norm. Mild sadness and dejection, however, serve a purpose to help us reflect on our shortcomings and plan a different approach.

Furthermore, forcing ourselves to be positive has the unintended consequence of making us feel miserable—called the ironic rebound effect, where the emotion we try to suppress returns more intensely than before.

The opposite here would be to use a flat mood to your advantage. Instead of fighting it, embrace it. Slow down, reflect and plan your next steps.

Stop monitoring people

Most organisations demand compliance but lose track of all the written and unwritten rules of the workplace. Workplaces become onerous and confusing places and before long individuals aren’t even sure what’s expected of them.

When individuals feel obliged to complete an activity or follow a rule they need to exert more mental effort.

This effort can ultimately lower motivation. This means that when the supervisor isn’t checking, employees bypass these boring and disengaging rules. Monitoring, therefore, increases to stamp out the non-compliance and around we go.

In contrast, when individuals truly value an activity they don’t need to expend as much mental energy. The task doesn’t require self-control.

So, do the opposite when you have a compliance problem. Reduce the monitoring and cut back on the rules. Instead, identify what employees value.

Two ears one mouth

It seems logical in the workplace to constantly strive to demonstrate your worth and ability. We might highlight our accomplishments or actively try to solve a business problem and show results.

But research shows that we are more influential when we shut up and listen. Additionally, when we adopt an open approach to learning, rather than performing, we appear less threatening and are liked more by our colleagues.

Importantly, we also learn more too. So, in doing the opposite, you should always be thinking ‘What can I learn?’ rather than ‘Look what I can do.’

Never worry…ever

Worrying is intoxicating. It makes us feel like we have more control over future events than we really do.

But debating with yourself and thinking about all the things that could go wrong is almost always a waste of time. Worries rarely come true and even when they do we learn more from the problems anyway.

Do the opposite next time you are stewing over a difficult problem. Try the opposite and enjoy the liberation when you realise you don’t have to worry anymore.

Dr Nicholas Duck is a blogger and founder of Opposite 

Running away or chasing? What are you selling?

in Editor Pick/Media Psychology/Work Psychology by

As a naïve, young researcher, I walked into an advertising agency hopeful that they would be excited to sponsor my research. Of course, I was dealing with the ultimate salespeople and there was no chance I would be able to match their ability to pitch and influence.

The research looked at whether we could tailor advertisements to be more credible if they aligned with the regulatory focus of people. People are…

…wait a minute. Let me sell it to you like the ad man…

Some ads are made to make you feel insecure, like deodorant commercials. Other ads are flogging you a dream or idea to make you feel happy.

The first lot of ads correspond to a prevention focus. When individuals are concerned about their prevention needs, they are especially worried or concerned with fulfilling their social obligations. Or, as the ad man would say, they’re worried they’ll smell.

The second lot of ads are related to a promotion focus, which is a fixation on ideals and aspirations. The ad man would refer to that luxury car you dream about or the holiday cruise.

How you position yourself or your organisation may very well hinge on whether your audience are promotion or prevention focussed.

Say your customer is after some innovative, blue sky ideas. You may feel the need to provide these ideas but also back up the idea with assurance of risk management and fact checking.

Interestingly, research suggests that combining more abstract and creative messaging (promotion) with vigilant messaging (prevention) affects your overall credibility. That is, people instinctively reject the message.

Organisations that develop visions and missions often try to integrate lots of ideas in one, simple message. Their efforts are admirable. They are aiming to cover everything that they do in one message.

However, often these messages end up getting tangled and ultimately become fairly meaningless. For example, depicting some future utopia may inspire the audience up until you bombard them with messages about fixing immediate issues. Suddenly, that inspirational message gets caught up in the here and now.

The opposite can also be true. If your customers associate your brand with prevention, then you may alienate these customers by highlighting the aspirational aims of the organisation.

Do you exist to make your customer feel secure or to help them realise their ideas?

It isn’t all about the organisation. You also have your own brand. Do people come to you because you come up with the ideas or do they rely on you as the diligent finisher who dots all their ‘i’s and crosses all the ‘t’s?

If you are a working in a role where prevention is a key consideration, then you may find that your ideas are perceived as less important than your ability to provide your internal customers with confidence. If your role is about dreaming big, people may find your preoccupation with protocols to be a drawback.

Perhaps this is why the ad man rejected my pitch. Maybe my research and delivery felt too mechanical and diligent. The message was not enough luxury vehicle and too much bad body odour.

Here are examples of vision statements that align with either a prevention or promotion focus.

Prevention Messages

World Vision

Our mission is to be a Christian organisation that engages people to eliminate poverty and its causes.

Obesity Society

Better understand, prevent and treat obesity to improve the lives of those affected through research, education and advocacy.

RSPCA

To prevent cruelty to animals by actively promoting their care and protection.

Promotion Messages

Coca Cola

To refresh the world…To inspire moments of optimism and happiness…To create value and make a difference.

Amazon

Our vision is to be earth’s most customer centric company; to build a place where people can come to find and discover anything they might want to buy online.

Ebay

At eBay, our mission is to provide a global online marketplace where practically anyone can trade practically anything, enabling economic opportunity around the world

Can workplace initiatives improve your morale?

in Editor Pick/Work Psychology by

When I was working part-time as a public servant I used to miss out on the free massage on Friday. The massage was probably a small part of a broader portfolio of health and well-being initiatives.

It was a nice idea but, of course, years later the media found out and twisted (or liberated) the story. The health and well-being benefits were overshadowed by the fact that a professional masseuse was kneading the various vertebrae of public servants.

I wonder if the back massage actually worked. Did it improve mobility and reduce workplace injuries? Probably not. But maybe it gave public servants a morale boost that subsequently improved the performance of the department. After all, perhaps just demonstrating care for our employees is enough to improve job satisfaction?

Research suggests that these appealing initiatives may only temporarily boost our mood. Over time these improvements may not only diminish but also result in a decline in mood, essentially balancing out any short-lived improvement.

This phenomena is referred to as the ‘overshoot effect’. According to opponent process theory, when we experience a spike in happiness we throw our emotions out of equilibrium. As a result, an opponent emotion, dejection, temporarily lowers our mood before it stabilises again.

Similarly, when we experience heightened anxiety, the initial distressing spike is felt followed by an opponent emotion—relaxation—that restores our mood to a steady state.

So, many of our efforts to promote a long-term improvement in well-being may be neutralised by the natural equilibrium of the brain and body. My colleagues may have enjoyed that massage but the enjoyment may have simply devolved into a mild depression before returning their malleable bodies and minds to a more normal state.

The imperfections of being a perfectionest

in Editor Pick/Work Psychology by

Are you addicted to getting that font colour just right? Do you see errors in everyone’s work? Do you sometimes feel like the only reason something failed was because you weren’t involved?We’ve all worked with perfectionists. We’ve probably all been perfectionists ourselves from time to time.

The trouble is that being a perfectionist has some unfortunate drawbacks. Imperfections perhaps. Studies show that individuals who are perceived as having greater self-discipline and control are also more likely to be assigned extra work.

These perfectionists then feel that they have made regular sacrifices for their co-workers only to be burdened by the extra workload.Unfortunately for the perfectionists, their fellow workers don’t perceive them to be burdened. That is, because they are perceived as being so disciplined, others think the perfectionists don’t have to work as hard.

You can immediately see how this could play out. A perfectionist can’t help putting in the extra hours and effort. Others see this happening and think they are the best candidate to take on more work. The perfectionist puts in even more time and effort, perpetuating the endless build-up of work.

All this might be ok if the extra effort led to better outcomes.

However, perfectionism can also lead to excessive attention to working hard under the misguided notion that the more effort that’s expended, the higher its quality. Psychologists refer to this as the effort ‘heuristic’.

It reminds me of when children keep mixing different paints hoping to get the most amazing colour only to discover that it produces a muddied brown or grey.

I also think about all those cooking shows where the contestants want to wow the judges with more and more sophisticated flavours and combinations until the dish is no longer edible.

Being a perfectionist might just lead to you working really hard for not a lot of extra gain.

And now time to wrap up this blog. I won’t try and wrap it all up nicely because I’m not a perfectionist.

Why do we punish people?

in Media Psychology by

During the lead up to the executions of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran there was public outcry. In one camp we had the calls for mercy. The punishment did not fit the crime.In another camp was the harsh view that they should have simply known better. And, of course, there was a third camp, people who could see both sides.

Perhaps it’s too obvious but how often do we stop and wonder why we punish people?

The motivation to punish is well ingrained from a young age. Parents instinctively use two broad approaches to modify their child’s behaviour. They can reward them for good behaviour or punish them for bad.According to a long line of research, it is believed that children go on to develop stable mental guides from their parents which help them to navigate through life.

When individuals do the wrong thing they eventually learn to punish themselves through emotions such as guilt and anxiety.

When an individual succeeds, he or she learns to reward themself with feelings of happiness and satisfaction. The emotional reactions are like surrogate parental figures who are always with you.

We also learn to instinctively apply these surrogate figures to others.

In our relationships we learn to punish others who have wronged us. In workplaces we learn to develop strict protocols and disciplinary actions for underperforming employees. We reinforce the same strategies with our children.

We also punish entire civilisations. After all, what was the Berlin Wall for if not a massive slap from a parental figure?

Of course, we also learn to reward others too. We embrace people for being kind and supportive. We give employees bonuses for good performance and we also praise our children for good behaviour.

If it was that simple, however, all we would have to do is reinforce good behaviour and punish bad.

But as we all know from experience it doesn’t seem to work that way.

Rewarding children with incentives like money, for example, has been paradoxically shown to lower their motivation to continue doing the task, called the overjustification effect.

Bonuses for employees can lead to unethical behaviour to claim this desirable reward.

Even capital punishment has not put a stop to drug smuggling.

Although punishment will deter many individuals, research also shows that there’s more to it than just deterrence. We also do it because we value retribution even if there’s no actual effect on deterring future behaviour.

The problem with this simplistic ‘carrot and stick’ approach is that we often don’t have a real idea of what we are truly rewarding or deterring. We don’t always stop to understand what truly motivates people.

When we scold a child for poor behaviour, we might be reinforcing their need for attention. When employees are reprimanded for breaching rules to get the job done faster, we may unintentionally be punishing them for coming up with new ideas.

When money is provided for hard work, we may be reinforcing the idea that the almighty dollar is more important than the value of the work itself.

What will the punishment of Chan and Sukumaran provide? Will it deter future drug smuggling? Will it reinforce a society’s appetite for retribution?

If your life was a story, what kind of story would it be?

in Work Psychology by

We are all stars in our own story. The early days were misadventures. That career was a series of triumphs. In some cases the story takes sharp turns in unexpected directions. Other times we hit obstacles and tragedies.These stories are referred to as our narrative identities and they help us to make sense of our past and anticipate our possible future.

Many of the stories we use to construct our narrative identities are reinforced by our upbringing, society and culture. Cultural stories are one way we pass on wisdom. Research also shows that the narratives we adopt to describe our lives can predict how well we subsequently respond to significant life events.Do any of the following stories ring true for you?

The Redeemer

My life is about learning from all the hardships and mistakes

Redemption narratives involve overcoming significant hardships, leading to greater awareness and appreciation. They involve life lessons and challenges that helped shape the person today.

The Connector

I learned to lean on others 

Communion narratives underscore building social connections and relating more to those around them as a means of overcoming difficulties. For example, a disconnected workaholic may learn to lean on family and friends when his or her life turns upside down and realises that social connections are more meaningful than money.

The Fighter

I saw the challenges in front of me and dived straight in

Agency narratives involve the individual taking full control of their destiny through sheer force and determination. They may, for example, persevere and overcome injustice and fight their way to the top in an organisation or triumph over a major physical obstacle, like climbing a mountain.

The Unlucky

The good days are behind me

A contamination identity follows the opposite path to the first three themes. The person who has a contamination narrative starts their story in a good state but is plagued by misfortune. They may, for example, keep seeing opportunities pass them by at work, struggle with endless physical complaints. The good days are well and truly behind them.

Narrative Identity and Resilience

These four themes were examined by researchers to work out whether they helped individuals navigate through hardships. Researchers identified individuals who adopted one of these four themes and then traced the trajectory of their lives at six month intervals over two years. They were also interested in whether the narrative identities would help them better respond to a negative significant life event. So they recorded any instances where participants experienced a significant physical illness.

Those who viewed their life through a contamination lens, were less resilient when confronted by this illness. The illness was just yet another misfortune on the journey toward degradation.In contrast, the other three identities seemed to improve resilience. That is, individuals who viewed their lives through the lens of redemption, communion or agency were better able to cope with the hardships of the physical illness, both mentally and physically.

Using this information, we could possibly re-write our life stories to have a more meaningful and positive journey.

Leaders could motivate others during times of significant change and upheaval by anchoring the changes to a story that resonates. Perhaps the difficulties will form part of learning (redemption narrative) or an opportunity to lean on colleagues and build their connections (communion narrative)?

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