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Feeling ‘instinctively right’

How much of a guide is ‘gut feeling’ when it comes to strategy? Is it a useful indicator of what sorts of action will work; or should it be put aside for more overtly rational ways to decide what to do? The dismal proportion of women directors on FTSE-100 Boards is a case in hand. Research by Cranfield University shows that in 2009 just 12% of FTSE-100 directors were women…

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Is upsetting people OK, to get their attention?

The 10:10 campaign, launched last September to highlight carbon emissions and damage to the environment, has hit a problem. A four minute film commissioned for the 10:10 date (10 October) to challenge apathy about climate change has itself become the issue, with claims that it’s tasteless, too violent and will create disaffection for the cause it promotes.

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'Judgement extremism'?

case studyThe New York Times / International Herald Tribune has today (30 July 2010) carried an article entitled entitled ‘Greece and the power of negative thinking‘. Taking as an example the often-stated view that Greece is at the epicentre of the current European economic crisis, the authors, Thierry Malleret and Olivier Oullier, argue that ‘Neuroscience has much to teach us about ‘judgement extremism’ and our economic outlook’.

Overstatement usually pays off
In the view of these authors, ‘judgment extremism’ pays dividends. They note that:

The neural system used when anticipating rewards is active long before the one in charge of evaluating risks and losses. Most academics and opinion-makers know that the rate of return on postulating extreme outcomes is far greater than that of simply establishing facts: A columnist is much better off predicting a dire outcome than being caught up with the facts that lead to a complex and uncertain one.

“Therefore, an outlandish prediction (albeit, perhaps, inadequately grounded) of a euro zone implosion is likely to be rewarded by editorial success and intellectual kudos; and by the time it may be proven wrong, it might well go unnoticed.

Joining the dots
Further, Malleret and Oullier suggest, the increasing specialization of expertise means that people often think only within their own ‘silos’, rather than across the spectrum of the situation as a whole – with the outcome that, for instance, they see only the economic and not the political situation:

“… before May 2, when the Greek authorities finally signed an agreement with the European Union and the International Monetary Fund, the markets became convinced that a Greek default was both imminent and inevitable by refusing to consider that the political imperative would trump the economic reality. Put simply, they did not connect the dots between politics and economics.”

Nuance is out?
The suggestion here is that ‘it depends‘ is rarely a response which grabs the headlines or fires the imagination – the immediate rewards for commentators of a dramatic judgement (e.g. that Greece will fail, taking the Euro zone with it) usually outweigh alternative nuanced responses which incorporate more aspects of the situation and probably reflect overall realities more accurately.

But if the big picture lacks nuance, how can we really understand it?
How can careful analysis and insight be rewarded, to accommodate a subtlety which offers potential for resolution of complex scenarios and avoids the possible perils of dramatic silo thinking?

Happy to talk, deep and meaningfully

bookNew research reported in Psychological Science (February 2010) by Matthias R. Mehl and colleagues of the University of Arizona suggests not only that having conversations helps us to be happy, but that ‘deep’ conversations do this better than small talk – though as a ‘social lubricant’ chit chat has its place too. (Eavesdropping on Happiness: Well-Being Is Related to Having Less Small Talk and More Substantive Conversations)

Mehl’s finding is that the happiest people spent 70% more time talking ‘deep and meaningfully’ than did the unhappiest.

In the study, Mehl equipped 79 college men and women for four days with a portable device which every 12.5 minutes recorded 30 seconds of sounds, whilst the wearers followed their normal routines. This produced in total more than 23,000 recordings, about 300 per participant.

Mehl’s team then classified the recordings as small talk (“Popcorn? Yummy!”) or substantive (“She fell in love with your dad? So, did they get divorced soon after?”) and participants took tests to evaluate personality and well-being.

More ‘meaningful’ talk, less solitude
The team found that those reporting higher levels of well-being spent less time alone and more time talking to others. The happiest also spent about 25 percent less time alone (59% against 77%) and about 70 percent more time talking (40% against 23%).

The happiest were found to have about one third as much small talk as the unhappiest and twice as many substantive conversations.

Mehl also reported that having substantive conversations showed slightly stronger correlation with happiness for men than for women, although no reasons for this have been proposed as yet.

Inherent personality or socially created?
Future research will explore whether deep conversations contribute to happiness, or it’s the other way around, but one follow-up study appears to suggest the former.

“We have the first tentative pilot data showing that, indeed, asking people to engage in one extra substantive conversation a day for a period of five days made them a bit happier,” Mehl tells us.

“Profound conversations have the potential to make people happier…. what really connects you to people is substantive, meaningful conversation rather than small talk. It doesn’t have to be all about philosophy or the afterlife, it just has to have substance.”

Can we then make ourselves, and perhaps others, happier by having more, and more meaningful, conversations? How could this happen?

The professor and the policeman: what went wrong?

case studyThe ‘Gatesgate’ report (Missed Opportunities: Shared Responsibilities, 15 June 2010) is finally out.

The USA City of Cambridge, Mass. has produced 64 pages of commentary on the investigation of a suspected break-in at a professor’s home, when the home-owner ended up himself being arrested.

$100,000 and a year down the line, we now learn that it should have been possible to avoid the incident in which the black Harvard professor of African-American studies, Henry Louis Gates, was arrested in Prof Gates’ own home on 16 July 2009 by police sergeant James Crowley.

All these two men would have had to do, was talk to each other more in a more mutually civil way at the onset of the incident. The report identifies ‘….. missed opportunities to lower the temperature of their encounter and communicate clearly with each other, and the results were unfortunate for all concerned. They [therefore] share responsibility for the outcome.’

Not ‘profiling’, just personal
The personal stakes for the two men were high – presumably, being accused of no arrest of a suspect when there should have been one, or alternatively failing to challenge racism when one’s professional reputation is partly centred on this subject – but these stakes could have been managed if civility had been maintained.

So it seems there wasn’t really much basis on this occasion for the conflicting claims about police racial profiling. It might all have ended more quickly with a shared chat in Prof Gates’ garden, not over a beer on President Barack Obama’s patio.

Edgy individuals but perennial issues
But – and it’s a big but – people often do get edgy in difficult situations (as a black person at unfair risk of arrest, or as a law enforcement officer concerned about burglars); and the media love these sorts of stories.

To its credit, the City of Cambridge in its report on this incident addresses perennially challenging issues around community policing. The wider general question however remains for us all to consider: how can common sense prevail when sensitivities are acute?

What sort of advice or protocol, we might wonder, can help opposing parties to have the thoughtful exchange of views first, when the potential for being accused later of inappropriate inaction is so high?

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