If you have ever led an implementation effort in an organization, whether a small project or major strategic initiative, you've probably spent a lot time puzzling over people. Do they understand? Are they motivated? Will they collaborate? Will they resist? Why?! Why, not!? In my work in implementation, I am constantly reminded that the best plans and most elegant technical solutions are not worth much, if stakeholders and end users aren't on board. For this reason, I read regularly from the fields of behavioral economics and psychology. This reading doesn't make me an expert in these areas by any means, but it does help to make my fellow humans a little less of a mystery.
Below are some useful ideas I've gleaned about human behavior from my reading as of late.
Influence: Our best traits are also our major vulnerabilities.
I recently wrote a post on practices that can help us become clearer thinkers and communicators. In it, I note that even your clearest ideas may not always convince your audience. If you are interested in learning more about how people are influenced, there is always the classic Influence, by Dr. Robert Cialdini. Another interesting route may be Maria Konnikova's new book about cons: The Confidence Game: The Psychology of the Con and Why We Fall for It Every Time. (Note: I'm not advocating for anyone to con their stakeholders!)
The Economist's review of the book is positive, and can serve as a nice summary if you are not ready to add another book to your pile. (You can also find an essay by Konnikova, adapted from the book, here. ) Some relevant highlights from the review:
"Almost everyone is a sucker for a good yarn. Because stories appeal to emotion rather than reason, a good one can help fill in gaps. Studies show that juries are often more swayed by compelling narratives than by hard evidence."
"Instead of learning from errors of judgment, many spin new stories about dumb luck, and continue to believe they are special in some way. This self-deception is quite useful. It often makes people happier, more productive, more creative and more empathetic. It also, alas, makes it easier for swindlers to strike again."
We can learn to be more resilient.
While we are on the subject of the writing of Maria Konnikova, you may want to check out her latest article in The New Yorker about research on resilience. If you have ever rolled out anything new in an organization you have likely experienced how some people focus on change as an opportunity, while others view it as a threat and source of stress. Research on resilience can help us to understand those varied reactions and also how we can enhance our own ability to adapt to adversity.
From the article:
"Frame adversity as a challenge, and you become more flexible and able to deal with it, move on, learn from it, and grow. Focus on it, frame it as a threat, and a potentially traumatic event becomes an enduring problem; you become more inflexible, and more likely to be negatively affected."
Different types of success lead to different types of behavior.
Those working in implementation are often challenged to find ways to motivate people to work together and move in the same direction. After all, organizations can be competitive places, full of competitive people. As you consider different methods for spurring joint action among employees, you may be interested in recent studies from Ben-Gurion University. They shed light on how different types of success — winning a competition vs. achieving a goal — affect behavior after the competition is complete.
From the article:
"When success is measured by social comparison, as is the case when winning a competition, dishonesty increases. When success does not involve social comparison, as is the case of meeting a set goal, dishonesty decreases."
Real meditation has real effects on the brain.
As a longtime student of meditation and yoga, I am excited by the growing adoption of mindfulness practices in the world of work. For example, one of my former employers generously offers staff a meditation training program. Harvard Business Review has done a steady stream of pieces on the growing use of meditation among CEOs and other corporate leaders.
However, as an advocate for evidence-based management, I would like to see higher quality evidence for the benefits of meditation practice. We are starting to see such evidence, as noted in a recent article in the New York Times. The article reports on a study that involved two groups of unemployed individuals. Researchers found positive effects in the brains and blood of the group that undertook mindfulness meditation. Some of these effects were apparent four months later, even though many in the study had stopped meditating. The control group, which was given a placebo in the form of 'relaxing activities', did not show signs of change in their brains or blood, but did report feeling refreshed.
From the article:
"At the end of three days, the participants all told the researchers that they felt refreshed and better able to withstand the stress of unemployment. Yet follow-up brain scans showed differences in only those who underwent mindfulness meditation. There was more activity, or communication, among the portions of their brains that process stress-related reactions and other areas related to focus and calm."