Don’t think you can control your emotions? You’re probably right – and it’s affecting your “batting average”

baseball striking bat under high velocity to illustrate the placebo effect

When I was about 10 years old, my dad gave me and my brother a baseball lesson. Specifically, we practiced hitting the ball. The lesson Dad gave was the same for my brother as it was for me, but the results couldn’t have been more divergent. From that day on my brother became a “slugger” and I, a “striker.” If you don’t think you can control your emotions, you’re probably right, and you’ll likely become a striker like me. The placebo effect from drug studies may help, though.

A Little Difference with Big Results

What can science tell us about how my brother elevated his game and I tanked mine? (This is the scientific equivalent of, WTF?) All we know now is that something different happened for my brother and me. It turns out that a simple belief is likely to credit for our diverging batting averages – a belief that is within personal control but not fully controllable by everyone. Huh? Why? How?

A significant component of dad’s instruction addressed the bat – or at least implied its role in getting hits.

You’ve got to Believe

“You may be wondering: how are you going to hit a round ball with a round bat?” Dad posed.

“Yeah, Dad, I was wondering that very thing, HOW CAN I hit a round ball with a round bat?”

This turned out to be a key question and, I believe, THE pivotal condition that put my brother on a path to playoff-bound teams whereas I was never able to get my baseball career to first base.

“You don’t. You hit the ball on the flat side of the bat." Dad encouraged us as he guided our fingers over the barrel of the bat.

“Here, feel here. Here you can feel the flat side of the bat. If you swing this flat side at the ball, you will get more hits.”

The Placebo Effect

My dad was counting on a powerful psychological condition well known in the field of pharmacology – The Placebo effect.

It didn’t entirely work out as Dad planned – at least, not for me.

My brother claimed to feel the flat side of our shared Louisville Slugger. Armed with the conviction that bat and ball actually are designed for hits not strikes my brother saw an immediate improvement in his hitting. I, on the other hand, did NOT feel the flat side of the bat, and, did NOT experience better batting. In fact, now convinced that the flat side of the bat (that doesn’t exist) was THE (missing) KEY to getting hits, I was barely able to make ball contact at all. The easiest explanation for the sudden divergence of my brother’s and my batting was that belief that holding the bat a certain way that favored its “flat side” would lead to more hits, or not.

When a Placebo Becomes a Primary Variable -- i.e., a Big Deal

Here we have the experimental design of the placebo effect. By encouraging my brother and me to “feel” the flat side of the bat (which doesn’t really exist) my dad hoped to establish the critical belief that hits were possible if only one swung with the right side of the bat facing the ball. Confidence in this belief (I know – an oxymoron, "confident belief") was figured to cause an increase in hits as a result. Given this was the only identifiable difference between my brother and myself, belief in one’s potential determined hits. My brother prospered in his newfound belief about the difficulty of the task. But what happened to my placebo effect?

The placebo effect is well known in pharmacological research, or drug studies. This is the standard “psychology only” condition for virtually every drug entering the market. To test the possibility that merely believing in the efficacy of a given treatment has a significant effect on its results beyond any biological agent, the new drug is tested against a placebo condition where no drug is administered to a control group. This simple design has arguably yielded more advances in pharmacological and psychological research than just about any other phenomenon. It turns out that the placebo effect is not only present in just about every drug trial, it's strong, rivaling the physiological effect of many new drugs.

Prove It

How important is the placebo effect to psychological research?

Critical. And in more ways than one.

In fact, THE primary question in psychological research is whether or not a treatment condition is significantly more effective than no treatment at all. This is the tested assumption of the null hypothesis which is the bedrock of experimental design. As an inferential, data-driven science, the job of the researcher is to disprove the possibility that nothing happened. Placebos are a staple of pharmacological research aimed at rejecting the null hypothesis that nothing happened in favor of the presented alternative. This alternative account of results isn’t proven true, the hypothesis of no effect is simply proven to be relatively improbable as compared to the hypothesized effect. In this regard, properly scientific psychological research seeks to prove that “nothing” is an inferior explanation to the alternative hypothesis.

Beyond the Placebo Effect

In psychological research, the placebo effect goes beyond the simple issue of whether a given effect is due merely to the non-treatment condition or the presence of some stimulus (e. g., taking a pill). Here the matter applies as much to independent psychological mechanisms (i.e., variables and their nature of influence) as much it does to the simple question of whether or not any effect is present. A placebo effect holds out the possibility that a given variable may have a more insightful role in behavior than serve simply as a placebo.

The possibility THAT something (oftentimes a psychological variable) can influence study results begs the question: “HOW?”

When a placebo advances in research from the fact that it has SOME kind of effect on results to the specific mechanism(s) of the “placebo” the placebo becomes a key variable for study beyond the original focal variable(s). Science turns to addressing HOW the former placebo works instead of asserting THAT it exists. This is when the placebo becomes an independent variable with a specific mechanism of action. This is when powerful psychological insights are made -- insights that aren’t immediately written off to a placebo effect, but rather depend on the main effect of a placebo effect-like psychological condition.

For our hitting practice, belief in a flat side of a bat minimized the negative attitudinal, or motivational effects underlying a known difficult task -- hitting a round ball with a round bat. The change of attitude associated with our evolving placebo effect emulates a well-researched condition known as cognitive reappraisal.

Typically, this emotional motivation is deliberately and noticeably manipulated via an explicit experimental condition in which participants are guided through the act of cognitive reappraisal. Such an act is not necessary in this case because motivation is already provided by the goal of getting hits. The only thing necessary is to manipulate the participant’s belief in their ability to hit the ball.

That’s not funny

The punchline to an old psychology joke goes, … “one, but the lightbulb has got to WANT to change.” The common understanding is that beliefs are precursors to acts and that any change in action requires/carries a change in causal/supporting beliefs. In most cases cognitive reappraisal is triggered directly by asking a study participant to consider the emotions (or beliefs, in our example) associated with the task in a new light. By reframing an emotional state this way an individual can manage the emotional impact of a situation so as to have less of a negative impact on immediate performance. In this case the motivation to perform is assumed rather than directly manipulated. Here, motivation depends upon beliefs about the difficulty of the task. As these beliefs are enhanced, the motivating attitudes are similarly predicted to change.

Reaping value

So – how can one get value out of this insight?

Wanting to change isn’t the same thing as believing one can, but it is a measurable and influential effect strongly predictive of being able to change. In this case, wanting to get hits is a motivational condition preceding the act of hitting the ball AND resulting from the consequence of getting hits. Therefore, managing one’s motivation for a task has the potential to enhance task performance. But how do you do this?

We’ve seen one good example for how to manage your emotions already – cognitive reappraisal. This is the equivalent of hitting the “reset button” to current thinking and concomitant feelings. By changing the emotive nature of a task we change its desirability and increase(decrease) its motivation. Another means of emotions management is via mindfulness meditation. I write about my personal experience on a week-long silent mindfulness meditation here.

In conclusion

  1. Attitudes matter. They influence motivation which has a corresponding influence on task performance by framing expectations/beliefs.
  2. Motivations matter. They are a form of attitude (which already matters) that can be deliberately controlled by adapting and associating various emotional effects/influences from one situation to another. In our batting example this was accomplished by changing beliefs about the probability of a successful/desired performance.

“It” may all be in your head – but there’s no guarantee that you will have control over “it.” However, if you cannot control it, then it will control you.

Psychology at work – it’s more important than you think!

People with no personality are more common than you think

An empty suit

“They have no personality.” We’re all familiar with this casual saying (it’s no compliment) and we know not to take it literally (or out for drinks). But what exactly does, or could it, mean? Have you ever thought about what “no personality” really looks like?

Personality is arguably the most popular and practical contribution psychology has made to society. Here is a construct or phenomenon that isn’t just for geeky researchers but is decidedly mainstream. From selection assessments and team building events to everyday use and language, personality is big these days; heck, dating services may be the “biggest users” of personality assessments going and everyone has been on a dating site (admit it). Personality is obviously important, so what does it mean when we say someone has no personality?

A literal interpretation would be to say the person really isn’t a person (why do you think we call it PERSONality?). Instead, “no personality” has come to describe someone with a behavioral style of little interest (aka, “boring”).  An apt simile is that no personality is like (plain ‘ole) vanilla ice cream – familiar to all but not the most colorful. But “no personality” is more accurately described as “light” vs. zero personality – featureless but not absent, what are we really talking about?

So, what does “no personality” look like?

Naturally, we know that this saying is not to be taken literally – everyone has something worth listening to (if they don’t then they’re just boring, not a personality-less plant.) Nevertheless, we speak of personality in quantifiable terms, e.g., “Sally has a lot of personality,” the opposite of boring. To have a lot of personality is comparable to interesting and enthusiastic.

So, is it possible for someone (conscious) to have no personality? Literally? The answer depends on how we interpret the words, “no personality.”

{Obviously this is an abstract concept, in part defined by semantics. Nevertheless, the label “no personality” is a fixture – if informal - in characterizing people.}

In this case, “no” refers to a non-existent quantity. We’ve already agreed that there is no such thing as zero personality in a living person, but zero personality does not equal no personality. For all the personality tests I’ve administered, I’ve never had one come back with no scores.

But I have worked with many people who have no ONE definitive personality – or “type.”  I’m not talking about the clinical issues associated with split personality. Some individuals simply don’t have a personality type.

In fact, none do.

The first key to this puzzle is in the specific meaning of “one personality.” If we think of personality as behavioral style, then everyone has one. It’s like the SAT, you get 200 points just for putting your name on it. But if we think of personality as a “type” then I think you’d agree that no one is perfectly described by one “type.”

People change. (It’s what keeps psychologists in business.)

What someone does today may not predict what they do tomorrow. That’s because behavior varies within the repertoire of one person just like it does between people. Today may be a good day for “head down, GSD” while tomorrow may bring about behavior associated with taking a vacation. The way we act in worship probably doesn’t predict what we do (how we behave) at a party. Same person, different behavior.

But not that much. (It’s what keeps personality practitioners in business.)

Especially not after reaching adulthood (which is later than you think; about 30 years old) by which time it’s been estimated that 90% of personality (behavioral style) is in place. Imagine how difficult things would be if people were completely unpredictable even if you like variety. Communication and social behavior in general depend on some degree of consistency – it’s required to allow reliable interpretation.

Some change more than others.

Research has suggested that Emotional Intelligence, also referenced by its quantitative measure, “Emotional Quotient” (EQ), is more predictive of performance and satisfaction than intellectual intelligence, or IQ. This is a big deal.

Emotional intelligence pertains to an individual’s ability to identify and respond accordingly to the pleasure and expectations of present company in an emotionally effective manner. Unlike most psychological research, EQ is a rather simple and practical phenomenon that has become quite popular with the general public thanks to Daniel Goleman, a science reporter for the New York Times. Goleman “chanced” upon the term in the academic literature, simplified and refined the concept and described it.

Just how much of a breakthrough is EQ?

“Self-monitoring” was defined by Mark Snyder as an attribute related to the cross-situational consistency of behavior well before Daniel Goleman’s article that launched the EQ movement. Self-monitoring refers to the ability to discern another person’s or group’s attitude and moderate one’s own behavior to suit intentions for the other.

The stability, hence, predictability, of an individual’s behavior depends on the degree to which a person is a high or low self-monitor.

People with low scores on self-monitoring behave relatively consistently from situation to situation. These are people of principle that are less concerned with being popular than with being right. As a result, people with low self-monitoring scores act more predictably across situations.

People with high self-monitoring scores tend to be entertaining, attractive and popular. Elected politicians are among the prototypical example of high self-monitors. The high self-monitor can determine and adopt the mood of the audience in order to be more relevant and potentially influential to the individual or group.

People that have high levels of self-monitoring are less likely to be behaviorally consistent in a crowd. These are the people often referred to as “social chameleons.” They’re one person with corresponding behavior in one group and “another person” with a different group.

Can a single score capture all the behavior for an individual on a given trait?

Most personality test reports provide a single score for an individual on various characteristics. This can be considered the average behavior as scores reflect the responses to items comprising the trait. While averages are useful to capture the degree to which a reflects some personality attribute, they are not always that accurate. For example, Sally and Jeff may receive the same score on extraversion, but the way they get there is different. This can be illustrated by examining the responses that make up a given character trait.

Sally

Jeff

Although Sally and Jeff have essentially the same average on extraversion Sally and Jeff are not that similar. Sally could be described as being moderately extraverted. Jeff, however, appears to be extraverted about half the time. Essentially, Jeff is harder to predict based on his “split” responses to items that make up the behavior (in this case, extraversion).

Jeff’s responses are consistent with those of a person high in self-monitoring. He may be more extraverted with a group of friends (items 8, 9, 10) versus a group of strangers (items 1 and 2). One can’t say whether Jeff is extraverted or not.

Self-monitoring changes the interpretation of personality tests

Although self-monitoring can be inferred based on item/scale scores (see “Jeff”, above), going the other direction (i.e., from self-monitoring to the behaviors) is more helpful. Since self-monitoring is actually a sub dimension of Emotional Intelligence, EQ scores provide a proxy for self-monitoring. Armed with knowledge of an individual’s EQ scores the interpretation of high self-monitors must be distinguished from low self-monitors.

Low self-monitors are who they are for the most part. Interpreting personality test scores from these individuals is relatively straightforward and reliable. Low self-monitors are generally well described by their scores and their environment is not that much of an influence, they will be consistent regardless of the context.

High self-monitors, on the other hand, are highly influenced by their environment. In the right circumstances they may demonstrate one behavior, in another something else. In order to predict how a high self-monitor will behave it is beneficial to know about their environment; as the environment goes, so goes the high self-monitor.

No <ONE> personality

High self-monitors provide one example of how a given individual cannot be said to have one personality type. In this case, the more accurate assessment would be that the individual’s behavior varies. The same is true for low self-monitors but not to the same degree.

To summarize, people’s behavior is the result of both person- and environmental factors. As such, taking a personality test at face value is unlikely and under-informed, other data must be included for the best picture.

Can’t we all just get along?

Two masks staring at each other. Can we get along?

Nope. No matter how much we want or pray for peace; how much we want the yelling on cable news networks to cease; or how badly we want to end acts of violence taking place in our schools, we must recognize that aggressive behavior is hardwired in our DNA. We can’t “all just get along?”

As social animals, humans have immutable, instinctual, irrepressible needs: the need to bond with others “get along” and the need to dominate, or “get ahead” relative to others. That’s simply the way it is. We will ALWAYS relate to other humans in these instinctive ways. Even your most revered saint is subject to this reality. And you most definitely are, too.

The ONLY people apparently exempt from both of these needs are, in psychological terms, “crazy,” “nut jobs,” “whackos,” etc. Apparently, I say, because an argument could be made that they are labeled, “abnormal” for the very reason that they don’t have both needs met.

The “sticky wicket” here is how we define, “get ahead.” Here’s my crack at it.

The pivotal criteria between hippies who’d “like to buy the world a Coke” and cowboys who take evil-doers and “hang ‘em high” hinge on intent and intensity.

We can all identify with the good old rivalry of game-based competition (good intent, strong intensity), and the trivial “rounding errors” in tax returns (bad intent, low intensity). {I’ve only heard about these.}

A simple taxonomy of "getting ahead."

The table, below, depicts one of the oldest, but strongest, means of influence due to its simplicity - even if a bit inadequate. (Hey, I’m a fan of tales of “ducks and bunnies.”) ANYWAY, in this case two variables (Intent and Intensity), each with two values (good/bad, high/low), are put together. Alas; the classic 2 x 2.

 

A simple taxonomy of "getting ahead."

 

The labels in the grid are mine, but others would work just as well.  (However, if you disagree, you’re wrong. AND bad! – JK*)

BUT...

“BOHICA” (I really shouldn’t say what this acronym represents, so I won’t say that it ends with, Here It Comes Again.)

“Intent” is particularly squirrely. It’s hard to ascertain the intent of someone else: "I did this for you, not me." (hmm) “I didn’t mean to eat all of the ice cream.” (Not hard). And what if the act of intent affords no value to the one in question, “Yes, I drank all your champagne, but I didn’t enjoy it.” (Guilt by confession)

What isn’t so slippery: Few (sane) people proudly parade the image of being “Hostile.” Most don’t even like the idea of being “Mischievous.” We don’t like (allow?) the possibility to arise from our unconscious identity that we may be "bad." The more intense our point of view, the less we like (allow?) it to be anything but affirmative and decisive. "From now to eternity, I will NEVER vote for a ...."

Distinguishing good and bad is subjective. (Note the ‘wiggle’ room here) For the most part, our interpretation calmly flows with the “river of the rest.” For example, “You shouldn't interrupt someone in mid speech.” (That is, unless they NEVER shut up or are an insufferable boor.) “Going with the flow” isn’t infallible. We can believe we’re absolutely good and right, but somehow do unthinkable harm. Many egregious atrocities have been committed in the vortex of popular thinking (e.g., slavery).

Some will take umbrage with my admittedly loose, but intentionally illustrated sense of right and wrong. “God determines what’s right and wrong.” I can hear from some. “Yes,” I respond, "She does." "But..." our operational legal and moral systems are primarily determined by the populous. And, yes, they may be right or wrong about what’s right or wrong. (Huh?)

Anyway, the point I want to make has little to do with defining what’s right or wrong regarding guns, freedom of speech, whatever you like. I simply intend to give credence to the point that sometimes, some times, good people do bad things. I have my own opinions regarding what’s right or wrong, but who cares?

If you accept the conundrum that good people can do bad things, then the conflict between the person and their behavior must be addressed - more realistically, reconciled. Otherwise we have a bad person. And we don't like this answer. So, we in effect, invoke the moral(feeling)/rational(thinking) equivalent of a psychological “get out of jail free” card.

Cognitive dissonance.

Cognitive dissonance. The “slight of mind” that allows us to sleep knowing that we held our nose and voted for ____. OMG.

Cognitive dissonance. It's what you’d guess; mental conflict or disagreement. Cognitive dissonance looms large wherever disagreement lurks.

Take the maelstrom of shootings in US schools. Some say easy access to weapons is at fault,  yet the same people may have guns themselves, or at least want others to have them. Others believe that inadequate defense mechanisms are a weak link in our free society, thus allowing such tragedy. Furthermore, arming trained people with guns in schools is a good start to confronting these horrific maladies.

Who’s right? Who’s wrong? Obviously, the answer depends on who you ask. But both points of view, intensely debated, are staunchly justified by those who hold them.

Cognitive dissonance.

A singular event, with the same information available to all, is fiercely contested. Both “sides” have no doubt that they are right; the other side, dreadfully - dangerously, wrong.

How does this happen?

Cognitive dissonance.

Allow me to walk you through the examples of two potential cognitive processes regarding the two most polarizing points of view on gun control. For illustrative purposes, I’m going to make them super simple and extraordinarily extreme. I am NOT going to try to make them “good.” I speak for NO ONE here. I’m just making a point. Here goes...

“Guns are easily obtained and pose deadly force. If we eliminate guns, we’ll eliminate the problem.”

“Guns are our most effective defense in crises like these. By equipping our schools with guns, we’ll eliminate the problem.”

Both positions invoke cognitive dissonance because both are debatable and, moreover, both are obviously ignorant (as written). Note: we also don’t like to think of ourselves as “ignorant.”

Advocates for eliminating guns want to protect our schools by taking away the weapon of deadly force (guns), but know that two guns are better as long as one gun exists. (Unless they have complete trust in the wielder of the first gun.)

Advocates for the right to bear arms (guns) want to protect our schools by inserting the powerful weapon on site as defense, but know that guns carry risk. And more guns create more risk.

Now. Simmer down. The message is intended to make a point, not a point of view.

I say that both sides “know” these things, but that doesn’t mean they acknowledge them. This is where the BIG BUT comes in.

"Sure. Guns offer powerful protection, BUT at what risk to have so many; in our schools?"

"Sure. Guns pose risk and the more guns, the more risk, BUT at what cost do we allow armed attackers access to unarmed schools?"

When you hear someone pivot on a “BUT” they’re invoking cognitive dissonance.

It’s all about the BUT. When you hear someone pivot on a “BUT” they’re invoking cognitive dissonance. They’re creating a way to hold two conflicting beliefs (one, probably suppressed and unconscious) at the same time.

Cognitive dissonance allows both of these positions to ‘jump’ over the line between good and bad intent

Again. This article is not about gun control. The references are used only to make my point because it’s divisive. Both sides have intense beliefs. Both sides have valid points. Both sides have flaws. Cognitive dissonance allows both of these positions to ‘jump’ over the line between good and bad intent (or at least position one’s self in “the good box.”)

Wake up. We can’t. We won’t. Not gonna happen. We'll never, "all just get along."

We’ll never "all just get along." In virtually all cases, cognitive dissonance justifies our unpopular (among some) position by giving us an “out” of the bad box.

BUT,

If we open our eyes and see this from a higher perspective, perhaps we’ll see some common intent – even if our “logic” differs.

Worth a try?

*JK= Just Kidding. That's text speak I'm using. Cool, huh?

A good mood is better than being happy

Cheerleader jumping high in the air to raise crowd's mood

Whether you’re at work designing plastic wrap that never wrinkles or at home washing dishes after the family reunion, your mood matters. I’m not talking about the obvious pleasure of a “good mood.” Your mood is WAY more powerful, more than you think.*

You probably know this. “I’m not in the mood right now.” Sound familiar? Sure it does. But I bet you’ve never heard it at work. Telling your boss that you can’t send out that customer email because you’re “not in the mood,” wouldn’t go over very well, would it?

Maybe it should.

Inspiration is more important than direction.

Creating a positive mood for your employees actually WOULD make them “work smarter, not harder.”

Inspiration is more important than direction. But which do you think there’s more of in the average workplace? Which do you do more? (If you answer, “inspiration,” ask one of your co-workers to tell you the truth.)

Excitement (i.e., inspiration) is magic. It stimulates creativity. Individuals are more than twice as innovative when they receive a good report (vs. a bad report) prior to a test of creativity. It even makes people smarter. Another study showed that by inducing excitement prior to a difficult math test, scores increased 8%. (If that sounds trivial to you, I’ll be happy to manage your money.)

Home teams have an advantage in sports. Gaming apps sell more than productivity apps. Advertisements feature smiling models and red sports-cars on the open road. (Ever wonder why there’s NEVER any traffic? It makes you anxious.)

Work.

Just the word makes you sigh. Know why? Because work causes anxiety, “I’ve got no time…” and sacks excitement, “I get to do it again?”

Warning: The following content contains explicit language and adult content. (Now I know you’ll keep reading.)

Sex sells. Need I say more?

You can open your eyes now. No joke. Open your eyes to see why approximately 87% of employees are less than engaged. (If you’re reading this while you’re at work, count yourself among the 87/100.)

Work isn’t exciting – at least not for 87% of all workers surveyed by Gallup. As a result, the biggest waste in any organization is what people don’t do that they could.

If excitement is magic, fear is poison.

Want to see someone work hard but get nothing done? (No, but I’m making a point here.) Make them scared. A study showed that by inducing fear, activity that was once fun and frequent, stops.

Fear, stress, anxiety, burnout, frustration, etc. They’re all bad and all related to lost productivity, a lack of creativity, unethical behavior and even physiological health.

Once again, you probably aren’t surprised.

So why do you over-instruct, or worse, take over when someone isn’t doing their job perfectly? (i.e., micro-manage) Why do you keep others working even when they’re on vacation? (“Smart” phones? Give me a break — literally.) These well-intended, but imposing behaviors are so prevalent they’re probably an instinct. (BTW: Telling someone to “calm down” actually makes them MORE anxious.)

If excitement is magic, fear is poison. It stifles good behavior, stimulates bad behavior and absolutely crushes creativity to dust.

Piling on the facts, the flames of fear can be lit in an instant but can take forever to put out.

In summary:

  1. Excitement improves productivity, intellect and innovation.
  2. Fear extinguishes productivity, intellect and innovation.
  3. The benefit/detriment of excitement vs. fear WILL transform an organization.

Key question:

What do you do to stimulate people’s excitement at work?

If you don’t see this as your job, it very well could mean your job. (Hope I didn’t scare you.)

  • In a related post, I describe a simple task to create positive moods.

This simple hack* will reduce stress and improve health

Smiley face to reduce your stress

Most {known} psychological research confirms what people already know. Yep. Most psychological research could receive the “No-duh”  vs. the “Nobel” award. Beyond the obvious, others are obtuse. Good luck with their titles, less the method (that consumes most of the article. But sometimes something else happens. Here, I share a study, well done AND revealing; useful for everyday application. This research yields a simple exercise that, if done, WILL reduce stress and improve your health.

I’ve offered tips to manage mood and to reduce stress before: 3 (easy) office tips to enhance your influence, 3 Surprising Motivation Killers and a couple more. But I must confess that these “tips” are mostly the result of personal experience or general knowledge acquired from multiple sources.

This is different. Or as Dorothy so astutely mentions to Toto in The Wizard of Oz, “… we’re not in Kansas anymore.” (Scariest movie I’ve ever seen…)

Although most research reveals the obvious, what’s surprising is what we do (or don’t do) with this obvious information. Just to check me, I bet you can’t think of three things off the top of your head that would make you or someone else a better person.

You did, didn’t you? (smirk)

No kidding: Why haven’t you done them? If you have, why aren’t you still doing them?

You’re probably wondering, “why is Chris shooting himself in the foot?” It kinda sounds like he’s “giving up” his own profession; “psychological research is unsurprising and insignificant.”

Not quite.

One doesn’t fold with a straight flush, and I wouldn’t with a pair of aces (or would I?). I’ve come too far (and learned too much) to give in now.

Most of you will see through my thinly veiled attempt to entice and titillate as an effort to stir up your emotions. (Not sorry)

Beyond the sarcasm, pointing this out to you is making you even more emotional, even a bit demeaned. (Still, not sorry)

There’s an old saying in psychology, “All’s fair that changes behavior the way we want.” (Well, that’s what it should say.)

No. I’m no martyr. Not at all. I’m “the Fool.”

Here, I re-present one of many findings from I-O psychology that, if applied, would help so many. But it’s buried in an academic journal that few will notice. (I won’t mention it’s not even a journal of psychology, but that’s another story.)

Per Issac Newton, … “a body at rest remains at rest unless acted upon by a force.”

Transferring to psychology, human-kind is a pretty big, “body.” Consider this, “the force.”

What follows is solid I-O psychology research with implications that can really make a difference.

Now that I hope to have gained your attention, here’s the simple activity that will make you happier and healthier:

At the end of every day, write down three (3) good things that happened and why they did.

That’s it. Easy as Pi. (What does that mean, anyway?)

Really?

Yes, that’s it. Record and reflect on three good things that happened. Your spirits will lift and your blood pressure will drop. You can reduce stress. Measure it.

Bono, Glomb, Shen, Kim and Koch. 2013. “Building Positive Resources: Effects of Positive Events and Positive Reflection on Work Stress and Health.” Academy of Management Journal, 56: 1601-1627.

Don’t get me started on why this isn’t published in a journal known for PSYCHOLOGY!

Just get on with it. Prove me wrong.

  • Yes. I am cool because I used the word “hack” vs. “tactic.”

The surprising characteristic of great leaders.

Do you want to be a leader? Try humility.

Humility.

That’s right. And this applies to both the attitude and the act. If you really want to lead others, embrace humility as a virtuous attitude. If you really want to lead your team to victory, be humble. Manage your ego, speak of your weaknesses and admit your mistakes. Follow others and point out where THEY excel (not you). And listen. Not to be polite, but to learn.

It’s profoundly simple:

If you really want to be a great leader, promote others.

Sound familiar? Just about every sustainable social, political or religious system is built on the premise of service - making others, or every-one better. Even better than you!

If you aren’t convinced by my as yet unsubstantiated statements of “belief,” the same can be observed in the more “hard” sciences of biology (e.g., symbiotic organisms, each depending on and strengthening the other), chemistry (e.g., catalysts, subtle agents activating massive reactions) and physics (e.g., levers that give small objects power over those much larger). These are a bit of a stretch on humility, but they do illustrate how simple or small agents can have a huge, even life saving effect on another. The point is, sometimes humble leaders make their teams significantly better just by being available and providing a little 'boost.'

In fact, we’re wired (genetically) to do this. And it’s a good thing. If we don’t take care of each other, we go away. “I win, you lose” systems ultimately yield one ... "winner"? We both need and lead each other. {There is no grammatical error in the preceding sentence.} We encourage our children for their effort. We help our friends in adversity. In healthy relationships, we praise our partner, not ourselves. And in faith, we honor a being greater than anything of which we can conceive. We do this for no obvious credit. We’re just built that way. (Mostly – keep reading)

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Why Personality Inventories Don’t Tell the Whole Story

Self Check - Personality Inventories

The vast majority of personality inventories rely on “self report” for their input. Quite simply, individuals assess themselves on what I’ll call the “first level.” Since I refer to a “first level,” there obviously must be at least one more level. There is, and it’s a level of assessment that individuals can NOT provide by themselves no matter how good the inventory nor how “truthfully” the individuals respond to it. Therefore, personality assessments don’t tell the whole story.

You don't know yourself as well as you think you do. How can we assume that even the best personality inventory completed by oneself would know you any better?

This doesn’t mean personality assessments aren’t useful (or ‘valid’ in scientific terms), it simply means that there’s more to a person’s story than they can reveal via any series of questions in a personality inventory. This goes for ALL personality inventories, some, more than others, but none can overcome the limitations of self-assessment. In short, you don’t know yourself as well as you think you do. How can we assume that even the best personality inventory completed by oneself would know you any better? This is where an expert in psychology comes in handy. To get the best understanding of an individual, an expert in psychology and psychological assessment can help to ‘fill in the gaps’ that we ALL leave in our own account of our personality.

Although many psychologists would agree and offer varying degrees of scientific proof, Sigmund Freud developed a theory of personality that serves my point. Freud’s theory is grounded in the way he described the structure of the human psyche. This structure includes three components; the Id, Ego and Superego. Without going into the details of each of these components, Freud also developed the concepts of Consciousness and Unconsciousness (although he wasn’t the first to describe them). Almost everyone has some familiarity with these terms – even if not exactly in the way that Freud defined them.

Consciousness has to do with one’s direct awareness of their thoughts, feelings and behaviors. We can fairly accurately describe things that we experience while we are in a conscious state. Unconsciousness is the other ‘side’ of ourselves; the side to which we do not have direct access and therefore do not readily understand nor recognize. As such, we are unable to describe things that exist in our unconscious mind – even though it is constantly at work.

I could stop here and have a pretty good case for why self-report assessments don’t tell the whole story. They don’t include our unconscious self and our unconscious self has a big impact on who we are.

But there’s more.

Freud also described how the conscious and unconscious aspects of our personality work together. I’m not going to go into great detail here except to say that the unconscious mind significantly influences our thinking, feeling and behavior. And it's far more influential than most think.

Here’s a simple example of how unconscious behavior reveals itself in our daily lives: Tying your shoes. This is an activity that we perform virtually every day – but odds are you can’t tell me how you do it. We’ve done it so much that it’s become “automatic.” Basically, we do it without thinking. There are many other examples. Sticking with the shoe example, behaviors that we do repetitively oftentimes become “automatic.” Automatic behaviors require very little (if any) thought, and true to unconscious behavior, we have a hard time recalling or describing them. (A nice benefit to automatic behavior is that it uses almost no mental resources. This means that we have plenty of resources to attend to other matters – aka, multi-tasking.)

Automatic behavior is just one way in which unconsciousness affects who we are. Unconsciousness also affects our thinking and feeling. In short, we are very significantly influenced by psychological processes that we aren’t even aware of. Others may note these influences (or outcomes in our behavior) but we don’t. Things we say may be very apparent to others, but pass completely unnoticed by ourselves. For example, some individuals have a habit of repeating various phrases (usually “filler” words) without any awareness. You may know someone who repeatedly says, “at the end of the day”, or “you know what I mean?”, “um”, “actually”, or any of a cast of phrases that are “thrown in” to the conversation but add no value. Even if they are partially aware that they say these things, they have no idea how frequently they do it – unless you record them and show it back to them. In addition, people are very poor judges of how much they talk (vs. listen). You can test this with a friend, but I must warn that you this is almost never appreciated. Test at your own risk.

These are some simple ways in which our unconscious mind affects our behavior without our awareness. But that’s not all. There are even more “active” ways that our unconscious mind affects us that can be very confusing, or even misleading to an accurate assessment of ourselves (as actors) AND others (as observers).

Freud also developed the concept of “defense mechanisms.” In short, these are ways of thinking and behaving that counteract a thought or memory that is bothering us at an unconscious level. One such example is called, “reaction formation.”

Reaction formation is the term Freud used to describe the unconscious -- and extreme -- change of thought and behavior resulting from one’s unconscious need to (over)compensate for previous behavior that the individual now considers offensive. By way of “reaction formation” the individual unconsciously undergoes a radical transformation wherein the behavior or attitude they once held, suddenly becomes hyper offensive and disgustingly deplorable -- in others! Smoking is often given as an example. Former smokers sometimes become the loudest and most assertive critics of those who smoke. Freud’s theorizing is that by engaging in overcompensating behavior, one is clearing up or avoiding the unconscious tension they experience by virtue of having been a former transgressor.

Other forms of defense mechanisms include denial (unwilling or unable to accept the truth because of the psychological harm it causes), projection (attributing one’s own intolerable thoughts or problems to another so as to ‘shift blame’), repression (a less extreme variant of denial that involves pushing one’s hurtful thoughts or feelings into the unconscious self so as not to deal with them directly). And there are others.

Scores on personality assessments may be radically different from what an objective assessment would reveal.

The point is, not only are we largely unaware of our most frequent behaviors (automatic behavior), but our psyche is constantly at work trying to protect ourselves from threatening thoughts, feelings or behaviors (defense mechanisms). As a result, scores on personality assessments may be radically different from what an objective assessment would reveal. And this isn’t because the respondent is lying, they really believe that they are accurately describing themselves. There are many other factors that distort our valid understanding of ourselves, these are just two of the most common.

An expert in psychology and psychological assessment can identify these, and other unconscious influences on behavior, and consequently, scores on a self-report personality inventory. Sometimes this can be done merely by noting unusual or telling patterns in the individual’s responses to a reputable personality assessment, but frequently it requires the collection of data beyond the single assessment. Psychological interviews are among the best ways to spot potentially misleading information as taken straight from the personality inventory. The content of these interviews can be designed specifically to test questions raised by the instrument.

It’s very important to stress that these types of advanced interpretation of any psychometric assessment are complex. They need to be left to experts who have a thorough understanding of psychology as well as tests and measures used as tools to predict behavior.

In sum: Solid psychological assessments offer great value over less scientifically constructed measures (e.g., typical unstructured interviews). But, as with any other tool, it’s important to know the true strengths and limits of what they offer in the complex task of psychological assessment. As anyone who’s made a regrettable hire can agree, what you see in the interview isn’t always what you get on the job.

Psychology at work: It really makes a difference.

Why you’re not getting promoted

Why you're not getting promoted

Most can identify with the feeling of discontent when others seem to be getting promoted for less apparent reason than your promotion would justify. It’s natural – we want to win and a big piece of winning in organizations is getting promoted. It probably comes as no consolation to learn that there are many factors potentially influencing why you’re not getting promoted.

  1. You’re a master at your current job, but perceived (rightly or wrongly) to be "Not Ready" to assume a job at the next level.
  2. There are others more deserving of one of the limited number of promotions (again, rightly or wrongly).
  3. You haven’t “done your time” in your current level.

So how do you overcome these potentially career limiting factors?

There’s very little one can do in the short term if there is no open position above you. Organizations do NOT like to add more heads to higher levels simply because they are “ready and able.” CFOs in particular do not like to see a proliferation of senior-level jobs relative to the organization’s general growth at all levels.

Overcoming the tightly managed promotion “quota” is also highly difficult. The simple fact is that there typically aren’t enough promotions for all for whom a “truth measure” would indicate are ready. Organizations are always smaller at the top than at entry levels.

Lastly, you can’t do much about your time in position except wait. And the bad news is that spending a given amount of time at any level is no guarantee of promotion. Most will simply retire or leave the organization without making it to the coveted top positions.

There’s actually a fourth reason that you’re not being promoted: You’re not known by enough managers or executives above you. Simply impressing your boss is usually not enough unless they are truly a selfless advocate.

You’re not known by enough managers or executives above you.

But this is something you can do something about. You can improve your reputation at higher levels of the organization. Here are a few suggestions to enhance your reputation, and therefore, your promotability:

  1. Participate on as many cross-functional assignments as you can. The vast majority of promotions are not made by one’s boss alone. You need to be visible to your boss’ peers, and to some extent, your boss’ superiors. This second one can be very tricky -- you don’t want to hurt your chances by upsetting the political hierarchy, i.e., going around or above your boss.
  2. Create a career plan for yourself, or with your boss, and discuss it with them. Of particular importance: Clarify exactly what performance results and which competencies are critical to your promotability. This cannot be overstressed: Be as objective as possible about both the results and competencies associated with promotions. “Higher ups” can, and do, frequently hide behind nebulous developmental goals or achievements.
  3. Make sure you manage your “but.” I’ve sat through hundreds of “talk talent” meetings. One of the most common things I hear is, “They’re really good at {fill in this blank}, BUT… they haven’t overcome {fill in your ‘but’}."
  4. Be as likeable as possible. This may sound like a tall order, but there is a very strong correlation between liking and promoting. (Plus, I've never known someone universally unliked to get promoted.) Some of this sounds – and may well be – unfair. However, there is also a strong correlation between being liked and actually being good. One proven way to be more liked is to simply smile and laugh more. People who smile and laugh more are perceived to be more optimistic, confident and powerful in a non-threatening way.

In summary, you may be extremely good at what you’re doing now, but there are many factors potentially holding you back despite being a superstar in your current role. Don’t think about progression from the perspective of why you deserve a promotion. Instead, apply some of these tips to improve your promotability. This way when opportunity does arise, you’ve got a better chance than you’d have on your job record alone.

Get out there. Be seen working side by side with higher levels or at least the “up and coming”. Cover your “buts”. And possibly most important, be likeable.

It really makes a difference.

My Favorite Attitude

Happy vs. sad face

Attitudes are simply personal orientations toward a particular person or thing. But some are bigger than others. One in particular has reigned as my favorite attitude much longer than most “favorites” (i.e., food, song, place, etc.).

Optimism.

Why Optimism?

For one, it’s a very strong predictor.

Optimism is a near pre-requisite for achievement. And the opposite is also true. To state it bluntly,

I’ve never met a pessimistic over achiever.

Continue reading “My Favorite Attitude”

3 Reasons Why Character Matters More Than Expertise

Man holding sign that reads, "What makes you unique?"

What makes anybody unique?

To help answer this question, let’s conduct a little test.

Think of someone you’ve known at work (or non-work) who stands out as exceptional from the rest. Got someone specific in mind? Now then, what was/is it about this person that truly made/makes them remarkable?

I can just about guarantee that the list of attributes that comes to your mind features more character traits (e.g., “helpful”, “caring”, “generous”, etc.) than specialized skills or work expertise.

I’ve asked this question to many people. Over 90% of the answers I get have to do with character. To back up these ‘answers’ with a bit more evidence, I’ve had the unfortunate experience of witnessing more than a few mid- to upper-level executives “walked out” of the building — It’s never been for lack of expertise.

Why does character matter so much?

Continue reading “3 Reasons Why Character Matters More Than Expertise”