Archive for January, 2011
During a recent team building session I gave my standard spiel about the fundamental attribution error, and how we need to give each other the benefit of the doubt because no one really gets up in the morning and says, “I think I’ll go to work and be a jerk to all my teammates.” And someone challenged me on it.
I guess I’ve heard people challenge the notion before, but not so vehemently. It went kind of like this:
Participant: “Some people really do have bad intentions. What about the Tucson shooter?”
Me: “OK, you’re right. People who shoot people deliberately have bad intentions. But we’re talking about your teammates here. Do you really think they purposely do things to aggravate you?”
Participant: “Yes. Absolutely.”
Me: “And why do you think that? What’s your evidence?”
Participant: “I just know. I’ve worked with them for a long time. They just want to provoke me.”
So yes, he was making assumptions without checking them out, and we all know where that leads. But I think he was voicing something that many people really believe, even those of us who consider ourselves “enlightened.” Maybe I even believe it myself. The fundamental attribution error (a theory which says we interpret our own actions as caused by external circumstances, but we interpret the actions of others as motivated by their intentions) is an incredibly powerful thing. When I think back to all the troubled professional relationships I’ve had in my career, I know that deep down I truly believed there was more intent to a colleague’s hurtful words and behaviors than there probably actually was. I just also knew that it wasn’t cool to say so.
Maybe that’s what it comes down to. If you can’t believe in good intentions, at least fake it. What’s the alternative? A roadblock in the relationship that you’ll never move past.
I had a participant in a team building meeting recently who was a pastor on the side (in addition to his job with the federal agency I was working with). He taught me a lot during the session. The best thing was his use of the term “tunnel of chaos.”
I liken his concept to Gervase Bushe’s concept of “interpersonal mush.” It’s what happens when people make up stories to explain the behavior of others without checking their stories out with each other. We all do it, whether we want to admit it or not; as human beings, Bushe says, we are sense-making creatures and we’re driven to make up stories that explain what we see going on around us. The problem is that our stories are often motivated more by the fundamental attribution error than by reality.
The pastor said that when you realize you have an unproductive story in your head, and you’re frustrated with another person, you have a decision to make. Do you want to revert to fight or flight mode? Or do you want to enter the tunnel of chaos and work it out? The tunnel of chaos is the trading of stories and interpretations between two people that may initially lead to more frustration and misunderstanding (“chaos” or “interpersonal mush”) but will eventually take us to some sort of shared understanding if we stick it out. It’s a concept he uses often when counseling his parishioners.
It caught on quick in our session. Soon, whenever someone began to vent about a communication-related issue that frustrated them, everyone would echo, “So, do you want to fight or flee? Or will you enter the tunnel of chaos?” Everyone would laugh, of course, but the point was made. You can take the unproductive and easy way out. Or you can do the hard stuff, spend some extra time and effort explaining your thinking on an issue and being open to listening to someone else’s very different perspective. You can weather the initial chaos in hopes of a bigger payoff at the end. The result, if you stick with it, is almost always greater clarity and trust between teammates.
In a recent team building class for a federal agency, the participants got into a heated debate about government workers who are complacent or unmotivated.
First we had the usual debate about whether a leader can motivate someone or not, coming to the usual conclusion that an employee must motivate herself; but a leader can create the conditions for that to happen.
Then we got into a more interesting discussion about the stereotypes surrounding government workers and their work ethic, the difficulty in firing them, and whether the government attracts people who are already unmotivated, or makes them that way after years of working in a certain environment. Some people said that lazy people who want job security go to work for the government. Others said that years of working in the same job with little change and no focus on career movement make people burned out and so once they get close to retirement age, they become “retired in place” while still on the job.
What seems strange to me is that with all the work I’ve done with federal agencies lately (and it’s a lot), I’ve never met any of these mysteriously unmotivated people. Everyone talks about them, but they aren’t in my workshops. The people in my workshops all participate vigorously in discussions and activities about how they can move their organizations forward. Is that because unmotivated people don’t go to training? I doubt that; sometimes I’m working with a team in which every member has been mandated to attend. My suspicion is that these people aren’t really unmotivated. They just look that way in their natural habitat, because their leadership no longer bothers to give them anything interesting or challenging to do. When they come to a class or a meeting with me, people get into discussions about interesting and challenging things they could do and the so-called unmotivated people perk up and start participating with enthusiasm.
There is a message for leadership here, and I’m sure you can see what it is. Stop perpetuating the stereotypes. Give people something stimulating to do and let them do it.
Dan Ariely’s new book, The Upside of Irrationality, is full of stuff about employee motivation that we consultants take for granted. The beauty of the book is that it gives us the research behind the trends, complete with entertaining accounts of Ariely’s experiments. I’m sure I’ll be quoting Ariely and telling stories of his research in my classes for years to come.
For example, Ariely conducts a series of experiments to see if large rewards really do motivate people to perform better. Three groups are tested in their ability to complete a series of tasks: one group is offered a small reward, one group a medium reward, and the third group a very large reward. In the third group, participants freeze up under the pressure of losing their potential reward and actually perform worse than the other two groups. What does this say about our practice of giving huge bonuses to executives at the end of the year? Ariely’s conclusion is that we should offer smaller and more frequent bonuses to employees to eliminate non-productive stress.
One of my favorite parts of the book is the chapter on adaptation. Ariely and his colleagues run a series of tests to explore the common notion that we should take a break from things we hate doing, and do things we enjoy in an uninterrupted manner. What they find is that because of the amazing ability of human beings to adapt to circumstances, even terrible ones like great physical pain, it makes more sense to do the opposite–complete tasks you hate, like doing your taxes or cleaning the house, in one shot in order to reap the benefits of adaptation. But when you go for a massage or eat chocolate-covered cherries, take frequent breaks so that you get frequent, renewed bursts of pleasure rather than getting used to the sensation and no longer enjoying it as much. The lesson, Ariely says, is to “slow down pleasure.”
I’ve been applying this concept to my work ever since. When doing something I hate, like administrative work, I try to get it done quickly in one shot. Things I enjoy, like developing a new program, I schedule in intervals. There’s something to be said for not interrupting activities that may put you in a state of “flow”, of course, but I also notice that spacing out the work I enjoy gives me more to look forward to on a daily basis.
From an employer’s perspective, I would think the lesson is to sprinkle your employee luncheons, company celebrations and praise for good work at intervals (and more frequently) throughout the year. More importantly, perhaps, teach your employees the principle of adaptation and explain why it means that it’s better not to keep taking breaks from whatever it is that you hate doing in your daily routine.