Our brains are well conditioned to see what they expect. Image from: Illusions.org
We all make the mistake, even when we know better. If something is good then more must be better. A nice, straight, linear relationship … except it’s not … and very rarely is! At some point exercise will just injure and fatigue us, the extra serve of ice cream stops being a treat, working longer doesn’t improve your work performance and trimming more costs can make matters worse, etcetera. In these cases, there’s an inverted U relationship. Recognising when something else is going on can make you a better consultant, manager, and person.
Our day to day lives makes us familiar with other relationships in specific situations such as recognizing some diminishing returns relationships. That is, doing more will lead to improvements but less improvement for the same increase in effort. Weight loss could be an example. Another familiar relationship is in consumer pricing where the addition of more benefits and features leads to big increases in price (a logarithmic relationship). Mostly we’ve learned to expect these relationships and they influence how we think in a variety of situations however there is any number of things where we don’t know what to expect. We can’t be so certain what the relationship is. When that happens then logical errors are much easier to make e.g. if the threat of jail stops some crime then increasing the harshness of sentences will stop more crime. Perhaps, I don’t know exactly, however, the US has the death penalty and a very high murder rate for a western country, so maybe not. Perhaps you have to do other things if you want the murder rate to come down.
Very few social relationships will be as simple as those above and yet often we act as if even these are too difficult to consider.
I have spent my whole professional career working in what could be called ‘change management’. In recent years the term and it’s practices have been more widely adopted and in some cases has been productised by consultancy providers (ADKAR, KOTTER, Agile). Here is just a few things I have learnt and had reinforced along the way:
Ask people what is wrong in their workplace and you can get an avalanche of woes and with just a little push, as many ideas for fixing them. At least that’s what it sounds like when nobody up the management hierarchy is present. Professor Chris Argyris of Harvard wrote about this a long time ago and frankly the cleaner could have told us that (An Interview with Chris Argyris). What he added were his observations of behaviours that seemed to maintain this situation – behaviours that undermined the ability of the organisation to learn and make appropriate changes. Behaviours that reinforced the social, power structure (hierarchy) and just as often the beliefs and attitudes people held about others. He called these behaviours ‘Organisational Defensive Routines’. Argyris identified that it took a lot of skill to use and maintain these routines. (They can be used to resist change.)
It has struck me that Argyris’s observations has similarities to the observations of Dr. Eric Berne who developed Transactional Analysis (TA) – an approach management trainers flirted with about three to four decades ago. Berne documented interactions in people’s lives that he referred to as ‘Games’. See ‘Games People Play’. Some of the games are relevant to work life and I’m sure we could identify a few that Dr. Berne has missed. One of the fun and obvious games is ‘Harassed’. Here people spend time complaining about workloads and how stressed the situation is. Importantly the participants never take positive steps to rationalise the work and will even take on new tasks. There can be auxiliary games like ‘Lunchbox’ which revolves around eating at your desk, avoiding structured breaks and appearing very committed. The games have a number of benefits including ready-made explanations for any failures/delays/poor standards and evidence of irrational managerial indifference to staff and workloads etcetera. At some point everybody is unhappy with the situation, however in the way that they are supposed to be, leading to the paradoxical conclusion that everybody is happily unhappy. Continue reading