Tag Archives: psychology

“Thinking Fast and Slow”

Last year I read Daniel Kahneman‘s “Thinking Fast and Slow“. It took me a long time – definitely reading slow, for me – but I think that was down to his style rather than the book’s content. I read it because two people from very different backgrounds recommended it in the since of a week, and despite being somewhat hard work, bits of it have stuck: they keep recurring in my thoughts.

So I thought I’d share some of those, and recommend it, too. (I haven’t looked at the book for the last six months, and I am deliberately writing from memory. So please don’t take these examples as gospel, and before quoting them, please look to Kahneman’s original text!)

Kahneman’s work can be considered an academic counterweight to Malcolm Gladwell’s “Blink”. Gladwell set out, I think, to suggest that we should trust our intuition (albeit that many of the examples he wrote about seemed to be based around what happens when intuition goes wrong. Policemen shooting innocent men, for instance).

Kahneman, a prolifically able psychologist (and Nobel prize winner in economics, for his work on behavioural economics), sets out to describe how the mind works, describing the unconscious, instinctive, intuitive brain – his “system 1” – and the conscious, analytical brain – “system 2”. System 1 is much faster and cheaper to run than system 2, and this is why for most things we are happy to let system 1 get on with it. His book is full of fascinating stories that illustrate how system 1 can lead us to make some very counter-intuitive decisions, often his own expense.

I started the book very sceptical. Despite all the evidence Kahneman provides, what he describes just didn’t sound like me. I’m analytical, rational, sensible. But he also describes how just about everyone thinks that, too. And left to its own devices, system 1 seems to get us into several bad habits.

For instance, it makes us bad at estimating things, particularly our own (and others’) expertise. Kahneman tells a story of how he was part of a team writing a new curriculum for a psychology course. After several months when they though they were making good progress, he asked another member of the team, who had a lot of experience of the process, how long it should take. The answer was something like “a good team will take a couple of years”; and when asked whether this was a good team, the answer was a resounding “no”! This was a team made up of very rational people – psychologists and educationalists – who frankly should have stopped right there and seen what they could change to achieve a better result. But instead, despite the insight they had received, they ploughed on as if nothing had changed. When Kahneman left the project several years later, it still hadn’t been completed.

In another situation, he describes undertaking leadership assessments for the Israeli army. He understandably decided to validate the process, to see whether the assessments predicted future success as a leader in the army. They didn’t. The predictions were no better than chance. And yet Kahneman continued his work assessing candidates, despite knowing that it was a complete waste of time.

His work in behavioural economics lead to Kahneman working with some stockbrokers. He looked at the firm’s remuneration and bonus structure. Analysing individuals’ results, he showed that success was random: and hence the large bonuses paid for results were completely unwarranted. He told the board, producing his evidence. The board, of course, did nothing, because their whole belief system (and the firm’s culture) was based rewarding success. No one accepted his evidence; they – the experts – knew better than the statistics.

Another story that really stuck with me it’s how bad system 1 is at assessing memories. It only recalls the last experience of something, rather than the totality of that experience. So if you’ve been listening to a piece of music on vinyl, for instance, and it ends with a scratch, you remember the scratch and not the forty minutes of pleasure that came before it. In an experiment to test this, subjects preferred an extended period of pain that ended in a reduction of pain rather than a much shorter period of pain that ended suddenly. System 1 remembers the pain at the end rather than the totality of the pain. The lessons here for anyone designing any process involving customers are rampant. Make it end with a smile!

I think these four simple stories illustrate how irrational even seemingly rational, analytical people can be. This is painful – these are people like me – but it is a valuable lesson, too.

I think the best lesson is to stop and think. This brings the conscious, rational system 2 to the fore. It is harder work, and slower, than letting system 1 determine our actions, and maybe not always appropriate. But it also leads to better, more mindful outcomes. (For instance, it may well be why people who keep “gratitude lists” report being happier – because they are bringing their conscious mind to bear, rather than letting system 1 remember only those last painful moments. There seem to be real benefits to keeping a journal or diary: it helps us to bring an active dimension to our otherwise irrational intuitive minds.)

“Silence Is The Question”: a dialogue

I went to my first “seasonal dialogue” last week – named because there are four a year, I’m told. The group has been meeting for several years; I was invited by a friend and former colleague, who I had just caught up with after moving back to Edinburgh.

The group consisted of an eclectic mix of about ten people, though many now seemed to freelance in one capacity or another. There was no fixed topic for discussion, though the process (based on “open space“) seemed more formal and as a result the discussion more controlled, respectful and measured than other discussion groups I’ve been to: this made for a somewhat different experience – though perhaps quieter and with less excitement of exploration as others interject. (Normally I think of control as a bad thing, imposed externally to manage or manipulate; in this context, however, the control was self-imposed by members of the group, and a positive.)

In particular, we seemed respectful of the silence. One of the formalities was a “check in” question, to set the tone; and the discussion per se didn’t start till everyone had answered the check in. And people only responded when they chose to. I have never been to a Quaker meeting, but I’m guessing it might feel a but like this.

This was quite hard work: I had things I wanted to say and ask about others’ responses to the check in, and I had to bite my tongue until everyone had had their say. (I had jumped in with my response early on, eager to get going!)

Having to wait – and to listen to others – was humbling. Silence – all too rare in our connected, clouded and device-mediated times – was a good thing. The quality of listening was high: even if it was listening to the silence.

Similarly, the ease with which we disconnected from our devices and connected instead with the group was informative. Like many people, I regularly check Twitter and Facebook, write email or text messages whilst ostensibly doing something else. In the space of the dialogue group, the desire to fill the void created by the silence by getting out one’s phone and seeing what’s going on in the outside world rather than listening to what was going on in the group – albeit silence – wasn’t an option. This felt liberating and healthy.

Silence also played a major part in the discussion later on, as we shifted from one topic to another – unsurprisingly, the silence prompted introspection, and a conversation about silence itself. That silence should be an outcome of conversation sends pleasingly oxymoronic; that it should add value to the conversation doubly so.

There was much resonance with the discussion by Richard Sennett of dialogic as opposed to dialectic, adversarial debate, particularly with respect to learning. The subjunctive and empathetic approach of the dialogue group was certainly in line with Sennett’s approach. It seemed that we were mostly learning about ourselves.

(“Silence Is The Question” is the name of a piece of music written by Reid Anderson. His band The Bad Plus play it on this video.)

Richard Sennett on “Together”

Once more at the RSA, to hear Richard Sennett talk about his new book “Together: The Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Co-operation”. (Audio here.) He had some very interesting things to say – it was thought provoking – but I was not necessarily convinced.

Sennett reckons that cooperation and collaboration is natural to people – indeed, he said he believed that it might be genetic in nature (though I’d have thought it would be easily explained through culture, especially as Sennett said it develops as we learn – a lot of play is about developing cooperation).

But he then said it is difficult and requires practice – if it is innate, there is clearly a learnt element. Still, it is clearly a complex skill: Sennett focused on three attributes which he contrasted with their modern antithesis, to show where we might be going wrong.

  1. dialogics v dialectics: education and legal systems (and much else) lead us to dialectic debate, often confrontational (anyone listen to the “Today” programme or watch “Question Time”: they may then understand that confrontational debate does little to promote understanding and collaboration…); in contrast, dialogic requires the exercise of listening skills – more listening than talking, and what talking there is is questioning and probing. Co-operation requires understanding built on dialogue
  2. subjunctive v declarative: Sennett lambasted the “fetish of assertion” – aggressively asserting “I think…” or “I believe…” demanding for a (usually confrontational) response. Instead of confronting others with our convictions, Sennett advised using subjunctive propositions – “It seems to me…” to open discussion and invite participation – building collaboration and teamwork rather than confrontation
  3. empathy v sympathy: identifying with others – sympathetically feeling their pain – closes down discussion: understanding another’s position without being able to identify with it, but accepting their need to attend to it, sends messages and builds understanding, It requires curiosity rather than compassion – an interest in other people

[I’m not sure that I am in total agreement with Sennett about these, particular his second and third assertions, though he maintained there is research to support his position.]

Sennett proceeded to discuss co-operation in urban society and workplaces; once more, he was interesting if not (to my mind), wholly convincing. He asserted that the way that we organise work and (his word!) community in modern [western?] society reduces and disables learning to co-operate with those who differ from us.

With regard to work, the focus on project work with short term timeframes plays lip-service to teamwork, but doesn’t let us develop the understanding required of each other to actually pull it off. We don’t have the time to spend with others building that understanding, instead focussing on our short term objectives – after which we move off to work on the next project. We do not have enough invested in the success of our enterprise, instead seeking the next fix.

I disagree about this: those working in a project environment rely on others in the team to deliver the result. We have to co-operate – and having the skills to do so is crucial to our success: those informal “people” skills which might not appear in the job description are necessary to help us build our reputation.

Sennett believed that despite cities being full of difference, we are living in more and more homogenised societies, and rarely mix with those from different races, religions or classes. We are segregating ourselves.

Whilst I can see some aspects of this, I do not believe it is new: surely society was much more homogenous one hundred or two hundred years ago? There are many more opportunities to mix in today’s multicultural society: it might be easier not, but the opportunities are still there.

Sennett had some interesting things to say about the Occupy movement – he has taken an active interest in the movement in the USA, and it seems to fit his model of dialogic, subjunctive, empathetic behaviour. Politicians of all flavours – the dialectics supreme – literally don’t get it: non-hierachical, self-organising, learning, the Occupy movement is about experiences rather than demands, and growing from the shared experience.

Much of what Sennett had to say resonated – particularly stemming from conversations at Tuttle and the C4CC, as well as institutions like the RSA itself creating space for discussion – but the very existence of these fora actually weakens Sennett’s thesis.

“What Is The Internet Doing To Our Brains?”

This week at the RSA, Paul Howard Jones asked a simple question – “what is the internet doing to our brains?”

Not a simple answer, though – and to be honest, Jones didn’t really answer it. This wasn’t his fault – he was summarising his review of the evidence of impact of digital technologies on human wellbeing (PDF), and most of the work has been done on children (which is also Jones’ area of interest). So he couldn’t tell me whether the internet was frying my brain, Facebook is infantilising me or Google is making me stupid.

Instead, Jones examined the evidence for digital media in general and games more specifically affected users, mostly children. Young people have been the subject of most studies because parents and educators worry about their more plastic brains and that digital media use may affect other areas of development.

Much of the evidence is conflicting. Early studies – before “web 2.0”? – showed that high internet usage increased social isolation and decreased connectedness; now, the opposite is true: the internet is all about connectedness, and the internet stimulates young people to be connected and social. There are downsides to this – young people (and old!) lay themselves open to bullying and abuse, but that’s about society, not technology or the internet – in the US in 2006, only 2% of sex-related crimes against children involved the internet (you can find references to any “facts” in this post in Jones’ paper).

This became a theme of Jones’ talk: technology is neutral, what matters is how you use it: for digital media, it’s when, what and how much.

Apparently, when is important: technological devices – PCs, tablets and mobile phones – can disrupt our sleep patterns quite significantly. As well as the content they distribute exciting and energising – and hence stopping us wanting to sleep – the light produced by the screens, even at low output, can affect our circadian rhythms and disrupt sleep. This can lead to tiredness, lack of concentration and memory loss the next day – again, symptoms parents and educators may not want to see in young people in classes (though not many employers – or our customers – would be too happy, either).

What can be central to the impact of digital media, too. Shoot ’em up games can teach people to be violent; online learning can help people access resources they otherwise couldn’t. It all depends.

And how much – how much may be the most important factor. The strong attraction of digital media can displace other activities – things like reading books or taking outdoor exercise which educators (and politicians) see as important. But again, the evidence seems contradictory. Apparently, between 1.5% and 8.2% of the population have an issue with excessive internet use – what might be termed “addiction” – except that label may not be relevant.

Jones explored the ways the internet and specifically gaming can have positive benefits – indeed, how they can be used for education. In particular, games can help improve various skills and visuomotor tasks. Even non-gamers can improve their skills through playing video games, and transfer them to other environments (ie the improvement is “sticky”). Interestingly, many of those excessive, “addicted” users are kids playing games. (Others are adults gambling and using pornography, apparently. Who’d’ve thunk it?)

Jones’ message, then, was that the technology is neutral – like older technologies: books can be used for good or wrong, and so can digital media. How we use it matters. Digital media may reduce students’ attention spans, but that may be as much because they provide such attractive pursuits (Jones explained a fair bit about how games work with the brain’s chemistry to be very attractive) than because of any inherent propensity to cause ADHD. It might just be that the online world is more interesting than the real life teachers trying to teach the students…

Intimate Discussions at School of Everything Unplugged…

The School of Everything Unplugged weekly meetup is the scene of some very interesting conversations and discussions (and I am trying to document them as a record of my learning…). One of the most thought provoking – though also ambiguous and, perhaps, inconclusive (it is the meetup’s style to leave outcomes open-ended; it is about the conversations – the process – rather than the answers!) – was about our concepts of intimacy. Actually, I say “one of the most”, but it was actually two sessions: we’d arranged for Cassie Robinson to come and lead a discussion on intimacy, but the first time around she was unable to make it, so we improvised and had a discussion about intimacy anyhow; and then, a couple of weeks ago, Cassie came and we had a second discussion.

They were very different sessions – in the first, it was the blind leading the blind as we struggled to build a mutual understanding, in the second Cassie talked about her work in this area.

“Intimacy” is a difficult subject, too. We each have our own understanding of the word, internalised, and it is hard to avoid lengthy discussions about semantics. (I thought about having a dictionary definition of intimacy here, but I think I like the ambiguity…) Everyone’s experience is different: families differ, educations differ, cultures differ. It is hard to separate ideas of intimacy from ideas of sex – never an easy topic to discuss in public, with people one barely knows. Indeed, I am writing this in a public space, very aware of those around me and conscious that some of the websites I look up have the potential to offend onlookers… (Anthropologist Kate Fox has a lot to say about the impact of English culture on our general inability to hold any kind of serious conversation in “Watching the English” – she calls it “our social dis-ease” – and has a whole section dealing with sex.)

There is also the illusion of intimacy created through our use of online social media and the internet generally. Things that were once private are freely shared – not only our marital status, for instance, but whether we are interested in seeking other relationships. Virtual worlds like Second Life add another level of illusion and complexity…

On top of which, there may be generational differences, too – societal attitudes to intimacy must have changed hugely in the last fifty years.

So: lots of big issues.

Several people at the first session had experienced living in different cultures, and brought a different perspective to our talk: we kept coming back to cultural aspects of intimacy – the way in which some cultures display friendship in a physical way.

One of the conversationalists had worked in the area of public health, and public sexual health; their take on intimacy at work was of course very different to some others’. The discussion of intimacy at work was fascinating, since different spheres create different expectations. The false intimacy created by people on the supermarket checkout being required to engage customers in conversation – the realm of emotional labour – to build customer engagement (and the discomfort this can create) compares to many corporations’ attempts to increase employee engagement. How much do we – should we – share with colleagues and customers?

Institutions and organisations aim to manage and control, often through hierarchies. This of course gives rise to consideration of power and politics. A teacher started discussing the issues faced when considering issues of intimacy in the classroom – especially in relation to physical contact between teacher and pupil.

Someone else raised the issue of intimacy between pupils: a school head had asked for advice about “sexting” between pupils, and was disconcerted by the assertion that this was simply an extension of age-old adolescent sexual exploration by new means; and probably uncontrollable.

Our discussion was very broad – we were exploring what we meant by intimacy (and I am still not sure that there I understand what we came up with). Cassie brought a bit more discipline to the conversation. She is part of a research project Our Intimate Lives, exploring intimacy in a variety of contexts. Cassie is interested in physical intimacy as an expression of sexuality and how this affects society and ourselves. (Can one have physical intimacy without emotional intimacy? Just a thought.) The increased commoditisation of sexuality and its transmission in society by the media has led to confusion in a variety of contexts. The free availability of sexual images increases this.

Cassie also believes that an open expression of intimacy and sexuality – our “true sexual identity” – is key to our eudaemonic wellbeing. This of course is – intimately – related to sexual politics. The circumstances in which one chooses to share and explore one’s sexuality – particularly whether it is something one chooses to keep private. (The recent tragedy of David Law’s resignation after he was outed by a national newspaper following an investigation into his expenses claims sprang to mind.)

This raises broader questions of identity, too: the extent to which our view of intimacy and sexuality is tied to views of our identity. There was a discussion about whether one has “one true self”, and how ideas of “self” were mediated by society and culture. In the digital world, where it is possible to have multiple (and often anonymous) personas, the public and the private is often confused or merged: we may have multiple “selves”, some of which may be public.

In different situations, we may have a different view of “self”. Many artists have shared their view of “self” – the self-portrait has been a staple of art for centuries (if only because oneself is the cheapest, most available model). But many artists choose to share themselves in a very open way – Jo Spence’s photographs documented her life with breast cancer in a raw, seemingly unedited form (though of course clearly edited and curated to provide a particular picture). [Cindy Sherman’s work may be seen as the antithesis of this, deliberately assuming a variety of anonymous identities in her self-portraits.]

These discussions raised many more questions than the answers they provided; thinking about the possible answers is probably just the start…

A Biased View?

This week’s Reith lecture by Professor Martin Rees dealt in part with society’s inability to adequately assess risk.

I was reminded of this when reading in the Economist about suicides at the Foxconn plant in China.

Foxconn makes electrical components for many electronics companies, including Apple. The launch of Apple’s iPad in the UK last week led to many stories of conditions at the Foxconn facility, a vast complex employing about 400,000 people, and its high suicide rate. Such stories appeared in the Daily Telegraph (the headline: “A look inside the Foxconn suicide factory”), the Guardian (“Latest Foxconn suicide raises concern over factory life in China”), the Independent (“A gadget to die for? Concern over human cost overshadows iPad launch”) and the BBC (“Foxconn calls on monks and counsellors to stem suicides”). There have been a lot of articles.

The general tone was that the conditions in the Foxconn complex were such that many people resorted to suicide from despair of working there.

The thing is, according to the Economist,

The toll (a dozen this year) is lower than the suicide rate among the general population in China.”

And according to the Telgraph (in a different article)

Steve Jobs, chief executive of Apple, said that the suicide rate at the Chinese factory – where 12 of the company’s 400,000 employees have killed themselves this year – was lower than the overall suicide rate for the United States.”

I am not making any comment on the working conditions in the complex or anywhere else. But it seems that perhaps we need to inspect our own cognitive bias, and Foxconn should maybe be lauded rather than criticised.

Connected: It’s Contagious

The poster for the film “The Crazies” has the strapline “Insanity Is Infectious”; Nicholas Christakis argued last week at the RSA that indeed it might – along with many other social phenomena.

He was in London to plug his book, Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives, and he discussed how he’d arrived at his main idea – that many things in our lives are socially mediated, including depression, stress, obesity, emotions, and death – and what it might mean for society.

Christakis said first came up with the idea of investigating the effects our social networks when studying the “widow effect” – that partners in a relationship often die soon after each other. He found that those at some remove also suffer stress (he came across this when a friend of the partner of someone whose parent had a terminal disease said they were concerned: the ripple of stress spread out to “three degrees of separation”).

He started to investigate social networks, and found a lot of different phenomena were mediated through networks. Most famously, his analysis of obesity showed that having obese friends increases the likelihood of your being obese by up to 45%, and this too is effective at up to three degrees of separation – that is, if your friend’s friend’s friend is obese, you are more likely to be obese.

There might be lots of reasons for this – you might all drink in the pub together, or hang out in the same fast food joints, or live in the same gym-free neighbourhood, or …


We are social beings: we are influenced by our friends and their behaviour, and vice versa.

Christakis also demonstrated that emotions also spread contagiously, and postulated that there was an evolutionary benefit to this, going so far as suggesting that we are adapted to networks. He reckoned that 40% of our network structure was down to genetic influence – that is, the number of friends or contacts we have, and the closeness of those contacts, is partly under genetic control. (Spoiler: theories suggesting evolutionary benefits of social adaptations are notoriously tricky and more or less impossible to prove: they might be neat ideas, but they are not particularly scientific…)

He reckoned our social networks influence the following behaviours and emotions:

  • smoking
  • obesity
  • drinking
  • drug use
  • happiness
  • depression
  • loneliness
  • altruism
  • voting
  • innovation

That is quite a broad list, though it is possible to see the social side to most these points. Christakis described this as “a connected life”.

It was interesting, but it actually seemed a lot too neatly tied up. Life seems more rough and unregulated than Christakis described. Much of his work has been done in closed networks, if only to be able to map and measure all the connections. Educational institutions seemed to be common networks to work in. He showed network maps (like the one above – a map of my Facebook network, created by Touchgraph); in closed networks, the people at the periphery look like lonely souls, but of course no network is closed: those people have friends and connections outside, in other networks. These weren’t taken account of.

The book may answer some of my unease – I haven’t read it yet, so I can’t say. I think there are a lot of implications in how we manage communications and develop policy: in answer to questions, Christakis said it might be more effective to target policy on specific nodes – people – in a network in order to reduce, say, drug taking rather than everybody in the network. These poeple sound a lot like the mavens described by Malcolm Gladwell in The Tipping Point – those individuals who are key to spreading new ideas, just as there are carriers responsible for spreading infectious diseases.

Improvising on a Theme: trying out different ways of working

I’ve written before about some of the work Tuttle did with Counterpoint, but I haven’t really talked about how we did it.

This is remiss of me, because the most interesting thing for me was the opportunity to try a new way of working.

At last month’s discussion on social media in enterprises, there was a lot of talk of new, flatter organsiation forms – virtual firms – mediated through, perhaps, social media; for decades, Charles Handy has been going on about portfolio workers and the shamrock organisation (I’ve always been dubious about that last, having experienced too many sham organisations…). I can remember discussing different levels of worker engagement in organisations, full-time through part-time to freelance associates, twenty years ago (before I was the least bit interested in it).

There has been lots of talk and lots of theory, then; but I hadn’t really seen any evidence of it.

This was a shame, because it sounded to me like a great way to work: lots of variety, lots of flexibility, little security: kind of “freelance-plus”, if you like.

I was therefore very interested when Lloyd first floated the idea of “Tuttle Consulting”, a bunch of freelancers who met through Tuttle Club working on projects together. I thought of it as a loose affiliation of associates – definitely the realm of a virtual organisation.

Here were nine or ten of us in all working on different aspects of five projects for Counterpooint and the British Council, and it was the first time that any of us had worked together before.

It was very much a learning experience, and there is a lot I think we could have done better – with hindsight. Because we were all working in a new fashion, the working relationships needed to be negotiated between us – and that is a hefty number of relationships to negotiate straight up. We naturally enough each had a different set of expectations (as well as wants and needs).

From its inception it was a very loose arrangement; the client wanted us to be as creative as possible, and so they set a very broad brief. This meant we were also negotiating around their expectations, wants and needs, too. We were nearly as empowered as any team I have worked on before, which was energising but created some new issues, too.

Not being in any formal contractual arrangement, there was no formal power relationship – no one could tell anyone else what to do. In some ways this was a delight, since it meant a concensus view had to be strived for, but it also meant that when decisions needed ot be made there was increased uncertainty.

I think the main lessons for me were about communication – which doesn’t surprise me at all: I think most management issues involve communication at one level or another. One of the reasons that flatter organisation structures are seen to be the structure of the future is that up-and-down communication will be greatly simplified; and people coming together in project teams for the first time need more communication.

To start, I think we could have had more effective, in depth induction. To be fair, we knew this at the time – not all of us could make the briefing session. Taking the time to really explore what we each expected from the project – and from each other – would have made sense; indeed, having this session mediated by someone outside the team would have been beneficial, too. (Thing is, we could all do facilitation, so it didn’t seem worth it at the time…!)

Similarly, I think having more whole team sessions as the projects progressed would have been beneficial, too. Each of the four main projects stood very much alone: there wasn’t a great deal of cross-linkage between them. I believe that there could have been more, creating a fully fledged suite of projects. I think the benefits – not least through mutual understanding and support within the team – would have left us more engaged in the whole rather than our own individual projects. It would have helped us in the multiple negotiations we undoubtedly undertook.

There were lots of things that worked very well, of course: basically, it was exciting to be working in what felt to be a very different way. We were improvising – making it up as we went along, and that felt good. The flexibility and empowerment that came along with that felt very healthy, too; but perhaps the lack of a fixed framework – the rigid scaffolding of some organisations, for instance – made it harder at times, too.

I think it was a great experience: definitely the start of a model which we can learn from, and I certainly hope that we will continue to work together in one form of relationship or another. It felt good to be trying something new.

Dan Pink on Motivation

Dan Pink was at the RSA this week, selling his new book Drive. Pink’s presentation at TED was one of the highpoints of TEDxTuttle, so I was keen to see him in the flesh.

He was talking about motivation and how it relates to our working lives – and in particular to reward cultures.

I have to say that I was more than a little disappointed. It wasn’t that he was uninteresting or a bad speaker – indeed, he was very engaging; instead, it felt like I had heard his talk before. He didn’t seem to add much to his TEDTalk.

His main thesis is that businesses focus on the wrong things to motivate people. They generally use the carrot-and-stick approach to performance management, relying heavily on financial reward packages, rather than using more subtle, and possibly more effective, methods which utilise other needs – our desire for autonomy, the reward from mastering skills, and our sense of purpose.

He quotes work done by Ariely and co [PDF] which demonstrates, for tasks requiring higher cognitive skill, increasing financial incentives actually have a negative effect on perfomance. (For manual, physical skills – despite the move to “knowledge working”, a large proportion of jobs even today – the link between increasing financial incentives and increased performance still holds.)

The Economist recently reviewed Pink’s new book with a rather successful critique. People need money. Even Pink isn’t giving away his book (though I’d better check that…). I haven’t read the book – though I intend to – my comments are only based on his talk.

In his talk, Pink pointed to a flaw in his argument: if appealing to workers’ higher level needs for autonomy, mastery and purpose, you need to get pay people enough so that money isn’t an issue. How much “enough” will be is clearly a personal matter – but I would bet that for most people, their jobs don’t pay nearly enough to clear that hurdle. If you pay below that hurdle, financial incentives will probably work. For some people, that hurdle might be very high.

It also felt like Pink was guilty of treating everybody the same, just as most common reward systems do. But different people will have different drives and motivations. Maybe people who do respond to financial incentives are those who will be good at jobs which have that reward structure. We might all scoff at the large bonuses paid to investment bankers, but whilst we might covet the bonus, would we be willing to do the work? I doubt it.

Pink ran through a list of businesses which incorporate an appeal to the higher level drives to motivate their staff: Google with their famous 20% time; Atlassian’s ”FedEx days” (they have to deliver on projects overnight…); Zappos designing their call centres around the simple goal of “solving customers’ problems” anyway staff see fit (doing away with the rigid control and scripts most call centres adhere to); Tom’s shoes, which aims to “transform customers into benefactors” (no, Pink doesn’t know what they mean, either); Skype aiming to “make the world a better place”. (As a sense of purpose, he could have added Google’s entreaty “don’t be evil” – though that didn’t stop them submitting to China’s demands for censorship, nor their apparent flexible view of customer privacy.)

There are other businesses Pink could have discussed – WL Gore, the makers of Goretex and other hitech PTFE solutions, springs to mind: they have a very different approach to organising staff and operations, and from what I have seen have clearly won the hearts and minds of their staff that I have met.

The thing is, this isn’t new. WL Gore was founded in the 1950s. The last large corporation I was employed by went to great lengths in its attempts to bring its staff into the fold – to make them feel they belonged to the organisation and its culture (albeit a culture that was dominated by financial reward), even as they went through serial rounds of restructuring and redundancy. The practice of “human resource management”, which dates from the 1970s, is all about tying employees into the culture, locking them in so that they will go far beyond what is normally required – and to do it by themselves, internalising the motivation and control.

This is what the company men of IBM and GE used to do; it is why the salarymen of Japanese corporations remained with one firm for life. Of course, those same Japanese firms were quite happy to lay staff off during the downturn of the 1990s, as GEC and IBM made staff redundant when they changed their business models.

I’m not saying Pink is wrong – just the opposite, I think he is spot on. I just don’t believe what he’s saying is particularly new or radical, and I don’t think it is universally applicable. Perhaps reading his book may prove me wrong.

Feeling Insecure

I had an argument – maybe more of a one-sided discussion – with a poor guy in store card call centre today.

I was calling in response to a phone message I received about my late mother’s store card; she died last year and last month I finally paid off the balance on her account. The store had a justified query on the transaction and called me up, leaving a message on my mobile for me to call them.

When I did so, the guy on the phone asked me for the account holder’s address. The account holder being dead and not really having an address, I asked whose address it was they wanted – they had called me, after all.

He explained that it was the account holder’s. Of course, anyone could provide that address. Providing the first line of the address proves absolutely nothing. It certainly doesn’t prove who I am – and I was the person trying to do stuff on the account. For the call centre to try to verify the identity of a dead person made me wonder whether they had a lot of zombie assets. Or maybe they’re based in Bristol.

Either way – lousy security. The poor guy on the end of the phone didn’t really see what I was getting at.

This reminded me of another security issue I had during the week, this time using my credit card online. I forgot my password, which happens more or less every time I use my card on the internet – once or twice a month. So I clicked on the link that said “forgotten password?” once more. The system asked for my name, my date of birth and the security numbers on the back of the card. All of which would be available to anyone who had stolen my wallet.

So how does this make my credit card transactions secure?

I won’t stop using my card online, but I think a bit more attention paid to reasonable security wouldn’t go amiss.