The Risks of ‘Knowing’ The Rules


All through our lives we learn ‘rules’. Anything from ‘Wash your hands before dinner’ to ‘Good goals are SMART goals’ and even ‘All men are #%s*#%^*’.

Is it a good idea to ‘know’ the rules? Well, it depends.

Robert Sternberg and Peter Frensch (1989) were interested in exploring this. They pitted expert and novice Bridge players against a computer. Of course, the experts understood the rules of Bridge more fully than the novices. So, when the computer played according to the usual rules of Bridge, the expert players did well (no surprises there!). But then the researchers fundamentally altered the rules of the game and the novices then outperformed the experts. The novices adjusted to the change more quickly whereas the experts kept following the rules of Bridge even when they weren’t playing Bridge anymore.

Other psychology studies have come up with similar results. When we think we know the rules, we can be slow to notice when things have changed and we can tend to persist in behaviour that often doesn’t work.

When you find yourself doing the same thing over and over, even when you aren’t getting the outcomes that you want. When you notice that your behaviour has a driven, inflexible quality … pause…breathe…notice what is actually happening in the world (rather than what your mind is telling you is happening) and then consider choosing a different action that is more likely to work in that moment.

How Promising Managers Sometimes Derail Their Careers…and How to Prevent It

According to The Centre for Creative Leadership almost 1 in 2 of the managers who have the makings of success fail to reach their potential. They ‘derail’ and are either demoted, fired, plateau or opt for early retirement (William A Gentry).

There seem to be some key problems that cause this derailment:

  • Failing to build effective interpersonal relationships
  • Showing poor team leadership
  • Having problems adapting to changes in the environment
  • Lacking growth and development in the face of the changing demands of their role
  • Failing to meet business objectives (due to either failing to follow through or being overambitious )
  • Maintaining a narrow focus, so that they aren’t able to supervise outside of their area of functional expertise

What seems to happen is that these managers are defensive in the face of challenging feedback, don’t learn from their mistakes and don’t identify and address their weaknesses.

Why do they do that?

I suspect that they lack self-compassion. Self-compassion makes it easier to be open to difficult feedback; learn from mistakes and admit failings. Self compassion can probably be increased*.

These managers also need to get better at noticing when their approach is ineffective and then quickly adjusting their behaviour. A starting point here may be to learn to become more mindful and psychologically flexible.

So, if you are a beginning manager, it might be good to focus on becoming more mindful, flexible and compassionate.

* For readers based in Brisbane, I am running a low cost public workshop on self-compassion on Sunday 6th May 2012.

What Facebook Can Teach Managers About Building Engagement

Facebook is amazing at building and maintaining engagement. From a behavioural science perspective, Facebook is set up in a way that encourages engagement. How does it do it and what can it teach us?

1. Facebook makes it very, very easy to give positive feedback. In fact, it isn’t just easy, it is actually feels good to click the ‘like’ button (or is that just me?).

Research suggests that team members need around 3 pieces of positive feedback for every piece of negative feedback. Not many employees are getting even close to that. So when you are reviewing a piece of work, find some way to communicate all the things you like about what has been done rather than just focussing on what needs to be changed.

2. On Facebook (and in life), feedback shapes behaviour. We notice what behaviour seems to get a lot of positive feedback and what gets ignored and over time we change our behaviour. At work, desired behaviour is often ignored, apart from occasional larger gestures – an employee of the month award; a bonus at performance review time; an acknowledgement in the team meeting. In terms of behavioural psychology, what happens on Facebook is much more powerful. Aim to give positive feedback, frequently and real-time, don’t worry if it is just small. Think of the ‘like’ button!

3. Facebook understands that people crave connection and that connection is important in building engagement. Gallup found something similar in the workplace, they found that ‘having a best friend at work‘ is associated with improved performance. We also know that leaders who focus too much on getting the task done and ignore the importance of encouraging team members to build relationships tend to have dissatisfied and disengaged teams. So what can Facebook teach us about how to build connection?

4. Facebook understands that what actually builds connection is lots of little interactions about ordinary things. Sharing a joke. Saying how tired you feel because the kids have been up in the night. Sharing something you find interesting. So, those chats in the office kitchen aren’t time wasting (unless they go on for hours!) – they are building connection and engagement.

So, to get Facebook-like engagement, managers might want to build some habits around giving frequent positive feedback, encouraging people to create connections with each other and valuing those chats in the staff kitchen.


What A Missing Chicken Can Teach You About Conflict Resolution

Today one of my chickens went missing.

I had let the chickens out to scratch in the backyard and one of them went AWOL. Three hours later I came across her in the front garden.

I was cross with her. I didn’t want her scratching in the front garden, as I have just planted some new plants.





I was also a bit surprised because in order to get from the backyard to the front she had to get over this fence:







and this one:







and walk along this path:

(which is frequented by people walking their dogs and so is dangerous for a lone chicken).




Why didn’t she just do what I wanted her to do and stay where I had left her? My mind came up with a story about how annoying and disobedient she was (as I write that sentence I am aware I sound a bit crazy!) and I accepted that story until I discovered this:


I then realised that she had made this long and rather treacherous journey because she needed to lay an egg and she wanted to do it in the right spot – which is in the nesting box, in the chicken pen, in the front garden.



So what does this teach us about conflict resolution?


Human minds have a tendency to come up with the worst possible explanation for why someone doesn’t do what we want them to do. We tend to assume that poor behaviour by others is caused by their disposition rather than the situation (the fundamental attribution error). If we can recognise this tendency in ourselves and hold these thoughts more lightly, then we are less likely to unreasonably tell a co-worker, friend, partner or chicken off.

Next time someone annoys you. Remember my chicken and her journey. Could the person actually just be trying to do the right thing?