Friday 29 November 2013

Best predictor of group effectiveness?

As I have remarked before, it is always pleasing to come across research that matches and validates one's own beliefs and values.

In this case, it is an article by Adam Grant in the McKinsey Quarterly, called Givers take all: The hidden dimension of corporate culture.  In it, Grant argues that the single strongest predictor of group effectiveness is the amount of help that people give to each other.

Note that this is not just about individuals being prepared to offer help, but also for that help to be accepted: that is to say, it is about a culture in which people are both generous and open with their time and their skills, but also have sufficient humility to recognise that they need help.

He explores not only why this might be the case, but also how to go about developing such a culture, and cites many examples, including the intriguing Reciprocity Ring exercise, with which I shall experiment (watch this space).

I won't summarise the whole thing here: it is worth reading in full - not least for the wonderful example with which Grant concludes his piece. I have no doubt the book, on which the article is based, would be worth reading, too.

As a Christian (work in progress) I have long thought about the relationship between virtues and leadership (and organisational behaviour more generally). 

I think one could draw up a remarkably robust set of corporate values based on the virtues: faith, hope, charity; justice, fortitude, prudence and temperance.  

So I am delighted to see that work like this validates such things as charity and indeed humility. Understanding the value of virtues is one thing; putting them into practice is, of course, another and more difficult challenge.  But as Grant points out, in his final paragraph, walking the talk is essential (or as one team I worked with put it: we may not always walk the talk, but be do try to stumble the mumble.)

Saturday 16 November 2013

Are trainers particularly gullible?

At an event recently, I made a disparaging remark about NLP.  An academic who was present agreed, suggesting that all the claims of NLP, when subjected to proper research, were proved to be spurious, or at best unproven or unprovable.

I thought he was over-stating it, and mentioned the eye access cues: something I have found interesting and have frequently observed.

A quick search on Google brings up many versions of this chart: interestingly, if you add the filter 'free for re-use' they all disappear (something I will come back to) so I drew my own.

The academic who had queried all NLP said he thought this was bogus too, something I was slow to believe, because I had observed it.  I even asked a 'visual'  question of the group and noticed the eyes of the chap nearest me going up and to the side as expected. 

Subsequently, my academic nemesis pointed me at research that calls this into question.  And there is much, much more. It seems that while some peoples' eyes move when they are asked a question, it is by no means universal, and there is no consistent pattern.  IE there are enough examples to make the gullible (such as me) believe the chart, not least due to confirmation bias, but the hypothesis does not stand up to serious scrutiny.

The same seems to be true of most other tenets of NLP. Wikipedia carries a long,  and well-referenced, article describing the various aspects that have been unsupported when subjected to scientific scrutiny.  Wikipedia also notes that there is nothing to stop anyone branding him- or herself as an NLP Master Practitioner (though you will gather that I will not be doing so.)

Which raises some interesting questions: given that NLP is, to say the least, an unproven technique, why are so many trainers so keen to be initiated into it?  And given that my outlook on it is sceptical, why was I still so quick to believe the 'eye access cues' claims? Are trainers, in general, particularly gullible?

And it is not just NLP.  I have blogged before about the much repeated (by trainers) 'research' that 'proves' that verbal communication is responsible for only 7% of the meaning we receive (the rest being voice (38%) and body language (55%).  Clearly bunkum, but passed on from trainer to trainer with all the authority of the Verbal Tradition

And then there are all the various pseudo-psychometric instruments of varying validity; with even those that benefit from some statistical evidence base (such as MBTI) being wildly mis-represented and over-sold.

I thing there are a few considerations that might lead trainers, as an occupational group, to be more prone to such fads than the average person.  

One is the need to have something to offer. Of course, there are things that we can learn from research which may be of help to those we are seeking to serve: the Harvard work on Principled Negotiation would be a good example. But very often the best work I do in the realm of interpersonal skills training is to help people with issues like self-awareness, reflection and experimentation: that is, people construct their own highly personal learning, rather than my teaching them anything.

A second consideration might be the fact that trainers, by and large, are optimistic by temperament. Clearly that is likely to be valuable in a profession that seeks to bring the best out of everyone; but it may incline us more to credulity.

A third is the need to feel professionally qualified and up-to-date.  Certification in various methodologies is reassuring, and may help convince clients or potential clients that one really does have something to offer.

Related to that is the fear of being left behind: if everyone else is getting qualified in {whatever it may be} then I probably should too.

I think there is something else going on, too.  There is something very appealing about being one of the initiated: I think NLP really trades on this - indeed someone recently described it to me as a giant pyramid selling scam, and I think there is some accuracy in that description. I particularly dislike the labelling Master Practitioner etc. and the amazing amount of money demanded by many of the big NLP organisations to train and qualify people in such an unverified (to be kind) approach.  I do not think it a coincidence that every version of the eye access cue chart that Google threw up was copyright.

But I remain embarrassed at my own gullibility, having thought I was above such credulity.

Saturday 9 November 2013

When less is more...

It is always fun when one stumbles across research which supports one's own existing hypotheses (or indeed prejudices).  So I was delighted to find a piece or work (courtesy a blogpost on the excellent Harvard Business Review site) which suggests that leaders who talk too much get poorer results from their teams.

The thesis is that leaders who feel powerful tend to dominate (verbally) their teams; that encourages team members to believe that their ideas and contributions are not valued, and the result is poorer team performance.

Call it confirmation bias, but I certainly think I have witnessed this.  And by the same token, some of the leaders I admire the most, and who seem to me to get the best results from people working with them, are precisely those who go out of their way to demonstrate their genuine interest in the ideas of others, and recognise (and counter-act) the power dynamics that make it less likely that people will be truly open and honest in talking with them.

The full article may be found here: and it is well worth a read.  I do not agree with all their hypotheses.  Also I question some of the underlying assumptions. For example, they hypothesise that when leaders are reminded of team members' instrumentality [that is, usefulness to them in accomplishing goals] their tendency to dominate will be restrained, which seems to me to ignore the power of habit. The fact that the experiments were conducted using subjects who do not usually work together might not show this: but a leader who has dominated for years might need more than a 'reminder' of others' instrumentality to help him or her to modify behaviour… (In fairness, the article does recognise this and other limitations implied by their methodology).

(I also deprecate some of their language: 'to summit' as a verb is a new one on me - but I am told that there is no noun that can't be verbed!)

But it is all fascinating and thought-provoking stuff - and the overall message concurs with my prejudices, so is clearly true!

Interestingly, this also resonates with my interest in rhetoric: one of the points I should have made in my previous post is that brevity is often a hall mark of the effective influencer.