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How to Break Up with Your Bad Habits

Breaking habits is hard. We all know this, whether we’ve failed our latest diet (again), or felt the pull to refresh our Instagram feed instead of making progress on a work project that is past due. This is largely because we are constantly barraged by stimuli engineered to make us crave and consume, stimuli that hijack the reward-based learning system in our brains designed initially for survival.

Put simply, reward-based learning involves a trigger (for example, the feeling of hunger), followed by a behavior (eating food), and a reward (feeling sated). We want to do more of the things that feel good and less of the things that feel bad — or stressful. These three components (trigger, behavior, and reward) show up every time we smoke a cigarette or eat a cupcake. This is especially true at work. Each time we try to soothe ourselves from a taxing assignment we reinforce the reward, to the point where unhealthy distractions can become habits.

So why can’t we just control ourselves and decide to replace bad habits with good ones? The doctrine of self-control has been promulgated for decades, despite the fact that researchers at Yale and elsewhere have shown that the brain networks associated with self-control (e.g. the prefrontal cortex) are the first to go “offline” when faced with triggers such as stress. Still, in medical school, I was taught to pass self-control rhetoric on to my patients. “Need to lose weight? Quit eating junk food. Trying to quit smoking? Stop cold turkey or use a nicotine replacement.”

When I started actually practicing medicine, however, I quickly learned that it doesn’t work this way in real life.

Self-control theories have missed something critical: reward-based learning is based on rewards, not behaviors. How rewarding a behavior is drives how likely we are to repeat that behavior in the future, and this is why self-control as an approach to breaking habits often fails.

Over the past 20 years, I’ve researched ways to create a better method by bringing the scientific and clinical practices together. My time spent studying the behavioral neuroscience of how habits form, and the best way to tackle them, helped me find a surprisingly natural way to do this: mindfulness.

By using mindfulness training to make people more aware of the “reward” reinforcing their behavior, I can help them tap into what is driving their habit in the first place. Once this happens, they are more easily able to change their association with the “reward” from a positive one to a more accurate (and often negative) one.

When someone joins our quit smoking program, for example, the first thing I have them do is pay attention while they’re smoking. They often give me a quizzical look, because they’re expecting me to tell them to do something other than smoke, like eat candy as a substitute when they have a craving. But because a “reward” drives future behavior, and not the behavior itself, I have my clients pay attention to what it tastes and feels like when they smoke. The goal is to make the patient aware of the “reward value,” or the level of positive reaffirmation they are getting from the habit they want to change. The higher the value, the more likely they are to repeat the behavior.

I see the same thing happen over and over again — the reward value of the habit decreases because it isn’t as gratifying as people remember. One client of mine, for instance, thought the act of smoking made her look cool as a teenager. Even though that motivation had dissipated in her adulthood, her brain still associated positive feelings with smoking. Hence, her reward value was high. When that same client started paying attention as she smoked, she realized that cigarettes taste bad, commenting, “Smells like stinky cheese and tastes like chemicals. Yuck.” This helped her brain update the reward value of her habit. She was able to get accurate information about how smoking feels right now, which then helped her become disenchanted with the process.

After seeing how effective this practice was with my clients, I decided to test it even further. My lab and I developed three apps that deliver this same kind of mindfulness training to anyone with a smartphone via short sequential lessons over a period of three to four weeks. The apps are designed to help people break bad habits such as smoking, overeating, and anxiety (which oddly enough, is driven by the same habit loops as the other two behaviors).

Tens of thousands of people from around the world have used these apps, and my lab has published a number of studies showing significant, clinically meaningful results: 5x the smoking quit rates of gold standard treatment, 40% reductions in craving-related eating, and a 63% reduction in anxiety. In a recent randomized controlled trial, we even found that our mindfulness app for smoking cessation taught users how to better control the part of their brain that gets over-activated by smoking cues and chocolate cravings.

While our research has been focused primarily on changing health-related habits, we believe it is highly relevant to the workplace. Our strategy can help workers up their productivity, morale, and overall performance by teaching them how to overcome the habits that may be holding them back from thriving. Here’s how to get started:

1. Map out your habit loops

Similar to the advice I give to people in my outpatient clinic, the first step to breaking a habit (no matter what it is) is to figure out your triggers. If the habit is procrastination or stress eating at work, for example, pay attention to the circumstances surrounding you when you do those things. Do you have a big project you’re trying to avoid? Do you have too much on your plate to manage?

Once you know your triggers, try to identify the behaviors you engage in when you are acting out. Do you check social media instead of doing work? Do you snack on sweets during challenging assignments? You must be able to name the actions you turn to for comfort or peace of mind before you can evaluate their reward values.

2. See what you actually get out of those actions

The next step is to clearly link up action and outcome. Remember my patient who struggled to quit smoking? Just like I asked her to pay attention to the act of smoking, I am asking you to pay attention to how you feel when you partake in your habit.

If you stress eat, how does it feel to eat junk food when you aren’t hungry? How does what you eat impact the state of your mind, and body, fifteen minutes after the fact? If you procrastinate, what do you get from surfing the internet for pictures of cute puppies? How rewarding is it in the moment, especially when you realize that it isn’t helping you get your work done?

Remember your answers to these questions, or write them down to help solidify them in your mind.

This new awareness you have developed will help your brain accurately update the reward value of the habit you want to break. You will begin to see that “X” behavior leads to “Y” consequences, and often, those consequences are holding you back from reaching your full potential.

3. Replace the reward with curiosity

The final step to creating sustainable, positive habit change is to find a new reward that is more rewarding than the existing behavior. The brain is always looking for that bigger, better offer.

Imagine you are trying to break a bad habit like stress eating at work, and willpower hasn’t quite worked out for you. What if, instead of indulging in your candy craving to counteract a negative emotion, you substituted it with curiosity about why you are having that craving in the first place, and what it feels like in your body and your mind?

The reward value of curiosity (opening yourself up) is tangibly different than stress eating (closing yourself down) in this instance. Ultimately, curiosity feels better in the moment and is much more enjoyable than the rumination that often occurs after giving into a bad habit.

To tap into their curiosity, I teach my patients a simple mantra: Hmmmm. As in, be curious about your feelings. What does this craving feel like when it first arrives, before I have decided to indulge it?

People often learn, pretty quickly, that cravings are made up of physical sensations and thoughts, and that these come and go. Being curious helps them acknowledge those sensations without acting on them. In other words, they can ride the wave of a craving out by naming and sitting with the thoughts and feelings that arise in their bodies and minds from moment to moment — until those moments pass.

If you’re curious to see how well this might work for you, now is a good time to give it a try.

The next time you find yourself indulging in a bad habit, take a moment to pause and consider using mindfulness to help you overcome it. Your behaviors may not change immediately — but stick with it. If you can hack your mind using our methods, you will eventually be able to break free of unwanted habits and comfortably watch your cravings pass by.


Judson Brewer, MD, PhD, is an associate professor at Brown University’s Schools of Public Health & Medicine, Founder of MindSciences and the author of The Craving Mind: From Cigarettes to Smartphones to Love — Why We Get Hooked and How We Can Break Bad HabitsTo learn more about his research and the apps mentioned in this article, visit www.drjud.com

How to Recruit More Women to Your Company

Many leaders care about gender diversity — at least they say they do. LinkedIn research shows that 78% of talent professionals say that diversity is a top hiring priority for their company and gender diversity in particular is the number one issue they’re tackling in this area.

The latest Women in the Workplace report by McKinsey & Company and LeanIn.org shows some progress in this area, but there’s still work to be done. While female representation in the C-suite is on the rise, only one in five executives in the C-suite is a woman today, and women remain underrepresented at all levels.

To explore this disconnect between the good intentions of leaders and true progress on closing the gender gap, LinkedIn undertook several studies around gender and work over the past year. The data has given us insights into recruiting strategies that can help leaders bring in more women today and set their companies up for success in attracting female candidates in the future.

Getting women in the pipeline — now.

Once in the pipeline, women are more likely to get hired. The challenge is getting them there. In our Gender Insights Report released earlier this year, we reported that while the average number of jobs viewed by men and women in 2018 were roughly the same (44 for women and 46 for men), women are 16% less likely to apply for a job after viewing it. However, they’re also 16% more likely to get hired after they apply. If women apply for jobs at a lower rate, but tend to be the right candidates, why are they more selective about the jobs they apply to, and how can companies more effectively reach them?

Evidence compiled by journalists Katty Kay and Claire Shipman for an article in The Atlantic found that men generally overestimate their abilities and performance, while women underestimate both. Often referred to as the “confidence gap,” women are effectively screening themselves out of the candidate pool before they even apply. Women usually feel they need to meet all of a job’s criteria, while men typically apply if they meet only 60% of the requirements.

Knowing this difference in job search behavior, companies can make some immediate changes to their recruitment model.

Make job postings more inclusive. Focus job descriptions on the expectations of the role. Remove language like “rock star” and “ninja” that tends to alienate female applicants, and use more straightforward job titles and descriptions. In our Language Matters Report, we found that 44% of women would be discouraged from applying to a job if the description included the word “aggressive.” Companies like Cisco and Atlassian use an app called Textio Hire that uses data science to highlight problematic words or phrases in job descriptions and suggest language that will attract more diverse applicants. (Disclosure: Cisco, Atlassian, Textio, and the other companies mentioned in this article are customers of LinkedIn.)

Share stories of women who are succeeding across all levels of your organization. Our Gender Insights Report found that both women and men are equally likely to visit a company’s LinkedIn page and research a company’s culture prior to applying for a job. When women see themselves represented in your firm’s recruiting collateral, they’re more likely to apply. Goldman Sachs, for example, promotes both women employees and initiatives on the “Life” section of its LinkedIn company page, as well as its careers blog.

Post salary ranges for positions. We found that salary and benefits information is ranked as the number one most important part of a job description for both genders, above qualifications, culture and long-term opportunities, but is 10% more important to womenWhen an employer is upfront about salary transparency and shares salary ranges, it’s a signal that they are committed to fair pay. Our Language Matters Report also found that jobs that promoted flexible work, working from home, and additional medical benefits were the most popular among women.

Planning for the future — using data to set and achieve goals

Building a gender-diverse recruiting strategy for the future requires purposeful intent. In the past, companies typically set diversity goals either based on bottom-up incremental improvement against the current state or based on a top-down aspirational target. Both of these approaches fall short. Aiming high across the board doesn’t consider differences in talent availability for different functions and roles. While it makes gender parity a priority, it doesn’t provide a realistic plan of action for managers and recruiters. On the other hand, while incremental progress, or goal-setting based on small, continual improvement, is certainly achievable, it’s hard to make those bigger leaps towards gender balance.

Using internal workforce data and external benchmarks, understand your current gender mix organizationally — by department, job function, and seniority level. From there, use data to set stretch goals that factor in the unique realities of your industry or function’s talent pool.

Making your company an attractive place to work.

There are other initiatives that help in the long term. Consider showcasing your company’s commitment to gender parity, helping to attract talent from both traditional and untapped resources. The Bloomberg Women’s Community, for example, connects and supports its female employees through gender awareness initiatives, relationship building, and career development. Bloomberg’s commitment to gender diversity also extends beyond their internal workforce, as they invite companies around the world to participate in their Gender-Equality Index (GEI), which this year selected 230 companies committed to transparency in gender reporting and advancing women’s equality in the workplace. It’s important to highlight your company’s commitment to gender parity in visible ways to attract more women and men who want to work in a more diverse environment.

Another long-term approach is to expand your early-in-career talent funnel. For example, Blizzard Entertainment, the video game publisher behind World of Warcraft, was able to increase its number of female interns by 166% by reaching out to on-campus women-led groups such as the “Women in Computer Science” club. For Unilever, recruiting from a broader range of universities and leveraging technology tools like Pymetrics to gauge candidates’ soft skills through short online assessments, has helped improve gender diversity at every level, boosting the number of women in management from 38% in 2010 to 47% at the end of 2017.

These changes matter and can have a ripple effect throughout your entire organization. For example, if women and men were promoted and hired to their first manager role at the same rate, 1 million more women would join the management ranks in corporate America during the next five years, not only narrowing the gender gap, but significantly increasing net margins. Through intentional career development at the managerial level, the road to advancement for women becomes more clear and accessible.

None of these initiatives will solve the problem overnight — progress towards gender parity can be slow. However, when combined with open dialogue and a commitment to change, implementing these initiatives can help business leaders craft a more deliberate recruitment strategy that better aligns with the behavior of both men and women.

How to Manage a Stubborn, Defensive, or Defiant Employee

Some of the hardest employees to manage are people who are consistently oppositional. They might actively debate or ignore feedback, refuse to follow instructions they disagree with, or create a constant stream of negative comments about new initiatives. Most often, these behaviors are meant to make the employee look strong and mask a fear of change, an aversion to anticipated conflict, or the worry that they will look stupid or incompetent. I’ve found in my 30 years of consulting for both public and privately held companies, that there are three distinct approaches that can help you get the best from oppositional employees.

The first option is to adjust job responsibilities to leverage their strengths. One functional leader at a company I advised was known and appreciated for his technical expertise, but he was also an extreme micromanager and treated employees with disdain, leading to high turnover in his department. Whenever his manager or HR gave him feedback, he dismissed their input, because he felt that they didn’t understand what it took to succeed in his job.

It’s not uncommon for technical experts to struggle in management roles, and their resistance to feedback or support may be triggered when they realize they’re in over their heads but don’t want to be perceived as failing. One solution is to double down on their strengths and minimize their managerial responsibilities or give them a purely technical team. This worked for the functional leader, who, with a much smaller team of fellow experts to manage, ran into fewer obstacles and generated less unhappiness among his subordinates and superiors.

Another alternative is to temporarily overlook individual style while the person adjusts to their new circumstances. Some employees become oppositional when they feel insecure in a new role or with a significant change in their responsibilities. Rather than providing behavioral coaching on their negative or inappropriate communication, at least initially, it can be more effective to focus on the quality of their knowledge or output, and only work on stylistic problems once the employee feels more familiar with the changes and expectations.

I once worked with a nonprofit executive with deep institutional memory who was extremely sensitive to criticism, and became fearful and resistant whenever change was necessary, especially when new requirements were presented to her as fiats. She was so concerned with not looking stupid, weak, or out-of-date, that she became excessively defensive and reactive. This was particularly problematic because her position involved supporting new leaders, who cycled in and out of the job every two to three years, and she had to form new relationships with each one. But her behavior wasn’t oppositional all the time: whenever she worked for a leader who showed respect for her skill and knowledge, she served with loyalty and tenacious effort. Showing appreciation for an employee’s knowledge and overlooking — for a time — their delivery can help build a positive connection you can then expand on.

Finally, it’s worth considering that they may be right. At one service firm where I consulted, a longtime department head expressed great negativity about the changes a succession of new bosses wanted to make. She began to change her attitude when one new leader paid attention to her complaints and took her challenges as clues that some of her “old ways” might still have merit. She became more willing to hear him out and to sign on to some of his new initiatives. Over time, he gave her more related responsibilities and opportunities to share her knowledge with other areas of the company. She continued to challenge some of his new directions, but warmed up significantly as she saw that her subject matter expertise was being taken seriously.

On the other hand, know where to draw the line. At another client, a senior leader who was an external hire felt that his track record spoke for itself, and that he didn’t need to adjust to his new company’s cultural norms. When he behaved in ways that were counter to norms around work/life balance and demonstrating respect for individual differences, he was chastised and counseled multiple times by a colleague from HR, but he assumed that his financial performance would protect him. In fact, he made it quite clear to colleagues that he didn’t have to “listen” to the feedback he was receiving. Despite the success of his work product, when too many employees complained that they felt denigrated and that he was damaging the organizational culture, the executive leadership got involved and he was let go.

Sometimes, the behavior of an oppositional employee is so damaging to their team or colleagues that the company cannot sustain it and must encourage them to move on. But in many cases, after understanding their concerns and motivations, organizations can provide effective support to oppositional employees through job redesign and relationship building. Then employees who were once seen as problems can bring their greatest strengths to bear on behalf of the organization, rather than against it.


Liz Kislik helps organizations from the Fortune 500 to national nonprofits and family-run businesses solve their thorniest problems. She has taught at NYU and Hofstra University, and recently spoke at TEDxBaylorSchool. You can receive her free guide, How to Resolve Interpersonal Conflicts in the Workplace, on her website.

 

To Build an Inclusive Culture, Start with Inclusive Meetings

  • Category Teams

Chances are you’ve attended a meeting today. Was it time well spent or a soul-draining exercise in futility? Although no two meetings are the same, their collective impact on the culture of a company is significant. Meetings matter. They are the forum where people come together to discuss ideas, make decisions, and be heard. Meetings are where culture forms, grows, and takes hold.

So it stands to reason that if an organization desires a more inclusive culture — and leaders want to model inclusion — then meetings are the place to start. But, from what we’ve seen, executives often miss the mark. Like a plate spinner at the circus, leading a meeting requires eyeballing a dozen different details: agenda setting, time management, conflict resolution, decision-making, and more. Inclusion? Who has the bandwidth to keep yet another plate in the air?

But leaders must.

Decades of research show that diverse organizations are more engaged, creative, and financially successful. Diverse hiring can be measured and managed by crunching the numbers, but when we take this best practice out of the lab and apply it to everyday work settings, like meetings, positive results are more elusive.

Our previous study, an examination of 360-degree feedback collected from over 1,000 female executives, gave us insights into why some people feel shut out in meetings. We learned that women are often uncomfortable speaking up and are more than twice as likely to be interrupted in group dialogue — particularly in industries and organizations that are male-dominated. Our more recent coaching experiences reveal that men from minority groups feel similarly. If organizations fail to address this issue, women and minorities will remain on the periphery, and in turn, your creativity and innovation will suffer.

Setting a diverse workforce up for success requires a commitment to the practices of inclusion. This means more companies need to create meeting cultures where diverse contributors have equal impact. As a leader, it’s your responsibility to actively and intentionally give them opportunities to do so.

The problem is that many leaders don’t know where to start. Inclusive behaviors in meetings can be wide ranging, from making sure everyone has a seat at the table to giving each person a chance to speak. To simplify what amounts to a complex equation, we coach leaders to focus on three key areas.

Customs. Priya Parker, author of The Art of Gathering emphasizes the importance of setting the stage for inclusion before your meeting even begins. Focus on structural behaviors that make people feel comfortable. This could be as simple as sending a pre-meeting email to attendees, and inviting people to come “ready to share as well as listen.” It may sound like a little thing you can delegate to another employee, but in our everyday work, we hear loud and clear that leaders are in the best position to make people feel safe in this kind of setting.

Priya also suggests leaders demonstrate what she calls “gracious authority”— a polite demeanor that nonetheless leaves little doubt about who is in charge. To set the tone, welcome people by name as they enter the meeting room, and make sure the seating accommodates everyone.

In the meeting itself, customs and expectations should be established upfront. Let people know they can speak openly and offer a dissenting opinions without fear of retribution. If you have introverts in the room, start with a brief round robin activity that includes everyone and helps the attendees get to know one another better. If it is an especially large group, either break people up into smaller teams or rotate the seating halfway through the exercise.

Conduct. The role of the conductor in an orchestra is to manage the tempo of a performance. They listen critically to keep musicians playing in unison and actively control the dynamic to prevent one instrument from overpowering the rest. The same goes for leaders in meetings — you need to manage conduct and give everyone space to play their part.

In many cases, one alpha individual dominates the conversation. In other cases, there is an “in-crowd” or a group of allies who share commonalities, such as gender, personal interests, or job seniority. The in-crowd often takes up more space in the room, supports the same ideas, and speaks up inordinately, drowning out differing viewpoints. Regardless of the specifics, it’s your job to step in when strong personalities over-reach, tamp down offenders, and actively bring all voices into the conversation.

 

Take advice from a few of our most successful clients:

  • Set clear ground rules at the start of the meeting and stick to them. When inclusive meeting conduct is codified, it puts offenders on notice and makes everyone aware of their rights and responsibilities.
  • Watch closely for dominators and interrupters. If someone tries to control the dialogue, interject and redirect the conversation back to the broader group.
  • If someone is interrupted, step in quickly. You might say, “Wait a minute, I want to hear more of what Janice has to say,” or “Back up. I am intrigued with what Luke was telling us. Luke, can you finish your thought?”

Leaders who actively orchestrate meeting interactions in this way create an inclusive space by leaving room for everyone to contribute, and set a standard for respect across the group.

Commitment. Most organizations have already put a stake in the ground on diversity in hiring practices and creating diverse teams. The same needs to happen for inclusion — we need to insist that it is the standard in meetings and beyond.

If you’re a leader, start with yourself:

  • Explicitly define inclusivity.
  • Be clear and transparent about what it looks like in meetings.
  • Model the behavior you expect to see from others.
  • Hold teams accountable for following through every time.

Only then will people feel empowered to offer their best ideas and speak the truth, instead of telling you what they think you want to hear.

It’s also important to remember that leading an inclusive meeting is a skill that you have to develop and refine. Find out what is working and what isn’t by asking your team members for feedback — either at the end of your meetings, or with an email or app that allows anonymity.

Checklist for leading inclusive meetings:

  • Review your list of attendees: are you missing people who represent diverse or dissenting points of view?
  • Send the agenda out ahead of time.
  • Greet each meeting participant warmly, by name, so everyone feels welcome.
  • State ground rules up front and make sure they explicitly foster inclusion.
  • Mediate and facilitate: keep track of who’s talking — and who’s not. Exhibit zero tolerance for interruptions. Prevent anyone from dominating or derailing the discussion.
  • Remain engaged in the conversation from beginning to end.
  • Follow up after the meeting. Thank participants for attending and ask for their feedback.

Meetings have morphed over the years: we gather virtually, across time zones, and often, with far less face-to-face time. Yet, one thing has not changed. Meetings are still the prime venue to build and foster a fully inclusive culture that engages and equips people to do their very best at work. As a leader, it’s your job to make sure they do.



Brenda F. Wensil is a Partner with Flynn Heath Holt Leadership. Join the conversation on Twitter: @FlynnHeathHolt.

Why Withholding Information at Work Won’t Give You an Advantage

  • Category Teams

Open communication and transparency are perhaps the two most valuable characteristics of a successful work environment. According to a recent report, firms with a high-trust environment, where employees can collaboratively and transparently share knowledge, gain stock returns two to three times higher than the industry average and have 50% lower turnover rates than competitors. An ineffective knowledge sharing culture, on the other hand, can cost large U.S. firms up to $47 million in lost productivity annually.

Still, not every employee wants to participate in a knowledge sharing culture. A recent survey suggests that 60% of employees have had a difficult time getting their colleagues to share information that is vital to their work. When we deliberately withhold or conceal information from each other, we are doing something called  “knowledge hiding,” an action that can take several different forms. We may pretend to be uninformed, provide inaccurate information to those who ask us, promise to share information but never intend to, or find excuses to tell people that we can’t share when we actually can.

Why do so many of us hide knowledge? Research suggests it could be because we fear losing power or the status that is achieved through knowing unique information. Other reasons include: identifying knowledge as our own property, worrying we will be judged based on what we know, or disliking or distrusting those who ask us. Basically, we hide knowledge because we fear the potential costs of sharing it. If those costs are personal, we may even withhold knowledge to protect ourselves and expect to gain, or maintain, an advantage by doing so. But whether or not we succeed has been questionable, up until recently.

Through our research, my colleagues and I aimed to answer the question: Does knowledge hiding really protect and benefit those of us who hide it?

We conducted three studies, and according to our findings, the answer is no.

In our first study, we surveyed 214 fulltime Chinese employees in various occupational roles — including R&D, management, accounting, sales, and human resources — using an online questionnaire. We provided them with a list of 12 different knowledge hiding behaviors, including offering inaccurate information, pretending to not know what others are talking about, and directly refusing to share. Then we asked the workers to what extent they engaged in each behavior on a seven-point scale, with seven indicating the highest engagement and one indicating the lowest.

In addition, respondents rated the level of psychological safety they felt at work. This rating was based on whether their work environment felt threatening, whether they felt safe being themselves, and whether they felt comfortable engaging in social interactions.

Finally, respondents reported to what extent they were thriving in their roles, defined as learning new things and being vital and energetic.

What we found is that those who engage in knowledge hiding are about 17% less likely to thrive at work, or experience learning and growth. We believe this is because hiding knowledge from peers does not actually result in a competitive advantage. Rather, it makes employees feel psychologically unsafe. As prior research suggests, without psychological safety, it can be difficult for employees to focus on tasks, develop meaningful relationships, and explore new ways of working without fear of punishment for mistakes or failures. In these situations, employees often struggle to maintain a positive attitude and engage in learning opportunities.

The results of our first study pushed us to explore the topic further. We wanted to know if the backfire effects of knowledge hiding occur in work cultures outside of China as well.

We conducted a second study in which we surveyed 392 fulltime workers, mainly from Europe and North America, employed in a variety of fields, including education, retail, hospitality, healthcare, manufacturing, transportation, and others. To further explore the impacts of psychological safety on knowledge hiding, we refined the study design and asked participants to answer two online questionnaires, two weeks apart. In the first, they reported knowledge hiding behaviors and levels of psychological safety at work just as the participants had in our original study. Then, two weeks later they reported these same variables again and indicated how thriving they were.

We found that employees who engaged in knowledge hiding felt less psychological safety at work two weeks later. However, those who felt psychologically unsafe to begin with did not increase knowledge hiding behaviors. We concluded that a psychologically unsafe work environment does not lead people to knowledge hiding, nor does a psychologically safe work environment prevent people from knowledge hiding. However, knowledge hiding does make people feel more psychologically unsafe at work, and as a result, those people will be less likely to thrive.

 

To consolidate this information, we conducted a third study, surveying 205 employees from three Chinese organizations in the airline, postal, and education industries. The goal of this study was to explore whether knowledge hiders suffer more when they have a cynical attitude about their organization. We were curious if cynicism and knowledge hiding interact in any way to influence employees’ psychological safety and thriving. As in the second study, two surveys were collected within a time interval of two weeks. However, this time, five items were added to the first survey to test how employees felt about their work environments. We asked respondents to what degree they agreed with statements like, “It is hard to be hopeful about the future because people in my organization have such bad attitudes” and “I’ve pretty much given up trying to make suggestions for improvements in my organization”. The second survey only asked questions about thriving.

We concluded that, in general, knowledge hiders suffer as a result of what we found in the first two studies. But we also found a caveat. Knowledge hiding was more likely to backfire when the perpetrator was cynical about their organization. When respondents who knowledge hid were also cynical toward their organizations (e.g., those who felt the organization lacked honesty, fairness, integrity, or saw serious, unresolvable problems at their companies), had a stronger perception of unsafety, and consequently, had difficult time thriving. By contrast, knowledge hiders who were not cynical toward their organizations, did not feel as unsafe after withholding information. Rather, it was easier for them to figure out ways to thrive regardless. Note, however, that our findings do not indicate that low cynicism prevents people from hiding knowledge in the first place.

What can organizations do to stop knowledge hiding?

We now know that knowledge hiding is much more harmful when those who hide knowledge have a negative attitude toward their organization as opposed to a positive one. One solution, then, is for companies to work towards developing cultures in which their employees feel comfortable speaking openly about their concerns. If you can address the problems that are making your workers feel cynical, you can start to gain back their trust and help alleviate some of that cynicism.

I recommend that organizations use third party, anonymous surveys to figure out if and why their staff holds cynical attitudes. This feedback can be used to design and implement targeted practices that will ensure the workplace is fair, trustworthy, and hopeful. Companies should also invest in teaching managers how to recognize signs of employees who may be struggling and initiate difficult conversations about why.

Lastly, there is value in educating your people on the consequences of knowledge hiding. Those who are keeping information in order to protect themselves may not understand that they are actually doing the opposite. Use trainings, newsletters, bulletin boards, and other communication channels to spread this information.

Making these changes won’t be easy. Knowledge hiding is widely prevalent in the workplace, and it will take time to fix.  But be patient. The first step is to acknowledge this reality, and share what you’ve learned with others so that we can make the changes necessary to improve the problem together.


Zhou (Joe) Jiang is an Associate Professor in College of Business, Government and Law at Flinders University, Australia. His research interests include career management, knowledge exchange, workplace thriving, and wellbeing.

Stop Making Gratitude All About You

You read a lot these days about research showing that practicing gratitude — making a deliberate point of being grateful for the good things in your life — has all sorts of benefits for happiness and well-being. These articles usually end with a call to start a gratitude journal to reap the full benefits of being thankful.

There’s nothing wrong with that. But we should keep in mind gratitude’s other, arguably even more important purpose: strengthening our relationships with those we rely on.

Historically, most of the research has focused on gratitude’s social function, not its impact on our brains. This body of research has found that, to put it bluntly, expressing gratitude to someone who helps you keeps them interested and invested in having a relationship with you over the long haul. It makes their time, effort, and inconvenience seem worth it.

In the same vein, there is nothing quite like ingratitude to sour an otherwise happy relationship. It’s not difficult for most of us to recall a time when we were shocked at how unappreciative and thoughtless someone was in response to our generosity. (If you are a parent, chances are you only have to think back to this morning’s breakfast.) Without some sort of acknowledgement, people very quickly stop wanting to help you. In fact, in a set of studies by Adam Grant and Francesca Gino, when someone wasn’t thanked for their help, their future rates of helping people were immediately cut in half.

Gratitude is a glue that binds you and your benefactor together, allowing you to hit the same well over and over again, knowing that support won’t run dry.

At least, gratitude can be that glue if you do it right. Recent research suggests that people often make a critical mistake when expressing gratitude: They focus on how they feel — how happy they are, how they have benefited from the help — rather than focusing on the benefactor.

Researchers Sara Algoe, Laura Kurtz, and Nicole Hilaire at the University of North Carolina distinguished between two types of gratitude expressions: other-praising, which acknowledges and validates the actions of the giver, and self-benefit, which describes how the receiver is better off for having been helped. In one of their studies, couples were observed expressing gratitude to each other for something their partner had recently done for them. Their expressions were then coded for the extent to which they were other-praising or focused on self-benefit. Examples of their expressions include:

Other-praising

It shows how responsible you are…

You go out of your way…

I feel like you’re really good at…

Self-benefit

It let me relax…

It gave me bragging rights at work…

It makes me happy…

Finally, benefactors rated how happy they felt, how loving they felt toward their partner, and how responsive they felt the gratitude-giver had been. The researchers found that other-praising gratitude was strongly related to perceptions of responsiveness, positive emotion, and loving — but self-benefit gratitude was not.

This is worth taking a moment to think about because most people get gratitude utterly wrong. More often than not, human beings are a bit egocentric by nature. We have a tendency to talk about ourselves even when we should be thinking and talking about others. So naturally when we get high-quality help and support, we want to talk how it made us feel. Though to be fair, we assume that’s what the helper wants to hear — they were helping to make us happy, so they must want to hear about how happy we are.

But this assumption isn’t quite right. Yes, your helper wants you to be happy, but the motivation to be helpful often is tied directly to our own sense of self-worth. We help because we want to be good people, to live up to our goals and values, and, admittedly, to be admired.

Remember this the next time you receive support from a colleague or friend. Helpers want to see themselves positively and to feel understood and cared for — which is difficult for them to do when you won’t stop talking about yourself.


Heidi Grant, PhD, is a social psychologist who researches, writes, and speaks about the science of motivation. She is Global Director of Research & Development at the NeuroLeadership Institute and serves as Associate Director of Columbia’s Motivation Science Center. She received her doctorate in social psychology from Columbia University. Her most recent book is Reinforcements: How to Get People to Help You. She’s also the author of Nine Things Successful People Do Differently and No One Understands You and What to Do About It.

Why Groups Struggle to Solve Problems Together

  • Category Teams

Why are so many meetings so unproductive?

Many professionals, fed up with calendars chock-full of long, disorganized, soul-bruising sessions, resort to uncharitable, even cynical explanations:

  • Leaders are too lazy to craft thoughtful agendas.
  • Managers hold pointless meetings as a way to flex their power.
  • Distracted attendees, selfishly preoccupied with their own work, come woefully unprepared.

But if we want an accurate, rather than merely cathartic answer to the question, we’d be wise to consider Hanlon’s RazorNever attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by misunderstanding.

After more than a decade of working with prominent organizations to fix broken meetings, I’ve come to learn that many bad meetings are more adequately explained by a simple, flawed assumption. We assume that intuitive problem solving, a highly effective approach for individuals, will, in the context of meetings, prove just as effective for groups. But often, it does not.

When Individuals Solve Problems Intuitively the Result Is Magic

To understand what intuitive problem solving is, we need to recognize first that when working out any problem, from picking out a necktie to solving a quadratic equation, we make our way through five stages:

You might assume that we move through these stages sequentially to solve problems. But in the past several decades, psychologists have discovered the opposite to be true. Rather than advance through the stages in order, we tend to do so in a manner that is rather unsystematic.

For example, pretend you’re ordering food online. You begin by quickly generating a solution — Mexican (stage 2) — but as soon as the thought enters your mind, you evaluate (stage 3) and remember that you had Mexican the day before, so you generate another solution (stage 2) — Indian. Upon evaluation (stage 3), however, you fear your hefty Chicken Tikka Masala go-to might outsize your appetite. At this point, you take a step back and define the problem (stage 1), asking yourself “What kind of meal would leave me feeling satisfied but not overly stuffed?” A better question leads to a better answer: sushi (stage 2). You do a quick gut check to make sure sushi is truly what you desire (stage 3), and you move forward with your order (stages 4 and 5).

This is called intuitive problem solving, and it comes so naturally to us that, when we solve problems in this way, we’re wholly unaware that we are doing it. All we have to do is place our attention on the problem and, much like a car’s automatic transmission, our brain shifts gears for us. As a result, intuitive problem solving is remarkably efficient. Magical, even.

When Groups Solve Problems Intuitively the Result Is Often Chaos

Intuitive problem solving is so magical for us as individuals that we assume it should fare just as well for groups. When we hold a meeting, we gather around a table, place our collective attention on the problem, and let our automatic transmissions take over. But, all too often, this turns out to be a mistake.

In order for groups to collaborate effectively and avoid talking past one another, members must simultaneously occupy the same problem-solving stage. But because intuitions are private to their owners, attendees in group meetings are unable to easily discern what problem-solving stage they each are on. Consequently, members unknowingly begin the meeting on different stages.

Imagine a software team who gathers to discuss a disgruntled VIP customer, threatening, quite publicly, to jump ship to a competitor. While one attendee thinks the path forward is obvious and focuses on crafting an implementation plan (stage 5), another is intent on generating alternative solutions (stage 2), while yet another attendee is still trying to figure out whether the exit of this pompous hellion is, in fact, even a problem (stage 1). Perhaps it’s a blessing!

As the meeting progresses, things get even more chaotic. Without realizing it, each attendee continues to switch stages without notifying others. The result is a disorganized meeting that traverses many stages, yet conquers none.

To solve problems as a group, we need to jettison the assumption that intuitive problem solving is sufficient, and instead embrace a more methodical approach — one that homes in on just one problem-solving stage. In other words, we need to stop with the automatic, and start learning to drive stick.

The Power of Methodical Meetings

In a methodical meeting, for each issue that needs to be discussed, members deliberately and explicitly choose just one problem-solving stage to complete.

To convert an intuitive meeting into a methodical one take your meeting agenda, and to the right of each agenda item, write down a problem-solving stage that will help move you closer to a solution, as well as the corresponding measurable outcome for that stage. Then, during that part of the meeting, focus only on achieving that outcome. Once you do, move on.

A Template for Conducting a Methodical Meeting

Pair each agenda item with a problem solving stage and a measurable outcome.

Agenda Item Problem Solving Stage Measurable Outcome
Select a venue for the offsite Generate solutions List of potential venues
Discuss VIP customer issue Define the problem Problem statement
Implement new sales strategy Make a plan List of actions / owners / due dates
Review new budget proposals Evaluate solutions List of strengths and weaknesses
Choose a new ad agency Pick a solution Written decision
SOURCE: AL PITTAMPALLI © HBR.ORG

If you don’t know which problem-solving stage to choose, consider the following:

Do you genuinely understand the problem you’re trying to solve? If you can’t clearly articulate the problem to someone else, chances are you don’t understand it as well as you might think. If that’s the case, before you start generating solutions, consider dedicating this part of the meeting to defining the problem (stage 1) and ending it with a succinctly written problem statement.

Do you have an ample list of potential solutions? If the group understands the problem, but hasn’t yet produced a set of potential solutions, that’s the next order of business. Concentrate on generating as many quality options as possible (stage 2). Even if you end your discussion with only a slightly longer list than with which you began, you’ve made important progress.

Do you know the strengths and weaknesses of the various solutions? Suppose you have already generated potential solutions. If so, this time will be best spent letting the group evaluate them (stage 3). Free attendees from the obligation of reaching a final decision—for which they may not yet be ready—and let them focus exclusively on developing a list of pros and cons for the various alternatives.

Has the group already spent time debating various solutions? If the answer is yes, use this part of the meeting to do the often difficult work of choosing (stage 4). Make sure, of course, that the final choice is in writing.

Has a solution already been selected? Then focus on developing an implementation plan (stage 5). If you’re able to leave the conversation with a comprehensive list of actions, assigned owners, and due dates, you can celebrate a remarkably profitable outcome.

Most bad meetings are not caused by lazy, power-tripped leaders, or entitled, self-centered attendees. Instead, they are caused by a simple mistake made by everyone involved. We assume our go-to way for solving problems alone, intuitively, can be effectively deployed to solve problems together. But more often than not, it can’t. Instead, we should hold methodical meetings, discussions that deliberately and explicitly aim to conquer just one stage at a time.

Granted, conquering just one problem-solving stage, I’ve come to learn, sounds a bit underwhelming to some — like taking a small bite out of large woolly mammoth. But those who try methodical meetings are met with an often profound revelation: thoroughly conquering any individual problem-solving stage, even an earlier one, frequently allows you to leap frog ahead, sometimes to the very end of the problem-solving life cycle. As the famously methodical Steve Jobs once noted: “If you define the problem correctly, you almost have the solution.”


Al Pittampalli is the founder of the Modern Meeting Company and the author of Read This Before Our Next Meeting (Penguin).

 

How Being a Working Parent Changes as Children Grow Up

With a record number of women running for president in the U.S., it’s no surprise that the concerns of working parents are on the 2020 agenda. Elizabeth Warren unveiled a plan for universal childcare, Kamala Harris is a co-sponsor of the Child Care for Working Families Act, and several other candidates have voiced support for similar policies.

The prominence of these issues on the campaign trail reflects a growing awareness about the needs of working parents in the U.S., particularly working mothers. We’re having more open and honest conversations about topics like maternity leavereturn to work, and pregnancy and breastfeeding in the office.

Yet much of our public discussion around working parents focuses on the needs of new mothers, as if the challenges of integrating work and parenthood evaporate once a child enters school (not to mention that working fathers are often ignored completely). In reality, as children get older, working parents experience new joys and stresses. Without effective supports, later-stage working parents are just as vulnerable as new parents to feeling pulled between career and family.

In our research and interviews with hundreds of working mothers, as well as our own experiences navigating work and parenthood, we’ve learned that motherhood isn’t a linear, uniform path. Just when you think you have it figured out, your family or your career shifts and you have to create new work/family patterns. As we argue in our new book, Maternal Optimism, it’s time for working parents and organizations to look beyond pregnancy, birth, and infancy to address how work-family demands shift as children grow up and careers mature.

The evolving complexities of childcare

After pregnancy and return to work, the next major upheaval for most working parents happens when their child enters school and the childcare arrangements they have come to rely on are suddenly upended. The American education system hardly qualifies as full-time care. The average school is closed for 29 days during the 10 months a year when it is officially “in session.” These days off, along with summer vacations and the perpetual misalignment between the school day and the work day, all create gaps in childcare.

We’ve found that these “care gaps” are often more difficult for working parents to navigate than obtaining full-time care for younger children. Many working mothers have reported feeling blindsided by the challenge of securing and paying for quality care for school-age children. One mother we interviewed was astonished to find her childcare costs did not diminish significantly when her daughter transitioned to kindergarten and, as a result, she and her partner had to reorient their family budget.

Children continue to need care even as they transition to middle and high school and become more independent. Yet there are far fewer after-school programs and care options available for tweens and teens. While high schoolers require less supervision, they often lead busier lives and need to be shuttled between activities, after-school jobs, and social engagements. Research shows that, as with other childcare tasks, these responsibilities continue to fall primarily on mothers rather than fathers. While care for teens is less physically demanding and time intensive, it often requires more emotional labor as children develop their own identities and navigate complex social and emotional issues.

Unfortunately, bosses and colleagues who may have been accommodating of a new mother’s need to pump breast milk or take maternity leave are often less aware or accepting of the demands a working mother faces as her children get older. At the same time, job responsibilities are increasing as parents move ahead in their careers. Sometimes the choices women make about work and family can feel more difficult because of the invisibility of mothering older children.

For instance, a technical sales consultant we interviewed was conflicted when offered a promotion that would require significant travel. She was hesitant to accept the role because her youngest son was in his final years of high school. When her children were younger, her managers would actively help her think through work and family integration as she considered new opportunities. However, this time it was as if everyone seemed to forget she was a mother, and she worried she couldn’t be transparent about her concerns. She ultimately turned down the promotion.

The upside of parenting older children

Of course, it’s not all bad news as children get older. The parents we’ve interviewed have said that while the demands of work and family don’t diminish, they become better equipped at integrating the two and more forgiving of their missteps. They become skilled multitaskers and time managers, laser-focused on what has to get done both at work and at home. They also begin to realize the many ways in which their roles as employees and parents are mutually beneficialRuth Bader Ginsburg attributes her success in law school in large part to being a parent, writing, “Each part of my life provided respite from the other and gave me a sense of proportion that classmates trained only on law studies lacked.”

Expectations also evolve as children grow older. Numerous women have told us that they begin to feel more comfortable and confident in their identities as working mothers. The anxiety about being a “perfect mom” as well as a star performer at work dissipates as they discover the work-family harmony that is right for them. The feedback from their children also becomes more positive: rather than asking why a parent works, teenagers often express pride and interest in their parent’s job. Working mothers start to realize what research has already shown — that their careers have an overwhelmingly positive influence on their children in the long run.

How to ride the transitions

What can parents do to prepare for the transitions that will inevitably arise as their children grow older? How can they manage the new challenges while also reaping the benefits?

First, families should anticipate (and budget for) new childcare arrangements when their children enter school; they may need to secure after-school and summer care months in advance. There will be unanticipated care gaps due to snow days, early release, and unexpected meetings, so parents should prepare one or two alternative care options as backup. As children get older, parents should consider creative arrangements. A teen may need a driver or a tutor more than someone to supervise them. Most importantly, instead of thinking of childcare as a cost, consider it an investment in both your career and your child’s well being.

We also encourage working parents to cultivate networks of support, just as they develop professional networks to advance their careers. Research shows that community support leads to less stress and higher job quality for working mothers. When deciding where to live and work, parents often focus on high-ranking schools but overlook other community assets like after-school programs or fellow working parents who can share carpool duties or childcare on snow days. It’s also important to develop allies in the office who support your efforts to integrate work and caregiving. And as managers and colleagues, we should be more aware that parental obligations don’t end once children are in school.

As for employers, it’s essential that they expand policies and practices to support working parents with children of all ages. Generous parental leave after birth is a start, but parents also need flexibility to attend a teenager’s a cappella performance or step out of a meeting to problem solve a school pick-up. Parents of teens with special needs will require even more flexibility to meet with teachers and therapists and advocate for their child. Supporting employees’ family needs helps them thrive at work, which ultimately reduces turnover, absenteeism, and increases productivity.

Some organizations have become more creative in supporting parents with older children. Biotechnology company Genentech has partnered with an organization that helps employees find high-quality programs for their children when school is not in session. Johnson & Johnson provides financial assistance for the speech, occupational, mental health, and physical therapy needs of employees’ children.

Our research has consistently found that parenthood is a continually evolving path and each parent’s experiences and needs are unique. Being a parent doesn’t end, it just changes form. By acknowledging this and providing appropriate supports to parents throughout their children’s lives, we can create better workplaces, stronger families, and healthier communities.


Danna Greenberg is the Walther H. Carpenter Professor of Management and Organizations at Babson College. Herlatest book, Maternal Optimism: Forging Positive Paths through Work and Motherhood, explores the uniqueness of each working mother’s journey to integrate career and family.


Jamie Ladge is the Patrick F. & Helen C. Walsh Research Professor of Management and Organizational Development at Northeastern University. Her latest book, Maternal Optimism: Forging Positive Paths through Work and Motherhood, explores the uniqueness of each working mother’s journey to integrate career and family.

How to Demonstrate Your Strategic Thinking Skills

We all know that developing strategic thinking skills is important, but many don’t realize how critical it is to your career advancement to show these skills to your boss and other senior leaders. Showing strategic thinking skills tells your bosses that you’re able to think for yourself and make decisions that position the organization for the future. It assures them that you aren’t making decisions in a vacuum but are considering how other departments might be affected or how the outside world will respond.

When I’m helping my coaching clients learn to think more strategically, I emphasize that developing and demonstrating these skills are very different challenges.

  • Developing great strategic thinking skills requires you to gain exposure to strategic roles, synthesize broad information, participate in a culture of curiosity, and gather experiences that allow you to identify patterns and connect the dots in novel ways. That’s why high-potential and leadership development programs often include job rotations, cross-functional projects, and face time with senior leadership — these all accelerate the development of strategic thinking.
  • Demonstrating strategic thinking, on the other hand, requires that you are simultaneously a marketer, a salesperson, and a change agent. Proactive and widespread communication of your strategic efforts combined with the courage to challenge others and initiate and drive your strategic ideas are what make your boss and peers take notice.

The case of one of my coaching clients illustrates the steps you need to take to show off your strategic thinking skills. Tim Waters (not his real name), vice president of the U.S. supply chain for a growing medical products company, hoped to be named global senior vice president of supply chain but sensed that his promotion discussions were stalled. Tim had a good reputation for responding to business unit leads, and he worked tirelessly and effectively to keep the supply chain functioning well. He was therefore surprised to receive informal feedback from the head of HR, a longtime colleague and friend, who said that a few influential executives had voiced concern that Tim “wasn’t strategic enough.” These executives felt Tim was good at keeping the trains running, but he had not driven proactive change in the organization or set a strategic vision for supply chain. Tim was a strong strategic thinker, but he wasn’t doing it in a way his bosses could see it. He decided to engage an executive coach to help him learn how to demonstrate these skills.

Bring a point of view to the table

Your leaders want to know what you think, and they view your worthiness for promotion through the lens of how ready you are to make bigger decisions. By asking yourself, “Do people know where I stand?” you can sharpen your ability to demonstrate this skill.

Tim made efforts to update his understanding of trends and to refresh his network but realized that he wasn’t putting the knowledge learned to good use. One of the first changes he made was to instruct his assistant to block out 30 minutes on his calendar before important meetings. He knew that barely having time to collect his thoughts before going into meetings made him unprepared, less vocal, and less capable of synthesizing and sharing his knowledge. Just a half hour, once or twice a week, would allow him to shape his point of view on important issues.

Tim’s efforts began to pay off over time, and he was able to shift his contributions in senior executive meetings from operational input to strategic input. He took time to package his ideas into a vision for the organization and engaged his peers in new discussions about how the vision could impact their areas.

Having greater clarity of vision also enhanced Tim’s effectiveness as a supervisor. Tim was able to see how his team was missing the specific skills needed to support the vision. Now, instead of having reactive discussions with his HR business partner, he was able to engage in forward-looking discussions about strategic hiring and leadership development opportunities for his team. Demonstrating that you think strategically about hiring and talent development is a surefire way to make your leaders notice you.

Show that you can initiate innovation and bring strategic change

To be viewed as a strategic thinker, you must also demonstrate that you can use your knowledge to put new ideas into action. No matter your level, you can demonstrate strategic thinking by executing an innovative project that shows that your understanding extends beyond your current function.

Tim channeled the new energy and vision he had gained into a strategic planning process that culminated in formal recommendations for the supply chain group. Tim communicated the project and its milestones across the organization, allowing the executive team to see that he could lead a strategic initiative; previously, Tim would have kept it behind the scenes. Boldly suggesting value-added changes was a welcome shift to both Tim and his colleagues. Tim felt he had greater control, projecting greater confidence because he was no longer just reacting to others’ suggestions and issues, and Tim’s colleagues also appreciated that he was initiating improvements without their prodding.

Tim’s journey to demonstrating strategic thinking took him longer than he had expected, but over time, his boss, peers, and team noticed the changes and viewed them positively. Tim was promoted to the global role a year later and was ultimately better equipped to navigate the role.

Adapted from the HBR Guide to Thinking Strategically by Nina Bowman.


Nina A. Bowman is a Managing Partner at Paravis Partners, an executive coaching and leadership development firm. Previously, she held various advisory and leadership roles in strategy. She is an executive coach and speaker on issues of strategic leadership, leadership presence, and interpersonal effectiveness. She is also a contributing author to the HBR Guide to Coaching Employees and HBR Guide to Thinking Strategically.

Are You Sugarcoating Your Feedback Without Realizing It?

Managers tend to inflate the feedback they give to their direct reports, particularly when giving bad news. And by presenting subpar performance more positively than they should, managers make it impossible for employees to learn, damaging their careers and, often, the company.

Previous research into this kind of feedback inflation has centered on the idea that managers deliberately sugarcoat tough messages for fear of retaliation, or to protect their employees from feeling bad about themselves. But our research shows that many managers deliver inflated feedback unintentionally, and in fact think they’ve been much more clear than is the case. These findings point to some simple ways to improve how managers impart criticism.

We believe that managers’ assumption that their direct reports understand what they mean is due to a common cognitive bias called the illusion of transparency, in which people are so focused on their own intense feelings and intentions that they overestimate the extent to which their inner worlds come across to othersAs a result their words may be too vague to convey their true intent. The illusion of transparency is one of the most common causes of misunderstandings when we communicate with others.

We conducted a series of studies to learn more about this phenomenon as it relates to performance feedback. First, to confirm our hypothesis that managers suffer from the illusion of transparency when delivering feedback, we surveyed 173 managers and 566 employees at a multinational nonprofit organization. We asked the employees to rate how well they thought they had performed in a recent performance appraisal, and managers what they thought the employees would say. As we expected, the employees perceived their feedback as being more positive than their managers thought they would. The effect was stronger as the feedback became more negative; people under emotional duress (such as those nervous about delivering bad news) have less mental capacity to consider how others perceive what they’re saying.

We also wanted to understand what we could do to reduce this gap between managers’ and employees’ perceptions. We suspected that managers fall prey to the illusion of transparency because they aren’t sufficiently motivated to consider how their employees will perceive their comments. While of course they want employees to understand what they’re saying, they’re bogged down by multiple demands, especially during the end-of-year period when appraisals usually take place. Stopping to think about whether their feedback is clear doesn’t rise to the top of their mental to-do lists.

We ran a test to see if an intervention alerting managers to their illusions of transparency would prompt them to be more accurate. We recruited 117 MBA students as “managers” and paired them up with “employees” recruited from an online panel. We told all of the participants to imagine that they were going through an appraisal process. We gave the managers data about how well employees scored on various capabilities and then asked them to deliver reviews to the employees.

Before the review, we told one group of the managers that the evaluations would not be evident to the employees, and that the employees would be unlikely to see the evaluation the same way as the managers. We found that the managers who were given this warning delivered much more accurate feedback than the others — the gap between the perceptions of the evaluation disappeared.

In another study, we observed that managers no longer suffered from illusions of transparency when employees themselves prompted the managers: Could you please communicate your feedback regarding my performance during the past year as accurately as possible?”

In a final study, we tested whether financial incentives could lead managers to give more accurate feedback. We told study participants they could earn a $10 bonus if their employee was able to accurately estimate their performance rating. As we predicted, managers communicated more accurately when their bonus was contingent on the accuracy of their feedback. Of course, one downside of this intervention is that monetary incentives can be costly to implement and removing them later could have adverse effects.

What to Do About It

While it can be helpful to become aware of unintentional behaviors, overcoming them is notoriously difficult. Our research points to several ways to combat the illusion of transparency.

First, increase the frequency of feedback. As a manager, you can augment your annual appraisals with continuous reminders, ongoing training, and structured weekly or monthly “pulse checks” to break the discomfort that may be preventing you from communicating more clearly. Research has found that giving feedback more frequently makes feedback more accurate. This repetition will also help reinforce your message.

Firms should also promote a culture that encourages employees to request more candid feedback from their managers prior to appraisals. Failing that, firms can institute a formal process obligating them to do so.

 

Ultimately, clarity and specificity of language are managers’ best tools. Use clear language and avoid phrases that could obscure your meaning. One phrase to avoid, for example, is “a real possibility,” which people interpret as conveying a likelihood of anywhere from 20%–80%. Also, ask your employee to paraphrase what you’ve told them to make sure they fully understand your message. Managers also need to actively encourage employees to tell them how they see their own performance. As a manager, ask open-ended questions like, “What am I not seeing here? What may I be overlooking?”

Employees themselves can dispel many incorrect assumptions by asking questions, or by requesting that managers use precise, explicit terms when delivering feedback. If your manager doesn’t ask you to rearticulate what they’ve told you, try using statements that begin, “So if I’m understanding you correctly, you’re saying…”

Employees want more accurate and candid negative feedback, so it’s a win for all if managers can give it. But managers should be aware of potential implications for their employees’ well-being and on retention if evaluations become too harsh. As a manager, consider your cultural environment when determining just how blunt to be. For example, in countries where communication is more direct (such as the United States, Australia, and the Netherlands), an employee may appreciate straight talk, while in countries with more indirect communication habits (say, China and Japan), you may want to be more subtle. In either case, being aware of the illusion of transparency can help you compensate for it and make sure your employees understand what they need to do from your appraisal.


Michael Schaerer is an assistant professor of organizational behavior at Singapore Management University.


Roderick Swaab is an associate professor of organisational behaviour at INSEAD.