Category Archives: Stress

Failure is a Better Teacher than Success

“Failure is not fatal. Failure should be our teacher, not our undertaker. It should challenge us to new heights of accomplishments, not pull us to new depths of despair. From honest failure can come valuable experience.” -William Arthur Ward, American author and teacher

We prize success over failure. You see articles and book titles with the words “success” or “succeed” splattered on bookstore shelves. However, research shows that when it comes to learning, failure may just be good for us after all. In fact, failure is a better teacher than success. Madsen and Desai (2010) discovered that the knowledge gained from our failures lasts longer than those from our successes. They advise organizations, to neither ignore nor dismiss failure but to, treat failure as a learning opportunity.

To illustrate the point, they used the flights of the 2002 space shuttle Atlantis and 2003 space shuttle Columbia. During the 2002 Atlantis flight, a piece of insulation broke off and damaged the left solid rocket booster but did not impede the mission or the program. However, there was little follow-up or investigation.

During the launching of the space shuttle Columbia in 2003, another piece of insulation broke off and struck the leading edge of Columbia’s left wing. When Columbia reentered the earth’s atmosphere after a 16-day mission, “damage sustained from the foam’s impact compromised the orbiter’s thermal protection system, leading to the failure of the left wing and to the eventual disintegration of the orbiter” (Madsen & Desai, 2010, p. 451).

Tragically, all seven astronauts on board were killed. The Columbia disaster resulted in the suspension of shuttle flights and led to a major investigation resulting in 29 recommended changes to prevent future disasters.

Obviously, the point is that, while we should not fail on purpose, failure (while sometimes tragic) is an important teacher. For organizations, the advice is this: study your small failures and close calls to extract useful information instead of waiting for a major catastrophe.

“Organizational leaders should neither ignore failures nor stigmatize those involved with them; rather, leaders should treat failures as invaluable learning opportunities, encouraging the open sharing of information about them” (Madsen & Desai, 2010, p. 471).

Reference

Madsen, P. M., & Desai, V. M. (2010). Failing to learn? The effects of failure and success on organizational learning in the global orbital launch vehicle industry. Academy of Management Journal, 53(3), 451-476.

Which is More Distracting at Work – Surfing the Web or Trying to Resist?

Harvard Business School researchers Bucciol, Houser, & Piovesan (2011) have discovered something quite remarkable. In their paper “Temptation at Work,” they extended earlier research by finding that using willpower to delay gratification can negatively impact performance in the workplace.

In a previous post I wrote about how multitasking does not work, and that still holds true. The research from Bucciol, Houser, & Piovesan (2011) does not discount that. What they found was that by trying to resist temptation, we become distracted enough that our work actually suffered (Blanding, 2011).

I apologize in advance (because I’ve been quite busy), but I will simply post what they found and direct you to an article (“Is Web Surfing Distracting Your Workers?”) about their work.

Key concepts include:

  • Psychologists have theorized that the energy spent resisting temptation takes attention away from other tasks, but this is the first experiment to test it in the context of a work environment.
  • Researchers found that subjects exhibited a decrease in productivity when they were tempted to watch a funny video but then told not to do so. Comparatively, subjects who were allowed to watch the video were more productive.
  • The research indicates that prohibiting private Internet use at work is actually bad for employees’ productivity. That effect could be especially critical in jobs where small mistakes could mean a big difference in performance.

The researchers suggest (Bucciol, Houser, & Piovesan, 2011, p. 4):

Employers should not prohibit the Internet and yet leave it available. Instead, employers should either remove it entirely or, when doing this is impractical, allow employees a certain amount of time – maybe even as often as several minutes per hour – for personal Internet activity. Perhaps lunch-breaks can be somewhat shortened to accommodate “surf-time”. Alternatively, employers might consider allowing regular Internet breaks, in the same way that many currently accommodate short but not infrequent cigarette or coffee breaks.

References

Blanding, M. (2011, May). Is Web Surfing Distracting Your Workers? HBS Working Knowledge. Retrieved from http://hbswk.hbs.edu/pdf/item/6657.pdf

Bucciol, A., Houser, D., & Piovesan, M. (2011, February). Temptation at work. Harvard Business School Research Paper No. 11-090. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1772815

Whining Is Caused by Thinking Errors

The New Oxford American Dictionary (2005) defines whine as a verb that means: complain in a feeble or petulant way.

Whining is a powerless way to complain about something to which we do not believe we have the power to change.

In the world of counseling, therapists/counselors/psychologists often bring up an idea called locus of control. Locus of control is the belief we have about the location (source) of the causes of events in our lives. There are two types of locus of control – internal (within you) and external (outside of you) (Donatelle, 2011).

People with an internal locus of control are those who believe that their behaviors are guided by their personal decisions and efforts and that they have control over those things they can change. Because individuals with an internal locus of control believe that they are in control over their circumstances, they tend to manage stress better. On the other hand, people with an external locus of control see their behaviors and their lives as being controlled by luck or fate. These individuals often view their lives and circumstances as victims of life and bad luck.

Having an internal locus of control (believing you have power over your own actions) is tied to self-efficacy, which is the belief you have about being able to do something successfully (Donatelle, 2011).

Generally, people who whine are those who tend to be preoccupied with cognitive distortions or thinking errors. Thinking errors are our tendencies to focus on insufficient or inappropriate information and then jump to conclusions or make predictions (Palmer & Szymanska, 2007). These patterns of thinking often are the causes of negative thinking and lead to the nasty habit known as whining.

Some common thinking errors include:

  • Mind-reading/Jumping to conclusions – jumping to a conclusion without the relevant information.
  • All-or-nothing thinking – evaluating experiences on the basis of extremes. For example, “I always lose.”
  • Blame – not taking responsibility and blaming someone else or something else for the problem.
  • Magnification – blowing things out of proportion.
  • Personalization – taking things personally.
  • Fortune-telling – thinking you know what the future holds.
  • Labeling – labeling or rating yourself. For example, “I’m a loser” or “I’m an idiot.”
  • Minimization – minimizing the part one plays in a situation. For example, “It must have been an easy test because I got a good grade.”
  • Low frustration tolerance or ‘I-can-stand-it-itis’ – lowering our ability to endure frustrating or stressful situations by telling ourselves, “I can’t stand it.”

“Don’t find fault, find a remedy; anybody can complain.”
–Henry Ford, founder of the Ford Motor Company

References

Donatelle, R. (2011). Health: The basics (Green ed.). San Francisco: Pearson Benjamin Cummings.

McKean, E. (Ed.). (2005). The New Oxford American Dictionary (2nd ed.). New York: Oxford University Press, Inc.

Palmer, S, & Szymanska, K. (2007). Cognitive behavioural coaching: An integrative approach. In S. Palmer and A. Whybrow (Eds.), Handbook of coaching psychology: A guide for practitioners (pp. 86-117). London: Sage.

Information Overload: Too Much Information Becomes Noise

[Note: This post was updated January 2021 for freshness & clarity.]

In “Information Overload: Causes, Symptoms and Solutions,” an article for the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Learning Innovations Laboratory (LILA), Joseph Ruff says that we are bombarded with so much data that we’re on information overload. Simply put, information overload is when our ability to process information has passed its limit, and further attempts to process information or make accurate decisions from the surplus of information leads to information overload.

Ruff argues that information overload interferes with our ability to learn and engage in creative problem-solving. For instance, venture capitalists with too much information cannot make accurate adjustments to their evaluation process, and because of this their learning is impeded.

“Once capacity is surpassed, additional information becomes noise and results in a decrease in information processing and decision quality…[H]aving too much information is the same as not having enough” (Ruff, 2002, p. 4).

There’s even a name for it, Information Fatigue Syndrome.* Its symptoms include:

    • Poor concentration due to the overloading of short-term memory
    • Polyphasic behavior or multi-tasking often resulting in diminished rather than increased productivity
    • Hurry sickness, which is the belief that one must constantly rush to keep pace with time
    • Pervasive hostility resulting in a chronic state of irritability near anger or even rage
    • Habituation or over stimulation which causes the brain to shut down and enter a trance-like state
    • “Plugged in” compulsion is the strong need to check email, voice mail and the Internet in order to stay “in touch”
    • Traditional stress including lowered immune response, endocrine imbalance, depression and the experience of “burn out”

Ruff offers a list of strategies to manage information overload. He divides the solutions into proactive and reactive strategies. Proactive strategies are attempts at preventing information overload. Reactive strategies, on the other hand, are implemented after information overload has occurred. Below is Ruff’s list (verbatim) [to see a more detailed list click on the link to his PDF* in the reference section or click HERE]:

Proactive

    • Devise a pulse-taking system to form a constantly changing up-to-date mental model of the organization and key stakeholders
    • Create a personal system for storing and retrieving information (i.e. notebook, planner, system for filing and organizing email)
    • Do not overwhelm yourself with a waste-not want-not mentality; throw it away or delete it
    • Time management training
    • Business writing training
    • Software and technology training
    • Information literacy training
      • Traditional and digital communication skills
      • Thinking and decision making skills
      • Creativity, innovation and risk taking
      • Computer literacy
      • Subject matter literacy
      • Learning how to learn
      • Electronic resources
    • Chunking and mnemonics training
    • Perception’s role in information overload training

Reactive

    • Filtering – focusing attention only on the most useful and essential information while purposefully ignoring other sources
    • Multitasking – performing two or more job functions at the same time [See my post Multitasking Doesn’t Work]
    • Queuing – performing initial steps to tasks that will be completed at a latter time
    • Escaping – eliminating disturbances by psychologically or physically limiting disruptions from outside world (i.e. not answering phone, closing door)
    • Prioritizing – determining and approaching most important tasks first
    • Delegating – determining which tasks can be given to other workers
    • Refusing – determining which tasks can be left undone
    • Limiting – not being seduced by thinking that more information is better
    • Satisficing – seeking “good enough” solutions; not perfection
    • Altering – changing perception of a task by performing it in a different way or place (i.e. view documents on paper instead of a computer screen; move to a lounge or coffee shop)
    • Shifting – changing perception of situation by accepting it as just part of the job

Author’s Note [January 2021]: I’m adding additional notes below to include several terms related to “Information Overload” as well as expand on the origin of the term, “Information Fatigue Syndrome.”

These terms include: “Information Fatigue Syndrome”, “Data Smog”, and “Information Anxiety”.

    • “Information Fatigue Syndrome” – from Dr. David Lewis (1996)
    • “Data Smog” – from David Shenk (1997)
    • “Information Anxiety” – from Richard Saul Wurman (1989)

In 1989, Richard Saul Wurman’s book, Information Anxiety, described this phenomenon of information overload.

* In 1996, Dr. David Lewis (a British psychologist), authored the report Dying for Information, in which he coined the term “information fatigue syndrome” to describe the effect of information overload. Information Fatigue Syndrome leads to an over-bombardment of information to the brain which can result in “paralysis of analysis” and poor decision-making.

In 1997, David Shenk in his book, Data Smog: Surviving the Information Glut, used the term “data smog” and information glut to describe information overload.

Written By: Steve Nguyen, Ph.D.
Leadership Development Advisor & Consultant

References

NPR. (1996, October 15). Info Glut. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=1045194

Reuters Business Information. (1996). Dying for Information: An investigation into the effects of information overload in the UK and Worldwide. Reuters.

Reuters. (1997). The Reuters Guide to Good Information Strategy: Abridged version for the Reuters Web site. Retrieved from http://jmab.planetaclix.pt/GesInf/Aula5/The_Reuters_Guide_to_Good_Information_Strategy.pdf

Ruff, J. (2002). Information Overload: Causes, Symptoms and Solutions. Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Learning Innovations Laboratory (LILA). Information Overload: Causes, Symptoms and Solutions.pdf [*PDF now hosted on WorkplacePsychology.Net for convenience.]

Shenk, D. (1997). Data Smog: Surviving the Information Glut. HarperCollins.

Shenk, D. (1997). Data Smog: Surviving the Information Glut. Retrieved from https://archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/books/first/s/shenk-data.html

Waddington, P. (1996). Dying for Information? An Investigation into Information Overload in the UK and Worldwide. Retrieved from http://www.ukoln.ac.uk/services/papers/bl/blri078/content/repor~13.htm

Wurman, R. S. (1989). Information Anxiety. Doubleday.

Failure to Recognize and Address Issues Quickly

The ability to manage conflicts is one of a leader’s greatest challenges. Many teams and entire organizations struggle with the different/conflicting views about how things should run and how change should be implemented. It is crucial for a leader to possess the ability to manage people’s differences in a way that reduces their destructive energy while channeling their constructive energy.

There are two things that a leader can do to ensure this happens (Heifetz & Linsky, 2002):

  1. Create a safe place to allow for the conflicts to come up.
  2. As the conflict is boiling, make certain that you, the leader, control that it doesn’t boil over.

In one company, middle managers were unhappy with their leader because they felt restricted about not being able to run their departments in a manner that they believe is best. When the managers raised their concerns, the leader would often respond with minimizing statements or just outright dismiss the concerns as insignificant.

It’s easy to see that the leader’s tendency to minimize and discount concerns created a growing level discontentment that eventually led to the exit of one of the managers.

In “The 7 Hidden Reasons Employees Leave (2005),” Leigh Branham outlined the reasons why employees often head for the exit door:

  • Reason #1: The Job or Workplace Was Not as Expected
  • Reason #2: The Mismatch Between Job and Person
  • Reason #3: Too Little Coaching and Feedback
  • Reason #4: Too Few Growth and Advancement Opportunities
  • Reason #5: Feeling Devalued And Unrecognized
  • Reason #6: Stress From Overwork and Work-Life Imbalance
  • Reason #7: Loss of Trust and Confidence in Senior Leaders

There are two distinct periods when someone considers quitting. The first period is the time between the first thoughts of leaving and the later decision to leave. The second period in which the employee considers leaving is the time between the decision to leave and actually leaving.

For this middle manager, the two biggest reasons were: (1) too few growth and advancement opportunities (reason #4), and (2) feeling devalued and unrecognized (reason #5). The manager had devoted a considerable amount of time and energy into developing his expertise and competence, only to discover that there was not an opportunity for him to advance. Furthermore, when the manager brought up his concerns or offered suggestions or ideas for improvements, he never felt “heard.”

Unfortunately for the company, when an opportunity came, the manager happily jumped ship and accepted a position where his skills and work ethics were appreciated.

There are three tips that the leader could have followed to avoid losing this valuable manager:

  1. Inspire confidence in a clear vision, a workable plan and the competence to achieve it.
  2. Back up words with actions.
  3. Have trust and confidence in your workforce.

References

Branham, L. (2005). The 7 Hidden Reasons Employees Leave. Broadway, NY: AMACOM.

Heifetz, R., & Linsky, M. (2002). A survival guide for leaders. Harvard Business Review, 80(6), 65-72.

Teaching Character Education as a Business Ethics Course

This post is actually from a comment I made to Debbe Kennedy’s Putting Our Differences to Work blog back in 2009. It seems worthwhile to repost it here.

I’ve always believed that many of the things we do as adults can and should be learned from children and the process by which we educate them. When we talk about honoring each other’s differences and watching our words and actions, I think that children are our best teachers. For instance, I contend that character education (teaching children how to be better, more honorable world citizens by treating one another with respect) is also a great way to teach adults and business leaders.

Imagine teaching character education as a business ethics course!

Here are six qualities/pillars of character that can be taught:

Trustworthiness
Be honest • Don’t deceive, cheat or steal • Be reliable — do what you say you’ll do • Have the courage to do the right thing • Build a good reputation • Be loyal — stand by your family, friends and country

Respect
Treat others with respect; follow the Golden Rule • Be tolerant of differences • Use good manners, not bad language • Be considerate of the feelings of others • Don’t threaten, hit or hurt anyone • Deal peacefully with anger, insults and disagreements

Responsibility
Do what you are supposed to do • Persevere: keep on trying! • Always do your best • Use self-control • Be self-disciplined • Think before you act — consider the consequences • Be accountable for your choices

Fairness
Play by the rules • Take turns and share • Be open-minded; listen to others • Don’t take advantage of others • Don’t blame others carelessly

Caring
Be kind • Be compassionate and show you care • Express gratitude • Forgive others • Help people in need

Citizenship
Do your share to make your school and community better • Cooperate • Get involved in community affairs • Stay informed; vote • Be a good neighbor • Obey laws and rules • Respect authority • Protect the environment

Taking any one of these, we can easily apply its lesson to our lives as adults and to our workplaces. For example, under “Respect”, we have “Be tolerant of differences • Use good manners, not bad language • Be considerate of the feelings of others” and under “Responsibility”, we learn to “Always do your best • Use self-control • Be self-disciplined • Think before you act — consider the consequences.”

Somewhere along the way towards adulthood, we have forgotten these valuable lessons about character taught to us (hopefully) as children. I think it’s important that we each reach deep within to learn again (or for the first time) these principles of humanity (compassion, decency, honor, respect, and citizenship).

Meeting and More Meetings


I have always been fascinated by why organizations and supervisors insist on continuing the maddening idea of having so many meetings. I have seen places where they seem to have a meeting just to talk about planning for the next meeting. I call it a “meeting about another meeting.” I have seen this “meeting-about-another-meeting” phenomenon in schools, churches, and private and non-profit businesses.

I came across a study by Luong and Rogelberg (2005) that supported what, I believe, many of us already know about too many meetings. The authors said work meetings are similar to interruptions and daily hassles. For one week, participants were to keep a daily diary account of their daily meetings and self-reports about the employee’s well-being. Not surprisingly, the authors found that more meetings were associated with increased feelings of fatigue and workload, confirming their initial hypothesis that meeting load has a negative effect on well-being, similar to the effects of interruptions and daily hassles.

To counteract the countless, and dare I say useless, meetings, I want to share what Charan (2006) suggests about holding effective meetings.

He says decisive meetings have four characteristics:

  1. Open—their outcomes are not predetermined. Questions such as “What are we missing?” communicate an honest search for and a willingness to hear alternative perspectives.
  2. Candid—encourage people to air the conflicts that undermine apparent consensus, a willingness to speak the unspeakable. Candor “prevents the kind of unnecessary rework and revisiting of decisions that saps productivity.”
  3. Informal—informal meetings encourage people to be honest, open, and less defensive. Meetings should not feel like they were scripted. When people are comfortable and able to react in an honest way, “spontaneity is energizing.”
  4. Marked by Closure—while informality helps loosen up the meeting, closure establishes discipline. “Closure means that at the end of the meeting, people know exactly what they are expected to do.” In my opinion, this is key because, as Charan explains, it assigns accountability and deadlines to people.

Take-Away Message

  • Holding too many meetings can lead to increased feelings of fatigue and workload.
  • Effective meetings have four characteristics: open, candid, informal, and marked by closure.
  • At the end of the meeting, people should know exactly what they are expected to do.

References

Charan, R. (2006). Conquering a Culture of Indecision. Harvard Business Review, 84(1), 108-117.

Luong, A., & Rogelberg, S. G. (2005). Meetings and more meetings: The relationship between meeting load and the daily well-being of employees. Group Dynamics: Theory, Research, and Practice, 9(1), 58-67. doi:10.1037/1089-2699.9.1.58

When Clowns Run The Circus

We all know the “bossholes,” Robert Sutton’s description of a boss who’s domineering or overbearing, an a$$hole. But it takes more than simply avoiding the land mines of the world of “bossholes” to qualify one to be a good boss. Effective bosses understand that having authority means being able to use power appropriately and timely. In “Good Boss, Bad Boss,” Sutton says one mindset that is characteristic of a good boss is the ability to find a balance between over-managing (or micromanaging) and under-managing. He says good bosses know when to exert more control and when to back off. They know when to coach and when to discipline.

If you ever watch the circus, you have probably seen clowns running around. They’re really entertaining and often add to the overall experience of going to the circus. However, you might also notice that clowns never take charge. They don’t take charge over the circus because that’s not their role. Instead, clowns always take their cues from the ringmaster — the boss of the circus.

In a similar fashion, bosses are not that different in their roles at work from circus ringmasters. When the boss is “too nice,” the jerks, bullies, and bigmouths who report to them will actually be the ones running the show. Sadly, these poor bosses are viewed as powerless pushovers, leaders by title but not by respect. In these situations, the clowns in the office are running the circus (aka, the workplace).

In one workplace, a manager often relinquishes authority over to an administrative assistant who has been with the organization for almost two decades. When ask why she does this, the boss explains she doesn’t want to upset the assistant. It is actually fascinating to watch because there exists a very clear power struggle between the manager and secretary. While the manager doesn’t like it, she would always reluctantly, but surely, give in to the demands of the office assistant. Part of her fear of not doing so is the rationalization that this secretary is simply too valuable to let go. Thus, each day brings with it a different drama, depending on the fickle mood swings of this secretary.

In a post that parallels some of what I’ve just shared, Jill Geisler has a nice piece titled, “What Great Bosses Know About the 7 Deadly Sins of the Too-Nice Boss.” In it, she outlines seven things that can go wrong when a boss is too nice.

The Seven Deadly Sins of the Too-Nice Boss (verbatim from her post):

  1. Your ideas get overshadowed by others in the organization who are more assertive about making their cases.
  2. Workplace problems fester as you postpone dealing with them.
  3. Mediocrity flourishes as you hold back from challenging underperformers.
  4. Needed change is delayed as you hesitate to nudge people out of their comfort zones.
  5. You do other peoples’ work when they complain about schedules, shifts or duties.
  6. Bullies and bigmouths win.
  7. You can lose respect — from your bosses, other managers, your staff — or all of them.

Take-Away Message

  • Good bosses know when to exert control and when to back off. They know when to coach and when to discipline.
  • Bosses who are “too nice” or who are viewed as pushovers will be dominated by office clowns (the jerks, bullies, and bigmouths subordinates who report to them).
  • When the office clowns run the show, drama and problems will arise, and the workplace will start to look like a circus.
  • “Too-nice” bosses will not gain the respect of their employees.

References

Geisler, J. (2011). What Great Bosses Know About the 7 Deadly Sins of the Too-Nice Boss. Retrieved from http://www.poynter.org/how-tos/leadership-management/what-great-bosses-know/125251/what-great-bosses-know-about-the-7-deadly-sins-of-the-too-nice-boss/

Sutton, R.I. (2010). Good boss, bad boss: How to be the best…and learn from the worst. New York: Business Plus.

Multitasking Doesn’t Work


[NOTE: This post was updated January 2017]

Multitasking is a word that gets thrown around a lot these days. But it’s important to understand what it is and why it doesn’t work. Multitasking is when we juggle multiple things (thoughts and actions) at the same time. For example, people multitask when they drive and talk on their cell phones (Donatelle, 2009). It may surprise you to hear, however, that people who multitask are actually less productive than those who just concentrate on one project a time.

A recent Harvard Business Review post said multitasking leads to as much as a 40% drop in productivity, increased stress, and a 10% drop in IQ (Bergman, 2010).

Perhaps no other example better illustrates why multitasking doesn’t work than distracted driving. Studies have found that driving while distracted (being on the phone or texting) is actually more dangerous than driving drunk.

Here are some eye-opening statistics:

  • Ten percent of fatal crashes, 18 percent of injury crashes, and 16 percent of all police-reported motor vehicle traffic crashes in 2014 were reported as distraction-affected crashes (NHTSA).
  • In 2014, 3,179 people were killed, and 431,000 were injured in motor vehicle crashes involving distracted drivers (Distraction.Gov).
  • Using a cell phone while driving, whether it’s hand-held or hands-free, delays a driver’s reactions as much as having a blood alcohol concentration at the legal limit of .08 percent (University of Utah).
  • Five seconds is the average time your eyes are off the road while texting. When traveling at 55mph, that’s enough time to cover the length of a football field blindfolded (Distraction.Gov).

According to Strayer, Watson, and Drews (2011) “cell-phone conversations compete for attention with driving. The result is that visual processing is substantially impaired when drivers are talking on a cell phone (either hand-held or hands-free)” (p.47).

However, not all conversations engaged in while driving are harmful. Researchers have found that in-vehicle conversations (i.e. conversations with passengers in the car) are very different from cell-phone conversations. Why? Because “the passenger often actively engaged in supporting the driver by pointing out hazards, helping to navigate, and reminding the driver of the task (i.e., exiting at the rest stop). In other cases, the conversation was temporally halted during a difficult section of driving and then resumed when driving became easier” (Strayer et al., 2011, p. 48).

Strayer et al. (2011) found those who talked on the cell phone were more likely to drift into the other lane and more likely to miss an exit. Further analyzing conversations, researchers discovered that drivers and passengers in the car tended to adjust their conversations in response to traffic cues. For instance, they both stopped talking if there was a traffic problem or the passenger would give advice to help the driver navigate. On the flip side, conversations on cell phones didn’t vary based on traffic conditions because, obviously, only the driver can see the road. “In effect, the passenger acted as another set of eyes that helped the driver control the vehicle, and this sort of activity is not afforded by cell-phone conversations” (Strayer et al., 2011, p. 48).

Ophir, Nass, and Wagner (2009) discovered that people who reported multitasking more frequently (heavy multitaskers) were actually more prone to being distracted compared to those who reported multitasking less frequently (light multitaskers). Heavy multitaskers tend to have a hard time filtering out irrelevant stimuli from their environment, and are distracted by the multiple things that they’re trying to allocate their attentions to. In essence, heavy multitaskers may be “sacrificing performance on the primary task to let in other sources of information” (Ophir, Nass, & Wagner, 2009, p. 15585).

Finally, for those who still argue that they’re great at multitasking, research indicates that even though we think we’re “multitasking” it’s actually our brain rapidly switching from one task to another, rather than processing them simultaneously. People who seem to be good at multitasking are simply good at being faster at switching back and forth between two things (Scientific American, 2009).

Takeaway:

  • People who multitask are less productive/efficient than those who simply concentrate on one project a time.
  • We don’t actually “multitask” because your brain switches rapidly between handling one task and then another.
  • Simplify your life and your tasks. Do fewer things — better.

Written By: Steve Nguyen, Ph.D.
Leadership + Talent Development Advisor

References

American Psychological Association – Multitasking: Switching costs
http://www.apa.org/research/action/multitask.aspx

Bergman, P. (2010, May 20). How (and why) to stop multitasking. Harvard Business Review.

Distraction.Gov – What is Distracted Driving
https://www.nhtsa.gov/risky-driving/distracted-driving

Donatelle, R. (2009). Health: The basics (8th ed.). San Francisco: Pearson Benjamin Cummings.

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Traffic Safety Facts: Research Note. Distracted Driving 2014.
https://crashstats.nhtsa.dot.gov/Api/Public/ViewPublication/812260

Ophir, E., Nass, C. I., & Wagner, A. D. (2009). Cognitive control in media multitaskers. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106(37), 15583-15587. doi:10.1073/pnas.0903620106

Scientific American. (2009, July). The Myth of Multitasking. https://www.scientificamerican.com/podcast/episode/the-myth-of-multitasking-09-07-15/

Strayer, D. L., Watson, J. M., & Drews, F. A. (2011). Cognitive Distraction While Multitasking in the Automobile. In B. Ross (Ed.), The psychology of learning and motivation (Vol. 54, pp. 29-58). Burlington: Academic Press.

University of Utah – Cell Phone Users Drive “Blind”
http://archive.unews.utah.edu/news_releases/cell-phone-users-drive-039blind039/

University of Utah – Drivers on Cell Phones Are As Bad As Drunks
http://archive.unews.utah.edu/news_releases/drivers-on-cell-phones-are-as-bad-as-drunks/

University of Utah – Frequent Multitaskers Are Bad at It
http://archive.unews.utah.edu/news_releases/frequent-mulitaskers-are-bad-at-it/

Humans, True Grit, and Teaching Resilience

In an HBR article titled “Building resilience,” Dr. Martin Seligman (2011) talks about building resilience after failing. Failure is a common trauma we all face in life. But each of our responses is different. While some seem to bounce back shortly after, others seem to spiral more and more into depression and despair, paralyzing them to even think about the future.

Seligman contends that resilience can be measured and taught. In fact, the U.S. Army is putting Seligman’s ideas into practice through its Comprehensive Soldier Fitness (CSF) program. In essence, CSF’s goal is to prepare soldiers psychologically for stress and trauma just like boot camp prepares them physically for battle. A key part of CSF is something called “master resilience training” (MRT) where drill sergeants learn to embrace resilience and then pass it on, by building mental toughness, signature strengths, and strong relationships.

Challenging Seligman’s idea, Stix’s article (“The neuroscience of true grit”) in Scientific American (2011) offers what I consider a much more balanced perspective to resilience and the human capacity to recover. Beyond the hype about teaching resilience, the article points out that people do, in fact, recover from disasters and they do so more often than many people realize. While each person’s way towards recovery is different, coping ugly as a researcher in the article says, it serves to help him/her adapt to the crisis.

George A. Bonanno of Teachers College at Columbia University has devoted his career as a psychologist to documenting the varieties of resilient experience, focusing on our reactions to the death of a loved one and to what happens in the face of war, terror and disease. In every instance, he has found, most people adapt surprisingly well to whatever the world presents; life returns to a measure of normalcy in a matter of months.

And it’s Bonanno who raises concern about Seligman and the military’s Comprehensive Soldier Fitness (CSF) program and its lack of evidence for its effectiveness. More importantly than whether it works or not, I agree with Bonanno that there’s a potential for a much greater danger – whether more harm than good might result from interfering with people’s ability to naturally bounce back.

If most people are resilient, as they seem to be in all the studies we’ve done, what happens to those people if you give them stress-inoculation training? -Dr. George A. Bonanno

What’s more, even those in the military aren’t jumping on Seligman’s resilience training. “William P. Nash, a physician formerly charged with overseeing stress-monitoring programs for the U.S. Marines, says there is little evidence for prophylactic resilience training” (Stix, 2011, p. 33).

Take-Away Message

  • Humans have an amazing capacity to recover and bounce back from disasters and traumas, even without assistance or, in the case of resilience training, interference.
  • It is critical to always consider whether more harm than good might result from interfering (this includes interventions to teach resilience) with people’s natural ability to bounce back from trauma.

References

Seligman, M. (2011, April). Building resilience. Harvard Business Review, April, 100-106. Retrieved from http://hbr.org/2011/04/building-resilience/ar/1

Stix, G. (2011, March). The neuroscience of true grit: When tragedy strikes, most of us ultimately rebound surprisingly well. Where does such resilience come from? Scientific American, 304(3), 29-33.

A Bad Job Is Worse Than No Job

Researchers at the Australian National University wanted to know whether the benefits of having a job depended on its psychosocial quality (levels of control, demands and complexity, job insecurity, and unfair pay), and whether poor quality jobs were associated with better mental health than unemployment.

They found that poor-quality jobs — those with high demands, low control over decision making, high job insecurity and an effort-reward imbalance — had more adverse effects on mental health than joblessness (Butterworth, Leach, Strazdins, Olesen, Rodgers, & Broom, 2011).

Analyzing seven years’ worth of information from 7,155 people, the researchers concluded:

“We found that those respondents who were unemployed had significantly poorer mental health than those who were employed. However, the mental health of those who were unemployed was comparable or more often superior to those in jobs of the poorest psychosocial quality.”

Take-Away Message:

  • The mental health of people in the least-satisfying jobs declined the most over time — and the worse the job, the more it affected workers’ well-being.
  • The impact on mental health of a badly paid, poorly supported, or short term job can be as harmful as no job at all.
  • The quality of your job predicts the quality of your mental health.

References

BMJ-British Medical Journal (2011, March 14). Impact of a bad job on mental health as harmful as no job at all. ScienceDaily. Retrieved from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/03/110314184714.htm

Butterworth, P., Leach, L.S., Strazdins, L., Olesen, S.C., Rodgers, B., & Broom, D.H. (2011). The psychosocial quality of work determines whether employment has benefits for mental health: results from a longitudinal national household panel survey. Occupational & Environmental Medicine. Advance online publication. doi:10.1136/oem.2010.059030

Time – Study: Having a Bad Job Is Worse than No Job For Mental Health. Retrieved from http://healthland.time.com/2011/03/15/study-having-a-bad-job-is-worse-than-no-job-for-mental-health/

Why Sleep Is Important-Impact on Health and Safety

Healthy People 2020 is a website established by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. It offers a nice outline of why the subject of sleep health is not just a personal health issue, but also a public health and safety concern. According to the site, poor sleep health is quite common with 25 percent of U.S. adults not getting enough sleep for 15 out of 30 days.

Sleep has two main functions. First, sleep conserves our energy so when we wake up we’re ready for the day. Second, sleep restores. While we’re awake, neurotransmitters in the brain are expended and is reduced. Sleep replenishes the supply of neurotransmitters (Donatelle, 2009).

The National Sleep Foundation’s 2008 Sleep in America survey found 65 percent of Americans experienced sleep problems. In that survey,

  • 40% of respondents were impatient with others at work.
  • 27% frequently found it hard to concentrate.
  • 20% had lower productivity than they expected.
  • 29% have fallen asleep or became very sleepy while they were at work because of sleepiness or because they have a sleep problem.
  • 12% were late to work in the past month due to sleepiness or a sleep problem.
  • 4% left work early or 2% did not go to work because they were too sleepy or because of a sleep problem.

There’s a syndrome called sleep inertia which is the cognitive impairment, disorientation, and groggy feeling we experience when we first awake from sleep. Sleep inertia can negatively impact the brain’s ability to think clearly and our ability to function effectively in performing tasks right after we wake up (Donatelle, 2009). Just think about the challenge it takes to brush your teeth when you wake up after only four or five hours of sleep.

The stages of sleep include: wakefulness, drowsiness, light sleep, and deeper sleep. It is in the deeper sleep phase where rapid eye movement (REM) sleep occurs. REM sleep is absolutely essential. In fact, missing REM sleep is responsible for our feeling groggy and sleep deprived (Donatelle, 2009).

Lack of sleep or difficulty in easily falling asleep, frequent arousals during sleep, or early morning awakening (all describing insomnia—a common complaint among 20 to 40 percent of Americans) can also be caused by work stressors.

“Sleeping six to eight hours is considered optimal. Sleeping less than six hours, often driven by pressure to work more, or the inability to accommodate to the odd hours of shift work, has been linked to heart disease, hypertension, diabetes and obesity” (Allen, 2010).

In the video “Why Sleep Matters”, Dr. Charles A. Czeisler (Director of the Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School) says doctors in training often work “marathon shifts” of 30 consecutive hours twice a week throughout the three to seven years these doctors are in residency. When Dr. Czeisler and his colleagues surveyed 2,700 medical school interns across the U.S., they found that 1 out of 5 reported making a fatigue-related mistake that injured a patient, and 1 out of 20 interns reported making a fatigue-related mistake that resulted in the death of a patient.

Beyond the dangers inside the hospital, when the interns drive home after working these marathon shifts, their risk of getting into a motor vehicle crash goes up 168 percent! One out of five motor vehicle accidents is related to drivers who are too tired to drive. Sadly, every hour someone is killed in a drowsy, driving-related crash.

Take-Away Message

Sleep and Health

  • Studies have found that insufficient sleep increases a person’s risk of developing serious medical conditions, including obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.
  • Lack of adequate sleep over time has been associated with a shortened lifespan.

Sleep and Mood

  • Sleep and mood are closely connected; poor or inadequate sleep can cause irritability and stress, while healthy sleep can enhance well-being.
  • Chronic insomnia may increase the risk of developing a mood disorder, such as anxiety or depression.

Sleep and Memory

  • Only 11 percent of American college students sleep well, and 40 percent of students feel well rested only two days per week.
  • Inadequate sleep appears to affect the brain’s ability to consolidate both factual information and procedural memories about how to do various physical tasks.
  • The most critical period of sleep for memory consolidation is in the hours immediately following a lesson.

Sleep and Judgment and Safety

  • Drowsy driving causes 1 million crashes, 500,000 injuries, and 8,000 deaths each year in the U.S.
  • Just one sleepless night can impair performance as much as a blood-alcohol level of 0.10 percent, beyond the legal limit to drive.
  • Like alcohol, sleep deprivation also affects judgment, making it harder to assess how impaired you are when you’re tired.

Making Changes at Work

  • Insufficient sleep has an impact on every part of our lives, including at work.
  • Many employees report difficulty concentrating at work or feeling that their productivity is not optimal.
  • Individuals can take personal steps and employers can make accommodations to help workers get the sleep they need.

How To Get a Good Night’s Sleep (Donatelle, 2009, Table 2.3, p. 44)

  1. Establish a consistent sleep schedule. Go to bed and get up at about the same time every day.
  2. Evaluate your sleep environment. Is there something keeping you awake? If it’s noise, wear earplugs or use a white-noise item such as running a fan. If it’s light, try room-darkening shades.
  3. Exercise regularly. It’s hard to feel drowsy if you have been sedentary all day. Don’t exercise right before bedtime, because activity speeds up your metabolism and makes it harder to go to sleep.
  4. Limit caffeine and alcohol. Caffeine can linger in your body for up to 12 hours and cause insomnia. Although alcohol may make you drowsy at first, it interferes with the normal sleep–wake cycle.
  5. Avoid eating a heavy meal or drinking large amounts of liquid before bed.
  6. Don’t lie in bed tossing and turning. If you’re unable to get to sleep in 30 minutes, get up and do something else. Read, play solitaire, or try other relaxing activities; return to bed when you feel drowsy.
  7. Nap only in the afternoon. This is when our circadian rhythms tend to make us sleepy. Don’t let naps interfere with your normal sleep schedule.
  8. Establish a relaxing nighttime ritual that puts you in the mood to sleep. Take a warm shower, relax in a comfortable chair, don your favorite robe. Doing this consistently will cue your mind and body that it’s time to wind down.

References

Allen, J.E. (2010). 7 Ways to Work Yourself to Death: Research Reveals Several Surprising Ways Your Job Could Shorten Your Life. Retrieved from http://abcnews.go.com/Health/Wellness/working-early-death/story?id=11781365

Donatelle, R. (2009). Health: The basics (8th ed.). San Francisco: Pearson Benjamin Cummings.

Harvard Medical School — Division of Sleep Medicine.

Why Sleep Matters video. Retrieved from http://healthysleep.med.harvard.edu/video/sleep07_matters

Sleep and Health. Retrieved from http://healthysleep.med.harvard.edu/need-sleep/whats-in-it-for-you/health

Sleep and Judgment and Safety. Retrieved from http://healthysleep.med.harvard.edu/need-sleep/whats-in-it-for-you/judgment-safety

Sleep and Memory. Retrieved from http://healthysleep.med.harvard.edu/need-sleep/whats-in-it-for-you/memory

Sleep and Mood. Retrieved from http://healthysleep.med.harvard.edu/need-sleep/whats-in-it-for-you/mood

Healthy People 2020. Retrieved from http://www.healthypeople.gov/2020/default.aspx

National Sleep Foundation. 2008 Sleep, Performance and the Workplace. Retrieved from http://www.sleepfoundation.org/article/sleep-america-polls/2008-sleep-performance-and-the-workplace

Warning: Employees Most Invested in Their Jobs Are Also The Most Stressed!

Here’s an interesting study that finds workers who are most invested in their jobs are also the ones most likely to be stressed. Dewa, Thompson, and Jacobs (2011) analyzed data from 2737 working adults in Alberta, Canada. They wanted to examine the relationship between job stress and work responsibilities and job characteristics.

The researchers discovered that roughly 18% of the workers in the study considered their job “highly stressful.” Male employees, who did not consider their job a career or who were highly satisfied with their jobs were significantly less likely to identify their jobs as “highly stressful.” The chance of an employee describing a job as “highly stressful” significantly increased as workers viewed their actions have an effect on those around them or when their jobs required additional or variable hours.

Conclusions: A number of factors are associated with experiencing high work stress including being more engaged with work. This has important implications for employers, particularly regarding where interventions may be targeted.

Take-Away Message

  • Chronic exposure to high work stress can transform into burnout, mental disorders and disability.
  • Workers with disrupted marriages and managers/professionals are more likely to identify their jobs as being associated with high stress.
  • The probability of describing a job as “highly stressful” significantly increases as workers perceive their actions have an effect on co-workers, the environment and their company as well as when their jobs require additional or variable hours.
  • Among those who perceive their jobs as highly stressful, there are significantly lower proportions of workers who are males, under 25 years, single/never married and who have not completed high school.

Reference

Dewa, C.S., Thompson, A.H., & Jacobs, P. (2011). Relationships between job stress and worker perceived responsibilities and job characteristics. International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, 2(1), 37-46.

4 Steps to Resolving Conflicts on Your Team

Harvard Business Review’s Answer Exchange shares some great tips for resolving conflicts on your team:

The First & Most Fundamental Step: Define the root cause of the conflict. You do this by asking the following questions:

  • Why are team members arguing with one another?
  • Is there a deeper personality conflict here?
  • Is one member being stubborn?
  • Does one member always insist on getting his or her way?

The answers to these questions will help you discover whether the root cause is a behavior or a situation. After doing that, proceed to the following THREE steps:

  1. Negotiate a resolution. Look for a solution that works for all members of your team; dictating a resolution to a team conflict can backfire. Point out the importance of agreeing to disagree on certain issues. Encourage members to find common ground and explore new possibilities.
  2. Encourage active listening. Allow the disagreeing parties to voice their feelings, and ask questions about why they feel as they do. Ask people to behave in ways that demonstrate interest in what others are saying. For example, avoid doodling, fidgeting, and interrupting while others are speaking. Model active listening behaviors, such as asking questions that encourage speakers to expand on their points, or referring back to points made earlier and building on those ideas.
  3. Remind team members to forgive. Once your team has resolved a conflict, remind people to forgive one another for any hurt feelings or damaged egos. Encourage forgiveness by practicing forgiveness yourself. Don’t hold a grudge. Don’t harbor ill will after a conflict has been resolved. And remember to apologize when you’ve done something wrong.

Reference

Originally posted on HBR Answer Exchange (now defunct); Adapted from the book Leading Teams: Pocket Mentor Series, Harvard Business Press

Less Talk, More Action-The PAR Technique

In “Good Boss, Bad Boss” Robert Sutton talks about a problem many of us see in our workplaces — too much talking and not enough doing. Sutton says too often people (this includes bosses and their subordinates) know what needs to be done but rather than doing it, they talk (hold endless meetings), write about it, and study it to death. Professor Sutton shares about a restaurant chain that hired a consulting firm to create a detailed plan to improve their operations. During the presentation, a long-time executive shared that a decade earlier, the company had received the same report. The executive then proceeded to read from the old report which had almost the same advice as the new one. The lesson: Management had known for quite some time what needed to be done, but they just didn’t do it.

For today’s post, I will use the PAR technique (Problem, Action, Results) also called STAR (Situation or Task, Action, Result) to share about my experiences living and working on an island in the North Pacific Ocean – an island called Saipan. This PAR method (I hope) will help you see how simple it is to not just talk about a problem, but to act to resolve it.

BACKGROUND

Yearning for adventure, excitement, and something different, I left Texas in January 2004 to live and work on an island in the North Pacific Ocean as a Behavior Specialist. My job covered 20 schools on the islands of Saipan (15 schools), Rota (3 schools), and Tinian (2 schools) totaling over 12,000 students. It included assessing at-risk and conduct/behavioral problem students, observing and conducting functional behavior assessments, designing appropriate behavior intervention plans, and assisting teachers and school staff in the proper implementation of the prescribed behavior program. On a daily basis, I provided consultations to school staff to train and assist in behavior and classroom management, positive behavior support, school crisis management, and traumatic stress & crisis intervention response.

(P)ROBLEM

Saipan, Rota, and Tinian (collectively called CNMI or Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands) posed a particular challenge due to their geographical locations (eight hours west of Hawaii), their relatively young educational system (public education did not start until the mid 1940’s when the first public school, WSR Elementary, was established in 1946, with others soon following in the 1950’s, 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s) and cultural values and norms.

There are more than 20 ethnicities and nationalities from East, West, as well as Pacific communities, including Chamorro, Carolinian, Filipino, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Indian, Bangladesh, Russian, Thai, Vietnamese, Micronesian (Yapese, Chuukese, Pohnepeian), Palauan, Hawaiian, Marshall Islands, American, Australian, and various European communities. Although the island (population 82,000) is considered Chamorro and Carolinian, more than half of the population is comprised of foreign “guest workers” employed in the garment and tourist industries. In fact, there are roughly 17,500 garment workers and laborers in the CNMI, most of whom are non-English speaking Chinese.

With the stigmas and misinformation surrounding mental health and mental illness, coupled with an educational system still in its infancy and an economy dependent on U.S. federal support, counseling services and school crisis management were at the bottom of the priority scale in the eyes of the cash-strapped government and local school system.

(A)CTION

Being one to never back down from a challenge and understanding that (as my friend and coworker described) the CNMI was “fertile soil” to work in, I was able to set and attain two goals: (1) Being part of a six-member Counseling Steering Committee Team that successfully implemented a Monthly Level-Sharing program (CMLS) to train school counselors; and (2) Conducting 25 workshops and training over 700 teachers and school staff on Nonviolent Crisis Intervention® Training and Behavior & Classroom Management.

(1) I partnered with a team of counselors in the local school system and the local mental health agency to educate and train other counselors and to equip them with basic counseling and trauma response skills to address the psychological and emotional needs of students at school and other children and adolescents in the community.

(2) Together with a colleague, I wrote two grants, secured funding, and became a Nonviolent Crisis Intervention® Certified Instructor to educate and train teachers, administrators, and school staff on how to best manage anxious, hostile, and/or violent crisis situations in their classrooms and on their campuses.

(R)ESULTS

The responses and feedback were phenomenal.

(1) Through our CNMI Counselors Monthly-Level Sharing Meetings/Trainings, we tackled difficult topics including child sexual abuse, suicide, and self-injurious behaviors. School counselors reported an increase in feelings of confidence and competence in addressing some of these issues in their schools.

(2) As a result of the Nonviolent Crisis Intervention® Workshops as well as trainings and presentations on classroom management and anti-bullying, over 700 educators, counselors, and administrators were trained on best-practices models in managing crisis and potentially volatile situations.

Here is an example of data from the Nonviolent Crisis Intervention® training conducted at an elementary school (on Feb. 6-7, 2006), a high school (Apr. 1-2, 2006) and during two PSS Statewide Professional Developments (Feb. 8-10 & Aug. 17-18, 2006). Of those who attended the Statewide Professional Development workshop (on Aug. 17-18, 2006) and who responded to the workshop questionnaire on a scale of 1-5 (5 being very useful), 14 out of 14 (100%) said they “strongly agreed” that they had met the program objective to use nonverbal techniques to prevent acting-out behavior; 14 out of 14 (100%) said they “agreed” or “strongly agreed” they had met the program objective to use CPI’s Principles of Personal Safety to avoid injury to all involved in a crisis situation; 14 out of 14 (100%) said they “agreed” or “strongly agreed” they had met the program objective to use safe physical intervention procedures as a last resort when a person is a danger to self or others; All participants or 100% gave the overall Nonviolent Crisis Intervention Training program the highest approval rating of “5” (strongly agree). These figures reflect the overwhelmingly positive response to the Nonviolent Crisis Intervention® Training program.

WHAT I LEARNED – The Key Lessons

As with many important things which transcend the lessons and printed materials drawn from textbooks, what my job and interactions in the CNMI have taught me are the following:

(1) A collaborative spirit and attitude work best.
(2) Keep things simple, practical, and relevant in order to link talking to action.
(3) Everyone, from children to adults, from the under- to the over-educated has a story to share. Make time to listen to their stories.
(4) Don’t ever assume you know them, their problems, or traumas – you don’t.
(5) Above all else, treat everyone with kindness and respect because no one likes being talked down to.

Side note to #2: The older I get and the more “education” I receive, the more I realize that simple is often best and that the smartest, wisest people are those who ask questions rather than speak. There are also people who are impressed with what Robert Sutton calls “jargon monoxide” or gobbledygook, nonsense. They tend to talk more and do less, rather than the opposite – talk less and do more. In my own experience, I have discovered that people who have a tendency to spew out “jargon monoxide” are those trying to hide their own incompetence or those trying to impress others. It’s even funnier when these same people use big words to which they don’t know the meanings to. Sometimes, real life is much more entertaining than television.

Reference

Sutton, R.I. (2010). Good boss, bad boss: How to be the best… and learn from the worst. New York: Business Plus.

*This entry (in its entirety) is also cited as:

Nguyen, S. (2011). Less talk, more action—The PAR technique. Journal of Safe Management of Disruptive and Assaultive Behavior, 19(1), 14-16.