Research

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Neuroplasticity

neuroplasticity 400x265Easier to spell than you might think!

Whilst this one’s not too difficult to say, it does involve a fair bit of science, so thinking caps on everyone!  In summary, neuroplasticity is a general term that is applied to changes in neural pathways, synaptic plasticity and non-synaptic plasticity.  Or for a more practically applied summary – this is about learning, change and our ability to flex.

Various parts of our brains such as synapses (the minute gaps between our brain cells, where information is communicated), respond to changes in the environment, thinking, behaviour and emotions.  So why is this relevant to businesses?

Well imagine a large organisation that once made desktop PC’s, who boldly declared to the world that the tablet was a passing phase.  They’ve now had to significantly change their business model and thus behaviour and thinking to accommodate the new environment they find themselves in.  That change required a fair amount plasticity, adaptability and flex.

Jelly Bean Diversity

From the shop floor right to the boardroom, an understanding of neuroplasticity can give us some valuable insights in supporting organisations with many kinds of change.

But back to the brain.  The brain works the same way as other muscles; to strengthen it, it requires exercise and regular work outs.  Unfortunately the brain has a ‘use it or lose it’ approach; by adulthood we have already lost approximately 50% of our synapses due to inactivity.  However, this doesn’t mean we can’t learn new skills as an adult.

An adult brain is still capable of making new connections from learning new skills.  In fact the more it is used, the more connections are made in the brain.

So what does this mean for learning new skills or behaviours in the workplace?

We can work with our existing capabilities but importantly, those skills and strengths can also be increased.  The brain works best when it is building on existing connections rather than starting from scratch, so it makes sense to build on what you already know or are already good at.

In Development Centres or learning programmes for example, people need to be able to identify relationships in the material or make it relevant to something they already know.

Totem Lollipops

This will strengthen the existing neural pathways which makes learning much more likely.  Similarly, repetition will reinforce the neural connections so delegates should repeat the skills or actions until these synaptic connections are solidly reinforced.

Employers can take note of these principles of plasticity, but taking advantage of these in the workplace remains a slightly grey area.  We can take a broad brush and apply some of the learning from neuroplasticity to everyone – that’s fine.  But what if employers could somehow identify employees who already had a large number of connections, in theory these people could be taught new skills – and quickly.

Could we one day look at measuring learning agility and potential through brain scans?  Then what about those employees who don’t already have high plasticity levels?  Isn’t that a form a discrimination?  That might be a debate for a future generation.

Whilst the area of neuroplasticity in employment is still an emerging field, there are some far reaching implications not just on the horizon, but in the here and now.  And we can’t put it any better than this article by not one, but three super smart people, Jeffrey Schwartz, Pablo Gaito, and Doug Lennick:

“When corporate leaders talk about change, they usually have a desired result in mind . . .. They know that if they are to achieve this result, people throughout the company need to change their behavior and practices, and that can’t happen by simple decree. How, then, does it happen? In the last few years, insights from neuroscience have begun to answer that question.

New behaviors can be put in place, but only by reframing attitudes that are so entrenched that they are almost literally embedded in the physical pathways of employees’ neurons.”

And so in the here and now, we can consider the implications of neuroplasticity for our hopes of behavioural change.  If we want managers, leaders, customer service colleagues and all to do something differently – we’ll need to build on what they know, use their strengths and challenge the attitudes and ways of doing things that are deep set in the organisational culture.

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Introducing Best

specks 400x265Drum roll please!

Here is the first of many articles covering our work on being at your Best.  So far we’ve shared one or two of the insights we’ve gleaned from our R&D and the journey we’ve been on whilst completing this PhD.

This is a little taster video just to introduce you to the concept of Best, where it came from and where we think it will take us!

And if you continue to follow our updates around Best, you might even learn why we chose a pair of glasses for this first post!

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What are the Implications of Best?

implicationsWhat do we do with this new found information?

Having set out to explore the shared meaning of being at one’s best at work* and developed a confident framework to describe it, let’s consider the implications of the this new understanding.

We’ll take a look at a number of workplace applications we can put this framework to work in.  Knowing that being at one’s best involves both positive subjective states and positive behavioural patterns, the workplace environment needs to acknowledge and address both of these aspects of the individual.

Our research* into positive workplaces identified a range of characteristics that are linked to the framework and are reflected in the frameworks themes yet there was no clear definition of a positive workplace.  So perhaps the framework could help to provide some structure to that definition?

One where people feel positive about their job, themselves and their colleagues and they are demonstrating behaviours related to achieving, supporting and interacting?

Totem Lollipops

Organisations wishing to develop a positive workplace will therefore need to attend to the structure of the work and the relationships surrounding it.  They will need to ensure that the work is structured in a way that provides opportunity for individuals to demonstrate the positive behavioural patterns of the framework.

Whilst achieving the goals of the work and organisation are often the rationale for the workplace structures, in order to develop a positive workplace there also needs to be more interaction between individuals and opportunities for them to be able to support each other in developing the goals.

Creating interaction with ‘customers’ is perhaps more difficult in back office environments however even in these circumstances internal colleagues are benefiting from the work completed so could be seen as internal customers.  There’s a clear rationale for greater interaction and communication within teams and between teams.

There are also implications for people management practices.  The framework highlights the importance of both behaviours and subjective states.  People management practices often focus on the output of the individual – their achievements.   Competency assessments of individuals focus on the achievements through behaviours.  Whilst achieving behaviours are a key element of being at one’s best in work they remain just a single part of the framework.

Jelly Bean Diversity

Acknowledging the importance of supporting and interacting behaviours are also vital alongside attending to the personal subjective states of individuals.  If these become part of the recognised and prioritised actions of the workforce then there is likely to be less silo working and more collaboration.   The additional focus on attending to individual’s subjective states is likely to demand even more interpersonal skill from managers.

The support they will require in being able to handle the complexities of emotions in the workplace also becomes important.  The framework however could act as a diagnostic for when individuals are not at their best and this will help to prioritise appropriate interventions.

Whilst the organisation and managers need to encourage a positive workplace by attending to both subjective states and behavioural patterns, the responsibility for being at one’s best however must also lie with the individuals.

Personal awareness and development needs to attend to both subjective states and behaviours.   By structuring learning and development interventions to provide insight and development in terms of the subjective states and the behavioural patterns of the framework, greater improvements to the workplace and to performance are likely to be seen.

How organisations plan and recruit for future needs is also impacted.  Traditional competency assessments purely focus upon the achievements whereas the supporting and interacting behaviours are also necessary to evidence.  Investigating the subjective states of individuals will also give an indication of how likely one is to see the individual at their best.

The understanding of being at one’s best that the  framework provides has clear implications for individuals and organisations.  Understanding is the starting point, what is done with that understanding is likely to make the difference between simply being “OK” at work and being at one’s best in work.

 

(*Addicott 2015)

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Getting The Full Picture

Totem-Picture-400x265What Our PhD Has Taught Us So Far

Part of the process of writing up my PhD has demanded a theoretical review of concepts such as ontology (the nature of reality) and epistemology (the nature of knowledge & meaning).

This has taken me through the world of philosophy, meta-physics and back to psychology. Have no doubt…. My brain hurts! But I’ve found that the result of the mulling has really helped in decision making at work, in planning and in challenging myself and others to think more creatively.

What if you are a part of a leadership team trying to evaluate options or strategies for the future?

I thought it might be interesting to share a couple of the big questions that were involved in that journey…. And how I now have become more comfortable on the fence!

So the two big questions, philosophers and theorists have asked that relate to how research is designed:

  • What is reality?
  • Where does meaning come from?

In terms of the first question about reality, theorists call this your ontological perspective. In simplest terms it’s a question of whether we are uncovering reality (i.e. it is pre-existing) or whether we are discovering reality as a product of engaging with the world (i.e. it is relative to experiences and frames of reference)1.

Totem Lollipops

If I think that facts need to be uncovered then my approach is going to be about measurement and numbers.   My experience as a business owner highlights that whilst I can get a whole lot of measures and numbers to describe the state of the business, the reality can sometimes be very different.

My profit and loss might say one thing but comparing that to the market, our vision, expectations and the experiences we have had along the way mean that I may draw very different conclusions than when I simply look at the numbers. It is the conclusions that we draw that inform what we do so the value of both viewpoints on reality is helpful.

If we are taking the view that reality is pre-existing, it is also helpful to challenge ourselves to consider the frame of reference that we are describing that in and consider other frames of reference – surely that gives a more considered view?   Equally if we are taking the view that reality is relative, it is helpful to challenge ourselves to consider what measures we have to describe that.

Acknowledging where our thoughts are on that question will help us to know where we need to focus our extra efforts – to get the fuller picture.  That fuller picture will involve numbers and words.

Jelly Bean Diversity

The second question is all about the nature of knowledge, how do we know what we know?  Theorists call this your epistemological perspective, this time there are three camps: the objective stance suggest that meaning exists independently; the constructionist stance takes the view that meaning is developed; and the subjectivist stance suggests that without the person there is no meaning1.

This actually completely informs the way that we make sense of our world.  If we are looking for the objective truth we are seeking a measure of success.  If we are looking for how that truth has been developed then we can get a sense of growth and change.  If we are looking for how each individual interprets their world, our search may be longer but certainly there will be many colours to the interpretation!

In my work as a psychologist, I cannot avoid the evidence that I have that people interpret things in different ways and change their views based on their interactions with people.  Does that actually mean there is no objective truth?  Some would say yes, I am not sure that the two statements are necessarily linked.

Totem Gummi Bears

What is more important is to acknowledge what we are wanting to get to and the limitations that will have: a statement of fact (that may be flawed in some contexts); clarity on development (that may be difficult to define); or a very personal clarity (that may not be clear to others).

So whilst my brain hurt as I read about the differing philosophical stances I had to conclude that whilst I may have a preferred camp, acknowledging that and looking at the differing views can only add to my experience and the value of the research that I will produce.  You might not be sitting on the fence like me but asking yourself these questions can only help you develop a fuller more meaningful picture of the context and world that you are operating in:

  • Do I think reality is relative or needs to be uncovered? How does that inform my conclusions?  What else can I do to get a fuller picture?
  • Do I think that meaning is personal, developed or objective? How does that inform what I do?  What else can I do to get a fuller picture?

1 Crotty, M. (1998) The Foundations of Social Research. London: Sage

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Dysfunctional Teams

Trust in the work place, just how critical is it to team building?

Many moons ago, we explored the concept of trust in the work place – and in recent weeks we’ve had cause to dust off and brush up on one of our favourite models of team effectiveness, which also raised the issue of the trust in the workplace, developed by Patrick Lencioni.

According to Lencioni, all teams have the potential to be dysfunctional, so to improve the functioning of a team, we need to understand the type and level of dysfunction that they exhibit.  Lencioni suggested 5 dysfunctions of a team:

  • Absence of Trust
  • Fear of Conflict
  • Lack of Commitment
  • Avoidance of Accountability
  • Inattention to Results

As the title of our article suggests, trust is the key element of this model – focus your efforts here and you’ll naturally improve the other four.  We’ve found a little graphic, with trust at the bottom to demonstrate its foundational role.

Lencioni's Pyramid

Trust evaporates when team members are not genuinely open with one another about their mistakes, weaknesses or need for help.  It’s impossible to build a foundation for trust without this authenticity and vulnerability.

“It’s not enough to keep your word; others have to be aware that you are doing it. And here is where it gets sticky. Like beauty, behavioural integrity is in the eye of the beholder. Consistently keeping promises and living by your stated principles are difficult tasks. Being seen as consistently doing these things is harder still.”

– Professor Tony Simons, Cornell University Professor of Management & Organisational Behaviour

So how do you go about building trust through authenticity and vulnerability in the workplace – isn’t that a little scary in fact?

In this instance, we think it’s a good thing that trust isn’t simply a switch that be thrown from on to off.  It’s not something that can simply happen overnight.  It takes time and repeated examples of the same behaviour/skill/outcome for us to build trust, but there are a few key concepts we can build on to get there quicker.

We’ll look at integrity, inclusion and humility here, but if you’d like to know more there are a couple of reads we recommend.  Ken Blanchard’s Trust Works: Building Lasting Relationships is a great foundational book, but if you’re in a rush Diana Gabriels’s 4 Components may be of more interest.

Who watches the watchers?  Building Integrity.

Whether we like it or not, we’re being watched. Our everyday words and deeds are simply there for everyone to see, so we need to be mindful of our actions and our words to ensure they’re building a coherent picture of our behavioural integrity.

Take the Blame and Share the Credit.  Humility.

Nothing breaks trust like a manager or colleague, who at the first sign of something going wrong, points the finger at others.  Who wants that person in their team?

So by contrast, someone keen to build trust will assume responsibility for mistakes, offering to learn from the situation and support others to avoid similar mistakes in the future.  Showing this level of humility repeatedly, will foster trust far earlier and better than the finger pointer.

Know it, but not all of it.  Inclusion.

Being good at what you do is a key component of building trust.  After all, how many people who are a terrible at doing X do you trust to do X?

Exactly.

But it’s important to position your skill and knowledge with a little humility and to acknowledge you might not know it all.  Learning when to ask questions and showing an interest in learning more is a great way to allow others to feel they’re involved in your development.  Inclusion, like intimacy is a key foundation to trust.

As Professor Tony Simons has hinted at, trust is a wonderfully fluid concept that we each experience and exhibit in different ways. There are however, several behavioural steps that we can take to foster and nurture trust within a group of people.

A critical step is to be the first person to be vulnerable. Nobody else will feel safe owning up to mistakes and taking about things they find difficult unless someone starts that trend. How about you? What could you do today or tomorrow to show a bit of your human vulnerability to the team?

If you want to read more on this subject, there’s a great deal of overlap between building trust with colleagues and building trust with clients.  We’ve written more on the latter here…

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Our Research Journey

steppingstonesA step by step guide to our research process…

Our research into ‘Best’ began with a positive psychology approach focusing (naturally) on the positive, what is working and why are employees staying in their jobs, rather than on negative issues such as employee turnover.*

In 2000, Seligman put forward the idea that psychology suffers from a “preoccupation only with repairing the worst things in life” and neglects to build on positive qualities.

He suggests that by also focusing on the conditions that support well-being, contentment and happiness, psychology will learn to “build the factors that allow individuals, communities, and societies to flourish”.  We couldn’t agree more!

Our research aimed to further study the idea of ‘best at work’ but in the context of a few different work environments to make sure we were on to something.  The context was slightly different in terms of the industry but also in terms of the definition of what ‘best’ looks like.

We started with an initial case study in a well know department store.  They have great Christmas adverts…

Totem Lollipops

We visited 3 different stores: The one with the highest performance, the one with the highest levels of employee engagement (staff survey) and the one with the longest serving staff.  We spent two fascinating days in each, observing and talking with staff and in total interviewed 42 staff across the sites – using appreciative inquiry questions.

We also asked members of the stores to complete a questionnaire – a learning point for us here – it was very long and I didn’t get a huge response.  But after interviewing, we used Nvivo to code the themes.  We had assigned the themes on internal characteristics and behavioural expression.  You can check out the background to that choice here.

Having coded these themes in terms of internal characteristics and behaviours, we did a cluster analysis and found consistent elements of

  • Developing
  • Challenging
  • Focusing
  • Passionate

across each store.  These elements are beginning to appear in additional studies we have conducted in different working environments too.  Rather exciting is that that perhaps we are getting closer to describing what best is like within these stores!

The so what, or Pow factor of this research seems to be indicating that the following are key to being at your Best*:

In terms of the internal characteristics – I have passion and pride and I am confident that I am contributing were two of the most common themes. And in terms of behaviours the most common was I take ownership for delivery.

One little surprise that came up from the research was actually from a conversation starter activity.  We gave our test subjects a sheet of words and asked them to highlight which were important to them personally.  We then asked them which were fed or supported by their work.  An average of 93% of the words highlighted were also supported by their work.

One interpretation here is that there is potentially some sort of values connection exists for these individuals.

This throws up a whole lot more questions for us to consider, as there are particular implications for business as well as for coaching and development practitioners.

We’re getting closer to having a confident framework to describe a shared meaning of being at one’s best in work.  And the next step for us is to illustrate the implications of this framework in terms of providing greater definition to the notion of positive workplaces and the application to work structure, people management practices, personal development, learning and development interventions and recruitment and succession planning.

We just need to remember to take it one step at a time!

 

(*Addicott 2015)

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70 20 10 Further Research

702010 TotemWhat could 70:20:10 mean in practice if we pushed the boundaries?

As more organisations look to review their learning strategies according to the principles behind the model, there has been a corresponding push from some parts of the L&D community for further evidence to support the principles of 70:20:10 in practice.

In response, Towards Maturity have produced new data which claims to look at the actions behind the numbers and the resulting impact on performance.  We’ll review their work in a little more detail below.

702010

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People at their Best

bestWhat do we really mean by People at their Best?

“When are you at your best?” It’s a question that often comes up in coaching.  So often it’s suspicious!

We find that the question helps to understand the behaviours and the feelings that individuals are experiencing and where the gaps might be in their current situation.

The goal of many of our development interventions is often stated as simply wanting to get the best from people.  But what does that mean?

Could a shared understanding of being at your best in work lead to faster identification of issues to resolve and more focused development interventions, whatever they may be?

As business psychologists, we like to keep up to date with the latest research and understand what can benefit our clients.   One of the areas that we have seen have great impact is the notion of working to strengths – first understanding them and then working out how to make the most of them.*

Jelly Bean Diversity

Certainly for Totem, understanding what each of us does well and gets a kick out of doing has really helped us allocate work more effectively and be more productive.  Yet there are still days when we’re not necessarily at our individual best – we all have those days, when we are distracted or just ‘not in the zone’.

Unpicking what we mean by being at our best will help us to quickly remedy distractions or other limitations.  This will be useful on an individual basis, in coaching or in designing development interventions for clients.

Our research* started with two questions – one that we ask our coaching clients quite regularly and one that is asked of us quite regularly:

When are you at your best?

How do I get the best from my people?

The consistency of the language and descriptions people use in describing best made us question if there is something underlying that – a shared meaning of what being at your best when at work encompasses.

If we can clarity and understand what we mean by being at your best – it becomes an accessible tool for management conversations and prioritising organisation’s development investments.

Keep checking back on our research, because we really feel this concept has got legs and we’re curious to see where it leads.

 

(*Addicott 2015)

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Diversity of Thought: An Introduction

What does diversity of thought mean, how do we encourage it and how can it positively impact your business?

We were delighted to be invited to speak at a client’s Diversity Month in March. Built around International Women’s Day there was a wide range of events looking at diversity and inclusion, unconscious bias and people’s leadership journeys.

We were invited for the finale event: Diversity of Thought

The idea behind this event was simple: how do we encourage people to think of diversity not just in terms of ethical and fair focus in recruitment and development, but also as a personal focus on achieving greater innovation and results?

When people quote studies showing that teams and business boards with greater diversity make more money or achieve better results, this is not some magical effect of having more women or different ethnicities involved: it is the result of different ways of thinking.

Why is Diversity Good?

Based on our gender, ethnicity, genetics, upbringing, education and so many other factors, our brains are wired in different ways. You know when you’re working with someone and you wonder how on earth they have come to x conclusion or gone about that task in x way – you never would have thought or done it that way (and you probably believe your way is better!)

That’s the thing with different brain patterns: we like our own because we only know our own ways of thinking and working. Everyone who thinks differently – more often than not we think of as wrong, misguided or weird. Yet there are great benefits to challenging our comfortable ways of working: we might find a better way.

We can harness these benefits by challenging ourselves to think differently, engaging people we would not usually go to for advice and encouraging disagreement. Let’s face it, it is easier to work with people who think like we do, agree with us, come up with similar ideas and we achieve consensus far quicker.

But what if consensus was not the goal? What if achieving something brilliant were the goal – and we might not always agree but we could make decisions and take concerns into account? Trying new things, making mistakes, learning fast and trying again. If you want to achieve something different then try thinking differently and engaging with different people.

Challenging your Thinking

One of the greatest ways to find new ideas for yourself is to simply notice and increase your awareness of the way you do something. Take something that comes up a lot in your day job, maybe the way you run meetings, make decisions or solve problems.

You will not usually take time to think about how you do that particular thing, because you do it all the time, maybe many times per day. But taking time to stop and consider the way you do something can help you challenge that approach and consider other approaches. Try out these questions as you consider your way of working:

Which Questions Do You Find Helpful?

How would someone more extroverted than me go about this? Someone who relied on thinking out loud and involving other people?

How would someone more introverted than me go about this? Someone who took time to process their thoughts alone and then came to a conclusion?

What would a more logical, structured, fact-based approach look like?

What would a more intuitive, spontaneous, gut-feel-based approach look like?

As you consider how other people might go about your task, you will most likely find you don’t like most of the ideas that come up, but look out for the golden nugget of an idea: something you could tweak in your approach that might give you a better outcome.

In our next instalment on this subject we look at how you can engage others who have different ways of thinking, and embrace the disagreement that will follow, to achieve better results.

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