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Archive for the ‘happy customers’ Category

From the vault:

I had a fascinating conversation with a friend a few days ago who is on the verge of quitting his job. He’s always loved working where he is now, is friends with all of his colleagues, likes his boss, loves what he does… but the magic seems to be gone.

I was kind of curious about what happened to so radically change his point of view. Was it the customers? Nope. Was he being treated differently by his boss? No again. Had anything changed in the last six months? Niet.

So what was the problem?

His answer: “I’m just not happy there anymore.”

Interestingly, he isn’t the only one. Several of his coworkers have also seemed to me like they were just going through the motions in the past few weeks. They smile, but they aren’t excited about their jobs like they used to be. I know it isn’t burnout, but it sure looks like burnout. Something definitely isn’t right.

I guess it wouldn’t be a huge problem in and of itself, but I am beginning to hear from customers of this business that the magic is starting to fade for them too. Shopping there isn’t as fun as it used to be. They’ve started to shop around again. The business is doing great, but is starting to lose its edge. Its cool. Its uniqueness.

Before I go on with my story, check out this bit from a piece I wrote a few months ago that addresses this very issue: “Happy employees make happy customers.”

Likewise, unhappy employees make unhappy customers.

There are ways to make your employees happy. Perhaps more importantly, there are ways to make your employees feel proud. And no, rewarding them isn’t something you can fake or buy off with plaques and pins and little bonuses. It’s something that has to feel real.

If you want to inspire your customers, you first have to inspire your employees. If you want to do that, you have to make them feel like they truly are a part of your company and not just worthless pawns.

You have to make them feel like they are on a mission.

You have to make them feel good about the work they do for you.

Does that sound complicated? It really isn’t. It’s actually the simplest thing in the world. Starbucks is doing it. So is Apple. So is Loreal. So is Nike. So is Coca Cola.

Treat people with respect. Give them something worthwhile to do. Inspire them to be knights in your kingdom… or at least happy to be there for as long as they want to stay. That’s it. That’s all you really need to do to get things rolling in the right direction.

So… back to my story. Back to my friend and his career woes. Back to the fact that unhappy employees may not always make unhappy customers, but… they sure don’t make happy ones either. Back to what my friend told me next:

“I feel like we’ve all become commodities. We aren’t very high on (the boss’) priority list these days.” And then he went on to tell me what he meant.

Pow. There it was.

Broken windows also happen in your relationship with employees. The people who work for you are your brand at least as much as your products. They are your designers, your evangelists, your human touchpoints, your knights, your fans, your friends, your problem solvers, your band of brothers (and sisters). You can’t take them for granted. Perhaps more importantly, you can’t make them feel like you are. Ever. Not for one minute.

Pay them what they’re worth. Protect them. Empower them. Put your trust and faith in them. Don’t ever think for one second that they can be easily replaced.

Treat your employees like they’re your best customers.

That’s advice you can take to the bank.

🙂

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Lance Armstrong, by Olivier Blanchard - 2005

Lance Armstrong, by Olivier Blanchard - 2005

Sometime this year, chances are that you will get a chance to hire one or several individuals to come join your team. On his blog some time ago, Guy Kawasaki’s “The Art Of Recruiting” post gave us some pretty crucial pointers that are worth printing and pinning to our respective office walls.

The first of these is this:

“The art of recruiting is the purest form of evangelism because you’re not simply asking people to try your product, buy your product, or partner with you. Instead, you are asking them to bet their lives on your organization.”

Bingo.

But it goes well beyond that. Some companies hire for skills or talent. Others, on the other hand, hire for vision and attitude. The difference is this: Companies that hire for skills and talent tend to attract relatively talented, ambitious folks who do a terrific job… for a while. Until they get bored. Until their work grows stale. Until they start looking for greener pastures. They do great work, and then they leave. The process gets repeated. The process gets repeated. The process gets repeated. Other than adding neat pages to their employers’ portfolios (and their own), nothing much happens.

Companies that hire for vision and attitude, however, kick ass. They always do. The people they hire are agents of change. They’re evangelists. They’re contextual commandos. They’re dreamers and groundbreakers. They’re risk takers. They take the companies they work for further than they were when they first landed there. They attract more people like them and build cultures around their companies.

A good friend of mine, Randy McDougald, hires for vision and attitude, and the results are unbelievable. His business is booming. His customer base is growing. His customers are actually creating a community – a culture – even, around his stores.

Resumes are a good first step. Skills are a nice foundation… But attitude, passion and enthusiasm are the traits that Randy considers when hiring new folks. Believe me, I know every one of his employees, and I can tell you this: I would hire them all in a heartbeat.

Okay, okay, we’ll come back to Randy’s golden touch later this week. Right now, here are Guy’s ten bits of advice when it comes to hiring your next team member:

1. Hire better than yourself.
2. Hire infected people.
3. Ignore the irrelevant.
4. Double check your intuition.
5. Check independent references.
6. Apply the Shopping Center Test.
7. Use all your weapons.
8. Sell all the decision makers.
9. Wait to compensate.
10. Don’t assume you’re done.

(You can check out the full version here.)

What Guy hints at but doesn’t get into is the fact that sometimes, you’ll run into enigmas. Multi-talented folks who don’t quite fit any of the profiles that you’re used to running into, like accountants, copywriters, account executives, product managers or media Planners. Sometimes, you meet people who transcend traditional professional roles. People whose impact on their industry or communities could be felt for years. Decades, even. Some of us would call them game-changers, but I guess “change agent” is a little more subtle. David Armano sometimes calls them “T-shaped” and “sun-shaped” people and I kind of like that.

Only when you run into them, they still haven’t had a chance to break out their superpowers, but they’re just about to. All they need is that little extra push. That little extra help and encouragement. Just a sprinkle of faith on your part.

Among the brightest stars in this group are people like Peter Drucker, Lance Armstrong, Sir Richard Branson and Henri Cartier-Bresson. Mahatma Gandhi. Steve Jobs. The list is long. To a lesser extent, folks like John Winsor, John Moore, Michele Miller, David Wolfe, Kevin Farnham, Valeria Maltoni, Loic Lemeur and William Gordon also belong on the much longer list of kids who didn’t quite fit the mold and grew up to re-invent (or expand the boundaries of) their respective industries and communities.

Consider that they were all kids once. They all applied for that first job. I’d be willing to bet that a great deal of people on that list were turned down by well-meaning managers more concerned with hiring what they knew and understood than taking a chance on something that didn’t quite fit between the lines.

Shame on them.

Why do you think so many of them end up branching off on their own? It isn’t necessarily because they want to spend years working their butts off to be able to say “hey, I did it my way!” No. It’s because they didn’t have a choice. It’s because the people who could have chosen to take a chance on them didn’t.

You would be amazed at how many companies that sell “different” don’t actually have the huevos to actually practice what they preach.

Trust me, there’s nothing more tragic than to see passionate, talented, groundbreaking kids get turned away again and again and again by hiring managers because they didn’t quit match the position’s profile.

“We’re looking for someone with more experience.”

“We’re looking for someone who’s worked in this specific industry.”

“We’re looking for a carbon-copy of the last guy who sat in that chair… only in a different flavor. Because we like to talk about being different and better and more innovative, but we don’t really have the courage to put our money where our mouth is.”

If your company is guilty of this, it’s time to stop. Right now.

One, you’re shooting yourself in the foot by turning away what could very possibly be the most crucial strategic investment your company will ever make.

Two, unfortunately for you, maybe your fiercest competitor won’t be as blind as you were.

Three, you’re breaking spirits. You probably don’t realize it, but you are, and for that, there is no excuse. None. And the karma on this isn’t something you ever want to even ponder.

So here’s a tip: When a dreamer – one of the crazy ones – comes rapping at your door, don’t turn them away because they don’t quite fit the profile that you had in mind. Skilled is necessary. Different is good. Prolific is great. Passionate is even better. Enthusiastic is magical. Unique is genius.

Always consider the pros and cons carefully, but don’t be afraid to take a chance on the occasional wild card.

If you’re willing to ask your new hires to bet their lives on your organization, shouldn’t you also be willing to bet your organization on them?

This isn’t a rhetorical question.

While you ponder the finer points of your answer, here’s one last thing to think about: Exceptional doesn’t mean “really good”. Exceptional means “unique”. It means “the exception to the norm.”

It means different.

Don’t lose sight of that. That tiny little bit of insight could make the difference between your company becoming everything it could be, or just being… well, what it is.

Remember that your company’s mojo doesn’t come from your products or your logo or your tagline. It comes from your people. So if you haven’t done so already, get out of the skills market mentality and hire like your life depends on it. Hire the best that money can buy. Hire the exceptional. Hire the extraordinary. Invest in your own future.
You owe it to yourselves and to your customers. And in this economy, the difference between survival and failure may very well depend on rethinking what types of people you want working for you.
Related reads: H.R. 2.0 and Innovation Starts Here

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How smart businesses are learning to combine “traditional” media and new “social” Media Channels to grow their brands:

Interesting slideshow from Austrian-based Knallgrau in which the company outlines some of the social media strategies and tactics they used in helping BMW seed interest in new X1 concept and promote its launch. Not entirely crystal clear (not bad for non-native English speakers though) but still pretty helpful in outlining how to incorporate new media channels into a complete 360 communications plan – especially if you are still new to social media/new media. Essentially, here’s how to break it all down:

Traditional media channels: The first three bars on the graph (left to right). Television, Print and Radio. Some basic attributes:

  • High costs
  • Closed (Monologue)
  • Emphasis on quantity instead of quality in intended audience (reach-to-transaction conversion is <10%)

Social media channels: The long tail of the reach & depth curve, including Search, Blogs, Podcasts, YouTube, wikis, Twitter, Facebook, virtual worlds (like Second Life and even World of Warcraft), active communities and networks, etc. Note that new media channels are getting thicker (much broader reach) and also more more specific (deeper and well defined) – both good things if you care about who your target audience is. Basic attributes:

  • Fractional costs
  • Open (two-way conversation/dialogue)
  • Emphasis on quality AND quantity (reach-to-transaction conversion >10%)

It is important to note that new media/social media channels are not intended to replace traditional media channels. If anyone tells you that traditional media is dead, they’re hacks. Don’t listen to them. The reality of media channels is simple: All channels have value, all channels address specific needs, and all channels need to be used intelligently in order to get the best possible results. Turning your back on any channel for any reason is basically turning your back on an opportunity to grow your business. It’s just silly. Truth: If a channel hasn’t worked for you in the past, it probably isn’t the channel’s fault. It just means that you haven’t yet found a way to make it work for you and your business. There’s an easy fix to that: Try again… and ask for expert help if you have to.

Whether you are developing your own media strategy internally or looking to hire a social media consultant to help you tackle this new marketing toolkit, remember to always look for a healthy balance in all things: Don’t put all of your eggs in one basket (traditional media or social media). If there is one concept that you need to take away from Knallgrau’s presentation, it is the concept of “seeding”, which is purely a breadth strategy: In order to maximize your reach (or even understand what channels work best for your company), you need to seed your brand across as many channels as possible. If you can take a step back for a second and look at every channel as an investment (which it is), what you have to do is use simple logic: Don’t put all of your eggs in just two or three baskets, especially when you know that the price of entry is high, and the dividends aren’t all that stellar. The smart strategy is simply to diversify your marketing channels portfolio.

Once you’ve identified which channels seem to be catching on (getting some sort of positive and quantifiable result), THEN start working on depth within those channels.

This takes a little bit of THINKING when it comes to mapping out how these channels will work for you. Hire someone who can help you make sense of this if you need to, but be cautious: With “social media” being the hottest marketing keyword right now, self-professed “social media experts” are popping up like a bad case of teenage acne. Unfortunately, most of them are anything but.

Nb: My bit of good karma for the day: If you are looking for a solid social media consultant/practitioner either in your area or your industry, shoot me an email and I will help you connect with the right person or company. The list of real practitioners is still pretty short, so it shouldn’t be too difficult to get you properly hooked up. My email: olivier@f360photo.com

Making it all work: Traditional Media and Social Media require different languages and mindsets.

While we’re on the subject of keeping the hacks away, it is very important for me to point out that the type of communication between companies and customers (or rather brands and people… and more people… and even more people), that takes place across new media channels is fundamentally different from the type of communication that occurs within traditional media channels. In the latter, messaging is king, and messaging is essentially a monologue. Conversely, the type of communication that takes place across social media is instead a dialogue. A conversation. The two require distinctively different approaches, and therefore two completely different mindsets. The danger in relying on self-proclaimed “social media experts” is that most come in two very distinct and equally ineffective forms:

  1. The ad/PR agency who has finally hopped on the bandwagon about a year or so ago because everyone else was adding “social media” to their list of services. This breed will typically charge you hefty fees to set up a blog, create a community site or two, maybe even use Twitter as a means to send out press releases, but then nothing will come of it. They will get you into the right channels, but then use them the only way they know how, which is to treat them like traditional media channels. The result: Zero impact. Not only will you will have wasted valuable time and money on a poorly executed plan, you will also walk away convinced that social media is a worthless fad. This happens A LOT. It’s pretty much reached epidemic proportions right now. Way too many companies fall into this trap and I want to see it stop.
  2. The Social Media cultist who keeps proclaiming that traditional media is dead. (Not in the real world, it isn’t.) I fell for that line a few years back when I realized the cost-benefit of social media, but I’ve gained enough experience and insight since then to realize that we were a little premature in declaring advertising and PR dead. (Thank goodness too.) These guys might convince you not to spend one more penny on advertising or PR. They will quote a handful of great examples of very well known companies that have grown their brands without resorting to traditional media channels… but those are few and far between and probably don’t apply to you. Truth: The vast majority of businesses can’t survive on social media alone. Even Apple – arguably the most successful superlovebrand whose fans will line up for days to spend their mortgage payment on its latest i-gottahaveit bit of design genius – spends a small country’s GDP on advertising. Starbucks, which for years never bothered with any advertising whatsoever is spending money on billboards and TV ads now. In spite of what these folks will tell you, social media is not the second coming.

In either case, it isn’t that the professionals you are dealing with are dishonest or out to “get your money.” Not at all. Most of these folks are trying to make an honest buck and they do want to help you. It’s just that they don’t really know how because they only have a portion of the equation figured out. Unfortunately, without the whole thing, you’re kind of screwed. You could equate it to toeing the start line of a marathon with only one running shoe, or having only trained to run 13 miles instead of the full 26.2. Sure, you might survive, you might reach the finish line, but at what cost and in what shape? The objective here isn’t for you to survive and gut it out just to say you spent some time in the race. The objective is to get ahead. To win, even. You don’t stand a chance if you don’t really understand what you are getting yourself into right from the start.

Here’s a tip: True social media practitioners a) understand the value of both traditional and new media channels, b) know how to get the most out of both traditional and new media channels individually, and c) can help you blend traditional and new media channels in order to maximize results and achieve your business goals. In other words, look for someone who knows how to strike the right balance for you, and NOT someone who will steer you towards one extreme or the other.

Straight talk and common sense: What this discussion all boils down to.

Back to the point: If you own or manage a business, learning how to incorporate new media channels into your existing marketing strategy is absolutely vital to your business’ future.

Especially in this economy.

Having an intelligent, balanced and well executed growth strategy that leverages both traditional AND new media will save you money, improve your brand equity, grow your market share, boost customer loyalty and engagement, and provide you with countless opportunities to increase your overall sales numbers. Period.

All of this is actually pretty simple to incorporate into your business… as long as you have a trustworthy and knowledgeable friend on your side who can guide you through it.

If you commit to learning how to make your company or marketing department smarter and more efficient through a combination of old and new tools, surround yourself with the right people with the right mindset and experience, and truly commit to kicking some ass (in the right way), very good things will happen.

Trust me, just like every other company out there (big and small) that has figured this out already, your modest investment in expert assistance (either by partnering with an expert or adding one to your team) could pay off BIG in no time. The alternative is to do nothing, continue to invest in an incomplete marketing portfolio, and hope that business will magically get better. (Good luck with that!)

Shoot me an email, and I will hook you up.

Have a great Monday, everyone!

😉

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(Corporate leaps of faith rock my world.) photo by toimaginetoo

I like to go back to the archives every once in a while – partly because I’m a little crunched for time these days, but mostly because the vault contains some pretty solid posts that you guys might never had the opportunity to read. I originally wrote this post for the Corante Marketing Hub, back when I was its online editor.

Back then, Grant McCracken had pointed us to Coca Cola’s apparent then-new shift to the long tail:

“Given its pending portfolio of coffee soda, gourmet teas and Godiva drinks, Coca-Cola is expected to expend more time and energy on low-volume, high-margin categories than ever. (…)

Rather than look at beverages on a category by category basis, Mary Minnick, head of marketing, innovation and strategic growth, has said Coke is looking at how beverages fit into consumers lives. She has described the need states as, “Enjoyment today,” “feel good today,” and “be well tomorrow.”

– Kenneth Hein, from Strategy: Coke Seeks Relief (Again) By Scratching The Niche. (Adweek. March 06, 2006.)

And that seemed fine and good and all, but… whatever happened to… just… great taste?

When I order a latte from my favorite coffee shop or buy a bottle of Orangina or and IBC cream soda, it isn’t because of “enjoyment today,” “feel good today,” and “be well tomorrow.” It isn’t because of clever packaging or image or transference or projection. It’s because I’m in the mood for a particular flavor. This is about mood and palates and lifestyles, not “feeling good” and “being well”.

Oh, I know… I don’t have TCCC’s millions of dollars of research at my fingertips… but you know what? I’m wired just like everyone else, and I know why I buy drinks. I know why my friends and colleagues buy drinks. They like the taste. They look for context. Catch-phrases have nothing to do with it.

You can make any study and any set of numbers and statistics and results say anything you want. Especially when you have a whole lot of time and money invested in new products whose development needs to be justified to a board of directors.

Could this be a case of the tail wagging the dog? (TCCC’s need for some kind of ROI from its product development programs?) Is TCCC’s real strategy just a numbers’ game? Is it to throw as many products at us and see if anything sticks? Where ten years ago, none of these new drinks might have ever seen the light of day, now they’ve found a chance at life in “the long tail.” Could this just be a front? I guess the question is worth asking, even though I’ll assume – for the sake of this discussion – that this isn’t the case.

TCCC, here’s a tip: Drop the gimmicks. Focus on taste. Whether you love wines, beers bubble teas or kefirs, it always comes down to flavor. Most people who choose to drink Coca Cola do so because they prefer it over the taste of Pepsi. It isn’t because the cans are red or because Coca Cola makes them feel happy or look cool. (The glass bottles might be the exception.) The taste, before anything else, is at the core of the Coca Cola experience.

Whether you’re The Coca Cola Company or a startup with a great idea for a product, before you spend millions overthinking your strategy, just focus on making a really great product. One that people will love to discover and use and talk about. If you love it, chances are that lots of people out there will love it too. If you really want to grab hold of the long tail, you have to start with you. The game isn’t about pleasing everyone – or the majority of “the market” (which has been TCCC’s strategy for decades). It’s about creating a product for a very specific core of rabid fans/customers.

The trick though, is this: You can’t do it by trying to fill a need based on market research (American women between the ages of 32 and 46 with a median annual income of $68-97K responded favorably to XYZ… yadayadaya…). It’s what TCCC has been doing for years, without much success. It’s what everybody’s been doing too. It’s what you do if you want to be an “also in”. Your only recourse once you’ve greenlighted a new product launch is to outspend your competitors in everything from advertising to POP displays to licensing rights, and then try to hang on as long as you can. It’s ridiculous.

The right way to do this is to do the work. The real work: Instead of quantifying a culture, penetrate it. The supertool here isn’t statistics, it’s anthropology. Here’s another tip: the moment you start quantifying tastes, you’ve lost your focus and drifted back to the lukewarm center, just like everyone else. This is the easiest mistake to make, and also the most common.

The way you develop a chocolate-flavored drink isn’t by talking to 10,000 people on the street. It’s by talking to 10,000 chocoholics. These might even be people who love chocolate but hate chocolate drinks. (How cool would it be to have 10,000 people with such specific tastes tell you why they love chocolate but hate chocolate drinks? Tell me you wouldn’t crack that code with that level of feedback.)

The point is: Do your research at the extreme edge of the bell curve.

The way you develop a new endurance drink is by talking to rabid cyclists and triathletes and marathoners. The way you develop a new game console is by talking to avid gamers (not casual gamers). The way you develop a new Pop Tart flavor is by talking to people for whom Pop Tarts is a major food group. This isn’t about talking to 0.3% of American shoppers who are representative of the 60% of shoppers who place Pop Tarts in their Top 10 likeliest breakfast foods. It’s about talking to the fraction of a percent of people who live and breathe the stuff that is at the core of your new product’s identity and raison d’etre and will buy your new flavor of Pop Tarts every other week.

Not just talking to them, but understanding what makes them tick and embracing them completely.

The long tail, after all, isn’t about markets. It’s about cultures. Subcultures, even. The more specific, the better. Think skateboarders. Think triathletes. Think online gamers. Think photography hobbyists. You either become a central part of those cultures, or you go home packing.

(Incidentally, the Pop Tart team absolutely gets it.)

If TCCC wants to grab hold of the long tail and make its new strategy work, it needs to un-Coke itself. It needs to shed the TCCC formula where these offshoot brands are concerned. It needs to create truly independent subsidiaries staffed by people who live inside the cultures they are trying to cater to, and completely outside the reach of the Coca Cola culture.

Think of it as United Artists trying to produce “independent” films with $100,000 budgets. The only way they could do it well would be to create a smaller studio managed and staffed by people who live, eat and breathe the indy culture… and let them do their thing without corporate interference, bureaucracy and big business politics. Anything short of that would result in total and utter failure.

Remember Coca Cola Blak? That was the type of product Mary Minnick was talking about: Low volume, high margin (wishful thinking if your product is perceived merely as water, natural and artificial flavoring, food coloring and high fructose corn syrup… and doesn’t taste so unbelievably good that it will make people want to trade their current favorite flavor for it). TCCC going after the Starbucks crowd with Blak may have seemed like a good idea on paper, and I guess it was worth the shot (no pun intended). It might even have worked had the price point matched the perceived value of a Coca Cola retail product.

Blak launched in 2006, when his piece was written… and finally died a few months ago after a long painful battle with dismal sales and lack of interest. (Most likely due to its very high pricepoint – holding true to Mary’s strategy – than its missing the boat on taste. Red Bull doesn’t exactly taste delicious, yet it has found its market. Draw your own conclusions.)

Beware business plans that look great on paper and are based on top-down (wishful) thinking. Successful entrepreneurs (and their projects) usually do a whole lot better when their ideas come from the bottom of the distribution tree: See a need, fill a need. (That includes understanding the pricepoint-value perception feedback loop.)

Truly understanding your customers, your users, your future fans (your market), heck, actually getting back to becoming one of them is the only way to discover your next great game changing idea. The rest, as they say, is up to you.

Have a great Tuesday, everyone.

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Ever noticed how positive attitudes are infectious? You walk into a store, and everyone who works there is jazzed and happy to be there and energetic… and by the time you leave, you have completely adopted their mood?

Ever noticed that the opposite is also true: Walk into a business where everyone is negative or apathetic, and you find yourself feeling the same dread and negativity?

Sitting in Houston’s Toyota arena with thousands of the world’s most innovative Microsoft partners, I was reminded of the power that other people’s attitudes and moods have over our own – and remembered a post that Kathy Sierra shared many moons ago on her brilliant but now sadly defunct “Passionate Users” blog. It talked about happy vs. angry people, emotional contagion, and the role mirror neurons play in our involuntary tendency to be drawn into other people’s positive or negative attitudes. Very cool stuff, and particularly relevant to some of the discussions I have been involved with in the last few days with some of my international peers. I did some quick digging to find it so I could share it with you. Here are some of the highlights:

Mirror neurons and our innate tendency to pick up other people’s behaviors, good and bad.

There is now strong evidence to suggest that humans have the same type of “mirror neurons” found in monkeys. It’s what these neurons do that’s amazing–they activate in the same way when you’re watching someone else do something as they do when you’re doing it yourself! This mirroring process/capability is thought to be behind our ability to empathize, but you can imagine the role these neurons have played in keeping us alive as a species. We learn from watching others. We learn from imitating (mirroring) others. The potential problem, though, is that these neurons go happily about their business of imitating others without our conscious intention.

Think about that…

Although the neuroscientific findings are new, your sports coach and your parents didn’t need to know the cause to recognize the effects:

“Choose your role models carefully.”
“Watching Michael Jordan will help you get better.”
“You’re hanging out with the wrong crowd; they’re a bad influence.”
“Don’t watch people doing it wrong… watch the experts!”

We’ve all experienced it. How often have you found yourself sliding into the accent of those around you? Spend a month in England and even a California valley girl sounds different. Spend a week in Texas and even a native New Yorker starts slowing down his speech. How often have you found yourself laughing, dressing, skiing like your closest friend? Has someone ever observed that you and a close friend or significant other had similar mannerisms? When I was in junior high school, it was tough for people to tell my best friends and I apart on the phone–we all sounded so much alike that we could fool even our parents.

But the effect of our innate ability and need to imitate goes way past teenage phone tricks. Spend time with a nervous, anxious person and physiological monitoring would most likely show you mimicking the anxiety and nervousness, in ways that affect your brain and body in a concrete, measurable way. Find yourself in a room full of pissed off people and feel the smile slide right off your face. Listen to people complaining endlessly about work, and you’ll find yourself starting to do the same. How many of us have been horrified to suddenly realize that we’ve spent the last half-hour caught up in a gossip session–despite our strong aversion to gossip? The behavior of others we’re around is nearly irresistible.

Why choosing who you work, play and hang out with matters.

When we’re consciously aware and diligent, we can fight this. But the stress of maintaining that conscious struggle against an unconscious, ancient process is a non-stop stressful drain on our mental, emotional, and physical bandwidth. And no, I’m not suggesting that we can’t or should’nt spend time with people who are angry, negative, critical, depressed, gossiping, whatever. Some (including my sister and father) chose professions (nurse practitioner and cop, respectively) that demand it. And some (like my daughter) volunteer to help those who are suffering (in her case, the homeless). Some people don’t want to avoid their more hostile family members. But in those situations–where we choose to be with people who we do not want to mirror–we have to be extremely careful! Nurses, cops, mental health workers, EMTs, social workers, red cross volunteers, fire fighters, psychiatrists, oncologists, etc. are often at a higher risk (in some cases, WAY higher) for burnout, alcoholism, divorce, stress, or depression unless they take specific steps to avoid getting too sucked in to be effective.

So, when Robert says he wants to spend time hanging around “happy people” and keeping his distance from “deeply unhappy” people, he’s keeping his brain from making–over the long term–negative structural and chemical changes. Regarding the effect of mirror neurons and emotional contagion on personal performance, neurologist Richard Restak offers this advice:

“If you want to accomplish something that demands determination and endurance, try to surround yourself with people possessing these qualities. And try to limit the time you spend with people given to pessimism and expressions of futility. Unfortunately, negative emotions exert a more powerful effect in social situations than positive ones, thanks to the phenomena of emotional contagion.”

This sounds harsh, and it is, but it’s his recommendation based on the facts as the neuroscientists interpret them today. This is not new age self-help–it’s simply the way brains work.

Emotional Contagion explained.

Steven Stosny, an expert on road rage, is quoted in Restak’s book:

“Anger and resentment are thet most contagious of emotions,” according to Stonsy. “If you are near a resentful or angry person, you are more prone to become resentful or angry yourself. If one driver engages in angry gestures and takes on the facial expressions of hostility, surrounding drivers will unconsciously imitate the behavior–resulting in an escalation of anger and resentment in all of the drivers. Added to this, the drivers are now more easily startled as a result of the outpouring of adrenaline accompanying their anger. The result is a temper tantrum that can easily escalate into road rage.”

From a paper on Memetics and Social Contagion,

“…social scientific research has largely confirmed the thesis that affect, attitudes, beliefs and behavior can indeed spread through populations as if they were somehow infectious. Simple exposure sometimes appears to be a sufficient condition for social transmission to occur. This is the social contagion thesis; that sociocultural phenomena can spread through, and leap between, populations more like outbreaks of measles or chicken pox than through a process of rational choice.”

Emotional contagion is considered one of the primary drivers of group/mob behavior, and the recent work on “mirror neurons” helps explain the underlying cause. But it’s not just about groups. From a Cambridge University Press book:

“When we are talking to someone who is depressed it may make us feel depressed, whereas if we talk to someone who is feeling self-confident and buoyant we are likely to feel good about ourselves. This phenomenon, known as emotional contagion, is identified here, and compelling evidence for its affect is offered from a variety of disciplines – social and developmental psychology, history, cross-cultural psychology, experimental psychology, and psychopathology.”

[For a business management perspective, see the Yale School of Management paper titled The Ripple Effect: Emotional Contagion In Groups]

Can any of us honestly say we haven’t experienced emotional contagion? Even if we ourselves haven’t felt our energy drain from being around a perpetually negative person, we’ve watched it happen to someone we care about. We’ve noticed a change in ourselves or our loved ones based on who we/they spend time with. We’ve all known at least one person who really did seem able to “light up the room with their smile,” or another who could “kill the mood” without saying a word. We’ve all found ourselves drawn to some people and not others, based on how we felt around them, in ways we weren’t able to articulate.

Happy People are better able to think logically

Neuroscience has made a long, intense study of the brain’s fear system–one of the oldest, most primitive parts of our brain. Anger and negativity usually stem from the anxiety and/or fear response in the brain, and one thing we know for sure–when the brain thinks its about to be eaten or smashed by a giant boulder, there’s no time to stop and think! In many ways, fear/anger and the ability to think rationally and logically are almost mutually exclusive. Those who stopped to weigh the pros and cons of a flight-or-fight decision were eaten, and didn’t pass on their afraid-yet-thoughtful genes.

Happines is associated most heavily with the left (i.e. logical) side of the brain, while anger is associated with the right (emotional, non-logical) side of the brain. From a Society for Neuroscience article on Bliss and the Brain:

“Furthermore, studies suggest that certain people’s ability to see life through rose-colored glasses links to a heightened left-sided brain function. A scrutiny of brain activity indicates that individuals with natural positive dispositions have trumped up activity in the left prefrontal cortex compared with their more negative counterparts. “

In other words, happy people are better able to think logically.

And apparently happier = healthier:

“Evidence suggests that the left-siders may better handle stressful events on a biological level. For example, studies show that they have a higher function of cells that help defend the body, known as natural killer cells, compared with individuals who have greater right side activity. Left-sided students who face a stressful exam have a smaller drop in their killer cells than right-siders. Other research indicates that generally left-siders may have lower levels of the stress hormone, cortisol.”

And while we’re dispelling the Happy=Vacuous myth, let’s look at a couple more misperceptions:

“Happy people aren’t critical.”
“Happy people don’t get angry.”
“Happy people are obedient.”
“Happy people can’t be a disruptive force for change.”

So can Happy and criticism live happily together?

One of the world’s leading experts in the art of happiness is the Dalai Lama, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989. Just about everyone who hears him speak is struck by how, well, happy he is. How he can describe–with laughter–some of the most traumatizing events of his past. Talk about perspective

But he is quite outspoken with his criticism of China. The thing is, he doesn’t believe that criticism requires anger, or that being happy means you can’t be a disruptive influence for good. On happiness, he has this to say:

“The fact that there is always a positive side to life is the one thing that gives me a lot of happiness. This world is not perfect. There are problems. But things like happiness and unhappiness are relative. Realizing this gives you hope.”

And among the “happy people”, there’s Mahatma Gandhi, a force for change that included non-violent but oh-most-definitely-disobedient behavior. A few of my favorite Gandhi quotes:

In a gentle way, you can shake the world.

It has always been a mystery to me how men can feel themselves honoured by the humiliation of their fellow beings.

The argument for and against anger

But then there’s the argument that says “anger” is morally (and intellectually) superior to “happy”. The American Psychological Association has this to say on anger:

“People who are easily angered generally have what some psychologists call a low tolerance for frustration, meaning simply that they feel that they should not have to be subjected to frustration, inconvenience, or annoyance. They can’t take things in stride, and they’re particularly infuriated if the situation seems somehow unjust: for example, being corrected for a minor mistake.”

Of course it’s still a myth that “happy people” don’t get angry. Of course they do. Anger is often an appropriate response. But there’s a Grand Canyon between a happy-person-who-gets-angry and an unhappy-angry-person. So yes, we get angry. Happiness is not our only emotion, it is simply the outlook we have chosen to cultivate because it is usually the most effective, thoughtful, healthy, and productive.

And there’s this one we hear most often, especially in reference to comment moderation–“if you can’t say whatever the hell you want to express your anger, you can’t be authentic and honest.” While that may be true, here’s what the psychologists say:

“Psychologists now say that this is a dangerous myth. Some people use this theory as a license to hurt others. Research has found that “letting it rip” with anger actually escalates anger and aggression and does nothing to help you (or the person you’re angry with) resolve the situation.

It’s best to find out what it is that triggers your anger, and then to develop strategies to keep those triggers from tipping you over the edge.”

And finally, another Ghandi quote:

“Be the change that you want to see in the world.”

If the scientists are right, I might also add,

Be around the change you want to see in the world.

Strong organizations and communities are able to harness the power of emotional contagion to create engaging, productive and extremely effective collaborative ecosystems. The truly exceptional among them also manage to extend this collective positivity to their human/customer touchpoints (retail outlets, salespeople, CSRs, etc.). Obvious examples of this are Starbucks (except in airports), Mac Stores, and Whole Foods grocery outlets.

This week, a very large scale example of this (and the trigger for this post) was Microsoft’s Worldwide Partner Conference in Houston, TX.

The complete opposite of this might be, say, the checkout at Walmart, Home Depot or Taco Bell, a prison ward, or an Vietnamese sweat shop.

Success breeds success. Enthusiasm breeds enthusiasm. Professionalism breeds professionalism.

Likewise, mediocrity breeds mediocrity. Apathy breeds apathy. Negative attitudes breed negative attitudes.

Now you know. What you do with this knowledge is up to you. For me, the choice is pretty simple. Always has been.

Have a great Friday. 😉

photo credit: Christopher Wray McCann

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