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Great piece in Psychology Today about the creative personality (hat tip to Hugh MacLeod). I you work with highly creative people – or are one yourself, – then you owe it to yourself to read this. It’ll explain a lot.  😉

Clarification: Creative, is not artistic :

Most of us assume that artists–musicians, writers, poets, painters–are [creative], whereas scientists, politicians, and businesspeople are realists. This may be true in terms of day-to-day routine activities. But when a person begins to work creatively, all bets are off.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s intro:

I have devoted 30 years of research to how creative people live and work, to make more understandable the mysterious process by which they come up with new ideas and new things. Creative individuals are remarkable for their ability to adapt to almost any situation and to make do with whatever is at hand to reach their goals. If I had to express in one word what makes their personalities different from others, it’s complexity. They show tendencies of thought and action that in most people are segregated. They contain contradictory extremes; instead of being an “individual,” each of them is a “multitude.”

One of ten specific examples Mihaly covers is the question of intelligence and creativity:

Creative people tend to be smart yet naive at the same time. How smart they actually are is open to question. It is probably true that what psychologists call the “g factor,” meaning a core of general intelligence, is high among people who make important creative contributions.

The earliest longitudinal study of superior mental abilities, initiated at Stanford University by the psychologist Lewis Terman in 1921, shows rather conclusively that children with very high IQs do well in life, but after a certain point IQ does not seem to be correlated any longer with superior performance in real life. Later studies suggest that the cutoff point is around 120; it might be difficult to do creative work with a lower IQ, but an IQ beyond 120 does not necessarily imply higher creativity

Another way of expressing this dialectic is the contrasting poles of wisdom and childishness. As Howard Gardner remarked in his study of the major creative geniuses of this century, a certain immaturity, both emotional and mental, can go hand in hand with deepest insights. Mozart comes immediately to mind.

Furthermore, people who bring about an acceptable novelty in a domain seem able to use well two opposite ways of thinking: the convergent and the divergent. Convergent thinking is measured by IQ tests, and it involves solving well-defined, rational problems that have one correct answer. Divergent thinking leads to no agreed-upon solution. It involves fluency, or the ability to generate a great quantity of ideas; flexibility, or the ability to switch from one perspective to another; and originality in picking unusual associations of ideas. These are the dimensions of thinking that most creativity tests measure and that most workshops try to enhance. (…)

[Yet] divergent thinking is not much use without the ability to tell a good idea from a bad one, and this selectivity involves convergent thinking.

Other points of note:

Despite the carefree air that many creative people affect, most of them work late into the night and persist when less driven individuals would not.

Creative people have a great deal of physical energy, but they’re also often quiet and at rest. They work long hours, with great concentration, while projecting an aura of freshness and enthusiasm. They control their energy; it’s not ruled by the calendar, the dock, an external schedule. When necessary, they can focus it like a laser beam; when not, creative types immediately recharge their batteries. They consider the rhythm of activity followed by idleness or reflection very important for the success of their work. This is not a bio-rhythm inherited with their genes; it was learned by trial and error as a strategy for achieving their goals.

Creative people combine playfulness and discipline, or responsibility and irresponsibility. There is no question that a playfully light attitude is typical of creative individuals. But this playfulness doesn’t go very far without its antithesis, a quality of doggedness, endurance, perseverance.

Creative people trend to be both extroverted and introverted [while the rest] are usually one or the other. In current psychological research, extroversion and introversion are considered the most stable personality traits that differentiate people from each other and that can be reliably measured. Creative individuals, on the other hand, seem to exhibit both traits simultaneously.

Creative people’s openness and sensitivity often exposes them to suffering and pain, yet also to a great deal of enjoyment. Most would agree with Rabinow’s words: “Inventors have a low threshold of pain. Things bother them.” A badly designed machine causes pain to an inventive engineer, just as the creative writer is hurt when reading bad prose.

Being alone at the forefront of a discipline also leaves you exposed and vulnerable. Eminence invites criticism and often vicious attacks. When an artist has invested years in making a sculpture, or a scientist in developing a theory, it is devastating if nobody cares.

Deep interest and involvement in obscure subjects often goes unrewarded, or even brings on ridicule. Divergent thinking is often perceived as deviant by the majority, and so the creative person may feel isolated and misunderstood.

Perhaps the most important quality, the one that is most consistently present in all creative individuals, is the ability to enjoy the process of creation for its own sake. Without this trait, poets would give up striving for perfection and would write commercial jingles, economists would work for banks where they would earn at least twice as much as they do at universities, and physicists would stop doing basic research and join industrial laboratories where the conditions are better and the expectations more predictable.

Go here to read the whole thing.

Have a great Friday 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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“The arrogance of success is to think that what you did yesterday will be sufficient for tomorrow.”

– William Pollard.

That’s worth framing and hanging in every meeting room from Portland to Tahiti (via Paris).

Also, via Tom Asacker:

“Over time, unchanging relationships can turn into shackles that limit an organization’s flexibility and lock it into active inertia. Established relationships with customers can prevent firms from responding effectively to changes in technology, regulations, or consumer preferences.”

– Donald Sull (Revival of the Fittest: Why Good Companies Go Bad an How Great Managers Remake Them.)

Do you see where I’m going with this?

So… your new mission every day is to keep things fresh. That’s it. Whether you’re in the business of designing ads, repairing engines, selling shoes or answering calls from angry customers, don’t ever, ever, ever let routine set in. Try different things. Learn something new from every customer. From every sale. From every design challenge. From every product launch. From every commercial you hear on the radio. From every movie you catch on cable. From the games your kids play. From magazines you’ve never picked up.

Keep things fresh.

And go read Tom Asacker’s post on that very topic. It’s very good.

Have a great Monday, everyone.

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The dehumanization of air travel is finally taking its toll on some of the most fundamental ways in which people interact with each other. The airlines (and this includes their human touch-points) create an atmosphere devoid of compassion, smiles and care for our comfort and experience. Over time, we start emulating this lack of human warmth by becoming removed from one another.

Thus, an industry (in this case the majority of airline companies/brands), through its broad reach into our culture, can in effect change the very mechanics of human interactions.

Cause and effect –

It’s been about a year and a half since I’ve had the joy of flying from coast to coast via the friendly skies, and I wasn’t exactly complaining about it. Still, I kind of dig the left coast, so whenever work or pleasure give me an opportunity to check out the Pacific Ocean from our lovely shores, I usually jump at the chance.

So here I am, in San Jose/Fremont/San Francisco (yes, all at once – or something like that) after a relatively uneventful three-airport hop-along that started at 4:00am Monday morning in Greenville, SC, and ended on time (surpisingly) in in sunny San Jose, CA.

That’s right: On time.

I experienced exactly zero delays. Sure, the planes were ridiculously full, but I guess that’s good so I can’t complain about that.

And we didn’t crash, which is always nice too.

All in all, I have to say that Delta Airlines – which I’ve had a tolerate-hate relationship with for years now – did better than I expected. They even kept me hydrated and snacked (“fed” would be pushing the semantics) throughout my impossibly uncomfortable flight over these beautiful United States.

And that is where I have to hit on a cliche of air travel, but dammit, would it hurt commercial aeroplane designers (yes, I’ve decided to spell it the British way) to develop seats actually DESIGNED FOR HUMAN BEINGS? Let’s go through this again: I am 6′. I weigh 165lbs. Compared to most American men I share a pressurized cabin with, I am nowhere near “big.” Yet, my seats today were so small and caved-in that I couldn’t find a comfortable position for even ten minutes. (My neck is killing me.)

And this comes from a guy who spends upwards of 3 hours on a time-trial bicycle, mind you.

Aside from the lack of comfort (or should I say – complete victory of discomfort-inspired design), there is the issue of space management: It’s bad enough that seats are designed to keep you awake for the entire trip and ensure weeks of headaches and neck pain, but they’re also too narrow and close together. It is physically impossible to do anything with your elbows except a) shove them violently into your neighbors’ skulls in a snarling fit of air rage, of b) hunker down and curl your spine into a crooked little ball so that your elbows may rest peacefully on your thighs.

For five f#$%ing hours. Great.

“Would you like crackers or peanuts, sir?”

Ungh… As soon… as… I… uncurl myself…

But that’s nothing new. The comfortable coach seats of the Super Caravelles are a thing of the past, so there is really no point in dwelling on the instruments of torture designed to keep us “safely” secured during flight while maximizing passenger volume per flight – which, after all, is all that matters: Get as many of us sorry saps on a plane as inhumanly possible.

Trust me, if airlines could find a way to stack us on top of each other to double a plane’s capacity, they would. (Hey, if that meant having a cot instead of a seat, I’m all for it. Strap me in!)

No, what’s new is the apathy I ran into today. It was kind of a numbness to things which, as someone who grew up in a big crowded city, I find a bit odd. Typically, a person reacts in some way to unpleasantness, like getting bumped by someone on the street for example… but I find that human behavior in airports now no longer answers to the same set of rules that we normally live by out here in the real world.

Next time you’re in an airport (or on a plane,) try this little Fight Club-ish experiment: Bump into somebody. Bump into them hard. Hard enough to knock them forward or back or sideways. Bump into them so they have to take a step to keep themselves from falling – and keep going. Don’t make eye contact. Don’t apologize. Just go about your business as if the person you bumped into didn’t exist.

But have someone watch their reaction for you.

Bad mojo, and the tragic fate of manners –

What I found today is that in an airport or on a plane, people will completely ignore one another even if they bump into each other, kind of like the way cows ignore each other while they are grazing. I also never noticed how much people in airports and on aeroplanes (British spelling again) bump into other people. It’s insane. Traveling has officially become a full contact sport.

There’s the guy whose backpack collides with your shoulder as he tries to squeeze by during the boarding process (for whatever reason since his seat is already assigned and we aren’t leaving until everyone is on board – so what’s the rush?). There’s the guy who finds a way to kick you in the toes while walking up the aisle to go take a leak – even though your foot is safely tucked in under the seat in front of you. (How he manages to do this, I have no earthly idea. Retractable evil clown shoes is all I can come up with.) There’s the woman whose out-of-control waddling knocks your arm off your seat’s armrest just as you were finally drifting off to sleep. And then there’s the murderous snack cart of doom, with its blunt edges and 1500 pounds of hammered steel fury cold-heartedly coming down the aisle. Yeah. Getting smacked in the elbow by surprise with this infernal bone-crushing instrument of Hades is always the highlight of any cross-country flight.

But seriously: Put us (Homo-Sapiens) anywhere near an airport, and we start to bump into each other like Vista screensaver bubbles. Either – as a species – our peripheral vision is getting worse (in which case we need to get the human genome project working on that, stat!) or we’re turning into bumbling morons who can’t even stand up anymore without f%&#ing that up too. Who knows. It might be the next logical step in our idiocratic de-evolution.

What I do know is this: When I was but a wee little French boy, I was taught something called “manners.” Don’t ask me to explain what manners are. It’s too complicated… But they have something to do with being polite and considerate of others whenever possible. Manners involve doing things like saying “please” and “thank you.” They involve – at least in the Western world – not burping in the company of others, not being ruthlessly flatulent (especially in a car or an aeroplane), and not saying bad words like f%*k or s&!t around your grandparents unless they say them first. Manners are what keep you from chewing with your mouth open or cutting in line at the movie theater, or treating people like they are cattle.

Manners, as far as I remember (and I am not that old) also involve apologizing when you bump into someone. Here’s an example:

*Bump* *Eye contact.* *Embarrassed expression on your face* “Oh, I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to bump into you.” *compassionate and apologetic smile* *exit*

That’s right: When you bump into someone, the civilized thing to do is to make eye contact, give the offended party a sad facial expression, and verbally apologize. Flatly, even, if need be.

You know that apathy I mentioned earlier? It apparently applies to manners as well: Not only do people seem to no longer try not to bump into each other in the first place, but they also don’t seem to give a flying monkey’s arse about apologizing when they do. They simply go on with their bumbling self-absorbed iPod-adorned biz as if the bump hadn’t happened at all.

At the mall, in the street, at work, people apologize to each other when they accidentally collide. Heck, they do all sorts of crazy things to avoid collisions in the first place. But in airports or at 35,000 feet, their behavior changes. Which brings me to this conclusion: If people’s behavior is impacted by their environment, what is it about our nation’s airports and air travel experience that makes so many of folks act like selfish apathetic oafs?

Cause and effect: Policies of dehumanization and the downward spiral of human interactions –

Earlier, I used bovine imagery to describe certain people. That was not an accident. Treat people like cattle, and sooner or later, they will start acting like cattle. Treat people like a commodity, and sooner or later, they start treating each other like a commodity. That’s just science.

The dehumanization of air travel is finally taking its toll on some of the most fundamental ways in which people interact with each other: The airlines (and this includes their human touch-points) create an atmosphere devoid of compassion, smiles, and care for our comfort and experience. At some point, we started emulating this lack of human warmth by becoming removed from one another to the point of being patently apathetic and rude… And we let it happen.

Thus, through a series of deliberate decisions regarding simple business functions like HR and customer service, an industry (in this case, the majority of airline companies/brands), through its broad reach into our culture, in effect began to change the very mechanics of human interactions.

The Silver Lining and a bit of common sense –

That’s scary and sad… but it’s also a little bit exciting because it means that the opposite can also be true: On the flip side, an industry (or a brand, if influential enough) can create an atmosphere of good will which will be contagious in the very same way.

An airline with friendly staff, comfortable seats, a painless back-to-front boarding process (come on people, is that so hard to figure out?!), in-flight snacks that don’t make us feel like we’re being nickeled-and-dimed, and maybe even flight attendants who don’t look like Wal-Mart greeters, don’t act like we spat in their ham sandwich, and (one can dream) actually treat passengers like valued customers instead of a pain in their arses might balance things out and restore civilized behavior in and around airports. Maybe.

An airline like that might even help rescue the entire industry by setting a shining example for everyone, and setting a new – achievable – set of standards.

Am I dreaming? Am I naive? Don’t even go there. Here’s my take on this: A smile doesn’t cost a thing.

Not

one

red

cent.

The lack of smiles across the majority of an organization, however, can cost you the death of a brand – at the very least.

It isn’t rocket science.

A smile is never a detail.

The value of vision, the role of standards, and what we should really worry about –

Fifteen years ago, I used to fly Sabena, Delta, PanAm, and British Caledonian between the US and Europe. Back then, flight attendants were good looking, friendly, professional, proud of their airlines and their occupation, and always willing to help passengers have a comfortable (if not pleasant) experience. Don’t even try to call me shallow for mentioning good looking as an element of my list. Airlines, just like the military once had standards which make sense in light of what they are trying to accomplish: While the military once had high standards in regards to physical fitness, the airlines had high standards in terms of passenger experience. Both made sense then, and still do now. Yet, here we are.

I guess this is what happens when you allow your standards as a brand, as an organization, as the practical execution of someone’s vision, to go down the drain. Where flight attendants were once attractive, energetic, friendly, pleasant people, they now tend to be aging, bitter-acting, unpleasant air scrooges with a chip on their shoulder and a fading ability to smile.

Where air travel was once a glamorous, exciting, relatively painless experience, it has now become the absolute worst way to travel in the US. Taking the bus is more fun than flying, and that’s saying something because bus systems in this country aren’t exactly great.

But beyond all that, my saddest observation from this dull, uncomfortable, disappointing day of unpleasantness wasn’t the fact that the flight attendants were mildly ill-mannered old ladies with painted-on eyebrows and mismatched uniforms in need of a good pressing. It wasn’t the fact that the seats were three sizes too small. It wasn’t even even the fact that I got scraped, bumped, kicked and shoved without even the hint of an apology or acknowledgment from any of the offending parties. No, it was something infinitely more subtle than that – but much scarier in light of all of this, because it speaks to the depth of apathy that we are now reaching as an airport-dwelling society: As we were flying over some of the most breathtaking deserts and canyons that went on for miles and miles and miles – and I am talking National Geographic cover-worthy landscapes here; absolutely stunning stuff – no one on the plane seemed to care. People just sat there in their uncomfortable seats, eyes glued to their laptop screens or the latest exciting issue of Sky Mall or just staring blankly into space while these gorgeous landscapes glided by. I walked up and down the plane, looking for a better vantage point since I had an aisle seat, and watched as traveler after traveler, curious about what I was looking at through their portholes, glanced down at the gorgeous mosaic of colors and textures carved out by millions of years of planetary evolution… and looked away, bored and unimpressed.

That level of apathy and emotional disconnect surprised me… and made me a little sad.

It’s one thing for people to stop being cordial and compassionate towards each other. But when people start not caring about powerful, genuine beauty when it is right there in front of them, then I think there’s reason to worry.

We’re losing something here. Something we should fight a little harder to hold on to because we can’t afford for it to slip away.

What does any of this have to do with brands? I’ll tell you:

Brands do not reflect cultures; they affect them.

As brand stewards, give some thought to the impact that your brand (from a personal microbrand to a global megabrand) has had on people in the past, what impact it has on people now, and what impact you want it to have on people for decades to come. Is your brand contributing to a broken system and a downward spiral of apathy, or to an improvement in people’s quality of life?

This line of thinking may not seem as black and red as your P&L report, but it is well worth thinking about because it is at the core of everything your brand stands for.

And if your brand stands for nothing, it is nothing more than a complete waste of space.

So at the very least, try to instill in your employees, clients, co-workers, and customers a sense that smiles are contagious. That they are good for business in the same way that they are good for the soul. That without genuine human interactions, without emotional engagement between you, your brand, and your audience, you have failed not only as a brand steward, but also as a human being, which is a whole lot of failure.

In short, make us care – by showing us you do.

Smile. Say thank you. Say please. Say sorry. Chew with your mouth closed. Open the door for ladies. Give up your seat on a crowded bus. And perhaps most important of all, don’t squeeze out a toxic cloud of digested chili cheese taco in a crowded place without at least apologizing for your lack of manners.

It’s the little things, after all.

Have a great Wednesday, everyone. 😉

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