Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘management lessons’ Category

nuclear-explosion

Let’s go over a few things:

1. Social Media is good for you, you know it, and you know why.

2. Social Media alone can’t save your business, but you know that your business can no longer be a market leader without an effective presence in Social Media.

3. Without resources to put behind a social media program or practice, you’re nowhere. It’s kind of like trying to drive  a car without gasoline. Sorry. It isn’t going to happen.

4. Without capital, you can’t put resources behind your Social Media program. So… you have to be able to justify that expenditure. That investment.

5. In order to be able to justify an investment in a Social Media program (from your boss, your client, your peers) you need to understand how to show the value of such a program to their organization.

6. Hits on your website, banner ad clickthroughs, impressions, KPI and whatever other types of measurement your marketing people love to throw at you are nice, they’re important, but they don’t justify a whole lot. They’re a lot like hugs: Everyone knows hugs are nice, but they don’t pay anyone’s salaries and bonuses. You have to take that game a little further.

7. The P&L is not an arcane accounting document. It is where business decisions are put to the test. Every business manager on the planet watches it daily. If you have never been responsible for one, at least get familiar with its mechanics and importance.

8. If you want to justify a budget, a program, a salary, a raise, a bonus, show your boss and your client how your idea will generate more revenue, more dividends or more cost savings. Or how it already has. That will ALWAYS get more priority than schemes to get attention or earn hugs. Money is not an abstract notion. You could get lucky and never be asked to tie your activities to financial impact, but that’s no excuse not to learn how to do it.

9. If you are not able to do this, if you cannot justify the value of a Social Media program, practice, presence or endeavor, the budget you needed to make it happen will go to something else. Like email blasts, efficiency consultants, or that new executive bathroom your boss has really been jonesing for.

10. If you cannot convince your boss or client to invest resources, time and faith in Social Media, they (and you) will get left behind by those of us who can and do. (And I assume you don’t want that.)

11. There are solid measurement and R.O.I. Best Practices and case studies being developed right now. They will pave the way for very, very VERY good things. If #10 (above) resonated with you, you probably want to learn from them so you can apply them to your business. Hence my proposal to SxSW ’10.

12. The nonsense and B.S. need to stop. They really do. For everyone’s sake.

You have a choice: You can continue to ignore the topic of Social Media measurement and R.O.I. Best Practices and pretend that talking about web conversions and the influencer index and brand lift will keep things going (which they won’t), or you can get serious about this stuff, learn how to do it right, and be a hero with every company you work for for the next ten years.

Your choice.

If you want to learn this stuff, if you want to bring this discussion to the table, please vote for my session at SxSW asap. The voting ends on Friday at midnight, so I really need you guys to act now.  Spread the word, show people my latest  R.O.I. presentation if you have to… whatever works. It’s up to you. Know that if the session doesn’t get enough votes and isn’t accepted, I am 100% fine with that… But it would be a shame: The sooner we put the R.O.I. “discussion” to rest, the sooner we establish these best practices once and for all, the sooner we can get back to doing more important work.

If you haven’t voted yet, click here now, and thanks in advance. Pass it on. 😉

(You guys rock, by the way!)

Read Full Post »

You’re always in beta. Always. If you think you aren’t, you’re already falling behind and bleeding relevance.

What does being in Beta mean? It means being in perpetual test mode. It means constantly asking “how could I do this better,” even when this worked just fine. How can I listen better? How could I improve customer service? How can I make my billing process smoother? How could we improve the UI/UX of our websites? How can I engage my user community even better? How could this brochure have been better?

I know what you’re thinking: Poor kid. He’s terminally obsessive-compulsive. 😀 (Actually, I’m just compulsive, not obsessive, but that’s a topic for another day.)

The point is this: The moment you start thinking that you have found the perfect model, the second you start adopting a “let’s not change anything” mentality, you’re screwed. The “don’t fix it if it ain’t broke” saying I hear a lot in the South is may have been pretty good advice a hundred years ago, but it isn’t anymore. Not if you want your company to stay competitive. Not if you want to see your company grow. Not if you want to see chronic improvement in everything you do.

Check out today’s video if you haven’t already. And if it doesn’t launch for you, go watch it here. (Thanks, Viddler!)

Interestingly, the “you’re always in Beta” mindset that I am talking about today seriously reminds me of the mindset athletes and coaches get into when it comes to improving performance. Say you’re currently a 24:00 5K runner, and you want to relive your college glory days by running an 18:00 5K a year from now. How do you do it? Simple: By stressing your system one little bit at a time. By challenging your comfort zone with every run. Going from 24:00 to 23:55, then 23:50, then 23:45 for the same distance, and so on. Turning up the heat and the intensity for a few weeks, then giving your body a chance to adapt. To plateau. And then starting over with a new cycle of stress and adaptation followed by a rest period. During that time, you are constantly testing your boundaries, monitoring success and failure, learning what works and what doesn’t. (And yes, measuring your progress to know what works and what doesn’t.) Pretty basic stuff.

The alternative would be to keep running the same 5K route every day at the exact same speed, in the exact same way. What would happen? Well, you would become pretty good at running a 5K  in 24:00. Comfortable? Sure. But whatever happened to improvement? See where I am going with this?

Okay, now let’s complicate things a little bit:

As a triathlete, training and competing in what essentially amounts to three sports (swimming, cycling and running) adds some pretty substantial layers of complexity. Not only do I have to figure out how to train for three specific sports, but I have to figure out how to combine and integrate all three in a way that doesn’t lead to injury or burnout. I also have to fit all three in my already busy schedule. Then I have to consider how to time my training cycles to coincide with specific races. In addition, I have to incorporate changes in nutrition and hydration based on my workouts, my training mode, outside temperatures, etc. And if I get into my head that I am going to train for a marathon, half Ironman or full-on mac-daddy Ironman, all of these variables take on a level of complexity I can’t even begin to explain in one blog post. How much Gatorade should I drink per hour in 94 degree temperatures at 80% of my maximum heart rate? How many energy gels can I absorb per hour without getting sick to my stomach? What cadence should I adopt to sustain an average speed of 21mph for 112 miles? Only one way to find out: Test it.

And I haven’t even talked about gear. Will the improved aerodynamics gained from dropping my aerobars down 2 millimeters shave 20 seconds off my 40K time? Maybe… but as a result, will my upper body’s new angle offset my hip angle enough to reduce my power output or stress my hip flexors enough that I will start cramping up 5 miles into the run? How will I find out? There’s only one way: Getting out there and testing that theory. It’s clipboard and stopwatch time for the next six weeks.

Should I go with a disc wheel or a deep dish rim for my next race? How will I know which works better for me on a moderately hilly course in 15mph crosswinds? Only one way: I have to go test each wheel configuration on a variety of courses in completely different wind conditions. Then I’ll know what works best in specific course conditions.

Rear-mounted bottle-cages or frame-mounted? Aero helmet or regular helmet? Motion control shoes or racing flats? Test test test test test. You get the picture.

Call it an occupational benefit or a pre-existing condition, but being a triathlete kind of trains you to be in a perpetual Beta mindset. And it isn’t a stretch to jump from the world of competitive endurance sports to the world of business performance. Different application, but same principles and same basic methodology: Ask, test, observe, validate, learn, repeat.

But before you do all this – the testing, the experimentation, the analysis and learning and adaptation – you have to make a choice. You have to pick a camp. You have to decide whether you are satisfied with your business performance as it is today (“good enough” is good enough for you and your customers), or hungry for improvement.

There’s no right or wrong answer here. It doesn’t matter what camp you decide to align yourself with: The one happy with the way things are or the one looking to kick ass a little more each day. What matters is that your decision work for you. But let’s be clear about the impact that your choice will have on your business: Sticking with a “let’s not change anything” mindset will not earn you more customers, increase customer loyalty or generate more sales. Where you are today is exactly where you will be tomorrow. If you’re lucky. Eventually, perhaps not next week or next month or next year, but eventually, this mindset will seal your doom. A Beta mindset, however, will help you uncover ways to innovate, earn more customers, cut costs, increase customer and employee loyalty, improve product design and performance… You name it: Whatever the opportunity to improve, do do things better and smarter, may be, you will systematically uncover it in the same way that Apple, Nike, BMW, Cervelo, HBO, Michael Phelps, IDEO, Lance Armstrong, Comcast and Zappos have.

If you want your company to be best in class, to own a market or an industry, to be the trendsetter, the example to follow, the leader in a category, you must adopt a perpetual Beta mindset. You have to constantly stress your systems and processes. You have to turn every action into a test an look at every activity as an opportunity to experiment.You have to measure, analyze, learn, adapt and repeat the cycle over and over and over again.

Question everything.

Work harder than the next guy to build the best XYZ the world has ever seen, and then find ways to make it even better.

Perfection is a process, not a milestone.

Embrace a state of perpetual Beta.


Read Full Post »

Roger Waters crowd

Pete Quily just saved me a few hours of work by publishing a fantastic Presidential Election/social media scorecard that outlines how the Obama campaign took advantage of social media and the internet to supercharge his grassroots movement all the way to victory. Remember the jokes about his having been a “community organizer?” It appears that the ability to create, organize and engage communities is a pretty useful skill after all. Combine it with social media, and you can work some serious magic – both in the political world AND the business world. If the Obama campaign’s success with social media strategies don’t convince CEOs and CMOs across the US that this “search”, Facebook and Twitter stuff is serious business, I don’t know what will.

Here are the numbers:

Barack Obama Vs. John McCain Search Engine and Social Media Showdown

Internet Presence
Barack Obama
John McCain
% Difference
Leading
Google Pagerank
8
8
0
Pages in Google’s Index
1,820,000
30,700
5828
Obama
Links to Website
in Yahoo – Pages
643,416
513,665
25
Obama
Links to Website
in Yahoo – Inlinks
255,334
165,296
54
Obama

Search Engine Results for Candidates Names in Quotes & Social Media Presence

Google
56,200,000
42,800,000
31
Obama
Google News
136,000
371,620
173
McCain
Google Blog
4,633,997
3,094,453
50
Obama
Technorati
412,219
313,497
31
Obama
WordPress.com
19,692
14,468
36
Obama
Google Image
24,200,000
8,620,000
181
Obama
Flickr
73,076
15,168
382
Obama
Flickr Photostream* 50,218 No Profile 50,218
Obama
Flickr Contacts* 7,148 No Profile 7,148
Obama
Google Video
136,000
89,800
51
Obama
Youtube
358,000
191,000
87
Obama
Youtube Videos Posted*
1,819
330
451
Obama
Youtube Subscribers*
117,873
none listed
117,873
Obama
Youtube Friends*
25,226
none listed
25,226
Obama
Facebook
567,000
18,700
2932
Obama
Facebook Supporters*
2,444,384
627,459
290
Obama
Facebook Wall Posts*
495,320
132,802
273
Obama
Facebook Notes*
1,669
125
1235
Obama
MySpace
859,000
319,000
169
Obama
MySpace Friends*
844,781
219,463
285
Obama
MySpace Comments*
147,630
none listed
147,630
Obama
Twitter
506,000
44,800
1129
Obama
Twitter Followers*
121,314
4,911
2470
Obama
Twitter Updates*
262
25
1048
Obama
Friend Feed
34,300
27,400
25
Obama

The statistic that should sum it all up: John McCain’s social network page has only 3 suggested sites, Obama’s suggests 16. One side understood how to seed social media channels to foster grass roots movements while the other had absolutely no idea what to do with social media beyond the obvious (using YouTube as a broadcast channel, and probing the value of Facebook/MySpace communities).

The Twitter Factor

Take a look at the Twitter numbers (in blue): Only 25 updates for @JohnMcCain vs. 262 updates for @BarackObama.

Less than 5,000 followers for John McCain vs. 121,300 followers for Barack Obama.

Boiled down to the basics: 10x more updates for Obama = almost 25x more followers for Obama.

Note: John McCain’s social networking site sadly makes zero reference to Twitter. Missed opportunity? Probably: One of the most notable effects of the McCain campaigns lack of focus on Twitter was obvious during the final few weeks of the campaign: A significant pro-Obama bias which left many McCain supporters alienated on the exploding live micro-blogging service. Instead of feeding John McCain’s social-media savvy army of supporters on Twitter, his campaign left them with little to do but huddle together and stand fast against a deluge of pro-Obama chatter. Imagine what YOU could do with 5,000 organized followers/customer/fans rooting for you on Twitter. Not understanding the value of these channels most certainly cost the McCain campaign dearly in the final weeks of leading to the Nov. 4 elections.

Why should anyone care about Twitter? One word: Numbers. According to stats provided by compete.com last month, Twitter’s year-over-year growth clocked at 573% in September 2008 vs. Facebook’s very respectable 84% YoY growth and MySpace’s negative 15% YoY growth. (Yep, MySpace’s unique visits are apparently shrinking.) Twitter’s growth is staggering.

At this rate, it may take less than 3 years for Twitter’s estimated 2.5 million* visitors to reach Facebook’s current 100 million* mark. When you consider that presidential elections can be won or lost by just a few thousand votes, it doesn’t take a social media expert to understand the extent to which Twitter WILL play a vital role in the 2012 presidential race.

* Worldwide numbers. Not US numbers. It is estimated that approximately 40% of Twitter users are in the United States.

Below: Twitter demographics (usage by age and gender). If you’re a student looking for a cool project involving social media, overlay this data with voter demographics and see what you find out.

2510539719_6e0af78a8a

To understand the full extent of the Obama campaign’s digital and social media strategies in these historic elections click here: Blue State Digital’s case study on the Obama online campaign is pretty comprehensive. (Political science, communications and marketing students will be studying this for years to come.)

Read Pete’s full post here. Great stuff.

Have a great Friday, everyone! 🙂

Read Full Post »

Robert Killick on the need for intellectual curiosity and courage in the face of “unknowns” in today’s business leaders:

Risk was once seen as a catalyst for competitiveness, innovation and change in enterprise culture. Now it is seen as a negative barrier to be avoided with all sorts of precautionary measures. ‘Risk consciousness’ is the order of the day, but the preference to always dig up the dark side of humanity betrays a lack of faith in human reason. Curiosity and foolhardiness are often derided as irresponsible and egotistical traits, but the great heroes of the past have taken personal risks that benefit all of us.

Today, research and experimentation that does not have a measurable ‘positive effect’ is seen as irresponsible. Yet it is precisely through experimentation, risk – and, yes, mistakes – that some of the major scientific breakthroughs and technological inventions have come about. Without risky experimentation, and without individuals willing to take those risks in the pursuit of knowledge, we wouldn’t have aeroplanes, penicillin, MRI scans or X-rays.

The ability to handle risk – though technology, human ingenuity, reason and resilience – is a measure of modernity and it can only be achieved through more experimentation, not less. The hard won freedoms to creative expression, communication and to technological innovation should be treasured, and the twenty-first century should be when we take them even further.

Risk-adverse/risk-paralyzed leaders aren’t leaders at all. At best, they are followers promoted or appointed to positions they should have had enough common sense, integrity and professionalism to turn down.

Fact: Leaders “lead.” They take their companies in a specific direction and make sure that course corrections occur as needed along the way. Standing still, ignoring emerging market trends, rewarding business-as-usual strategies, waiting for competitors to make a move before testing the waters, or building protective walls around organizations are not examples of leadership.

No one is advocating making rash decisions of course, but in order for companies to be successful, their leaders must possess certain key personality traits – among them the essential combination of vision, courage and an unbreakable pioneering streak.

Bear this in mine when placing your bets on a company, new boss or potential candidates for an executive-level position.

Have a great week, everyone!

Read Full Post »

Great post from Gavin Heaton over at Servant of Chaos this week about the changing face of business management. Gavin mentions an emerging new breed of business leader that might sound a little familiar if you’ve been paying attention to what our little community of Marketing+ bloggers has been talking about these last few years. Check this out:

By far, the most radical transformation will be the one thrust upon us by the generational change that is now under way. With 60 million baby boomers about to be replaced by 60 million Millennials, the workplace will never be the same again. Managing the “knowledge transfer” that needs to take place over the next 5-10 years will be a fundamental responsibility of the Business Designer.

What is a Business Designer, I hear you ask? Per Gavin:

The Business Designer does not sit in a creative studio. Rather, she operates across business units — touching marketing, customer service and new product design. The BD has a finger on the pulse of finance and lives cheek-by-jowl with the legal team. There is the touch of the management consultant in the way that the BD navigates the org chart — but also the fervour of the evangelist. She may be T-shaped. She may be a green egg. But above all, she is an experienced business professional. That’s right — she knows how to get things done.

The BD will perform the important role of “change manager” or perhaps “transformation manager” — for the domino-like changes that will occur in every facet of a business will change the nature of the enterprise. What has been rough and ready in the consumer space will become refined and repeatable in the business world for the BD will select and orchestrate the practices, tools and approaches that correspond with a company’s business strategy. Of course, this will breed a whole new round of innovation in the technology space — we have already begun to see this with Yammer, the business version of Twitter.

And there will be a corresponding transformation in the process of business, and the goals and approaches of groups charged with managing brand touch points. This goes without saying.

What’s the difference between a Business Designer and a traditional business manager? The way I look at it, the difference lies in a handful of subtle yet crucial traits exhibited by this new biz whiz breed:

1. The T-shaped trait: These folks combine a strong mix of Marketing Management and Experience Design, and understand the importance of storytelling, Brand Strategy, and Experience Design. They are gifted strategists with extremely well developed creative, communications and context-building skills. They are intellectually curious, deeply entrepreneurial problem solvers.

2. The Green Egg trait: Process improvement, an eye to new markets and a passion for Innovation are their biggest professional drivers. These folks are agents of change. These are the people who will take your company to the next level in its evolution (if you let them).

3. The “good enough” aversion trait: These folks are way too passionate to tolerate a “good enough” mentality. Their job is about much more than turning a crank and picking up a paycheck. They’re change agents – not for the sake of change, but for the sake of driving to necessary leaps in a business’ evolution.

4. They ideation trait: These folks bubble over with ideas. They sketch a lot. They prototype. They like to test out their ideas. They seek out peers who can help them bring their ideas to life. They tend to be gadget and accessories freaks, even if they only own a few. They are designers at heart, if not technically in practice.

5. The connected trait: These folks have connected with their time. They understand the underlying strategic shifts going on right now that will change the landscape that your company operates in. They are good at connecting the dots: By being plugged-in to the world today in ways that most are not, they can clearly see what the business landscape will look like in two, five and ten years. This gives them the ability to be the architects of your company’s future. You may frown at their interest in social media tools like Twitter, Seesmic, Yammer and Facebook, but these are the tools of their trade: This is how they connect with their peers, with information, and with the shifting tides that will drive the market changes that will either sink or remake your business in the next decade.

Here’s more on that from Gavin:

We are also reaching a certain maturity in the way that marketers work with social media. There are now case studies on the effectiveness of social media, there are tools that help us measure and react to conversations and there are an increasing number of corporate roles for “community managers” or even “directors of social media”.

In this environment, the focus is no longer on learning the tools, but on refining the way that we interact with them. It is about bringing social media into our businesses, integrating it with our other marketing efforts and focusing efforts in a way that deliver business results.

Read the whole post here.

I am glad you brought up the notion of this new type of business leader, Gavin. I’ve been trying to put my finger on this for a few years now. Still not quite there yet… But for those of us living at the intersection of Business Management, User & Community Engagement, Marketing Communications, Product Design, Innovation, and the evolution of Social Media tools, starting to put a name to the thing is way overdue. With most business leaders spending at least 85% of their time turning the crank and making sure their businesses run properly, who is in charge of actually driving the business to its next evolution? Department managers? Sales? The COO? The CMO? 15% or less of a business leader’s day potentially devoted to improving – not just running – their business. Scary. In a rapidly changing world/economy/market, it pays to have at least one person (better yet, a whole team of them) a) focusing on what’s next, and b) getting the business ready for it.

Does the opportunity for such folks exist as a layer between the CEO and the other C-suite execs (CMO, COO, CFO, Manufacturing, Design Engineering, Sales, etc.)  Is the role better suited to function as a team-based cluster of upper-mid-level Business Directors? Perhaps a Brand Czar who provides direction to all departments but answers directly to the CMO? Is there a better name for the role? Can this type of individual force an overhaul of the traditional corporate org chart?

Big tip of the hat for getting that discussion started, my friend.

Read Full Post »

I have to admit it, my latest guilty pleasure is watching HBO’s “Generation Kill” (the story of the 1st Marine Recon Batallion in the first few weeks of the 2003 invasion of Iraq) on Sunday nights. The 7-part miniseries is currently on episode 3, and so far so good. Think “The Wire” meets “3 Kings” with a “Band of Brothers” vibe. 

In terms of pure entertainment, it’s mostly a guy thing I guess, so it may miss the mark with broad audiences. But in terms of painting a pretty complex web of interactions between layers of hierarchy, leadership styles and gradients of professionalism, the show is pure gold. MBA students should be required to watch the show just to see what great leadership and bad leadership look like, and perhaps more importantly how they can work together hand in hand within a single, complex, diverse organization. Sure, the vernacular is more akin to military units and sports teams than the board room, but the principles of applied leadership are exactly the same.

Management Lessons from Generation Kill so far:

  1. As a leader, being competent matters.
  2. As a leader, being competent doesn’t always matter.
  3. Leaders who cultivate cults of personality don’t have to explain themselves as much.
  4. Expectations don’t have to be realistic. Instead, they should always be just shy of impossibly high and unwavering. (Shatter your people’s comfort zone early and consistently.)
  5. Clarity of purpose is key.
  6. Clarity of execution is key.
  7. Use a map or a diagram. Point at something and tell your team where they are, where you want them to go, how you expect them to get there, how fast, etc..
  8. If a process doesn’t exist, create one.
  9. If a process needs to be improved, improve it.
  10. Excuses have an effective range of exactly zero meters.
  11. Train harder and more often than any reasonable person would, then train some more.
  12. The mission is the mission. 99% completion = failure. 100% completion = success.
  13. Success is the only currency you have when it comes to securing a better place on the food chain.
  14. Not everyone in your organization is an A-lister. Too bad. Welcome to the real world. You still need to get the job done. (See #10)
  15. Mistakes may happen, but there will be no screwups.
  16. Every organization needs a ball buster somewhere towards the top of the hierarchy to keep everyone in line.
  17. The grooming standard must be maintained. It is the foundation upon which everything else either clicks like a well oiled .50 cal or falters like a one-eyed, three legged dog.
  18. Be the first to get the thing done. People don’t always notice the best, but they always notice the first.
  19. Do what the other guys are too afraid to do.
  20. Never let the enemy dictate the pace of your movements.
  21. Keep the violence of initiative on your side.
  22. Understand the rules of engagement.
  23. Communicate the rules of engagement to your team in real time.
  24. Let whatever you fear the most be the thing that drives you the most.
  25. Do not dwell on mistakes. Learn from them quickly and move on.
  26. Personal opinions are always irrelevant and unwelcome.
  27. Respect for authority doesn’t have to come from the heart, but it has to come anyway.
  28. Orders are orders. If they were optional, they would be called something else.
  29. Your job description is subject to change at a moment’s notice. Accept this and move on.
  30. If you want routine, you are in the wrong job.
  31. Following the same road as everyone else is no way to get in the game.
  32. How you phrase/present your report matters at least as much as what the report is actually about.
  33. Look after your people but never hold their hand.
  34. Hold your people to the highest standards.
  35. Get the job done. Every time. Faster than anyone else. Be that guy.
  36. Know how to sell your successes.
  37. Action wins. Hesitation loses.
  38. The shortest way between two points is exactly that: The shortest way. (See #18 and #35).
  39. The shortest way is rarely the easiest way.
  40. The easiest way is almost never the right way.
  41. Once failure stops being an option, it effectively cease to exist as a potential outcome.
  42. Nothing you do will ever work the way you expected it to. Embrace the elegant predictability of Murphy’s Law and get the job done anyway.
  43. Blind ambition and gross incompetence often get you there just as well as the other option.
  44. Know your place along the chain of command.
  45. Treat others with respect.
  46. Do not confuse treating people with respect with being polite.
  47. Your environment does not dictate the success of your mission. You do.
  48. Nobody cares about why something didn’t get done. They only care that it didn’t get done.
  49. If you don’t get it done, you probably don’t belong here.
  50. Your job isn’t to be cool or fun or popular. Your job is to kick ass.

And we’re only on the third episode. This is definitely a to be continued post.

 

Read Full Post »

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

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »