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On madness, models of failure, and the mythology of past successes

I have been thinking a lot about success and failure in business this past week, and about behavioral patterns and common cultural factors I invariably find in organizations that breed either one outcome or the other. I will dive deeper into this topic over the coming weeks, but for now, today, I want to show you something. Something that, at first glance, I found funny. Not knee-slapping, LOL-inducing haha-funny, mind you. Something funny yet tragic, because it illustrates not only the stupidity of the way some organizations cling to anachronistic models of failure, but the absurdity of it in its whole.

We’ll get to that in a minute, but let’s just say that what I received today, what prompted this post, made me wonder about the sanity of the person who thought it wise to send it to me. And this made me think about why some managers insist on never letting go of strategies and tactics which they know don’t work.

Point #1: Knowing full well that a method, tool or model no longer yields the desired outcome (assuming it ever did), some organizations will continue to bet on it, in the hopes that the laws of the universe will shift in the night and miraculously turn a completely ludicrous project into success.

The partial email I will share with you may make many of you chuckle, as I chuckled when I read through the first few sentences, but in truth, there really isn’t anything funny about it, and here’s why: As extreme as this example of stupidity may seem, the principles which guided the hand of a business to drive this campaign, to assign resources to it (writers, staff, computers, software licenses, chairs, desks, office space, electricity, lights, etc.) are no different from the principles that guide tens of thousands of companies to also cling to their own proven methods of failure.

That organizations, then, would cling to such ill-advised models in the face of logic, in the face of common sense even, I can almost understand. Not every organization or department is helmed by the sharpest mind of its generation. I get that. But more shocking to me is that this type of absurd behavior – this level of abject stupidity when it comes to discerning between effective and ineffective models – occurs in face of facts, and by that, I mean hard data and history, ignored, pushed aside in favor of a mythology of past successes.

Let the notion sink in for a moment. Mythology of past successes. The myth that the organization was once successful, and the further notion that the methods it employed then, if employed now, will restore it onto its successful path. A past success, mind you, that more often than not only exists in the minds of those who cling to its dream, therefore invalidating the very methods which they so revere.

Point #2: Imaginary past successes and glories are potent illusions – they aim to set the stage for future ones after all – but as poisonous and lethal as memories of painful lost loves: Embellished over time by the mind’s gentle healing hand, polished to a high sheen that grows brighter in magnificence with every passing year.

A man, in the embrace of weakness, can find himself trading the inconvenience of reality for the comfort of such an illusion, and as the mind is trained to do in order to help us survive tragedy, begin to turn the pain and reality of failure into something seemingly beautiful and pure. Faced with the prospect of further failure, facts go out the window. Reality seeks to be disproved. The mind begins to look for safety and comfort.  All that eventually remains is the legend of “the good old days,” and the notion that a higher power (even in the form of abstract “business cycles”) will come and make things right if only one perseveres in holding on to the past long enough.

Fisher Kings, organizational dysfunction, and engineering cultures of failure

This is something a C.E.O. told me years ago, when he and I were discussing the future of his company: “This is how we’ve always done it. It’s always worked for us. We’re not about to start doing it differently now.”

Except it hadn’t worked in twenty years, everyone knew it – as I suspect he did as well – yet there he was, defending the sanctity of a model that had already begun to fail a full generation ago and showed no promise of deliverance whatsoever. Embattled and failing, the company yet refused to let go of a past it had turned for itself into legend. Religion, even. This man, this grown man, clung to the safety of a myth of success the way an anxious child in the face of uncertainty clings to the hand of his mother.

The reality of the company’s past “success,” (the basis, in his mind, for the inevitable return of fortune as foretold by his internal narrative – the myth he created for himself over years of wishful thinking) was that the company had never, in fact, been all that successful. It had struggled, as all companies do, for market share, for growth, for loyal customers. What success it had enjoyed for a time had been hard-earned and modest at best.  There had never been glory. There had never been true sustained market leadership. The man sitting across from me was operating under a spell of denial which he had – over time – infused into his organization. The Fisher King retold.

One doesn’t have to be clinically insane to act like a madman but this one, afflicted as he was by his fears, by his bitterness, by his anger, by his own inner demons of self-doubt and shame, in retreating into a world of make-believe, was in fact acting like a madman: Working against all reason and common sense. Rather than steer his ship to warmer waters and favorable winds clearly discernible just ahead, he chose to keep to the murky, brackish waters he now believed had once been a glorious ocean. He painted himself the C.E.O. of a successful company, whose brand would someday regain dominance. A dominance to be regained again as its birthright, or so the tale went inside his head. This in spite of inaction, of denial, of stupidity and a surprising level of arrogance.

The places we allow ourselves to drift to and die, out of fear and out of shame. Both one and the same.  (If you hate your job, consider this a tap on the shoulder: How long do you intend to wait there in misery?)

This was the company I had been hired to rescue. I almost did, but only almost. I don’t always succeed. I managed to drag it back from the brink, to show them the way, even to pave it for them, but the last step, they had to take for themselves: Making the decision to change. To let go of their ghosts and commit to a fresh start.

Not everyone, though, has the courage to unfurl their sails.

The Greek perspective, and methods of failure

If I were an ancient Greek, I would talk about fear and anxiety in terms of spirits and possession. Not spirits as in demons, the way we think of them now, but the spirits of love, anger, hatred, fear, cowardice, envy… Emotions given life and will and power over our lives by us, their willing vessels.

The Spartans believed that blood lust in the middle of battle, for example, was possession – and something to avoid at all cost. Despair can be possession. Fury. Jealousy. Terror. Love. Enthusiasm. Every type of feeling can take us over. Overwhelm us. Crimes of passion are the result of possession. Brawling with fans of a rival football team is the result of possession. Understanding this is understanding something about human behavior, not just 3,000 years ago but today as well. Perhaps especially so.

We yet have much to learn from the Greeks.

Looking at human behavior from that perspective, whatever spirit possessed this man, this unfortunate C.E.O., I have met many times since. Different offices, different cities, different letters on the doors and the lobby walls and the business cards, but always the same madness. The same visceral need to create then cling to myths of success, and along with them proven methods of failure: Decisions and actions that led to their ship remaining in irons, year after year, in the false safety of a cove that in fact had become its grave. Cultures of failure start here. In this manner. Engineered by the dysfunctions of an individual ill-suited to lead an organization.

When mediocrity and failure are hailed as glory and success, take a bearing: Relativism doesn’t apply to victory. It only serves to paint defeat into something more palatable. It is the fuel of denial. Flipping success and failure on their heads so that one suddenly becomes mistaken for the other is madness as well.

Point #3: Failure in organizations, in business, in projects and campaigns isn’t always the result of luck or fate or circumstances. Sometimes it is (though I would caution against looking at obstacles and challenges, even the most seemingly insurmountable odds as anything but opportunity), but just as often, failure is engineered, constructed from within, given birth to and shaped, fostered, nurtured, encouraged and fed daily – like a creature.

The truth of failure, true failure, is that it lies not in circumstance but at the intersection of weakness and method. In the weakness that drives some men to shun the fight and the challenge which are the price of both success and victory, and to instead embrace illusion, relativism (characterized by endless strings of excuses) and the type of insanity that makes them act against their own best interest: Ignoring facts. Declaring success when none exists. Continuing down a clear path of failure. Adopting failure as a method.

Symptoms vs. Disease: Digging beneath superficial absurdity to find its cause

However extreme the following example may seem to us, scores of companies insist on clinging to equally ridiculous and completely ineffective methods of conducting business, albeit not quite as spectacular in their awfulness. Yet… outside of execution – or the manifestation of this type of nonsense, as seen below – compulsive adherence to methods of failure is in no way different in its path to what led to this example, and remains equally absurd.

Here it is, the first paragraph from an email like millions of others just like it, which we consider spam, yet someone, somewhere considers marketing:

I sincerely ask for forgiveness for I know this may seem like a complete intrusion to your privacy
but right about now this is my best option ofcommunication. This mail might come to you as a
surprise and the temptation to ignore it as frivolous could come into your mind, but please
consider it a divine wish and accept it with a deep sense of humility. This letter must surprise you
because we have never meet before neither inperson nor by correspondence, but I believe that,
it takes just one day to meet orknow someone either physically or through correspondence.

Ridiculous? Of course it is. It’s spam – and bad spam at that. But you know what?  The company that paid for it thinks this works, that this utterly ludicrous bit of email content is the best way to get me to click on a button or surrender personal information. And while we laugh at the stupidity of it, wondering in the backs of our minds what kind of manager or business owner would believe, in this day and age, that something like this is a method of success, it is in no way different from a manager or business owner in Kansas City, Charlotte, London or Chicago believing that their own brand of ineffective, outdated, business development method will somehow yield better results than it has until now.

Point #4: The absurdity of embracing methods of failure is not measured by the depth of stupidity characterizing their execution – like really awful copy, as seen in the above example,- but rather by the fervor with which failure-blind managers cling to their own delusions in spite of everything they know.

It’s tragic.

I don’t say this lightly. It is soul-crushing to see professional men and women – not organizations but human beings of flesh and blood, like me – so blinded, so possessed by layer upon layer of bullshit that they are no longer able to tell up from down, right from wrong, smart from stupid. Confused and lost in the wilderness of a world that has outpaced them, they cling to a made-up version of it, one they can feel comfortable and safe with, even if it doesn’t actually exist.

In this world, what they know, what they believe, even if it is completely absurd, holds more truth for them than the reality they refuse to accept. This shielding mechanism, this search for comfort and security in an idealized version of the past, of the “good old days,” makes every new idea alien and dangerous. A threat. They begin to regard progress at best as suspect, and at worst as a betrayal of their “ideals.”

In the same way that children invent for themselves imaginary worlds in play, adults sometimes invent for themselves worlds in fear. We see this with religion and politics, with extremism. We also see it in the business world: Some of these adults apply this mechanism to their professions, often with dreadful consequences.

When I hear a C.E.O. scoff condescendingly at Social Business, aiming to belittle and ridicule it as “something the kids do,” something legitimate businesses don’t need, a waste of time, a fad, a pile of crap, I don’t feel frustration anymore. I feel pity. Pity for the man, pity for the organization, pity for its future. Hell, I feel sadness because I know the fear that lives at the heart of the attitude that nurtured the opinion behind the comment. More importantly, I know instantly that the organization “led” by this person is crippled by methods of failure. And because the pattern of such dysfunction doesn’t deviate all that much from company to company, I can start mapping it out on paper without having to hear another word.

Point #5: When you understand a leader’s weakness, you know how his organization is failing.

Organizations that shun rather than embrace progress, whose default position is to embrace new ideas in meetings but somehow never manage to implement them, organizations that refuse to acknowledge or enable change from within or without, these organizations are all the same. Every single one. Identifying them is the first step. Understanding them follows. Beyond that, expect a bumpy ride.

Word to the wise: Not everyone is cut out to be an agent of change. If you can visualize your career, imagine the path of least resistance. Now imagine the complete opposite. More often than not, change is war.

Time to revisit the definitions of insanity and failure

It’s been said that the definition of insanity is to repeat the same action over and over again, expecting a different result each time.

I disagree.

Perseverance, then, would be insanity. Tenacity also. I reject that definition. Conditions change: The same action repeated enough times can and often does yield different results, and we intrinsically know it. From adaptation to probability, we know that results may vary. We put it in fine print on just about everything.

The exact same spin of the ball in a game of roulette will have it land on a different number each time. The same lotto numbers played week after week will yield a different relationship to the winning numbers arrived at elsewhere. The same degree of effort on the field of practice will result in physical and mental changes over time. And so it goes. Because conditions vary, repetition in the face of failure alone does not constitute insanity. What I propose instead is this, that the definition of insanity is to repeat the same action you know cannot yield the desired outcome over and over again, expecting a different result.

Insanity is deliberately choosing a method of failure over a method of success (or even an infinite range of experimental methods) because in spite of all logic, it fits within a world view -an ideology – borne out of anxiety and false nostalgia rather than experience and reality. THAT is insanity.

Failure – systemic failure, that is – is engineered. It is built from the ground up, much like success, one broken brick at a time.

Point #6: Just as surely as a culture of success can take root in a company (Zappos, Apple, BMW, Google, and many more) a culture of failure can take root as well: Characterized by internal dysfunction, the utter absence of loyalty among its staff, low morale, a poisonous work environment and an absence of fire and passion even at the helm, cultures of failure are tough to turn around. And you know what? they are as tough to rescue as a drug addict who, while begging for help, still clings to the needle and the gutter as if his life depended on it. It’s heart breaking.

What I do: Light, shadow and the need for both

Helping businesses succeed is often a lot of fun. It can be easy. You come along at the right time, get to know them well, give them a little push, and there they go: Back on track, rocking it out. Those are the good ones. The ones that make me feel like a million bucks. The ones in which everyone clicks and has fun. It doesn’t even feel like work. I secretly wish that all of my clients were like this, but I know that this is weakness as well. For every perfect client, I need an imperfect one. We all do. We wouldn’t be professionals if all we did all day constituted play.  We wouldn’t learn much. We wouldn’t improve. Delight is possession as well.

Just as often, helping a company succeed begins by teaching its management to stop failing. To stop mistaking mediocrity for success. To stop acting against their own self-interest. In some cases, the process boils down to dragging them out of their predicament, kicking and screaming the whole way. I’ve been insulted, threatened and even fired by clients who promptly offered to re-hire me the next day, only to fire and rehire me again. I’ve endured abuse at the hand of awful little children in adult bodies. What I do isn’t always pretty. It is intervention, pure and simple.

Dealing with a C.E.O. or manager possessed by the form of madness we’ve discussed today is no different from dealing with an addict fighting for his soul.

Point #7: Whatever we like to call “personal demons,” they destroy businesses too. As surely as what brought about a mid-life crisis can destroy a marriage or career, so can it shatter a business. It isn’t something we talk about much, but we should.

We can’t not talk about this. Companies don’t get fixed. Companies don’t win or lose. People do. What I end up doing, more often than not, is fixing people. Helping them find their way and be whole again.

Bad marketing and bad business decisions often find their roots in more than incompetence and accidental human error. In order to make sure they don’t happen again – or never happen at all – you have to go a little deeper than that. “Best Practices” are only the surface. Stopping there isn’t enough. You can’t stick to the edges and hope for the best. Sometimes, you have to go deep. Sometimes, you have to go all in.

What has been on my mind lately: Some clarification before we continue

I’ve been giving this and a dozen other related topics a lot of thought this past week, and how my chosen profession fits in all of this. How experience, knowledge, talent and insight have led me to become not only an advisor and educator, but also now a confidantz and a friend to individuals who don’t understand why their companies are stuck, unable to move forward as quickly and fluidly as they know they should. The human element to it above all questions of processes and best practices and clever ideas. How important to me this has become. The problem with becoming emotionally vested in something like this, in trying to effect real change, is that it consumes you. Theres no way around it. You have to let it.

While it sometimes seems that my job consists of coming up with cool ideas and helping companies divine insights from the fog of business, the reality is that I am more often than not a therapist. A business therapist, one might say, but there is no such thing: A business is a dream brought to life by a company of men and women who form its limbs and organs, and whose love for what they do is its lifeblood.

When I am called upon to help a company, an organization, a business, I end up helping people. Why? Because every dysfunction at the root of a problem with a business invariable finds its own roots in a personal dysfunction – sometimes, clusters of personal dysfunction.

In order to do what I do – and do it well – you have to be ready for that. You have to be ready to know when to bear the weight of it all, and when not to. You have to know your way around the human mind and the human heart. You have to know exactly what to do when someone with a serious problem tries to draw you into their drama. It can be emotionally exhausting. This line of work is not for everyone.

And I guess that is why I don’t like to call what I do “consulting.” Now I know why the term never sat well with me: “Consulting” is only a small portion of what I do, just like R.O.I. is only a small aspect of what I help shine a light on. Calling myself a consultant just doesn’t work. I don’t yet have a name for what I do, and I’ll admit that it’s a bit annoying.

I am telling you this because over the course of the next few weeks, I may write more about the role that human nature plays in adopting “best practices,” pursuing excellence and creating cultures of success than I have before, and I want you to know where all this is coming from, why these topics even matter, and how I came to want to discuss them from this unusual perspective. My mind is behind the curtain this week. Under the surface. I am looking directly into the nature of leadership, courage, curiosity, insight and the spirit of victory, which are at once timeless and very specifically connected. And if we are going to make any headway, it’s time we stopped focusing so much on the superficial aspects of business and brand management, and turned our attention to some pretty core elements without which Twitter, Facebook and all of the things we love to discuss here and on other blogs are little more than salon chatter.

And I hope this helps give you a tiny little glimpse into what makes me tick, why the way in which I approach certain topics might seem a little different from other blogs. Ultimately, everything comes down to people: Understand people, and you understand everything. It’s where every one of my blog post begins. At the core of every discussion we have here about brand management, Social Media, communications, R.O.I., etc. is human behavior in all its reality and relevance.

More to come.

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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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For whatever reason, the importance of archetypes in our culture has been on my mind a lot these last few days. Perhaps it is because of a series of tongue-in-cheek posts about Britney Spears I wrote for another blog. Perhaps it is because of the Superbowl. (See comments attached to my previous post.) At any rate, whether we like it or not, the human brain

needs symbolism and metaphor to function properly. The creation of archetypes helps us classify and make sense of aspects of our lives that would otherwise be too overwhelming or confusing to deal with on a conscious level.
Every ritual we have, every religious ceremony, and even every iconic figure, product or brand is tied to this hard-coded subconscious archetypal structure we can’t seem to get away from. Cavemen had their goddess of fertility. Romans and Greeks had their gods. We have pop culture… among other things.
Filling The Contextual Void:
Ever since a friend convinced me to read Robert Johnson’s “He,” I have been fascinated by the role that archetypes play in the genesis and of mythology, relationships, personalities, pop culture, and even brands.Given my profession of choice, perhaps especially brands.
I was reminded of this connection a year ago when I happened on John Howard Spink’sUsing Archetypes To Build Stronger Brands.
As John himself notes, surprisingly, not a lot of work is being done on this front. Knowing what I know about the role that mythology and archetypes play in cultural identity, it surprises me that very few brand strategists and Marketing thought leaders have made the connection between archetypes and brands – or at least that most have not worked to incorporate the notion of archetypes in their operational brandbuilding methodology.
Per John:

Though the development and management of brands is central and fundamental to
everything we do, are the tools we use up to the job? Or do they do more harm
than good? Brands are complex, abstract and difficult to pin down. However, in
endeavouring to define them we often forget this. With techniques such as brand
pyramids,we take something wild and untamed and attempt to constrain and control
it. Rather than trying to understand brands in their natural habitat, we put
them in a zoo. I recognise that pyramids, onions and similar techniques can be
useful internal disciplines. But do they really help define the unchanging core
values of a brand? We spend weeks debating the nuances of synonyms, performing
semantic gymnastics to prove that Brand X is different from Brand Y, and
agonising over whether something is an Emotional Benefit or a Brand Value – a
distinction we struggle to understand in the first place. At the end of the day,
what does this get us? More often than not, a pile of disconnected words that
looks like nothing less than an explosion in a bombed thesaurus factory.
Unfortunately, having built our pyramid and agreed that our brand is
contemporary, stylish, relevant, inclusive and other usual suspects, we fall
into the trap of thinking our job is finished. Usually though, we are no closer
to articulating ‘core essence’ than when we began – even if that particular box
has been filled in. What should be rich, complex and, by definition, hard to
articulate ends up neutered and subjected to death by a thousand adjectives.
Ironically, our supposed unchanging brand template is reduced to a fluid
selection of meaningless or undifferentiating words that even those close to the
process interpret in different ways. The result, to quote Shakespeare, is a
brand which is ‘…a walking shadow; a poor player, that struts and frets his
hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more: a tale told by an idiot, full of
sound and fury, signifying nothing’.You may feel this is harsh, but ask yourself
how many walking shadows there are out there, and if we struggle to find
meaning, think how consumers feel.

Amen.
Enter the archetypes:
There are certain basic characters and storylines that appear regularly in myth, fairytale, literature and film; archetypes that represent core aspects of the human condition, and tap deep into our motivations and sense of meaning. When we encounter these, they resonate in powerful ways that transcend culture and demographics.
This is why, when penning the original Star Wars trilogy, George Lucas turned to Joseph Campbell, author of The Hero With a Thousand Faces, to help him understand the archetypal narrative structure and characters found in these mythic stories, and why these three films enjoy such strong and enduring appeal. Whether Luke Skywalker, The Man With No Name, Red Riding Hood, Harry Potter, or real people such as JFK, Princess Diana or Marilyn Monroe, there is something primal in archetypal characters and situations that stirs our emotions, stimulates our memory and sometimes changes lives. In developing and managing brands, are we really so different from George Lucas or a budding Barbara Cartland?
Ironically, in this postmodern age when people are supposedly no longer interested in meta-narratives with common understanding, brand development is nothing short of creating a story that people want to be part of; a character with values that have deep resonance which our target audience want to emulate or be associated with.
This is why a Harley-Davidson marketer can say: ‘what we sell is the ability for a 43-year old accountant to dress in black leather, ride through small towns and have people be afraid of him’ Or why Scott Bedbury, in his time head of marketing at Nike and Starbucks, believes that: ‘a brand is a metaphorical story that … connects with something very deep — a fundamental human appreciation of mythology … Companies that manifest this sensibility … invoke something very powerful’.
Bingo. Right from the horses’ mouths.
What seem like “intangible” elements of a brand are really very precise sets of contextual values, emotions, aspirations and projections that can easily be not only identified but plotted, graphed, and inserted into a brand’s identity. (All you need is the key – the actual archetypes – and a clear understanding of the role they play in the psyches the folks whose culture you are trying to intertwine your brand with.)
This is actually VERY easy to accomplish. Some brands even achieve this without even realizing it. They instinctively tap into something primal and culturally relevant without really knowing or understanding why or how they did it.
Take Nike, for example: The Nike brand appeals to the “champion/hero” and uses sports as the medium for its allegorical language. The very choice of names – “Nike” the Greek Goddess of victory – has immediate Archetypal implications:
A) Nike is a Goddess. A creature straight out of Mythology – in which every character, god, human and everything in between is the embodiment of a specific human archetype.
B) Nike symbolizes victory. Victory typically comes from bravery, sacrifice, courage, strength… all being the attributes of the brand – or rather, the symbolism that the brand aims to help consumers project onto itself and every product it stamps with its sexy little swish mark.
Once the brand takes on the attributes of the desired archetype (or two, or three), then people begin a sort of projective identification dance. They first project their wants and needs onto the brand, in effect using it as a vessel for the qualities which they cannot articulate or completely manage on their own. They then become patrons of the brand in order to possess these attributes in a form they can understand, use, and express. Once a brand has achieved this type of relationship with the public, it becomes alive. It becomes part of pop culture. It becomes relevant on a level that surpasses traditional marketing, messaging and business-speak. It becomes a power brand.
Understanding archetypes and using this knowledge to build powerful brands is kind of a no-brainer… but still, very few agencies, marketing firms and brand boutiques use this simple tool. Strange.
I’m glad to see that John has tapped into this, and I hope that more of you will as well. Aside from the books mentioned in his piece, I also encourage you to read Robert E. Johnson’s “He.” It’s a quick read (less than 200 pages) that will help you not only understand the roles that archetypes play in our everyday lives, but also understand human behavior (particularly in the Western world) in a way that no other book or university course can. It is pure genius.
The Messaging Crutch:
About two years ago, I found myself having a conversation with a couple of self-professed “branding experts”. We were chatting about projects that I had worked on, and I sensed that the methodology behind the successes that I’d had in the last few years wasn’t clicking with them. Three or four times, they asked me about messaging.
“Yeah, but… what about the messaging?”
You might have thought they were asking me “where’s the beef?
“Messaging”… Hmmm… It hadn’t occurred to me until I was asked the question that “messaging” had stopped to be all that important to my process in quite some time. Messaging. Yeah. In truth, messaging seemed almost superfluous. I explained that with every single project I had worked on since 2004, messaging had been secondary at best. In most cases, when dealing with branding projects and even most effective marketing campaigns, the strength of the product, brand or idea was easier to understand viscerally than when articulated. The clever taglines, the tight copy, the words on the page or the poster or the screen were almost completely irrelevant.
What I found is that the strength of a brand often lies in its power not to have to be explained or articulated. In a way, defining a brand too well may actually hurt it.
No, forget that. Replace may with will. Does Apple need a tagline? Does iPod need messaging? Does Starbucks? Does Nike? Does Porsche? Does Halliburton? Does PowerBar? Does Disney? Ben & Jerry? Staples? Ferrari? Cartier? Target? Heineken?
PR pros will argue that they do. The reality is that they don’t.
If the brand you create is powerful enough – inside and out – then messaging is barely frosting on the cake. Heck, it’s little more than the colored sprinkles on the edges. The messaging is nice and it dresses things up a little, but… if you create a power brand or a love brand, it might as well be an afterthought.Using archetypes in your brand development process can help you tap into the raw nature and identity of a brand better than any brand pyramid, onion, pie chart or whatever cookie-cutter technique you are currently using. It’s okay if you don’t believe me. But… for your sake (and more importantly, that of your clients), at least look into it. It might be the one thing your practice was missing. At the very least, it will become a great new tool to add to your brand-building toolbox.
Breathing Life into the branding process:
I’ll let John make one last important point before we close the book on today’s topic:

I find it more exciting to think of myself as the author of eternal brand stories than as someone who writes strategy documents and brand pyramids.

Well, um… yeah. I can relate. I hope we all can.
Truth: Brands live out there, in the collective ocean of pop culture that we all share, swim in, and contribute to. (Wait… that sounded kind of gross. Sorry.) Where brands don’t live is inside agency meeting rooms or in the heads of creatives living in the ad world. They don’t live inside your market research or on pie charts or inside brand pyramids. They don’t live in your taglines or in your copy or in the dialogue of your spokespeople. Your brands live in the same world as Darth Vader, Ronald Reagan, Brad Pitt, Hercules, John McLane, Rocky Balboa, John F. Fennedy, James Bond, Paris Hilton, Rintintin, Britney Spears, Spiderman, Godzilla, Jack Bauer, Cinderella, and Tony Soprano.
Maybe it sounds like a stretch to some of you, but if you look into this a little more closely, you’ll start to see it. Some of you may have to look a little more closely than others… but it’s well worth the extra effort.
Have a great Tuesday, everyone. 😉

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