Archive | February 2016

Gritting Your Way…Toward What?

Growing for the sake of growing is a mindless exercise.

Most human beings are complex, capable of holding several ideas at the same time. Yet, many of us are also keen on catchy phrases and regard a few bumper stickers as profound philosophies. Nothing wrong, just is. Still, it behooves those of us who yearn for deeper meaning and lively discussion to be more aware of the pitfalls of attractive one-liners or descriptors.

I am coming to the main point.

Grit” has been the buzzword in the education field for quite a few years by now. The researcher, Angela Duckworth, who coined the term in her years of study was granted a MacArthur Fellowship award in 2013. That further bolstered the attractiveness of the concept. Students possessing grit, the ability to sustain interests and meet challenges over a long period of time, do better academically than those who give up more easily. You want the workplace staffed with adults who had this trait developed during childhood. I wonder how that applies to hedge fund managers… Anyway, the majority of the parents would say, “But of course,” and wish their children to acquire more grit.

Naturally beautiful even as petals drop...

Understandably, children with grit are likely to carry that attitude and habit into adulthood. On the other hand, it would take much longer and more effort for adults to develop grit. I can just see some HR (human resources) departments requiring interviewees to submit their “grit” scores from 2nd grade. I am betraying my bias, and I will explain it after I introduce another concept, “growth mindset.”

The term “growth mindset” is usually presented as the contrast to “fixed mindset.” In the former, a person holds a dynamic view of the world and of herself, and so she would always strive to improve herself regardless of her endowed talent and intelligence. The “fixed mindset” sees the person’s talent as a be-all-end-all attribute; if he doesn’t have talent in a particular area, hard work alone isn’t going to lead to significant achievement. People with “growth mindset” regard failures as the inevitable byproduct of improvement; people with “fixed mindset” regard failing to meet standards as a profound blow. I described these differences more closely some time ago. At first glance, this seems to make sense. On looking closer, the wording of these concepts reveals underlying biases: Who wants to be labeled as “fixed” and not desiring “growth?” Not surprisingly, growth mindset overlaps with grit; both entail working hard to better oneself.

How can anyone argue against instilling resilience and bettering ourselves? Having the grit to grow one’s mind is admirable. But there is a key ingredient missing in these equations: Toward what end?

This is similar to the critique of “goal” by a prominent scholar, James March: Being goal-oriented or having goals is fine, but how do we evaluate the content of goals? For instance, is pushing for 100% safety record a good goal for an R&D entity? Would 93% be acceptable? Would 80% be considered a failure? Should diversity for, say a 5,000-employee organization, perfectly reflect the society’s racial composition?

Dramatization certainly makes it interesting...but beautiful still?!

In perpetuating some of these catchy concepts or phrases, we often pay too much attention to their potential benefits and neglect what it is we hope to achieve and more importantly, why. In the education arena, adopting “grit” and “growth mindset” has lead us to emphasize “praising the students’ efforts” while overlooking the content of their learning, and abandon the hope that learning itself is an exciting enterprise. Our sole goal seems to be that our students strive to test well. Good signals? I grew up in an all-grit educational environment; it was grueling at some times and pointless at most times.

These days, when kids hear “You’ve tried really hard, don’t worry about the outcomes yet,” they can’t help but think “Oh, I am really not good enough.” Students hear “trying/working hard” as code for “not very smart in the first place.” Put it differently: If we ask 100 kids picked at random to practice the violin with all the grit they can muster, how many do you think you’d enjoy listening to? If 10 students perform well, what should we do with the other 90? Tell them to develop more grit? Instead, how about we try harder to discover what would really make the other 90 kids excited, for which they would be “happy” to generate more grit, without being asked to? Applying this same principle to organizations: Wouldn’t it be more productive to task people with the activities they are naturally good at, and for which they would willingly “grit” their way to accomplish more than expected? Wouldn’t this be the win-win we truly desire?

But the way things are practiced in schools and organizations, the message is still that we need external definition of what we ought to do and external rewards for our “improvement” at it. Remember, intrinsic motivation is a whole lot more effective than extrinsic rewards. This notion has been robustly proven and resonates with almost everyone; however, it is largely ignored in organization (and school) life. People, of all ages, see empty praise and compliments for the manipulative moves they are. As Alfie Kohn, an independent scholar and a proponent of progressive education, puts it succinctly, “…the most salient feature of a positive judgment is not that it’s positive but that it’s judgment; it’s more about controlling than encouraging.”  Positive judgment may tickle us for a little while, but only fleetingly.

This doesn’t mean that we should forego all compliments and praise, but offer them with concrete evidence and useful feedback. People, again, of all ages, welcome specific information; they can better grow their minds knowing what, how, and why.

more like devil here, thanks to photoshop!

Another missed dimension in typical self-help promotional materials is the assumption that if only individuals did their part… In other words, adjust yourself to adapt to the changes. This is the fundamental flaw in the “Who Moved My Cheese?” which I wrote about before: You don’t get to question the content of the changes; you just need to adjust your own attitude and behavior. So, one of my favorite examples concerns the low rate of young women studying science (and I include math and engineering under that umbrella). Applying the “growth mindset” and “grit” concepts, we only need to focus on telling women that it’s all in their own minds. There is no institutional sexism in society; organizations really welcome all talent. Right, and I’ll win the next lottery.

My final point is this. There are valuable aspects of “grit” and “growth mindset.” But let us please grow our minds to go beyond the either-or mindset. Let’s develop our individual minds so that we can better evaluate our environment and question the structures of our schools, work organizations, governing entities, “smartphones” (maybe rename them “effortphones!”), the internet of things, etc. Let’s honor people’s desire to be autonomous, master their desired skills, and locate their own sense of purpose. Sometimes, it isn’t about us; sometimes, we need to strive for changing our environments and systems.

Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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The Art of Communication, The Science of Persuasion

Can organizations be persuasive?

Why not? But let me start at the individual level.

Do you remember the last time you changed your mind because of someone’s powerful persuasion? And in what ways was that persuasion powerful? Further, if you were wrong in the first place, how easy was it for you to admit that you were wrong?

On issues for which one has little preference, like a movie a person is ambivalent about, a friend’s recommendation may suffice. On issues that are complicated and evoke strong feelings, it would take time and several presentations from trustworthy sources before a person is willing to consider changing her mind.

Not much of a persuasion.

Not much of a persuasion.

So, it is with a delight I came upon this article: How to change someone’s mind, according to science, published in Washington Post on 2/10/2016.  It’s short and an easy read, unless you link to the original scientific report (which is important but oh so densely written). The original research utilized data from an internet forum, ChangeMyView, on Reddit. People post opinions, ranging widely (or, wildly as well?) across topics and perspectives, and challengers respond to individual posts with their reasons for challenging the opinion in that post. The forum also records when people change their minds and why they change their minds, so we can tell why certain arguments are stronger than others. It’s observing in real-time, which is more convincing than lab-controlled after-the-fact tests. (see persuasion result #2 below)

Here are the key results summarizing the dynamics of persuasion: (some may be “obvious” – once they’ve been pointed out):

  1. The more people respond in challenge to the original post, presumably sharing a similar view, the more persuasive the challenge argument is.
  2. Timing is important. Earlier responses carry more weight.
  3. Some back and forth helps change minds, but too much becomes belligerent and seems to inhibit further change. Five rounds of back-and-forth is average; additional rounds have little further effect.
  4. Using different wording from the original post for response helps; so is a longer reply (within reason).
  5. Calmer language helps. I wonder if this could apply to politicians?
  6. Using specific examples helps.
  7. Use of the definite article is more powerful, such as “the,” instead of “a.” (Might this explain why many Asians, whose native languages don’t have definite articles, seem to be meek?!)
  8. I” signals a more malleable view than “We.” Think about how we pass down cultural norms.
  9. Hedging is double-edged. “It could be the case” sounds waffling, but its softer stance gives the other side more room to ponder. Not unlike “calmer” language.
Good timing and "calm" language...just one paw.

Good timing and “calm” language…just one paw.

I think these principles are useful for individuals but also for organizations. Whenever organizations find themselves in tough situations, either in a scandal or in a controversial situation, they could apply these principles in crafting their public statements. Let me use our local large organization, the Los Alamos National Laboratory, LANL, to offer some examples. (I am learning.)

It seems as though whenever LANL finds itself in hot water, its initial responses worsen its ability to effectively address the matter at hand. The WIPP accident of 2 years ago, is one of the most recent thorny situations. Radioactive contamination was detected at the underground storage at the WIPP site. Later, they found the barrel that released the radioactive material, and that the barrel came from LANL. The most frequently heard initial response to this problem, “we are currently investigating the situation” came across as woefully inept. The “currently under investigation” expression is widely interpreted as “we don’t really know what’s happened.” And that interpretation became the narrative which the public and the media commandeered. Even if LANL could have clarified the problem in four months – which they didn’t – this clarity would not have claimed the audiences’ interest nor public respect. Timing!

What could LANL have said differently at the time? How about (hypothetically) “We have four potentially plausible scenarios right now. Each is likely to result in {such a situation}, and we are systematically establishing the facts that will allow us to evaluate these scenarios and ultimately determine the actual cause.” Establishing the narrative that the range of possibilities is known and that investigation will drive toward convergence, versus the narrative that LANL has no clue what could possibly have happened, could retain greater credibility for the Lab.

Number matters.

Number matters.

Timing in crisis management is utterly important. Waiting in anxiety cedes to others the lead on the narrative. On the other hand, an immediate measured response allows the organization (or an individual) to gain control of how the narrative develops. In fact, crisis or not, an organization staying on top of current events and relevant issues can win credit for the organization which may be useful in the future.

At an earlier time, during LANL’s contract negotiation in 2005 — after yet another scandal and before the operating contract changed hands to a private consortium — it was perfectly understandable (and should have been expected) that most of the Lab employees were demoralized. There was a blog where employees could, and did, vent their frustration. What did the top management do to develop a more positive narrative? Attempt to shut down the employees’ blog. Good grief

By actually addressing some of the comments, at least those comments that bore merit (of course, that would have required management to acknowledge people’s frustrations), management might have offered some solutions, or reasons why the solutions most popularly proposed might be inaccessible. Maybe even confronting some of the totally baseless insults (and there were many) with facts could have slowed or stopped the festering from continuing. Again, taking the lead in shaping the narrative should have been a goal.

Of course this all begs a deeper question: Who decides the content of the communication, the timing of the communication, the strategy of the communication? PR department? Public Affairs? Executives, and if so which one(s)? That’s the art, where wisdom and judgment are called for. During a crisis, an organization can’t afford the luxury of looking for leadership, forming a committee, or engaging in a week-long process to decide what needs to be communicated. But a dysfunctional organization thinks it needs such luxury. A lumbering giant (like the NUMMI case) would be too rule-bound even to recognize the difference.

A "definitive" article.

A “definitive” article.

For whatever reason(s), LANL is often too slow with its public relations exercises. While I contend that – at least outside of a crisis – content is far more important than image, an intelligent organization should be able to exercise both, developing content while being mindful of its image in the minds of outsiders. The tragedy of LANL is that it has superior content in scientific work – leading the world in many fields – but the organization as whole simply doesn’t seem to know how to express itself to improve its image with the public. Many people inside and outside the organization know this problem, yet, no one has succeeded in doing much about it.

LANL is about to go through yet another major transition, from its current management entity to another management entity yet to be determined. I hope someone takes charge of the organization’s narratives in the next couple of years: the blogosphere narratives, the news media’s and columnists’ narratives, the technical journals’ narratives. The irony is this: LANL is a fabulous science organization with profound technical content, but in contrast the social psychology of the organization is mostly void and/or chaotic. While the writing for the next contract needs careful crafting, managing the narrative of the Laboratory needs genius equal to that of its world-class science and engineering.

But I am not holding my breath.

Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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