Should you be a customer or an active shaper of the system?

3 Nov

My friend Jason, who did Decision Sciences with me at the LSE, wrote an interesting note today about the complexities of various forms of governance. One of the themes was the need to manage the balance between giving some actors the authority to govern but at the same time preventing them from misusing this power for personal benefits. It exposed many problems the world still faces despite having spent thousands of years trying to figure out the best configuration. Being an Iranian who grew up in Canada he could approach the topic from many perspectives.

One of the questions I am asking myself a lot in this context is what should be the level and direction of my involvement.

Should we on one extreme take the system as something external and interact with it only as a ‘customer’ where and when necessary or try to actively shape it for others given the privilege of our education and background?

This is a question everybody should be asking himself/herself. I believe it is our responsibility to be the shapers. Our impact can range from small every day actions to engineering wide systemic reforms.

When I asked Jason this question, he offered a great reply. I like it so much in fact, that I am sharing it here with you here to read in full.

I think that’s one of the most important questions a conscious individual in any point in time has to think about. I’m going to link this with my original post, in that your decision if we simplify your problem in being dichotomous, can be clarified if you think of yourself as an individual given the individual freedoms democratic systems are posited to provide, and that there is a marketplace of ideas existent empowered by the fundamental right of freedom of speech and the right to disseminate information.

I think it’s important not to take anything as a given and simply look at the system as something external, because the system in itself is born out of and is bettered (or made worst) because of each individual agent’s interaction with it. What I can tell you is this, from a normative position, you have ideas on how to better your world around you and in turn the system for your compatriots. Since, individual sovereignty allows you freedom of speech and others to listen to you and make choices on whether they agree or disagree with you, you should as a ‘privileged’ individual place your idea into a marketplace of ideas. Once again, consumer sovereignty then (with uninhibited freedom of speech), allows others to understand your propositions and make choices. Then, people would rally around you and you can gain the momentum you need to make that choice.

In the real world, this is extremely difficult. What I would tell you is this. I think you should use your ‘privileged position’ and interact with the system to understand it first, then you should gain the necessary power and influence through interaction with key agents in putting your idea at the forefront. Then you hold the key to gaining the momentum you need for real change. Unfortunately, the system doesn’t quite work like that and its mainly because of a phenomenon called the ‘capture hypothesis’.

Many like you, began wanting to make things better and proactively change distortions and divergence from a truly democratic and economically free system, observed the system and learned of how to gain access (rights?) to make changes, but having reached that position been captured, simply because their self-interest becomes overwhelming. You spend time with those with power and influence to change things, so much so that you begin to see eye to eye with them.

I think the important thing to realize is finding that balance between self-interest and public interest first and developing a set of principles for yourself to such an extent that you’re sure you won’t fall prey to the capture hypothesis, then go on the journey of trying to gain the position and implement changes. The cynic in me tells me that self-interest always wins and since self-interest is the bedrock of democratic systems and its economic sub-systems, the whole issue becomes a catch 22. Something to think about though. I think effort should be allocated to limiting divergence from the system fundamentals and not necessarily making large changes. No one, until today, has experienced the full power of democratic rule and free market enterprise.


My theory of happiness

22 Oct

Happiness is one of the most discussed things in the world but there seems to be very little consensus on what it is that actually makes a person happy. I have travelled around the world and spoke to many people from very diverse backgrounds and I have realised that things such as how rich or healthy or fat or colourful or intelligent or how much people we have around us do not seem to be very good determinants of how happy we are. Instead, I realised that happiness is about being in balance about what we think we could be and what we are. I decided to call it living in an ‘ignorance bubble’. In this blog post, I will firstly define what an ignorance bubble is, secondly elaborate on my conceptualisation of happiness and finally explore how people move between the states of being happy or not.

It is worth mentioning at the beginning that the word ignorance is not as negative as its connotations would normally suggest. It comes from Latin ignorantia which means ‘not knowing’. It is thus perfectly human to be ignorant because nobody can know everything. I would like to distinguish two relevant types of ignorance for the purpose of this blog post. It is firstly ignorance about how capable we are, a ‘capability’ ignorance, and secondly ignorance about what we can be doing/what we can have, a ‘can do/have’ ignorance.

An example of the first type of ignorance, the capability ignorance, is a guy who is a sailor because that’s how good he thinks he is. In reality he is capable enough to be a captain but he is perfectly happy about being a sailor because it never crossed his mind that he could be a captain. He lives in ignorance about his capabilities, in an ignorance bubble, and is happy in this bubble. Another example is a woman watching TV in a slum dwelling and seeing people living in beautiful houses in the movies. Despite the fact she might be as intelligent as people living in those houses, her circumstances made her think that she will never be able to afford such a house and therefore it does not really worry her she does not have one.

An example of the second type of ignorance, the can do/have ignorance, is a man eating plain food his whole life. He has never tasted for example a well prepared piece of meat and therefore he is not sad he cannot eat it every week. Another example would be an Indian girl living her whole life in a dusty, crowded city. She has never lived in countryside nearby a forest and has never breathed clean air. She lives in ignorance, an ignorance bubble, about what her environment can look like and therefore she is not sad about what it is.

We can now define an ignorance bubble as the sum of our knowledge and beliefs about what is possible at any given time. We can also distinguish five different states where we can be relative to our ignorance bubble (see Figure 1). It is where we are that defines if we are happy or not. In state 1, our ignorance bubble, the black oval, is identical with what our life actually is, the red oval, and we are happy (more detailed examples of what happens in each state follow). In state 2, our bubble bursts or put another way, it expands – we now believe our life can be better than what it is and we are unhappy. From state 2, we can move either to state 3, which is to do nothing about it and stay unhappy, or to state 4, which is to actively attempt to improve our situation to match it to what we now believe is possible; this effort makes us initially happy. We can again move in two directions from state 4. We either succeed in our efforts and our situation improves to a point it matches our new, expanded ignorance bubble which moves us to the happy state 1 where all is in balance. Or we do not succeed and despite our efforts our situation does not match what we believe is possible. At that point we have to make a decision; we either move to stage 3 where our ignorance bubble is permanently bigger (better) that what our situation actually is and we are unhappy or we realise that the idea that burst our initial ignorance bubble is actually not possible at the moment (we give up on that ambition), we readjust our ignorance bubble back to its original form, move to the balanced state 1 and are happy again.

Figure 1: 5 states of happiness relative to our ignorance bubble

State 1 –living happily in an ignorance bubble

One way I believe people can be happy is by living within their ignorance bubble having achieved what their capability and can do/have ignorance tells them they can achieve. I know many such people and I respect them very much because they have worked very hard to make things be as good as they believe they can be and consequently they are happy now. I, for example, stayed once for a weekend with a poor Colombian farmer living high in the mountains. He told me that his biggest dream is to see an ocean. This was quite doable since he would have to take a chiva, the local bus, for two hours to the nearest town and from there it would take him about ten hours on another bus to get to the ocean. He would be able to afford the trip if he saved for some time. But he did not believe it is possible for him to go there – nobody like him he knows in his village has ever seen the ocean either. The fact he has not seen the ocean yet and probably never will does not however make him unhappy in the slightest; he lives happily in his ignorance bubble.

State 2 – painful puncturing of our ignorance bubble

Every now and then somebody or something comes with an idea and punctures our ignorance bubble. If our can do/have ignorance is punctured as we for example taste a good steak and we like it (we have realised how plain our food is in comparison to the steak) our capability ignorance can still save us. If we will still think that we are simply not able to earn enough money to keep buying that steak we will happily get back to our plain dishes. A problem arises when we also start believing that we are capable enough to secure that steak meat yet we do not have it at the moment (see note 1). We become unhappy at that moment because our ignorance bubble got punctured – it expanded and no longer matches the reality of our current lives. At this moment, we have two options. Those are firstly to do nothing and secondly to actively try to make things as good for us as we believe they can be.

State 3 – doing nothing and being unhappy

The easiest option (in the short term) is always to do nothing. I often see people who somehow got their ignorance bubbles punctured and believe their lives can (they would say should) be better but do not attempt to improve them in any way. Instead, they resort to complaining and relying on others to help them. This inaction combined with belief that their lives should be better than they are now makes them unhappy.

State 4 – happily trying to improve our situation

A much better alternative is to act upon the capabilities we have realised we have and to improve our lives to the point where we now think we should be given our newly expanded ignorance bubble. I believe that once people embark on this ‘equilibrating’ journey their happiness level suddenly increases. They feel good because they are doing something about their situation. They might not be eating the steak yet, but they feel they are at least working on getting there which is initially almost as good as having it. If all works out well and we get to where we want to be, that reality becomes our new ignorance bubble, we are now in balance with it and therefore move to the happy state 1. If things however do not work out as envisioned despite our best efforts, we get to unhappy state 5 where our improvement efforts keep ending in vain.

State 5 – being unhappy from not getting the results

We all have sometimes tried hard to achieve something but we just could not get there. In this state we still believe our situation should be better and we are actively trying to do something about it; to little effect however. This makes us unhappy. We can always try to get there in a different way but should that not work out as well, two things can happen. We can either cease our efforts to improve our situation but still keep believing that it should be better. This would move us to the unhappy state 3. Alternatively, we can accept that we are realistically not capable at this moment to get there or that it is not worth the effort and readjust our expectations accordingly. This means to contract our ignorance bubble to our initial size and live happily as we did before in our original state 1.

I believe it is very important to try hard to improve our situation whenever our ignorance bubble gets punctured. It is only through exerting our own effort that failing to get where we want to get, we are genuinely able to readjust our expectations, our ignorance bubble, back to its original balanced state. Only then we can stop being worried about not having something (see my previous blog post on never regretting ). Equally importantly, if often happens that once we get where we thought we wanted to get, we realise it is by far not as good as we imagined it to be. We can then give up on that need and get happily back to our original ignorance bubble. At the same time, I believe the only way out of state 3 is to try, to get to state 4, for the same reasons I have just mentioned.

What I have tried to demonstrate here is firstly that how happy we are is not contingent on how much we have in absolute terms but rather on how much we have relative to what we believe we are capable of having and relative to how much we believe we should have. This relates equally to physical objects, money, people around us or feelings. Secondly, I wanted to show that how happy we are is dependent on the actions we choose – which state we decide to be in. The only state we cannot fully control is state 2 – when our ignorance bubble is punctured. It often just happens. Someone tells us a new thing, we read something impactful or we experience something new. Alternatively, we can also consciously decide to puncture and expand our own ignorance bubble and set ourselves new goals. But I believe we are in full control of moving between all the other states as shown in Figure 1 and described above.

This means that while we cannot directly control how happy we are by simply telling ourselves now I will be happy, we can influence it by consciously deciding which actions we take. Next time your ignorance bubble is punctured therefore, think carefully how you are going to react so that you move through state 4 back to balanced state 1 and do not get stuck in the unhappy passive state 3. In a similar fashion, if somebody around you is not happy, you can use this diagram to figure out in which state the person is, why they are there and help them by guiding them to a more happy state accordingly.

Note 1: Using steak meat as a proxy for happiness might seem rather superficial but it is not for two reasons. Firstly, it is only a metaphor; you can substitute the steak for a loving, intelligent, funny and attractive girlfriend, a different nationality, being healthy or whatever you desire. Secondly, meat is one of the first things people spend their money on upon escaping absolute poverty and its consumption is an important indicator of ones poverty level.

Asking the right questions as a key to effective communication

26 Sep

There are many more things we do not know than we do know. More often than not, this ignorance stems from a simple fact that we have not been asked or have not asked ourselves the relevant questions. Questions can be very impactful in that they make us think about a certain issue we would not have considered otherwise. They allow us to put two and two together and come up with completely new insights. This post elaborates on the topic of asking the right questions, they role in effective communication and rounds up the topic of helping explored in the previous two blog posts.

In the previous two posts I wrote about three possible types of helping relationship (see here) and about the importance of building a balanced relationship with the person we are communicating with (see here). Questions play a crucial role in any helping relationship and in communication as such. As mentioned before, they firstly allow us to learn new things. Secondly, by asking somebody a question we demonstrate our interest in the other person and in the issues they are facing thus showing them our respect and building mutual trust. Finally, a well phrased question asked at a right time can very effectively influence someone’s thinking and make them realise new things. There are many types of questions and many ways of describing those types; it is however always important to keep in mind that the form greatly shapes thinking process of the person we are communicating with and we should therefore choose it carefully.

One of the simplest, but nevertheless very important, ways to classify questions is into open-ended and close-ended ones. Open-ended questions usually start with How, Why, What etc. and they prompt the other person to answer freely depending on what they feel is the most relevant thing to say. Close-ended questions give us very specific, usually yes-no answers. While close-ended questions are great to confirm or otherwise a hypothesis we might have, they are quite restrictive in their nature. Open ended questions are usually a more effective and useful communication tool.

Edgar Schein in his books on helping (mentioned in my earlier blog posts) puts a great emphasis on active inquiry, asking the right questions at the right time, as an effective way to communicate with and help others. He distinguishes three main types of inquiry – pure inquiry, exploratory inquiry and confrontive inquiry. They are all open ended questions. Each type is useful for different purpose and at a different point during an interaction.

Pure inquiry

The objective of pure inquiry is to learn more about the issue at hand as the other person sees it without influencing thinking of the person in any way. Being silent is often the most effective way to start as it lets the person bring up whatever she feels to be most important. Then we can ask questions such as:

What is the situation?
Can you tell me what is going on?
What is happening?
Can you give me some examples?
Tell me more…

Notice that these questions do not suggest any direction the person should explore. They are therefore very useful at the very beginning of a conversation as they allow us to better understand what is happening and to dispel any false assumptions we might have had before (we naturally recall what we know about an issue at hand when we hear about it and make certain assumptions about what is for example causing it not paying attention to the fact that this situation might be different and therefore that our assumptions might not be applicable). In terms of building an balanced relationship with the other person as mentioned in the earlier blog post, pure inquiry is a great way of doing so for it shows interest and clearly demonstrates an unbiased intention to understand what is happening.

Exploratory inquiry

When in exploratory inquiry mode, we start to steer the conversation in certain directions but still refrain from presenting our own ideas about what the other person should do. We can focus on (1) feelings and reactions, (2) hypotheses and causes or (3) actions taken or contemplated. We can ask questions such as:

(1) How did you feel about that?
What was your reaction?
How did others react?
(2) Why do you think it happened?
Why did you (or somebody else) do that?
(3) What did you do about it?
What are you going to do?
What options do you have?
What do you think you should do?

Notice that compared to pure inquiry, the questions here suggests a direction of further conversation but do not contribute any specific content. They can be used after we have learned more about the situation using pure inquiry questions and only once we have developed some level of mutual trust with the other person. If asked too early, the other person might become uncomfortable or get defensive if asked these questions.

Confrontive inquiry

During this last type of inquiry we can share our ideas about what we think the other person should do and ask them what they think about it. We can ask questions such as:

Did you …do something..?
Did you consider… ?
Have you thought about …?
Could/can you do…?

Here we are suggesting the direction as well as the content of further discussion. In doing so we directly confront the other person about something specific and as such run the risk of the person starting to feel even more uncomfortable and get even more defensive than during exploratory inquiry. We should use these types of questions only once we have developed a balanced and trusting relationship with the other person to avoid these pitfalls. Once we have done so however, confrontive inquiry is a great way of steering somebody in a certain direction and doing so in a much gentler way than simply saying do X, Y, Z.

Unless we are talking to a person we already know well and that trusts us, it is very important to start with pure inquiry then move onto exploratory and only then to confrontive inquiry. The differences might appear to be very subtle but from my own experience, our minds subconsciously react to them very strongly. It varies with situations as to when is the best time to switch from one to another but we should always think about how well developed our relationship with the other person is and phrase our questions accordingly. Try it next time somebody asks you for help or just wants to talk to you about something. Alternatively, try following similar steps if you want somebody to do something and you want them do have a real ownership of what you want them to do.

Note: Apart from being able to ask the right questions, being able to listen effectively is an equally important skill. See my older post of effective listening here. Additionally, Schein recommends visualising what the other person is saying as a very effective way to listen. I often do it myself and it really helps me to focus on and understand what the person is saying.

One-upmanship and the economics of social interaction

18 Sep

Sometimes we come across people whom we attentively listen to and appreciate whatever they say while at other times we feel like dismissing everything somebody else says. Why is it so? This has been one of my biggest questions over the past few years. How come some people can put their thoughts across in a way such that others mostly agree with what they are saying while other people present themselves in a way such that others try to refute anything they say? This blog post offers some answers and also serves as a continuation to my previous post on helping.

A possible answer to this question is that we simply like listening to people who say what we agree with and dislike listening to people who say what we do not agree with. This, however, does not necessarily have to be true for two main reasons. Firstly, we can enjoy listening to a person who offers a different perspective, and do so attentively, for that is how our knowledge expands and we arrive to better solutions. Secondly, by claiming that we agree or disagree with what a person is saying we make an assumption that we actually understand what the person is saying in the first place. The problem here is that we often do not even attempt to fully understand what the other person is trying to tell us.

Regardless on our intentions, we all find ourselves at times dismissing what somebody is saying before we fully grasp what they are trying to tell us. This implies that the actual content of a message is often secondary to the form in which it is presented in determining whether others accept it or not. In other words, how the other person makes us feel during the communication process is more important than what the person actually says. This is where the concepts of one-upmanship and the economics of social interaction became relevant and these will be explored next.

Edgar Schein in his recent book Helping: How to Offer, Give and Receive Help notes that while there are few cultural universals, anthropologists agree that all societies are stratified and that all social behaviour is reciprocal. This has several important consequences.

In terms of stratification it implies that people inherently do not have equal positions relative to each other. This is certainly true on the societal level where people can be stratified e.g. by acquired positions of power, merit, economic status or in some societies by caste. But it is also true in day to day human interaction where people behave in various ways and adopt various roles. In doing so they claim certain amount of value and at the same time are ready to give some value back to the person they are interacting with depending on the roles they are in. It is the balance (or its absence) between these two social ‘transactions’ that determines how we perceive a relationship. If a relationship is not balanced, feeling of tension and unease arises which hinders the communication process.

The perils of being one-up

There can be a lack of balance for two main reasons. Firstly, it is the difference in relative standing of the two people in a society or secondly, and often more importantly, the difference between how much value one receives and offers relative to what he expects to receive and is expected to offer. By value we mean here the amount of respect we show or receive from the other person or as the Chinese call it, the face we give or receive. One-upmanship then refers to occasions when we claim more value that we should (we put ourselves one-up and the other person one-down) or to situations which implicitly put us one-up and other person one-down whether it was our intention or not. One such situation always occurs for example at the beginning of any helping relationship when the helper is put one-up (by being asked to help) and the person requesting help one-down (by needing help) relative to each other. This puts a strain on the relationship and makes the person who is one-down focus all his attention on regaining his status relative to the other person at the expense of trying to understand the message being communicated.

To answer our initial question therefore, whether we attentively listen to what the other person is saying or not is dependent on how equitable our relationship with that person is. If the person puts himself one-up and makes us feel one-down, we focus most of our attention on putting ourselves one-up or the person one-down to restore the balance. This can translate into us dismissing whatever the person says regardless of how sound his arguments are. On the other hand, if we feel respected and we perceive the relationship to be equitable, we are willing to appreciate even ideas that go contrary to ours and are not afraid of a potential loss of face if we change our initial position.

In terms of reciprocity, anything we do or do not do, consciously or subconsciously, is interpreted by and has an effect on the person we are interacting with and prompts him to react somehow. It is therefore important to think about how our actions contribute to building an equitable relationship and plan them accordingly. One way of doing so is showing respect and building mutual trust. There are multiple ways of doing so and one of them, pure inquiry, as Schein calls it, will be explored in the next blog post.

To summarize so far, it is how the other person makes us feel that determines if we are going to listen to him or not. If we feel valued and being treated with respect we are more likely to fully appreciate what the other person is saying. A crucial factor determining if we feel this way or not is whether we perceive the person to be trying to put himself one-up and makes us feel one-down. People often adopt certain communication style subconsciously not realising that however good their intentions might be, if they are making the other person feel one-down, their effort is not nearly as impactful as it could have been had they adopted a different style. Next time you are communicating with others, try therefore to think how you are making the other people feel and focus on building an equitable relationship.

What’s your marketing plan?

25 Aug

When is help really helpful?

20 Aug

There is a proverb saying Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime. This is a very powerful principle which can be extended to almost any interaction between a person who needs help and a person who is willing to help. Yet for a number of reasons a helping relationship does not (and should not) always work this way. Also, not all attempts to help are actually helpful as you have surely experienced yourself many times before. This blog post elaborates on the topic further and outlines two other ways of helping using Edgar Schein’s philosophy of content versus process facilitation.

Schein identified three basic types of helping relationships which essentially differ in who diagnoses what the actual problem is and who comes up with the solution. Especially the first point is very important as people have often troubles expressing what they need help with. They might not know how to formulate the problem, might be afraid to do so or might not know what the problem is in the first place and might suggest they have some other, secondary, problem instead.

Schein refers to the person needing help as client and to the person offering help as consultant. This language evokes corporate setting however the principles outlined bellow can be applied in our personal as well as professional lives.

Expert mode

In this mode the client identifies her problem herself and approaches a consultant to solve the problem for her. She says I am hungry. This mode works only if the client is able to correctly identify the real problem and explain it to a consultant who has the knowledge how to solve it. It also assumes she is willing to and able to implement the solution the consultant gives her.

While at times all these assumptions hold and at such instances it is the most suitable mode of help, the client is often unable to identify her real problem as we mentioned before, is unable to explain it to the consultant or the solution the consultant comes up with might not be suitable for implementation. For example if a client who does not eat red meat says I am hungry and the consultants takes it at face value and brings her a burger, such help would not really be helpful.

Doctor-patient mode

In this mode the client only knows something is wrong in a certain area but leaves it up to the consultant to identify what the problem is and to solve it just like an ill patient comes to a doctor for diagnosis and treatment. She says I do not feel well. This mode assumes that the client has correctly identified what area needs help and that she is willing and able to reveal relevant information to a suitably identified consultant to make a correct diagnosis. It also assumes that client will understand the advice, will be willing to accept the advice and will be able implement it correctly, just like in the expert mode.

Help in this mode can work for example in the medical setting where the patient is able to say which part of body hurts her and where the doctor is well trained to identify and solve the problem. In other settings however, more often than not, the consultant might identify a wrong problem or come up with a solution unsuitable to the client. Using our fishing example, if the client says I do not feel well (because she is hungry), the consultant might think that she is just thirsty and offer her a cup of water instead. Such help would not really be very helpful either.

Process consultation mode

In the final mode the client engages a consultant not to identify or solve a problem but to take her through a process at the end of which she will have done so herself. The consultant therefore does not provide her with diagnosis or solution but merely with a process. Most crucially, the client retains ownership of her problem.

The fact that she owns the problem has several far reaching implications. Firstly, she is able to with the help of the consultant to correctly identify what her real problem is. She still says I do not feel well but because the consultant asks he a series of questions, she figures out she is hungry – identifies the correct problem. Secondly, she comes up with solution to her problem herself which means she has buy-in into this solution and consequently willingness to execute it. The consultant asks the client what she wants to eat and she realises that she would like a fish.

Thirdly, she learns two key things. By this point, through careful observation of the consultant, she has already learned how to identify her real problem and a suitable solution to it – she has learned the process of doing so. Finally she also learns from the consultant how to fish. This means that next time she does not feel well, instead of needing to ask for help, she can go herself through the now learned process of identifying her problem and coming up with a solution (unlike in the doctor-patient mode) and can solve the problem herself as well (unlike in the expert mode).

Which mode is the best one?

Since most situations are unique, each mode is suitable for a different context. It can also be useful to switch between the modes within one helping intervention as the process consultation one might be more suitable at the beginning when we need to correctly identify the problem and once we have done so, we might realise that the expert mode is the best one to continue in.

The real benefit lies in knowing that these three modes exist, being aware of their differences as well as benefits and limitations and think consciously which one to apply given our situation. This should help us be more helpful when we want to do so.

Edgar Schein discusses these modes and nature of interventions in general at length in his book Process Consultation Revisited published 1999. He also has a recent book on helping called Helping: How to Offer, Give, and Receive Help which I am yet to read.


The flaw of averages

6 Aug

Is the average value always really the best one?

An interesting piece on why taking only a single average number is not always the best approach. Based on Sam Savage’s book The Flaw of Averages.

As the drowning statistician who thought the lake lake is three feet deep on average had to find out the hard way…




You can read the piece here:


How people really learn

30 Jul

The Anxiety of Learning is the title of a Harvard Business Review article offering a very interesting perspective on what motivates people to learn new things. The authors argue that unless they feel threatened, people are unwilling to learn. This blog post explores the idea further.

It is a well known fact that people are resistant to change. We find comfort in status quo because even though it might not be the best thing possible, we at least know what we can expect from it and we have learnt how to operate in such system. It is the same case with learning – there is cost attached to it and this generates anxiety. As the authors point out, sources of this anxiety can be fear of looking silly when trying new things, the actual effort it takes us to learn something new, reluctance to part with our old habits or potential loss of the status we enjoy in the current system. All this contributes to our implicit unwillingness to learn new things.

Anxiety to survive

Yet you might argue that people still do learn and organizations or nations do change. You are of course right. Our society and its individuals have made huge progress over time. The authors attribute this to the other type of anxiety associated with learning; the fear of our survival. They go on to propose that people are willing to learn only when the ‘survival anxiety’ is greater than the ‘learning anxiety’. Consequently, one can motivate people to learn and change either by decreasing their learning anxiety or by increasing their survival anxiety.

I think this is a really powerful idea which explains a lot of real life phenomena. Take for example the proverb ‘being thrown into the deep end’. People might be reluctant to learn to swim for whatever reason but once in deep water, they finally try. The same goes for learning a new language. Some people might be afraid to speak it because they think they will make a lot of mistakes. Once alone abroad however, they suddenly have to and realize that their command of the language is not so bad after all. This makes us think how we can engineer situations which would incentivise us or others to learn.

Take for example organizational change which the authors mention as well. I was reading up on the topic when I was the president of AIESEC UK, a youth charity with over 600 members, and one of the key notions was activating the organization by making it plainly aware of the threads it is facing before taking it through a change process. It indeed was only when people fully realized the scale of challenges and got the right sense of urgency, that we could get on properly with creating strategies to improve the organization.

I would like to end on a more optimistic note however. What learning ultimately boils down to is a cost benefit analysis. The view presented so far has been that learning happens when the cost of not learning is greater than the cost of learning. Rather than just playing with costs, we can also focus more on the benefits. Be them tangible, like specific (monetary) rewards, or intangible, like a feeling of contribution and satisfaction, I believe these can be good complements to our more deeply engrained sense of survival. The main take away for me is that we can actively influence how much we or people around us learn by structuring the environment in which the learning happens, our communication and the incentives we put in place. Give it a though next time you need to implement some change.

Source: Diane L. Coutu, The Anxiety of Learning, Harvard Business Review, March 2002

What motivates us at work

21 Jul

I just read a really interesting article in the Harvard Business Review about what motivates people at work the most. Counter to popular belief and to what another survey suggested managers think, it was not recognition, monetary or otherwise,  for work. Instead, making progress came as number one.

The authors asked office workers to email them diaries at the end of every day saying how good the day was and what they did. In 76% of great days, workers reported having made a progress (see the chart). While at first it might sound surprising, it actually makes perfect sense if you think about it. I also feel really good when I spend my day productively and make headway on important task and I guess I am not alone.

This is good news because managers can directly influence how much progress their people make by setting clear goals with a number of milestones and giving support in achieving them, motivating their workers in that way.

Recognition still came high up though, so we should never forget to recognize and celebrate success whenever an important step is accomplished.

Source: What Really Motivates Workers in 10 Breakthrough Ideas for 2010, HBR, January – February 2010

Managing expectations

13 Jul

How we perceive things, people or our experiences is often not determined by how good or bad they are in absolute terms but good or bad they are relative to what we were expecting them to be.  If they tell you in a restaurant that the food will be ready in five minutes and you end up waiting for 15 minutes, you will be disappointed with the service. Had they told you however that it will take half an hour because they are very busy at the moment but manage to get it to your table in 15 minutes, you would be very happy. The time is the same, but your perception of the restaurant is vastly different.

I believe that expectations management is one of the most important things to keep in mind when communicating with others. I have seen wrong expectations setting or lack of it lead to dissatisfaction many times in the past. Which is a shame because all that was missing was an awareness of the issue and two minutes to communicate it to others.

Dissatisfaction is result of a negative expectations gap – the difference between what we were expecting something to be like and what it actually was. If we the reality is better than our expectations, we talk of positive expectations gap and if the reality is worse we talk of negative expectations gap. We can therefore ensure satisfaction in two main ways. Firstly by setting lower expectations and secondly by achieving better results – both lead to increase in positive expectations gap.

People often focus on achieving better results but neglect the expectations setting part. Now do not get me wrong here, I am not saying that you should tell your boss tomorrow that you are going to do only very little work over the next year. You would probably get fired if you did that. But you can get fired just as easily if you tell your boss you are going to do loads or make him or her think so and then deliver only to your normal standards.


Expectations should be set for realistic targets for two main reasons. Firstly, as your might have guessed already, to give yourself some space to work extra hard and overachieve those expectations thus generating a positive expectations gap and satisfaction of others with your performance. But equally importantly to allow others to plan accordingly and be able to rely on you delivering what you promised to do. Things can go less smoothly than anticipated sometimes and if you fail to do what you promised, others who were relying on receiving your output would get into trouble. And if you get people repeatedly into trouble, they will stop trusting you and working with you (that’s quite obvious, huh?).

I am now doing my final project at LSE, my university, and I have been very careful to set the right expectations with my client (in this case one pharma consultancy) and my academic supervisor as to what the project will cover and what the project will not cover. I set myself a realistic plan at the beginning which I am following on time to everybody’s satisfaction and people are generally happy with how things are progressing.

One my friend is in charge of a not-for-profit organisation and had an annual review meeting with her team earlier this week. One of her team members did not think the meeting is going to be anything serious, just a group of friends meeting, and when she got questioned why she did not achieve her plan she was very defensive and felt somewhat hurt afterwards. She had wrong expectation from the meetings.

The concept of expectation setting can be applied to all areas of life where we are dealing with others and even when we are dealing just with ourselves. We all get surprised sometimes how well things worked out when we were not expecting it at all. Perhaps our satisfaction then stems at least partially from the positive expectations gap we had.

So next time you are doing something, ask yourself what expectation are you setting for others and if you feel they are not very realistic, go to every length you can to rectify it. It might seem like a difficult discussion to have occasionally, but it would still be probably hundred times easier to what the discussion might end up being like if you do not do any expectations setting at all.