Archive | July, 2013

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.