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Why do Good People do Bad Things in Groups?

When people get together in groups, unusual things can happen – both good and bad.  Most of us are aware of the groupthink psychological phenomenon that occurs, within a group of people, in which the desire for harmony or conformity results in an irrational or dysfunctional decision-making outcome.

There is, however, an even more sinister aspect – belonging to a group makes people more likely to act contrary to their own personal moral standards. A recently reported MIT study found ‘groups’ will often engage in actions that that are outside the private moral standards of each individual in that group.

Several factors can play into this transformation including factors like greater anonymity and a diminished sense of responsibility for collective action. However, the MIT study studied a third factor that cognitive scientists believe may be involved in this group dynamic: the hypothesis that when people are in groups, they “loss touch” with their own morals and beliefs and become more likely to do things that they would normally consider as wrong.

In the study the researchers measured brain activity in a part of the brain involved in thinking about oneself. They found that this activity was reduced in some people when the subjects participated in a competition as part of a group, compared with when they competed as individuals.  Those people were more likely to ‘harm’ their competitors than people who did not exhibit the decreased brain activity.

Mina Cikara, the lead author of the study explained “This process alone does not account for intergroup conflict: Groups also promote anonymity, diminish personal responsibility, and encourage reframing harmful actions as ‘necessary for the greater good’. Still, these results suggest that, at least, in some cases, explicitly reflecting on one’s own personal moral standards may help to attenuate the influence of ‘mob mentality’.

While these results may explain some of the damaging decisions taken by corporate Boards and other groups that led to disaster in the financial sector in the recent past, the core learning from such a study should be towards guiding policy around group behaviour going forward.

“The individual makes a clear effort to define moral values and principles that have validity and application apart from the authority of the groups of persons holding them and apart from the individual’s own identification with the group.”    Lawrence Kohlber


A Life with Purpose adds Years to your Life

Recent research published in Psychological Science demonstrated that a greater purpose in life consistently predicted a lower mortality risk across the lifespan, showing the same benefit for younger, middle-aged, and older individuals. The research looked at data from over 6000 participants, focusing on their self-reported purpose in life and other psychosocial variables that gauged their positive relations with others and their experience of positive and negative emotions.

Over the 14 year follow-up period 569 participants in the study had died (9% of sample). Those that died had reported lower purpose in life and fewer positive relations than did survivors. Lead researcher Patrick Hill of Carleton University in Canada said ” Our findings point to the fact that finding a direction for life, and setting overarching goals for what you want to achieve can help you actually live longer, regardless of when you find your purpose”  This confirms previous studies that suggested that finding a purpose in life extends your lifespan above and beyond other factors that are known to predict longevity.

Purpose had similar benefits for adults regardless of retirement status, a known mortality risk factor.  And the longevity benefits of purpose in life held even after other other indicators of psychological well-being, such as positive relations and positive emotions. ” These finds suggest that there’s something unique about finding a purpose that seems to be leading to greater longevity,”  says Hill.

In his inspirational book, Man’s Search for Meaning, the psychiatrist Victor Frankl (1905-1997) wrote about his experience in a concentration camp in Second World War. his experience as a concentration camp inmate taught him that our main drive or motivation in life is neither pleasure (as Freud had stated) nor power (as Adler had thought) but meaning / purpose. For Frankl, meaning or purpose can be found through:

  • Creativity or giving something to the world through self-expression,
  • Experiencing the world by interacting authentically with our environment and with others,
  • Changing our attitude when we are faced with a circumstance or situation that we cannot change.

Frankl is credited with coining the term ‘ Sunday neurosis’ to refer to the dejection that is felt at the end of the working week when a person may realise that their life lacks meaning. This vacuum can lead to all sorts of excesses and compensatory behaviour such as anxiety, avoidance, bingeing on food and/or drink, overworking & overspending.

If you haven’t yet done so, find your purpose or meaning in life. It may change through your lifetime.

Even more people today have the means to live, but no meaning to live for.” Victor Frankl 

The Role of the “Toxic Handler”

Back in 1999, Peter Frost and Sandra Robinson wrote an article in Harvard Business Review entitled “The Toxic Handler: Organizational Hero – and Casualty”.  They describe ‘toxic handlers’ as the people who ‘manage the pain of others’ at work. They are particularly important and relevant at time of major organisational change such as mergers, acquisitions and company reorganisations. Frost and Robinson interviewed and observed more than 70 executives who were either ‘toxic handlers’ themselves or who have managed people in the role. The authors identified five ways that ‘toxic handlers’ alleviate organisational pain:

  • They listen empathetically. They listen with compassion and non-judgementally when staff confront them in anger and frustration.
  • They carry the confidences of other. They allow colleagues to off-load and walk away less troubled knowing that their anguished words will be held in confidence.
  • They work behind the scenes to prevent pain. They are proactive in working to prevent or reduce organisational pain.
  • They reframe difficult messages. The authors provide the example of the ‘toxic handler’ told by his boss to “Tell those idiots to get their act together and finish the job by Friday or else they are all doomed.” Instead the manager brought his staff together and put the boss’s directive as “The boss needs us to complete this task by Friday so let’s put our heads together and see what we need to do to meet the deadline.”
  • They suggest solutions. ‘Toxic handlers’ don’t just listen they also work to provide solutions and energise demotivated staff.

This article struck a real cord with me at the time, as I had been directly involved in a large banking merger in the early 90’s and also had spent the previous few years leading some major change projects, involving restructuring and redundancies. I have myself witnessed such ‘toxic handlers’ operate in the financial organisations in which I was employed. They truly are the unsung heroes that can exist at multiple levels in the organisation – from senior leadership roles to junior supervisor positions. As stated in the HBR article these ‘toxic handlers’ are frequently not acknowledged due to the culture of toughness that infuses many organisations and where the highest value is often placed on technical competence.

Emotional intelligence is too often seen as irrelevant – the inaccurate perception being that it doesn’t show up on the bottom line. In business life it can often be seen as weakness for senior executives to show gratitude to those who practice emotional caretaking at work. Raising awareness about the ‘toxic handler’ role, in situations where organisational pain is present, requires explicit acknowledgement of the need for the role and a proper forum for discussion of how it should be supported.

Ultimately, as stated in the article, a critical ingredient of any consciousness-raising about toxic handling is the recognition that effective pain management can- and does – contribute to the bottom line. Training and coaching is crucial for executives in the frontline of significant change initiatives, such as reorganisations, restructuring, downsizing or M&A activities. This should not be of the usual technical variety, but should focus on the emotional competencies required to provide supportive leadership in such environments.

The concluding chapter of the article by Frost and Robinson provides some positive reassurance. They state that when they began their research they expected resistance – even denial – from senior executives. While they indicate that they did find some of that, they more often found executives aware that their organisations spawned anger, sadness, fear and confusion as a matter of course. They say that the predominant feeling unearthed by their research was that of relief as executives indicated that this was the first time they had been able to talk about organisational pain. Emotional pain comes not only from downsizing, bad bosses and change but also accompanies the commitment and passion of individuals striving for excellence.

“In the last decade or so, science has discovered a tremendous amount about the role emotions play in our lives. Researchers have found that even more than IQ, your emotional awareness and abilities to handle feelings will determine your success and happiness in all walks of life, including family relationships.”    –John Gottman

Performance – has a mind-body dimension

“Emotions adjust not only our mental but also our bodily states. This way we are prepared to react swiftly to the dangers, but also the opportunities such as pleasurable social interactions present in the environment. Awareness of the corresponding bodily changes may subsequently trigger the conscious emotional sensations, such as the feeling of happiness.”

The above quote is from one of the leaders, Professor Lauri Nummenmaa, of a recent Finnish study which found that most emotions trigger strong bodily sensations which map to different parts of the body, depending on the particular emotion.

This study again reinforces the mind – body relationship and the feedback loop that exists between the two.  Embodied cognition, the idea that the mind is not only connected to the body but that the body influences the mind, is one of the more counter-intuitive ideas in cognitive science. In sharp contrast is dualism, a theory of mind famously put forth by Rene Descartes in the 17th century when he claimed that “there is a great difference between mind and body, inasmuch as body is by nature always divisible, and the mind is entirely indivisible… the mind or soul of man is entirely different from the body.” In the proceeding centuries, the notion of the disembodied mind flourished. From it, western thought developed two basic ideas: reason is disembodied because the mind is disembodied and reason is transcendent and universal.

Relevant to this and our own success in performing – avoiding feeling anxious in anticipation of tasks such as speaking in public or meeting with a boss. In another recent study by Dr. Alison Brooks of Harvard Business School she discovered that performance anxiety is better dealt with by telling yourself out-loud to get excited rather than to calm down.  A number of scenarios were used in the study to induce performance anxiety, including public speaking and it was found that the subjects who used the excitement technique gave longer speeches and were more persuasive, competent and relaxed.

“The way we talk about our feeling has a strong influence on how we actually feel.” Dr. Alison Brooks

Fear of poor performance is a “state of arousal” that is closer to the state of excitement than to the feeling of calm. Thus it is better to view anxiety as excitement rather than trying to calm down to combat performance anxiety. Individuals can reappraise anxiety as excitement using minimal strategies such as self-talk (e.g., saying “I am excited” out loud) or simple messages (e.g., “get excited”), which lead them to feel more excited, adopt an opportunity mind-set (as opposed to a threat mind-set), and improve their subsequent performance,


SOCIAL : A Book that every Leader should read

  • Gallup recently estimated that poor manager-employee relations are costing the US economy $360 billion a year in lost productivity
  • “Knowing that we work in an organisation that cares for us, for other employees and for the community creates attachments that are surprisingly effective at keeping us engaged & motivated.”

The Gallup estimate and the quote above are both taken from Matthew Lieberman’s recent book “ Social”. He is one of the foremost authorities globally in the study of Social Neuroscience. His book is fascinating and very readable but most interesting from a business perspective is the chapter entitled “ The Business of Social Brains”.  Lieberman gives his support to David Rock’s SCARF model which I have previously blogged about but he focuses on the three social components of the model – Status, Relatedness and Fairness.

In relation to status he makes the point that many executives incorrectly assume that employees only seek out status because it’s a sign that more money will follow. However, Lieberman suggests that scientific evidence points to the fact that status is an end in itself. He elaborates by referring to a study undertaken by economist Ian Larkin which demonstrated that 68% of sales staff in a specific enterprise vendor were willing to forego $27,000 ( circa 20% of salary) in sales commissions to become members of an exclusive group. This elite group achieved few tangible / financial benefits but were recognised by the CEO in a communication to all staff and a gold star was put on their business cards and stationery. They also got a trip together to an island resort.  Obviously the $27,000 foregone in each case went straight to the bottom line of the company.

With regard to relatedness (which he calls connection) Lieberman makes reference to the fact that organisations often talk about Human Capital but fail to recognise the value of Social Capital. Another economist Arent Greve studied three Italian consulting companies to find out if social capital played a role in optimising performance.  He measured the Human Capital and Social Capital of the staff in these companies. In two of the companies Social Capital accounted for all the benefits in productivity. In the third company Human Capital did have an effect but this was augmented to the degree to which the person also had strong Social Capital.

The extent to which employees perceive decisions to be fair in the workplace can account for 20% of the differences in their productivity. Numerous studies have shown that individuals will forego monetary reward rather than accept, what they consider as an unfair offer.

John Zenger, a leadership expert, asked thousands of employees to score the leadership effectiveness of their boss. Zenger found that if employees rated a manager as very high based on “focus on results” there was still only a small (14%) chance that the manager would be rated among the top 10% of leaders overall. However, if in addition the employees rated the same manager’s ability to “ build relationships” very highly then the likelihood of that person being rated as a great leader jumped to 72%.  Lieberman makes the point, which I would fully agree with, that social skills improve the value of other competencies because they allow leaders to manage the social and emotional wellbeing of their employees.

In a recent survey conducted by the Management Research Group and the Neuroleadership Institute, the competencies of thousands of employees were examined. More than 50% rated their bosses and peers as having a high degree of “goal focus” but less than 1% were rated high on both “ goal focus” and “interpersonal skills”. It is clear that technical skills and short term results, generated through command and control management structures, are still more highly rated in many organisations than social capital and sustainability.

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