by Eric Samuels

There is an often-quoted and misleading notion that fear is a great motivator.

The fact is, fear is a short-term motivator and generally results in low levels of performance. But fear is a base instinct, so it’s easy to trigger and the results are predictable. Which is why it continues to be used as a method of managing behaviour within so many organizations…..kind of like managerial fast food – light on nutritional value, but quick and easy. So, many managers continue to attempt to control their subordinates with pearls like “if you can’t do it, we’ll find someone else who can.”

However, after the initial reaction to the threat stimulus, we become acclimatized to the new reality, adjusting our behaviour only as necessary. So, for fear to continue to motivate our behaviour, the threat either needs to escalate, or come at us from a different, unexpected angle.

Which is why behavioural psychologists have always maintained that fear should only be used as a last course of action – not as a primary motivational punch. In other words, when all else fails, be direct with a person – make sure that they understand that they are not performing as required, explain exactly what they need to change (detailing the time frame and measurement method), and clearly state the ramifications of failing to meet the required improvement to their performance.

But the disturbing reality, is that in this economic climate, management by fear has become more the accepted norm. With many organizations so focused on hitting financial targets, the behaviour towards employees has become short-sighted, reverting to archaic tactics – fire a loud weapon into the air, and the herd will, more or less, head in the desired direction.

The result of this management style is inevitable; an organization filled with people whose primary focus is doing the minimum required to maintain job security. There’s little initiative, no innovation (management by fear is not conducive to risk-taking), and the best of the bunch are only sticking around long enough until something better comes along. In other words – mediocrity.

Next time, a simple exercise in motivating behaviour through positive reinforcement.

Failing To Learn From History – How Perspective Is Relative

by Eric Samuels

The Contrast Principle explains how our perception is often relative. As a physical example, if we are standing in the dark and a flashlight is pointed in our face, we will estimate the brightness of the light to be significantly higher than had the room had been well-lit. As a psychological example, if we are conversing with a very attractive person who walks away and an unattractive person approaches and begins a conversation, the second person will seem far less attractive than they actually are.

If you’re curious, try this experiment.

Place a bucket of hot water on your left, a bucket of cold water on your right, and a bucket of room temperature water in the middle. Place your left hand into the hot water, and your right hand in the cold water. Now, remove your hands and place both in the room temperature water. The hand that was in the hot water will now feel like it is in cold water, and the hand that was in the cold water bucket will now feel like it is in hot water.

This automatic behaviour is one of many heuristic shortcuts that we apply to the world on a daily basis, and it can be both a benefit and a curse.

If, for instance, your budget for a new car is $35,000, yet you decide to first test drive an $90,000 sports car, the contrast principle will make subsequent test drives feel disappointing and inadequate. On the other hand, if you were to first drive a clunker, subsequent test drives of $35,000 vehicles, will make you feel much better about your budget and eventual car purchase. There are certainly other mitigating factors in being a satisfied car buyer, but all (other) things being equal, the contrast principle can have a profound effect on your perception and therefore your satisfaction.

In other words, there are few, if any absolutes; leaving our perception of the world relative to our experience and expectations. Like many behavioural patterns, this can be powerful ‘mojo’ to harness, particularly when attempting to persuade the decisions of others. Successful salespeople know this, often intuitively, and (rightly or wrongly) apply the principle in an effort to influence the decisions of customers. And the contrast principle is so powerful, that even when we realize it’s being applied to us, it’s hard to resist.

Equally, when you have bad news to share, it’s not a good idea to diminish the news in hopes of revealing or unleashing a little more over a period of time. Organizations know this when dismissing employees. Rather than spreading the anxious process over a period of days or weeks, efforts are made to have all of the dismissals occur at the same time.

Among the many blunders made by BP subsequent to the Deepwater Explorer explosion in the Gulf Of Mexico, was the attempt to downplay the amount of oil leaking from the damaged well. On April 20, BP claimed that 1,000 barrels of oil (42,000 gallons) was leaking into the Gulf. On May 14, the U.S. government upped the estimate to 5,000 barrels a day. May 27, scientists increased the estimate to between 12,000 and 19,000 barrels a day. June 10, that doubled to 25,000 to 30,000 barrels a day. Yesterday, the new estimate was 60,000 barrels a day – more than 2 and a half million gallons!

Added to BP’s many errors of judgment (an understatement), these horrendous ‘miscalculations’ have augmented, if not cemented public mistrust of virtually any claims made by the company. A taint to its reputation from which BP may never recover.

Could BP have reacted differently? Most certainly.

September 12, 1983, 12-year old Mary Kellerman died after taking extra strength Tylenol. In the next few days, a total of 7 deaths were attributed to tainted Tylenol. The parent company of Tylenol, Johnson & Johnson, acted swiftly and decisively, distributing warnings to hospitals and distributors, and halting Tylenol production and advertising. This was followed by a nation-wide recall of Tylenol – $100 million in product.

The press praised the company for “effectively demonstrating how a major business ought to handle a disaster.” A Washington Post article added “This is no Three Mile Island accident in which the company’s response did more damage than the original incident.”

While Tylenol ‘s market share initially plummeted from a high of 35% down to 8%, the company’s handling of the crisis and subsequent industry-leading security measures (the tainted pills were the result of tampering at the retail level), led Tylenol to become the #1 selling over-the counter analgesic in the U.S.

“Any man can make mistakes, but only an idiot persists in his error.”

-Marcus Tullius Cicero

Don’t Rock The ‘Upside Down’ Boat

by Eric Samuels

In 1961, Genevieve Habert, a Wall Street stockbroker, was walking through the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, when she noticed that Henri Matisse’s Le Bateau (“The Boat”) was hanging upside down. Habert attempted to report the error to several museum staff, including a guard, whose response was “You don’t know what’s up and you don’t know what’s down and neither do we.”

Frustrated that no one at the museum would take her seriously, Habert contacted The New York Times, which gained the immediate attention of the museum director. The next day, the work was correctly hung, having been displayed upside down for a total of 47 days.

At the risk of minimizing the current Gulf Of Mexico oil disaster, I can’t help but think of the upside down Matisse as a metaphor, as we reach day 47 of this catastrophe.

The more we learn about events leading up to the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon, the more apparent it becomes that multiple opportunities were missed that might well have averted the explosion, loss of human life, and subsequent environmental nightmare. The common thread throughout this series of poor decisions was an emphasis on time and cost-savings, which in the BP world, are synonymous.

And while many media pundits apply the usual black & white filter to the scenario, attempting to identify the BP (& Halliburton & Transocean) disaster as either an accident or the result of pure corporate greed, the truth lies at the much murkier depths of groupthink corporate culture.

When an organization is so focused on achieving its bottom-line that it ignores virtually anything that stands in its way, it’s an inevitable recipe for disaster. Groupthink is a powerful behavioural phenomena that makes it tremendously difficult for anyone within the organization to step forward and offer a differing point of view, much less sound an alarm that the proverbial boat may be hung upside down.

Groupthink is evidenced throughout history, from one organizational disaster to another. January 28, 1986, the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds after liftoff. The cause of the problem was an O-ring seal, which failed under cold weather conditions. But NASA engineers were aware of the problem and had warned of the problem – specifically cautioning against launch on January 28, because of the cold weather forecast. But the NASA Flight Director wasn’t aware of the engineers concern, because a group of NASA executives, to whom the engineers’ report was filed, decided not to act on the warning, as they were collectively frustrated by recent launch delays and emboldened by the overall success of the space shuttle program.

Ultimately, groupthink – a culture of don’t rock the boat, if you know what’s good for you, is a conditioned state of thinking and can only survive if the individuals within the group remain controlled. And these are powerful controls that take many forms; fear, greed, security, even simple peer pressure.

And while it may seem somewhat counter-intuitive, groupthink can come from either top-down or bottom-up within an organization, as powerful forming forces don’t always come from the corner office. Either way, the phenomenon can only occur when allowed to gestate, because groupthink doesn’t occur overnight, or the moment an organization is formed. The conditioning required takes time and the right (or perhaps more accurately – wrong) environment in which to flourish.

So when the time comes to postscript the Gulf oil disaster and attest responsibility and consequences, we’ll no doubt hear a lot about regulations, oversight (the Minerals Management Service appears to be its own case study in dysfunction), and no end of technical excuses from failed blow-out preventers to methane bubbles, but will anyone address the fundamental issue of dysfunctional corporate culture?

What I had for breakfast

by Eric Samuels

I vividly recall a conversation with a friend back when I first got into the radio broadcasting business. “I can’t stand listening to those DJs anymore” he said. “I couldn’t care less what the guy had for breakfast, I just want to hear music.”

A few weeks ago, I had a quasi-flashback when conversing with someone about social networking, to which he responded “I can’t stand all this garbage on Twitter and Facebook. I couldn’t care less what someone had for breakfast…”

Two comments, several decades apart, about two entirely different mediums, conveying the same sentiment.

In the decades I spent in the radio business, I encountered countless similar negative comments towards on-air hosts from friends, radio station listeners, and countless research/focus groups. Yet one of radio’s most endearing qualities can be the on-air personalities, when they truly connect with the listener and enable a radio station to transcend the role of jukebox.

Having said that, I would also agree, that for many, many reasons (more than enough to fill a year’s worth of blogs), much, if not most of the spoken word content on radio, is absolute drivel that fails to connect with anyone.

Similarly, in the world of social networking, there is compelling content and then there is everything else.

I have always likened it to the sound made by adults in Peanuts cartoons. Most of what we read and hear is little more than the communication equivalent of white noise. But to dismiss an entire medium because some or even most of its content is not relevant or of low perceived value is to throw out the proverbial baby with the bathwater.

Besides, a truly great communicator should be able to knock your socks off recalling what she had for breakfast!


by Eric Samuels

During the closing credits of 1984′s This Is Spinal Tap, front man David St. Hubbins proudly exclaims “I believe virtually everything I read, and I think that is what makes me more of a selective human than someone who doesn’t believe anything.

I couldn’t help but think of this quote while recently investigating a number of internet false-facts in the process of researching a presentation. I was specifically intrigued by misinformation which, despite having been disproven countless times, continues to circulate as fact.

Here’s one of my favourites:

Everything that can be invented, has been invented.”

This quote is most often attributed to Charles Duell, Commissioner of the U.S. Patent Office in 1899.

However, neither Charles Duell, nor anyone else connected with the U.S. patent office, ever said anything of this nature. In fact, in 1899 Duell appeared before the U.S. Congress and brazenly announced that the future of American success depended on invention.

And yet this completely false quote continues to appear on thousands of web sites, in myriad powerpoint presentations, and in countless conversations, to support various theses, as an example of a boneheaded comment of historical magnitude. Why?

It would be easy to explain this as laziness; a lack or desire or effort to properly research a topic. But there’s much more to it than that.

Consider this – not that many years ago, doing any form of research generally required a physical trip to a library. There, someone in a hurry, could head straight for the encyclopaedia section, open a Britannica, and hope to find what they needed.

Suffice it to say, with the advent of the internet, research trips to the library have all but disappeared, as a quick Google search for Dumb Quotes, for instance, can instantly yield over 4 million hits. And while Encyclopaedia Britannica employs dozens of editors and thousands of fact checkers (and was still accused in early editions of getting facts wrong), the vast majority of web sites have absolutely no obligation to get things right.

So, in a world where it may sometimes be convenient to think like David St. Hubbins, the internet provides no end of misquotes, urban legends, and flat-out erroneous information.

So, why do we allow ourselves to be so consistently misinformed? Often, it’s because fiction plays better than fact. I recall a former co-worker describing someone as “not wanting facts to interfere with his opinion.” And, while funny, this characteristic is a lot more common than you might think.

Consider politicians, masters of misinformation and partial truths. Politicians quickly learn to focus on whatever piece of information supports their point of view, no matter how insignificant it may be in the grand scheme of things, while completely ignoring all the facts that contradict their position. And with careful and consistent repetition, the pseudo-truth can quickly become the talking point of anyone who supports their ideology.

Why? Because our brain is so overwhelmed by information and choices, that we actually filter out whatever doesn’t fit with our needs and/or point of view. And this process actually occurs at a neurophysiological level – in our pre-frontal cortex, as our brain has the remarkable capacity to selectively filter out information that doesn’t fit what we already believe to be true!

For this reason, debates between those with established opinions on any number of socially volatile issues, from climate change to abortion, intended to persuade the other side to even consider an alternative to their position, generally only serve to further the divide. In fact, the vast majority of any such efforts are often solely intended to convince those on the sidelines who may not have yet formed an opinion.

Which is why we often accept what we read without question – provided it supports our existing point of view or needs. In this regard, David St. Hubbins seems to have gotten it right.


by Eric Samuels

In the classic baseball showdown between pitcher and batter, the pitcher has the upper hand by a huge margin. But if you were to analyze things from a purely statistical standpoint, hitting a ball thrown at speeds of over 90mph should be nearly impossible!

In 2009, the league batting average in Major League Baseball (the average of all players in the league), was .256. In simple terms, this means that batters had just slightly better than a 1 in 4 chance of getting a hit when stepping up to the plate. Even the best of the batters, the league leaders, improve the odds of getting a hit to just over 1 in 3. Now the odds change slightly if you are to consider stats like sacrifices, walks, and errors; but when you dissect all the statistics you could possibly get hold of (and baseball stats are almost infinite!), baseball pitchers have a significant advantage each and every time a batter steps up to the plate.

In his book How We Decide, Jonah Lehrer breaks down the near impossibility of the batter’s task, like this:

A typical major league pitch travels from the hand of the pitcher to the plate in 0.35 seconds. It takes 0.25 seconds for a batter’s muscles to initiate a swing, which leaves his brain with only 1/10th of a second to make up his mind as to whether or not he will swing at the pitch. In fact, it’s even less time, as it takes a few milliseconds for visual information to travel from the retina to the visual cortex, so the batter actually has less than 5 milliseconds to see the pitch and decide whether or not to swing at it. Problem is, no one can think this fast, as it typically takes the brain 20 milliseconds to respond to sensory stimulus.
So, how do baseball players ever hit a pitch?

The batter’s brain begins to collect and analyze information, long before the ball leaves the pitcher’s hand. From the pitcher’s stance to his grip on the ball, the batter’s brain is picking up clues (based on what has occurred in the past under similar conditions), attempting to do what Malcolm Gladwell described in his book Blink, as “Thin-Slice;” draw a conclusion from thin slices of information, or clues. For the batter, most of this analysis is occurring at an unconscious level, so when he ‘pulls the trigger’ and swings, it’s not always a conscious choice.

And if the pitcher didn’t already have all the advantage in the world, major leaguers have an added trick up their (proverbial) sleeve – the Change-Up!

A Change-up (also called an off-speed pitch) is intentionally disguised as a fastball until the moment it leaves the pitcher’s hand. As a result, the batter’s brain prepares for a 90mph fastball, but what comes across the plate is typically 10% slower. The result – the batter is “way out front” and whiffs at the pitch, before it even crosses the plate. An effective change-up can make a batter look completely off-balance and awkward.

We all face the equivalent of change-ups in our everyday lives – stimulus that is thinly disguised to feel intuitively familiar.

The simplest of examples is a smile. A smile is generally accepted as a positive expression of warmth and friendly intentions. But, as we all know, a smile can easily be applied to mislead. And despite our belief that we are good at spotting those who would choose to mislead us with something as simple as a smile, most of us are actually quite poor at spotting the fakes!

Invariably, there are other tells or clues that a smile is not genuine; but if we stop at the smile, we will invariably get caught in the trap. So, the next time you feel yourself responding instinctively to someone or something that feels comfortably familiar, take a moment to look a little further and ensure that the facts support your intuitive feelings.

Want to test your skills at spotting fake smiles?