Fight Ignorance, Not Each Other

Demonization in the Era of Hyper-polarization and Hyper-politicization

We live in a era of hyper-polarization and hyper-politicization. Studies suggest that we Americans have mostly devolved to two political groups that fervently believe that all wisdom resides in their particular standpoints and therefore care less and less to empathize with the other side.

People loathe the “other” ideological group with such visceral obsession that their hate pollutes their minds. Thanks partly to social media, self-organized tribes are isolating themselves into geographic, religious, ideological, educational, ethnic, and media bubbles of like-minded crusaders.

As I wrote previously, studies have shown that hanging around a group of likeminded folks can make people even more scornful of differing viewpoints, than they are as individuals. They demonize anyone who disagrees with them. They neither account for the case against their positions, nor find middle ground.

In the wake of the 2011 Tucson shooting (where perpetrator Jared Loughner shot and killed six individuals, and injured 14 others at a political gathering,) meditation teacher James Baraz of wrote a Huffington Post essay underscoring the ignorance that brings about the aforesaid demonization:

The real villain is in this story is not Jared Loughner. It’s not the media. And it’s not the gun rights advocates. The real villain is ignorance. Because of ignorance, people project their fear and turn those who are different into enemies—both in their minds and in actuality. Once you demonize the “other” they become less than human and you can inflict pain on them without guilt or shame.

Don’t Lead a Dysfunctional Team

The difference between functional and dysfunctional teams often boils down to effective team leadership. If you’ve been asked to lead a team, you’ll get more from your team members if you know what’s expected of the team, and manage your roles and responsibilities.

  1. Define the charter. Find out what your customers want. Find out how much latitude your team has—decision-making, reporting procedure, access to resources and information. Make sure there’s organizational support for these matters.
  2. Build on strengths. If team members are selected for you, determine what each person can contribute to the team’s effort. Ask members to identify their strengths.
  3. Set ground rules. Discuss how the team will operate. Be clear about performance expectations. If necessary, write down the rules agreed upon by team members.
  4. Develop a mission and goals. Get your team talking about what needs to get done, by whom, and when.
  5. Group Polarization: Why Like-Mindedness Is Dangerous “Herd the sheep.” Part of your job is to be a sheepdog. Keep people together and herd them toward goals.
  6. Break up conflicts. Disagreements are fine, even healthy, but outright hostility or anger is counterproductive. Stop the discussion, clarify positions, and try to find areas of agreement.
  7. Avoid groupthink. Don’t compromise too much for the sake of consensus, harmony, and “esprit de corps.” Don’t settle on the lowest-common-denominator decision upon which everybody agrees.
  8. Build bridges. Keep your sponsor, your manager, and each team member’s boss informed of the progress of the team’s assignment.
  9. Be visible. Any crisis calls for constant, candid communication. Knowing how to step up your communications efforts to the right levels during confusion is a powerful tool in managing a crisis.
  10. Captain the ship. You’re responsible for your team’s every outcome—good or bad. You are wholly accountable for everything that happens under your authority. Never pass the blame should things go wrong.
  11. Make the work fun. Give your team lots of recognition. Celebrate the team’s accomplishments.
  12. Establish freedom and autonomy. Empower team members to innovate and make decisions. Encourage all ideas and make sure that they are respected, no matter how strange they may sound. Micromanage only when you must.
  13. Assess performance. Periodically, ask the team to rate its performance. Resolve any problems as quickly as possible.
  14. Get stuff done. Don’t lose sight of your goals and your mission. The only thing that matters is the relevant results.

Rewards and Incentives Can Backfire

Rewards and Incentives Can Backfire

Rewards and Incentives are Gateways to Behavior-Change

One of the great struggles of life is to get others to do the things they should, but don’t want to—getting your daughter to cleanup her bedroom or do homework in her least favorite subject, convincing your employee to do a task in the manner that your company expects, and so forth.

One tried-and-true technique to get reluctant people to do what they should is to hold back an incentive. For example, parents who want children to eat vegetables at dinner could stipulate that they eat their vegetables (the non-preferred behavior) before they can eat their desserts (the preferred behavior.)

Preferred Behaviors Can Be Used to Reinforce Unpreferred Behaviors

This motivational rule was formally studied by the American psychologist David Premack. The Premack Principle, or the “relativity theory of reinforcement,” makes it easier to do an unpleasant activity by putting a pleasant activity right after it. In this manner, a reinforcer could observe what an individual chooses to do voluntarily and offer that favored task as an incentive to gain compliance or to increase the likelihood of another less-favored behavior occurring.

Grandma's Rule or Premack Principle: Relativity Theory of Reinforcement As expected, although an academic, Premack enjoyed a very successful vocation as a highly paid “productivity expert” dispensing age-old techniques. He traveled around the country and advised thousands of corporate executives to manipulate themselves into becoming more motivated and more productive by organizing their day such that they schedule first anything that’s unpleasant and important and then reward themselves with something they really like doing.

Grandma’s Rule: “Johny, Finish Your Homework Before You Watch TV”

That a high probability behavior could be used to reinforce participation in a low probability behavior is the unassuming “Grandma’s Rule”—arguably the most universally recognized principle in the field of behavior change. Workplaces use the grandma’s rule by offering future “plum” assignments for employees who “pay their dues” by doing “dull and dirty” work in the present.

The grandma’s rule anchors in the fact that people, including children, are willing to do something they don’t really want to do if that’s the only way they can do something that they really want to do. Absent this established reinforcement, people left to their own devices tend to do what they like doing instead of doing things they don’t like doing even though latter are more beneficial.

Preferred Behaviors Can Be Used to Reinforce Unpreferred Behaviors

The Hidden Costs of Rewards and Incentives

Rewards and incentives can guide and modify behavior. The goal of offering rewards for positive reinforcement is to have the unpleasant tasks become less and less unpleasant. Therefore, the true measure of the effectiveness of any reward is how well the preferred behaviors become internalized. For example, offering rewards to children for reading books is not merely to get them to read books inside the classroom, but to internalize the reading behavior with the goal that they read even during the summer when they don’t have to read for school.

Offering rewards for motivating people to do unlikable tasks could sometimes become counterproductive. In what psychologists call “the overjustification effect,” a reward, instead of motivating, could fortify a person’s revulsion for the task. In other words, the reward could reinforce the belief that the task can’t be worth doing for itself.

Rewards Can Backfire

Overjustification effect is controversial because it disputes the general principles of motivational psychology and behavioral reinforcement—especially in the contexts of parenting, education, and the workplace.

Idea for Impact: Locating the pleasure in the future, when the reward will be imparted, could turn the present-moment doing of an unpleasant task into tedium. For example, insisting that your child eat broccoli for being rewarded with dessert could make her hate broccoli even more.

Think of a Customer’s Complaint as a Gift

When managers become comfortable with the idea that complaints are gifts, they do not hesitate in responding to them.

'A Complaint Is a Gift' by Janelle Barlow (ISBN 1576755827) According to A Complaint Is a Gift: Recovering Customer Loyalty When Things Go Wrong, the idea of complaints as gifts must be reinforced at every staff meeting and training session. The company’s policies must be aligned to support this philosophy. A Complaint Is a Gift‘s authors, management consultants Janelle Barlow and Claus Moller, restate some fundamental techniques for handling complaints:

  1. Don’t get defensive. When managing complaints, managers can be their own worst enemies! Instead of taking complaints personally, managers should focus on the particulars of a problem. Then, complaints become less disruptive and constructive.
  2. Say “thank you” and explain why you appreciate the complaint. Say something about how hearing the complaint will allow you to better address the problem. You create a more powerful rapport with customers by saying “thank you” than apologizing.
  3. Apologize for the mistake and empathize when appropriate. Acknowledge the customers feelings You do not have to see eye to eye with the person to acknowledge how they are feeling. Saying “I can see you are upset,” or “I understand why this ordeal has been frustrating for you,” will go a long way toward diffusing any complainer’s anger.
  4. Listen for what the customer wants to happen next, because it’s often easy to accommodate requests, as long as they’re not totally unreasonable. Promise to do something about the problem immediately. Then do something to fix the situation.
  5. Ask for necessary information and correct the mistake promptly. Look at the problem from all perspectives and ask the customer to explain his or her expectations and the reality of what he/she experienced. Ask what it will take to meet their needs or to satisfy them. Rapid responses disclose you are serious about service recovery and customer service.
  6. Check customer satisfaction. Call your customers back to find out if they are satisfied with what you did for them.
  7. Initiate changes to prevent future mistakes, make the complaint known throughout the organization so this kind of problem can be prevented. Fix the system without rushing to blame staff or policies.

Idea for Impact: Managers who ask for complaints will find that customers express their concerns more openly and objectively. Inviting complaints reduces the likelihood a customer will be upset or emotional. It is a way to nip problems in the bud and solve problems before they can aggravate.

Office Chitchat Isn’t Necessarily a Time Waster

When Employees are Happy, They Work Better

Office Chitchat Isn't Necessarily a Time Waster Managers who disapprove and clamp down on impromptu encounters that people have at their desks, in the hallways, by the elevators, in the lunchroom, or by the water coolers can create a work environment that’s unpleasant, even repressive.

If truth be told, what may seems like idle chitchat actually forges links between people and encourages a culture of openness that can help people work toward common goals.

Informal, spontaneous conversations between coworkers, especially between colleagues from different departments, will not only give people a chance to know each other better, but also create a feeling of collaboration. The camaraderie that grows from employees sharing a little fun can go a long way toward fostering a feeling that they’re part of a team.

Chitchat is About Building Relationships

During those inconsequential “idle moments” of office conversations, important information is being exchanged. You’re learning much about others and offering details about yourself.

  • Whom can you trust? Who possesses strong convictions? Who has a broad experience or in-depth knowledge?
  • Who is a stimulating brainstormer? Who has the wherewithal for workarounds to problems?
  • Who can open doors for you? Who can facilitate otherwise hard-to-get connections?
  • Who can influence the leadership decisions? Who can evangelize your project to the right people? Who can bend the leadership’s ear? Who can be your cheerleader?
  • Who can lend a consoling ear in moments of problems or crisis? Who sees the bright side of problems?
  • Who can help you with questions on software, help you decide health insurance plans, or fix the printer?

Casual Conversations are About Networking and Leaving Positive Impressions

Small talk and casual conversations are an important element of collegial workplaces. People like talking about themselves, so if you can remember a nugget of information from the last time you met (kids, pets, and travels are great topics) bring it up.

To be respectful of others’ time, remember this two-minute rule: unless you’re discussing a topic of some importance, try to wrap up your small talk and casual chats in two minutes. Pay attention to your listener’s non-verbal cues and adjust the extent of your conversation. You can always arrange to convene later, “I’d love to hear more, but I’m in a rush. Why don’t I call you afterhours? How about we meet up for coffee this weekend?”

Nevertheless, don’t let chatter go too far and negatively impact your productivity or those of others. If you’re considered as too chatty, others may to resent bumping into you. If you tend to talk too much about yourself, you’ll be judged self-absorbed and interpersonally clueless.

Likeability is Important in How You Will Be Perceived in Your Workplace

Likeability is Important in How You Will Be Perceived in Your Workplace Cordiality is a significant persuasive technique because people are much more likely to feel warmly towards those they like. They’ll do things for you if you earnestly show interest in them, chat with them on a regular basis, and make them feel good about themselves.

Colleagues who don’t chat can come across as arrogant or abrupt. Highly competent but unpopular professionals don’t thrive as well as their moderately competent, but popular counterparts.

Small Talk is a Critical Tool for Creating a Personal Bond with Your Coworkers

Even though an office is primarily a place of business, chatting about non-work topics and establishing rapport with coworkers is important. People who know and like each other tend to have each other’s backs and help out when necessary.

Even if, eventually, you’ll be accepted or rejected based on the more tangible aspects of your work, the fact of the matter is that these interpersonal impressions matter a great deal along the way and can even shape how people judge your more actual work.

Idea for Impact: Balance your dedication to your workload with a cooperative nature, you will gain needed allies to get things done and to help your career progression in the company.

Curry Favor with Customers?

People know there’s great fame with getting things named after them.

The Scottish-American steel magnate and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie (1835–1919) was fully mindful of this.

Carnegie started with his empire-building (read biography) by manufacturing steel rails for America’s burgeoning railroad industry. With great fanfare, he named his first steel plant after his most important customer, Edgar Thomson, president of the Pennsylvania Railroad. The Edgar Thomson Steel Works has been in action since 1872.

Obsequious flattery is clever marketing indeed!

Presenting Facts Can Sometimes Backfire

Presenting Facts Can Sometimes Backfire People tend to have contempt for ideas that they disagree with. What’s worse is the possibility that some people, when presented with information that goes against their beliefs, may not only snub their challengers, but also double down on their original viewpoints. Cognitive psychologists call this the backfire effect.

For instance, voters have been shown to judge the political candidate they support even more favorably after the candidate is attacked by the other party. In the same way, parents opposed to vaccinations have been shown to become more convinced of their alleged apprehension that vaccination causes autism after reviewing studies showing that vaccinating their kids is the best course of action.

The backfire effect explains why, when people argue against conflicting information strongly enough, they wind up with more supportive arguments for their cause, which further aligns them with their preexisting positions.

The backfire effect is related to confirmation bias—the rampant propensity to seek, interpret, synthesize, and recall information in a way that substantiates one’s preconceptions. For instance, when people read an article that describes both sides of an issue, they tend to select that side that they happen to agree with—thus reinforcing their viewpoints.

See also: the phenomenon of group polarization explains why people who share opinions and beliefs get together in groups, they tend to be even more persuaded in their beliefs.

Incentives Matter

Incentives are Powerful Extrinsic Motivators

Incentives are Powerful Extrinsic Motivators The bedrock premise of economics is that incentives matter. This is a powerful device because it applies to almost everything that humans do.

Changes in incentives—monetary and nonmonetary—can sway human behavior in foreseeable ways.

For instance, if a resource becomes more expensive or scarce, people will be less likely to choose it. Higher prices will reduce the quantity of goods sold. Fewer people visit outdoor recreational areas on chilly and rainy days. Whenever fuel prices soar through the roof over a prolonged period, consumers buy less gasoline—they eliminate less important trips, carpool more, and purchase fuel-efficient cars.

Incentives Shape Behavior

If the payback from a specific choice increases, people are more likely to choose it. Students focus in classes when their professors declare what course material will be on the examinations. Pedestrians are more prone to leaning down and picking up a quarter than they would a penny. Traditional incentive systems for executives give rise to corporate “short-termism”—executives’ annual bonuses are often awarded for achieving targets that are insubstantially linked to long-term value creation.

Incentives shape behavior. The economics of wrongdoing and crime suggest that fines be increased to offset the rewards from lawbreaking—for example, traffic fines for speeding are typically doubled in construction zones. Ryanair, Ireland’s pioneering discount airline, purposefully uses exasperating fees for checked bags, airport check-ins, and printing boarding passes to “reshape passenger behavior” and focus on getting passengers punctually to their destinations with the least overhead costs.

Incentives Can Backfire Even If Launched with the Best of Intentions

Incentives Can Backfire Even If Launched with the Best of Intentions The “incentives matter” framework of economics explains why bad behavior happens whenever the payoff for such behavior is high and the odds of getting caught and reprimanded are low.

People will scheme—even perpetrate fraud—to achieve the incentives they’re offered. If targets are impracticable and employees realize that they can achieve those targets by cheating, then they will cheat.

Incentive structures are partially to blame for the recent Wells Fargo accounts scandal. Even if Wells Fargo established incentive arrangements with the best of intentions, it tied a substantial percentage of employee compensation to immoderate sales targets. This compelled employees to open millions of sham bank accounts and credit cards in customers’ names, infringing on their trust, and costing them millions of dollars in fees for services they did not willingly sign-up for. As this case makes obvious, incentives intended to stimulate people to do their best can sometimes push them to do their worst.

Idea for Impact: A Little Incentive Goes a Long Way

Incentives matter. They influence choices that humans make. Changes in incentives influence their choices. However, designing effective incentives is a painstakingly difficult problem. Do not underestimate or ignore potential undesired results—increase in dishonest behavior, over-focus on one area while overlooking other parts of the business, imprudent risk-taking, deterioration of organizational culture, and diminished intrinsic motivation.

Group Polarization: Why Like-Mindedness is Dangerous

Group Polarization Strengthens of the Opinions of Each Person in the Group

Group Polarization: Why Like-Mindedness Is Dangerous When people who share opinions and beliefs get together in groups, they tend to be even more persuaded in their beliefs—they become extreme in their views. In other words, a group of likeminded people will reinforce one another’s viewpoints. This phenomenon is called group polarization.

Social psychologists reason that people use the choices and persuasions of others as heuristics to steer their lives in this complex world. As the English philosopher and mathematician Alfred North Whitehead once said, “Civilization advances by extending the number of operations we can perform without thinking about them.”

Social Media and Group Polarization

As people converge to likeminded people in virtual neighborhoods, they tend to operate in intellectual bubbles. Given that social media allows participants to curate their sources of information, it is easier than ever before for people to cruise through their day-to-day lives without meeting anyone who disagrees with them. Studies have shown that hanging around a group of likeminded folks makes people more scornful of differing viewpoints, than they are as individuals.

Group polarization explains partly the proliferation of fake news on social media—people accept dubious claims that support their own viewpoint while disregarding facts that conflict with their views. In the confusing times we live in, people get lost in the unstructured, unattributed noise of headlines and repeat the loudest declarations as facts without checking their soundness.

The Persuasive Ability of Social Proof in Consumer Behavior

'Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion' by Robert Cialdini (ISBN 006124189X) In the bestselling Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, psychologist Robert Cialdini observes that advertisers tend to describe their products as “fastest-growing,” “#1 in the market,” or “best-selling.” Advertisers believe that consumers need to hear not only that a product is good, but also that others think so.

As per group polarization, when people are considering what to do or buy, they often look to what others are doing or have done, and take their cue from others. When a product, service, or an idea strikes out as particularly admired or prevailing, consumers intuitively take social proof that this is the right—and acceptable—choice.

Idea for Impact: Hanging Around with Like-Minded People is a Dangerous Intellectual Trap

The French entomologist Jean-Henri Fabre once wrote, “Seek those who find your road agreeable, your personality and mind stimulating, your philosophy acceptable, and your experiences helpful. Let those who do not, seek their own kind.”

Look for people who respect your worldview—even if drastically different from theirs—but can present alternative perspectives.

Regular exposure to differing views serves to sharpen your thinking and reasoning abilities—and may perhaps even reexamine your positions. As I’ve said before, wisdom comes from facing counter-arguments. The only test of a well-constructed opinion is that it can defend itself.

Everything in Life Has an Opportunity Cost

“Opportunity cost is a huge filter in life. If you’ve got two suitors who are really eager to have you and one is way the hell better than the other, you do not have to spend much time with the other. And that’s the way we filter out buying opportunities.”
Charlie Munger, Investor

Everything in Life Has an Opportunity Cost

Doing One Thing Makes You Sacrifice the Opportunity to Do Something Else of Value

In economics, opportunity cost is the cost of not choosing the next best alternative for your money, time, or some other resource.

One of the foundational principles in economics is affirmed by the popular American aphorism, “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.” Resources are scarce. When resources (time, money, mindshare, autonomy, and all that) are scarce, selecting one opportunity necessitates forgoing other opportunities.

Life is all about values and priorities. You face trade-offs. Life requires of you to make choices among mutually exclusive alternatives. Every time you select something, you forfeit other alternatives and the concomitant benefits. The cost of something is what you will give up to get it. This is opportunity cost.

You Can Do Anything but Not Everything … What Will You Sacrifice When You Choose One Option Over the Others?

When mulling over multiple choices, the quality of any option cannot be assessed in isolation from its alternatives. The price you pay (or the sacrifice you make, or the benefits you give up) for doing what you’ve chosen to do instead of doing something else is the opportunity cost.

In sum, an opportunity cost is the cost of passing up the opportunities that a different option would have afforded.

Many costs are calculated in terms of money. However, just because you don’t have to spend money to do something does not imply that the options you face are without their costs. For example, you don’t have to spend money to go for a hike or watch a sunset, but there is an opportunity cost there too. You could have used that time to do something else you value—visiting a friend or reading a book, perhaps.

  • If you decide to invest two years and some $100,000 getting an MBA at a brand-name business school, there’s an opportunity cost; it costs you lost wages and all the things you could have pursued during that time and with that money. But you anticipate that getting your MBA will pay off by way of a better job in a better company with a better salary.
  • If you spend your weeklong vacation taking your parents to a beach destination in Florida, there’s the opportunity cost of not going to Paris with your spouse.
  • Opportunity Costs Apply to All Your Choices If you decide to wake up twenty minutes earlier in the mornings to leave home sooner to work and beat the horrendous traffic, there’s the opportunity cost of twenty minutes of extra snoozing.
  • When the refrigerator at home breaks down and needs replacement, you will have to give up buying that latest big-screen TV you’ve been coveting.
  • There’s an opportunity cost to even reading this article at this moment. You could have been watching TV, taking a nap, calling up a friend, or moving on to another article in the time you’re devoting to reading this article.

In a nutshell, even decisions that appear to be no-brainers carry the hidden costs of the options you will decline. Thinking about opportunity costs may not change the decision you make, but it will give you a more rational assessment of the full implications of your decision.

Opportunity Costs Apply to All Your Choices—Big and Small

Opportunity cost is a concept of great magnitude. It is one of those apparently simple concepts in social sciences that are difficult to master and tough to put into consistent practice. Tim Harford, the British author of The Undercover Economist offers a particularly instructive example of appreciating opportunity costs in his Financial Times column:

Consider the following puzzle, a variant of which was set by Paul J Ferraro and Laura O Taylor to economists at a major academic conference back in 2005. Imagine that you have a free ticket (which you cannot resell) to see Radiohead performing. But, by a staggering coincidence, you could also go to see Lady Gaga—there are tickets on sale for £40. You’d be willing to pay £50 to see Lady Gaga on any given night, and her concert is the best alternative to seeing Radiohead. Assume there are no other costs of seeing either gig. What is the opportunity cost of seeing Radiohead? (a) £0, (b) £10, (c) £40 or (d) £50.

Answer: Going to see Lady Gaga would cost £40 but you’re willing to pay £50 any time to see her; therefore the net benefit of seeing Gaga is £10. If you use your free Radiohead ticket instead, you’re giving up that benefit, so the opportunity cost of seeing Radiohead is £10.

Learn to Evaluate Life Choices Via the Lens of Opportunity Costs—The Stakes Become Clearer

Evaluate Life Choices Via the Lens of Opportunity Costs You live in a world of scarcity and must therefore make choices. You cannot avoid regret since there are opportunity costs for every choice you will make.

Everything in life is about opportunity costs. Every time you say “yes” to a choice, you are also saying “no” to everything else you may have accomplished with your time, money, and resources.

Opportunity cost is a commanding tool that you should be wise to apply to all decision-making. If you integrate this concept into your thought process, you will not only make judicious choices, but also better understand the world in which you live.

Idea for Impact: Whether you’re choosing graduate school, mulling over switching careers, starting a business, investing your money, buying a car, or frittering away your evening watching TV, considering the value of forgone alternatives will help you make better choices. Make the lens of opportunity costs the underpinning of your decision-making processes.