Thursday, 26 January 2012

2012 Resolutions: manage perceptions, focus attention

We know that subtle cues can influence how we behave in the world and in the workplace. For example, women give different ratings of work gender discrimination depending on whether they saw a phrase on a poster moments before. And perception can have a more overt influence, such as the way that external scrutiny encourages boards to dump compromised directors. What we notice and who notices us matters: it's the attention, stupid.

So here are some ways to orient attention and create more helpful perceptions within your organisations.

1. Dig into the impact of your incentive programs. Individual incentives encourage productivity, whereas group incentives tend to lead to better quality. But trying to simply layer individual targets over group ones can end up smothering them, especially in work teams with very fixed capacities. And theorists warn that employee of the month programs might have perverse effects. Why not find out the situation at your organisation? Try speaking to staff, and if you have the resources, do some research.

2. Scrub stereotype threats from your customer-facing environments. Certain services and products can produce associations with maths (eg finance) or engineering (car garages) or other areas that women are stereotypically depicted as weaker. Cues that draw attention to gender or the technical nature of the area can turn women away, sensitive that a male who sells to them may attempt to exploit them.

3. Ensure your invitations for employees to voice opinion are authentic and not seen as lip service. When people believe that their suggestions or survey responses are not going to be listened to, they can see it as deceitful, lose their faith in the organisation's legitimacy, and can end up mired in conflict within teams (link). So if you're going to ask for opinions, make sure you will be able to read them, and at least in principle have the power to act on them.

4. Get more conservative estimates by framing your requests correctly. People seem to see a chunk of work differently depending on how long they think it will take, versus how much of it they can get done in a fixed amount of time. Bias can creep in both ways, so make sure you know what you are asking for.

And finally... improving your own circumstances

5. Get good at self-promoting - but hold back in high-modesty cultures. Particularly in job application contexts, candidates who can advocate for what they bring to an organisation are more likely to be successful. However, there is a sting in the tail: in some cultures, this kind of behaviour is frowned upon and can hurt your chances. Meanwhile, highball your salary requests to reach higher settlements (6). Thanks to the anchoring effect, introducing large numbers into conversations can frame the negotiations at a higher level, leading to better outcomes. These numbers can even be ridiculous, as long as they are delivered with a sense of humour.

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