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What we are not conscious of at work…and why it matters


Now this could be a long list but, a person has to get started somewhere, so here goes. Social psychology has a lot to teach us about how we relate to each other at work and here are a few key ideas to get us started.

It was while reading about how group discussions can make attitudes more extreme (Burnstein and Vinokur, 1977, as cited in Gray, 2003). So imagine that. You are in a meeting and there is an even split of opinions. Gray states this most likely will result in a compromise. However, when is there ever a completely even split? What is more likely is that there is an imbalance and the evidence suggests that in this case, the very act of sitting down in a group and discussing the issues will make previously held views more entrenched. Knowing that group polarisation is the most likely outcome gives me pause about arranging the next meeting.

If it is an uneven split, how likely are those in the minority to stick to their guns? This is crucial in a sprint retrospective, where outlying opinions can be important challenge to opinions arrived at through groupthink. There have been many studies (Asch, 1951) in which 75% of subjects swayed by the group at least some of the time. In these studies, subjects stated things they know to be untrue, so as to conform to the group consensus. This has been replicated many times and, according to Gray, although it varies across culture and is diminishing in the US since 1950, however, it is still the case that most of us go along at least some of the time with what others are saying, against what we truly think, if we are the sole person to hold our views.

Personality seems to interplay with urge to conform (Blass, 1991), so it is more complicated than “situation is everything”. Still, as Lieberman points out in his great introduction to Social Psychology lectures, “situations are powerful”.

So much so that we can find ourselves doing things we would never have thought we would do. In the right circumstances, we will administer seemingly lethal shocks to complete strangers (Milgram, 1963). As Lieberman explains, as this is perhaps most pertinent for applying learning from the Milgram studies to working life, “it has to be gradual”. We will not suddenly administer seemingly lethal shocks. We have to start low and increment gradually. So reminiscent of projects continuing to invest long after the business case has disappeared or working cultures slipping into hostile practices. All this shouts to me “beware the slippery slope”.

It also underlines how we frequently behave against our expectations and self-image. Expecting people’s natures to intrinsically lead to behaviour (e.g. “she is a kind person so she will agree to change the meeting date”) is known as the fundamental attribution error (Ross, 1977). Believing what we see is an unbiased view of what the world is is called Naive Realism. It seems that understanding what is happening requires a deep acceptance that we are biased and that everybody is powerfully influenced by the situation they are in…and that seems like a good starting place for applying social psychology to the workplace and thinking about what we are not conscious of at work.

Asch, S. E. (1951). Effects of group pressure upon the modification and distortion of judgments. Groups, leadership, and men. S, 222-236.

Blass, T. (1991). Understanding behavior in the Milgram obedience experiment: The role of personality, situations, and their interactions. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 60(3), 398.

Burnstein, E., & Vinokur, A. (1977). Persuasive argumentation and social comparison as determinants of attitude polarization. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 13(4), 315-332.

Milgram, S. (1963). Behavioral study of obedience. The Journal of abnormal and social psychology, 67(4), 371.

Ross, L. (1977). The intuitive psychologist and his shortcomings: Distortions in the attribution process. Advances in experimental social psychology, 10, 173-220.

Image is By Alexandr frolov (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL, via Wikimedia Commons.


“Our brains are evolving to multitask,” not! The ill-usion of multitasking

UCSD Center for Mindfulness

By Allan Goldstein
Originally published July 2011 revised April 2015

I recently overheard a proclamation, which has become somewhat of a mantra, recited by today’s college students. A student proudly making the following declaration regarding her ability to pay attention to multiple digital screens at once said, “Our brains are evolving to multitask!” That simple yet profound statement left me wondering if this could really be true? How in one or two computerized generations of human beings could our brains evolve so dramatically? Is there such a thing as multitasking, and how is our performance affected when we are concurrently attending to computers, smart phones, iPads, and our daily chores? Recent research in neuroscience has shown that our brains are capable of forming new neural connections, known as neuroplasticity, but this student’s assertion seems to be pointing towards a rapid leap in evolution that goes well beyond that. Through my…

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Psychology for Project Managers?

Should project managers be counsellors or hold psychology degrees?  This 2011 post on PM hut muses about this. I think one reason why I like the PM role is the variety. I can see an argument for psychology training but then I can also see an argument for a finance, legal or HR degree. There are many strands to the PM role and some awareness of psychology will surely help, but I think I would stop short of thinking a degree is required because many other skills are required and PMs can’t hold degrees in all of these areas.

A related older post, this time from 2012, takes a look at psychology for technical managers. I found a lot of interesting ideas there about skills acquisition and imposter theory. I mentioned other similar articles on this topic in a previous post. I think what I like about the psychology for technical managers article was the feeling that it was a similar endeavour to this blog. Finding ideas from psychology that can be applied to people’s working life (in my case to project management).

Team Talk

One of the more obvious areas to look for insights into what makes project teams tick would be the field of social psychology. While Freud wrote about groups in the twenties, and industrial psychologists have been looking at this for a long time, much of the impetus for the modern study of what happens to humans in groups seems to have come from people trying to understand the behaviour of the Nazis in the Second World War. The applications of social psychology are many. For example, educators I know are particularly interested in how social psychology can help them improve teaching and learning. So what can social psychology tell us about working in project teams?

One feature I like about agile teams is that everyone is equal and has a respected opinion. I find this so important that I try hard to ensure all my waterfall projects are like that too. I temper this with always trying to give clear direction and leadership. As Laura Markham has said, people want to know that a ship has a captain and that captain is taking care of the ship. If the ship hits an iceberg, they don’t want the captain to come to their table and ask their opinion in a democratic and caring way. They want the captain to take care of the iceberg situation. So, I try to work in a team of equals, each with a clear and equally valid role. In that team, part of my role is to take overall responsibility.

This sense of equality is crucial to how the team talks to each other. Neil Mercer is a psychologist who studied the different kinds of talk in the classroom. I’d like to repeat his work in project teams. In his paper on the subject Mercer says

In exploratory talk, then, a speaker ‘thinks aloud’, taking the risk that others can hear,
and comment on, partly-formed ideas. Engaging in exploratory talk is therefore rather
a brave thing to do, and tends not to happen unless there is a degree of trust within a
discussion group.

This reminds me of both the ethos of agile teams (everybody is equal) but also the structure of the rituals. In the sprint retrospective or daily stand-ups, everyone has a chance to speak. The rituals make room for everyone to have a say. This encourages trust that one will be listened to seriously and an atmosphere of open sharing. Also, the permission (implicit in agile) to try out ideas and fail means that the groups is more disposed to entertain partially formed ideas and examine possibilities together.

Ron Friedman has been questioning the wisdom of collaboration on partially formed ideas, suggesting that it is better to do most of the creative work solo and come together only to share already formed ideas. I find his article very interesting and I easily related most of his examples to my working life. I do think, however, that his ideas apply less of the time than his article suggests. Friedman is not looking at agile teams in particular. I can think of lots of cases where solo creation might be best in agile. Still, it is worth noting that some of my most fruitful experience of agile teams has involved formulating solutions in groups. I’d say that is one of the strengths of agile.

Mercer defines three kinds of talk. I am interested to know if you recognise these from project teams. Disputational, cumulative and exploratory. Disputational communication is competitive. I find a lot of technical discussion sites highly competitive and intolerant of mistakes. I don’t know why this is so commonly the case. Cumulative communication is something I have come across a lot in conflict averse environments like some parts of the public sector. Ideas are accepted and built upon but without much analysis or apparently deep understanding. There is a lack of engagement. I also find this can happen when there are experts in the mix. People will listen to legal advisers thinking “well, it’s her job to know this stuff so I’m not going to question it”.

I once did a rather annoying drama exercise as part of a rather annoying team building day. It was interesting, The annoying bit was feeling compelled to take part (i.e. “You will have fun”). The exercise involved finding a partner, then listening to them start a story. When they stopped, you would say, “Yes and…” and continue the story. The shared ownership of the story made one pay attention and feel a lot more invested in where the joint story went. I imagine this is what exploratory talk is like but I wont be suggesting that exercise to my team any time soon.

There is much written about the interesting practicalities of communication in agile. I am interested in analysing the nature of that communication and would be glad to hear about your experiences.