By Kurt Nelson, Ph.D. & Ben Granlund
Would being able to understand the underlying reasons why you and others “do the things you do” be helpful to you in your job? Is there value in having the knowledge to be able to predict and understand people’s responses to your requests or changes? How about being able to anticipate how people will most likely respond in a given situation or environment? Would the ability to make more rational and sound decisions help you in moving your business forward?
For most people, that answer is “yes.”
Most of us work in an environment that involves some level of involvement and interaction with other people. Whether it be coworkers, bosses, employees, vendors, or customers – at some point in your workday, there is likely a human involved.
How you interact with those humans can change how they respond.
We need to be able to work effectively with those humans. If we can understand and empathize with their underlying drives, decipher how they are interpreting our words and actions, and anticipate how they will respond to what we do, our interactions with them will be significantly improved.
To achieve this level of “mindreading,” we make assumptions about how people operate. When these assumptions are lumped together, we get a framework for how we believe people think and behave.
For most of us, this framework is based partially on the idea that we are “rational actors” – a term derived from classical economics, where it is assumed that people act in rational ways to maximize their wellbeing. This assumption typically involves the idea that we gather information, cognitively analyze it (at least briefly), weigh the pros and the cons of our response or action, and then decide what we are going to do.
We think that this is how both ourselves and others work.
Sure, we believe there are exceptions and at times emotions sometimes come into play. We don’t always gather enough information (or any information). We do not analyze that information enough (or at all). We often skip the part about weighing the pros and cons, and, sometimes, we just respond from our gut.
But the truth is that in reality, we rarely act as “rational actors.” Most of the time, emotions play a large part in how we think, behave, and make decisions.
We are more James T. Kirk than Mr. Spock.
Psychologist, Behavioral Economist, and Duke Professor Dan Ariely wrote a groundbreaking book called “Predictably Irrational.” In the book he explains that we often appear to act irrationally (i.e., emotionally), but that we do so in a predictable manner. Understanding and applying behavioral science can help us predict and overcome these irrational parts of our behavior.
Behavioral science can help us understand the emotional, gut reactions of ourselves and others. It helps us get beneath the surface level belief that we have a solid, thought out reason for the things we do.
So how can you apply this in your job?
Applying behavioral science is a process. It requires that you do your homework. It requires time and effort. But mostly, it requires a shift in mindset. If you can manage to apply these concepts, it can open up an entirely new perspective, help you vastly improve your work environment, and make better decisions as a whole.
To help engage this shift in mindset, we have created the “Think CHANGE” process. Note that this is just the tip of the iceberg, once you start down this rabbit hole toward positive change, it is hard to come back.
Start by changing how you think.
When you boil it down to its basics, behavioral science is really about how people make decisions, how we think about things, and the resulting actions from those thoughts. If we can improve how we think, we can improve how we work.
As humans, we are great at finding a rational explanation for our often irrational behaviors and ideas. And, this doesn’t often happen at a conscious level; it happens without us even knowing it is happening.
To change how we think, we first have to admit that we are not as rational as we would like to believe. This is vital for the rest of the process to really take hold.
Once we’ve achieved this enlightenment and the freedom that comes with knowing that we are not always rational, we can start to improve how we make our decisions. The “Think CHANGE” process will help you along the way.
C. Carefully Pause
The first step is often as simple taking a brief moment to think. Psychologist Victor Frankl wrote, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
So before making a decision or reacting, pause for a second. Take a breath. Allow a bit of silence to happen.
In that pause, reflect and make sure that you are not responding emotionally to the stimulus when you should be engaging your prefrontal cortex.
H. Harness Probability
Another habit that we often find ourselves in is thinking in terms of absolutes. Things are either black or white without much of an opportunity for grey. We want to be sure when we make decisions that we are right – there is little room for doubt. This causes us to over-or-under commit. It also makes us more emotional when we are wrong because that failure becomes a perceived representation of who we are as a person.
In her great book, “Thinking In Bets: Making Smarter Decisions When You Don’t Have All the Facts,” former poker player and now decision strategist, Annie Duke talks about our need to be ok with uncertainty and to start putting probabilities on our thinking. Instead of thinking, “if I do X, it will result in Y,” we need to start thinking, “if I do X, it will have a roughly 70% chance of resulting in Y.”
The best decision-makers don’t focus on being sure, they determine how unsure they are.
This does a couple of things; first, it allows us to better gauge the likelihood of success. Over time, if you do this, you will improve the accuracy of your thinking and decisions. Second, it removes a lot of the emotion and prevents us from going down the black hole of “you’re wrong, I’m right.”
Start verbally assigning probabilities to things when you are working with others (e.g., “I think we have an 80% chance that they will buy this service priced the way it is.”). Then adjust those probabilities, up or down, as you obtain more information.
A. Abolish Resulting
We tend to judge how well our decision process was by the results that those decisions achieve. What we don’t consider, is that often times, we can make the best decisions with the information that we have, and the outcome may not be good.
Just because a decision had a bad result, does not mean that it was a bad decision.
This tendency is called outcome bias or as Annie Duke calls it, “resulting.” She relates it to playing chess versus playing poker, in chess, if you lose the game, you can probably go back and be pretty certain that you made a mistake. In poker, however, as Annie says, “If I lose a hand, I may have played the hand literally perfectly and still lost because there’s this luck element to it.”
Work is much more like poker than chess.
We should look at our decision processes and determine if we made the right decisions regardless of the result. When asking for feedback, present people with the steps that you went through, without giving them the result that was had. That way, they are not biased by the outcome.
N. Notice Causality
There is a concept in behavioral science called the “Fundamental Attribution Error” that says we explain others behavior according to internal or external factors – and that we tend to over-emphasize others internal factors (i.e., kind of person they are) versus external factors (i.e., the situation that they were in). So, if someone cuts us off in traffic, it is because that person is an “asshole” and not because they just found out that their kid was in the hospital.
When judging the behavior of others, try to look at the context that behavior is taking place in. Often there are social or situational factors that have a strong influence and are a better explanation for the behavior than that person’s innate personality.
Don’t be too quick to judge. Take a breath (see tip 1) and try to understand the context of the situation.
G. Gauge Priming
As shown above, context is important and influences how we make our decisions. Too often we are not aware of the outside factors that are influencing our decisions. Psychologist Robert Cialdini wrote about how our decisions are impacted often by unrelated items in his book, “Pre-Suasion: A Revolutionary Way to Influence and Persuade.” One example he gives is that of a call center where performance went up 60%, not because of any new training or improved technology, but because they placed a picture of a woman running through a finish line on the “hints and tips” sheet that they used.
These subtle primes activate neural networks in our brains that have been shown to impact what we think about how we behave.
What are the cues that you have around you? Are you surrounding yourself with positive elements or negative elements? What color are the walls in your office? What do you have on your desk? Have you been sitting all day, or have you gotten up and moved around? Have you been outside at all? Each of these factors no matter how subtle has an impact on our behaviors and decisions.
It has also been shown that whom you hang out with is an important aspect of how you think. If you surround yourself with people who are naysayers and Debbie downers, you will tend to assimilate those attitudes yourself. The opposite is true, as well.
Take a few minutes to look around you and figure out how you are being influenced by your surroundings – both the physical space you are in as well as the social universe that you inhabit.
E. Educate Yourself
While reading a few books and listening to a few podcasts won’t make you a behavioral scientist in and of itself, it can help you. You don’t need to dive headfirst into journal articles that get into the p-values and research methodologies of the studies, but you should immerse yourself in the books that summarize and synthesize that research. Listen to podcasts and read blogs that make the findings actionable and talk about the application of those principles in work and everyday life.
Here are some books, blogs, and podcasts to help you start. Order one now with the links below and see if it helps you.
- Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely
- Thinking In Bets by Annie Duke
- Nudge by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein
- Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman
- The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg
- The Behavioral Grooves Podcast with hosts Kurt Nelson and Tim Houlihan (note – we may be biased on this one as it is co-hosted by one of the authors – but we think it’s pretty good)
- Choiceology with Katy Milkman
- Brainfluence by Roger Dooley
- Big Brains by University of Chicago
- Brainy Business with Melina Palmer
We hope you find this useful and we welcome all non-causality filled feedback, after a short pause, with open, probability-based, resulting-rejecting arms. While improving your decision making and your reactions to the decisions and actions of those around you is not a magical or overnight process, commit to it and it will have a positive impact on your life. Start using this process in your daily routine and you will be on the path to better decision making, better work relationships, and an overall lower-friction work environment.
Next time you come across a human problem at work – Think CHANGE:
C. Carefully Pause
H. Harness Probability
A. Abolish Resulting
N. Notice Causality
G. Gauge Priming
E. Educate Yourself
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About the Authors:
Kurt Nelson, PhD
Kurt is the founder and Senior Behavioral Scientist at The Lantern Group, a behavior change and communication agency. He also is the co-founder, with Tim Houlihan, of the Behavioral Grooves podcast, where they interview leading academic and business executives from around the world and explore how they apply behavioral science to their work and lives.
All his work focuses on understanding ways to positively influence how people behave. Kurt has his MBA from the University of Iowa and his Ph.D. in Industrial/Organizational Psychology at Capella University.
Kurt geeks out about reading (behavioral economics, psychology, and fantasy genres), traveling (every state in the US — now working on countries), biking, canoeing, skiing and spending time with family and friends at their cabin.
Ben is the VP of Marketing and Communications at The Lantern Group. He applies his Master’s in Design to optimize how your communications are built. He combines behavioral science principles with graphic design, crafting communication pieces that actually change the way employees behave. He also provides on-site technical support and expertise for our consulting work. His design background and technical prowess enable us to dive deeper into our client’s participant’s mindset and understand their underlying behaviors.
In his spare time, Ben likes to travel the world, downhill ski (he skied at least once every month for two years straight), mountain bike and log as much time in the mountains as he can.