Monday, January 28, 2013

The Feedback You Need to Be Giving

If I see one more article or blog post about how you should never be “critical” or “negative” when giving feedback to an employee or colleague (or, for that matter, your children), I think my head will explode.  It’s incredibly frustrating.  This kind of advice is surely well-meant, and it certainly sounds good.  After all, you probably don’t relish the thought of having to tell someone else what they are doing wrong – at minimum, it’s a little embarrassing for everyone involved. 

But avoiding negative feedback is both wrong-headed and dangerous.  Wrong-headed because, when delivered the right way, at the right time, criticism is in fact highly motivating.  Dangerous because without awareness of the mistakes he or she is making, no one can possibly improve.  Staying “positive” when doling out feedback will only get you so far.

Hang on, you say.  Can’t negative feedback be discouraging?  Demotivating?

That’s perfectly true.

And don’t people need encouragement to feel confident?  Doesn’t that help them stay motivated? 

In many cases, yes.

Confusing, isn’t it?  Thankfully, brilliant new research by Stacey Finkelstein (Columbia University) and Ayelet Fishbach (University of Chicago) sheds light on the seeminlgy paradoxical nature of feedback, by making it clear why, when, and for whom negative feedback is appropriate.

It’s important to begin by understanding the function that positive and negative feedback serve. Positive feedback (e.g., Here’s what you did really well….) increases commitment to the work you do, by enhancing both your experience and your confidence.   Negative feedback (e.g., Here’s where you went wrong….), on the other hand, is informative – it tells you where you need to spend your effort, and offers insight into how you might improve.

Given these two different functions, positive and negative feedback should be more effective (and more motivating) for different people at different times.  For instance, when you don’t really know what you are doing, positive feedback helps you to stay optimistic and feel more at ease with the challenges you are facing – something novices tend to need.  But when you are an expert, and you already more or less know what you are doing, it’s negative feedback that can help you do what it takes to get to the top of your game.

As Finkelstein and Fishbach show, novices and experts are indeed looking for, and motivated by, different kinds of information.  In one of their studies, American students taking either beginner or advanced-level French classes were asked whether they would prefer an instructor who emphasized what they were doing right (focusing on their strengths) or what they were doing wrong (focusing on their mistakes and how to correct them).  Beginners overwhelmingly preferred a cheerleading, strength-focused instructor.  Advanced students, on the other hand, preferred a more critical instructor who would help them develop their weaker skills.

In a second study, the researchers looked at a very different behavior: engaging in environmentally friendly actions.  Their “experts” were members of environmental organizations (e.g., Greenpeace), while their “novices” were non-members.  Each participant in the study made a list of the actions they regulatory took that helped the environment – things like recycling, avoiding bottled water, and taking shorter showers.  They were offered feedback from an environmental consultant on the effectiveness of their actions, and were given a choice:  Would you prefer to know more about the actions you take that areeffective, or about the actions you take that are not?  Experts were much more likely to choose the negative feedback – about ineffective actions – than novices.  

Taken together, these studies show that people who are experienced in a given domain – people who already have developed some knowledge and skills – don’t actually live in fear of negative feedback.  If anything, they seek it out.  Intuitively they realize that negative feedback offers the key to getting ahead, while positive feedback merely tells them what they already know.

But what about motivation?  What kind of feedback makes you want to take action? When participants in the environmental study were randomlygiven either positive or negative feedback about their actions, and were then asked how much of their $25 study compensation they would like to donate to Greenpeace, the type of feedback they received had a dramatic effect on their motivation to give.  When negative feedback was given, experts gave more on average to Greenpeace ($8.53) than novices ($1.24).  But when positive feedback was given, novices ($8.31) gave far more than experts ($2.92).

Just to be clear, I’m not suggesting that you never tell the rookie about his mistakes, or that you never praise the seasoned professional for her outstanding work.  And of course negative feedback should always be accompanied by good advice, and given with tact. 

But I amsuggesting that piling on praise is a more effective motivator for the rookie than the pro.  And I’m saying, point blank, that you shouldn’t worry so much when it comes to pointing out mistakes to someone experienced.  Negative feedback won’t crush their confidence, but it just might give them the information they need to take their performance to the next level.

Friday, January 18, 2013

The Amazing Power of I Don’t (rather than I Can’t)

To reach many, if not most of the goals we’d like to achieve – losing weight, getting ahead at work, improving a relationship –it’s not just a matter of taking action.  There are things we need to stop doing if we want to be successful.  We need to stop overeating, stop procrastinating, stop getting worked up over things that really don’t matter.

It’s hard to motivate yourself to adopt new habits, but it’s even harder to rid yourself of old ones.  More often than not, it’s the latter that keep us from becoming the person we really want to be. 

We need help – we need strategies that actually work.  I don’t care how much self-control you have – willpower alone is not going to do the trick.

Thankfully, there are strategies that work.  Here is a particularly useful one that was recently discovered by researchers at Boston College and the University of Houston.

Imagine you are on a diet, and you are enjoying a meal at a nice restaurant.  After clearing the plates, your server says, “You know, we have an incredible chocolate cake on our dessert menu.  We’re famous for it.  Would you care to try it?”

Would you think to yourself:

“I can’t eat chocolate cake.”


“I don’t eat chocolate cake.”

If you think there is no real difference, you couldn’t be more wrong.  Don’t and can’t may seem somewhat interchangeable, but they are very different psychologically.  And if there is one thing that social psychologists have learned over the years, it’s that even seemingly subtle differences in language can have very powerful affects on our thoughts, feelings and behavior.

I don’t is experienced as a choice, so it feels empowering. It’s an affirmation of your determination and willpower.  I can’tisn’t a choice – it’s a restriction, it’s being imposed upon you.  So thinking “I can’t” undermines your sense of power and personal agency.

The difference between thinking “I don’t” and “I can’t” can be quite dramatic.  In one study, students with a healthy eating goal were instructed that when faced with a temptation, they should say to themselves either I don’t do X or I can’t do X.  (e.g., I don’t eat candy versus I can’t eat candy.)  On their way out of the lab, they were told that they could choose a token of appreciation for their participation in the study: a chocolate bar or a granola bar.  Who chose the healthier option?  Sixty-four percent of those who said I don’t, compared to only thirty-nine percent of those who said I can’t.

In another study, twenty adult women who were working toward a health and fitness goal were encouraged to use either I don’t or I can’tlanguage when they were tempted to lapse (e.g., skip the gym, grab a donut, etc.)  On each of the next ten days, these women checked in via email to report on whether or not the strategy was working for them – if not, they were told they could stop using the strategy.  By the study’s end, 8 out of the 10 women using the I don’t strategy were still using it successfully, while only 1 of the 10 who used I can’t lasted that long.

The beautiful thing about using this strategy is that it could not be easier – every time you catch yourself thinking I can’t have this, or I can’t do that, simply say No, I don’t do this, instead. 

Because the truth is, it isyour choice. The power to decide what you do and don’t do really is yours.  When you are always thinking I can’t, it’s easy to lose sight of that fact. 

It’s time to take your power back, and now you know where to start.

Don't forget to check out the FOCUS giveaway!

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

FOCUS Pre-order Giveaway!!

In today's market, pre-orders are incredibly important for the success of any book.  So to reward those who chose to pre-order my new book, FOCUS, I'm giving away some custom-created companions to FOCUS that won't be available to anyone else.   

These include:

  • A link to a free one-hour video webinar, in which I'll explain the key concepts of FOCUSand how you can use them to be happier and more successful in your own life.

  • A downloadable PDF workbook to help you put the lessons of FOCUS into practice.

  • A chance to win a copy of my new forthcoming e-book, The 8 Motivational Types: A Short Guide to Lighting a Fire Under Anyone - Including Yourself

To receive the webinar and PDF, as well as the chance to win my new e-book, simply preorder FOCUS before April 17, 2013.  Then, send a copy of your electronic receipt to:

Both the PDF and webinar will be ready to distribute in February.

Want to learn more about FOCUS?  Here's the book trailer:

Thank you so much!


Monday, January 14, 2013

The Surprising Reason We Break Promises

 Recently, my friend Jane (not her real name, for reasons that will become obvious) sat with me over a long lunch, and listened patiently to tales of how my children were slowly driving me crazy.  “You know what,” said Jane, touching my hand and clearly filled with sympathy, “I’m going to come over sometime next week and take the kids off your hands for a few hours so you can go have some fun.” 

“Thanks Jane,” I replied, with zero enthusiasm, and changed the subject.  You see, despite my fondness for Jane, I knew there was no way in hell she was going to do anything of the kind.  I’d heard it all before.  It’s not that she didn’t mean what she was saying, that the offer wasn’t genuine.  In her mind, she had every intention of coming over to watch the kids.   Jane is the kind of person who sees herself as a Good Friend, and would be outraged if I replied to her generous gesture with what I was really thinking:  “I won’t hold my breath.”

For some people, I’ve noticed, saying you are going to do something feels just as good as actually doing it.   Jane is one of those people – she had a visible aura of satisfaction about her after she made her offer to babysit.  You could practically hear her inner voice doling out the compliments. You are so generous, Jane.  What a wonderful friend you are.   

Indeed, why actually follow through on the offer to watch the kids, with all the hassle that entails, when simply expressing your intention to do so feels so good in its own right?

How can we understand these promise-breakers like Jane, whose intentions start out both genuine and admirable, but who never seem to act on them?  And just as important, how can we keep from becoming one of them?

Most people assume, with good reason, that making your intention to do something public makes you more likely to actually follow through with it.   This should be true for (at least) two reasons. First, going public commits you to a view of yourself that you want to try to be consistent with.  If I tell my boss that I’ll have a project finished by the end of the week, then I’m thinking of myself as the Kind of Person Who Gets Things Done Quickly, and I want to live up to that image in my own mind.  Second, going public makes you feel accountable to someone else.  If I don’t have the project finished by Friday, then my boss will likely think I am the Kind of Person Who He Should Fire.

Telling others about your intention to do something does make you more likely to actually do it, but this is only true when the actual behavior you are committing to is desirable for its own sake.   For instance, telling your friends that you intend to watch less TV and read more is a good idea if you’re doing it because you want more time to read.

But Jane wasn’t offering to babysit because she wanted to spend time with my kids – she was doing it to be a Good Friend.   Much of the time, the actions we intend to take are desirable to us because they validate some important aspect of our identity, of how we like to think of ourselves.  And it turns out, that’s where the trouble lies.

According to Self-Completion Theory (Wicklund & Gollwitzer, 1982), when we are committed to particular identity goals, like being a good parent, a talented artist, or a successful business person, we engage in a variety of activities in order to prove to ourselves (and to others) that we are in fact good parents, talented artists, or successful business people. 

Some of these activities are essential to the identity – an artist isn’t really an artist if she doesn’t at least occasionally create some art.  Other activities are purely symbolic – like self-praise (“Look at that brushwork. I am so good!”), or dressing the part by walking around in a paint-spattered smock.  When we fail at some task that is relevant to our identity (a rejection from an art gallery, a bad review from an art critic), we feel a sense of incompleteness – saddened and anxious that we aren’t living up to our mental image of who and what we are supposed to be. 

To restore our sense of completeness, we try to engage in activities or show off status symbols related to the damaged identity.  A doctor who loses a patient may put in extra hours at the office, reflect on some of the patients he has healed, or spend a little extra time in his white lab coat and stethoscope. 

Completeness is also enhanced by an audience.  When other people notice our symbols – like an intention to do something a doctor, and artist, or a Good Friend would do - it gives you the same completeness-boost you’d get from actually doing it.  In other words, when other people hear us talk about our identity-related intentions, we get a sense of completeness from just talking about it.  And since talking is usually easier than doing, why bother with the latter?

Recent research shows that when our identity-based intentions are noticed by other people, we are indeed less likely to translate them into action.  Ironically, the more important the aspect of your identity is to you, the less likely you are to go through with it.  In a sense, Jane may be such a lousy friend precisely because it’s so important to her to see herself as a good one.

In one study, undergraduates who were on the path to one day become psychologists were asked to write down their two most important study intentions for the coming week (e.g., “I intend to study more statistics” or “I will take my reading assignments more seriously.”)  Half of the participants watched as their intentions were read by an experimenter– the other half were told that the intention questions weren’t supposed to be in the experiment at all and would just be discarded, unread.

One week later, the students were asked whether or not they had acted on their intentions.  Just having their intentions read by the experimenter actually decreased their likelihood of acting by 30%!

 In a second study, groups of second-year law students wrote about their three most important intentions with respect to becoming a lawyer (e.g., “I will read law periodicals regularly.”)   Half of the law students then made their intentions known to the rest of the group, while the others kept them privately to themselves.  Later, to measure their sense of completeness, each student was asked how much they felt like a lawyer right now, on a scale from 1 to 5.   Sharing their intention to do lawyerly things bumped completeness scores up a full point, from an average of 3 to 4.  So just telling people you are going to do some lawyer stuff makes you feel almostlike an actual lawyer!

At this point, you might be wondering what you can do to keep yourself from falling into this trap.  How can you stop being a promise-breaker, someone who talks plenty but rarely bothers with the walking part?

Well, one obvious solution is to keep your intentions to yourself.   Without an audience, intentions alone won’t give you the sense of identity-completeness you’re looking for.

If you can’t do that, the next best thing would be to make sure that you think about and express your intentions in ways that emphasize how what you’re going to do is valuable in its own right, not just as a way to bolster your identity.  The father who vows in front of his pals to spend more quality time with his kids has probably just made himself feel like a Good Dad, but just reduced his chances of actually being one.  If instead, he vows “to spend more time with my kids, because they really need me right now,” or “because I love being with them,” he’s made it clear to everyone, including himself, that it’s not just about being a Good Dad – it’s about time with the kids, for its own sake.   You will get beyond the talk when you make a point of remembering why it’s worth taking the trouble to walk.

Gollwitzer, P., Sheeran, P., Michalski, V., & Seifert, A. (2009) When intentions go public: Does social reality widen the intention-behavior gap?  Psychological Science, 20, 612-618.

Wicklund, R. A., & Gollwitzer, P. M. (1982) Symbolic self-completion. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Avoid The Mistake That Derails Your Resolutions Every Year

Have you ever tried to lose weight by not thinking about food? How about trying to play it cool and stop yourself from calling (or emailing, or texting) your love interest by blocking out all thoughts about that person? Ever try to quit smoking by trying not to think about smoking?
Did it work? I’ll bet it didn’t. And it’s really not your fault that it didn’t.

Thought suppression is a tricky business. On the one hand, it intuitively seems like it should work, which is why it is one of the most common strategies we use to tackle our New Year’s resolutions – people often try to block out or put the lid on unwanted thoughts and feelings, in order to control their influence. Dieters try to suppress thoughts of tempting snacks, alcoholics suppress their desire to drink, stressed-out workers suppress their feelings of anxiety, and smokers suppress the thought of cigarettes when trying to quit.

On the other hand, thought suppression is not only very, very difficult, but it works only very briefly, and has some very nasty unintended consequences. Suppression has often been shown to increase the frequency of the unwanted thoughts you were trying to rid yourself of, once the period of active suppression is over. Suppress thoughts of smoking, and the thoughts come rushing back with even greater force once you let your guard down.

But does this unintended consequence actually lead to more smoking? Are you actually worse off in terms of quitting than when you started?

Yes, you are. In a recent study, undergrads who smoked at least a half-pack a day on average were asked to keep track of their smoking for several weeks. For all of Week 2, some of the students were asked to try to suppress any and all thoughts about smoking. Not surprisingly, they smoked significantly fewer cigarettes during Week 2 than non-suppressers. But during Week 3, when these students were no longer required to suppress thoughts of smoking, they smoked significantly more cigarettes than non-suppressors!

While they were at it, the researchers who conducted this study looked at students’ stress levels across all three weeks. Thought suppressors reported a dramatic rise in stress during the week they were suppressing (while non-suppressors stress levels remained unchanged). So not only does the thought-suppression strategy backfire, it feels terrible while you are doing it.

How can we deal with unwanted thoughts more successfully, in ways that don’t end up actually diminishing the willpower we need to reach our goals? I’ve written about this in previous posts, but here are two suggestions:

1. Don’t suppress, replace. Decide in advance what you will think about when a thought about smoking, snacking, or hitting “redial” pops into your mind. When you find yourself thinking about how yummy a candy bar would be right now, try replacing that thought with one that focuses on your health and weight-loss goals (e.g., “It feels better to fit into my skinny jeans than it does to wolf down chocolate-covered nougat.”)

2. Don’t suppress, plan. Creating an if-then plan is an easy and effective way to deal with temptations. You don’t actually need to block out the thoughts – what you really need is to learn how not to act on them. By planning exactly what you will do, in advance, when the tempting thought occurs, it becomes far easier to stick to your goals. For instance, when thoughts about smoking occur, plan to chew gum, or step outside for several long deep breaths of fresh air. Whatever you plan to do, it will disrupt the connection between the thought and the giving-in to the temptation, and consequently, over time the thoughts will fade all on their own.

It’s almost never a good idea to put a lid on your thoughts and feelings. It may feel like it’s working in the short term, but soon you’ll find yourself right back where you started – surrounded by candy wrappers, and wondering why he hasn’t returned your three dozen phone calls. To reach your goals in 2013, try dealing with those thoughts and feelings in a more productive and less stressful way – and make this the year you finally make a lasting change.