What Makes You (and Me) Act Like a Jerk

Lessons from Good Boss, Bad Boss

I recently finished fellow PT blogger Robert Sutton’s excellent new book, Good Boss, Bad Boss.  In it, he describes not only what the best (and worst) bosses do, but why they do it, identifying the essential beliefs that form the foundation of effective (and ineffective) management.

It struck me again and again as I was reading that so much of the advice Sutton offers on how to be a good boss can also be applied to the universal challenges of being a good and happy person.   I think one of my favorite chapters, “Squelch Your Inner Bosshole,” is a perfect illustration of what I mean.

In it, Sutton points to the some of the forces that turn otherwise decent human beings into rotten bosses.  We would be wise to remember that these forces are often present in the lives of non-bosses as well – who among us hasn’t been a real jerk on occasion?  The good news is, if you can identify the triggers of your unpleasant behavior, and become aware of their influence on you, you too can effectively squelch your inner a**hole.

Here are some of the triggers of bad boss behavior Sutton highlights:

1.     “Power Poisoning.”

Sure, power sometimes corrupts.  But more often, it just turns us into jerks.  Studies show that when people are given power, they become less tuned in to other people’s feeling and needs, paying less attention to what others say and do.   With power, our language and behavior becomes more insulting and inappropriate, and we become more self-absorbed, focusing more on our own personal gain than what is best for the group.

It’s not just bosses who experience the nasty side effects of power.  Have you ever been in a relationship with someone who was just a bit too needy and insecure?  Were you surprised to find how cold, selfish, or downright cruel you became in response?  When friends or romantic partners give us all the power, when we find ourselves with too much “hand,” it can lead to pretty callous behavior.

2.     “Extreme Performance Pressure.”

Being under time pressure, or knowing that a lot is riding on what we’re doing, makes all of us less sensitive to the needs and feelings of others.   We’re so busy thinking about what could wrong, and worrying about our own performance, that it creates a kind of tunnel vision.    Feeling anxious makes you irritable – this is why you come home from work after a hard day and yell at your spouse, your kids, or your dog.

3.     “Sleep Deprivation, Heat, and Other Bodily Sources of Bad Moods.”

Sutton points out that a lack of sleep, or uncomfortable temperatures, can disrupt our ability to make good, rational decisions, because tiredness and heat make us irritable and impatient.  Poor nutrition and illness can also leave you feeling unusually jerky.

(Interestingly, do you know what doesn’t predict mood?  Day of the week – people aren’t actually reliably happier on Friday and more depressed on Monday.  So if you’re acting like a jerk on a Monday, find something else to blame.)

4.     “Nasty Role-Models” and “A**hole Infected Workplaces”

Throughout Good Boss, Bad Boss, Sutton emphasizes the enormous power of social influence.  We emulate the people around us, often unconsciously.  And as he writes, “emotions are remarkably contagious.”  Anxiety, cynicism, selfishness, and negativity rub off.  So if you are surrounded by cranky jerks, you just might begin to behave that way yourself without realizing it.

Sutton’s solution to the trigger problem is a good one  - make sure you have people in your life you can trust to tell you when you are acting like a jerk.  Give them explicit permission to do so, and make sure you really listen and react without defensiveness.

Then take a good hard look at how you’re acting and ask yourself if that’s really the person you want to be.    If not, start looking around for the trigger.  Is power going to your head?  Are you under too much pressure?  Are you hanging around too many jerks?

If you’re not happy with your own behavior, renew your commitment to noticing and respecting the needs and feelings of the other people in your life.  And if you need one, take a nap.


3 Reasons Why It Pays to Not Let Sexist Comments Slide

From my Fast Company blog:

Your colleague Jim calls you “honey,” makes cracks about women drivers, and suggests that you be the one to shop for the retirement gift for Bob because “women like that sort of thing.”    A lot of the sexism that women encounter in the workplace looks like this – comments that are not necessarily meant to cause insult or discomfort, uttered by otherwise decent enough male coworkers who you generally like.  But they are harmful nonetheless, because they perpetuate stereotypic views of women’s preferences and abilities.  If you found yourself in a situation like this, what would you do?

While we’d all like to believe that we would confront anyone who said something sexist (or otherwise bigoted) to us personally, the truth is that it rarely happens. For instance, in one study, 68% of women said that they would refuse to answer sexually harassing questions in a job interview, and 28% said they would openly confront the interviewer.  But when the interview actually happened, all of the women answered the offensive questions, and not one confronted the interviewer.

It’s no wonder so few are willing to confront sexism in the workplace (or anywhere else).  People usually want to avoid being seen as complainers, and assume that their objections will elicit very hostile reactions that will make their work environment even more tense and uncomfortable.  Why make it worse for myself? we think.  Just roll your eyes and try to ignore him.

Well, it turns out that there are three very good reasons why you should confront the perpetrator of a sexist comment.

1. It Won’t Be As Uncomfortable As You Think

Countless psychology studies show that people are surprisingly bad when it comes to predicting how an interaction with another person will go.  So it’s worth asking, how do men actually respond when they are confronted about sexism in this day and age?

The answer:  they are remarkably nice about it.

In a new study, conducted by Robyn Mallett and Dana Wagner at Loyola University Chicago, male participants were teamed with a female partner (who was actually a confederate in the experiment).  Their assignment was to read a set of moral or ethical dilemmas and discuss together how to deal with each situation, including one in which a nurse discovers that a hospital patient has been given tainted blood.

During their discussion, the female confederate confronted her male partner either for sexism (i.e., having assumed the nurse in the story was female, which every male participant did) or in a gender-neutral way (i.e., disagreeing with the male’s suggested solution to the dilemma).

As expected, men had much stronger reactions to being told that their remark was sexist than they did to mere disagreement.  But the reactions weren’t what you might expect.  The men accused of sexism smiled and laughed more, appeared more surprised, gestured more often and with greater energy, and were more likely to try to justify or apologize for their remark.   But they did not react with more hostility or anger – in fact, they reported liking the female partner in both conditions equally well, and were generally pleasant across the board.

It turns out that when it comes to offensive remarks, offenders are also susceptible to social pressure, just like the victims of sexism who are so reluctant to complain.

Men who make insensitive sexist comments usually want to avoid being seen as sexist jerks.  (Not always, but more often than not).  This tempers their response to confrontation, and as a result, they react less negatively or harshly than anyone might have imagined, including the men themselves.

2.  He Will Probably Be Nicer, and Like You More

Once confronted, perpetrators of offensive remarks are motivated to smooth the awkwardness of the situation.  In the study, men were significantly nicer to their female partner while discussing a second set of dilemmas after having been accused of sexism, than they were after merely being told they wrong.

The “sexists” were more agreeable, more likely to try to search for common ground with their partner – they even smiled at her more.  And because they had worked harder to make the relationship work, at the end of the study the men accused of sexism reported liking their partner more than those who weren’t accused of it.

3.  Being Confronted Makes You Less Sexist

Perhaps the best reason to confront sexism is that it is the single most effective tool we have if we want to get rid of it.

Hundreds of studies show that confronting bias (toward any group) actually improves intergroup perceptions and reduces future bias.   If no one points out to Jim that his remarks about women are offensive, it’s not likely he’s going to figure it out on his own.  And chances are, he doesn’t really want to offend you or anyone else.  Confronting him gives him a chance to see things from your point of view, and understand where his “innocent” comment went wrong.

Follow me on Twitter  @hghalvorson


Feeling Timid and Powerless? Maybe It's How You're Sitting.

In the animal kingdom, the alphas often convey their dominant status through posture.  They rise to their full height, stick out their chests and fan their tail feathers, all to take up as much space as possible and establish their powerful presence.  The weaker omegas, on the other hand, bow down low, tucking in their limbs and tails and signaling their submission.

Human beings are no different.  The most powerful guy in the room is usually the one whose physical movements are most expansive – legs apart, leaning forward, arms spread wide while he gestures.  He’s the CEO who isn’t afraid to swing his feet up onto the conference room table, hands behind his head and elbows jutting outward, confident in his power to spread himself out however he damn well pleases.

The nervous, powerless person holds himself very differently – he makes himself physically as small as possible: shoulders hunched, feet together, hands in his lap or arms wrapped protectively across his chest.  He’s the guy in the corner who is hoping he won’t be called on, and often is barely noticed.

Psychologists have known for some time that powerful and powerless individuals adopt these poses unconsciously, and that the poses themselves are in fact perceived (also unconsciously) by others as indictors of status.  Your posture, like it or not, tells people a lot about you.

But more recent research reveals a new, far more surprising relationship between power and posing – that their influence works in both directions.  In other words, holding powerful poses can actually make you more powerful.

Researchers Dana Carney, Amy Cuddy, and Andy Yap asked male and female participants to hold two poses, each for one minute.  The poses were either high power (the CEO feet-up-on-the-table pose with hands behind head; standing feet apart while leaning over a table, supported by one hand resting on the table) or low power (sitting with shoulders slumped forward and hands in lap; standing with feet together and arms folded tightly across chest.)

After holding the high power poses, participants not only reported that they felt significantly more “powerful” and “in charge”, but were also more willing to take a   risk when offered the chance to gamble their study earnings for double the money.

The high power posers also experienced significant increases in testosterone and decreases in cortisol (measured by saliva), a neuroendocrine profile that has been linked in past research to dominance, competitiveness, adaptive responding to challenges, disease resistance, and leadership ability.  So not only did high power posing create psychological and behavioral changes typically associated with powerful people, it created physiological changes characteristic of the powerful as well.

Low power posers, on the other hand, experienced significantly drops in testosterone and increases in cortisol – giving them the typical physiological profile of the nervous and risk-averse omega, and leaving them feeling less powerful and less willing to take a chance on a big win.

So, take a look at how you are sitting right now.  Take a moment to think about what you are typically doing with your body when you are at your desk, in a meeting, or simply socializing.  What message is your body language – your posture, your stance, your gesturing – sending to everyone in the room?  And more importantly, what message is it sending to your own brain?  If you sit all curled up in a ball, or stand with your arms wrapped around your chest like battle armor, you are going to end up feeling less powerful and less confident because your brain will assume that that’s what you are.

It’s up to you to make sure your brain is getting the right message.  If you want more power – not just the appearance of power, but the genuine feeling of power – then spread your limbs wide, stand up straight, and lean into the conversation.   Carry yourself like the guy in charge, and in a matter of minutes your body will start to feel it, and you will start to believe it.

Follow me on Twitter  @hghalvorson


Is Your Willpower Running Low? Only If You Believe It Is.

A great deal of recent research (some of which I’ve written about in this blog) suggests that our capacity for self-control is much like a muscle.  Its strength varies from person to person, and also from moment to moment, depending on how recently and how hard it’s had to work.  (Think about how your legs can feel like jelly after a long run, and you get the idea.)

Just as our muscle strength is inherently limited, so too are our reserves of willpower.  Thus, self-control is often at its weakest immediately after we’ve had to use it – an effect demonstrated in dozens of published studies, and obvious to anyone who has every succumbed to the urge to drink, smoke, or eat a whole pint of ice cream at the end of very stressful day.

But what if you happened to be someone who believed that engaging in difficult tasks was energizing, rather than depleting?  What if you were convinced that using your willpower activates resources, rather than drains them?  What would happen?

You’d be right!  Thanks to a new set of studies by Veronika Job, Carol Dweck, and Gregory Walton, it’s become clear that people’s beliefs about the nature of self-control determine whether or not it is depleted by use.

The researchers distinguished between people who believed that willpower is a limited resource or a non-limited resource, and found that only those who believed in the limited-resource theory had less self-control (i.e., made lots of mistakes) after working on something very difficult.

How can this be? Both groups were equally exhausted by difficult task, so you might think they would be equally mistake-prone.  But it turns out that our theories about self-control determine how exhaustion affects us.

When people who hold the limited-resource view experience something as exhausting, they have less self-control and are more prone to errors because they see exhaustion as a sign to reduce effort, in order to rest and eventually replenish their self-control reserves.  In contrast, those with the non-limited resource view continue to put in effort despite their exhaustion, and make fewer errors because of it.

These beliefs, not surprisingly, predict how people handle the more stressful and demanding periods in their lives.  For instance, the researchers found that during the more stressful , exam-filled weeks in the academic semester, belief in the limited-resource theory of self-control predicted greater consumption of unhealthy junk foods, procrastination, and less effective study habits among college students.  Those who believed in limitless willpower, on the other hand, held up under stress just fine.

So, is self-control limited, or isn’t it?  The answer has become a lot less clear, and frankly, I’m no longer sure it matters.  What does matter is whether or not you believe that it’s limited.    And since you have some choice when it comes to your beliefs, I recommend going with the limitless willpower view.  Maybe in the end, all it takes to put down that pint of ice cream at the end of the day is believing that you actually can.

Many Heads Can Be Better Than One - Especially If They Belong to Women

From my Fast Company Blog:

In the modern workplace, almost all work of real consequence is carried about by small teams.   But even when very smart, very talented people are assigned to work together on a project, it’s clear that the resulting team can be a complete disaster.   Sometimes it seems like teamwork can turn otherwise competent people into childish morons.  Would we be better off relying less on teams, and more on individuals going at it alone?

Not necessarily.  Teams can be smarter and more effective than the individuals who make up the team – the whole can indeed be bigger and better than just the sum of its parts, but only under the right circumstances.

A new study conducted by researchers at MIT, Carnegie Mellon, and Union College shows that the collective intelligence of a small group working together uniquely predicts their performance across a wide variety of tasks.  In the study, nearly 700 people were placed in groups of 2 to 5, and their ability to solve problems as a team was found to strongly predict their subsequent success on tasks as diverse as visual puzzles, games, negotiations, and logical analysis.

The average intelligence of members (measured individually, rather than as a group) did not predict team performance at all, and that’s really important. In other words, simply having a couple of really smart people in the group didn’t necessarily make the group itself any smarter.

It turns out that the collective intelligence of the team will only meet or exceed its individual potential if the right kind of internal dynamics are in place.  The researchers found that what is needed for a group to be “smart” is effective coordination and communication, and that this is most likely to be the present in groups with members who were more socially sensitive.

When groups contained people who were particularly skilled when it comes to perceiving and responding to others’ emotions, they demonstrated greater collective intelligence, and superior performance again and again.  Not surprisingly, groups where one person dominated in conversation and decision-making were collectively less intelligent, and less effective.

So, how can you ensure that your team will be socially sensitive?  The answer is simple: Add more women.  Teams in the study that contained more women were significantly more socially sensitive, and consequently more intelligent, than the male-dominated teams.

If you don’t have the power to change the gender makeup of your teams, fear not.  Their collective intelligence can still develop and improve – through better, more sensitive means of working together, or better collaboration tools.  Create opportunities for team members to express their feelings, and for others to respond to them.   Encourage face-time whenever possible (emotions are difficult to read on the phone, and nearly impossible over email).  Cultivating a work environment  where team members experiences are acknowledged and understood will create teams that are smarter, happier, and far more successful.

Follow me on Twitter @hghalvorson


The Cure for Loneliness

The world grows ever smaller, more connected, more crowded, and ironically, increasingly lonely for many of us.  This is a problem with a whole host of unhappy consequences, not just for the individuals who experience it, but for society as a whole.

It’s important to point out before I go any further that loneliness is not the same thing as being a private person, or a “loner,” because some of us actually both need and enjoy a lot of time to ourselves.  Loneliness, instead, refers to the difference between the amount of social contact and intimacy you have and the amount you want.  It’s about feeling isolated, like an outcast.

(That said, the opposite of loneliness isn’t popularity either – you can have dozens of “friends” and still feel lonely.  True intimacy and feelings of relatedness are much more about the quality of your relationships than the quantity.)

Persistent loneliness is not only emotionally painful, but can be more damaging to our physical and mental health than many psychiatric illnesses.  For instance, lonely people sleep poorly, experience severe depression and anxiety, have reduced immune and cardiovascular functioning, and exhibit sings of early cognitive decline that grow more severe over time.

Not surprisingly, psychologists have created dozens of interventions designed to try to tackle this epidemic of loneliness.  The approaches taken are varied, but can be broken up, roughly speaking, into four different categories.

There are interventions aimed at:

Improving social skills. Some researchers argue that loneliness is primarily the result of lacking of the interpersonal skills required to create and maintain relationships.  Typically, these interventions involve teaching people how to be less socially awkward – to engage in conversation, speak on the phone, give and take compliments, grow comfortable with periods of silence, and communicate in positive ways non-verbally.

Enhancing social support.  Many lonely people are victims of changing circumstances. These approaches offer professional help and counseling for the bereaved, elderly people who have been relocated, and children of divorce.

Increasing opportunities for social interaction. With this approach, the logic is simple:  If people are lonely, give them opportunities to meet other people.  This type of intervention, therefore, focuses on creating such opportunities through organized group activities.

Changing maladaptive thinking.  This approach might seem surprising, and its rationale less obvious than the other approaches.  But recent research reveals that over time, chronic loneliness makes us increasingly sensitive to, and on the lookout for, rejection and hostility.  In ambiguous social situations, lonely people immediately think the worst.  For instance, if coworker Bob seems more quiet and distant than usual lately, a lonely person is likely to assume that he’s done something to offend Bob, or that Bob is intentionally giving him the cold shoulder.

Lonely people pay more attention to negative social information (like disagreement or criticism). They remember more of the negative things that happened during an encounter with another person, and fewer positive things.

All this leads, as you might imagine, to more negative expectations about future interactions with others – lonely people don’t expect things to go well for them, and consequently, they often don’t.

Interventions aimed at changing this self-fulfilling pattern of thinking begin by teaching people to identify negative thoughts when they occur.  Whenever they feel anxious about a social encounter, find themselves focusing on everything that went wrong, or wondering if they’ve made a bad impression, a red flag is raised.

Next, they learn to treat these negative thoughts as testable hypotheses rather than fact.  They consider other possibilities – maybe everything will go smoothly, maybe it wasn’t all bad, perhaps everyone liked me after all.  They practice trying to see things from the perspective of others, and interpret their actions more benignly.

Take the case of Bob the Distant Coworker.  With thought retraining, lonely people learn to ask themselves questions like “Am I sure Bob doesn’t like me?  Could there be other, more likely reasons for his quiet, reserved behavior at work?  Could he simply be preoccupied with some problem?  I know sometimes I get quiet and distracted when something is bothering me.  Maybe Bob’s behavior has nothing to do with me!”

Once the negative thoughts are banished, lonely people can approach new relationships with a positive, optimistic outlook, see the best in others, and learn to feel more confident about themselves.

With four approaches to curing loneliness, the obvious question is:  What works?  Thanks to a recent meta-analysis of 50 different loneliness interventions, the answer is clear.  Interventions aimed at changing maladaptive thinking patterns were, on average, four times more effective than other interventions in reducing loneliness.  (In fact, the other three approaches weren’t particularly effective at all.)

It turns out that fundamentally, long-term loneliness isn’t about being awkward, or the victim of circumstance, or lacking opportunities to meet people.  Each can be the reason for relatively short-term loneliness – anyone who has ever moved to a new town or a new school and had to start building a network of friends from scratch certainly knows what it’s like to be lonely.   But this kind of loneliness needn’t last long, and new relationships usually are formed… unless you’ve fallen into a way of thinking that keeps relationships from forming.

More than anything else, the cure for persistent loneliness lies in breaking the negative cycle of thinking that created it in the first place.

Follow me on Twitter @hghalvorson