1/21/11

What the Science Says is Right, and Wrong, with “Chinese Mothers”

In her recent Wall Street Journal essay, Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior, Yale law professor and mother-of-two Amy Chua provides a recipe for the kind of parenting that produces “successful” children of the math-whiz and music-prodigy variety.   Her depiction of the strict and domineering Chinese mother (Chua’s own children were never allowed to have play dates, choose their own extracurricular activities, watch TV, or get any grade less than an A) is deliberately provocative and unapologetic. It has elicited strong reactions from its largely Western audience – some applause, but mostly shock and outrage.

As a psychologist and scientist specializing in achievement (and as a mother of two myself), I must admit that some of what Ms. Chua is saying is perfectly true and worth taking to heart – particularly when she writes about the importance of emphasizing effort and persistence as keys to success, rather than innate ability.

Both in the laboratory and the classroom, I’ve seen people with very high IQs (children and adults) give up on a new task the moment it became difficult, and I’ve seen people of seemingly lesser ability fight their way through to the end and master the material.  When you study achievement, one of the first things you learn is that innate ability (to the extent that there is such a thing) has surprisingly little to do with success, while effort and persistence have everything to do with it.

Unfortunately, American students (and their parents) tend be big believers in innate ability – as if some people are just born capable of long division.  These kids aren’t reaching their full potential because they give up on themselves way too soon.

Asian students aren’t making the same mistake, because they are explicitly taught to blame their poor performances (and credit their successes) on the effort they put in to them.  It makes sense that Asians would excel in subjects like math, science, and musicianship, which require determination and long hours to master. Teaching Western kids to hang in there, and helping them to understand what it really takes to succeed, would go a long way toward closing that achievement gap.

I also happen to agree with Ms. Chua that we have a bit of a problem these days when it comes to emphasizing self-esteem protection over honest feedback. I know firsthand that it’s not easy to tell your child that he screwed up, knowing it will cause him anxiety, disappointment, or embarrassment.  But when we protect feelings at the expense of the truth, when we say  “you tried your best” when in fact they did nothing of the sort, we rob them of a sense of personal control over their own achievements.  Nothing is more de-motivating than feeling powerless to improve.

Calling your child “garbage,” or “fatty” (two examples given by Ms Chua),  on the other hand, is really not a great idea – nor is it even remotely necessary.   Guilt and shame can be motivating, but they can also be highly disruptive to the learning process. The most motivating and effective feedback focuses not on what your child is, but what he does, and what he can do differently in the future.

Where I part ways completely with Ms. Chua (and here the science is clearly on my side) is in her insistence that enjoyment, interest, and freedom of choice are somehow incompatible with hard work, persistence, and success. She writes:

“What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you’re good at it. To get good at anything you have to work, and children on their own never want to work, which is why it is crucial to override their preferences.”

This is factually false, on all counts.  Again and again, research has shown that when children feel they have choices, it creates intrinsic motivation – the desire to do something for it’s own sake.   With choice, they enjoy what they are doing more.  They are more creative, process information more deeply, persist longer and achieve more.  Intrinsic motivation is in fact awesome in its power to get and keep us going.   Your kids will work hard of their own free will, and even have fun doing it, when you don’t completely override their preferences.

In the end, we would be wise to take what is beneficial about the “Chinese mother” approach – the dogged emphasis on effort, the encouragement to not give up too soon, the willingness to be critical when necessary – without the aspects that have given Western readers of Ms. Chua’s essay so much pause: the total absence of autonomy and choice, the lack of play, and the borderline-abusive insults.   There is very little evidence that these provide children any benefit, and clear evidence that they can undermine not only intrinsic motivation, but self-confidence and well-being.

Parents really don’t need to choose between having motivated, hard-working children, and happy, autonomous children who have lots of fun.   Combine the best of what Ms. Chua’s “Chinese” and “Western” mothers do, and you can help your children to be successful in every sense of the word.

1/17/11

The Art (and Science) of Giving Your Kids Feedback: 3 Rules to Remember

From my Psychology Today blog:

Giving your child feedback – both criticism and praise - is more than just useful, it’s essential. It’s hard for kids to get motivated, and impossible for them to stay motivated, when they aren’t sure if they are on the right track.  So giving well-crafted, frequent feedback is one of our most important jobs as parents.

But as every parent knows, sometimes the feedback we give doesn’t seem to be all that motivating.  Even with the best intentions, our words of encouragement or disapproval can easily backfire or seem to fall on deaf ears, and many of us have a hard time understanding why.

Luckily, scientific studies of motivation have shed light on why some types of feedback work, and others don’t.  If you’ve gotten it wrong in the past (and who hasn’t?), then you can do a better job giving your child feedback from now on by sticking to a few simple rules:

Rule #1: When things go wrong, keep it real.    It’s not easy to tell your beloved son or daughter that they screwed up, knowing it may cause anxiety, disappointment, or embarrassment.  But don’t make the mistake of protecting your child’s feelings at the expense of telling them what they truly need to hear.  Remember that without honest feedback, they can’t possibly figure out what to do differently next time.

Also, don’t take away your child’s sense of responsibility for what went wrong (assuming he is in fact to blame), just because you don’t want to be “hard” on him.  Letting him off the hook for his own mistake, telling him that he “tried his best” when it’s clear that he didn’t, may leave him feeling powerless to improve.

Rule #2: When things go wrong, fight self-doubt.  You child needs to believe that success is within reach, no matter what mistakes he has made in the past.  To do this,

- Be specific.   What needs improvement, and what exactly can be done to improve?

- Emphasize actions that he has the power to change. Talk about aspects of his performance that are under his control, like the time and effort he put into a practicing, or the study method he used.

- Avoid praising effort when it didn’t pay off. Many parents try to console their child by saying things like “Well honey, you didn’t do very well, but you worked hard and really tried your best.”  Why does anyone think that this is comforting?  For the record – it’s not.  (Unless, of course, it was a no-win situation from the start).

Studies show that being complimented for “effort” after a failure not only makes kids feel stupid, but also leaves them feeling like they can’t improve.  In these instances, it’s really best to stick to purely informational feedback – if effort isn’t the problem, help them figure out what is.

Rule #3: When things go right, avoid praising ability.  I know we all like to hear how smart and talented we are, and so naturally we assume that it’s what our kids want to hear too.  Of course they do.  But it’s not what they need to hear to stay motivated.

Studies show that when children are praised for having high ability, it leaves them more vulnerable to self-doubt when they are faced with a challenge later.  If being successful means that he is ”smart,” then he’s likely to conclude that he isn’t smart when he’s having harder time.

Make sure that you also praise aspects of your child’s performance that were under his control.  Talk about his creative approach, his careful planning, his persistence and effort, his positive attitude.  Praise his actions, not just his abilities. That way, when he runs into trouble later on, he’ll remember what helped him to succeed in the past and put that knowledge to good use.

How To Recognize Motivational Strengths (Yours, and Everyone Else’s)

From my Fast Company blog:

Why do colleagues working toward a common goal so often fail to see eye-to-eye when it comes to achieving it?  At times, you feel like you aren’t on the same page, or even the same planet, as your coworkers, even when everyone involved is clearly capable and has a proven track-record of success.  Why the disconnect?

The answer is a remarkably simple one:  There is more than one way to look at the same goal.  Take for example a goal that many of us share:  I want to do my job exceptionally well.   For some of us, doing our jobs well is about achievement and accomplishment – we have what psychologists call a promotion focus.  In the language of economics, promotion focus is about maximizing gains and avoiding missed opportunities.

For others, doing our jobs well is about security, about not losing the positions you’ve worked so hard for.  This prevention focus places the emphasis on avoiding danger, fulfilling responsibilities, and doing what feel you ought to do.  In economic terms, it’s about minimizing losses, trying to hang on to what you’ve got.

Promotion and prevention-focused people work differently to reach the same goal.  They use different strategies, have different strengths, and are prone to different kinds of mistakes.  One group will be motivated by applause, the other by criticism.  One group may give up too soon – the other may not know when to quit.

So, do you spend your life pursuing accomplishments and accolades, reaching for the stars? Or are you busy fulfilling your duties and responsibilities – being the person everyone can count on? Start by identifying your focus, and then use the information below to better understand and embrace your strengths, your potential weaknesses, and the strategies that will work best for you.

What Motivates You – Criticism or Praise?

When you are promotion-focused, your motivation feels like eagerness - an enthusiastic desire to really go for it.  Eagerness is enhanced by positive feedback –the more you are succeeding, the more motivated you become. Confidence heightens your energy and intensity. Doubting yourself takes the wind right out of your sails.

When you are prevention-focused, your motivation feels like vigilance – you are on the lookout for danger.    Vigilance actually increases in response to negative feedback or self-doubt.  There’s nothing like the looming possibility of failure to get your prevention juices flowing.  Over-confidence or effusive praise, however, may lead you to let down your guard, and undermine your motivation.

Do You Embrace Risk, or Avoid It?

“Nothing ventured, nothing gained” pretty much captures the promotion-focused philosophy. The promotion-minded have a habit of saying “yes” to every opportunity, having what psychologists call a risky bias.  Prevention-minded people, on the other hand, are cautious. They tend to say “no” more, or having a more conservative bias.

These biases manifest themselves in all sorts of ways.  For example, people with prevention goals are reluctant to disengage from one activity to try another, preferring the devil they know to the one they don’t. But their conservative nature also makes them less likely than their risk-loving colleagues to procrastinate, for fear that they won’t have time to get the job done.

Is Your Thinking Abstract or Concrete?

When people have promotion goals, they feel free to be more exploratory and abstract in their thinking.  They brainstorm.  They generate lots of options and possibilities to reach their ideals, and are more creative.  They are also particularly good at picking up on connecting themes or synthesizing information.

In pursuit of prevention goals, abstraction and creativity seems reckless and time-consuming. Prevention-focused thinking is concrete and specific - you pick a plan and stick to it. The prevention-minded are great with details, and have better memory for what they’ve seen and what’s still needs to be done.

Speed or Accuracy?

Executing any modestly complicated task involves what psychologists call a speed-accuracy tradeoff.  The faster you go, the more mistakes you make.  But going slow has costs too – particularly if time is valuable and you are in a hurry to get the job done.  It won’t surprise you to learn that promotion and prevention-minded people end up on opposite sides of this particular trade off, with promotion favoring speed and prevention preferring the slow-but-flawless route.

Are You Better at Getting There or Staying There?

Promotion-focused thinking leads to energetic and enthusiastic motivation in the shorter term, but can be less effective when it comes to long-term maintenance.  Prevention-focused thinking, on the other hand, is ideal for making sure your hard-earned gains don’t slip away.

Do You Get What You Want?

When it comes to negotiating, having a promotion focus will give you the clear upper-hand. Studies show that promotion-minded negotiators stay focused on their (ideal) price or pay targets, while the prevention-minded worry too much about a negotiation failure or impasse, leaving them more susceptible to less advantageous agreements.  When it comes to getting what you want, it pays to focus on what you have to gain, rather than what you might lose.

Armed with an understanding of promotion and prevention, so much of what we do (and what our coworkers do) makes a lot more sense.   Perhaps now you see why you’ve always been a risk-taker, or why you’ve always avoided risks like the plague.  It’s clear why you are uncomfortable with being too optimistic, or why you are known for your sunny outlook.   You get why some things have always been hard for you, while others came easily.

There’s no need to fight it - embrace your promotion- or prevention-mindedness!  After all, both kinds of motivation can bring you success, and each brings something of value (e.g., innovation, attention to detail) to your organization. Just remember to take with a grain of salt the well-meaning advice and input from others when it doesn’t feel right for you, focus on the strategies that play to your own strengths, and see the value in what your differently-motivated colleagues are bringing to the table.

Why Ability Doesn't Always Lead to Confidence: The Trouble With Bright Girls

Originally a guest post I wrote for WomenOnBusiness.com

Successful women know only too well that in any male-dominated profession, we often find ourselves at a distinct disadvantage.   We are routinely underestimated, underutilized, and even underpaid.  Studies show that women need to perform at extraordinarily high levels, just to appear moderately competent compared to our male coworkers.

But in my experience, smart and talented women rarely realize that one of the toughest hurdles they’ll have to overcome to be successful lies within.  We judge our own abilities not only more harshly, but fundamentally differently, than our male colleagues do.   Understanding why we do it is the first step to righting a terrible wrong.  And to do that, we need to take a step back in time.

Chances are good that if you are a successful businesswoman today, you were a pretty bright fifth grade girl.  My graduate advisor, psychologist Carol Dweck (author of Mindset) conducted a series of studies in the 1980s, looking at how bright girls and boys in the fifth grade handled new, difficult and confusing material.

She found that bright girls, when given something to learn that was particularly foreign or complex, were quick to give up – and the higher the girls’ IQ, the more likely they were to throw in the towel.  In fact, the straight-A girls showed the most helpless responses.  Bright boys, on the other hand, saw the difficult material as a challenge, and found it energizing.  They were more likely to redouble their efforts, rather than giving up.

Why does this happen?  What makes smart girls more vulnerable, and less confident, when they should be the most confident kids in the room?  At the 5th grade level, girls routinely outperform boys in every subject, including math and science.  So there were no differences between these boys and girls in ability, nor in past history of success.   The only difference was how bright boys and girls interpreted difficulty – what it meant to them when material seemed hard to learn.  Bright girls were much quicker to doubt their ability, to lose confidence, and to become less effective learners as a result.

Researchers have uncovered the reason for this difference in how difficulty is interpreted, and it is simply this:  more often than not, bright girls believe that their abilities are innate and unchangeable, while bright boys believe that they can develop ability through effort and practice.

How do girls and boys develop these different views?  Most likely, it has to do with the kinds of feedback we get from parents and teachers as young children.  Girls, who develop self-control earlier and are better able to follow instructions, are often praised for their “goodness.”  When we do well in school, we are told that we are “so smart,” “so clever, “ or “ such a good student.”  This kind of praise implies that traits like smartness, cleverness, and goodness are qualities you either have or you don’t.

Boys, on the other hand, are a handful.  Just trying to get boys to sit still and pay attention is a real challenge for any parent or teacher.  As a result, boys are given a lot more feedback that emphasizes effort (e.g., “If you would just pay attention you could learn this,” “If you would just try a little harder you could get it right.”)  The net result: when learning something new is truly difficult, girls take it as sign that they aren’t “good” and “smart”, and boys take it as a sign to pay attention and try harder.

We continue to carry these beliefs, often unconsciously, around with us throughout our lives.  And because bright girls are particularly likely to see their abilities as innate and unchangeable, they grow up to be women who are far too hard on themselves – women who will prematurely conclude that they don’t have what it takes to succeed in a particular arena, and give up way too soon.

Even if every external disadvantage to a woman’s rising to the top of an organization is removed – every inequality of opportunity, every chauvinistic stereotype, all the challenges we face balancing work and family - we would still have to deal with the fact that through our mistaken beliefs about our abilities, we may be our own worst enemy.

How often have you found yourself avoiding challenges and playing it safe, sticking to goals you knew would be easy for you to reach?  Are there things you decided long ago that you could never be good at?  Skills you believed you would never possess?  If the list is a long one, you were probably one of the Bright Girls  – and your belief that you are “stuck” being exactly as you are has done more to determine the course of your life than you probably ever imagined.  Which would be fine, if your abilities were innate and unchangeable.  Only they’re not.

No matter the ability - whether it’s intelligence, creativity, self-control, charm, or athleticism - studies show them to be profoundly malleable.  When it comes to mastering any skill, your experience, effort, and persistence matter a lot.    So if you were a Bright Girl, it’s time to toss out your (mistaken) belief about how ability works, embrace the fact that you can always improve, and reclaim the confidence to tackle any challenge that you lost so long ago.

1/12/11

5 Easy Tips for Spending Less



Everyone knows that if you want to get your finances in order and start being smart about your financial future, you need to make a financial plan.  And there is lots of terrific advice out there from personal finance experts on what should go into that plan. But knowing how to stick to your plan, whatever it might be, is the really critical part of the puzzle, and it’s the part we pay the least attention to.  Understanding how to stick to a plan once you’ve made it isn’t a financial issue, it’s a motivational one.  Luckily, there are very effective strategies you can use to make sure you follow through on your good financial intentions.

Tip #1: Be very specific about what you want to achieve.  “Saving money each month” sounds like a good step, but how much money?  “Pay off credit card debt” is a great idea, but how quickly?  How much will you pay, and on which cards?  When the steps in our plans are vague, like “spend less here” or “save more there,” there is way too much wiggle room.  We find ourselves settling for very small changes in the right direction, when actually, people are much more motivated when working toward challenging goals.  Be specific, and set the bar high.

Tip #2: You need to make sure that your plan includes concrete actions you are going to take in order to reach your financial goals.  Turn “spend less money eating out” into  “I’ll bring lunch with me to work each day, and eat out no more than once a week.”  One of the most common reasons we fail to reach our goals and stick to our plans is that we don’t translate what we want to accomplish into real, everyday behavior.  “Cut down on my clothing expenses” needs to become “spend no more than $____ on clothes each month,” or you’ll never succeed in making real change.

Tips #3-5: Most of us are guilty of buying things we don’t really need.  If your finances are in a sorry state, you will definitely need to get a handle on your impulse buying, and fast.    Out-of-control spending is just another example of succumbing to temptation – for some of us it’s doughnuts or chocolates, for others it’s gadgets and designer shoes.   Tips #3-5 are simple strategies you can use to help you resist the temptation to spend.

Tip #3: Never, ever shop as a pick-me-up.  When you are tired, anxious, stressed, or depressed, your self-control will be at its weakest.  This is a perfect recipe for a bad decision.

Tip #4: When you are faced with the temptation to splurge, it can help if you stop and think about someone you know who has lots of self-control – someone who is financially responsible. Self-control is actually contagious, and studies show that just thinking about someone who has it can boost your own.

Tip #5: Finally, reward yourself for good behavior.  Everyone needs incentives.  When you have a fiscally responsible week, or month, treat yourself to something you want that won’t totally blow your budget.   For some of us, there just isn’t enough inherent satisfaction in being frugal to keep you motivated, so reward yourself with something that speaks to you.

Why Generic Products Can Make You Feel Bad About Yourself

From my Fast Company blog:

People often buy brand-name products over their generic alternatives for fairly obvious reasons.  They may trust high-end brands more, or feel that using them conveys to others a sense of their own taste, coolness, or affluence.

But the influence of brands and logos on our behavior goes well beyond the moment of product choice – when actually using the product, we continue to feel the brand’s influence.  For instance, studies show that people give more creative solutions to a problem after seeing an Apple logo than an IBM logo. Other studies have shown that wearing counterfeit versions of brand-name products makes people feel less authentic, and actually increases their likelihood of both behaving dishonesty and distrusting others.

A new paper from researchers at National Sun Yat-Sen University in Taiwan offers yet another surprising demonstration of the power of branding: Using a generic product, rather than a brand-name one, can actually undermine the user’s sense of self-worth.

In one study, college seniors seated at a desktop Mac were randomly assigned to use either a generic keyboard and mouse or brand-name Apple accessories.  They used the computer to fill out an online resume, and after finishing were asked to estimate their future monthly earnings.  Those who used generic accessories said that they would earn, on average, 10% less than those who used the brand-name accessories.

In another study, men were given a cell phone so that they could call a woman they had just been introduced to and ask her on a date. When they tried to use the phone, they discovered that the battery had died, and were given either a brand-name replacement or a cheaper generic cell phone battery.  Men who used the generic battery later rated themselves as significantly less attractive than brand-name battery users, and felt that they had a lower sense of self-worth.

Across both studies, participants had no idea whatsoever that their own self-evaluations were being affected by the products they were using.

Most of us assume that this sort of thing stops in childhood – when being given the less expensive version of the toy, sneakers, or designer jeans you really wanted is a source of embarrassment as well as disappointment.    These studies suggest that as adults, we continue to unconsciously see our own worth to some extent as a function of whether or not we buy, or are given, the “good version” of the products we use.

There is, however, one important exception:  Some people (and I am thinking of my husband here) feel genuinely smart and savvy when using generics instead of brand-names.  They believe that they are getting a product of equal worth for less money, and for them that choice is a source of pride – of greater self-esteem.

So it may be that only when we have to use generic products – when others choose them for us, or when we feel we can’t or shouldn’t pay for the brand-name alternative – that using the “lesser” product makes us feel like a lesser person.


1/10/11

When Optimists Marry Pessimists



How to understand and appreciate what motivates your partner, and stop fighting over which one of you is really right.

It can be very frustrating when two people who love each other find that they don’t speak the same motivational language. I have met many, many married couples who are fortunate enough to share common goals, but don’t necessarily see those goals in the same way.

It’s particularly common for one person in the relationship to have what psychologists call a promotion focus, meaning that they tend to see their world and their goals in terms of what they can gain, while the other person has more of a prevention focus, seeing their world and goals in terms of what they stand to lose.  In other words, one half of the couple sees success as being about achievement, aspirations, reaching for the stars and being your best, while the other defines success as fulfilling your obligations, avoiding danger and mistakes, and being the kind of person others can really count on.

In my new book, SUCCEED: How We Can Reach Our Goals, I spend a lot of time focusing on this difference because it affects so much about how we think, feel, and what motivates us.  Promotion-minded people are usually optimists – thinking about what can be gained in any situation helps them to more comfortably embrace risk, and they are motivated by confidence and praise.  They work quickly, creatively, and they take chances.  They make lots of mistakes (relative to the prevention-minded, that is), but never miss an opportunity to win big.

Prevention-minded people are more realistic, even pessimistic – thinking about what they might lose in any situation makes them want to avoid risk like the plague, always choosing the bird in the hand over two in the bush.  They are, in fact, more motivated and energized by criticism than by praise (which they often don’t trust).  There’s nothing like the possibility of failure to get their motivational juices flowing.  They work deliberately, carefully, and accurately.  They plan ahead, and rarely procrastinate.  They may not seize every opportunity, but they are far better at avoiding disaster.

Married couples often waste a lot of energy, and create a lot of unnecessary animosity in their relationship, arguing over which person is seeing things the “right” way.  (Early in our marriage, my husband and I were constantly butting heads when it came to our toddlers’ budding ability to walk.  He wanted to give them opportunities to climb and explore, while I wanted to wrap them in bubble wrap from head to toe and make them wear helmets on the staircase.   You can easily guess which one of us is promotion-minded, and which one is all about prevention.)

Once you realize that you and your partner simply approach your goals differently, the good news is that you can stop fighting over who is right.  You can more easily see what is valuable about your partner’s viewpoint, appreciate what they are bringing to the table, and start speaking to each other in one another’s motivational language. The very best partnerships strike a balance between promotion and prevention, since both are necessary for living a healthy, satisfying life.  Between the two of you, you’ll make sure that your family has adventures and new experiences, while also making sure the kids have clean underwear and the bills get paid.

Follow me on Twitter @hghalvorson.

1/5/11

Your Email Style Says A Lot About You. Use it To Your Advantage.

From my Fast Company blog:

In the modern workplace, we don’t actually talk to each other as much as we used to.  Communication now often takes place via email, a change that has brought with it both convenience and its own unique set of challenges.  One obvious problem is that conversation via email eliminates all the vocal and visual clues (e.g., volume, body language, facial expression) we normally use to convey subtleties of meaning that aren’t captured by the words themselves.

Sarcasm, exaggeration, and emotional tone can be completely lost, and misunderstandings are common.  You can easily end up coming across in a way you never intended, and getting yourself in hot water with the email’s recipient.  Most of us know this only too well.

What you probably don’t know is that there are subtle aspects of your emailing style that routinely influence the way your messages are perceived, in ways you may not have intended.  Learn to identify your own style, and you can use that knowledge to your advantage.

As readers of email, we’ve all become adept over time – without even realizing it - at searching for clues to what a sender means beyond the words he or she uses.  New research has identified three cues people use to make (largely unconscious) judgments about the sender’s motivation, mood, and status.

Cue #1:  Errors

Mistakes in your writing – either grammatical or typographical (e.g., misspelling) – leave the reader with a very distinct impression: you don’t care.  Errors are taken as a clear sign of apathy, and even disrespect.   Sloppy emails leave people believing you can’t be bothered to do it right.  They are the written equivalent of unabashedly yawning in someone’s face.

Tip:  Unless you are actually trying to seem lazy, disrespectful or detached, errors are something you should go out of your way to avoid.

Cue # 2:  First vs. Third Person Perspective

Compare the following sentences:

We decided at the meeting to postpone the sales event.

It was decided at the meeting that the sales event would be postponed.

The content of the two messages is exactly the same – only one is written in first person (“we”) while the other is written in the more formal, less personal third person style.  Research shows that people often make two assumptions about you when you opt for the latter style:  that you are not an “equal,” and that you are possibly a little ticked off.

Writing in the third person comes across as significantly more hostile than the friendlier, less formal first person.  Third-person writing is also perceived to be more typical of a supervisor addressing a subordinate or vice versa – its formality suggests that either the sender or reader is in a position of power relative to the other.

Tip: If you want to send a subtle reminder to a subordinate about your authority, or just seem like you have more authority than you actually do, try keeping the “I,” “we,” and “us” out of your email message.  This is also a good idea if you yourself are the subordinate – first person messages can seem less professional and respectful.

If, on the other hand, you are trying to put someone at ease (or assure them you are not angry), using “I” and “we” will probably do the trick.

Cue # 3:  Exclamation Points!

Exclamation points in an email express much more than just your enthusiasm.  Though you may not have intended it, they also tell the reader that you see them in a collegial, even chummy sort of way.   Their informality and emotional emphasis suggests a relationship of friendship, rather than one of mere coworkers.

Tip: Using occasional exclamation points in emails may be a good strategy for making a difficult coworker more cooperative and generally well-disposed toward you.  It’s a subtle way of saying, “Hey, I think of us as friends.”

To a supervisor, however, exclamation points may set a tone that seems overly familiar, and unprofessional.  For your punctuation needs, stick to a simple period.

The Simple Reason Why Some of Your Plans Work, and Others Backfire



Regular readers of my blog, and of my new book SUCCEED, know that I am a big fan of planning.  If-then planning, in particular, is a really powerful way to help you achieve any goal.  Well over 100 studies, on everything from diet and exercise to negotiation and time management, have shown that deciding in advance when and where you will take specific steps to reach your goal (e.g., If I am hungry and want a snack, then I will choose a healthy option like fruit or veggies,”) can double or triple your chances for success.  Making an if-then plan to stick to your New Year’s resolutions, or reach your 2011 goals, is probably the most effective single thing you can do to ensure your success.

But once you’ve decided to make an if-then plan, the next thing you need to do is figure out what goes in it.   According to new research, you need to be very careful about what goes in your plan, because one particular type of if-then plan can backfire – leaving you doing more of whatever you were trying to avoid doing in the first place.

Researchers from Utrecht University in the Netherlands looked at three types of if-then plans.  Replacement plans do just what the name suggests – replace a bad habit with a good one.  If you are trying to do a better job controlling your temper and stop yourself from flying off the handle, you might create an if-then replacement plan like “If I am starting to feel angry, then I will take three deep breaths to calm down.”   By using deep breathing as a replacement for giving in to your anger, your bad habit gets worn away over time until it disappears completely.

Ignore if-then plans are focused on blocking out unwanted feelings – like cravings, performance anxiety, or self-doubts.  (“If I have the urge to smoke, then I will ignore it.”)  In this case, you are simply planning to tune out unwanted impulses and thoughts, in order to diminish their effect on you.

Finally, negation if-then plans involve spelling out the actions you won’t be taking in the future. With these plans, if you have a habit you want to break, you simply plan not to engage in that habit.  (“If I am at the mall, then I won’t buy anything.”)  This is, in a sense, the most straightforward and head-on way of addressing a bad habit, and probably the one we most often end up using.

All three types of if-then plans were put to the test, with surprising and consistent results.  The researchers found that negation if-then plans were not only far less effective compared to other plans, but that they sometimes resulted in a rebound effect, leading people to do more of the forbidden behavior than before.

Just as research on thought suppression (e.g., “Don’t think about white bears!”) has shown that constantly monitoring for a thought makes it more active in your mind, negation if-then plans keep the focus on the suppressed behavior.  Ironically, by simply planning not to engage in a bad habit, the habit gets strengthened rather than broken.

Remember that when it comes to reaching your 2011 goals, you need to plan how you will replace bad habits with good ones, rather than focusing only on the bad habits themselves. Ask yourself, What will I do instead?   The answer to this simple question could mean the difference between another year of broken New Year’s resolutions and the real, lasting change you been looking for.