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Banking on the wrong option: Why Goldman Sachs should drop its plan for online appraisals.

Goldman Sachs has recently announced that it will start carrying out staff appraisals online instead of face-to-face. It might sound innovative but the bank could be making a big mistake.

First here’s the good news. Goldman Sachs has just announced that it will no longer carry out annual face-to-face performance reviews. The bank has realised, like many other organisations, that these meetings are at best pointless and, at worst, embarrassing charades that simply cause irritation and disillusionment among the people they’re supposed to benefit.

And here’s the bad news. Instead, Goldman has created a web based tool that it describes as a “safe digital space,” in which its 36,500 staff can exchange views on their performance. So, the bank, which typically culls around five per cent of its staff every year, has removed one stressful and de-humanising process with something even worse.

Continuing the traditional 360 degree assessment with input from up to six colleagues, staff will receive written feedback and be graded as outstanding, good or (the euphemistic) ‘needs improving.’

Providing feedback online allows people to upload and access it wherever and whenever they want. This undoubtedly brings with it advantages. However, it also includes a major downside. Face-to-face communications – or “conversations” as we like to call them – offer key benefits that online exchanges don’t have.

Most importantly talking to someone face-to-face allows for that basic human quality – empathy. Identifying how the other person is feeling and responding to this by adjusting your message and your behaviour is as essential in business as it is in every other aspect of life.
All of us know this from our own experience but now psychologists are increasingly able to back it up with science. A recent study in the US, for instance, asked four sample groups of young people to communicate with one another in different ways: face-to-face conversation, video chat, audio chat and online messaging. Participants were subsequently taken through a questionnaire to gauge how emotionally connected they felt to the person with whom they were communicating. The results showed that those who communicated face-to-face formed significantly stronger bonds than any other group. Those who communicated by online messaging performed worst.

Similarly, other studies reveal that teams that work together in face-to-face situations consistently produce better results than those using online collaboration tools.

Another study showed that children who have been through a stressful situation such as an exam or a public performance, relax and see their thinking return to normal more rapidly when they talk in person to their parents rather than via technology. A supportive text from a parent, for instance, was shown to have almost no effect here.

So what does this tell us about the prospects of success for Goldman Sachs’ move to online performance reviews? Well, research shows that online communication can actually diminish our capacity for empathy. Clifford Nass, a professor of communications at Stanford University, and author of The Man who Lied to His Laptop: What Machines Teach Us about Human Relationships revealed in a number of experiments that when people regularly replaced face-to-face communication with online interactions their ability to read the emotions of others was diminished.

“The way we become more human is by paying attention to each other,” Professor Nass wrote an article in The New York Times in 2010. “It shows how much you care.”

Face-to-face communication is one of our most basic needs. It’s hardwired into our cognitive and emotional circuitry. Online interactions clearly have certain advantages but far from being an improved method of communication, their inability to convey real empathy and the stress that its absence involves can actually damage relations between employees and reduce efficiency. The fact is, that technology can’t provide a complete alternative to, let alone an improvement on, a face-to-face conversation because the latter contains essential features that it simply can’t replicate.

It’s often said that “It’s not what you say, it’s what people hear.” When we talk to somebody face-to-face we’re presented with constant, immediate reactions that we can use to make real-time adjustments to our messages, our language and our manner. Written online feedback can’t do any of this. As a result, when it’s finally received, whatever it was intended to convey and however well it was composed, it can become toxic.

Conversation requires both parties to be in listen-and-respond mode. When talking human to human, it’s difficult not to give the other person the attention they deserve. Even when we disagree with someone, in a face-to-face conversation we’re more likely to have a rapport with them.

In a conversation, you have the right and the ability to reply instantly and to seek clarification immediately. Written communication doesn’t allow for this. Looking at feedback on the screen when there is no sense of tone, no context and no opportunity to respond or to seek clarification. This creates a spike in stress that has no outlet.

Conversation is generative, it’s productive. Conducted properly it can harness the thoughts and capabilities of those taking part. Although both parties will very possibly have an opinion beforehand, neither has complete control over the final outcome. This might be a frightening prospect for some people but it shows how both of those taking part have a vote that is equally valid.

It’s often tempting to send a text or email to avoid what could be an awkward conversation.
Of course, conversations can be awkward, messy, unpredictable and strewn with pitfalls.

The fact is, that conversations are, at the same time, the most fundamental and sophisticated form of human communication. The information that they can convey is more subtle and comprehensive than anything available through online technology.

That is probably why enlightened corporations are training their future leaders in the art of conversation. Goldman Sachs, take note.

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Give social media a break and reboot your happiness

Another day… another piece of research, highlighting the way in which Social Media makes us unhappy. This latest study was carried out on behalf of Privilege the UK home insurer. The researchers’ extrapolate that up to seven million adults in the UK, experienced ‘depressed feelings’ when they saw the lives of their friends displayed on social media.

Don’t switch off… bear with us… we appreciate that this is never a popular message. Followers of this blog will know that Threshold has, for some time been acting as the ‘Cassandra’, warning people that social media creates the illusion of that all-important social contact without the real benefits. But there is good news at the end of all of this.

Social media promised to make us more widely connected as a species. It doesn’t. Research by the evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar indicates that the number of meaningful relationships that your mind can readily cope with remains unchanged, regardless of how many social media connections you have. This number has become hard-wired by evolution.

Posting things about ourselves on social media encourages us to focus on ‘extrinsic goals’ such as admiration and approval from others. A study of 147 graduates from Rochester University in 2009, assessed their stated goals and categorized these goals into either the more extrinsic (those associated with reputation, fame and approval from others) or the more intrinsic (such as meaningful relationships.) When the lives of the individuals were tracked overtime, those with more extrinsic motivations were significantly more likely to be anxious and depressed. Most of us will feel that we are immune to this sort of pressure, but the evidence shows that we are not. Social media tends to encourage a competitive, approval-seeking mind-set.

Checking your smartphone is compulsive because it works on the principle of variable rewards. Much of the time there will be little or nothing there, but there might just be something exciting and important. Studies show that if you add a variable – or unpredictable element – into a reward, you increase the perceived value (the ‘valence’ of the reward, in psychologists’ jargon) by several times. Designers of gambling slot machines have understood this for many years. The anticipation is what counts. That anticipation gives your brain a sweet little shot of dopamine. And we are becoming addicted to these shots of dopamine. We are training our brains to become bored and restless more rapidly. This makes it harder to give our attention to people who matter… partners, children, colleagues and friends.

What’s more, time spent on-screen is time spent away from what really makes us happy… meaningful connections with other people. As Sherry Turkle argues so compellingly in her book Reclaiming Conversation, connection means the full works… eye contact, expression, intonation, physical presence, plus the unpredictable and unexpected nature of two-way conversation.

At the start of seminars now, we often show the photographs of US photographer, Eric Pickersgill. He snapped real-life scenarios that he observed, typically of groups of friends, lovers, and family members hanging out together. He then removed their electronic devices from the images. The resulting images show starkly how disconnected we have become from one another. Where once there was eye contact, there is now only eyes-down.

We promised you good news and here it is. As with most things we are remarkably resilient as a species. Our minds have remarkable restorative properties. Research in the US, among attendees of summer camps, shows that over just five device-free days, children find that their capacity for conversation is restored, along with measurable improvements in empathy.

Tech is not going away and neither is social media, and nor should we want it to. We just need to develop some sensible protocols around it. Become aware of your instincts around checking your tech. Allow yourself some generous screen free time. When you get together with friends suggest that you make it screen-free. Similarly when meeting with colleagues at work, encourage screen-free sessions. Our lives are shaped by what – and whom – we pay attention to. Your brain’s ‘attentional system’ is at the heart of your humanity. It’s time to reclaim it.


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Understanding conspiracy theories can help us to understand other unhelpful thought distortions

After Friday’s tragic events in Paris, how soon will the conspiracy theories start to emerge? Will this enter the canon of popular conspiracy theories such as 9/11 and the assassination of JFK? Indeed, the scale of a tragedy correlates closely with its capacity to spawn conspiracy theories.

That’s one insight of an enlightening new book, Suspicious Minds by the Psychologist Rob Brotherton, who is Visiting Research Fellow at Goldsmiths, University of London. Brotherton explains the neuro-psychology behind conspiracy theories and why they have such an appeal. It seems that we instinctively seek out causes that are proportional to the magnitude of the events that they bring about. That’s why, when playing dice, we shake the dice more vigorously when we want to throw a high number, and more gently for a low number. (Yes, apparently we do!) It seems that our folk intuition takes over.

The greater the tragedy, the more complex and far reaching the conspiracy that brought it about. A sizeable majority of people do not believe that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. On the other hand almost nobody questions whether John Hinckley (the random nutcase who attempted to assassinate President Reagan) acted alone. A failed attempt cannot sustain its own conspiracy theories.

In a perverse way, conspiracy theories give us comfort. They are less terrible than the alternative; that momentous events have a major random element. In reality, of course, the tragedies that befall us are, to a large extent, random. Lee Harvey Oswald was almost certainly a lonely drifter acting alone. The tragedies of 9/11 and the 10th Arrondissement show that relatively small bands of dysfunctional fanatics can bring about cataclysmic events.

Conspiracy theories are second nature to humans. They are an understandable cognitive response to things that we see and experience. We are sense-making animals. We instinctively seek out patterns. We join the dots and create the big picture. The desire to see patterns and coherent stories in random events explains numerous thought distortions.

During the Blitz, the authorities charged with protecting London from the Luftwaffe, and later the doodlebugs, planned their response according to a sophisticated pattern that they observed in the enemies bombing raids. In fact there was no pattern. The bombing raids were random and even haphazard. But once we believe that we have decoded a pattern, our belief in it becomes unshakeable.

A similar example of the unshakeable belief in patterns comes from the idea of the ‘hot-hand’ in basketball. According to the hot hand theory, a player who has just had success with a shot is more likely to experience success with a following shot. It’s a kind of winning streak. Coaches plan whole strategies around attempts to neutralize the player with the hot hand. If there is anything in it, it should be fairly easy to show with empirical data. It would be clear to see where the clusters of success occur. Researchers Thomas Gilovich and Amos Tversky set about testing this. The research paper is called, “The Hot Hand in Basketball: On the Misperception of Random Sequences.” And guess what? No hot hand! It’s entirely random. But what is particularly eye-opening is the reaction of many coaches towards this study. Far from being grateful for the insights of the researchers, many acted with hostility and refused to change their belief.

When something undesirable happens at work, your mind seeks to explain it by looking for a pattern or a theme. It seeks to make the incident mean something either about you or about the world in general. This is one of the ways in which the toxic effects of incidents become amplified. That relatively small incident affects you more than you feel it should, because the unconscious processing part of your mind is looking to give it greater meaning. It is asking whether this is part of a consistent story or theme for which you should be wary.

If you suffer a rejection, for example, your mind looks to makes sense of the incident by connecting up with similar incidents that you have experienced. It is as if your mind puts the word ‘rejection’ into its search engine and spins you out a Google page of similar incidents. It’s hardly surprising that your way of looking at the thing becomes distorted.

Your state of mind is largely determined by what you pay attention to. To illustrate the point, try this experiment. (You can try it out right now.) Glance up now at your surroundings. It might be a landscape, room-scape or street-scape. Take it in, just in an ordinary and neutral way. Now look away for a moment (you can close your eyes or just look down) and imagine that you see the colour red with extra vibrancy. You notice it more. Red cuts through everything else… It screams to be noticed. Now look at your surroundings again, noticing the red. The scene will now seem quite different to you. It is a dull scene punctuated by slashes of violent red. The visual story has changed.

Pay attention to successes, triumphs and moments of joy, no matter how tiny. You will soon notice how the terrain of your journey seems very different.

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Whisper it to HR, but there is scant evidence that Millennials are any different from their grandparents

I was recently delivering a talk on Be Bulletproof, at a conference for the senior leaders of a large financial services firm. In the Q&A, the question of Millennials was raised a couple of times, and how these ideas of resilience apply to that generation.

I decided to issue a challenge… could somebody please point me towards any hard evidence that shows that values segment primarily along generational lines? I don’t mean a book – there are plenty of books – I mean one empirical, peer-reviewed, published study. I am still waiting…

The idea gets a popular grip because it puts people into boxes and gives them neat names. That appeals to people. It makes us feel like we have cracked some code. This universal impulse explains the reason why things like zodiac signs have been popular for millennia. It’s the Chinese, year of the sheep, by the way, so kids born this year are more likely to be into business… sound familiar?

Of course there are some generational variances, (e.g. Generation Y-ers will change job more frequently.) But these are broader, long-term, societal changes. They don’t fit into neat cut-off points.

This stuff also plays into another timeless human impulse… we all like to believe that our generation is somehow more interesting than those that have gone before. Baby boomers are fascinated by baby boomers and so it goes on.

It is true that there will tend to be changes in life-style norms between generations. But the primary drivers of these are changes in technology and the level of affluence. The basic machinery – cognitive, emotional and anatomical – is the same; which means that the basic motivations, values and personality types aren’t that different either. After all, we’re dealing with 150,000 years of evolution here.

It’s tempting to believe that the next generation will experience more turbulence and change than any before. Again this hypothesis falls apart under any sort of empirical scrutiny. Take a look at your grandparents if you want to see a generation who experienced true upheaval. Young people today live in a world of exceptional stability by comparison.

Ever since the ‘youthquake’ of the 1950s and 1960s, from which emerged the new concept of the teenager, there has been a tendency to view the next generation as a distinct and exotic species.

As David Bowie puts it:

Look at your children
See their faces in golden rays
Don’t kid yourself they belong to you
They’re the start of a coming race

The truth is rather more prosaic. But there is little commercial value in the proposition: Millennials – They’re just not that interesting. I can’t see your VP of Talent Acquisition rushing to that seminar.

If you want a really robust analysis of the segmentation by values at the heart of western society, try Jonathan Haidt’s brilliant book, The Righteous Mind. Haidt is Professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University’s Stern School of Business. Haidt puts forward a coherent thesis to explain human values, based on a vast data basis. As with much of Be Bulletproof, this thesis has its roots in the logic of evolutionary psychology.

Put simply, our minds have evolved certain emotional responses because those responses would have facilitated a behavior best suited to keeping our ancestors alive. Hence they are more likely to be inherited by subsequent generations.

Haidt argues convincingly that the value judgments we make are instinctive and intuitive. Having made them, we then seek to rationalize them. Our minds come with a pre-disposition towards certain attitudes. These attitudes are innate. In other words, they exist prior to experience. This influences the path in life that we subsequently chose, and our experiences then reinforce these attitudes. For example someone who has an innate wariness of people who are different, may chose a lifestyle that sticks closer to home, and therefore has less experience of people who are different. This in turn, reinforces the attitude.

This helps to explain why some people are more socially conservative and some are more socially liberal. Look at the ‘culture wars’ currently raging in American politics. There is some segmentation by generation, but it is simply not the primary one.

Likewise there is little evidence that personality or motivation tend to segment along the lines of the decade of one’s birth.

By the way, I spent a long time on Google trying to find empirical evidence of this segmentation by generation. I finally came across AIR, The American Institute for Research. I settled down to get my teeth into an article called. ‘Retaining Teacher Talent The View From Generation Y’ I was disappointed. Here’s a quote.

“Because members of Gen Y are accustomed to positive reinforcement, they desire constant feedback and want to be rewarded when they do things well. They prefer to “text” with their thumbs rather than with their pointer finger, and they do not see any career as a lifelong pursuit.”

Little empirical evidence to support these claims exists, yet considering how critical this generation is to the workforce in general and to the teaching profession in particular—Gen Y teachers currently make up more than 18 percent of the teaching force, doubling in proportion in just the last four years2—keen attention must be paid to Gen Y teachers’ needs and preferences

So, to paraphrase, ‘there’s no actual evidence for what we are saying, but darn it, these folks are important because there’s lots of them, so hey ho…’ Oh and they prefer to text with their thumbs… make a note of that.

The search for empirical evidence continues. I had a glimmer of hope when I came across a paper that seemed to be promising a segmentation by generation of ‘Schein’s Career Anchors’. It was by researchers from the University of Guelph, and it was called, Examining How Generation Ys’ Career Anchors Influence their Compensation Preferences. It is appallingly written, even by the standards of most academic papers. (And that’s saying something!) I’ll leave you with its two concluding paragraphs.


“Although our study was extensive as it examined twenty- four potential hypotheses, it may act as a stepping stone to eliminate the anchors within Generation Y that do not have any real statistical merit which can be taken into consideration with researchers in the future.
A major limitation to our study was the lack of variation between our dependent variables; this could be attributed to our respondents scoring each compensation preference high, regardless of career anchor.”

Again, to paraphrase, ‘we looked at a whole bunch of stuff to try and turn up something interesting… but nope. Sorry. Zilch. But hey, at least no one else will have to go through the fatuous exercise’.


Let’s not be seduced by faddish labels. The holy trinity of personality, values and motivation do not significantly segment along generational lines. If we are going to attract, develop and motivate the best, we need to speak to the perennial human universals.

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We need social contact, but new research shows that online can do more harm than good.

We need social contact; but online can do more harm than good

Could social contact be as important as diet or exercise as a predictor of our health and happiness? In Be Bulletproof we argue that few things enhance our wellbeing as effectively as social contact. However the latest research suggests that we may even have underestimated its importance.

Regular social contact with friends and family reduces cortisol (the stress hormone), boosts the immune system and reduces the risk of disorders such as anxiety and depression. So the fact that the internet boosts our social contact through all of those social media tools, is great news for our mental health, right?

Well, not so fast. It seems that all forms of social networking are not created equal. Your brain is not readily fooled by the screen on your laptop, tablet or smartphone into believing that you are connecting with a real-life, flesh-and-blood human.

But while online social networking does not deliver the restorative benefits of the real thing, it can’t do any harm… can it? Well, the latest research suggests that it can.

It seems that the availability of online social networking eats up the precious time that we would otherwise be spending with people who matter to us. What’s more it may be creating the illusion that we are satisfying our drive for social contact without delivering the psychological benefits.

Research by Dr Alan Teo from the University of Michigan showed that where people were inclined to use telephone, email or online social networking as a substitute for meeting up face-to-face with friends and family, the risk of depression doubles. Teo tracked over 11,000 adults aged 50 or over. The study discovered that meeting up with friends and family just three times per week, radically reduced the risk of depression.

Prabu David, Dean, College of Communication Arts and Science at Michigan State University, discovered that where people habitually reach for their smartphone to alleviate negative feelings, the risk of more damaging depression radically increases.

Connecting with other humans is a ballast against the tough times; doing so digitally is not… and when this becomes a habit it could be harmful.

Your smartphone can also intrude all real-life face-to-face social contact. Studies show that 89% of people admit checking their smartphone during their last social get-together. At the same time 82% acknowledged that it damaged the conversation.

Use technology judiciously. To draw a parallel, my children are being taught about healthy diet at school. This was unheard of when we were kids. They learn about the benefits of fresh fruit and vegetables as opposed to processed foods. They are learning to make wise choices about what they are putting into their bodies. Maybe their children will be taught wise choices about the consumption of digital media; how, what and how much they consume for the greatest emotional wellbeing.

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We are a face-to-face species and new research shows that its in our DNA

For some time we have argued that the need for face-to-face contact is a uniquely human impulse that we ignore at our peril. A new study shows that this need may have its roots even more profoundly in our genetic makeup than we had thought.

I recall a rueful executive at a large corporation explaining to us that, ‘When we reorganized we were too macho about the need for people working together to be located with each other.’ The observation was more prescient than he realised. This manager shared a PA who was literally in another continent. He went on to explain that the leadership of his organization felt that, because of the latest technology, teams of collaborators could be located anywhere. Numerous studies have shown this assumption to be simply wrong.

Research among teams of academics working on research papers found that the success of those papers (measured in numbers of citations) showed a clear positive correlation with the levels of face-to-face collaboration among the teams working on them. Put it another way, where collaborating teams tended not to get together face to face, their research was significantly less likely to spur citations. Interestingly the use of face-time technologies, such as Skype etc. made little difference. It seems that our brains are not readily fooled. A face on a screen is not a surrogate for being with a real-life human.

In a study cited by Susan Pinker in her excellent book the Village Effect, pre-teen girls were put through a ‘stress condition’, in the form of a very tough cognitive test. Shortly after their levels of cortisol (the neuro-hormone associated with stress) were measured. The results were remarkable. Where the girls had a supportive face-to-face meeting with their mother, their levels of cortisol returned fairly rapidly to normal, more rapidly than when supportive messages came via a telephone call. A supportive text, on the other hand, had virtually no positive effect at all.

In a recent study, researchers Nichols Shakeshaft and Robert Plomin tested 375 pairs of identical twins and 549 non-identical twins, for their ability to recognise faces as well as their ability to recognize more neutral things such as cars, together with a test of general intelligence. What they found was quite illuminating. There is a very strong genetic component to our ability to recognize faces. This suggests that the way we respond to faces bestowed an evolutionary advantage on our forebears. What’s more, whereas the ability to recognize neutral shapes correlates strongly with general intelligence, the ability to recognize faces seems to be quite independent of general intelligence. In other words it’s not simply a bi-product of being generally smart, it seems to have evolved independently as an essential mental module.

Studies show that our empathy, compassion, trust and ethical behaviour towards others varies significantly according to whether or not we are physically present with them. If you want people to work better together, build in some face-to-face time.

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Beware the perils of the under-apology

In Be Bulletproof we argue that nothing is likely to exacerbate an already-fraught situation quite like an under apology. It seems that recent research from the NHS in the UK now bears this out.

Getting the wrong diagnosis, poor treatment or failure to communicate rate high on the list of grievances, but a simple failure to apologise adequately tops the list; and this speaks volumes about our most fundamental needs. It provides and invaluable lesson about how to work with humans.

Whether we are complaining about poor healthcare provision, or poor service in a store or restaurant, the issue is often our sense that the transgression relates to some deeper feeling. It is not about the indifferent sales assistant or the slow service, it is about the need to feel respected and cared for.

A short fall in care or respect leads to what Professor Kip Williams, of the University of Purdue, Indiana, calls ‘Social Pain’. Social Pain serves the same purpose as any other form of pain. It is there to tell us that something is wrong, and that if the situation continues, our well-being is in danger.

If you find yourself in a position where an apology is necessary, ask yourself, what is the real underlying emotion is that is causing the upset? Keep that in mind, and you will find a more personal, heart-felt and authentic apology, both fits the bill, and comes more naturally to you.

There is only one sort of apology that is effective; the full-bodied, uncompromising and whole-hearted apology. Anything else is likely to keep the embers of displeasure smoldering and ma even fan the flames.

Too frequently we can’t resist the urge have some form of self-mitigation slip into our apology. Or we use minimizing language in the hope that, if the situation doesn’t sound too bad, it won’t feel bad, or worse still we are tempted to slip in a fact that the aggrieved person may have contributed in some small way to the problem.

If in doubt, over apologize. This works because there is another important psychological phenomenon at work here, ‘outflanking.’ The outflanking technique in effect overstates just how deserving of an apology the aggrieved person is. When someone makes a particularly heartfelt apology or outflanks our concern, we naturally want to restore the balance and reassure the other person of our reasonableness. Try it out. You will find yourself be reassured that whatever happened really wasn’t such a big deal after all

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New research shows that it’s the quality of your relationships that predicts your success in life

New research suggests that the quality of our relationships with other people may be the most important determinant of success in life.

The new study, by Professor Brooke Feeney, of the University of Pittsburgh and Professor Nancy Collins, of the University of Santa Barbara at California which is published in the Personality and Social Psychology Review, builds on the existing body of research by showing that it is the quality of interpersonal relationships that help people to establish a sense of meaning and fulfilment in life. Rewarding, supportive, quality relationships are seen to be a remarkably consistent factor among people who overcome adversity and achieve goals. In particular, this comes down to the way is which personal relationships provide support and help us to thrive through tough times.

But Feeney and Collins also point out that it is the nature of the support that matters. Relationships that make us feel needy, inadequate or inferior are counter productive. The most effective relationships are those that boost our sense of self-efficacy, because we are also giving something back. These relationships are mutual and reciprocal. When we do something for other people we feel optimistic, empowered and positive. It is the sensation that psychologist Jonathan Haidt calls ‘elevation.’

Haidt also points out that the quality of our relationships tends to be strengthened during tough times. ‘Adversity doesn’t just separate the fair-weather friends from the true; it strengthens relationships and it opens people’s hearts to one another.’

Dr Michael Ungar, Killam Professor of Social Work at Dalhousie University, is a world expert on resilience among young people. He identifies that young people who can rely on strong networks of family and friends are far more resilient that those who don’t have these networks. ‘This is also important for another element of resilience – establishing your identity and finding your place,’ says Dr Ungar. His research has shown that reminding yourself of your social networks helps with bringing about a sense of cohesion and belonging, which is essential for resilience.

Professor Kip Williams, of Purdue University, is a world expert on ostracism. He argues that ostracism of office workers erodes feelings of belonging, self-esteem, control and meaningful existence. Ostracism is tough and can even lead to depression, but Professor Williams believes there are solutions. He advises people to actively engage in maintaining old friendships or starting new ones, focusing on one or two close relationships rather than ‘friending’ a vast number of people on Facebook. It seems that developing and maintaining a few good friends is the answer.

It is worth taking note of Professor Williams’s advice. Online social networking does not have the same effect as meaningful relationships with people who are close to us. Your mind is hardwired to work with scarcely more than a dozen meaningful relationships. Who would be in your vital dozen?

So what can we conclude about being ‘bulletproof?’ If you want to strengthen your resilience and fulfill your potential, cultivate a few great, meaningful relationships with friends, siblings, spouses and partners. Seek out a mentor, and look to mentor others. Focus on giving in these relationships, but also receive more than happily. And don’t ever be afraid to ask for help from others.

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Challenging your boss can be a minefield – but does it have to be? Try these techniques from Be Bulletproof.

As the US plans for a further military intervention in Iraq – this time on humanitarian grounds – many feel the current problems could have been avoided had Defence Secretary Rumsfeld been more willing to listen to those around him who had greater foresight. Many serving generals have since said that they regret not challenging Rumsfeld more forcefully when crucial decisions were being made. Rumsfeld was known for many things but being a good listener was hardly one of them. But how do you challenge your boss?

It helps to start with what not to do. Firstly, those management books that advise you that a feedback conversation with your boss is just like any other feedback conversation, are woefully misguided. Speaking truth to power may seem very noble, but it is rarely wise and there is very little payoff. (In mediaeval courts, the only people who could speak truth to power, without being beheaded, were the court jesters. So beheaded or jester? Not great options.) You are smart enough to choose a wiser strategy.

None of us are very good at changing our minds – especially bosses

The first thing to bear in mind is that none of us are very good at changing our minds. The mind has evolved to do many smart things but changing its opinion does not seem to be one of them, at least not readily and willingly. The problem is that changing our minds often runs counter to what psychologists call our ‘self concept’. Most of us, self-identify, with being smart. Accepting that we may have made the wrong call on something in the first place, doesn’t readily fit with this. Even when listening and changing one’s mind might ultimately be beneficial, the mind’s inner defence mechanism kicks in and tries to reassure us that we were right all along. When you are a boss, and the feedback that you may have made a wrong call, comes from more junior people, this problem is even greater. Remember that your boss’s self-concept is not just that he is smart, but that he is senior in the organisation because he is smarter than the crowd. Feeling challenged about this, is certainly going to jar.

In our book Be Bulletproof, How to achieve success in tough times at work, we advise people to think of their boss as a customer.

Don’t go for safety in numbers

It is tempting to go for safety in numbers to back up your point of view. This is rarely wise. When your boss hears phrases like, ‘I have been chatting with the rest of the guys, and everyone around here thinks…’ it is certainly going to press her insecurity buttons.

Keep your boss feeling safe

The key is to keep your boss feeling safe and give her the opportunity to change her mind in a way that still fits with her self-concept of being smart. This allows her to change her mind without inwardly losing face.

Make your advice consistent with your boss’s positive self-image

Firstly, position your advice in way that is consistent with the way she likes to see herself. People are more likely to act in a way that they see as being somehow consistent with their values. You might use phrases like, “I know you always like us to question the obvious assumptions, that’s why…” Or, “I know you like people to look for a fresh angle, and that’s why it might be at least worth considering…”

Make it about being open to take the first step

Give your boss the option of at least taking the first step. And associate, in her mind, the idea of the course of action you’re recommending, being the one that an open-minded person would take. “And so, would you be open to my just taking an initial look at how this might work…” Very few people will say ‘no’ to a request like that. And once your boss answers in the affirmative, that door at least starts to open. Remember, people tend to behave in a way that is consistent with their previous actions. If they take a first step that is consistent with your recommendation, further steps are likely to follow.

Introduce some new information

Remember that what prevents people from changing their mind is having to deal with the notion that they may have made the wrong call in the first place. Here is a great technique to let them off the hook. Introduce some new information to the situation. In other words, the call that they made in the first place was smart then, but things have changed.

“Appointing XYZ contractors was definitely the right call, given what we knew at the time. We could never have known that abc, was about to change, but now I guess you’ll want to review the situation. That’s why I started to look at…”

Stress the unusualness of the situation

Another very similar tactic that works on the same principle is to stress the unusualness of the situation. “Of course 99% of the time, the approach that we have been taking, would absolutely be the right one. However this is highly unusual situation, so it seems, it might just be worth keeping our minds open to…”

Come to your boss with the solution not the problem

It is well-worn advice but no less true for that. Don’t come to your boss with problems, come to your boss with solutions. You can come with a clear diagnosis of the problem, but if you simply leave it at that, you are going to ruin your bosses’ day, which is not a good situation. Come to your boss with a diagnosis and a recommended course of action, ideally that you can get your boss to feel some ownership of.

Make your boss the problem solver

Remember the key here is to make sure your boss feels safe and secure at all times. One way to do this is to position the boss as the problem solver.

“So it seems that the department, might just benefit from being open to the idea of…, and it occurred to me that you are in the best position to start that process happening.”

Use social proof

A further tip is to use what social psychologist call ‘social proof’. There is a reason, advertisers use phrases like, ‘four million owners can’t be wrong.’ We are influenced by other people. Better still, if you can draw on the example of someone whom your boss admires.

“I know Bob in Operations has been looking a lot into this idea.”

Be confident

Finally, body language that is submissive and subordinate will not enamour you to you boss, it will simply suggest that you are an easily vanquished opponent and your boss will act accordingly. Remember people buy confident people. Stand in a powerful pose, taking up as much space as possible before you go into see your boss. Think of something you really value in your life. Think of a recent achievement and re-run it in your mind.

Don’t be too concerned, if your boss does not appear to go with your recommendation straight away, or even to reject it, people often change their minds later in private.
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Want to increase your resilience? Turn off the TV

Relaxing might make us feel less stressed, but as we argue in Be Bulletproof, not all forms of relaxation are equally effective. In fact, some activities that we think of as relaxation may actually be making us less able to cope! It seems that scientific research bears this out. It appears that slumping in front the TV is the worst culprit, with playing computer games following closely behind.

Researchers from the Johannes Guttenburg University in Mainz discovered that those people who responded to stress by taking solace in TV or computer games were more inclined to feel guilty, see themselves as procrastinators and have a lower over all sense of vitality. It seems that slumping in front of the TV lowers our overall sense of self-efficacy.

Dr Karen Reivich, co-author of The Resilience Factor and one of the world’s leading researchers into resilience, identifies ‘self-efficacy’ as one of the key pillars of resilience. Self-efficacy is confidence in your ability to solve problems. It is about knowing that you can master the skills that will be needed to cope in a situation.

The problem arises because most of us recognize that being a couch potato, is what we do when we lack the willpower or the energy to do anything more proactive or constructive. That’s the hypothesis that the researchers put forward in their study, The Guilty Couch Potato. Being stressed or exhausted means that we are more likely to go for the lazy or easy option, as opposed to the option that requires more will power, such as doing exercise, or meeting friends, or doing something more intellectually stimulating. This is because, when we are stressed or feeling low, we suffer from what psychologists call ‘ego-depletion.’ Once we go for the easy option, we self-identify as the sort of person who makes that sort of choice, and an unhelpful cycle of thinking is reinforced.

Relaxation is vital to performance, but not all relaxation is the same. We argue in Be Bulletproof, How to achieve success in tough times at work, that it’s important to be able to differentiate between active and passive forms of relaxation. What might be called ‘passive’ forms of relaxation – the unholy three of alcohol, cigarettes and television (which could be extended to internet and computer games) – tend not to have the beneficial effects of ‘active’ relaxation: yoga, sport, taking a walk. Reading a book or going to a play or movie is more effective than passively settling in front of the TV or internet, because these activities require you to invest a little more cognitive effort and as a result you have the therapeutic benefits of distraction.

We all have our weaknesses: sweets, junk food, alcohol or cigarettes, to name but a few. When we feel stressed or anxious, it’s very easy to obey our immediate instinct to reach for one of these familiar comfort blankets.

Is all TV bad? No, if you are genuinely engaged with a good story, such as a good movie or TV drama, you will benefit from the therapeutic effects of storytelling. Similarly you will benefit from a good mind expanding documentary. As you will have spotted the key phrase here is ‘actively engaged.’ Happy relaxation. Enjoy!


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