Thinking like a Norwegian (and the power of mindsets)

I’m now back in the UK after my year in Barcelona, and adjusting to the second lockdown in London. There’s clearly no quick fix for the stresses we’re facing, but I have been heartened by a piece I recently wrote for the Observer (the Guardian‘s Sunday paper) on some ways that we can reframe our feelings and increase our resilience.

As I explain in my forthcoming book, our interpretations of anxious feelings can often determine their mental and physical consequences. If we expect stress to be harmful, then we see a sharper fluctuations in cortisol, greater inflammation, and greater strain on the heart, caused by the constriction of blood vessels in the limbs. This “fight or flight” response evolved to help us to escape physical threats and avoid severe injuries.

if we interpret our feelings of anxiety as a useful source of energy and motivation, however, we essentially by-pass some of these changes. Instead of the sharp hormonal fluctuations, we can experience a more muted change in cortisol levels and the release of more beneficial anabolic hormones that encourage tissue growth and repair, along with a healthier cardiovascular response. These seem to reflect “challenge” response, which evolved to help to enhance our physical performance for difficult, but surmountable, events with a low risk of injury.

In the long-term, these expectations can become a powerful self-fulfilling prophecy – people with the “stress is enhancing” mindset are less likely to die of heart disease, even if they experience a high amount of stress in their daily lives, than people with the “stress is damaging” mindset. Fortunately, there are now some proven ways to reinterpret your stresses, and these appear to be especially effective for highly anxious individuals who may struggle with other interventions.

The Observer/Guardian piece builds on these findings with the research of Kari Leibowitz, who spent a year examining the ways that people in northern Norway cope with the two-month long “polar night”. In line with the research on stress, she found that it all depended on their mindsets and the ways they interpreted the challenges of the winter.

Of all the pieces I’ve written, this has attracted the warmest response from readers, with more than 1,000,000 views in the first week and more than 10,000 shares on social media. You can read it at the Guardian, here: Dreading a dark winter lockdown? Think like a Norwegian

Related to this article, I’ve recently written a piece in BBC Worklife on the secrets of “healthy neurotics” – people who have a tendency for anxiety but channel that energy into productive behaviour. Interestingtly, the latest research suggests that these people are finding it easier to cope with the pandemic than other personality types. You can read the piece here: Why ‘healthy neurotics’ can thrive in stressful times

My third piece this month looks at another kind of mindset – the “paradox mindset”.

While most of us may naturally shy away from the potential confusion of weighing up contradictory ideas, some people relish the challenges of juggling the two opposing thoughts. Writing with Loizos Heracleous, an organisational scientist at Warwick Business School, I examinded the evidence that the paradox mindset can fuel creativity, productivity and innovative decision making. You can read it here: Why the ‘paradox mindset’ is the key to success

If you are interested in the benefits of thinking in contradictions, you may also like my piece for Aeon: A touch of absurdity can help to wrap your mind around reality

Finally, if you are a New Scientist subscriber, you might enjoy my recent piece on filler words – ums, ers, huhs etc – and their unexpected importance for sophisticated communication (pay wall). I also appear on the NS Weekly Podcast discussing the piece (free for all).

Five ways to boost “collective intelligence”

Simple psychological techniques can transform your teamwork and leadership (Credit: Hannah Busing/Unsplash)

The history of sport is full of surprising twists of fate. Perhaps the most famous upset of all is the ‘Miracle on Ice’ — when a team of American college students beat the accomplished Soviet hockey team at the 1980 Winter Olympics. More recently, there was Argentina’s surprise gold medal in basketball at the 2004 Olympics, where they thrashed the USA — the firm favourites; and the 2016 Euros championships, when the Icelandic soccer team — ranked 131st before the tournament — beat England to the quarter finals. In each case, the underdogs had less established players, yet somehow their combined talent was greater than the sum of their parts.

As I describe in my recent book The Intelligence Trap: Why Smart People Make Dumb Mistakes, cutting-edge experiments by Anita Williams Woolley at Carnegie Mellon University have shown that team performance depends surprisingly little on the members’ individual talents. The smartest teams are not those with the heighest IQs or the greatest experience, but those with the best communication skills. Indeed, some startling research by Adam Galinsky at Columbia Business School has shown that a high-proportion of “star” players can often backfire, as their rutting egos destroy the collaboration within the team and prevent the team from reaching its goals. The so-called “too-much-talent effect” has been observed in professional soccer, basketball and Wall Street banks.

In the face of the economic and social challenges created by the current pandemic, a happy, creative and productive workplace could not be more important for leaders and employees alike. So how can we create a ‘dream team’ like the Miracle on Ice? I recently wrote a series of articles for BBC Worklife on the best ways to boost the “collective intelligence” of any team or organisation, and here are some of the most eye-catching findings.

Build emotional awareness

Abundant research shows that the best teams in almost any field are those with the greatest emotional awareness and regulation. It helps team members to keep each other motivated and allows productive disagreement to spur creativity without ending in resentment and lasting conflict. If your team struggles with this, Smaranda Boros at Vlerick Business School in Ghent has six simple ground rules that will instantly improve the emotional dynamic of any meeting. They are:

1) Have a “check in” at the beginning of the meeting — that is, ask how everyone is doing

2) Assume that undesirable behaviour takes place for a reason. Find out what that reason is. Ask questions and listen. Avoid negative attributions

3) As the work proceeds, tell your team-mates what you are thinking and how you are feeling about the process

4) When you make decisions, ask whether everyone agrees with the decision

5) Question the quickness of taking a decision

6) Ask quiet members what they think

Read more: How elite teams increase their emotional intelligence.

Communicate less

It’s good to talk, but counter-intuitive research by Jesse Shore at Boston University suggests we should limit our interactions with others, particularly during brain storming and problem solving. Too much communication between members can lead the group to converge on a solution too quickly, without exploring all the options — whereas longer periods of isolated work increases the chances that each individual will come up with something truly original, offering a greater range of solutions to analyse at a later point. So try to aim for short, intense conversations or meetings, with plenty of time for independent work in between, rather than a continual drip-feed of group updates through email or Slack channels. Read More: The benefits isolation can have on your work.

(Credit: John Schnobrich/Unspash)

Don’t be constrained by success

Xerox’s R&D department pioneered the first personal computers — including the WYSIWYG displays and desktop publishing — but the company failed to capitalise on their inventions. As Loizos Heracleous at Warwick Business School in the UK explained to me, the reason is a phenomenon called the “competency trap”, which involves a rigid corporate culture, too invested in its past successes to make new innovations. Heracleous has various suggestions on how to avoid this, including the idea that each employee takes a stint in the R&D department to broaden their mind to new innovations. Read More: How to avoid the competency trap.

Avoid the Peter Principle

In the 1960s, the educationalist Laurence J Peter argued that this was so. If you only promote people according to their current performance, they will rise until they reach a position beyond their capabilities — at which point, they will cease to be promoted and will remain in that position for the rest of their career. According to this logic, “every employee tends to rise to his [or her] level of incompetence” — filling an organisation with people who are bad at what they do. The so-called Peter Principle was originally intended as satire, but organisational scientists have now found evidence for the idea — and their conclusions suggest that we need to find new ways to test management potential, and better means of rewarding high-performing colleagues within their current position. Read more: The reasons why people become incompetent at work.

Be humble

When we think of strong leadership, humility might not come to mind — but a torrent of psychological research is now revealing the merits of this neglected virtue. Humbler people learn quicker, and are better communicators and decision makers — and inspire better problem solving in their teams too. In one study, intellectual humility proved to be more important for overall performance than actual IQ. Importantly, humility appears to be contagious — meaning that a humble leader will encourage greater humility in their employees, producing a more open-minded and creative team.

In one study of 105 technology companies, Amy Yi Ou at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University found that humbler CEOs encouraged greater collaboration and information sharing among the firm’s top management team. The improved decision making resulted in greater overall profits. Leadership humility appears to be especially helpful when navigating uncertainty, as an organisation abandons the status quo to find new ways of operating — something that all managers should be considering in these troubled times.