Power play

A wonderful Applied Improvisation workshop last week took us playfully through status.  Status is a big part of improv, and it’s a big part of life…  Who better to be our play leader but the superb Lee Simpson of the Comedy Store Players?

Every time we come across groups of people we subconsciously analyse who’s who, making also a swift analysis of where we fit into the pecking order.  In some cases uniforms and other stuff we wear communicates status, but often it is conveyed powerfully by how someone behaves and interacts with others.

statusgame3Each interaction involves a subtle negotiation about status.  We come with our default status, but we adapt it, raise it or lower it sub-consciously to fit better with the other person or to challenge their idea of the status relationship.  Improv can help us change how we see ourselves (our own status) and transform how we behave towards others.  This directly affects how other people perceive us, and consequently behave towards us.

And so on, the virtuous status circle goes round again.

We all have our way of “being”. For some of us the way we present ourselves – how we project status – may have been very effective.  Others might have done themselves a disservice by down-playing their status (over-humble) – or over-playing it (arrogant).

Maybe it’s worth playing with status a little – to enhance our status, or even to downplay it (if humility is useful).

To change our status we can change change our clothes, or we can change how we behave with others.  Working out how a higher status feels, and seeing the impact it has on others, is part of the fun of improv.    It might be holding up your chin, smiling more (or less), standing up straight, widening your stance (or narrowing it), and – almost certainly – expanding your personal space.

So that’s good news!  We can all become more confident by learning how to do this – right?

Hmmm… not so quick…  Lee argued that some things we want to change (e.g. feeling more confident) aren’t skills that we can just learn.  In most cases we can already do them when we think about them, or when we are on “home territory”.  Rather, these are behaviours that we need to constantly practise.  The tricky thing might be remembering.  Stick up reminders – fridge magnets, post-it notes, posters in your bathroom, notes in your shoes, graffiti on the kettle?

Being mindful is part of it.  Lee explained how really great actors are able to observe themselves so closely that they are aware of absolutely everything that’s going on inside them.   And really great actors (like really confident people in the real world) don’t judge themselves.  They notice, acknowledge, accept and use the information in their performance.

As the other great theatre man himself said:  “All the world’s a stage”…  So, let’s start expanding our space on it.  And when we’re practising, remember his man Hamlet’s advice:  “the play‘s the thing.”  Enjoy!

Cognitive bias and risky behaviour

How do we really make decisions?  Horizon (BBC2, 25/2/14) well and truly trounced the idea that most are made with logical, rational thought processes. The vast majority are made using intuition. If this weren’t the case – and we used a Spock-like thought process much more of the time – we’d explode with the sheer impossiblity of it all.

Intuition comes from a “fast”, “type 1” way of thinking – making decisions based on the easiest answer. Slow or Type 2″ thinking, on the other hand, is hard work.  So, for the tends of thousands of decisions we make every day of our lives, most of these decisions are dominated by our intuition.

Daniel Kahneman’s Nobel-prize winning research argued that this battle affects all kinds of decisions – what we eat, what we believe, who we fall in love with, who we blame for a crime.  Each time our decision is not based only on rational facts or logic, but something deeper that it is often difficult to pin down. These are cognitive biases – and they are responsible for judgement errors.

Kahneman’s research highlighted some important areas of governance where these innate cognitive biases are cause for concern.  One was the financial services industry; another is state security.


Where money is concerned the rules which govern our decision-making change.  Humans are more likely to engage in risky behaviour when faced with a loss compared to faced with a gain.  How this plays out in the financial sector is all too apparent in the system crashes that brought the city to its knees.

So, what can we do about it?  The researchers wondered how far in our evolutionary development this trait emerged in our DNA.  In a study which required monkeys to make similar decisions (involving a loss of a food currency, or a gain) they found the same cognitive bias.  The fact that we share this behaviour with monkeys made the researchers conclude that this bias is not something we can unlearn or turn off easily – it is deep within our DNA.

Who’s the baddie?

Just as alarming was the research conducted in the complex world of state security.  When working through a life-like scenario involving a terrorism threat to a fictitious US city twelve CIA analysts were asked to review all available data and identify the most likely suspect.  The group of analysts included some who were novices and some who were highly trained.

Out of the twelve analysts only one got the correct answer. The others were all prey to “confirmation bias” – that murky factor that gives rise to presumed guilt rather than presumed innocence.

Implications for learning and development

So what does this mean for those of us who are engaged in developing people and organizations? And can all of us learn to be more logical when making decisions? The insight from this research is that this isn’t something we can teach, or learn.

But we can (and must) do something about the system.  We can identify risky behaviours due to cognitive biases and develop checks and balances to minimize the risk of cognitive biases happening in critical areas of high-stakes work.

Systems-thinking might involve looking at:

  • what needs to change about the system to reduce the risk of bias clouding our judgements, bringing us to the wrong answer?
  • what might be the implications (for our customers, target groups, results) of errors caused by different types of bias?
  • how we could encourage and remind people to be mindful about bias?  Would the CIA analysts’ decisions have changed if they had been asked to consciously think about different types of biases first?

Who’s on the case?

Culture change: challenging behaviours effectively

The manager of a french café in Nice has started to price its coffee according to the politeness of the customer.

“It started as a joke because at lunchtime people would come in very stressed and were sometimes rude to us when they ordered a coffee” explained manager Fabrice Pepino.

Now, customers who ask for “un café” pay a whopping €7 (£5.80).  The magic words “s’il vous plaît” means the same drink costs  €4.25.  And those who bother to say “bonjour” before making their order pay just €1.40.

This news item, which appeared in the Independent on 11th December 2013 got me thinking.

The importance of politeness and making human connections

How important is it to be polite, and why?  What might be the benefit of making real connections with people – rather than mere transactions?  And what can we do to reverse the trend towards brusquer, impersonal and even rude exchanges?  I find that I have to consciously remind myself to be polite, to look someone in the eye, to smile when I address them.  And i find it’s easy to forget.  But I feel much happier when I remember, and I notice that the other person nearly always seems to also.

How to challenge negative behaviour effectively

The way we challenge behaviour – or give feedback – is critical to the challenge being heard.  If the french cafe manager had challenged a customer directly, in public, the challenge itself might have come across as rude and made everyone feel awkward.

The café’s strategy was to set the ground rules in advance, clearly and publicly – that everyone who entered the cafe in effect “signed up to” when they opened the door.  The notice clearly indicated what would happen if a customer chose to be impolite: they could be impolite, but they would pay more.  And the fact that it was done in this way also came across as humorous, provocative, yet gently confrontational.

Modern Toss Resto rude 551232_521904487890963_974802218_nThis cartoon from Modern Toss makes the point looking at it from the other perspective.  Here, the cafe owner chooses to forgo the possible service charge in order to be able to freely give the kind of (rude) service he wishes to give to his customers.


What about confronting people about trickier attitudes, like prejudice?

This video is about public displays of racism.  The customers who were filmed all said they felt uncomfortable – believing that the behaviour was offensive, unacceptable.  We see how some people feel unable to speak out, but that some consciously choose to confront the racist behaviour.  The video is one in a series which uses invisible theatre to challenge stereotypical behaviours and attitudes.

The most important bit is the last segment (from 5:40).  It is a brilliant masterclass of how to challenge negative behaviour in the most warm, loving and powerful way.  I can’t help thinking that this woman – an HR and diversity manager – could turn anyone around.