I’m a basketball fan. More specifically, I’m an NBA basketball fan. Kiwi Steven Adams is doing some amazing things for the Oklahoma City Thunder at the moment. There have been a couple of psych studies conducted involving basketball that I think have some application for the topic of work environments.
Basketball is full of players high-fiving, chest-bumping and butt-slapping. One researcher spent a whole year watching games and tapes of games. He concluded (Obviously it was a ‘he’ with that kind of time on his hands) that there was a positive correlation between ‘high-touch’ teams and success. That year, the highest of the high-touch teams was the Boston Celtics and they won their first title in 30 years. Now, I’m no expert in human resource law but in general terms, I’d anticipate that any workplace that prided itself on being literally ‘high-touch’ probably isn’t a great place to work. (Unless you’re a male panelbeater in 1975.) Supposedly, human contact releases within us small amounts of the hormone oxytocin – the drug our bodies use to trick us into loving our children. This might be a positive feature but to avoid harassment risks in the work environment, I’d advise getting a puppy.
Nonetheless, the principle behind the high-fiving and human touch is that of recognition, reward, inclusion and feedback at a personal and individualised level. A goodly amount of that leads to a better place to work. And who doesn’t love puppies?
I remember once when my daughter was little. One day from school, she brought home a book called ‘I Love Puppies.’ The next day she brought home a book called ‘Looking After Puppies.’ The third day, she brought home a book called ‘Puppies Puppies Puppies.’ We could take a hint. So, we got her a library card. She really loved books.
The other piece of basketball research involved the somewhat churlish tradition amongst home basketball fans to try and distract and put off visiting free throw shooters. Mascots will make offensive or suggestive gestures in line of sight of the shooter. Fans will scream and wave towels. Another researcher, and good on them for getting the funding, analysed various strategies by a huge range of teams’ fans. Most strategies were loud and frenetic but generally not that effective. The one outlier that was rare, hard to achieve but quite effective was for every fan to wear the same colour, sit silently and motionless as the shooter prepared to take the shot and, just as they were about to release the shot, the crowd as one, shifted a little bit to the left.
Our brains notice big disruptive distractions and are pretty good at treating them with the disdain they deserve. What dilutes our productive efforts at work are lots of little distractions, each barely noticeable by itself but collectively highly impactful in a bad way.
All the talk earlier of high-touch and positivity may have made you think I’m a tree hugging liberal hippy who thinks that everyone at work needs a statue and parade to motivate them. I’m not a tree hugger but if I was, I’d hug ponga trees. They’re practically furry as long as you caress them with the grain. Always, with the grain. As you’ve probably been hoping, a psychologist has indeed studies the right amount of positivity for a truly productive workplace and it’s not all beer and skittles and rose petals and fluffy bunny rabbits. The Losada ratio is another piece of research I’ve discovered recently. (In fairness, Losada actually discovered it. I was just recently made aware of it. A bit like Columbus ‘discovering’ America.)
Losada’s quest was to find the sweet spot between positivity and negativity in the workplace. Obviously no one likes being criticised or negged all the time but is it really all that productive where everything is seen through rose-tinted glasses, no one is ever wrong and everyone gets showered with rose petals just for showing up? Losada concluded that the magic ratio of positive to negative feedback was 5:1. Everyone gets their nourishing feedback but also get steered constructively back on track when needed. The often-overlooked aspect of Losada’s research though is that it wasn’t just looking at interchanges between bosses and the bossed. It was looking at the environment generally, including conversations amongst peers and in social situations such as coffee breaks.
The time-honoured tradition of MBWA (Management By Wandering Around) has lots of upside. One of those is that you get to hear some of that peer-to-peer workplace environmental commentary and get a feel for your own workplace’s ratio. That is, until they put a bell around your neck like cat owners do to warn the birds that the cat is coming. I feel there have been a lot of cats and puppies and bunnies in this article. It is the Christmas edition after all.