Archive for the ‘Teamwork’ Category

On Music During Work

August 16, 2017 Leave a comment

One input at a time, please! Our mind doesn’t do simultaneity.

In his 1974 autobiographical novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values, Robert Pirsig tells of his father-son bike ride from Minnesota to Northern California. In one stop along the (high)way, they enter a garage for repairs. The mechanic’s radio plays pop music in accompaniment to his work on Pirsig’s motorbike. Pirsig is not amused, reflecting that the ambient music will likely distract the mechanic at critical moments—a screw left untightened, a grommet left out, a gear left ungreased…. The result of these musings are a loss of trust in the mechanic.

The looming theme of the book is the question “What is Quality? The answer includes the requirement that one must focus undividedly on one’s task at hand in order to meet the highest standards—that distractions inevitably subtract from quality. Music is not the only distractor. Conversations, machinery, traffic, television chatter—they all vie for our attention.

Earbuds 5-365 by Tim, CC BY 2.0

5/365, by Tim. CC BY 2.0

Fast forward to today. We now use “mindfulness” the same way Pirsig used Quality with a big q. And radio speakers have morphed into earbuds. With Pirsig’s distracted mechanic in mind, stroll through your work area and look for earbuds. Assuming that having them in one’s ears means that one is listening to a playlist or its equivalent, imagine the distractions going on and the ensuing potential for error. I recently reviewed a document that had been “poofread” by an earbud-wearing associate. It was peppered with errors—mostly errors of omission, such as missing misspellings, skipping whole pages, and other evidence of incomplete attention, or distracted focus. The mind just can’t focus on two things at once—one must be neglected. Of course, some errors result not from incomplete attention but rather from incomplete knowledge.

What does the research say about listening to music while working? Across studies around the globe, two findings emerge. First, the most important consideration is mood. Negative moods tend to improve when listening to music, and, the better the mood, the more productive/creative/effective the worker. Second, in every study, silence beats music as an accompaniment to work. Listening to music relaxes muscles, creates a private space (aurally, at least), reduces blood pressure and heart rate to some degree, and can alleviate anxiety. Yet, across all studies, listening to music while working lowers concentration, comprehension, knowledge acquisition, and future recall. But look at these other factors:

The nature of the music:

  • Extremely high or low pitches (e.g., those emitted by synthesizers) are the most distracting—they’ll keep you awake, that’s true! But, they won’t let you concentrate. They may be good on night shift for simple, repetitive tasks.
  • Music with words is the most counter-productive, especially when accompanying verbal tasks: Two tasks using the same neural processing channel (in this case, verbal) interfere with one another—you can’t be true to two! Other examples of competing sensory channels: listening to news and proofreading (both verbal), watching football while repairing machinery (both visual and kinesthetic), and working with numbers and listening to complex, highly rhythmic music (both are quantitative—the music comprising ratios and other numerical patterns).
  • More familiar music (i.e., you’ve listened to it forever) is less distracting—you know what to expect. The unexpected rhythms, harmonies, timbres, melodies, and words of less familiar music is distracting.
  • Music in a major key (the Happy Birthday tune) is less distracting than music in a minor key (Chopin’s Funeral March).
  • Music that you personally select is less distracting than music selected for you by others.

The nature of the task:

  • Simpler, highly structured, and repetitive tasks are inherently boring—but not for everyone, as some thrive on and are soothed by such tasks. For those who find such tasks bummers, listening to music can improve mood and thereby increase productivity.
  • Verbal tasks (proofreading, writing, reading, editing, interviewing, speaking) should never be accompanied by verbal music, whether Bach or Bacharach, Mozart or Madonna.
  • Performance of low mental engagement tasks, such as stuffing envelopes or riding a stationary bike, improves when listening to any kind of music.

The nature of the work environment:

  • Office etiquette—some co-workers are offended by others’ music listening habits, whether earbuds or boom boxes. While earbuds provide privacy in, for example, open space office areas, some less secure individuals can interpret a neighbor’s earbuds as rejecting, judgmental, or standoffish.
  • Some work areas are like Grand Central Station, whereby using a headset helps concentration. However, the headset doesn’t need to play music. Sony and Bose make noise-cancelling headphones, and you can put White Noise Free on your iPhone or iPad to select sounds of nature (thunderstorms, ocean waves, gentle rain, desert winds, and the like) to mask environmental distractions.
  • A major source of interruptions and distractions is other people who pop into your space thoughtlessly, when their needs could be equally well met by sending text or other less intrusive messages. When I taught at a large university and spent much of my day in an office farm, students, colleagues, and staff were constantly interrupting me. I checked out a tape recorder with headphones (this was 40 years ago!) from the media center and sat at my desk with the headphones on, but with nothing playing—just silence. Problem solved! No more interruptions.

My recommendations:

  • First, no music/noise is best for productivity, creativity, and quality. If earbuds or headsets are necessary to create silence, then go for it. Silence is best.
  • Second, positive mood is mandatory. If music is necessary to improve mood, then so be it. But if errors persist, find other ways to boost mood—incentives, more interesting work, better working conditions, and so forth.
  • Prohibit any kind of music in accompaniment to more complex, unfamiliar tasks, such as writing a macro in Excel to execute a series of multiple variable calculations.
  • Prohibit music with words in accompaniment to engaging, verbal tasks, such as proofreading, editing, or writing.
  • When music is permitted, prefer music in major keys with neither words nor extremes in pitch or volume.

 My personal rule:

  • Silence when mentally engaged (whether working or conversing)
  • Music when relaxing and I can enjoy the music without being concerned about other simultaneous tasks. My exception: For mindless tasks where errors don’t matter, such as folding clothes

Politics is a Team Sport

November 7, 2016 Leave a comment

All politicians have weaknesses, but having a strong team compensates for them.

German-born political scientist Hans Morgenthau (1904-1980), advisor to U. S. presidents and professor at the University of Chicago and City University of New York, is known for his theory of political realism. Something he wrote back in the 1970s offers insight into the 2016 U. S. presidential election.

Dr. Morgenthau observed that, throughout history, politicians’ weaknesses went mostly unknown until the mid-20th century. What changed this pattern was the birth and flourishing of modern journalism. With rapid travel, instant communication, and virtually omniscient research capability, journalists informed their public about every detail relating to political candidates of most interest. Unrelenting and effective investigations found all the warts, all the blemishes, all the skeletons.


Team members aggregating their mental models. Jurgen Appelo. CC BY 2.0


In Morgenthau’s eye, this mushrooming of investigative journalism changed the basis for selecting politicians. Don’t select the best individual, he urged. Select the best team. If you focus on the individuals, you will see that both have blemishes. If you focus on the team that each would likely assemble after elected, the blemishes take a seat on the bench as the starters take the field.

Indeed. Whose team would you prefer to lead our country?

Abe Lincoln had blemishes, and he was aware of them. Professor Morgenthau quoted honest Abe as saying that

I do the very best I know how, the very best I can, and I mean to keep doing so until the end. If the end brings me out all right, what is said against me won’t amount to anything. If the end brings me out wrong, ten angels swearing I was right would make no difference.

Communication Practices of Great Teams

October 14, 2015 Leave a comment

At the Human Dynamics Laboratory of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, researchers pinned electronic badges on 2,500 team members from diverse industries. These badges collected a wide range of team-relevant data such as tone of voice, length of talking episodes, who was addressed, body language, standing versus sitting, and so forth. Lab director Alex “Sandy” Pentland summarized their findings in a recent issue of Harvard Business Review. Perhaps you might use this list as a kind of report card to assess your current team’s functioning, with an eye towards how you and others might behave differently in order to be at your best.

On high-performing teams, regardless of the team’s composition and purpose:

  • Members are more engaged with one another when not in meetings—visits, breaks and meals together, water-cooler conversations, and adhocracies.
  • Creating social opportunities within the work contexts (e.g., adequate space/seats for breaks and meals) is more predictive of performance than non-work contexts (e.g., beer busts).
  • Talking, and therefore listening, is evenly distributed among members.sociogram
  • Each talking episode is shorter rather than longer.
  • Members talk facing one another.
  • Members gesture enthusiastically.
  • Members vary their tone of voice, which is generally described as energetic.
  • Members address each other, not just their leader.
  • Members engage in side conversations.
  • Members leave the meeting on occasion and return with new information.
  • Adherence to these communication patterns is more strongly associated with productivity, regardless of team goal, than does the talent and intelligence of individual members.
  • The best predictor of high performance is frequency of face-to-face communication; second best is frequency of telephone or video communication (but as the number of participants increases, the contribution to performance decreases); number of emails and text are the least predictive.
  • Frequency is everything, however—a team can have too few or too many face-to-face communications.
  • The entire team holds forth no more than half the time.
  • Higher performing teams look outside their team for information and judgment—fresh perspectives.
  • Managers encourage equal, face-to-face participation and model all of the above.
  • High performing teams have members who are “charismatic connectors”—natural leaders who circulate throughout the day with frequent, short, face-to-face encounters in which they both talk and listen. The more of them on a team, the higher its performance.

As we at the Center for Applied Cognitive Studies (CentACS) are in the business of personality assessment, I would like to know what personality traits predict these behaviors, and which traits predict the ability to learn them. Clearly higher extraversion is associated with many of these behaviors (length of contributions, frequency of talking, variation in pitch and volume, wandering around), and listening tends to be associated with mid to high levels of Big Five Agreeableness/Accommodation. I have designed a questionnaire based on these bullets, and I am collecting responses from persons who’ve taken our WorkPlace Big Five Profile as well as my Team Communication Profile. I want to see which traits are correlated with these team communication behaviors. Interested in helping me collect data?

Pentland groups these team behaviors and practices under three categories—energy, engagement, and exploration, with the best teams showing equal attention to all three. How’s your team doing?

Summertime—and Time for a Relationship Checkup

August 5, 2015 1 comment

“Ever since happiness found your name, it has been running through the streets trying to find you.”

–Hafiz of Persia

Whether at a beach, mountain, or lake, a vacation stroll with your significant other is a fine time to check the health of your relationships. Memorize these three precepts and use them as an aid in making any necessary mid-relationship corrections. They are based on the “equilibrium model of relationship maintenance” developed by Sandra Murray and her team at the University of Buffalo, State University of New York, and reported on recently in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Think of these three rules, or maxims, as Hafiz chasing you towards a greater sense of well-being.

  • The rule of mutual non-aggression. Two of Dr. Murray’s relationship rules are based on familiar ideas. This non-aggression rule dates back to the Confucian concept of jen, and it is known today by many as the Losada ratio. I call it the PEE:NEE ratio—the ratio of positive emotional events to negative emotional events. LosadaAs a rough guideline—knowing that individual situations differ—initiate five positive emotional events for every negative. A pat on the back, an “atta boy/girl,” an appreciative smile, a thank-you very much, and an “I’m proud of you for this accomplishment,” for every angry outburst or discounting remark. See more at page 213 in my book on Happiness. It is also similar to the human relations exercise called IALAC, for “I am loveable and capable.” That exercise begins with a name tag, a bit of which is torn off for every negative emotional event that makes the wearer feel a bit less loveable and capable. It offers immediate, if negative, feedback to one’s partner.
  • The rule of mutual dependence. Another familiar construct, the mutual dependence rule is similar to John Thibaut and Harold Kelley’s 1978 description of interdependence in their Interpersonal Relations: A Theory of Interdependence. Every relationship entails more enjoyable tasks and less enjoyable responsibilities, even self vs otheronerous ones. Yet, what is onerous to one member may be a joy to another—you may find weeding the garden soothing while your partner may find it distasteful. According to interdependence theory, both partners feel that neither has a greater share of distasteful tasks, nor a greater portion of blissful tasks. One way to establish balance is to make a list of all tasks that the relationship must perform, whether pleasant or unpleasant: grocery shopping, meal planning, cooking, washing dishes, doing laundry, running errands, writing letters to family, paying bills, reading to kids, bathing kids, and the list goes on. A different list would be written for work partners.
  • The rule of goal support. While not an earth-shakingly new suggestion, this rule seems to me something ofgoal puzzle added value that Dr. Murray has brought to relationship management. Simple but powerful, it assumes that each partner has goals. These goals could be simple and short term, like getting errands done before 4 p.m. on Saturday in order to get in a set of tennis before dark, or more complex and long term, like completing a college degree or writing a book. Goal support means being aware of your partner’s goals and not doing anything that would interfere with progress towards those goals, including making light of their goals.

 So, as you two walk a path, consider these three questions:

  1. Positivity: How are we doing on our balance of positive emotional events to negative ones? What do we each need to do more of or less of in order for the balance to be in good shape?
  2. Chores: How are we doing on our balance of more pleasing versus less pleasing chores? Is one of us getting off light? Is one of us getting more of the drudgery?
  3. Goals: How are we doing on supporting each other’s goals? Are there any goals that you feel I don’t respect, or that I in some way make it more difficult for you to make progress on and achieve?

The purpose: To maintain equilibrium in the relationship.

Establishing Rapport—When in Rome…

Robert Frost said it best—“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,/That wants it down.”

Walls keep cows in pastures and people in their comfort zones. In similar, wry New England style, Lake “Chargoggagoggmanchauggagoggchaubunagungamaugg” is loosely translated from the Nipmuc (an Algonquian language) as “You fish on your side; I fish on my side; nobody fish in the middle.”

So what is the best way to get around a wall, to meet in the middle to fish? This is about establishing rapport. When two people sense that they are significantly different from one another, the differences create obstacles to rapport. The more ways two people differ, the more difficult rapport.


The goal for establishing rapport is to minimize differences in a way that is authentic and non-threatening. Richard Bandler and John Grinder found the secret to the magic of several famous psychotherapists, including Virginia Satir and Carl Rogers. To reach quick rapport with their patients, these so-called “magicians” would match the physical imagery in the language they used with their clients. This imagery tended to be visual, auditory, or kinesthetic, and by using similar imagery, an easy rapport emerged.

Patient:               I’ve been grappling [kinesthetic] with this issue for years.

Therapist:           Mmmm, this is something you’ve wrestled with [matching] for quite a while.


Patient:               I can’t quite get a focus [visual] on where I need to be headed.

Therapist:           Let’s see if we can shed a little light [matching] on that issue.


Patient:               My past reverberates so loudly I can hardly hear [auditory] myself think.

Therapist:           I hear what you’re saying—kind of like constant thunder [matching].

Apparently, by matching the patient’s imagery, the patient felt immediately understood and accepted. Bandler and Grinder extended this simple principle to other areas.

Dress: To minimize differences and work to establish rapport, try to match the attire of the person(s) of interest. That is why we wear suits to weddings and funerals—to show respect. That is why some schools require uniforms, to discourage young people (and staff) from focusing on differences. That is why some world leaders adorn the garb of their host countries when traveling. One day while consulting, I was at a bank headquarters in the morning and on a manufacturing plant floor in the afternoon. I decided to wear nice tan slacks with a Navy blue blazer, light blue shirt, and regimental stripe tie to start the day. En route to the plant, I ditched the tie and blazer to more closely match the attire of my next clients.

Language: If you use multisyllabic words and your partner uses a simpler vocabulary, try slowing down and matching them by preferring Anglo-Saxon words: “use” instead of “utilize,” “make” instead of “fabricate,” and so forth.

Tempo: If you speak or walk fast, and your partner speaks or walks slower, then slow down and match their tempo. Or, speed up to match theirs.

Volume: If your partner is quiet-spoken, then don’t hold forth in stentorian bombast, like a bull in a china shop. Conversely, if they are louder, speak up.

Location: If they live in a castle and you in an apartment, then meet on neutral turf (Starbucks?).

Temperament: If they are warm and effusive, step up your game to smile and touch. If they are cool and aloof, don’t smother them with hugs and guffaws. If they are a slob, don’t try to redecorate their digs (unless they ask!). If they are perfectionist, be attentive to standards and details. If they are tactful, be more guarded; more direct, be more blunt.

Travel: If you’re with Arabs who are offended by the sight of others’ shoe soles, then keep your shoes grounded. If you’re with Japanese who carefully present their calling card, don’t casually throw it on the table—treat it respectfully by studying it and carefully placing it in your folder. For other ways to “do as the Romans,” see Terri Morrison and Wayne Conaway’s Kiss, Bow, or Shake Hands—The Bestselling Guide to Doing Business in More than 60 Countries (2nd ed.).

Niccolò Machiavelli

Niccolò Machiavelli

Some call matching and pacing manipulation. I call it respect—taking the time and effort to meet a person on their terms, in their comfort zone. Not all that different from asking your kids to watch their mouth and manners when visiting the grandparents. Niccolò Machiavelli, much maligned and misinterpreted for his recommendations in The Prince, urged leaders to avoid being rigid—to use both ends of each personality trait continuum, as it were. Leaders should be brave, yes, but sometimes reticent. They should be tough, yes, but sometimes tender. Leaders who remain fixed at the brave and tough ends of the continuum are not respected but feared and often hated.

Mental health is dependent on one’s ability to draw upon each pair of opposing traits as the situation demands—sociable when you must, then solitary; perfectionistic at one time, more casual at another; methodical today, spontaneous tomorrow; tactful with Tim, blunt with Jim. To adapt one’s behavior to the situation is not manipulation, but good mental health. Yale’s Robert Sternberg defines intelligence as “mental self-management.” Manage your mind.

When Julia Roberts playing Erin Brockovich in the eponymous movie leaned over the counter and squeezed her shoulders and elbows together with results that turned the stubborn clerk into a compliant, whatever-you-want-ma’am puppy, THAT was manipulation. That was not matching and pacing. It WAS acknowledging the clerk’s baser instincts as an avenue to get what Brockovich wanted.

Manipulate—to influence someone in an unfair manner. Rapport—a harmonious relationship where communication and understanding abound. With no intention of following through on her body language, clearly the Brockovich character was manipulating, not establishing rapport. Not to say that the body language didn’t serve a noble cause, but, in the film’s storyline, it WAS manipulation!

When possible, I vote in favor of building and establishing rapport, but not at the cost of being one’s authentic self. Establish rapport, then be yourself. But isn’t going a little out of your way to establish a form of being yourself? Hmmm…

E pluribus unum—Mysticism or Magic?

As a child I always had a warm, fuzzy feeling when I saw “E pluribus unum”—on coins, dollar bills, or elsewhere. It was another of those bromides from growing up—“Love one another,” “Do unto others as….” They were like road signs for living—somewhere in between a command and a nudge. With E pluribus unum, I felt an urge to submerge my self into my group so that I didn’t stick out. From many, one.

From church choir to marching band, from basketball team to Boy Scouts, I daily encountered this ideal. While I have a very strong sense of self, I know that when I choose to be a part of something bigger than me alone that I must blend in and momentarily abandon that sense of self.

Like the bands of a rainbow, none more important than another.


Like the hoopsters in Hoosiers, who must pass before shooting.

Like the players in a quartet, who must match in intonation, vibrato, dynamics, and rhythm, as though they were clones of one another.

Like a chorister, who must be as selfless as a minnow in a swarm of other minnows, as though they were a family of 20 identical twins with interchangeable, indistinguishable voices.

Like Blue Angel jets in formation, or swimmers in synchronized array.

It is not that we must always be selfless, but that we know when to blend in and when to stand out. Clearly our politicians would benefit from experience in blending in—they seem so threatened when urged to be bipartisan.

Making one from many is both mystical and magical. It is mystical inasmuch as I feel awe when it happens. It is magical in its unpredictability—you strive for it–blending, blending, blending–and finally it happens. My choir director says, “Listen more than you sing.” E pluribus unum.

As my wife prepares for surgery, my hope is that her surgical team will be just that—a team, and not a bunch of superstars—all attuned to one another and moving together in a complex dance of life—one leads now, then another, as necessary, with leading alternating with following as egolessly as night yields to day, as alto blends with bass, as the passer’s assist blends into the shooter’s two points. And from the team’s many, my wife made one.

And, of course, I must end with the words of my friend Lee who told of the Buddhist monk requesting of the Coney Island hot dog vendor, “Please make me one with everything.”