Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Could Your Marketing Efforts Become Invisible to your Prospects?

July 13, 2010

You’ve just put together an eye-catching marketing piece on your company’s new treatment for a serious disease.  You’ve backed your claims up with solid evidence. But whether your principle prospects are doctors or consumers, it’s very possible that they will pay little or no attention to your excellent marketing efforts.  The culprit?  Selective perception (a.k.a. selective exposure).

 According to marketing experts Roger Kerin and his coauthors, “Selective exposure occurs when people pay attention to messages that are consistent with their attitudes and beliefs and ignore messages that are inconsistent.”  Everyone feels that their beliefs are correct and that their group is the best group.  Our brains consistently seek out information that confirms that we’re right and tend to ignore facts that get in the way.

 Startling Results

Is selective perception really that strong?  Consider some hard scientific evidence.  In a classic study, Princeton and Dartmouth football fans viewed a film showing parts of a particularly nasty Princeton-Dartmouth football game.  Princeton supporters reported seeing nearly twice as many penalties committed by Dartmouth players than did Dartmouth fans.  In fact, one Dartmouth alum believed that he had only watched part of the film, since he hadn’t seen a single penalty committed by a Dartmouth player.

This “blindness” is by no means confined to Dartmouth football fans.  In Mistakes Were Made (but not by me), authors Carol Tavris, PhD and eminent social psychologist Elliot Aronson, PhD relate some telling research done during the Bush-Kerry presidential campaign:   

Neuroscientists have recently shown that these biases in thinking are built into the very way the brain processes information – all brains, regardless of their owners’ political affiliation.  For example, in a study of people who were being monitored by magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) while they were trying to process dissonant or consonant information about George Bush or John Kerry, Drew Western and his colleagues found that reasoning areas of the brain virtually shut down when participants were confronted with dissonant information, and the emotional circuits of the brain lit up happily when consonance was restored.

While the brains of Bush and Kerry supporters paid careful attention to the position papers of their favored candidate, the words of his opponent fell on mentally deaf ears.  Regardless of how well it was prepared, there was no way the opposing candidate’s message could have any effect – supporters’ brains would not process the information.

What Effect Could This Have on your Marketing Messages?

Both scientific studies and experience have shown that a number of doctors and patients alike have been slow to pay attention to important new treatments that were radically different from what they already believed to be effective.  Future communication that could make a real difference in people’s lives may be ignored.

The enormous volume of information about medications and medical devices compounds this further.  It’s hard enough to get a thoroughly attractive message read in this environment.  What chance does a message that could make readers uncomfortable have in a sea of marketing messages?

What Can You Do About It?

Since selective perception causes people to avoid information that contradicts their beliefs and attitudes, researching the beliefs and attitudes of your market has never been more crucial.

Fortunately, research shows that there are ways to avoid your prospects’ tendency to selectively screen out your message.  One popular way is to use a source with high credibility.  Research by Aronson, Turner and Carlsmith found that the more discrepant a message is from the target audience’s beliefs, the greater the importance of the source’s credentials.   Obviously, nothing works to get wide acceptance of a new treatment like a recommendation from the National Institutes of Health. 

Unfortunately, an endorsement from the NIH is not often available.  What other methods can get good results?  There are several others proven by research.  If you’d like to discuss a specific application, please contact me at


Why Good Information Often Fails to Get Results

June 15, 2010

Your company has achieved a breakthrough in the treatment of a serious illness and has just received FDA approval.  As a biotechnology executive or sales and marketing professional, you just can’t wait to get the information out to physicians and medical centers.  You hope that once they read what your company has done, they’ll immediately start prescribing your new medication or medical device. You’re looking forward to improved patient outcomes and a better bottom line.

 It is certainly possible that your marketing campaign will play out just as described above.  But it’s just as likely that it won’t.  As doctors read your information sheets and learn of the FDA’s approval, their confidence in their present treatment for this disorder will likely start to slip. Most people would expect that as physicians start to question their old beliefs they will avidly pursue the facts you’ve uncovered, and a better day for both patients and your company will have arrived.

 But according to renowned social psychologist Dr. Elliot Aronson and researcher Dr. Lance Canon, the moment the average person starts to feel that their old idea might be wrong is the moment they will likely put your factual information aside and turn their attention to something else.  Canon found that as our confidence is weakened, we often become less likely to listen to arguments against our beliefs.  As social psychologist and textbook author David Myers, PhD put it, “people also tend not to seek information that might disprove what they believe.”  This can be particularly true of medical professionals, who have been trained to be conservative and skeptical of new ideas.

Even genuine breakthrough treatments can be slow to gain acceptance

These factors might explain why Nobel prizewinners Barry Marshall and Robin Warren had to wait so long before anyone would take seriously their discovery that the bacterium H. pylori was the true cause of peptic and duodenal ulcers rather than stress, spicy food and excess alcohol, as once believed.  As Stanford Graduate School of Business professor Chip Heath and Duke University fellow Dan Health point out, Marshall was a staff pathologist at a community hospital and Warren was an intern – not exactly the type of doctors normally responsible for groundbreaking medical research.  Despite the ease and minimal risk of prescribing a course of antibiotics for chronic ulcer patients, few doctors would consider trying it.  Marshall and Warren’s research was even rejected for publication in peer-review journals.

 No one paid much attention to their important finding until Marshall took drastic action. With an empty stomach and a lab full of colleagues, he had an endoscopic exam to document his gastric health, then downed a glass containing about one billion H. pylori bacteria.  Within days he began to experience pain, nausea and vomiting.  A second endoscopy revealed that his once healthy pink GI tract was now red, raw and inflamed. With that he cured himself with a regimen of antibiotics and bismuth.  While this demonstration did not provide conclusive proof, its audacity and results inspired other researchers to set up the studies that brought confirmation.  Even then, it was a full 10 years before the National Institute of Health recommended antibiotics as the preferred treatment for GI ulcers.  A number of other important findings similarly met resistance, then slow acceptance from the medical community.

How to help your breakthrough gain acceptance

So, if your company has made an important breakthrough and you want the newly approved treatment to gain wide acceptance, what should you do?  Dr. Aronson, the only man in history to win all three of the American Psychological Association’s top awards for distinguished research, teaching and writing, states that information campaigns can succeed if they follow these three rules:

  1.  Make the informational materials entertaining to avoid the brain’s automatic tendency to argue against any idea that threatens its sense of being right
  2. Do not directly attack the reader’s attitudes and beliefs
  3. Use marketing tactics proven by scientific research to make your materials persuasive

Although information campaigns that entertain or engage the emotions may seem unscientific, solid scientific studies have demonstrated that tactic’s power to change even strongly entrenched beliefs.  If done with wisdom and skill it can have excellent effects.  Perhaps your company’s important new treatment can be adopted in a shorter time frame.  That could prove beneficial to investors and patients alike.

Working Effectively with Challenging Colleagues – Part Three – Defeating Personal Attacks

May 24, 2010

It can occur in any organization, but especially in teams made up of a number of experts. It can happen when you’re one-on-one or in a group.  It can be as small as a subtle “dig” or an outright assault on your capabilities or character.  It is a personal attack. But no matter when it happens, it can bring consequences.  Personal attacks can make you feel badly – or make you look bad in front of your colleagues, your friends or even your boss. 

But just as there are effective techniques to neutralize a physical assault, there is a way to successfully neutralize a verbal attack that can leave you looking and feeling good.  It can dissuade your opponent from doing it again – and help you gain respect.  How can you do it?

A little psychology can go a long way

When under attack, our natural response is to retaliate or retreat.  Neither will get us the result we want.  Instead, understanding and applying some sound psychology can dramatically improve the situation.

In Part Two we quoted eminent social psychologist Elliot Aronson, PhD and his coauthors’ statement, “During the past half-century social psychologists have discovered that one of the most powerful determinants of human behavior stems from our need to preserve a stable, positive self-image.” We showed how that fact demonstrates why we personally must avoid embarrassing others – they need to view themselves as good, intelligent, rational people.  Retaliation only brings further attacks, since one must defend his or her self-image.  But running away from a bully is not a good idea either.  It marks us as an easy target for future aggression.  Bullies want to make themselves look and feel better by making us look and feel worse.

How to stop a harsh critic in his tracks

The key, then, to defeating this behavior is to use your detractor’s need for a positive self-image to make him stop his verbal aggression.  According to Dr. Aronson and coauthor Carol Tavris, PhD in Mistakes Were Made (but not by me), “When you do anything that harms someone else – get them in trouble, verbally abuse them or punch them out – a powerful new factor comes into play:  the need to justify what you did.”

So, the one making an oral onslaught (however small or large) has to justify it in order to continue to feel good about himself. If he* cannot justify his behavior, he may experience significant cognitive dissonance (mental discomfort).   And according to Dr. Aronson and his coauthors, “Dissonance produces mental discomfort, ranging from minor pangs to deep anguish; people don’t rest easy until they find a way to reduce it.” 

That’s another reason why retaliating doesn’t work. If you respond with a cutting remark or point out his flaws, your adversary will ignore his own unkind words and focus completely on what you said.  Your reply will give him the justification he seeks.  You will have let him off the emotional hook. He may, in fact, come to feel that you deserved his attack and will be more inclined towards another verbal assault in the future.

You can avoid all this by making it difficult or impossible for your opponent to justify what he did.  How can you prevent a critic from justifying his negative words?  A great way to do that was revealed by wise King Solomon, who wrote:

If the one hating you is hungry, give him bread to eat; and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink.  For coals are what you are raking together upon his head…

Solomon here refers to early smelting techniques.  Ancient metal workers would build a fire and then put iron ore on the hot coals, hoping to melt down the metal within.  That procedure often worked.  But if the iron was deep within the ore, more would be required.  They would rake hot coals on top of the ore.  The tremendous heat from above and below would usually melt the stubborn metal.

In the same way, if you respond to cutting remarks with kindness, you make it very hard for your adversary to justify his unkind words.  He may feel significant dissonance or mental discomfort.  His conscience may begin to bother him.  His only way to get relief is to stop attacking you, soften his stance, or even apologize.  Like an ancient metalworker, you will melt down his opposition.  In addition, you will display great emotional strength.  Bosses, coworkers, clients, friends and bullies alike have to admire strength.

Changing a critic into a supporter

In fact, psychologists have found that people feel a strong need to repay the kindness shown them with thoughtfulness of their own. We learn from youth that favors must be appropriately reimbursed.  When someone goes out of their way to do or say something nice, we often find ourselves compelled to do the same to them.  Kind words and deeds beget more kind words and deeds. 

This is where the human tendency to justify behavior can work in our favor.  Researchers have often found that people validate their benevolent acts by increasing their liking for the recipient of their kindness.  “After all, if an intelligent person like me did something nice for Jim, he must be a pretty good guy.” So, when our colleague appropriately repays our kindness, he will often come to like us more.  Our humane words and actions can create what Drs. Aronson and Tavris call a “cycle of benevolence” that fosters good will and camaraderie with our peers and partners. If we consistently speak graciously with others, regardless of how they speak to us, we will often ultimately receive respect and kindness.  Our work teams can become more enjoyable and productive, which will lead to greater rewards for all.

* While we speak of verbal aggressors as “he,” the principles here work well for anyone with a working conscience, male or female.

Working Effectively with Challenging Colleagues – Part Two

May 14, 2010
  1. What often causes friction between talented colleagues?
  2. Recognizing what need can lay the groundwork for harmonious cooperation?
  3. How can you prevent friction before it starts?
  4. What’s the best way to blunt a personal attack?
  5. What can foster continuing good will within a group?

In Part One we considered the fact that groups often outperform the most intelligent and organized individual.  We also saw why friction seems to come naturally to the groups made up of experts from different fields needed to successfully bring new biotechnology products to market. 

But trying to run a group with friction between members is like trying to drive a car without ever changing the oil.  Attempting to move forward with a lot of friction consumes too much energy and slows down the vehicle.  Without some effective lubrication that car will eventually grind to a halt.  But you can prevent friction between group members before it begins.  How?

Recognizing a Key Factor

Understanding the psychology of group members is a good start.  One important principle to recognize is the fact that all people strive to maintain a positive self-image.  According to eminent social psychologist Elliot Aronson, PhD and his coauthors, “During the past half-century social psychologists have discovered that one of the most powerful determinants of human behavior stems from our need to preserve a stable, positive self-image. In other words, we humans strive to maintain a relatively favorable view of ourselves.” 

This need to preserve our dignity and self-esteem is crucial. Noted psychologist Ervin Staub states, “Powerful self-protective motives then arise: the motive to defend the physical self (one’s life and safety) and the motive to defend the psychological self (one’s self-concept, values, and ways of life).” Research has found that just as we have a natural tendency to defend our person against physical assaults, we will also vigorously defend our self-image against real or perceived attacks.

Imagine how much a work group would accomplish if a team member walked into a meeting and punched a colleague in the nose.  An all-out brawl would be the likely result. In the same way, if one member of a group insults or deprecates another, the victim’s overriding natural response is to defend himself or retaliate.  This can slow down or completely disrupt the group’s progress.

Prevent Friction before it Starts

How can you avoid slowing down the group this way?  Don’t ever attack the value, credibility or integrity of any member.  If you disagree with a point they’ve made, commend them for their research, hard work or intelligence.  Then point out that their counsel, although good in general, may not apply in this particular instance.  Finally, assert a point that they may not have considered.  If trying to overturn an established policy or procedure, acknowledge where it’s worked in the past, but point out new circumstances that require a change.  Your comments will be taken as constructive suggestions rather than a personal attack on the author of the existing policy.

Gaining Cooperation

Researchers have found, time and again, that people will more readily cooperate with and accept the advice of those they like.  Further, we tend to automatically like those who like us.  Well known social psychologist and researcher David Myers, PhD stated, “Experiments confirm it:  Those told that certain others like or admire them usually feel a reciprocal affection.”

Dr. Robert Cialdini, who has advised corporate leaders, Prime Ministers and Presidents recommends that we do a little research on our team members.  Find something in them that you can admire or appreciate.  Then think of that when you’re speaking with them.  The natural liking you’ll feel will show on your face and in your voice.  That certainly would promote harmony.  But would it make you more persuasive?

Dr. Cialdini and Joe Girard testify that it would.  Girard is the only salesman ever inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame.  At one point during his selling career his commissions were higher than the salary earned by the President of General Motors.  He averaged selling six new cars every day he worked. His secret?  Joe regularly sent his customers cards on their birthday and anniversary that included the message, “I like you.” They liked him so much in return that they would make appointments to see Girard rather than buy their next car from anyone else. This phenomenon may explain why famed defense attorney Clarence Darrow wrote, “The main work of a trial attorney is to make a jury like his client.”

A Vital Principle

No one is suggesting that biotechnology executives act like car salesmen.  Certainly what they may defend in a meeting is far different from the accused criminals Darrow defended.  But this principle holds in a myriad of situations: 

People tend to like and cooperate with those who like them. 

People particularly appreciate honest, sincere commendation.  We can give this to them directly, subtly, or by complimenting them to another person who will, in turn, pass it on.  Never miss an opportunity to give credit where it’s deserved. You’re making an investment in good relations that can pay dividends in the future.

Promoting cordial relationships within a team is both a science and an art.  Some may feel that such an effort is beneath them.  But lasting influence comes, not from dominating others but from enlisting their willing support.  As the old French proverb says, “More flies are caught with honey than with vinegar.”  Biotechnology teams whose members like and support one another will consistently outperform similar teams that don’t.  But if, despite this fact, a team member insults or verbally attacks you, what can you do?  A proven method can stop the attack and deter future aggression.  Stay tuned.

Working Effectively with Challenging Colleagues – Part One

May 4, 2010
  1. What often causes friction between talented colleagues?
  2. Recognizing what need can lay the groundwork for harmonious cooperation?
  3. How can you prevent friction before it starts?
  4. What’s the best way to blunt a personal attack?
  5. What can foster continuing good will within a group?

 Biotechnology executives face plenty of challenges.  Working with their talented colleagues shouldn’t be one of them.  Medical researchers, scientific operations experts, skilled business managers and talented marketers are all working to benefit both the public and their companies.  Laudable common goals often unite people.  But according to Creighton University scholars Anne York, Kim McCarthy and Todd Darnold, “General management research …finds that managing diverse work groups is one of the most difficult challenges in today’s organizations and that it is not going smoothly.”

Part of the problem may be that each of these areas is important to achieving the goal of bringing new, potentially life-saving therapies successfully into the marketplace.  But research finds that, due to built-in biases humans use to protect their self-esteem, each tends to feel that his/her area is the most important and that its turf must be defended.

This can cause contention and rivalry to develop when teamwork and camaraderie should be the order of the day.  In fact, according to York, McCarthy and Darnold, “The practitioner literature suggests that such teams often fail to fulfill their potential and are sometimes quite dysfunctional.”  That may not be the case at your company, but one fact is often inescapable:  The intelligence and expertise that helps people excel as individuals can produce friction when they work together in a group.  What can help to lessen or eliminate friction and assist these groups to accomplish their goals?

Recognize your need

Your need for what?  For the rest of your team.  Bestselling author Dr. Robert Cialdini and coauthors related in Yes! 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive that DNA pioneer Dr. James Watson was asked to list the major factors that helped Dr. Francis Crick and him win the race to discover the structure of DNA. One surprising factor he listed was that he and Dr. Crick were not the most intelligent scientists working in this field (no one who read Dr. Watson’s controversial comments on race and intelligence will debate him on that point!).  Watson related that the most intelligent researcher in the race to discover the double helix had been British scientist Dr. Rosalind Franklin. He went on to say:

Rosalind was so intelligent that she rarely sought advice.  And if you’re the brightest person in the room then you’re in trouble.

Yes! further states that “Behavioral scientist Patrick Laughlin and his colleagues have shown that the approaches and outcomes of groups who cooperate in seeking a solution are not just better than the average member working alone, but are even better than the group’s best problem solver working alone.”

An illustration that works

So, teams that work well together can reach heights of accomplishment that would be impossible for any one individual.  One wise man likened a harmonious group to the human body.  The brain, as intelligent as it is, would be painfully stationary without legs and feet.  It could scarcely receive nourishment without hands, a mouth and a gastrointestinal tract. 

Similarly, each member of the group is important in his or her own way.  The most brilliant scientists cannot produce a product without someone to manufacture it within standards of quality and cost-effectiveness.  Even breakthrough products will rarely sell themselves.  Effective marketing, business development and sales efforts are essential if a new drug or procedure is to reach its potential in helping its target audience find relief and its creators achieve financial success.  So the first step in working together in a team is to realize that the team needs each one of its members if it is going to reach its goals.

But this step is not the only step necessary to help groups work together more smoothly. A further measure will help to head off friction before it begins.  What is it?  Stay tuned.

A Key to Successful Partnerships that Can’t Be Ignored

April 8, 2010

In our last post we spoke about a life sciences company who needed to replace an unresponsive kit-fulfillment partner.  This partner’s lax adherence to quality standards meant that many expectant parents did not have the complete kit they needed to benefit from the services they had purchased.  The life sciences firm replaced them with a partner who enjoyed a good reputation for hospital print management and medical device marketing support programs.  But they had virtually no experience in life sciences fulfillment.  What advantage could this new partner possibly offer that could help them to overcome their inexperience and beat out nine competitors to win the contract?  How has this decision turned out?

 Experience is the Most Important Key, or Is It?

 A number of articles on outsourcing cite experience as the most important key to successful partnerships.  Is that always the case? In Blink, bestselling author Malcolm Gladwell relates how Paul Van Riper, former head of the Marine Corps University in Quantico, Virginia once brought a dozen Marine Corps generals to the Mercantile Exchange in New York to visit the trading floor.  The madness of the trading floor reminded him of a military command post at the height of battle.  When trading ended for the day, the generals took to the floor to play trading games.  Then they took a group of Wall Street traders across the harbor to the military base on Governor’s Island to play war games.  The result?  According to Gladwell, “The traders did brilliantly.  The war games required them to make decisive, rapid-fire decisions under conditions of high-pressure and with limited information, which is, of course, what they did all day at work.” 

The key trait here was not experience – the traders had never been to war college.  It was the ability to make good decisions under pressure despite having limited information.  Many captured military officers understand battle strategy. The victors are often those who can quickly translate that knowledge into action.  In a similar way, a successful program to build, ship and track life sciences kits required sterile facilities, thorough knowledge of the process, a high quality fulfillment program and an excellent inventory and shipping management system.  A company with brains and determination could acquire the first two if they had the others already in place. 

 A Most Important Key to Success

 The new partner had one more trait that virtually guaranteed their success:  an absolute commitment to customer satisfaction.  An executive in the life sciences company knew a team member at the firm.  That relationship started the dialogue between the two companies.  As they met, the life sciences company executives could see clearly that their potential partner possessed something their current fulfillment vendor lacked – genuine character.  That trait was evident in:

  • The CEO who guaranteed his company’s commitment to make the program succeed
  • The Vice President of Operations who thoroughly researched the life science company’s needs and procedures
  • The Fulfillment Center employees who would carry out their new procedures as if their lives depended on it

This organization was determined to make things work into the indefinite future.

 The Results

 At the end of the first year of this new partnership, the life sciences company compared the costs and liabilities of their relationship with their old fulfillment partner to their partnership with their new fulfillment vendor.  The audit found that the new partner, by dramatically improving accuracy and service, had actually added $1 million to their bottom line.  “We are very fortunate and appreciate the collaborative relationship we have…which is based on mutual respect, confidence and trust,” wrote the life science company’s Vice President of Regulatory Affairs and Quality Systems.

 How did the new fulfillment partner manage to improve things so much that they added a million dollars to their client’s bottom line?  Click here to email me and I’ll send you the White Paper, One Biotechnology Company’s Search for Success with a 3PL Partner.  It will answer that question.

The Keys to Successful Partnerships – Have You Considered All of Them?

April 1, 2010

Outsourcing is often a way of life for many biopharmaceutical, medical device and life sciences firms.   They often outsource clinical research or portions of their manufacturing process.  They may contract with partners who supply backroom functions like I.T. and human resources.  The quality of the partnerships they form can have a big impact on the atmosphere and profitability of the company.  But are all partnerships created equal?  Much has been written about the elements needed to make outsourcing work for your company.  But most authors have left out one of the most important factors.  Have you considered it in your company’s outsourcing decisions?

 What are some keys to successful partnerships?  One obvious key is the partner’s ability to deliver on their promises, to efficiently perform the work they’ve been contracted to do. Clearly, if an outsource contract is for a key aspect of research or manufacturing, it must be done properly or the results can be disastrous.  This is even true for more mundane backroom tasks that have been outsourced, not to enhance capacity but primarily to save money. “If those mundane tasks aren’t done properly,” writes Elizabeth Gardner in The Job That Doesn’t Go Away, “savings can evaporate.” Gardner cites a recent PricewaterhouseCoopers survey in which more than 50% of the companies studied said they weren’t realizing the savings they had expected from outsourcing.

 How could this happen?  If outsource partners have the necessary skills, facilities and capacity to perform the work, what could possibly get in the way?  One potential pitfall is the partner’s quality standards and belief about what constitutes acceptable work. 

 One life sciences company provides a potentially life-saving service for newborn infants.  They contracted with a seemingly well qualified fulfillment partner to assemble kits and send them to expectant parents who requested them.  That partner had the necessary sterile facilities as well as experience in life sciences fulfillment.  Unfortunately, they didn’t share the company’s quality standards and commitment to customer service.  Kits were often sent out missing key components.  The vendor refused to send anything out after 2:00pm; kit orders that came in after that had to be filled by the life sciences company’s sales department.  Executives made a number of requests for changes, but the vendor was unable to implement them.

 Clearly, this life sciences company needed to select a new partner.  The partner they chose had substantial experience in running fulfillment programs for healthcare organizations and hospitals as well as marketing support programs for medical device manufacturers. But this organization had little experience in life sciences fulfillment. Selecting them was a bit of a gamble.  What did the life sciences company see in their new partner that could compensate for their short résumé in this vital area? That organization may have won awards for managing hospital print management programs.  But what could help them effectively handle critical, time-sensitive life sciences fulfillment?  How have things turned out?  Stay tuned.

When “Zero Tolerance” Yields Zero Results

March 18, 2010

The business of biotechnology comes with a built-in blessing/curse – the need to rapidly expand.  As new products gain approval and acceptance, biotechnology firms can enjoy demand surges that drive up revenue.  But with increased demand comes the need for a larger workforce.  That can create its own difficulties, as new hires bring new problems to the workplace.  Executives, managers and supervisors face challenges in training and maintaining order when workers are slow to adopt or follow company or societal rules.

 Zero Tolerance policies have become extremely popular, as employers strive to take a hard stand against workplace misconduct.  In Workforce Management magazine, author Samuel Greengard points out that the words zero tolerance “generate such a genuine feeling of empowerment.”  He asks, “What better way to control undesirable behavior?”

 If the undesirable behavior you’re trying to control is serious, threatening the welfare and safety of others, there is perhaps no better way to control it than a zero tolerance policy.  But according to social psychologist David Meyers, PhD, the threat of severe punishment works “only under ideal circumstances, when the punishment is strong, prompt and sure.”

 As employers look for ways to assure workplace safety and product quality, a growing number are tempted to institute zero tolerance policies for nearly any violation of company rules.  They may feel that the best way to avoid big violations is the threat of severe sanctions for even small misdeeds.  Is it?  Controlled scientific research indicates that it is not.

 As we discussed previously, the threat of severe punishment brings immediate, but temporary compliance with the rules.  We obey the speed limit when the police are around, then ‘put the pedal to the metal’ when they’re no longer in sight.  The threat of severe sanctions for small workplace violations has a similar effect.  People follow quality/safety regulations and act properly toward fellow employees when the boss is observing.  Later they return to doing what they want to do.

 In fact, as we discussed in the last post, misbehaving employees often don’t believe they’ve really done anything wrong.  This is because humans have shown, in study after study, a strong need to justify their actions.  We do this so we can continue to feel good about ourselves and avoid the pain of cognitive dissonance.  According to eminent social psychologist Dr. Elliot Aronson, ““Most of us want to believe that we are reasonable, decent folks who make wise decisions, do not behave immorally, and have integrity.” 

 This tendency to justify behavior has a significant downside.  Employees who justify wrong conduct often progress to bigger violations.  But self-justification cuts both ways.  It can have a substantial upside that is important to growing biotechnology companies.  Under the right circumstances, self-justification can actually help workers become better employees.  No zero-tolerance policy can accomplish that.

Studies have revealed that when under the right circumstances we choose to obey the rules, our natural tendency is to justify our conduct by believing more strongly in the rightness of the rules.   After all,’ if we’ve done something there must be a good reason for it!’  Since we want to preserve our self-image as good, rational people, we will actually come up with grounds to confirm the rightness of our behavior.  As we do this, we will become more committed to following the rule we just obeyed.

So, what makes the difference between policies that merely prevent misbehavior when the boss is watching and programs that actually help workers make progress?  The answer is as American as apple pie:  free choice.  “Social scientists have determined that we accept inner responsibility for a behavior when we think we have chose to perform it in the absence of strong outside pressure,” wrote persuasion expert Robert Cialdini, PhD.

A zero tolerance policy and the threat of severe punishment give us strong outside pressure to follow the rules.  We know there will be serious consequences if we don’t.  We know why we’ve obeyed – to avoid the penalty.  But when sanctions for small violations of the rules are correspondingly small, employees who obey them will often feel they have done so voluntarily.  They will come to recognize reasons why their obedience was the right thing to do.  And they will tend to act in harmony with those rules again and again, strengthening their resolve each time.  Under these conditions, troublesome workers can begin to resemble model employees and model employees can become candidates for promotion.  

Growing life sciences companies need workers who can grow along with them.  Wide-ranging zero tolerance policies can never provide that.  But programs that provide minimal sanctions for small infractions can.  Wise executives will give serious thought to forming workplace policies that prevent dangerous situations while helping employees become superior workers and better people.

Part Two: Employee Misbehavior – Is it Better to Punish it or Let it Go?

March 12, 2010

In Part One we discussed Labeling, a technique that can improve workers’ morale and performance by giving employees a good name to live up to.  That can certainly put workers on a good course.  Biotechnology executives want employees to comply with company standards and to maintain high workplace morale. That’s not always easy to do because at times workers will act inappropriately.  Many employee violations are minor.  But some transgressions are serious enough to require some sort of correction.  Clearly, behavior that violates the law or endangers others must be dealt with swiftly and appropriately.  Other misbehaviors are not nearly so serious.  Since the violations are relatively small, for the sake of morale would it be better just to ignore them?  After all, none of us are perfect.  Executives aren’t drill sergeants, holding their employees to unrealistic standards of flawlessness.  Can we just use things like labeling and keep things positive?

 Of course, company officials will have to decide what’s best depending on their own individual situation.  Certainly demanding faultless compliance with every company rule can turn a workplace into a joyless police state.  But, on the other end of the spectrum, allowing too many violations can compromise quality, efficiency and the general atmosphere of the workplace.

It is important to handle small problems properly, because seriously bad behavior, the kind that threatens consumer safety, relations with customers and the peace of the company doesn’t usually come out of the blue.  Often there are smaller violations along the way.   It’s often wise not to let things go, thinking that things will improve on their own.  Employees who violate company or societal standards often don’t think they’ve really done anything wrong

 This is because of a human need social psychologists recognized after many controlled studies:  the need to justify our own behavior.  We’ve all seen people – from our children to workers attempt to justify wrong actions.  There’s a good reason why it happens, according to eminent psychologist Dr. Elliot Aronson and his coauthors:  “We humans strive to maintain a relatively favorable view of ourselves, particularly when we encounter evidence that contradicts our typical rosy self-image.  Most of us want to believe that we are reasonable, decent folks who make wise decisions, do not behave immorally, and have integrity.”  When we do things that clearly violate what we believe to be right or smart, it can really bother us.  This feeling of discomfort is what social psychologists call cognitive dissonance.

 According to Dr. Aronson and fellow psychologist, Carol Tavris, PhD in Mistakes Were Made (but not by me), cognitive dissonance is “a state of tension that occurs whenever a person holds two cognitions (ideas, attitudes, beliefs, opinions) that are psychologically inconsistent, such as “Smoking is a dumb thing to do because it could kill me” and “I smoke two packs a day.”  Dissonance produces mental discomfort, ranging from minor pangs to deep anguish; people don’t rest easy until they find a way to reduce it.”  When we experience the pain of cognitive dissonance, we don’t usually consciously think through ways to reduce it.  Dissonance reduction is usually the result of the kind of automatic thinking that author Malcolm Gladwell discussed in Blink.

So, when we do something we feel is dumb or wrong, we become uncomfortable with ourselves. To relieve that discomfort, we could change our behavior.  That would be the best possible outcome.  Or our minds may automatically arrive at a different solution.  If violating our standards of conduct causes cognitive dissonance, why not relieve that discomfort by changing our standards?  For instance, science has clearly established that smoking can kill you.  But surveys have found that one group of people almost completely downplay the risks of smoking.  Who is it?  Smokers who have tried and failed to quit.  The thought that scientific evidence proves that they are killing themselves by smoking produces dissonance.  Since they believe they can’t reduce those negative feelings by changing their habit, they have come to feel better by discounting the evidence.  It’s as though part of their brain is telling them, “If an intelligent person like me is still smoking, it can’t be that dangerous!”

 Employees might take shortcuts with quality procedures. Some may make offensive comments to coworkers, supervisors or even customers.  In short, they violate company or ethical standards in some way.  If they’ve been properly trained, these misbehaviors will cause dissonance. 

We would hope that they would respond to that dissonance by cleaning up their act.  But, like smokers who tried and failed to quit, they will often make themselves feel better by telling themselves their actions were somehow OK.  The customer, supervisor or coworker to whom they spoke abusively deserved it.  The quality rule they violated is unnecessary and overly strict.

If left on our own, we humans can justify ourselves right over the edge of a cliff.  If our employees have begun to do that, someone needs to wake them up.  And if we’ve become comfortable with misconduct in our workplace, someone needs to wake us up.  Of course, when it comes to misbehavior, the proverbial ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.  Some may feel that the best way to prevent workplace transgressions is the threat of severe punishment for all violations – large or small.  But does research show that this is the best way?  Stay tuned.

Can You Increase Employee Productivity and Satisfaction at the Same Time? – Part One

February 22, 2010

 At this time of gradual economic recovery, employee performance has never been more important.  That is particularly true in up and coming vertical markets like Life Sciences.  One the one hand, manufacturers need to keep labor costs under control by getting the best effort from each employee. Maintaining high quality standards is vital to your company’s reputation and success in the marketplace.  But no one can afford the luxury of excessive staffing.

 At the same time, many employees may feel chronically over-employed, working longer and more challenging hours just to keep their jobs.  As the recovery gets up to speed, talented employees who feel overworked may start to listen to offers from other companies.  Losing your best people just when demand starts to increase can mean more sleepless nights for biotechnology executives who were hoping to finally get some rest.

 Research in social psychology has revealed techniques that can help executives accomplish two important objectives– increasing employee productivity and job satisfaction – simultaneously.  We’ll consider them one at a time, using the work of experts in the field of human behavior like Dr. Elliot Aronson, the only man in history to win all of the American Psychological Association’s top awards (considered to be the equivalent of the Nobel Prize) and Dr. Robert Cialdini, whose book Influence-Science and Practice was rated by one business publication as the top marketing and sales book of all time.

For years, supervisors and executives have used the threat of punishment or even job loss to try to ensure employee cooperation with company goals.  Is that the most effective way to get the job done?  Consider what Dr. Aronson, along with coauthors Timothy Wilson and Robin Akert point out:

 “All societies run, in part, on punishment or the threat of punishment.  For example, while cruising down the highway at 75 miles an hour, we know that if a cop spots us, we will pay a substantial fine, and if we get caught often, we will lose our license.  So we learn to obey the speed limit when patrol cars are in the vicinity…But does harsh punishment teach adults to want to obey the speed limit? We don’t think so.  Rather, we believe that all it teaches is to try to avoid getting caught.”

In the manufacturing setting, the threat of punishment helps employees do what their employer wants as long as their supervisor is watching.  Controlled scientific research has clearly demonstrated that the threat of humiliation or severe sanctions does not make people want to do forbidden actions less – it often makes them want to do them more – if they think they won’t get caught.  If you’d like to see this for yourself, just try going the speed limit on the interstate when traffic is not too heavy and the police are not around. You’ll soon see how many cars pass you like you were standing still.  Now, under normal conditions, most drivers can speed without causing accidents.  But noncompliance with company standards when supervisors temporarily look away can spell disaster. There must be better ways to get employees to produce superior work when the boss is not around.  There are.

Changing Behavior with Labeling

One better way is a technique called labeling.  What do we mean by labeling?  Effective labeling, in the human resources context, is finding a desirable employee trait (even just a hint of the desired trait) and using it to label an employee:  “Bill, what I appreciate about you is your dedication to quality.  I know that you’re the kind of person that’s determined to produce only product that meets our company standards,” or “Sue, I really like it when I see you show kindness and patience even when customers become unreasonable.  That’s just the kind of customer service attitude we need around here.”  Labeling an employee as one who displays the trait you are trying to encourage is certainly more pleasant for employees than facing discipline for not displaying it.  But can we really say that labeling works?

 To begin with, controlled scientific studies have shown that it works.  Influence-Science and Practice outlines one study by Robert Kraut, PhD that labeled householders in New Haven, Connecticut as generous people.  One week later those same people donated much more money than others to the Multiple Sclerosis Association.  Why does giving people a positive label change their behavior?  Because everyone likes a compliment, even if they’re not sure they fully deserve it.  But once that complimentary label is accepted, they’ll work hard to live up to it.
It can become part of the employee’s self-image.  According to Aronson and co-author Anthony Pratkanis, PhD, “One of social psychology’s best documented phenomena is the self-fulfilling prophecy – the tendency for a definition of a situation to evoke behavior that makes the definition come true.  Dozens of experiments have shown that students who are randomly labeled “smarter” tend to act smarter; sane people identified as “insane” are treated as if they are insane and may begin to act that way; and women labeled “beautiful” behave as if they are beautiful.”

 Statesmen and political leaders have often used this technique to great advantage.  In Influence, Dr. Cialdini relates that one of the best at it was Egyptian president Anwar Sadat.  At the start of international negotiations Sadat would “assure his bargaining opponents that they and the citizens of their country were widely known for their cooperativeness and fairness.”  Henry Kissinger stated, “Sadat was successful because he got others to act in harmony with his interests by giving them a reputation to uphold.”  Employees who are praised, especially in public, for intelligent, diligent and honest behavior at work will work hard to live up to their positive labels.  And they, and their supervisors, will be happier for it.  But some employee behavior is so crucial that executives feel impelled to enforce it with the threat of punishment.  Is there a way to do this that will produce lasting change?  Stay tuned.