Tempted to work extended hours without taking breaks? Inclined to skip lunch? It is wonderful to recognise that work goals and deadlines are serious and important enough to perhaps warrant personal self-sacrifice. However, when we work long hours, we overlook our own physical and mental needs for rest, food and drink. As a result, our professional objectivity and critical thinking are negatively affected. Our brains need glucose and rest to function properly. Numerous studies demonstrate time and again how our thinking deteriorates, suffers and struggles without this basic care.
A study I came across recently clearly shows how the decision-making capacity of well-seasoned and experienced professionals was negatively affected as time progressed from a break in work. These professionals were more likely to render critical decisions that deviated from the status quo at the beginning of a work session: at the start of the day or just returning from a food break. They were also more likely to render decisions that required less critical thinking towards the end of a work session. The professionals studied were judges, although in a similar context, it could easily be one of us.
The study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2011, and is titled “Extraneous factors in judicial decisions”, by Shai Danziger, et al. I came across it when I was reading a book about decision-making processes by Daniel Kahneman, Thinking Fast and Slow (2011). I decided to cite the original study in the PNAS journal so that I could better understand it. This study consisted of 1,112 rulings in 50 days over a 10-month period by Jewish-Israeli judges. The parole judges were more likely to grant a prisoner’s request for parole if that judge reviewed the case right at the beginning of a “decision session” (or work session): at the beginning of the day or right after a food break. The prisoners who had their cases reviewed at the end of a decision session were more likely to have their parole request denied. The researchers proved this to be true after testing for the effects of many other variables that might have influenced the parole judges’ rulings. The single most significant variable that influenced the likelihood of a prisoner being granted parole was the ordinal position of the review of their case with respect to the beginning of a decision session. It was simply unlucky for those prisoners who had their cases reviewed later in work sessions as they were more likely to have their parole denied, regardless of their offenses, etc.
The authors of the paper say it best: “our findings add to the literature that documents how experts are not immune to the influence of extraneous irrelevant information.” They go on to highlight that their findings are consistent with “previous research demonstrating the effects of a short rest, positive mood, and glucose on mental resource replenishment.” Kahneman’s book develops these phenomena further.
If it is true that our judgement and critical thinking suffer as we progress through our work sessions, how can we use this information so that our work, what we produce and who we affect is not adversely impacted? How can we plug that variable into the work equation?
Can we notice when our mental resources have deteriorated to the point that the need for food, rest or other is winning over quality of critical thought? Are we able to check-in with ourselves and see if we become fidgety, impatient, annoyed, more direct, less empathetic, less interested or other? Is it possible for us to notice the feeling of rejuvenation and recognise when fatigue moves in?
If it is not feasible to schedule a break (as the study with the parole judges shows: even with regular breaks, our decision-making is impacted with time) then can we order our work to reflect the natural tendency of our energy levels to wane? At the very least, by being aware of our internal physical processes and needs we are better equipped to make more deliberate and well-informed choices. We can also simultaneously produce high-quality work and maintain healthy functioning.
Danziger, S., Levav, J., & Avnaim-Pesso, L. (2011). Extraneous factors in judicial decisions. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108(17), 6889-6892.
Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, Fast and Slow. Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
Click here to follow a line to access a copy of the article in the PNAS journal
Say you cut your finger while preparing food. It’s only a “small” cut but it is bleeding. Since it is only small, are you going to ignore it? Are you going to not apply pressure? No antiseptic? No bandage? Just let it keep bleeding, because it’s only small and it “should not bother you”? No, we would pay attention to the cut, try to stop the bleeding, assess it and then either bandage it or take further action.
When dealing with a worry, "bother" or small stressor in life, I life to follow a similar process. The issue that catches our attention may not be as obvious as a bleeding cut, but it is not necessarily less worthy of investigation. To classify a worry as “small” prior to having a closer look is to jump to a conclusion. What if the “smallish” worry is an indicator of a larger process that has a negative impact and requires some aid before it will “go away”? Or what if the “smallish” worry is accompanied by many other “smallish” ones that are adding up to a complex sum?
If something is bothering us, then ignoring it will not make it go away. When we ignore, we push something from our conscious awareness to our unconscious mind where we have fewer choices for dealing with an issue. Also, telling ourselves that we “shouldn’t worry” about something just distracts us with another worry: “I should or shouldn’t be doing this or that”. We could continue to self-reprimand in a very unhelpful way to tell ourselves that we “worry too much about things”.
When we abide by introjections – those attitudes or ideas that dictate our actions unconsciously and usually originate from our environment – we override our own actual and real needs with someone else’s idea of what those needs “should” be. Introjections come from parents, teachers, society or similar authoritative sources and they aim to direct our actions. The problem arises when the introjecting agent does not have access to all of the relevant information that can guide healthy personal decision-making and functioning. For example, a parent can tell a child that he or she “needs to eat all the food on the plate” out of principle, but the parent may not realise that the child is already full and does not want to continue to eat. So, the child may end up eating to satisfy the wishes of the parent, not to satisfy his or her own needs related to hunger and nutrition. My least favourite introject is “Want does not get!” Many people who have grown up with this introjecting statement truly believe that it is wrong for them to want anything or to declare to another person that they want something. In my opinion, it is perfectly normal to want something and it is also okay to act to fulfill a desire, generally speaking, as long as it does not cause harm to another person.
When something bothers us, it may be more helpful to stop and pay attention to the worry than to dismiss it because of an outside judgement and/or its perceived size. When we experience a worry, we may want to notice and characterise what is going on in our body: -are we sweating? -is our heart beating rapidly? -are we breathing? -are we tired? We can concentrate on the worry, sit with it and experience it fully. It may become evident what we need at that precise moment. We can seek to support ourselves in satisfying that need through our own measures or we can request assistance from someone else. If a situation arises where feelings of panic or extreme anxiety are associated with the worry, then it is important to seek external support from a qualified mental health professional. When we fully explore a stress – whether we choose to do so alone or with outside support – we can approach its source and work more productively with the variables that impact the stress for longer-lasting outcomes.
I cannot take credit for this concept: Smart Talk versus Smart Actions, rather I am citing a small part of what I think is a wonderful book - The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilised Workplace and Surviving One That Isn't by Robert Sutton (2007, 2010).
Research shows that one of the reasons why aggressive tactics and "mean" behaviours persist in organisations is that we collectively perceive individuals that act this way as being smarter than others. Many business leaders have gained power in organisations through the practice of intimidating gestures and language, insults and condescending language. Staff will often mimic leadership and use similar tactics to manage their hierarchical status - and it often works for them.
Robert Sutton cites research by a woman named Teresa Amabile who wrote an article called "Brilliant but Cruel" that was published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. Through controlled experiments she found that "negative and unkind people were seen as less likable but more intelligent, competent, and expert than those who expressed the same messages in kinder and gentler ways" (quotation from Sutton's book).
It is a nasty game that is played when people pick each other apart in front of an audience and use "smart words" to try to portray their competence - and it seems to work for people who use this strategy to get more power and status in many organisations. But what does this type of cold repartee actually add to the bottom line? And what damage does it actually do to staff, partners and potential clients? Are we too busy as managers to pay attention to the shallowness of this behaviour and the lack of substance behind it?
Personally, I like the sound of the following questions that seek to explore "smart actions" in the workplace beyond "smart words":
What work is actually being produced?
What is the thought and data to support the work?
Is the work robust? What are the relevant alternatives?
Are people collaborating cooperatively to produce the best work?
Do staff help each other?
Are comments - especially in meetings, where there is an audience - regarding produced work adding, detracting or worse - destroying?
**Useful links to external resources:
Link to Amazon if you are interested in purchasing Robert Sutton's book, which I thoroughly enjoyed and gained insight from (ships to Australia)...this book does retail in some bookstores in Australia
Robert Sutton, The No Asshole Rule
Link to Robert Sutton's professional page on the Stanford Graduate School of Business website
Robert Sutton, Stanford University
Link to Robert Sutton's personal webpage
Robert Sutton, Personal
Link to Teresa Amabile's abstract (and option to purchase full text) for her "Brilliant but Cruel" article at Harvard Business School website
Teresa Amabile "Brilliant but Cruel"
Blogging about mental health issues for personal and professional development. All material is authored by Cori Lambert unless explicitly stated otherwise. Authentic Consulting and Counselling is located in West Perth, Greater Perth Area.