An executive announced in a senior team meeting I was attending that he decided to eliminate outdoor smoking accommodations for employees and customers that use the facilities. The first response from a team member was “other companies to it.”  The second response was “we’ll have to arrange for the company to provide cessation products.” Notice that the responses are in support of the new policy without knowing the specific reason for the policy. The implication seems to be about not wanting people to smoke, including helping them quit. Okay, it must be for health reasons, which impacts health care costs (my inference).

In an attempt to better understand the reason, I asked, “How about moist smokeless tobacco (MST), where people have to spit?”  The response was, “No that’s not allowed either.”  Okay, so far it feels like a tobacco ban but not a nicotine ban.  Next question, “How about compressed tobacco pellets like Arriva and Stonewall from Star Scientific (a company that existed at the time) that don’t require spitting?”   No answer.  These are tobacco products that were recently declared by the FDA to not fall under the jurisdiction of the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act.   “How about electronic cigarettes? They don’t contain any tobacco; they have vapor but no smoke, and no smell. They are, however, regulated by the FDA under the Tobacco Control Act.” Figure that one out.

Snus, strips, sticks?  All the products mentioned have varying levels of exposure, reduced risk, and potentially reduced harm. If you consider that nicotine gum and patches are also used as substitute products, then appropriate guidelines become even more difficult to establish. Is nicotine harmful, or is it something more?

On Saturday, September 17, 2011, the World Anti-Doping Agency, also known as WADA, took the first step toward classifying nicotine as a performance-enhancing drug. WADA can monitor a substance ahead of inclusion on the prohibited list if it meets two out of three criteria for inclusion – enhancing performance, damaging health and breaching the spirit of clean sport.

The effects of nicotine were brought to WADA’s attention after a year-long study by its Lausanne lab which concluded that nicotine increased “vigilance and cognitive function”, and reduced stress and body weight. The laboratory reported that “WADA and sport federations should evaluate the inclusion of nicotine to the Prohibited List or/and Monitoring Program.” The Lausanne lab’s study followed initial research involving players at the 2009 ice hockey world championships played in Switzerland, which showed nearly half were active nicotine users.” Nineteen percent of athletes worldwide use tobacco compared to 25% of the adult population. According to WADA, “It is not our objective to catch athletes who smoke, but those who use nicotine as a means of enhancing their performance.”

It should be noted that nicotine was not included on the list of prohibited substances for 2012, but WADA says that nicotine sanctions are discussed with increasing regularity.

For more details, see

So given the controversy and confusion around exposure levels, regulations, and effects, what’s an organization to do? Perhaps there should be a World Workplace Banned Substances/Behavior Agency that would evaluate substances and lifestyle choices based on established criteria.  If the cost of health care was on the list of criteria, obesity and factors that contribute to it would be at the top of the list with smoking a close second.  Or, organizations could understand that their workforce is a representation of the larger overall workforce, which is the goal of all Diversity initiatives, and focus on the aspects of organizational behavior that improve performance and commitment (with the exception of mandatory nicotine use).

Some people may find this post inciteful from an emotional perspective and could easily argue another point of view, as I could if I chose to.  But why not take a moment to challenge your assumptions and consider a different point of view, a different possibility?

For those in positions to create workplace policies that ban substances, behavior, or attempt to influence life-style choices, I simply propose the following. Let your reasons be directly related to organizational values versus personal; know the topic, the implications, and be clear on what is allowed and what is not allowed, and be able to logically explain the reasons for each.

In other words, know what you’re saying no to.

Disclosure: I do not use tobacco or nicotine products.


Decisions, decisions, decisions — they make up the foundation of our life. Each of us makes hundreds, perhaps even thousands of them every day. They range from simple to complex, from mundane to exhilarating, even life altering.  Without decisions, there would be no action because they are the bridge between our thoughts and emotions, and taking action.

As central and important as decisions are to our work and life overall, one would think they would be fairly easy to make error free. Actually most of them are: what time should I get up, what should I eat, when should I leave for work, which way should I take to work, what lane should I be in, where should I park, etc., etc.  Many of these are made with little if any conscious thought. If we had to think about every decision, consider every option, the pro’s and con’s, we would be paralyzed.

Without careful thought and consideration, however, we are more prone to fall prey to one or more of the following decision errors. The list of theories is from

  1. Ambiguity Effect: We prefer a known probability to an unknown one.
  2. Anchoring and Adjustment Heuristic: We base estimates on known anchors.
  3. Availability Heuristic: Recent events seem more likely.
  4. Bias Blind Spot: We do not compensate enough for our own bias.
  5. Bias Correction: Well-meaning over-compensation.
  6. Biased sampling: We base decisions on available small samples.
  7. Bounded Rationality: We only use limited logic in decisions.
  8. Conjunction Fallacy: An overlap seems twice as likely.
  9. Disconfirmation bias: Agreeing with what supports beliefs and vice versa.
  10. Endowment Effect: We value more highly the things we own.
  11. Focusing Effect: We pay more attention to some things than others.
  12. Gambler’s Fallacy: Belief we can predict random events.
  13. Hot Hand Phenomenon: Assuming success breeds success.
  14. Illusory Correlation: We see correlation where it is not.
  15. Mere Thought Effect: Thinking creates polarization.
  16. Mood-Congruent Judgment: Our moods bias our judgments.
  17. Neglect of probability bias: Ignoring probability; assuming certainty.
  18. Overconfidence Barrier: We are too confident in our own judgments.
  19. Prospect Theory: We value certain gains and try to avoid certain losses.
  20. Psychological Accounting: We care about direct outcomes. We also compare in ratios rather than absolute amounts.
  21. Representativeness Heuristic: We guess probability from a ‘comparable’ event.
  22. Restraint Bias: Assuming we can control urges.
  23. Social Judgment Theory: We vary our judgments about an anchor position.
  24. Sunk-Cost Effect: We are reluctant to pull out of an investment.

So what’s a person to do?  How about use a second language?

According to the Association for Psychological Science, the journal article, “The Foreign-Language Effect: Thinking in a Foreign Tongue Reduces Decision Biases” suggests just that thing.

“Researchers at the University of Chicago have found that people make more analytic decisions when they think through a problem in their non-native tongue.  These findings have implications in many arenas but especially for people doing business in a global economy.”  The article can be found in the April issue of Psychological Science,

According to lead writer, Boaz Keysar, a University of Chicago psychologist, “cognitive biases such as loss aversion are deeply emotional responses, and understanding a second language requires conscious thought in a way that processing our native tongue doesn’t. Because we have to think more to make sense of the question when it’s in a foreign language, we automatically think carefully about the answer—we don’t just answer based on our cognitive biases.”

There should, however, be a caveat here.  A large body of evidence shows that emotions are extremely important in making good decisions.  If instincts or gut feelings that result from our experience are excluded through strict logic or critical thinking, the quality of the decision may well be in jeopardy.  In my experience, I have never seen an organization promote “integrated decision making,” which appears to be critical to success.

So, in the absence of integrated decision making, perhaps we would do just as well using the Christie-Davies Theorem.

 “If your facts are wrong but your logic is perfect, then your conclusions are inevitably false. Therefore, by making mistakes in your logic, you have at least a random chance of coming to a correct conclusion.”

~ John Christopher Davies (Emeritus Professor University of Reading, UK)

Hocus Focus?

Posted: February 26, 2012 in Performance, Purpose & Direction

There is nothing magic about high performance.  The best performers I know have a number of characteristics in common; one of them is the ability to concentrate.  When I say concentrate, I mean paying attention to the right thing at the right time in the right way.

The “right thing” is pretty straightforward.  It is the most important thing that will help someone, or an organization, achieve the most important outcomes or objectives.  The “right time” is similar, when to pay attention is critical when it comes to prioritizing and sequencing.

So that leaves in the “right way.”  Years ago Psychologist Bob Nideffer observed in the performance of athletes that there are different types of concentration or attention styles. As he continued to study the attention styles of athletes, he realized that attention occurred in different forms or channels and that ability to use the right channel at the right time made the difference in high performance. To explain these differences he used two axes, broad/narrow and external/internal, resulting in four combinations:

1. Broad Internal:  conceptual, strategic, analytical

2. Broad External:  awareness of the environment or surroundings

3. Narrow Internal:  problem solving, mental imagery

4. Narrow external: physical execution and follow-through

Each of us tends to prefer one channel over the other even though we use all four at different times.  You probably had a sense of the one or two styles you most prefer as you read through the abbreviated list.

A great example of concentration styles is a safety issue that has gained much attention in the last few years – texting on the cell phone while driving.  The most important channel for driving safely is external awareness.  Because we cannot tune into more than one channel at a time, just like the radio or TV, any other misplaced concentration style can be detrimental, even deadly.  Texting requires narrow focused attention, both internal and external. The person who believes he or she can quickly switch between styles and safely operate a vehicle is gravely mistaken.

There is nothing magic about high performance (I think we can also add safe performance to that statement).  It’s a matter of deciding what’s the most important thing you need to focus on to achieve the results you want and having the ability to use the right concentration style at the right time.

Incite:  When in doubt, ask yourself “Why am I doing what I’m doing right now?”

“No Coke…Pepsi!”

The iconic phrase made popular on Saturday Night Live in 1978 by John Belushi as Pete Dionasopolis, owner of the Olympia Café illustrates the length of the ongoing rivalry between the two flagship soft drinks.

You may have seen the television add where PepsiCo claims that people prefer the taste of Pepsi over Coke in blind taste tests.  Yet Coca-Cola’s commercials claim that people prefer the taste of Coke.  So who’s right?  As it turns out, both are correct but it depends on how the test is conducted. PepsiCo used a blind test taste while Coca-Cola let people see the name of the product they were drinking.

“To better understand the Coke vs. Pepsi rivalry, a group of neuroscientists conducted their own taste tests — only this time, the participants were tested in a magnetic resonance imaging machine so their brain activity could be monitored throughout the test. Duke Professor Dan Ariely notes in his book PredictablyIrrational, when the participants received a drink, they were presented with visual information indicating either that Coke, Pepsi, or an unknown drink was coming. This way the researchers could record and compare observations under all of the different scenarios.

So what were the results? It turns out that the brain activity of participants did indeed vary depending on whether or not the drink’s brand was revealed. When participants weren’t informed of the brand, only the center part of their brain was activated, which is associated with strong feelings of emotional connection. When the participants were informed of the brand, however, something additional happened. This time, the frontal area of the brain controlling memory, associations, and higher-order cognition was also activated — not coincidentally, the frontal lobe is also closely linked to the brain’s pleasure center. And the response was strongest when they were drinking Coke, indicating that most people do in fact prefer Coke over Pepsi, but only if they know which is which ahead of time.” (Excerpted from Profiting from the Irrationality of Others,  John Maxfield, The Motley Fool, Dec. 7, 2011)

So what is the significance of this discovery in leadership and organizations? For one, the discovery illustrates the importance of “memory, associations, and higher-order cognition” in decision making. While decisions are commonly perceived as rational, memory from past experiences provide a powerful influence. Termed as irrational by some, I believe it is actually non-rational thought, which is not obviously rational versus being against rational.

One of my favorite examples is when I hear executives make statements such as “people are too risk averse…it’s okay to fail…we need to learn from our mistakes…employees need to take more risks.”  To understand risk aversion, all you need to do is reflect on your own past experiences.  As a child, a student, an athlete, an employee – how many times were your mistakes or failures associated with positive emotions and feelings versus negative ones?  It is the power of these memories, whether conscious or not, that truly impact the decisions we make.

Incite: What other examples of decisions or behaviors can you think of that are affected by past memories and their associated emotions?  Giving feedback, speaking up in meetings, confronting bad behavior?

Learning and development is an essential life-long pursuit whether for professional or personal reasons.

According to neuroscientist Daniel Wolpert, after spending its early life traveling through the ocean learning and developing (okay, I added that part), the Sea Squirt eventually implants itself on a rock for life.

The first thing it does is digest its own brain and nervous system for food.

Why? It no longer needs them.

I heard Tom Peters proclaim this, without the question mark, in early 1996 while attending a conference in town.  It was intriguing and thought provoking.  When you’re a thought leader and helping launch a new magazine called Fast Company (2nd issue), you can say things like that.  His point was to hire people that are different, even very different than you.   On the surface it sounds like an interesting idea.

In my last post I talked about “surface-level” diversity, which refers to observable differences.   In contrast, “deep-level” diversity refers to attributes that are less obvious but can be inferred over time after more direct experience.   My simple personal model encompasses the following categories in descending order: thinking style, personality, and beliefs and values.   Unlike observable differences, the negative effects of these differences appear to increase over time.

Arguing about how to do something (task conflict) is usually the result of competing thinking styles, frames of reference, and past experiences.  If managed well, this conflict can result in a better way to do to things.

Not getting along is a different matter.  Personality conflicts, clashes, incompatibility, whatever you want to call it, is much more difficult to manage.  Relationship conflicts can create more severe problems and ultimately result in reduced effectiveness.

Seldom is there a simple explanation for conflict.  Throw in beliefs and values and things can really heat up.  Next time you have a meeting; try using some of these topics for icebreakers: politics, religion, capital punishment, or abortion.

People naturally avoid stress and anxiety (not to mention fear), especially leaders.  That’s why Rosabeth M. Kanter stated in Men and Women of the Organization that leaders create other leaders in their own image.

Tim Cook and Steve Jobs

Do organizations really want deep differences?  If you consider that most organizations have a set of corporate values they want people to adhere to, the answer becomes more obvious.  The phrase “organizational fit” is even more revealing.  If deep differences were really desirable, the phrase “fit” wouldn’t exist.

Okay Tom Peters. I’m sorry to say that while telling people to hire other people who scare them is provocative, in practice, it‘s unrealistic,  impractical, and really kind of scary.

From Layoutsparks.comOf course my favorite answer is “it depends.”   There is no shortage of phrases or statements on company websites that promote the benefits of differences in the workforce. To be effective and realize the benefits though, the workplace needs to have programs and processes in place to leverage these differences. More simply said, a diverse workforce also requires inclusive workplace.

So what differences are we talking about?   While various descriptors can be found on company websites, the best measure of desired differences shows up in hiring practices. Based on my own experience, the primary focus areas are Male/Female and White/Minority.  Even  though some Equal Opportunity Employer statements are very specific:  “…race, religion, color, sex, age, disability, national origin, sexual orientation, marital status, citizenship status, veteran status or other legally protected characteristics;”  I have never seen targets that include religion, marital status, sexual orientation, or any other less obvious characteristic.

Okay, so in an attempt to hire and promote a diverse workforce, organizations use “surface-level diversity” factors, which refer to observable attributes.  Even using only these two factors, probabilities kick in to encompass differences in the less apparent  factors.

So what difference do these surface-level differences make?  Below are some of the advantages and challenges. I say “some” because it is not an all-inclusive list.

Surface-Level Diversity Differences



  • Their existence provides evidence of equal opportunity employment practices.
  • Potential hires view the organization as more representative.
  • When addressing more complex tasks and problems, the differing viewpoints, ideas, experiences, etc., can provide higher quality solutions.

Note: Knowledge work has been on the rise for quite some time resulting in more complex work.

  • Based on similarity-difference issues, teams in their early stages may feel a negative impact, but these tend to disappear as members learn more about each other.
  • When addressing simple problems or tasks, the broad range of viewpoints becomes more of a hindrance.
  • Fault lines can occur in diverse groups when informal subgroups form based on similarities.  Research has shown that the potentially detrimental effects of subgroups can be offset with training and awareness that teams may benefit from their diversity.

I talked with an HR Director in a US company who was concerned about a group of male Chinese scientists and technical professionals that continually hung out together in the research facility and only spoke their language.  So, is this good or bad?  A better question may be “In what ways in this good and bad?   It’s not the intent of this post to answer that question, but rather to incite thinking about how to discern the positive and negative impacts of surface-level differences.

There are numerous models that demonstrate the range and depth of differences in individuals.  I chose to use the “text book” terms of surface-level and deep-level diversity for simplicity.  In part 2, we’ll explore the latter and how those differences are viewed. What do you think, “desirable or not?”