Thought Processes

Professor Binna Kandola looks at how to think our way into and out of trouble
Sometimes it is difficult to know what to think:  first of all we were told this is the worst recession for nearly 80-years and the next thing you know we are seeing the first green shoots of recovery. If both statements are true then another record could be claimed: the quickest recovery from one of the world's worst economic recessions.


One of the major differences between the credit crunch recession and the Wall Street crash of the late 1920s is the sheer amount of news coverage that now exists. The 24-hour news stations need an enormous amount of information not only to keep people watching but to keep people employed. The scrolling news bars and the ‘Breaking News’ headlines are hyperactive in their desire to attract our attention.


This torrent of information can leave us feeling bewildered and confused as to what the true picture really is. The other factor complicating this is that the people who work for us will be watching the same channels, reading the same newspapers and listening to the same commentators. I recently met someone who works for one of the many poorly performing banks, who said he learned more about what was going on in his company from the media than he did from his leadership. This is clearly not an ideal position to be in, because the media place a lot of emphasis on tension, conflict and disasters.


What they are looking for is drama and better still a drama that unfolds with twists, turns, unseen events and hopefully some kind of conclusion. It is not a coincidence that news programmes are called “shows” by the people who make them. They are pieces of real life presented as theatre. The problem though is the way the news is presented, which creates perceptions and expectations within us. 


Words and phrases help to shape not just what we think but just as importantly how we feel and we often ignore this emotional component when we think about communication.


There was a classic psychological experiment carried out in the 1970s by Kahneman and Tversky. The study was conducted on groups of medical doctors. Each group was presented with a case study and they had to decide whether they would be prepared to fund a project. For one group the project was presented in rather cautious language, stating that the proposal would lead to the saving of 200 lives of the 600 people who are considered vulnerable. For the second group the proposal was presented in a riskier fashion, stating that it could lead to the deaths of 400 people of the 600 who were vulnerable. The doctors - smart, professional, data rational and well educated - overwhelmingly went with the first option, the cautious one, even though there was actually no difference in the actual outcomes.


Studies like this help us to understand why our behaviour can veer so dramatically from one extreme to another. A year ago people were watching house prices go up and borrowing and spending more. The overriding message was that we had never had it so good and that there was little risk in wanting to feel more materially comfortable. Then, with a total switch we were told that the end of the world is nigh. Quite naturally our behaviour is bound to be affected.


It is too easy to blame the media for this and I certainly don't want to do that. However, we are in a situation now where nobody seems to have much of an idea of what is going to happen next.  That being the case we are far more likely to be persuaded by the way the information is presented to us. There is no need to accept the portrayal of events given to us, but in situations where one is ignorant of the real reason behind the recession it is inevitable that we will latch onto the interpretations we hear most often.


Unemployment is rising to 6% in the UK at present and could go even higher. Presented in this way, the data causes alarm and we see ourselves as one of those who could be impacted. This can lead to a form of thinking error called catastrophising, where "what if" scenarios lead to certain doom (e.g. I am going to lose my job; this will mean I won't be able to pay the mortgage; my wife and kids will leave me; I will end up divorced, homeless and alone). The other reason why this type of information has such an impact is because it is so vivid. We tend to overestimate the probability of major events like plane crashes, winning the lottery, because of its impact on our imagination.


But this scenario could be turned on its head, so even in the worst cases more than 90% of people will be in work, prices for many products are down, bargains are available and, for the enterprising, opportunities exist for new ventures.


Communication then and the messages we send are always important but in uncertain times they are critical. We need to keep our staff need informed but, as has been demonstrated here, the way the information is presented can and will have a dramatic impact on the way people think and the decisions they then choose to take. At moments of pressure like this the tendency will be to focus very closely on the tasks in front of us and keep our heads down. This is exactly the wrong response. Behaviour like this will lead to isolation and greater stress, so communication needs to be frequent, honest and meaningful. People will also want to know what they can do to help the organisation in these troubled times.


Communication is not just downwards, it is also about people talking to one another, it's about upward feedback. People who do well in a crisis are those who are prepared to understand how others would approach the problems you are faced with. It is important to be in touch with your wider network, find out what they have learned and how they have coped. Research has shown that people who have consistently tapped into their networks are generally more resilient, positive and optimistic. They do not see the problems they are faced with as necessarily being unique and they believe that others may have the solutions, if not totally then certainly partially. This can help provide additional sources of information so that you are not totally reliant on a limited number of channels.


The other source of communication is friends and family. Wellbeing is intimately connected with friends, and, less so with family. Having this support network helps to affirm who we are and what we are capable of doing.  Again, research shows us that these support systems are something that many successful people have.


Try to remain open to ideas and influences. It is too easy to believe that only you have the answer, but the likelihood is your will not. At times like this we need to be prepared to discuss ideas with people whose approaches are very different to ours. A team of 'yes' men or women will make life easier for sure, but only in the short run. Having diversity in your team and in your network will provide you with options that you may not have previously considered. Without realising it we all develop patterns of thought as well as patterns of behaviour. We take the same route to work, we visit the same restaurants and order the same items from the menu. When things are going well we see little need for change, but when events take a turn for the worse we need to break out of our routines and try things we may never has considered before. For example, psychologists investigating the Kings Cross underground fire of 1987 found that some of the 31 people who died were regular commuters who continued to follow their habitual routines, despite the fact that there were less dangerous routes that were open to them.


We cannot assume therefore, that our typical ways of responding will be sufficient in these times, but it is important that we remain open to different options, some of which may make us feel very uncomfortable.


Finally, we also need to communicate a sense of optimism. Obviously this shouldn't be based on platitudes, as this will not be perceived as either authentic or trustworthy.  However, there does need to be a sense of what is possible, but that can only really be achieved if where we are able to challenge our own assumptions and ways of thinking first.

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