The Curse of Knowledge

Here is a great little experiment for you to try on your next lunch break:

Think of a popular song like “Mary Had a Little Lamb” or “Happy Birthday” or your national anthem.  Without revealing the name of your song, try to tap out the rhythm of the song while someone else listens and guesses it.

It’s harder than it would seem because of ….(cue dramatic music and thunder clap)… The Curse of Knowledge.  You cannot tap the rhythm of the song without hearing the song in your mind, and it’s extraordinary difficult to believe that your listener doesn’t inherently share this “insider knowledge”.  Once you have that knowledge you can’t “un-know” it any easier than you can un-ring a bell.

Go ahead.   Give it a try.  See if you can tap “Mary Had a Little Lamb” without hearing it in your mind.  While you’re sitting there, enjoying the full ensemble, tapping merrily away, you’re likely wondering why it’s taking your dimwitted listener so long to figure it out.

But your listener isn’t dimwitted.  He simply doesn’t have the same “insider information” that you do.  From his vantage point, he’s listening to random tapping that might as well have come from pecking chickens.

In 1990, Elizabeth Newton earned her PhD. from Stanford University with this very experiment.  She took it to the next level by requiring the “Tappers” to estimate how often they believed they could get their message across.  They estimated that the Listeners would accurately guess their songs 50% of the time (1 in 2).  The actual success rate was 2.5% (1 in 40).

How does this apply to you?

Are you ever frustrated when your employees, teammates, or managers don’t “get” your ideas (or message)?  Perhaps, you — like the Tappers (like all of us, really)– inherently assume that some parts of your idea are obvious.  Once you “know” something, it is difficult to imagine what it was like to not know it.  You cannot imagine what it is like for the tappers to hear the tapping in isolation, without the benefit of hearing the song in their head.  You are “cursed”.

Practical Steps to Thwart the Curse

  1. Keep it Simple.  Begin with the basics, and add detail as the idea takes hold.
  2. Step out of your head.  Knowing that you hear the full score and your listener doesn’t can help you to create a more concrete message that is more fully understood.
  3. Be patient.  Ask your listener what additional information they need.  By working together, you can both eventually “sing the same song”.

Did you try it?  How did it go?

Election Day: Leadership Lessons

It’s election day, and we’re looking forward to the notable absence of political campaigning and commercials tomorrow.  Our workplaces will be all a-buzz with talk of the results, and some will be thrilled, others less so.

Election time is a fascinating study in leadership and communication.  What were the messages you most heard?  Who did the better job of communicating who they are and what they can do for the country?  Who did the better job of motivating supports to come out and vote?

As a business leader, ask yourself the same questions.  Edith Onderick-Harvey sums up election day lessons succinctly as follows:

  • Clear feedback from those who follow you is important. Election day gives leaders clear feedback. The vote tells them how many followers they actually may have and whether, if given the choice, people would rather follow someone else.
  • You have to be clear about what kind of leader you will be. Will you be the one people follow because of your vision?  Because of your record? Because you’re someone people want to have a beer with? Or because at least you aren’t the other guy?
  • You have to lead every day. Presidential candidates and others in high profile races are under the microscope.  You have to be engaged and leading everyday because if you’re not, everyone will know about it. Take the first presidential debate as a case in point.
  • Apathy is a leader’s enemy. If your followers are apathetic and don’t show up to vote, your opportunity to lead is in jeopardy.  The enthusiasm factor is important.

Your team, your organization takes its cues from you.  Be the best leader you can be.

Remember to take the time to vote today.

Your voice matters.

Save Our InBoxes!

Email overload.  It’s getting out of hand.  We spend an alarming amount of time each and every day simply responding to email messages.

Why?  And, more importantly, What can we EACH do to reduce this problem?

For years, we have been coaching people, teams, and organizations on the importance of managing email.  We have helped countless groups establish protocols that have helped to increase productivity and to unchain people from their ever-growing inboxes.

But it’s not enough.  Current research has shown that the average amount of time that each person spends during their workday on email is growing.

We need to get the word out, and here’s an excellent resource that can help you today.

It’s called the Email Charter.

The core principle in action is that every single one of us has to take responsibility for reducing the amount of time spent on email by our colleagues.  Here’s problem, as viewed through this lens:

For each email that you write, you are creating “work” for others.  Our instincts tell us it takes longer to write than to read, so reading an email should take less time than it did to write it, right?  Wrong. It takes longer to respond to an email than it does to write.  Here’s why:

When you “check your mail”, your process is more apt to be like:  scan your inbox; decide what to open; open it; read it; think about whether you need to respond or not; compose the response; edit your response; send your response.

Every time you engage in this process, you are removing yourself from your flow of work, you are diverting your attention and it takes time to regain that rhythm.

Now, think about this — every time you compose an email message, you are creating the same interruption of work for someone else.  Here are some very common email “habits” that add to the overloading of our inboxes and unnecessary consumption of our collective time:

  • Open-ended questions that are time-consuming to answer.  For example, “What are your thoughts on this?”, “How do you think we should proceed?”  Quick to ask, not-so-quick to answer.
  • “CC” – so easy to click and add multiple recipients, but each additional recipient exponentially increases the amount of time your email is consuming.
  • “FW” – forwarding and/or cutting and pasting text from other resources creates an increasing burden of time as your recipient scrolls, reads, and sorts through to find the salient points.
  • Links and videos – easy to add, but each link and video can take minutes to view.

We love the internet.  We love our email.  It takes an iron will not to linger and peruse all the wonderful, distracting nuances of the world wide web, and to share our discoveries with others, and they with us.  “Just copy a link, paste, and send … and boom, the world’s cognitive capacity takes another hit!”

All of these things contribute to the massive consumption of our work week.  We need to get it under control and we need to do so now.  I don’t recall any of my job descriptions (ever) including “checking email” as a line item, and yet, when I’m not careful, it can consume my day.

Book Your Email Vacation Now!

Email ‘vacations’ decrease stress, increase concentration

UCI findings could boost on-the-job productivity

— Irvine, Calif., May 03, 2012 —

Being cut off from work email significantly reduces stress and allows employees to focus far better, according to a new study by UC Irvine and U.S. Army researchers.

Heart rate monitors were attached to computer users in a suburban office setting, while software sensors detected how often they switched windows. People who read email changed screens twice as often and were in a steady “high alert” state, with more constant heart rates. Those removed from email for five days experienced more natural, variable heart rates.

“We found that when you remove email from workers’ lives, they multitask less and experience less stress,” said UCI informatics professor Gloria Mark. She co-authored the study, “A Pace Not Dictated by Electrons,” with UCI assistant project scientist Stephen Voida and Army senior research scientist Armand Cardello. The UCI team will present the work Monday, May 7, at the Association for Computing Machinery’s Computer-Human Interaction Conference in Austin, Texas.

The study was funded by the Army and the National Science Foundation. Participants were computer-dependent civilian employees at the Army’s Natick Soldier Systems Center outside Boston. Those with no email reported feeling better able to do their jobs and stay on task, with fewer stressful and time-wasting interruptions.  Measurements bore that out, Mark said. People with email switched windows an average of 37 times per hour. Those without changed screens half as often – about 18 times in an hour.

She said the findings could be useful for boosting productivity and suggested that controlling email login times, batching messages or other strategies might be helpful. “Email vacations on the job may be a good idea,” she noted. “We need to experiment with that.”

Mark said it was hard to recruit volunteers for the study, but “participants loved being without email, especially if their manager said it was OK. In general, they were much happier to interact in person.”

Getting up and walking to someone’s desk offered physical relief too, she said. Other research has shown that people with steady “high alert” heart rates have more cortisol, a hormone linked to stress. Stress on the job, in turn, has been linked to a variety of health problems.

Study subjects worked in a variety of positions and were evenly split between women and men. The only downside to the experience was that the individuals without email reported feeling somewhat isolated. But they were able to garner critical information from colleagues who did have email.

The Army is examining use of smartphones and such applications as email for soldiers on battlefields, said David Accetta, spokesman for the Natick facility’s research and development section. “This data may very well prove helpful,” he said.

About the University of California, Irvine: Founded in 1965, UCI is a top-ranked university dedicated to research, scholarship and community service. Led by Chancellor Michael Drake since 2005, UCI is among the most dynamic campuses in the University of California system, with nearly 28,000 undergraduate and graduate students, 1,100 faculty and 9,000 staff. Orange County’s second-largest employer, UCI contributes an annual economic impact of $4 billion. For more UCI news,

Email Overload

What’s going on here?

Our research, completed in 2010, revealed that the average person spends 30 minutes PER DAY deleting, or thinking about deleting, email!!

When did email become our work product and why do we have so much?!  It’s getting out of hand.

No one expects you to be a drone and tap away at your computer endlessly, tied to your machine for every minute of every day, but 3o minutes deleting email?  Over the course of a standard work-week, that’s 2 1/2 hours.  In a month, 10 hours; in a year 120 (15 eight-hour workdays).  That’s a lot of time you’ll never get back.  And that’s just you.  Multiply that over your project team, department, or company, and you just might feel a little ill.

Why?  Why do we get so much email that we don’t read?  I’m not talking about email lists that you sign up for giving you the latest sales from your favorite store.  Those aren’t counted in this research.  This research focused specifically on work-related email messages that were sent by real people to real people.

Does this mean that, even after all this time, many people still don’t understand how to use email effectively?  Yes, indeed it does.

What can you do?  They answers are not as simple as they appear on the surface (as is true for our most persistent problems).  For the sake of this article, we’re going to take a look at how a simple shift in your attitude toward email can help reduce the number of unwanted messages that you send and receive.

First, understand the purpose of the “TO” and “CC” fields. “TO” requires action.  “CC” requires none, it is a “for your information only” indicator.

Second, use “CC” sparingly.  Sending your manager or team leader multiple messages every week in which no action is required from them is just an annoying way to say, “look, Boss, I’m doing my job!”; “look at me!  look at me!”; “still here, working away!”  like some yappy little dog.  If you don’t feel trusted to get your work done, then that’s a different conversation you need to have face to face with your team lead.

Finally, resist the temptation to “CC” your team lead / manager whenever you feel a dispute is in the works and you want an “official” record of your position. This culture of “CYA” – “cover your … ahem, derriere” leads to unnecessary email messages and wasted time.  Take your dispute off-line and work it out in person.  It will be infintely better, trust me.

We get too much email.  We send too much email.  We delete too much email.  But it doesn’t have to be that way.  Start taking control through the judicious use of the “CC” field.

This article is the first in a series designed to help reduce your email overload.  Please share with us any comments / stories you have about your own email situation.

En Garde! Dueling Loyalties

By nature, a matrix is flexible and allows people to come together when their experience, expertise, or knowledge is best suited for the project at hand.  It allows project leaders access to resources they wouldn’t have if they were limited to those people reporting directly to them in a traditional supervisor / employee structure.

The very flexibility that makes this a viable structure, also leads to the following challenges:

  • The lack of clarity makes people unsure, they don’t know how to proceed, and minor issues quickly escalate.
  • The lack of structure makes people feel unconnected and lost as they are squeezed between competing and conflicting goals.
  • Too many meetings, too much email, and too much personality drama.

In a perfect work environment, you would work half of each day for each team, assuming you are only part of two teams.  But our workplaces aren’t perfect and you constantly need to juggle these expectations.

What can you do to increase your effectiveness within this structure?

Have a presence with people — Respond to their requests, add value to others and they will be more likely to do the same for you.

Be clear about decisions – Is someone asking you for input, an opinion, a vote, or an actual decision?

Be proactive with conflict — Deal with tensions and misunderstandings quickly and explicitly. Often, simply acknowledging disagreements aids in a speedy resolution.

Clarify expectations — don’t assume!  As with any team, priorities shift.  When you are on multiple teams, it is incredibly easy for them to shift unbeknownst to you.  A quick email to confirm action items, goals, objectives, perhaps even which processes to use, can save you a lot of frustration.

Thank you for reading.

Have a comment?  Why not get the conversation started? ( :

Decoding Language in Virtual Teams

I read an interesting article by Lera Boroditsky (Lost in Translation) which suggests that languages shape people’s perception of space, causality and time. A Stanford University study found that Spanish and Japanese speakers are less likely to remember agents of accidental events than English speakers – that is, in English one would say “John broke the vase” whereas in Spanish it could be said “the vase broke itself”.

When working virtually, effective communication (speaking, listening, writing and reading) through language is critical because there is little or no opportunity to read non-verbal queues. The example of the vase highlights an important difference that may creep up in languages – that of expressing accountability of actions. Following the same example, a Spanish or Japanese speaker that is not fluent in English may sound like he/she evades responsibility if he/she committed a mistake. Similarly, he/she may appear to shy away from discussing the root cause of issues, which may not necessarily be the case.

These language barriers are likely be heightened in virtual teams. I have experienced having to wear different hats depending on what language I speak. This is not about one language being better than the other – they are just different. Boroditsky’s article described what multilingual speakers like me have probably noticed: there are subtleties that cannot be explained by a mere translation. Some things completely lose their essence in another language. Based on my own experience I would suggest the following:

  • Avoid acronyms and internet slang. I assume the average business email is not ladled with LOL however I have seen my fair share of emails that included acronyms like COB (close of business), sent by English language natives to Portuguese speakers. Such words can be lost to the receiver, and cause unnecessary confusion. Do not assume people who speak different languages know what you are talking about even if you think these acronyms are global. There are probably acronyms in different languages that you may not be aware of.
  • Consider what medium should be best used when. For example, to avoid chain emails and round robin replies by a large group, set up a teleconference or videoconference. The idea is to use the technology that will best convey the message to the receiver as well as the interpretation thereof.
  • Emails have the advantage in that readers can reread, look up definitions of unknown words and have time to respond. But the writer must keep the reader in mind – this email is about conveying a message that the reader is intended to understand.
  • Decode what words mean for different speakers. For example, the word “yes” may mean agreement or it may convey understanding without agreement.

Is it possible that over time languages will converge in a melting pot as a result of the surge in online conversation, and a universal language is created and used by many?

Please share your stories/ thoughts on how language affects remote teams working across different distances, cultures and languages.