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I have just come back from a phenomenally exciting day at the Olympic stadium watching the athletics.  What a fantastic experience to watch people performing at their peak.  But the thing that struck me most was the amazing atmosphere - it was absolutely buzzing.

And along with thousands of others, I participated in many of the Mexican waves that regularly swept around the stadium.  In between jumping up from my seat and waving my arms in the air I got thinking about the psychology behind such an activity – how on earth does a Mexican wave get started?

Researchers in Hungary and Germany have modelled crowds performing Mexican Waves and have found that:

  • It typically takes 2 dozen people to start a Mexican wave
  • The wave typically starts in the shape of a small, tight ball, then gradually spreads out into a line as more people join in
  • Approximately 3 out of 4 Mexican waves move in a clockwise direction
  • The typical speed of a wave is 22 seats per second
  • The typical width of a wave is 15 seats (6-12 metres)
  • 20 seconds after the first group start, at least 50% of people in the following columns need to get actively involved in the wave in order for it to be successful.

One of the things that was most noticeable in the Mexican waves at the Olympic stadium was that the waves that started spontaneously were much more successful (in terms of participation and duration) than those started by the commentators encouraging a Mexican wave to begin.  This is nice example of crowd behaviour – when we are in a crowd, we are more likely to behave in line with what other people in the crowd are doing, rather than in line what one person tells the crowd to do.

This is a particular element of self-categorization theory, known as depersonalization.  In essence, when we’re in a crowd, we base our behaviour on the norms, goals and needs of the wider group.  This is one of the reasons we witnessed people looting in last summer’s riots who would never normally steal anything and why this year we see Mexican waves ripple around the stadium.

For those of you out there about to go to an Olympics event – enjoy.  If I had a chance to go again, I would, like a shot, just to soak up that atmosphere.  And if while you’re there, it crosses your mind to try and start a wave, here are a few top tips:

1)    Get a buzz going with the groups around you – remember you need about 2 dozen in a ball shape to get the wave moving

2)    The success of your initial start depends on the next few rows of people, so build on any excitement in your block of seats – adding to their cheers will help

3)    Choose a time when people are neither too bored nor too excited / distracted by the track & field activities – this is a key component of wave success

4)    Don’t sit next to the empty banks of seats!  Once going, the wave will jump these, but they will make it harder to get a wave started.

The moment is upon us. Athletes are arriving at Heathrow. Olympic traffic lanes are open. Commuters are bracing themselves for the potential transport nightmares. The advice of the Government (though not Boris Johnson) has been to work from home in order to reduce  traffic and increase productivity. This sounds sensible, yet for many reasons will not be an easy option for employees or their leaders. One important reason for this is that we are social animals. We have evolved for close contact with other individuals and small groups. This means that we communicate most effectively when we are visible to others: when we can see, hear and ‘smell’ the truth. And we tend to communicate poorly when we are working at a distance.

At home, we no longer have the option of ‘chance meetings’ to catch up on what’s going on, or the ability to wonder into the next office just to chew the fat – tactics that most of us will rely on to communicate with colleagues. Instead, we have to think ahead and plan communication.

Technology to enable remote communication has of course improved considerably over the years. Unfortunately, our understanding of how to use technology hasn’t. Leaders have the option of using phone, email, text messages, web-based video or even full video conferencing. Our research into remote leadership found, however, that many leaders over-relied on their own preferred methods of communicating - email and telephone - without knowing what their teams actually prefer. In reality, people have varying communication needs, but at the very least will expect a degree of personally tailored communication from their leaders.

And at an individual level, our research with Cisco also highlighted some of the important personality factors that enable us to be more, or less, effective when working remotely. For example, those who adapt readily to working remotely tend to be more extravert and sociable, more organised and more open to new experiences. Not everyone will share these characteristics, so a degree of awareness and support from leaders could go a long way to improve the speed and ease with which their teams settle into remote working.

Even though remote working seems relatively easy and straightforward, we are not all equipped psychologically to work from home or to lead at a distance. Employers may see remote working as a solution to cutting costs and avoiding transport problems, but taking us out of this environment requires a lot of thought and effort from the leader. Otherwise, we really will become a nation of cheese eaters for the next month.

There have been two recent high profile failures of leadership in the headlines: Rupert Murdoch at News International and, perhaps even more dramatically, Bob Diamond at Barclays Bank.  Isn’t it interesting that both are prepared to take credit for the success of their businesses, but much slower to accept responsibility when things go wrong?  Bob Diamond has made an estimated £98M in the six years since he has been at Barclays, much of it in bonus payments for the success of the bank.  No doubt he would say that he deserves this due to his effective leadership.  So far, however, there is no sign of a similar degree of responsibility for the recent LIBOR scandal though.  Why is this?

From a psychological perspective Attribution Theory can help us to explain this behaviour.

Attribution theory is the process by which individuals explain the cause of either their own or others’ behaviour.     For example, I’m a good driver, and when I cut someone up in a roundabout it’s because I’m in a hurry to get to an important meeting.  When someone else cuts me up it’s because they are a bad driver.  In the context of Barclays:  Bob Diamond sees himself as  a good leader who has contributed to the significant growth of the Bank, hence he deserves his bonus. However, the recent LIBOR scandal is not his fault, but the fault of certain traders.  These are bad traders.

Essentially it is a form of rationalising ones own actions. The impact on others, though, is that people who tend to rationalise like this come across as unprepared to accept responsibility and as arrogant. Ultimately, as in Bob Diamond’s case, it results in leadership derailment and an apparent inability to learn from critical mistakes.

Prepare yourself…the following is a rant about being sick.

Bob Diamond said he was “physically sick” when he read the email of traders bragging about fixing interest rates. He made his now-famous statement before the Treasury Select Committee as a form of contrition and public appeasement.

Now, is it just me, or is that just a clear illustration of a man who is in no way sorry or guilty for his actions, but instead the words of a man whose stomach fell when he realised how much trouble he was really in?

Our fight or flight response subconsciously prepares us for survival – either through running away or standing our ground. In doing so, it is not uncommon to feel physically sick; it is our body’s way of coping with the sudden surge of adrenalin needed to deal with the impending threat. What it does not do is signify remorse or guilt. If anything, it merely goes to support the view that he does not fully understand his own ethical complicity in the scandal.

Instead of focusing only on punishment, public hangings and increased regulation, now is the time to be focusing on the psychology of ethics. What is it about individuals and the organisational structures that surround them that lead to unethical behaviour? Organisations have been banging on about leadership and integrity for decades but very little is ever done about it. Instead of demanding (insincere) apologies, we need to use the psychology of individuals and organisations to better realise the true benefits of ethical leadership.

At the latest government inquiry into the behaviour of the banks, Bob Diamond said of his own staff at Barclays that they and their actions were “reprehensible”. These were the staff responsible for fraudulently manipulating the LIBOR interest rates and their emails alone were enough to make Diamond feel “physically ill”.

So if that’s the way that they left an experienced and hardened global banker feeling, what impact has it had on us? The single biggest reaction has been shock at the sheer lack of honesty in the actions of some individuals in the banking sector. The latest headlines suggest that these reprehensible behaviours may be widespread across many other banks. So, there could be more resignations, more shock and more disappointment to follow.

Once again, at the heart of this latest incident sits integrity. Definitions of integrity vary wildly, but all include the words honesty, truth and transparency. Integrity in leadership is of course not a new concept. It is not something that emerged in reaction to the banking collapse in 2008 or in response to the behaviour of Fred Goodwin or Bernie Madhoff. Integrity is a core quality of leadership that has existed in the literature for generations. Indeed, in Kouzes and Posner’s survey of admired leadership qualities, integrity is consistently the most important quality that we look for in our leaders.

And yet talking about integrity for a generation has had no influence whatsoever on the action of leaders in the banking sector. Or many other sectors come to that. Why? The main reason is that while everyone talks about integrity and nods in agreement about its importance in leadership (who would be crazy enough to disagree?) in reality few organisations are brave enough to measure it or reward it as a behaviour.

In coaching psychology there is a phrase “what you focus on, happens” and in organisations the phrase is “what you reward, gets done”. And this is the problem. Honesty is seen as a ‘given’ in organisations. It is expected and, therefore, largely ignored. And it is not rewarded, other than being punished by exception. What actually gets rewarded is making money. Or delivering results, or achieving targets, or making profits. So why on earth should we be shocked - or even surprised - when employees choose to break rules to increase their chances of reward or success? Surely you get what you ask for?

Of course, I’m not naive. Or at least not so naive to think that we will start rewarding honesty ahead of delivery of results. No. But integrity will never, and I mean never, become a part of an organisation’s culture until it is much more consistently and visibly endorsed, and financially rewarded.

In the world of internet technology, the race is on to make every user’s experience of the web as personal as it can be. Search engines - such as Google - are tracking every search and click that we make, and depending on the choice, will use that information to target advertising at us. Information is passed on, within seconds, from one website to another, and ultimately on to third parties so that advertising can be focused more effectively.

So, what’s the harm in that? On one level, not much. Given the amount of information on the web, personalisation might feel like a good thing. However, personalisation also influences the outcome of search results, for example by changing the order in which results are displayed on the page, and overall the number of ‘hits’ you receive in searches. The developers of search engines know that most people do not go beyond the first page when looking through search results and clicking on a link. It’s in their interests, therefore, to put the results that you are most likely to enjoy at the top of the list. They achieve this by tracking your history and using this to tailor results for you.

And here in lies a problem. A very common bias in human beings is ‘confirmatory bias’ ( a form of unconscious bias) which is when we tend to ignore information that does not support our view and focus too much on information that does support our view. Now think what this means for us when a search engine presents us with personalised search results. In practice, through personalising my search results, the search engine will tend to prioritise items that agree with my point of view over those that might contradict my view because historically that is what I have tended to click on. In my daily search for news, therefore, the chances of me hitting upon analysis that contradicts my own view is reduced. Some might argue that this is the same with choosing printed news. Not so. When I choose printed news from the newsstand, I make a conscious decision of which paper I buy and can consciously choose to read papers with differing political affiliations. On the web, the choice is a less conscious one as I will not always be aware of the political affiliations of the news source. Thus Yahoo, Google, Ask and the like could be narrowing our minds.

Kissing grass, patting heads and wearing lucky boots. It’s striking to see the number of superstitious behaviours amongst footballers - and these are just the visible rituals. Of course, it’s all part of the game. The world watches and laughs at these bizarre and irrational behaviours, yet many people laugh while knowing that they too have their own superstitions.

A superstition is a belief that links an action, object or a ritual to an unrelated outcome. It can be a good luck charm from a first date; a lucky number on a winning lottery ticket; or even lucky pants, one of the more common superstitions apparently. It is often based on an entirely random association and known as false correlation. But it doesn’t matter how irrational the link is, as long as there is a link.

As human beings we constantly try to make sense of what happens to us. When it is difficult to see a direct link between an outcome and an event, we seek alternative explanations. ‘Luck’ is one of the most frequent alternative explanations. Those who turn to luck as an explanation will, naturally, try to maximise and replicate their luck. In doing so, they begin to increase their feelings of reassurance and confidence, which in turn reinforces the belief that whatever they did brought them more luck and success. It is a common self-fulfilling cycle.

According to psychological research, higher anxiety tends to increase the likelihood of making superstitious links, as does having an external locus of control (a view that life is something that happens to us, rather than feeling in control). But the fact is that superstitions, as strange and irrational as they may seem, make sense. They provide an explanation of events, which is preferable to having no explanation at all. They provide a greater feeling of control. And they enable some people to feel that they can cope better with uncertainty.

And, believe it or not, they can influence performance. Psychologists1 have observed, in controlled experiments, significantly improved accuracy in the performance of groups using a ‘lucky’ ball, as well as better problem solving results when allowed to have a ‘lucky charm’ present.

Perhaps that’s why a survey last week suggested that over 50% of Americans have superstitious beliefs. In these testing times I’m just surprised it’s not higher.

1Damisch et al (2010) Keep Your Fingers Crossed! How Superstitions Improve Performance. Psychological Science.

There was an interesting debate on the BBC’s Question Time last night about the Government’s decision to make a u-turn on recent budget announcements, and in particular the controversial ‘pasty tax’. Not surprisingly the panel were polarised on the issue, with the Conservative MP saying that this was democracy in action and the Labour MP saying that this was evidence of indecision.

And yet, from a public perspective, what is it that we want from leaders when it comes to making decisions? Do we want to see u-turns? Do we want to be led decisively? There’s a clear tension between the two perspectives, but what is it that followers need and look for in leadership?

One of the core psychological elements of the leader/follower relationship is trust. It is at the heart of our interactions with our leaders and it shapes the degree to which we are willing to engage with, and deliver for, our leaders. Trust is a complex mix of feelings, attitudes, personality traits and behaviours, but many researchers suggest that the essence can be divided into two types of trust: cognitive and affective trust. We build cognitive trust when we see our leader as competent, knowledgeable and experienced. Affective trust is derived from our emotional connection with the leader, which is developed through having shared values, feeling supported and fairly represented by our leader.

One important thing to note about these different types of trust is how fragile they can be. Cognitive trust is often built quickly, as we listen for experience and knowledge, we work out how credible somebody sounds, and our trust grows or diminishes. Affective trust, however, can often take much longer to develop, as we look for mutual but subtle bonds and similarities, and we take increasing ‘risks’ to test the leader’s likely reaction.

On this basis, making a u-turn on a decision can increase our trust in leadership, but only if it is an occasional and understandable reversal. If a leader never retracts a decision, even in the face of extreme disapproval from followers, then disappointment and anger will increase, and affective trust will fall. Equally, if a leader continuously makes reversals of decisions, we will quickly lose cognitive trust with the individual, questioning their competence, knowledge and capacity to make reasoned, planful decisions.

So, from a leadership perspective, u-turns on decisions should be seen as a valuable, but rarely selected, option. When the current leader of the country announced the first policy u-turn, many of us would have felt more connected and involved with the decision and reassured by the reversal. Several u-turns later, however, and many of us are likely to be feeling concerned by an apparent lack of clarity, experience and forward-thinking in decision making.

Christine Lagarde, the IMF chief, has been widely accused of hypocrisy after it emerged that she pays no income tax, only weeks after accusing the Greeks of avoiding payment of their own tax bills. Lagarde is not the first, and nor will she be the last, to say one thing and act in another. Yet there can be few things that will break trust faster or cause more anger than a clear sense of hypocrisy. And one of the most interesting things about hypocrisy, from a psychological perspective, is that it increases as people become more powerful.

Dutch researchers1 looked into the relationship between increasing power and hypocrisy by creating a simulation in which different groups were assigned to having ‘low’ or ‘high’ powered roles - essentially taking the role of a prime minister or civil servant. Through observing the difference in judgements and decisions on a range of civil and moral dilemmas, the researchers found that the ‘high’ power groups were much more likely to condemn others’ behaviours, but equally likely to commit the same moral failures themselves.

In another experiment, researchers2 asked subjects to spin a coin in order to decide whether they would be given a boring, demanding task or a simple, fun task. They were told that the next participant would be given the task that wasn’t chosen. They were then left alone to toss the coin. Not surprisingly, around 90% of participants did not flip the coin, but allocated the task as they preferred. But here’s the important thing. When those participants were asked to observe another (fake) participant do exactly the same thing and choose the easy task without tossing the coin, they were very quick to condemn the behaviour of the fake participant.

I want to point out, as hard as it is to admit it, that I’m not immune to hypocrisy. But nor are you, no matter who you are. We constantly make judgements of others based on our own generalised beliefs and moral codes (what we see as being right and wrong) even though we do not live these beliefs out to the full. So, we know what the right thing is to do, yet often choose - or are forced - to behave in a different way.

The important thing here, though, may be to help leaders to become more aware that power is strongly related to hypocrisy. Most of the leaders we work with in coaching situations would pride themselves on their integrity, the quality of their decision making and would say that they are the first to ‘roll up their sleeves’ to help out when needed. So this is rarely about deliberate or malicious hypocrisy, but perhaps it’s about gaining a wider insight into how contradictory and fragile our judgements can be, even when we are put in positions of great authority.

1. Lammers, J., Stapel, D.A. and Galinsky, A.D. (2010) Power Increases Hypocrisy: Moralising in Reasoning, Immorality in Behaviour. Psychological Science.

2. DeSteno, D. and Valdesolo, P. (2011) Out of Character: Surprising Truths about the Liar, Cheat, Sinner (and Saint) Lurking in All of Us. Published by Crown Archetype.

Much of last week's news was dominated by the impending tanker driver strike and the threat, according to the Government at least, of a fuel shortage. In response, many people leapt into their cars and headed off to their nearest forecourt to top up cars and jerry cans. And so I found myself raging at the radio. But I wasn't raging at the news of queues on the forecourts. I was raging at the observations of some fairly renowned psychologists - yes, psychologists - about our behaviour and reactions in the midst of the fuel shortage.

Of all the comments, the worst was that our panic reaction was just a case of "herd mentality". The expert continued "'s what we do isn't it? We see a queue and we join it".

I guess we're British after all, so we all respond in the same way when we're scared. Actually, I'm not sure that we do.

First of all, I don't fully know what "herd mentality" means. I'm not sure that many people do. It is, at best, a generic description of social influences that are often subtle and complex. Nietzsche originally coined the term (in Thus Spoke Zarathustra) to explain the subservience of mankind in following common values, such as religion, but I suspect it was never meant to describe all aspects of group influence and behaviour. It seems to have become a tabloid short-hand for 'they all act the same' and it's becoming too easily used by psychologists.

Secondly, I personally don't see a queue and join it. Again, it's a well-worn cliché; an over-generalisation. In fact, come to think of it, I actively avoid queuing wherever possible. And I really don't consider myself to be that different to most other people I know, work with, meet or walk past in the street. We don't see queues and join them. It's an outmoded 1930's stereotype, much like saying we only talk about the weather.

In reality, the perceived scarcity of a product causes some interesting and profound reactions in all of us, whether it causes us to want something far more intensely than we would ordinarily, or to believe that our freedom may be compromised without the product. Either way, the most natural and understandable response is to head to a petrol station to fill up and to look after our own interests. It isn't 'herd' behaviour simply because many of us respond. It's a sensible, self-protecting strategy.

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