First Impressions, Job Hunting and José

The start of a new year is often a time when we identify new challenges and projects and set our resolutions1.  New challenges and new projects often mean meeting new people and I was intrigued to read in a recent article in the Independent about what Harvard psychologist Amy Cuddy proposed to be the two criteria on which people judge you during an initial meeting.

  • Can I trust this person?
  • Can I respect this person?

In her book Presence Amy Cuddy proposes that the second factor, our competence, is given undue prominence, particularly in a professional context such as work. We overemphasise the need to show we are competent and can do the job. However, the first factor, our warmth, is according to Amy Cuddy the most important factor in how people evaluate others. As she said in the interview in the Independent “From an evolutionary perspective it is more crucial to our survival to know whether a person deserves our trust.”

This got me thinking about one person who is looking to take on a new challenge – and if the media are to be believed at Manchester United. José Mourinho is the special one. The most successful manager of his generation. As close to a guarantee of silverware as you can get in the uncertain world of professional football. He is also a special one because he is fascinating. Charismatic, volatile, talented and fascinating. And his current situation is very fascinating. Nobody seems to want to employ him. His desire to manage Manchester United looks like being unrequited. It may of course happen, as professional football is a weird and wonderful world, but perhaps we need to look no further than Amy Cuddy’s work to understand why even an underachieving club like Manchester United has, outwardly, cold feet about appointing the most successful manager of his generation.

There is no questioning José Mourinho’s competence. Nobody better. But perhaps some of the bigger clubs doubt his warmth – whether they can trust him in the same way as they could other managers. The well-publicised incident with the Chelsea Doctor Eva Carneiro at the start of this season illustrates this. And individuals with different personal qualities, such as Carlo Ancelotti, seem now to be more highly valued by the biggest clubs.

I am of course speculating on Jose Mournio’s situation. But the central tenet of Amy Cuddy’s work echos much of what I have observed working in sport and meeting high profile leaders. Personal qualities matter. An approach recognised and manifested in the New Zealand rugby teams mantra which emphasised personal qualities. So if you are embarking on new challenges and meeting new people remember it is not just what you have done, but how much warmth you have and whether people feel they can trust you that matters.

Footnote1 One of my resolutions was to write more blogs. That it is February will tell you all you need to know about how this is going for me. So I am telling people about this resolution as a stimulus to maintain it – because that should help.


Pressure Good, Stress Bad

In his book Winners and How They Succeed Alastair Campbell has a section on ‘Pressure Good, Stress Bad’. In it he outlines how successful performers in whatever sphere use pressure as a force for good – a stimulus to success. One of the examples used to illustrate this was England Forward Gary Lineker who took a crucial penalty in the 1990 Football World Cup quarter-final to square the game and told himself “I am now in a position millions of mere mortals would love to be in, so I am not going to be scared, I am going to enjoy it. I can make a mark here.”

You can see the penalty, and the one he took in extra time to win the game, here:

Of course not everyone will respond in such a positive manner to the demands placed upon them. Some will, like Lineker, see the positive in even the most demanding situation. Others will not necessarily see the positives, but nor will they be cowed, and will still be able to cope and perform to, or close to, their potential.

Understanding why it is that some people respond positively, and some do not, is a fascinating topic. In our research we use the terms challenge (pressure) or threat (stress) to distinguish between those who respond positively to these clutch situations.

Interestingly we can measure whether individuals are challenged, or threatened, by an event through measuring their cardiovascular (CV) responses to the stressor. And how we respond physically, the nature of the ‘fight or flight’ response, has been consistently linked to how we then perform. In a sense our body’s response when we are placed in those crucial situations indicates if we are going to succeed or not.

In a situation where it is important for us to do well an increase in the amount of blood pumped by the heart in a minute and a decrease in the resistance in the blood vessels indicates a ‘challenge response’. The blood flows to the muscles and brain more efficiently, providing the energy, to be able to deal with the stressor. If a person has a threat response there is little change in the volume of blood pumped by the heart in a minute and there is an increase in the resistance in the blood vessels. The blood is less able to get to the muscles and brain more efficiently, reducing ability to deal with the situation.

In our research CV changes have consistently predicted performance with those showing an increase in the amount of blood pumped by the heart in a minute and a decrease in the resistance in the blood vessels performing better (e.g., Turner, Jones, Sheffield, & Cross, 2012; Turner, Jones, Sheffield, Slater, Barker, & Bell, 2013).

We think the factors that underpin the challenge response are confidence, control and an approach focus – that is a focus on what can be achieved not what might go wrong. Interestingly, in our laboratory studies we have been able to manipulate people’s responses to demanding situations by altering the instructions we give them before a task (Turner, Jones, Sheffield, Barker & Coffee, 2014). As a leader, colleague or team-mate whether it is in business, sport, or politics emphasising the qualities a person has (confidence), drawing attention to what they can control (control) and keeping a focus on what can be achieved, not what may go wrong (approach focus) can help in, Alastair’s words, feel under pressure and not stress.

What I also find really interesting is not just how people can get into a challenge state but whether that means that state really helps them maintain performance under pressure – or exceed their normal level. I am not sure if there is any conclusive data on this – but my feeling is the best performers under pressure maintain performance levels rather than exceed them. So with a tweak (complete re-write!) of the famous Navy Seal related quote “you don’t rise to the occasion, you perform to your ability”.

Alastair Campbell did a the first residency at Staffordshire University on the 16th -18th November.

Great Sporting Expectations

At what distance do professional golfers have a 50-50 chance of making a putt?

This is possibly my favourite sports question. I wonder if you can guess. I often pose this question to keen golfers, whether in a professional capacity as a consultant or if, as happened a few weeks ago, at a dinner party (I rarely get invited to dinner parties).

It is my favourite sports question because it tells us a lot about how we judge success and failure and how our expectations can motivate or hinder us.

The answer comes from a statistical analysis of putting performance on the PGA tour, and it was something I included with Dr Paul McCarthy in our book The Successful Golfer. The study by Douglas Fearing and colleagues explored putting performance on the PGA tour. Rather than relying on the freely available data on putting performance such as the number of putts per round, or birdie conversion a mathematical model was developed based on a data collection system known as ShotLink. This system captured the ball location and elevation for every putt to within 1 cm on the green. As such it provided a much more detailed analysis about putting performance because it gives a real indication of how difficult the putt was (e.g., distance, whether it was a downhill putt etc.). Data were collected from 45 PGA tour events held at 30 courses from 2003 to 2008. An enormous amount of data points were collected comprising over 2 million in total and a number of interesting analyses were conducted including who was the best putter during that time (Tiger Woods) and whether putting performance is worse in the final pressure filled fourth round for players in contention (it is not). However the one statistic that caught our eye is, for professional golfers the likelihood of making a seven foot putt is 50-50.

The best professional putters will make one out of every two putts from seven feet.

I play with amateurs who barely break 100 shots for a round who get annoyed at missing a putt from seven feet. Yet, making a putt of seven feet is a ‘coin toss’ for even the best golfers.

This example tells us a lot about how we should approach our performance. It is not particularly surprising but it does highlight the nuanced difference between what we feel must to achieve and what we are aiming for, something my colleagues Dr Martin Turner, Dr Jamie Barker and Dr Matt Slater cover in their Smarter Thinking Project. With a golfer facing a seven foot putt we would work with them to make sure they are in the best shape to make the putt, for example through a well-worked pre-putt routine that precedes a confident relaxed stroke. But thinking they ‘should’ make these putts is not helpful and not true. Even for professional golfers.

It also tells us that sport is replete with failure. Whether it is the best rugby kickers with a successful kick percentage of around 80% (they miss one in five) through to the golfers making surprisingly only half the putts from seven feet. Because of this the ability to move on from failure is key to success. As is, perhaps more importantly, the ability to focus on the process of success and not be cowed by the expectation of success – in short how we engage with our goals matters.

I am looking forward to exploring how successful people from business, sport and politics deal with success and failure – and how they engage with their goals – in more detail with Alastair Campbell who authored Winners and How They Succeed and will be doing a residency at Staffordshire University on the 16th -18th November.

The Tactics to Succeed at Football

The management carousel is well underway in the Premier League this season with the sacking of Brendan Rogers, followed by Tim Sherwood, and may at the time of writing, improbably, soon claim the mightily successful José Mourinho. Leadership at professional football clubs is a curious thing. At its heart is the paradox that the manager is the single biggest factor in success, but rarely is the manager given a substantial length of time to demonstrate their worth. The opportunity to fail in the pursuit of success is not often tolerated and because of this stability, while highly valued, is rare. Currently, in the Premier League only five managers (Arsène Wenger, Eddie Howe José Mourinho, Manuel Pellegrini, Roberto Martínez) have been with their team for more than two years. While 10 of the managers in the Premier League have been with their team for less than a year.

This short term approach in football is thrown into focus as I have started reading Winners and How They Succeed by Alastair Campbell and in his opening chapter he talks about how an approach to winning is encapsulated in three letters; OST.

  • O – Objective
  • S – Strategy
  • T – Tactics

To illustrate this in a football context Alastair used the example of Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona team, with an objective of win everything, a strategy of play better football than anyone else and the tactics to achieve this included the five-second rule where players pressed to regain possession in tight areas within 5-seconds of losing it and when in possession they would try to create a ‘free-man’ in the area where a passage of play might start.

There were countless other examples of this OST approach from other sports, business and politics. But what really interested me is how many of the examples were long term and took years to enact. Whether it is the strategy devised in 1994 to help Labour win power in 1997 through to other sports where change has been a process measured in years as evidenced in the work of Sir David Brailsford through to Sir Clive Woodward. I know that Sir Alex Ferguson is a counter example from football but it is difficult to imagine a manager at a top club being given that length of time before success in the modern era.

So time to succeed simply does not exist for managers in football. Of course managerial changes are to a degree an inevitability, but this short time in situ for managers has two immediate consequences for clubs and football more widely. First, the development of players is less of a priority than the purchase of players equipped to perform to Premier League standards immediately. Both Brendan Rogers and more recently Tim Sherwood have been more heavily criticised for perceived failings in the transfer market than their ability to develop young players – at which both actually seem pretty skilled. Second, the importance of a successful transfer policy is evident in that many clubs now seem to operate a transfer committee, where the purchase of players is decided by a group of individuals. Whether the manager does, or does not, have the final say differs depending on which press report you read. But this seems a classic fudge. The manger bears all the responsibility, but does not necessarily have all the power.

In an interesting article Alex Keble, writing in the Independent queried whether the sacking of Tim Sherwood was a victory for business over entertainment. It is a triumph for business in that it is financially important for Aston Villa to remain in the Premier League. But it is not very ‘business like’ in that Tim Sherwood was sacked ten games into a new season where he was presumably trying to enact a longer term approach for the club after a successful spell towards the end of last season. He presided over the sale of his two best players and the purchase of younger, talented, but unproven players. If he is the wrong person now, he was the wrong appointment eight months ago. Both his strengths and weaknesses as a manager were readily apparent at his appointment and little has changed since then. It is this type of muddled thinking that makes sustainable long term success unobtainable for so many clubs.

Of course there are clubs that are an exception, Swansea, Stoke City, and Southampton have all successfully ascended to the Premier league and flourished there. But as an outsider viewing many of the clubs in the Premier League it seems as though immediate improvement is the sole objective, the strategy is to change the manager when things are not going well and hope for a boost from the honeymoon period and the tactics vary accordingly. That half the managers in the Premier League have been with their team for less than a year is illustrative. A longer term strategy based on OST would help many clubs. The tactics to succeed at football really depend on the wider strategy and clear objective.

Alastair Campbell will be undertaking a residency at Staffordshire University on the 16th-18th November and will be giving a Public Lecture on the 16th November.


Why Life is Easier for Louis van Gaal at Man Utd

As Manchester United prepare to take on Manchester City this weekend it highlights for me one of the most interesting things about this football season from a psychological perspective (even accounting for Mario Balotelli). That is the way in which Louis van Gaal has been treated by the media and the general positive feeling that is coming from Manchester United. In particular the contrast with 12 months ago and how quickly David Moyes came under fire from the supporters, the media, and if rumours are to be believed some of his own players.

There are of course lies, damn lies and statistics. However, at this stage of the season Louis Van Gaal’s record is worse.

So despite having a much easier start to the season, and spending £150 million, there is no improvement in terms of points gained. Yet Louis Van Gaal is not criticised. With games against the top teams to come it is feasible for Manchester United’s performance to get (relative to last season) worse again.

Why the different treatment of the respective managers? There are many reasons, but for me one that stands out is that the fans, the media, and crucially the players appear to have confidence in Louis van Gaal.

That the confidence we have in our leaders influences our behaviour has been illustrated in a series of studies in exercise settings. For example, exercise participants reported greater personal confidence and attended classes more often when they had confidence in the class instructor’s ability to teach, motivate and communicate.

As renowned psychologist Albert Bandura outlined, having confidence in others is thought to be particularly important in situations where (a) the person (i.e. player) does not have the means to achieve a desired success on their own (b) if this person (i.e. manager) will help achieve success better, easier or faster, (c) the person (i.e. player) does not want direct control or responsibility over the possible outcomes. Certainly (a) and (b) apply from a footballer’s perspective as ultimately success in a team game depends on others and arguably (c) applies with some footballers as well.

This confidence in others is what psychologists call proxy-efficacy. Just like our own personal confidence (self-efficacy) we can derive confidence in others from a number of sources. Primarily, and not surprisingly, previous success is the biggest source of confidence. Whatever Louis van Gaal asks for of his players it comes from a person who has won league titles in a number of countries and the Champions League. There is confidence in the messenger, and so the message. And as such it is easier for Louis van Gaal to get buy-in for his methods. Confidence does not solely come from previous success but can also come from many other sources as well, for example other footballers who have worked with Louis van Gaal, testifying what a good manager he is, or Louis van Gaal interacting in clear, knowledgeable, ways with the players that in turn instils confidence in them.

Looking from the outside in it seems that proxy-efficacy is one reason why with similar records (and much more money spent) Louis van Gaal is seen as being at the start of an exciting journey of rebuilding, whereas David Moyes was seen as failing. It is because of this that Louis van Gaal, will be given more time to succeed. It is because of this he is more likely to succeed. Success, and crucially the opportunity to succeed, is in sport, as in life, in the eye of the beholder.


Sport and Business

In the last week I have given two talks in which I have outlined how the research we are doing in sport has applications to work and life more broadly. The first talk I gave was the inaugural talk for the Stoke ‘Psychology in the Pub’ series organised by Professor Karen Rodham. It was held at the Glebe pub and was great to chat to colleagues and the public about our research and the implications for stress management techniques – while having a very effective stress management technique regularly provided. On Friday I gave a talk to staff at UK Sport about resilience (a positive response to stress) and this was held at Bisham Abbey in one of the grandest rooms I have ever spoken (although it lacked a bar – so the Glebe pub won on that criteria).


The grandeur of the room was probably not matched by the talk but I enjoyed it and it was great to share a Q&A session with staff and elite athletes about the issues covered. I discussed how we can think in a resilient way, help others be more resilient, and structure our working day (and life) to be more resilient.  I will revisit these topics in future blogs in more detail.

But I thought I would take the opportunity to revisit (reuse!) a blog I originally wrote with a colleague Dr Steve Suckling and which he published as part of his blog in June. Below is an abridged version of the blog in which we integrate Steve’s work on uncertainty and our work on resilience and apply it to organisations.

An organisation’s vulnerability can be measured by its approach to risk. If the organisation is governed by rigid procedures and processes then breaks to routine methods caused by unforeseen events are far more likely to result in catastrophes and the breaking of an entire organisational system. The reason the system breaks is because the people and culture are not capable of improvising under stress and so incapable of adapting to rapid change. This is the opposite of resilience and is basically a dysfunctional response to risk.

No matter how much an organisation attempts to identify and minimise risks it can’t avoid the uncertainty of the future. Unfortunately the complexity and aesthetics of risk models, manifested in daily procedures and processes, create a false sense of security- the future is in the bag and adherence to routine minimises risk. This approach can work for long periods of time, but the moment something unexpected happens people are instinctively scratching around for a manual which does not exist, instead improvisation is required.

Constant adherence to routine generates too much certainty into how the future will play out- you’ll always have that job, you’ll always keep your best customer, that market is secure, and that warning system always work; and this blunts error detection (see Crandrall et al 2006, Rugg et al, 2013 for examples). Not exposing people and organisations to tests means that when these future expectancies eventually get violated (and they will) they become framed as threats, and framing situations as threats is not conducive to improvising- people simply don’t have the confidence and range of trials to draw from required to improvise.

How does an organisation transform its approach to risk as a means of building resilience? Firstly, uncertainty needs to be embraced, an acceptance that routines and procedures will eventually hit their limits, and improvisation, and the innovation which springs from it, will be needed. Risk doesn’t just need to be written in a file or modelled, it needs to be practiced. Practice can take the form of resilience training where people are exposed to extreme events (in scenarios for example) which require thinking beyond the formal, routine is obliterated and its fragility exposed. This training in itself can produce innovation and insight, as Nassim Taleb advises in Anti Fragile– if you want to innovate, first get yourself into trouble. However, it’s important to remember you’ll never master or fully anticipate risk; it is something which waits in the future not the empirical past.

The psychological element is vital; moving outside of routine requires risks to be framed not as threats but as challenges. Identifying risk as a challenge (as opposed to a threat) provides the resilience to deal with the risk. In our research we see individuals responding to stressful events, such as something unexpected and potentially harmful, in a challenge state when they are confident, feel in control and have an approach focus, wherein they are focused on what can be achieved not what might go wrong.

Interestingly we can measure whether individuals are challenged, or threatened, by an event through measuring their cardiovascular (CV) responses to the stressor. Collecting physiological data of this nature gives us an insight into to the nature of the ‘fight or flight’ response the person is experiencing. When exposed to a stressor an increase in the amount of blood pumped by the heart in a minute and a decrease in the resistance in the blood vessels indicates a ‘challenge response’. The blood flows to the muscles and brain more efficiently, providing the energy, to be able to deal with the stressor. When a person is threatened there is little change in the volume of blood pumped by the heart in a minute and there is an increase in the resistance in the blood vessels. The blood is less able to get to the muscles and brain more efficiently, reducing ability to deal with the stressor.

In our research CV reactivity to the psychological stress has consistently predicted performance in a range of cognitive and motor task with those exhibiting cardiovascular responses indicating a challenge state and performing better (e.g., Turner, Jones, Sheffield, & Cross, 2012; Turner, Jones, Sheffield, Slater, Barker, & Bell, 2013). In short how we approach unexpected, potentially harmful, events can determine our resilience. Being resilient, and displaying a challenge response to stress, does depend on our psychological characteristics and our past experience as mentioned. However our research also outlines how leaders in organisations can help develop resilience in their teams.

In our laboratory studies we have been able to manipulate people’s responses to psychological stress by altering the instructions we give them before a task (Turner, Jones, Sheffield, Barker & Coffee, 2014). Prior to a stressful task if we emphasise feelings of confidence, control and an approach focus, participants respond physically with a challenge state. As a leader in business, emphasising the qualities your team has (confidence), drawing attention to what they can control (control) and keeping a focus on what can be achieved, not what may go wrong (approach focus) can help develop resilience in use the face of unexpected, potentially damaging events.

The framing of shocks and unexpected events as challenges potentially goes beyond leadership in the context of organisational behaviour in two ways. Firstly, the ability to absorb unanticipated risks by adopting a mind-set which allows problem solving as oppose to re-consulting the procedures can drive innovation. Tidd et al (2014) observes that innovation happens in tough times (recession) and is most likely carried out by those who see adversity as a challenge as well as a necessity- post traumatic strengthening (Taleb, 2013). Within an organisation, ideally, risk should actually strengthen the organisation (ibid), producing novel and innovative ways of working.

Secondly, people and teams focused on overcoming challenges-let’s call it problem solving- may actually reduce the cognitive load on leaders during tough times. In addition to potential innovation, this could potentially free up the time of leaders to focus on strategy, morale (both internally and shareholders) and communication. In closing, let’s say that uncertainty can be practised and then unexpected events may actually be welcomed.

I think this blog nicely illustrates how our work on resilience can be applied to one aspect that is important to organisations.  That of decision making.  Applying our research to wider areas is something we are increasingly keen on doing and we are developing a range of corporate programmes based on our research. If you are interested in these programmes then please get in touch.

Still a Good walk Worth Watching

With the Ryder Cup about to start in Scotland I was reminded of an article I wrote with David Lavallee for the Psychologist the last time the Ryder Cup was held in the UK. In it I mentioned that for psychologists, or indeed anyone interested in performance and behaviour, the Ryder Cup between the USA and Europe is worth watching because of the many different elements of psychology at play. In short we can learn a lot about people from observing the Ryder Cup.

You can view the article here and much of what I wrote is still relevant to the upcoming competition. Although the data about the role of home advantage has changed somewhat, with Europe winning in such thrilling fashion in both 2010 and 2012. Since 1979, when the competition took its present form of Europe against the USA, the home team has won 11 of the 18 competitions (61%) with the away team winning six and one draw.

So while there is a home advantage, a European victory is by no means guaranteed. As I have discussed with Mark Allen athletes may perform worse at home when their motivation to achieve success is overridden by a desire to avoid failure. Fear of failure is a powerful motivator and it can cause choking under pressure, particularly if the golfer lacks confidence, as performance is directed towards the conscious control of movements that were previously automatic. So skilled movements that were previously fluid become less accurate.

However, the relationship between fear and performance is nuanced. One interesting study by economists Devin Pope and Maurice Schweitzer analysed over 2.5 million putts and controlled for position on the green. The results showed that in general golfers were more successful putting for par (the ‘expected’ performance) than putting for birdie (one shot better than ‘expected’). The fear of losing a stroke is more powerful, and a bigger motivator, than the desire to gain a stroke. Of course in a matchplay tournament where all that matters is beating an opponent overall strokes do not matter, but it would be interesting to see if golfers are better at holing putts to halve (draw), rather than win a hole.

So fear does not necessarily have a negative effect on performance and can be a stimulant to better performance if channelled. If fear of failure means we become consumed by not making mistakes then performance suffers. Just like the golfer who tries to consciously control the mechanics of his putt to avoid errors and ends up with a jerky putting stroke. However, if we use fear as a stimulant to success, by focusing on factors we can control and what we can achieve then performance can be enhanced. Just like the European golfer Paul McGinley who holed a 6 foot putt to win the 2002 Ryder Cup and said “At no time did I even consider the mechanics of the stroke. Of course, I knew what the putt meant and what it was for, but I became absorbed in the line of the putt … My only job at the moment in time was to set the ball off on the line that I had chosen. That was the only thing I could control.

You can read more about the psychology of golf from “The Successful Golfer: Practical Fixes for the Mental Game of Golf”.