Overcoming that ‘stupid’ feeling: a lesson for managers

I came across this excellent blog post by Christopher VanLang this afternoon, which talks about how to overcome the ‘stupid’ feeling that many PhD students get at various points during their studies brought on by the nature of the learning experience, and various hurdles we have to overcome to reach that glorious end goal.

As an Organisational Psychologist and HR Manager, I immediately started thinking about the truth in this, not just in my role as a PhD student but also as an employee and manager in a work organisation.

Of course, as adults, we have a responsibility to make sure we are equipt to do our jobs but managers have a really important part to play here too. I have, numerous times, had conversations with members of my team about difficulties they were having when it was abundantly clear that they were struggling with lack of confidence. I knew that they could do the job, but they didn’t…they felt ‘stupid’.

These are my thoughts on the ways that managers (or colleagues for that matter) to help avoid that ‘stupid’ feeling:

  • Give continuous, honest feedback. If someone does something well, let them know why so that they can learn from it
  • Let people make mistakes. Only by letting people the freedom to make mistakes will they learn. Of course, this doesn’t mean allowing serious issues to go unmanaged. It does, however, mean not micro-managing every detail and…
  • Focus on solutions not problems. Nothing is achieved by dwelling on issues. Discuss it, then move on to the solution.
  • Help them find their own solution. No good comes from the attitude, “it’ll be quicker if I do it myself” – we all do it, I know I do when I’m busy, but this doesn’t achieve anything. Ask “talk me through what you are planning to do” and give feedback

I feel incredibly lucky that I have not only a great PhD supervisor but also a great manager at my ‘paid’ job who help me through the ‘stupid’ times and I hope I do the same for my team and colleagues.


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The power of diaries

Theresa Amabile and Steven Kramer recent book, “The Progress Principle”, has attracted significant interest in the blogosphere of late. These authors have carried out research into daily experience at work, and concluded that small wins (progress) are the key to engagement, creativity and positive experience. If you are interested in what Amabile and Kramer have to say, I would encourage you to read any number of blogs or articles on the subject (here, here and here to name but a few) because I won’t discuss it here.

My interest in the book is in their methods. These authors have collected, over decades, 12,000 daily diary entries from workers in a number organisations about their experience at work. The richness of this data, which includes both quantitative and qualitative questions, is vast. Turn to the appendix of their book and you will see a summary of just some of the themes which they have managed to pull out of the data. The blog connected to the book has a couple of examples too: http://www.progressprinciple.com/blog.

I think this method (commonly known as diary research or experience sampling) has an enormous amount to offer to organisational researchers (and, indeed researchers from any domain who are interested in human experience). Diaries can be completed in hard copy or electronically and normally only take a couple of minutes to complete. They can be completed at “random” intervals when prompted (signal sampling), when specific events occur (event sampling) or at pre-defined times, e.g. at the end of the working day (interval sampling). They can be quantitative or qualitative or are often a combination of the two.

Diaries offer the possibility of understanding individuals’ ongoing experience of their world, in “real time” and in “real life” (not in a lab) and, importantly, take a “people focused” approach to research – putting personal experience at the heart. Although there are plenty of examples of diary studies in organisational research (I’d be happy to share my list for anyone who is interested!) they are still relatively under-utilised.

There are some challenges with diary studies – diaries take time (both for researcher and subjects) and therefore money and they involve more effort in keeping subjects participating over the diary period, it is also an additional challenge to design a diary which is short enough to be completed in a couple of minutes whilst still gathering enough data. BUT, the pay off has to be worth is surely, for researchers interested in human behaviour in any kind of context.

I am in the process of designing a diary study for my research – looking at the experience of motivation at work on a daily basis. I’ll report back on my experience in future.

I’ll leave you with probably best known, and in my opinion the finest, example of experience sampling (and the man who coined the phrase) in the work of Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi’s. He has spent his career trying to understand Flow experience. His TED talk is a fascinating introduction to his work:

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End of year two…

I have now reached the official end of my second (part-time) year of study towards my PhD and, inspired partly by my end of year PhD report and by @ianrobsons’ blog post, I thought I might make a few comments on my progress.

All in all I think this has been a really successful year. My key successes are:

  • I have planned, administered and am starting to analyse data from my first survey. I got a good number of responses and the design process felt thorough
  • I have presented my research at two international conferences, and had some really valuable feedback and made some great contacts as a result
  • I’ve started on my thesis structure – a very satisfying task to see how it might all look on paper, even if that is likely to change before I submit

I also wanted to reflect on the challenges that I’m facing:

  • Research on reward/pay is a huge field and I still don’t feel as though I have a proper grip on it
  • I am analysing my survey data using Structural Equation Modelling – a very complicated analysis technique that is easy to get wrong – so I have a lot of work to do to build my knowledge of it
  • I have to plan the second and third phases of my data collection, which will include a diary study – I’m on quite a tight timescale and have a lot to do!
  • I am covering a lot in my research, so I need to make sure that I keep a clear thread throughout the thesis and not lose my focus!

I have found the blogosphere and twitter invaluable resources so far in my PhD but have been struggling for time to keep up with them of late! I hope this year to get out there a bit more…

I would encourage any PhD students reading this to do the same – I’ve found this a useful activity and I hope in a year’s time my challenges will become successes! If anyone has any comments, particularly about my “challenges”, they would be very welcome.

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My PhD…in plain English

Inspired by @lizith on #phdchat, who has written a blog post describing her research in plain English, I thought I would give it a go myself. I would really value your thoughts, comments and questions…

If someone enjoys their work, does it because they care about what they’re doing, and works hard because it is personally important to them, is this the same as someone who works hard because they want to achieve a target and get their bonus at the end of the month. Would these people behave the same? There is a significant amount of experimental research which indicates that the first person will be more engaged in their work, feel more positive about it and have better overall satisfaction but the reality is that many organisations don’t understand the impact that pay and bonuses has on staff.

I am examining how different methods of rewarding people at work, in a number of different organisations, impact on how they behave and feel about their work. I’m interested in how people asses the value of their pay, how this then meets some of their fundamental needs, and how this impacts on the way that they are motivated.

I am using surveys to explore people’s general attitudes about pay & feedback, their motivation and the way they think about and behave toward their work. I am also going to focus in on people’s daily experiences and motivation at work through diaries to see how these interact with their more general attitudes and behaviours. I hope my research will help businesses to plan their reward strategies to get the best out of people for the benefit of the individuals as well as the organisation.


Filed under motivation, phd process, reward

Poster presentations

Last year I was accepted to present a poster at a conference. I didn’t have a clue what this meant…aside from the fact that it must involve a big piece of paper! I did some research and was delighted with the results so I thought I would share my tips with others facing the same challenges:

Step 1: Find some other examples of posters, particularly ones in your field which will help you visualise your finished product:

  • Check the conference website in case they have examples of posters from previous years
  • Google it (google images has loads!)
  • This page from LSE has some useful links to example posters at the bottom…have a good look around

Step 2: Think about your key messages. You are very limited on space so my recommendation would be to use 4-5 powerpoint slides to sketch out what you want to say. You will probably need some kind of introduction and conclusion but these should be brief.

Step 4: Understand the requirements of the conference. Should it be ladscape or portrait? A0/A1/A2? How much should you focus on empirical findings? Read the guidelines carefully.

Step 3: Putting your poster together. Don’t underestimate how long this takes! Looking back at examples you’ve found of “good” posters (clear structure and message, not too cluttered, visually attractive) and test out lots of options. Don’t go overtop with lots of colours but don’t be too bland either. You need to attract the attention of readers from a distance of a metre or two so the font should be right. The LSE site has some great tips on format and software packages for putting posters together. I used powerpoint and found it really useful.

Step 4: Test the effectiveness of your poster. Getting your poster printed at full size is expensive so make sure you test it first. Print it in A4 or A3 so that you can see how it all fits together. Get friends/family/colleagues to read it – is it easy to understand? Check your spelling and grammer!

Step 5: Print your poster. Find out if your University has large printing services, mine didn’t. Local print shops will tend to be more expensive (or they are in London anyway!) so I used PWA UK an online service which was cheap and very fast. The poster was sent in a poster tube, which was very handy for carrying it to the conference, and excellent quality.

Step 6: Presenting your poster. Most posters will be in a large room or corridor where conference participants wonder around, normally during lunchtime, and view the ones that interest them. You should make sure you are available for as much time as possible during this period. People will come and ask you questions (which is less scary than it sounds!) so you should have rehearsed a quick, minute or two, summary of your poster.

Take with you:

  • Materials to fix the poster up (they will probably have some there but don’t take risks!)
  • Business cards and have them available for people to pick up next to your poster…some people are too shy/busy to ask
  • A4 sized print outs of your poster
  • If you have a draft paper to go alongside it…take this too and hand it out to interested parties.

Useful links

These are some other useful website that I used when preparing my poster:

…and finally, in case you’re interested, this is my poster on a qualitative pilot study that I did about motivational experience at work: SDT poster presentation v5.2 – portrait


If anyone else has any useful tips of links do share…

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Inspired by a blog post I read this morning from Tony Schwartz at HBR (via @occupationalpsy) about his plan for 90-minutes of productivity each morning I have been reflecting on my own strategy for productivity.

Yesterday is a great example: I was working from home (on PhD work). I was at my desk at 8.15 and worked solidly (with 1 tea break!) until my stomach started rumbling at 12.15. This is pretty typical – I am always really productive in the morning.

Post-lunch (15 minute break) I’m back at my desk. I try to read…end up looking at twitter…I try to write…check BBC news. An hour later and I’ve only done 20 minutes of work. By 3pm I’m feeling really sleepy and more than a little frustrated at my lack of productivity.

So yesterday, at 3pm I got up and went out to run an errand and while I was out planned ni my head what I was going to do when I got back. I got fresh air and something off my “personal admin” to do list completed and when I came back I sat down to a couple more hours of productive work.

Schwartz makes some really good points about planning tasks and knowing your own rhythm. Next week, I am determined to apply this and avoid that post-lunch slump. Productivity here I come!

One final word from the Savage Chickens on the art of productivity…

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Money controls…

“When people say that money motivates, what they really mean is that money controls”

In one sentence, Edward Deci, one of the founding fathers of Self-Determination Theory (SDT), sums up why I find this theory so compelling. 

It’s been nearly a decade since I started working in Human Resources and in that time I have seen a spectrum of different behaviours at work. I have always pondered the question – why do people do what they do? It was only when I discovered SDT that I finally feel like I’ve found a satisfactory explanation. The crux of SDT is that we are all inherently motivated beings. We do things because we enjoy them…unless, that is, something from outside of ourselves gets in the way. If you promise me a big bonus for behaving in a certain way I will become focused only on the bonus. If the bonus wasn’t there, I probably would have done it anyway…just because I wanted to!

Obviously this is a very crude summary of the theory, and human behaviour is cut and dry. In this article, from the end of last year, Deci and Richard Ryan explain why SDT was developed and why its popularity is on the up and far more eloquently that I can:


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The Fun Theory

This website shows some fantastic ideas collated by Volkswagen about harnessing intrinsic motivation to encourage people to perform normally boring tasks by making them interesting!


The piano staircase is fantastic…I would run up and down the stairs for that one!

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Don’t over cook your carrot!

I came across this really interesting article (via @ManageU) about Building a Better Carrot with tips on how to design better compensation systems in times when budgets are tight. There are some great examples on here of organisations using inventive incentives to boost productivity of staff and reports of them working – steak dinners, peers driven cash awards, celebratory parties.

But, at the risk of sounding like one of the “eye rollers” that Rutzick refers to, I think it’s important to treat this advice with caution…

Steak dinners only work for so long. If you introduce the concept that people will be rewarded for meeting their targets that fast becomes the only reason that they do so. What happens if budgets are cut so steak dinners aren’t on the menu any more (bad pun, I know!) – your staff will no longer have any reason to reach their targets. If targets weren’t being reached in the first place the reward is not the problem, there must be another reason.

I was alarmed at the example of the lawyers being given an extra $75 for each case completed above target. They said that “some of the guys worked nights and weekends to get the extra money and some didn’t” – for the people who are working all of these extra hours you are risking burn-out and mistakes, and for those that aren’t it is inherently unfair. What if one lawyer had a small child so couldn’t do the extra hours? It creates stress and competition and, in the long term, could lead to a reduction in productivity. With a target like this, how do you know that you are getting quality case management and not just keeping the numbers up?

That said, the examples of feedback are spot on for me. Empiorical research has shown that creating an environment where employees recieve feedback on how they’re getting on, helping them to feel that they are making a contribution, really works. This is particularly true when the feedback is unexpected.

The example in the article of Joan Klein, who received some silk flowers as a thank you from a manager for running some training for her, is a great example of how reward can work. Giving someone an unexpected reward – when it’s a thank you, box of chocolates or envelope of cash – will give them a boost in motivation without tying their motivation to the reward. As Klein says, she would run the training again but she wouldn’t be doing it for the reward (because she doesn’t expect one), she would do it because she wants to!

My advice is this – if your staff aren’t meeting their targets don’t throw money at them to fix the problem, find out what the problem is. Are the targets too tough? Do they care about what they’re doing? If you want to recognise people going the extra mile give them a one-off, unexpected reward – it can be cash, a present, time off, training. Just make it meaningful.

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Controlling my connectivity

I came across this fantastic article (via @garydstratton through #phdchat) about a professor in the US who challenged his students, in exchange for extra credit, to give up their smartphones for 5 days. Their reactions are fascinating:


I am only 29 so whilst not born into the internet generation it has been with me since my late teens. I am not as connected as some of my peers – I have a basic phone which I can’t email/social network from and I have only recently joined twitter. I don’t listen to music when I am out an about because I like interacting with and learning from the world around me (I am a social sciences PhD student after all!). I like to think that I am in control of my connectivity…

But, reading about this experiment has encouraged me to reflect on this assumption. I get into work in the morning and the first thing I do is check work email, yahoo mail, university email, facebook and twitter. I have them open all day in case anything “happens”. I get home from work after travelling for 1 ½ hours and the first thing I do is switch on my laptop to check my email, facebook and twitter. On top of this I keep thinking about getting an iphone so that I can do all of these things on the move.

Why? Am I afraid of missing something? I am so keen to get home to my partner in the evening so why do I greet him and then look straight toward my connection with the world outside home? I know that I enjoy life more when I am not connected to the internet…it’s not like I don’t have plenty to do!

So, I am going to take back control of my connectivity. I’m not sure I want to/can go cold turkey from everything but facebook can go for a start and my twitter usage (which I find useful for my research) shall be 15 minutes in the morning and 15 minutes at lunch and no more. As for email…I might need a bit more time with that one!

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