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Blog - Didier Elzinga, author profile

Didier Elzinga

Founder & CEO, Culture Amp


At Culture Amp, we’re lucky to have a lot of people with academic backgrounds in I/O psychology, and we share and debate the latest findings endlessly. Here’s some of the research and findings that I think every leader needs to know:

1. Feedback ratios

John Gottman, who runs the Gottman Institute, researches relationship dynamics. He found that those people that tended to stay together and have strong relationships were those where the ratio of positive comments to negative comments was about 5 to 1.

The takeaway from this research is that we are all wired to respond more strongly to criticism than we do to praise. If you praise someone half the time and criticise them the other half, they perceive you as being heavily critical.

This is hugely important in an organization because we’re taught to tell people when they do something wrong and correct their behaviour. As leaders, we feel like we're fair and equal. Yet it’s easy for that person to feel that we’re being overly negative.

I try and work on the Gottman ratio. If you’re going to provide a piece of critical feedback to somebody, you need to earn that right by finding five things they've done well. That’s very hard to do, but very important.

2. Growth mindset

I’m a big fan of the work of Carol Dweck, a Stanford University psychologist. Her core idea is the ‘growth mindset,’ which looks at how people think about their intelligence and ability to learn. That is, does an individual believe that they can learn and improve, or that their intelligence is fixed and can’t be developed?

In 2015, the Chilean Department of Education reported the results of a nation-wide study, across virtually all of their schools and socio-economic bands, showing that teaching kids a growth mindset could temper the relationship between academic achievement and poverty. That’s a profound result that should be widely understood.

At Culture Amp, we try and maintain a growth mindset of our own. We believe that our people can learn new skills and the opportunity to develop their talents is unlimited. This has big implications for the way we hire and develop our people (i.e. read about our unique approach to learning and development).

3. Behavioral interviewing

Behavioral interviewing is not new. The concept started to appear in research from the late 1980s. But it’s still a concept that isn’t as widely understood as it should be.

Early in my career I was lucky enough to learn the foundations of behavioral interviewing, and what I learned has really stuck with me. Essentially, behavioral interviewing avoids asking a person hypothetical questions. If you ask a hypothetical, you’re asking that person to guess what the right answer is. Whether it’s conscious or subconscious, they will try and tell you what you want to hear.

If you want to know how someone will act in practice, ask them about a time when they encountered a similar situation and what happened. It’s far more valuable to deep dive on what that individual has done in the past (and why they acted the way they did).

When you’re conducting a behavioral interview you’re not so concerned with the outcome. It’s irrelevant whether the individual won or lost the Superbowl. You’re more interested in the way they tell the story about their success or failure. How do they describe their role?

Was their moment of triumph because they were the star of the team and kicked a winning goal, or did it come from being the captain who pulled the group together? Those two different answers tell you a huge amount about what motivates and drives a person.

4. The neurophysiology of decision-making

A bigger piece of research that applies to everything we do is the neurophysiology of decision-making. That sounds complex, but it’s built around a simple idea. The brain’s pre-frontal cortex is just like every other muscle in the body. It tires quickly with use, especially when you’re making a lot of decisions.

The implication is that when you’re making a lot of decisions, you can only do so for 20 to 40 minutes maximum - before you tire, and then you need recovery time.

To be an effective leader and manager today, you need to think about implications for how you structure your day. If the first thing you do in your work day is process email (making one decision after another) you’re likely to find it harder to make good decisions across the rest of the day.

Before this comes off as holier-than-thou, I’m as guilty as most other CEOs of starting my day in the inbox. Given Culture Amp is now in four offices with narrow time windows to communicate, it’s a trade-off I accept. But I’m also very aware when important decisions come up I need to block out time early in the day away from my inbox.

5. Cross-cultural psychology

One critical piece that tempers all the research coming out of I/O psych is the area of cross-cultural psychology. Researchers are discovering that almost all the things they thought were universally applicable are actually culturally specific, because much of the I/O psychology research has been done on western populations.

For example, research has drawn a number of conclusions around the positive effect of autonomy on engagement and performance. However in high-power-distance cultures, those things can actually lead to worse performance not better performance.

So much of our thinking is based on the assumption that everybody else thinks like we do. We shouldn’t throw out the good research, like growth mindset and positive feedback ratios, but we do need to step back and think about whether a piece of research applies universally across all cultures.

That makes everything more complicated, but it’s also so much more interesting.

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