It can be frustrating when people don’t do what they are supposed to do and yet many managers unwittingly make things worse by emphasising what they don’t want rather than what they want.  The science has proven that this only perpetuates the problems because the brain can’t ‘not think about things’.

If I ask you not to think about work, what happens?  If I say “Don’t think of white bears” what do you notice about what you are thinking about?  In 1989 Daniel Wegner and others published a fascinating paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology called ‘The Paradoxical Effects of Thought Suppression”.  They conducted a number of experiments to prove that when we are told to supress a specific thought it actually persists and can dominate our thinking, leading to unwanted results. 

When managers say things like: “Don’t cut corners” or “Don’t forget to . . .” or “Don’t worry about . . .”, it can have the opposite effect and make people do the very things they don’t want.  

Back in the early 1980’s there was a big campaign that told young people “Don’t take drugs”.  It failed to have any impact and probably made many teenagers want to experiment more than they normally would have.  In the 1990’s they came up with a campaign that said “Just say no”, which got a better response.

Don’t forget to remember
Take a simple example: You see the weather forecast for tomorrow is rain in the afternoon and you make a mental note “Don’t forget the umbrella”.  This is actually a negative instruction and because the brain can’t not do something, it needs to put the thought “Forget the umbrella” into place in order to process the ‘Don’t’ part and it then tries to supress it.  Thought suppression takes huge effort and with the general overload and busyness of life our brains are constantly striving for efficiency.  If there is an instruction in the background to forget something it will go for the easy option and do just that – forget it!

Next time you don’t want to forget your umbrella turn it around and make a point of saying “I need to remember my umbrella”.  You can also link the thought of remembering to a particular place and time that will trigger the ‘remembering’, like when you are about to leave the house. If you pause as you are about to leave and ask yourself “Is there anything I need to remember?” you will probably be pleasantly surprised to find that the thought of the umbrella pops up.

Food for thought:
How can you make it easy for your people to do more of what you want?  What do you need to do more of to provide clarity about results and outcomes you want?    

In his classic best seller ‘The One Minute Manager’ Ken Blanchard emphasises the importance of setting clear goals and outcomes and makes the point that you need to ‘Catch people doing something right’.  Far too many people in business still report that the only feedback they get is when things go wrong.  This leaves them muddling through in the constant hope that it will all be ok, but the fear of getting it wrong is very present in their thoughts.   This can lead to them losing sight of the goals and having difficulty with prioritising because they become distracted by focussing on the problems or potential problems. 

I invite you to notice your thinking, what you say and how you say it.  Beware of giving negative instructions because they may just perpetuate the very things you don’t want.   One of the best things about being human is that the more aware we are of our thinking the more we can adapt and change to get even better results
The only challenge is that it’s up to you to put in the effort because no one can do it for you.  The choice is yours.

Remember . . . Stay Curious!

With best regards
David Klaasen 
www.InspiredWorking.com

David Klaasen is director and owner of the niche HR consultancy, Inspired Working Ltd.  (www.InspiredWorking.com)
We now have a new website packed full of learning resources for managers for more info see
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If you have a communication or performance problem and would like some objective advice drop him a line at
[email protected].