Category Archives: News and Opinion

News and opinion regarding events and factors affecting how best to build networks and coalitions.

What the “Superstar Effect” may mean for stakeholder engagement

There’s an interesting piece below from the Frontal Cortex about how “superstars” can depress – rather than inspire – performance among those around them.

The question for coalitionists is whether this may also apply to the task, advisory or working groups that we often use to study issues, develop solutions or build consensus.

There’s always a lot of discussion in engagement efforts regarding group composition to get a balance of interests, experience or willingness to participate.

But seldom, if ever, is there a discussion as to whether high-quality participants – stakeholder superstars – may in effect suppress the quality of thought/participation by others.

If the “Tiger Woods effect” is universal, perhaps we need to add another filter layer as we construct our engagement groups, one that attempts to group people of comparable levels of ability, if we want to maximize participation and creativity.

The Superstar Effect: ”

I’ve got a new essay in the WSJ about Tiger Woods, the hazards of playing against a superstar, and why we choke in high-pressure situations. The subplot of the piece is the positive feedback loop of success, or why winning in the past makes us more likely to win in the future. Every underdog, it turns out, has to rage against the natural insecurities of the mind (take note, Butler):

Competitors playing a match against Bobby Fischer, perhaps the greatest chess player of all time, often came down with a mysterious affliction known as ‘Fischer-fear.’ Even fellow grandmasters were vulnerable to the effect, which could manifest itself as flu-like symptoms, migraines and spiking blood pressure. As Boris Spassky, Mr. Fischer’s greatest rival, once said: ‘When you play Bobby, it is not a question of whether you win or lose. It is a question of whether you survive.’

Recent research on what is known as the superstar effect demonstrates that such mental collapses aren’t limited to chess. While challenging competitions are supposed to bring out our best, these studies demonstrate that when people are forced to compete against a peer who seems far superior, they often don’t rise to the challenge. Instead, they give up.

The negative effect of superstars has been most clearly demonstrated in professional golf, which for the last decade has been dominated by Tiger Woods. Next week, Mr. Woods ends his self-imposed exile from the game and returns to the PGA Tour at the Masters Tournament, in Augusta, Ga. It will be his first competition since November, when he won the JBWere Masters in Australia.

According to a paper by Jennifer Brown, an applied macroeconomist at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, Mr. Woods is such a dominating golfer that his presence in a tournament can make everyone else play significantly worse. Because his competitors expect him to win, they end up losing; success becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Ms. Brown argues that the superstar effect is not just relevant on the golf course. Instead, she suggests that the presence of superstars can be ‘de-motivating’ in a wide variety of competitions, from the sales office to the law firm. ‘Most people assume that competing against an elite performer makes everyone else step up their game and perform better,’ Ms. Brown says. ‘But the Tiger Woods data demonstrate that the opposite can also occur. It doesn’t matter if the superstar is an athlete or a corporate vice president. After all, why should we invest a lot of energy in a tournament that we’re probably going to lose?’

Ms. Brown discovered the superstar effect by analyzing data from every player in every PGA Tour event from 1999 to 2006. She chose golf for several reasons, from the lack of ‘confounding team dynamics’ to the immaculate statistics kept by the PGA. Most important, however, was the presence of Mr. Woods, who has dominated his sport in a way few others have.

The numbers back up the legend: When Mr. Woods’s break from golf began, in November, he had a World Golf Ranking score of 16.169, which was nearly twice the total of the next two players. He has more career major wins than any other active golfer, and has been awarded PGA Player of the Year a record 10 times.

Such domination appears to be deeply intimidating. Whenever Mr. Woods entered a tournament, every other golfer took, on average, 0.8 more strokes. This effect was even observable in the first round, with the presence of Mr. Woods leading to an additional 0.3 strokes among all golfers over the initial 18 holes. While this might sound like an insignificant difference, the average margin between first and second place in PGA Tour events is frequently just a single stroke. Interestingly, the superstar effect also varied depending on the player’s position on the leaderboard, with players closer to the lead showing a greater drop-off in performance. Based on this data, Ms. Brown calculated that the ‘superstar effect’ boosted Mr. Woods’s PGA earnings by nearly $5 million.

The analysis is really an investigation into economic tournament theory, which looks at competitive situations in which success is based on relative performance, and not absolute metrics. (It’s the difference between a sports game and a standardized test.) Modern management practice assumes that the best way to maximize employee performance is to institute sports-like tournaments, in which people compete directly against each other. Consider, for instance, the competitive structure put in place by former CEO Jack Welch at General Electric. He instituted what became known as the 20-70-10 rule: the top 20% of employees got generous financial bonuses, and the bottom 10% were ‘managed out.’

There is little doubt that, in many situations, such incentive structures lead to motivated employees, working hard for the top spots. But the presence of a superstar can reverse this dynamic, so that instead of trying our best we accept the inevitability of defeat.

According to Ms. Brown, the superstar effect is especially pronounced when the rewards for the competition are ‘nonlinear,’ or there is an extra incentive to finish first. (We assume that the superstar will win, so why chase after meaningless scraps?) Just look at golf: Not only does the tournament winner get a disproportionate amount of prize money, but he or she also gets all the glory.

Ms. Brown cites the competition among newly hired associates at a law firm as another example of a nonlinear incentive structure. ‘The lawyers know that most of them won’t be retained,’ she says. ‘They either win the competition, or they’re let go.’ The problem with such competitions is that when a superstar is present–when one of the legal associates is perceived as the clear favorite–every other lawyer is less likely to exert maximum effort. Because we assume we’re going to lose, we decide to cut our losses, which leads to an overall decrease in employee effort. The cutthroat competition made people less competitive.

Here’s the link for more.

Read the comments on this post…

(Via The Frontal Cortex.)

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What Bronze Quill judges can teach you about communication

In our shop, we’re getting geared up for entering the Kansas City IABC chapter’s Bronze Quill Awards.

And as we’ve been going through the annual procrastination that postpones actually writing our entries until the last minute, we’ve been discussing strategies for winning judge attention to and appreciation of  the full brilliance of our work.

In a moment of pontifical self-importance, I penned (electroned?) the following guidance based on my experience as a communication awards judge and my observations of other judges.

It strikes me that the counsel here – assuming you find it persuasive – also generally applies to any situation in which you’re trying to communicate complex information to people who are interested in a topic, but by no means necessarily experts in the specifics you’re trying to convey. Where the word “judge” appears, just think audience or stakeholder or whomever is the target of your communication affection.

So, for your use or toss:

“As you are preparing your Bronze Quill entries or future communication competition entries, here’s my perspective on what plays well based on judging a lot of these competitions and hearing other judges beef and moan about things they are reading.

It is just one person’s perspective, however; so take it with that grain of salt.

  1. Judges are looking for significance. Why is this project important? What did it accomplish? What and how did the effort and its results help the sponsoring organization achieve? It’s hard to answer those questions too often or too thoroughly to turn off a judge.
  2. Keep in mind that your judges are looking at dozens of entries. It’s at the end of the day, they’re tired and preoccupied reviewers. They most likely are skilled communicators who know very little about you, your client or the subject matter involved. Anything you can do to help them understand and remember you and the project is a good thing – including repetition.
  3. Judges often are looking for easy-to-spot (and sometimes trivial) reasons to hammer or elevate entries. So here’s my list of things that may keep your entry in contention.
    • Judges usually are experienced communicators (i.e. many like me are in bifocals and/or are suffering from computer eye fry).  If they have to look at fonts that are intricate or smaller than 11 points, they will hate you. Likewise, they will be seriously peevish if they have to read some dense river of text. Simplify and open up text by:
      • Using simple, direct language.
      • Highlighting by position, formatting and other techniques what is important about the material you are presenting.
      • Scrutinizing every sentence that has a comma in it to see if the sentence should be broken up into two or more sentences or edited down to one simpler sentence.
      • Using bulleted or numbered lists wherever possible.
      • Moving complex or lengthy material to appendices if rules allow it.
    • As experienced communicators and smart humans, they likely have seen or shoveled more professional manure than you, so will disdain your use of adjectives but praise your reliance on facts and analysis to make your case.
  4. Bottom line, what’s story have you told.  A judge judges by mentally recounting to herself or himself the abbreviated, cocktail party version of the story you’ve presented and then assesses whether that story is true, important and compelling.  Have you told such a story in the project summary – which sets or at least frames the judge’s perception of everything that follows?  And have you then constructed your entry to support and extend that simplified understanding?”

Without Comment: There’s a flip side to everything

For the next time you think there’s only one way to skin a cat:

TEDTalks : Derek Sivers: Weird, or just different? – Derek Sivers (2009): “‘There’s a flip side to everything,’ the saying goes, and in 2 minutes, Derek Sivers shows this is true in a few ways you might not expect.

(Via TEDTalks (video).)

Keith and Rush are right for all the wrong reasons

If you listen too long to Keith Olbermann or Rush Limbaugh, you may come to believe politics are important only as a tool for beating the tar out of those you don’t like.

No wonder most people are turned off to politics all together.

That’s a shame, because politics – like coalitioning(?) – is really important as the art of the possible:  How do you  assemble the right groups of stakeholders to identify, implement and sustain effective solutions to important problems.?

And when it comes to achieving success on issues or projects that are complex, large-scale or heavily regulated or legislatively affected, likely nothing happens without engaging in – or at least understanding how – the politics of getting things done.

That’s why I recently counseled a new PR professional looking to be successful in public policy communications to familiar with – and hopefully comfortable at – working with governmental relations.

Even in outcome-neutral public involvement programs, success as defined by the client and the community will rest in part on how well goals and issues are communicated to elected and regulatory officials who have to implement any recommendations.

There are lots of ways to gain familiarity with politics and with the unique pressures and motivations that drive public servants.  But here are two great organizations and sources for becoming more adept at government affairs and using that skill appropriately:

Time spent with either of these two groups are likely to be more productive when it comes to politics than another minute spent with Keith and Rush.

How thin is your margin of error?

My wife and I consider The American Restaurant our go-to restaurant for special events; we have ever since our net worth became greater than a blank check and a three-day float.

But two off outings in a row – including a ruined New Year’s Eve dinner – has moved the Crown Center classic out of the “no brainer” category into “not now/maybe never?”

New Year’s Eve was the worst. High expectations.  Left a fun party for a highly anticipated late night of intimate dining and dancing.  Dressed to the nines (Linda beautiful as always and me, well, Cary had nothing to fear nor did innocent bystanders).  And ready for a great meal by Chef Gold.

What we got was “meh” food, incredibly slow service and no attention from our server (at one point he did the reverse “Walk like an Egyptian” to avoid eye contact towards the end of a 30-minute span during which no food was delivered to our table).  We eventually had to enlist the butter boy into being our emissary. And then all we got was an incredulous look when we balked at receiving two courses at the same time when the food finally arrived.

With Linda nauseated from no food (it’s now 11:15 pm), a dense cloud of forbidden cigarette smoke in the ladies lounge and the (mutually shared) bile of having a good night out, we left early and headed for home, two surprised dogs, shrimp marinara TV dinners and an irritable take on the AR.

And the thing is, it didn’t have to be that way.

IF … the restaurant had kept us informed about what was going on … acknowledged the problem and the difficulties it presented … sent an appropriate representative to confer with us … recognized our goal was getting something resembling food, not slices of bread falling like autumn leaves … and asked if there was anything that could be done to restore our confidence … things might have turned out differently.

And for us coalitionists, the key take-away may be that our margin of error on delivering the goods – and fixing problems when quality falls short – is slim. We had a two-decade investment of good times in the American, and quality issues have put a serious wobble in the relationship.  Most of the people we seek to engage don’t have a similar 20-year reservoir of confidence and good will in the institutions we may represent.

Good design makes you smarter

The bottom line of a recent post of mine is that bad design – of anything: process, materials, content – prevents us from winning the confidence and support of potential allies.

It probably also prevents us from fully tapping the creativity of stakeholders when we ask them to help us brainstorm solutions for knotty problems, according to Don Norman in the following video (see esp. the portion at around five minutes).

Norman’s a world-renowned usability expert who believes intellect and emotion are – and should be – brought together by good design in ways that increase creativity, productivity and satisfaction.

Without Comment: Seven ways to get what you want

7 Ways to Get What You Want: “Influence is the key to any leadership role. Some folks do not like talking about it, but power and influence are natural phenomena in organizations and in leadership roles. People who want power and influence often try not to appear as if they are seeking it, and some people who have power and influence are reticent about how they actually got it.

Research into the area of power and influence is fascinating. In one notable study, 165 managers were asked to write short descriptions of occasions when they influenced their bosses, co-workers, or employees. (See Kipnis, Schmidt, Swaffin-Smith, and Wilkinson, ‘Patterns of Managerial Influence,’ Organizational Dynamics.) The responses from these 165 managers were condensed and rewritten into a 58-item questionnaire that was then administered to over 750 managers. In this questionnaire, the managers were asked both how and why they influenced people in the workplace.

This research identified seven key influence tactics:

(1) Reason: Using facts and data to bolster your request.

(2) Assertiveness: Using a direct and forceful approach, such as demanding compliance, ordering others to do what is asked, and pointing out rules that must be followed.

(3) Friendliness: Creating goodwill by being affable and acting humble prior to making your request.

(4) Sanctions: Doling out punishments or distributing rewards.

(5) Coalition: Getting the support of others to back your idea, proposal, or request.

(6) Bargaining: Negotiating with others for the exchange of benefits or favors.

(7) Higher authority: Gaining the support of others at higher levels in the organization to back up your idea, proposal, or request.

The researchers discovered that the managers did not rely equally on the seven influence tactics. When the managers were interacting with their superiors, the most commonly used tactics (in order of frequency) were reason, coalition, friendliness, and bargaining. When the managers were interacting with their subordinates, the most commonly used tactics (in order of frequency) were reason, assertiveness, friendliness, and coalition. Interestingly, the use of sanctions was the least popular influence tactic by the managers. What’s more, the managers who controlled resources valued by others, or who were perceived to have more power than others, used a greater variety of influence tactics and employed assertiveness more often than did managers with less power.

To be an effective leader, you need to know which influence tactic to use in which situation. This leadership skill often separates the great leaders from the rest.

So, what influence tactics do you use?

Scott Derrick is the Director of Professional Development at the Senior Executives Association, a nonprofit professional association of career federal executives. Scott is also an executive coach and leadership consultant with the Federal Executive Development Group LLC, a consulting company specializing in leadership development in the federal sector. The views expressed here are his own.

(Via GovLoop.)