A psychological path to business success in the Gulf
By Nicolai Tillisch
Malcolm Gladwell has just visited Dubai and spoke at du’s CEO Forum. His Caucasian face and Afro hair was pictured in most of the local press for a day or two, as is the custom when international celebrities pass through, as they do almost every week.
Mr. Gladwell is, however, much more than a news blip. He is not just the author of four bestselling books and an esteemed New Yorker journalist. He has, more than anyone, opened the general public’s eyes to fundamental scientific breakthroughs about how we human beings think, behave and develop.
Psychology has slowly moved on from primarily studying people with problems to address how healthy people do their best, as obviously they should in business. The reliability of the results is high due to widespread use of controlled experiments and other statistically solid methods, as well as occasional use of brain scanners.
The application of the new insights in corporate life is, however, still modest, but it is only a question of time. Business leaders and human resources professionals, especially those in the Gulf, should pay careful attention, as this region puts higher demands on executives and line managers than probably any other place on Earth.
The regional business environment is highly dynamic. Intensifying competition demands that companies innovate, improve customer experience or become more cost-efficient, which, to a large extent, comes down to ensuring that staff works smartly and effectively. The workforce in the private sector represents an extreme in terms of multicultural diversity at the same time GCC governments are undertaking ambitious efforts to radically increase the share of nationals.
Three psychology professors have contributed insights especially relevant for business leaders about doing their jobs and leading others.
Daniel Kahneman of Princeton University is a pioneer in showing that our natural intuition generally has serious flaws when handling logic as well as the probabilities of different events. He co-authored two short scientific articles about experiments that won him a Nobel prize in Economics, and the first ever given to a psychologist. His research shook the fundamental assumptions of this particular science domain.
Professor Kahneman has popularized the notion of “fast”, intuitive thinking and its “slow” counterpart, which is required to solve new and complex problems. We are generally good at thinking fast on our feet when dealing with familiar or simple issues, but otherwise must take time for consideration and reflection, which the busy and ever changing world of modern business does not always leave much room for.
K. Anders Ericsson of Florida State University has given us a much better understanding of how absolute top performers differ from others within disciplines as diverse as music, sports and business. A person’s talent and support network are helpful, but mean very little compared to extensive training, while the single most important factor is the mindset of constantly pushing oneself to the edge of one’s competence and comfort level.
By doing this, top performers improve faster than others and avoid making an increasing number of mistakes over time, which typically happens because people dependent on old routines that slowly and steadily become ineffective. One of the fashions in Western leadership thinking is to “be nice” and to avoid all sorts of conflict and inconvenience, while, in the Gulf, many employers hire expats to do exactly what they have done before. Neither of these approaches is ideal.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi of Claremont Graduate University has studied the optimal experiences of people ranging from artists and mountain climbers to business people. Professor Csikszentmihalyi –“Mike” among friends – and his students surveyed thousands of people, who several times a day for two weeks reported what they were doing and how they felt about it.
People appreciate being with their closest friends, but when challenged in something that they are good at, actually do otherwise have the best experience. He coined the term “Flow” for this state, where you are intensely concentrated, lose sense of time and become one with your task.
Professor Csikszentmihalyi has very importantly identified the prerequisites for experiencing Flow. Beyond the balance between challenge and skills, this state depends on having clear goals every step of the way, explicit rules and boundaries, and not least, quick, reliable feedback.
Clearly, this is far from how most companies work anywhere in the world. It appears even more difficult for organizations in the Gulf to institute the practice of regular, constructive feedback. Annual appraisal meetings and detailed job descriptions are steps in the right direction, but are insufficiently small steps in themselves.
My profession – and my passion – is in developing leaders and their organizations, and in helping them achieve greater business success. The scientific progress has been immensely useful and has helped me make significant impact with clients. The single most critical component in any business is, after all, its people.
Nicolai Tillisch is the founder of the consulting and coaching company Dual Impact in Dubai and the author of Effective Business in The Gulf: Mastering Leadership Skills for Greater Success.