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Thought-terminating clichés? Whatever…

in Editor Pick/Media Psychology/Work Psychology by

Sigmund Freud used to sit patiently whilst his clients rambled endlessly about their lives, waiting for the brief but insightful moments of clarity. This clarity was the unconscious mind, bursting through in snippets of slips of the tongue, pauses and moments of discomfort. So it goes.

Freud recognised that much of our conversation and discourse operated at the surface and was fairly meaningless. The true motivation and personality was buried under layers of neurotic complexity. Such is life.

This complexity is further heightened by our limited ability to understand others and the ever changing, strange world around us. Because true understanding is never quite achieved, it is puzzling that we ever feel satisfied or move on from analysing. It is what it is.

One mechanism we use to let go and avoid analysis paralysis is a thought-terminating cliché. To explain this concept, let me give you an example. Have you ever heard the cliché: ‘It’s all good’?. What does this actually mean? Because nothing is ‘all good’.

This phrase is a thought terminating cliché. It is a well-worn phrase used to terminate an end to the discussion. It allows the individual or individuals to move on from a topic and feel a sense of closure even though the phrase is essentially meaningless.

Some other thought-terminating clichés include: ‘it’s common sense’, ‘you win some you lose some’ and ‘just forget it’. We’ve probably used all of these from time to time.

The thought-terminating cliché is often used in workplaces to prevent others from analysing a comment or decision in too much detail. They may be useful in helping teams to move on from over-analysis, and may help reduce tension where there is a clear disagreement that is unlikely to be resolved.

Nevertheless, the thought-terminating cliché does not really help get to the heart of problems. As Freud would have understood, this cliché is just a way we help manage our interpersonal relationships and deal with the uncertainty around us.

This cliché can also be misused. Why? Because I said so.

Former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard was ridiculed for her utterance of the cliché ‘moving forward’ 24 times in a five minute speech. ‘Moving forward’ is likely a thought-terminating cliché designed to prevent discussion and analysis of the internal conflict that had plagued her political party.

Similarly, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott and fellow party members regularly used the phrase ‘Stop the Boats’, referring to illegal immigrants, which could be considered a thought-terminating cliché to prevent further analysis about the policy.

So, it pays to listen to the phrases people use. They may just be trying to stop you from thinking. But, whatever will be, will be.

Now, let’s face it. If you haven’t already had your fill of thought-terminating clichés throughout this blog, you may be expecting another to wrap it all up. Well, you don’t always get what you want.

From automated coffee to automated everything with the internet of things

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Back in the 1980s, Mr Coffee automatically brewed your coffee for you in the morning. No, this wasn’t a friendly fellow with a convenient surname. It was a machine designed to appease your caffeine addiction.

Years later, the fad of automated coffee is still present but we all seem happy enough to walk to our favourite café and wait in line for one made by a chirpy barista.

But while we wait, our smartphones automate and connect with the entire planet appeasing an even larger suite of needs: social, entertainment, communication, education and so on. I call it ‘Mr Phone’.

These devices have already changed us. They have connected us to the lives of friends and family as well as our work colleagues. It’s often the first thing we check in the morning, right before that semi-automated coffee.

The smartphone is essentially a part of us whether we like it or not. But what if this was just the beginning?

An interesting global megatrend called ‘the internet of things’ aka ‘Mr Everything’ looks to radically transform us. Essentially, it involves the interconnectivity of everything around us through technology.

Here’re a few changes to your life once the internet of things really takes off.

You won’t need to take care

When cars can talk to each other and the infrastructure around them, they will be unable to collide. This means the almost elimination of road trauma and eventual redundancy of law enforcement on the road.

You won’t need to plan

Your pantry and refrigerator will automatically scan to see if you are getting low on groceries and will automatically scan supermarkets for the lowest prices online. The supermarket will deliver the items to your door or log your shopping list for when you arrive.

You won’t have to worry about your health

Personal sensors will allow monitoring of health remotely, freeing up hospital beds. Significant changes in health will automatically trigger the medical response who will be available before you even realise you are in danger.

You will be mentally healthy…finally

Your smartwatch will be able to measure your heartrate and infer your mood. It will be able to talk to other devices to examine your habits, alerting you to modify those habits that contribute to a decline in mood.

You will be allowed to be absent-minded

Your keys will be connected and so will never be lost. Your smart locks will close behind you and refuse to lock if your keys are inside. Your car will prevent you from running red lights or even speeding up at the yellow light. It will be talking to the intersection before you even get there.

Oh, and you will still have coffee ready for you when you wake up.

Can workplace initiatives improve your morale?

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When I was working part-time as a public servant I used to miss out on the free massage on Friday. The massage was probably a small part of a broader portfolio of health and well-being initiatives.

It was a nice idea but, of course, years later the media found out and twisted (or liberated) the story. The health and well-being benefits were overshadowed by the fact that a professional masseuse was kneading the various vertebrae of public servants.

I wonder if the back massage actually worked. Did it improve mobility and reduce workplace injuries? Probably not. But maybe it gave public servants a morale boost that subsequently improved the performance of the department. After all, perhaps just demonstrating care for our employees is enough to improve job satisfaction?

Research suggests that these appealing initiatives may only temporarily boost our mood. Over time these improvements may not only diminish but also result in a decline in mood, essentially balancing out any short-lived improvement.

This phenomena is referred to as the ‘overshoot effect’. According to opponent process theory, when we experience a spike in happiness we throw our emotions out of equilibrium. As a result, an opponent emotion, dejection, temporarily lowers our mood before it stabilises again.

Similarly, when we experience heightened anxiety, the initial distressing spike is felt followed by an opponent emotion—relaxation—that restores our mood to a steady state.

So, many of our efforts to promote a long-term improvement in well-being may be neutralised by the natural equilibrium of the brain and body. My colleagues may have enjoyed that massage but the enjoyment may have simply devolved into a mild depression before returning their malleable bodies and minds to a more normal state.

5 benefits of being ‘too’ sensitive

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On the TV show Masterchef contestants sample from a large pot filled with a wide range of spices and other ingredients. One by one the contestants guess ingredients ranging from salt to squid ink and are eliminated when they make an error.

The real challenge boils down to whether they are sensitive. That is, can their senses decipher these wicked combinations of ingredients?

Sensitivity is generally associated with being too emotional. People who are too sensitive may constantly burst into tears, ‘crack’ under pressure or simply be touchy.

However, it all depends on what triggers your sensitivity. If you are sensitive to rewards and accomplishments, you may be easily aroused and experience bursts of excitement and enthusiasm.

And if you are sensitive to negative consequences, you may be quick to become anxious and worried.

Then there is sensitivity to aesthetics. This sensitivity relates to whether we are attuned to the subtleties in our environment, such as the comfort of a chair or the design of a room.

You can read more about ‘trait sensitivity’ here.



Five benefits of being sensitive

If you can weather the roller coaster of emotions, there are also benefits in being sensitive:

1. You can be more attuned to the underlying needs of others. This can help you in negotiations or in influencing others.

2. You may be better at designing effective solutions because you are more sensitive to the existing limitations.

3. You can have a greater appreciation for and enjoyment of the arts and entertainment.

4. The emotions of others feel contagious, which may help with bonding and in building relationships.

5. You can be more sensitive to your own quirks, making you more aware when you are unhappy and need to make a change. For example, you may have not really bought into the angle of this blog and will quickly switch back to your work. Log your emotion below to let me know. Don’t worry, I’ll try not to be too sensitive to your feedback.

6 reasons why being open to learning is your finest quality

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There are billions of people on this planet and very few are really the best at what they do. The number one sportsperson in the world only holds that position for a brief period of time.

The highest paid and much loved actor can find themselves struggling on the small screen, trying to get in the limelight again. The top executive is only celebrated in prosperous times until it is time for fresh blood.

Each day, we have our own little triumphs and opportunities to shine. But many of us feel the need to promote our skills, experience and achievements at every opportunity. After all, if we don’t do it, who will?

This tendency to self-promote or to demonstrate our prowess is called a ‘performance-orientation’. I once worked with someone who was always quick to highlight their breadth of skills. They also liked to tell me the story of their childhood when they were identified as ‘gifted’ and put into a special program.

In other situations, the performance orientation isn’t so blatant. It can come in the form of someone resisting a good idea because it makes them feel inferior for not thinking of it themselves. It shows up when someone fails to listen because they are waiting to educate you about what they know.

But think back to those times you spoke to someone who genuinely paused to consider your view. Or maybe it was a moment where someone admitted to a group that they were unsure about what to do and were seeking some ideas. More often than not, you probably valued and respected them.

Think about the time you were truly engaged in what you were doing. It is often where you are learning something that intrigues or interests you. This is referred to as a learning orientation.



6 Key Benefits of a Learning Orientation

People like you. Yep, it’s funny that people tend to prefer your company when you are open to listening and learning as opposed to showing off your talents.

It improves cooperation. When groups adopt a learning orientation, they are not motivate to out-perform each other.

Improved resilience. If you always want to shine, this places a lot of pressure on you, including worries and doubts about what people think of you. If your goal is to learn, this is no longer such an issue.

Your attention improves. Because you are less concerned about impressing others, you can focus more attention to the task at hand and—ironically—enhance your performance.

Improved creativity. Individuals who adopt a performance orientation are generally more conservative because they want to maintain their persona in front of others. This closes their thinking to new or different ways of thinking. A learning orientation has the reverse effect.

You learn. Probably the most obvious benefit is that when you are open to learning, you may actually learn something that betters you as a person.
Now, if I was adopting a performance orientation, I might end this blog with ‘I hope you learned something’. Instead, I’ll close with remake more indicative of a learning orientation:

Please let me know what you think. Share your thoughts and challenge me.

The imperfections of being a perfectionest

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Are you addicted to getting that font colour just right? Do you see errors in everyone’s work? Do you sometimes feel like the only reason something failed was because you weren’t involved?We’ve all worked with perfectionists. We’ve probably all been perfectionists ourselves from time to time.

The trouble is that being a perfectionist has some unfortunate drawbacks. Imperfections perhaps. Studies show that individuals who are perceived as having greater self-discipline and control are also more likely to be assigned extra work.

These perfectionists then feel that they have made regular sacrifices for their co-workers only to be burdened by the extra workload.Unfortunately for the perfectionists, their fellow workers don’t perceive them to be burdened. That is, because they are perceived as being so disciplined, others think the perfectionists don’t have to work as hard.

You can immediately see how this could play out. A perfectionist can’t help putting in the extra hours and effort. Others see this happening and think they are the best candidate to take on more work. The perfectionist puts in even more time and effort, perpetuating the endless build-up of work.

All this might be ok if the extra effort led to better outcomes.

However, perfectionism can also lead to excessive attention to working hard under the misguided notion that the more effort that’s expended, the higher its quality. Psychologists refer to this as the effort ‘heuristic’.

It reminds me of when children keep mixing different paints hoping to get the most amazing colour only to discover that it produces a muddied brown or grey.

I also think about all those cooking shows where the contestants want to wow the judges with more and more sophisticated flavours and combinations until the dish is no longer edible.

Being a perfectionist might just lead to you working really hard for not a lot of extra gain.

And now time to wrap up this blog. I won’t try and wrap it all up nicely because I’m not a perfectionist.

You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry

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When Bruce Banner gets angry and becomes the Incredible Hulk, he gets results.

For that reason, anger is one of those interesting emotions that can make us uncomfortable but—strangely—feels compelling.

Anger typically helps us to overcome obstacles to certain goals. Specifically, when we are pursuing rewards or ideals and someone or something gets in the way, our ‘fight’ response kicks in to help us push through these obstacles.

For example, when delivering a pet project you may regularly come in contact with others who throw up smokescreens and barriers to prevent you from reaching your goals. They’ve got their own goals, mind you, and maybe you’re getting in the way of them.

That’s why we all bounce around like ping pong balls between one person and the next to try to reach our own preferred outcome. And we often step out of the way or avoid the angry, vocal lot. Anger can work wonders in getting you closer to a goal.

But there are some drawbacks with anger. Aside from the obvious problems it generates—the inevitable outbursts, alienation of co-workers, and even violence—anger can also give you tunnel vision.

Studies show that anger makes us better at dealing with details but impairs our ability to see the bigger picture.

In one study, participants were required to hit a button when they saw a particular letter of the alphabet on a computer screen. The letters were presented in clusters so that when viewed as a whole they actually showed a larger pattern which also resembled a letter.

The participant had to try to switch their attention from the larger ‘bigger picture’ letter to the smaller letters from which it was composed. Essentially, the test lets the researcher know how easily the participant can broaden or narrow their focus.

The researchers also flashed split-second images designed to elicit feelings of anger to half of the participants. The images were outside conscious awareness but nevertheless made some of the participants angry.

These angry participants found it easier to see the smaller letters but their reaction times were slower when detecting the larger letter. That is, they were better at narrowing their focus but couldn’t rise out of the weeds to see the bigger picture.

The researchers also found that angry individuals were also less inclusive in how they categorised things. For example, they rejected the notion that words like ‘camel’ and ‘car’ could be classified under one heading (e.g. mode of transport, words starting with c).

Anger appears to help individuals to focus on a specific goal and works to close us off to alternatives. Of course, unlike the Incredible Hulk, I am open to an alternative interpretation.

Let me tell you how to spot a narcissist

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I have prepared this blog today. I wanted to discuss narcissism and I think it’s important that I tell you why I think it’s a relevant topic.Now pay attention to me now. Focus your attention my way.

‘Narcissistic’ is one of those labels we all throw about usually to describe the selfish or self-centred way a person goes about their day. Every decision is—ultimately—all about themselves. Their previous roles are like historical events where they were the centre of the universe, like that time I single-handedly saved the day. This mentality can be disastrous for teams, collaboration, and morale.

Few people want to be a pawn or cog in the wheel for someone else’s ambition.

If you want to work out whether your manager, friend, relative or colleague is potentially undermining your motivation with narcissism, there’s a quick test.

I can educate you. That’s right. ME. Can you guess what to look for?

If you think narcissistic people refer to themselves a lot, then you are actually wrong.

recent study examined the common belief that narcissistic people refer to themselves more than the average person.

The researchers found there was no difference in the language that was used between individuals identified as narcissistic and those who were not. That is, narcissistic people didn’t say ‘I’ or ‘me’ any more than anyone else.

Fortunately, there really is a simple way to detect narcissism. One study found you only had to ask a person how much they agree with the statement ‘I am a narcissist’.

Narcissistic people, as determined from other more laborious techniques, were more likely to agree with the statement.

It is argued that narcissists are the first to admit they are narcissistic. They don’t see it as a negative. They even admire themselves for it.

As they should.

Um, so what exactly is Human Factors? A Space Odyessy

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There’s a moment in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey where our distant, ape-like, evolutionary ancestor spontaneously comprehends how a large bone can be used for violence.

Shortly after this moment he clubs an animal over the head and provides dinner for his furry pals. The weapon is then used as leverage to conquer a small, rival society to obtain access to a water hole.Depending on your background, you will probably view this scene in a few ways.

A risk expert may view the ape-man lowering his risk of starvation and exposing himself to a valuable survival opportunity. A project planner may consider this a perfect example of strategy, planning and execution, overcoming the exposed, unorganised society.

Social psychologists would be interested in the social dynamics of the groups bonding and uniting to promote their own survival. Useability experts might be more interested in the bone being used as a tool. The end-user finds it useful in achieving what they want to achieve.

Culture change individuals might be more interested in the shared values and attitudes of the ape-people, as well as the environmental influences that are promoting this change in group dynamics.

What would a Human Factors person think?

Human Factors looks at how all of these factors—risk, social dynamics, tools, planning, and so on—dynamically interact to influence outcomes.

The ape-man is being influenced by his culture and society and his basic need for survival. The tool and his social group assist him in achieving this goal.

The bone isn’t a tool unless it is used. The tool isn’t used if there is no drive for survival. The tool isn’t perceived as useful if the ape-man can’t comprehend its functionality and so on.

In the same way that reading this blog you don’t read the individual words or letters.

You don’t read the final paragraph and lose the meaning of what you read at the beginning. You also read my message in light of context provided from a movie released in 1968 and you assume that I am a person with a particular motive or message to deliver.

In short, somehow all the parts come together to deliver a message. Or to use an old cliché, ‘The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.’

But maybe my message isn’t clear. Have I planned it appropriately? Have I underestimated the risk of you failing to comprehend it? Perhaps the message isn’t a useable one. It’s too long or boring.

Perhaps it needs some Human Factors?


Afraid of making a bad impression?

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In meeting rooms across the globe there are people terrified of being themselves. They project their workplace selves, showing how conservative, cautious, ambitious, collaborative, assertive and clever they are.

They are less likely to talk about their nerves, worries and confusion. Let’s not be human when we’ve got colleagues, clients and managers to impress, right?If we care to admit it, we have all been concerned with making a bad impression.

I had a friend who walked into a shop to ask a girl on a date. She declined and he felt bad about it. However, he was also quick to recall all the other things that magnified the rejection making him feel even worse.

His hair and clothes were a mess. He felt people were staring at him from the moment he walked in until the moment he made his deflated exit.

At that point in time the whole universe seemed to focus attention on his scruffy, rejected appearance. Of course, this was just a memory fuelled by emotion.

Fear of rejection makes us better at recalling these negative experiences. It can also make us disapprove of others.

In one study individuals were told they were going to meet someone and were instructed to be sure to make a good impression.

In a subtle change to the instruction, another group of participants were told to avoid making a bad impression.

Each group then read a list of personal characteristics supposedly nominated by the person they were about to meet. Shortly afterwards they also read a description of the person.

They were then were asked to recall as many of the characteristics they could remember from the list.

Those participants instructed to avoid making a bad impression were more likely to remember the negative qualities of the person, compared with those instructed to make a good impression.

They were also more likely to instinctively dislike the person (who they never actually ended up meeting).

It seems that when we are preoccupied with not making a bad impression we are also more sensitive to possible problems and threats. So, we start to see others through the same negative lens and are more attuned to their negative qualities.

The researchers suggest this is one reason why individuals concerned with loneliness and rejection also feel the loneliest and most rejected. Their perception is distorted by their fear.

It can explain why so many individuals dread being asked to deliver a presentation or give a speech. Even when successfully delivered, the fear of making a bad impression can leave lingering negative thoughts about the experience.

Perhaps instead of trying to avoid a bad experience, individuals should simply refocus on the strategies and tactics for making a good impression. It’s a subtle shift but, after all, the last thing you want to do is make a bad impression.

If your life was a story, what kind of story would it be?

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We are all stars in our own story. The early days were misadventures. That career was a series of triumphs. In some cases the story takes sharp turns in unexpected directions. Other times we hit obstacles and tragedies.These stories are referred to as our narrative identities and they help us to make sense of our past and anticipate our possible future.

Many of the stories we use to construct our narrative identities are reinforced by our upbringing, society and culture. Cultural stories are one way we pass on wisdom. Research also shows that the narratives we adopt to describe our lives can predict how well we subsequently respond to significant life events.Do any of the following stories ring true for you?

The Redeemer

My life is about learning from all the hardships and mistakes

Redemption narratives involve overcoming significant hardships, leading to greater awareness and appreciation. They involve life lessons and challenges that helped shape the person today.

The Connector

I learned to lean on others 

Communion narratives underscore building social connections and relating more to those around them as a means of overcoming difficulties. For example, a disconnected workaholic may learn to lean on family and friends when his or her life turns upside down and realises that social connections are more meaningful than money.

The Fighter

I saw the challenges in front of me and dived straight in

Agency narratives involve the individual taking full control of their destiny through sheer force and determination. They may, for example, persevere and overcome injustice and fight their way to the top in an organisation or triumph over a major physical obstacle, like climbing a mountain.

The Unlucky

The good days are behind me

A contamination identity follows the opposite path to the first three themes. The person who has a contamination narrative starts their story in a good state but is plagued by misfortune. They may, for example, keep seeing opportunities pass them by at work, struggle with endless physical complaints. The good days are well and truly behind them.

Narrative Identity and Resilience

These four themes were examined by researchers to work out whether they helped individuals navigate through hardships. Researchers identified individuals who adopted one of these four themes and then traced the trajectory of their lives at six month intervals over two years. They were also interested in whether the narrative identities would help them better respond to a negative significant life event. So they recorded any instances where participants experienced a significant physical illness.

Those who viewed their life through a contamination lens, were less resilient when confronted by this illness. The illness was just yet another misfortune on the journey toward degradation.In contrast, the other three identities seemed to improve resilience. That is, individuals who viewed their lives through the lens of redemption, communion or agency were better able to cope with the hardships of the physical illness, both mentally and physically.

Using this information, we could possibly re-write our life stories to have a more meaningful and positive journey.

Leaders could motivate others during times of significant change and upheaval by anchoring the changes to a story that resonates. Perhaps the difficulties will form part of learning (redemption narrative) or an opportunity to lean on colleagues and build their connections (communion narrative)?

Aesthetics is more than just window dressing (except when you’re working on windows)

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Steve Jobs knew instinctively that consumers would want to select their own typefaces or fonts. People don’t just want to read and deliver content. They also want it to look good too.

Since the early days of the Apple Macs, we now have more and more options on how to format and improve the attractiveness of our documents and presentations.Finally there’s research that validates all that tinkering around with fonts, borders, styles, layouts, headers, footers and clip art.


This research shows that working on these aesthetics—that is, the beauty and attractiveness of things—is one of the easiest ways to lower resistance to new ideas.To understand why this is let’s look at one of the main reasons why people resist change: well-ingrained behaviours, beliefs and values.

When the change appears to challenge who we are and what we believe, we react and can dismiss the ideas even if they sensible.

What appears to lower this resistance is getting people to actively think or talk about their personal values or what seems to interest them—called self-affirmation. Self-affirmation appears to anchor and solidify our sense of self so that we don’t feel as threatened when a change is proposed.

A universal value relates to aesthetics. In general, we all value beauty and attractiveness, even if it’s just on an unconscious level. So, by exposing individuals to something which is more aesthetic is a way of reaffirming one of their core values.

For example, in one study individuals were shown a university guidebook which described and showed the campus. One group of participants were exposed to an aesthetically pleasing campus. Another group looked at a campus with a focus on functionality and efficiency.


Aesthetically pleasing


Not aesthetically pleasing

After reviewing the guidebook, participants were presented with options that were either advocated by the researcher or not.Participants exposed to the aesthetically pleasing campus were more inclined to endorse the advocated option. In other words, they were more easily influenced after viewing the aesthetically pleasing material.

In a related study, the researchers found that being shown these aesthetically pleasing products led to increased openness. Participants stated they were more likely engage in certain behaviours like attending a service of a religion they did not practise.

So, spending that little bit of extra time working on the look and feel of a solution isn’t just for your own satisfaction. It could actually make the the difference in persuading someone to your cause.

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