Sacked by e-mail? No problem if you got a smiley face as well

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To me getting sacked by e-mail or text is totally unacceptable but I’m old school HR and apparently it happens.

Researchers in Germany led by Professor Claus-Peter Ernst at Frankfurt University have found that adding a friendly emoji or smiley face is all you need to soften the blow.

They found that happy symbols could significantly influence how the message is interpreted but that sad or negative symbols had little effect.

The usage of happy and ironic emoticons significantly shapes the subtext of a message, namely the relationship and self-revelation level. whereas sad emoticons do not have such an effect. (So) senders can use happy or ironic to soften their messages…”

The researchers wondered if using emoticons had the same effect as non-verbal gestures and facial expression in face-to-face meetings when delivering bad news at work.

They found that recipients of a message could largely identify the social and emotional meaning of an emoticon.  “... emoticons are able to help to communicate a current mood or provide information about the mental state of the sender”.

They also found that the happy and ironic emoticons had a significant effect at the relationship level  ….. but not at the factual level.

This contradicts earlier research from Ben Gurion University in Israel which found that the inclusion of such emojis didn’t change people’s perception of warmth and in fact lowered their perception of the sender’s competence.

Alison Green from makes the point that a lot depends on your workplace culture and that if you have to use an emoticon maybe your message isn’t clear enough.

Personally I think it’s unprofessional in formal communications (as bad as people adding kisses). But then I think sacking people or delivering bad news by e-mail or text is a shabby HR practice. But we see plenty of examples of that these days don’t we.


Nurses have no time for compassion

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Mike the Psych's Blog

On the one hand the idea that all nurses are compassionate creatures was never true. I say that as someone with 20 plus years experience working in the NHS and more recently as a patient.

That’s not to say some, maybe most, nurses aren’t. I particularly remember one who held my hand throughout an uncomfortable 2-hour eye operation carried out under local anaesthetic and another who rubbed my back during an endoscopy examination.

But according to a recent study of professional values there is “a moral vacuum at the heart of nursing”.

Nurses are so ground down that they end up as “robots going through the motions” with a focus on clinical skills driving compassion from the job“. Yet compassion is part of the UK’s Nursing Vision.

Eight out of ten say their work conflicts with their personal values much of the time. The study concluded that it…

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The robots are coming to take your jobs – lots of them!

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A think tank (IPPR) is predicting that a million people could lose their jobs to robots and artificial intelligence (AI) with serious effects on the economy.

Jobs generating almost £300 billion could be lost – almost a third of the UK total.

The North East and Northern Ireland are at risk of losing 50% of all jobs. London is the area least likely to be affected.

Responses to this “threat” are varied. Jeremy Corbyn has called for “common good intervention” by the state so that workers don’t lose out. The government has spoken of creating “jobs for the future”. Such as?

The Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR)  want a co-ordinated response with the establishment of a regulator to oversee the “ethical use of robotics and artificial intelligence“.

It thinks that increasing automation could deliver a boost to the economy but might only benefit investors and small numbers of highly skilled workers while everybody else loses out. (A bit like globalisation then?). It rejects the idea that we are heading for a post-human economy saying most jobs would be re-allocated not eliminated.

One of the authors admits however that “Some people will get a pay rise while others are trapped in low pay, low-productivity sectors. To avoid inequality rising the government should look at ways to spread capital ownership and make sure everyone benefits from increased automation”

  • Industries most likely to be affected are agriculture, transport, food processing, and administrative jobs.
  • The safest jobs are likely to be in education, information, and communication sectors.

There is also the risk that automation could increase gender inequality as jobs held by women are at more risk.


Earlier this year I posted this about how insurance company Aviva had asked its 16,000 staff whether or not robots could do their jobs better than they can.

Now some of you might think you are dealing with a robot when it comes to making an insurance claim but this is serious.

With predictions by Oxford University that robots could take over 35% of jobs within twenty years with insurance under-writers at the top of the list, it’s no laughing matter.

Aviva has promised that any employee who says that their job would be done better if automated will be retrained for another job within the company. What kind of job that would be is not made clear but they will probably be less skilled, less rewarding and lower paid.

The idea, proposed by their American finance chief, is to “remove the robot from the person, not replace people with robots”. Nice soundbite but what does it mean when the company is planning to replace people by robots?

A White House report last year concluded that almost 50% of all American jobs could be automated and 80% of jobs paying less than $20 an hour. And the governor of the Bank of England has warned that 15 million British jobs are at risk (just under  50% of the UK workforce).

There are some jobs robots can’t do – yet. They can do administrative, clerical, and production tasks like building cars. They can make coffee and flip burgers. The former Chief executive of McDonald’s has been quoted as saying it’s cheaper to buy a $35,000 robot arm than employ someone who is inefficient at $15 an hour. Our local McDonald’s has just introduced touch screen ordering so no queuing to give your order to people.

Robots can even do surgery and may be better than humans with certain procedures but when it comes to selling, developing business ideas, or similar jobs relying on human interaction maybe not.

However online companies manage to sell an awful lot of stuff without any human intervention, and robots are being developed as companions for the elderly.

Originally posted February 28 2017 —————————————

In December an AI-based recruitment manager called Andi developed by Microsoft and Botanic started assessing candidates for three occupations.

It also offers lessons in interview techniques. The cartoon Avatar asks multiple choice questions but also sizes up the applicant’s personality through speech and body language using the video app Skype. 

Mark Meadows, the founder of Botanic says the system could measure 24 aspects of a person’s character or personality through speech patterns and body language.

A manager wanting to hire someone can ask Andi to identify 10 candidates for a particular job and it is able to interview 1,000 candidates within an hour and come up with the best ten and rank the top three of them.

He gave an example of someone who “ums” and ‘ahs”s a lot who wouldn’t be picked for a public speaking job (human interviewers might be able to work that one out Mark).

Botanic’s previous creations include  medical advice bot and a language teacher. He’s keen to develop what are essentially expert seems bots for a variety of applications.

In the meantime Andi looks like it will be doing HR, occupational psychologists and career coaches out of jobs!

updated January 8 2018

I had a (day) dream

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Why are we so down on daydreaming? Is it because it represents slacking off and laziness in a society that’s always pushing us to achieve, produce and succeed? Probably.

Daydreaming is usually seen as non-productive in a society that increasingly values productivity. It’s seen as frivolous and a distraction from getting on with your life (starting at school when teachers think you aren’t paying attention).

In reality it’s something everyone does spontaneously and although estimates vary about how often we do it, from 10-50% of our waking hours, it’s agreed that daydreams typically last for only for a few minutes each.

How can daydreaming be beneficial to you? Well can it help you to rehearse the changes you want to make in your life? Be a good stress reliever, simply give you a break? All of those things.  Specifically day-dreaming helps you, personally or vicariously, to imagine future events or recall past ones.

Daydreaming helps you learn from successes and failures and hence with planning strategies. It can also help you to re-interpret the past in the light of newer experiences. As someone said; “It’s never too late to have a happy childhood”.

Forward planning? Anticipating future events allows you to consider possible outcomes and assess the consequences of alternatives. So it improves decision-making and can also provide a rehearsal of what you plan to do.

Daydreaming relaxes constraints on planning so you can imagine being famous or having super-powers or doing something you wouldn’t normally do because of social constraints on behaviour.

It also supports creativity. Daydreaming allows you to explore amazing possibilities which you wouldn’t consider in the cold light of day and which may lead to new solutions, to that Eureka moment!

Every time you re-examine a problem your mind is able to take on board new information as it becomes available and thus come up with a different solution. Further daydreaming about success or praise for that idea can also increase your motivation to do it.

Daydreaming also helps you regulate your emotions and help you feel better or worse about something depending on the outcome. So daydreaming about the successful outcome of something you previously failed at can reduce the fear of failure. (Of course if you daydream about failure or obsess about the past; that can make it worse).

Daydreaming allows you to alter reality so you can reduce anger or other negative emotions eg revenge or embarrassment, and help you prepare new learning strategies through mental rehearsal. Fear of flying and other common phobias can be overcome using mental rehearsal combined with relaxation techniques.

And having a day-dream is like having a mini-break in which you can release tension, anxiety and stress, and return more refreshed.

Can it help you to achieve goals and boost productivity? Daydreaming doesn’t have any boundaries so anything is possible. What many companies call visioning or future-pacing is little more than organised day-dreaming. Thinking positively about future outcomes and goals is more likely to make them happen.

That’s why goal setting is so important – something to move towards. People who are “away from” in their goals ie they know what they don’t want rather than what they do, are less successful. It seems the human brain prefers positive goal setting. Nowadays athletes regularly use visualisation techniques to help them achieve peak performance.

You can also use organised daydreaming to help manage conflict. You can revisit that argument and visualise how it might have turned out differently and how you might try something different in the future. Focus on positive rather than negative aspects of your relationships. Even the client from hell has some redeeming feaures.

More mundanely day-dreaming can help relieve the monotony of boring jobs, take you mind off the job temporarily and help keep you stimulated – not necessarily a good thing if you are an air traffic controller of course but not such a problem with routine, risk free jobs.

Thanks for the memory – not

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Memory is a wonderful thing although there are probably some things you would rather forget.

Well that’s not quite so easy according to a recent study presented at the Neuroscience 2017 conference in Washington.

Roy Cox and his colleagues at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Centre in Boston found that the brain is pre-disposed to dwell on and strengthen negative memories while we sleep.

They tested almost 60 people by showing them both neutral and unpleasant images to different hemispheres of the brain and recording electrical activity which showed that the images had been localised in one hemisphere.

Twelve hours later they were given a memory test. Those subjects kept awake in the interim remembered roughly equal numbers of unpleasant and neutral images. Those who slept remembered more negative ones.

This suggests that “sleep selectively stabilises emotional memories” and would confirm a number of ideas about how information is “tagged” e.g. by emotions or even sounds, that make it easier to be recalled.

With people suffering PTSD or similar the trick is to find a way of reducing the emotional content. That to me is the more interesting aspect of this kind of research.

How bright do leaders need to be?

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Well, intelligent enough to convince your team you know what you are doing but not so intelligent that it creates a barrier.

A study at Lausanne University, published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, tested more than 350 middle managers then asked staff to rate their ability.

There was a strong link between intelligence and ratings for those at the lower to middle end but above an IQ of 120 the connection  started to reverse. Once the IQ gap between you and your employees is bigger than 18 points you are in trouble.

John Antonakis, the author of the report, said “The idea is that you need to be smarter than the people you are leading and smart enough to keep rivals at bay. But you mustn’t be so smart that they can’t understand you“.

This is not new. Adrian Furnham, a business psychologist and academic, writing in the Sunday Times back in 2005 made the same point along with others I think are worth repeating. He said:

–People prefer bright leaders

–The more intelligent the leader the more effective the team

–Intelligent people learn more quickly & inspire confidence

–Leaders need to be bright – but not too bright. If a lot more intelligent than team they will be misunderstood or seen as a threat

–IQ more related to Leadership when not under stress, which counters intelligence

–Leaders need to be stable ie resilient and hardy

–Social skills are important

So there is more to it than just your IQ score. Emotional Intelligence plays a big part.

As does not having a dark side personality that terrible triad of narcissism, psychopathy and Machiavellianism. And if you want to influence you have to demonstrate warmth as well as competence (Prime Ministers take note).

And if you want to stay ahead and keep brighter – only mix with the brightest!

And if you’re worried about the IQ gap between you and your team you know what to do – recruit more women!

A long travel to work time can demotivate you

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Hardly surprising really. Researchers at UWE in Bristol analysed the experiences of 26,000 workers and found that an extra 20 minutes commuting each day was as bad as taking a 19% pay cut!

The average commuting time per day has risen from 48 to 60 minutes each way over the past 20 years and 1 in 7 workers send 2 hours a day commuting.

Every extra minute taken travelling reduced job satisfaction, worsened mental health and increased the chance of people giving up their job.

Workers travelling by bus seemed to suffer the worst compared to other means of transport.

Those who could walk or cycle to work were more satisfied, perhaps because they was it as a healthy activity and as part of a “health-enhancing lifestyle”. And perhaps because the journeys were shorter?

Longer train journeys were, perhaps unsurprisingly, less stressful than short ones as people can use the time more productively and shorter train journeys tended to be on more crowded trains.

Women were affected more by committing than men which the researchers out down to their having “greater household and family responsibilities“. That sounds a bit sexist in this day and age!

I don’t know if they looked at the number of stages in the journey to work but when I was carrying out research into absenteeism some years ago that was one of the factors. Not how far people travelled but how many changes they had to make and worrying about connections.

As a free-lancer I was always conscious of travel times and would book overnight stays to avoid getting stuck on motorways so at least I could be fresh on arrival. Nothing worse than turning up to present something on stress or resilience and being stressed out yourself!

HR job titles – seriously?

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They say you should take your job seriously – but not yourself.

It seems some HR people have taken that to heart.

According to People Management, the CIPD magazine, these are genuine job titles:

  • HR scrummaster
  • Vice President of teammate success
  • Appreciatologist
  • Employee experience architect
  • Employee journey guide
  • Hiring ninja
  • People and culture poet
  • Mood coordinator
  • Culture evangelist
  • People gardener
  • Snowflake nurturer (actually I made that one up)

As an ex-HR Director (and prior to that Head of Personnel Management) I despair at what these people actually do to help the organisations they work for.


Is it possible to help criminals with psychological interventions?

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Recent reports in the press suggest yes – but not in a good way.

In fact research shows that rather than make them better citizens it just helps them to be better at criminal activity.

In the latest reverse researchers at the George Mason University in Virginia tested Mindfulness Meditation on 259 prisoners. They were shown how to meditate focussing on their thoughts and accepting negative feelings.

They were tested before and after the sessions to assess their criminal tendencies and chances of re-offending. The results?

It actually made offenders more likely to blame others and psychologists said there was a direct link between mindfulness and the conditions likely to cause criminal behaviour.

It failed to bring prisoners out of “criminal thinking patterns” and actually made them worse because mindfulness encourages people not to judge themselves, which may have led offenders to avoid responsibility for their actions.

And this is a treatment accepted by the NHS for anxiety and depression with 20 or more apps you can use on your smart phone. Yet the warning sign were there. Mindfulness doesn’t work well with men.

Researchers at Brown University found gender differences in the effect of mindfulness meditation. “The mechanisms are highly speculative at this point, but stereotypically, women ruminate and men distract,” said a Dr Briton.

And in the UK the Ministry of Justice has shut down two Sex Offender Treatment Programmes (SOTPs) including a six months psychological group therapy programme designed to rehabilitate rapists and paedophiles. These have cost £100 million since being set up in 1991.

An independent study of the programmes found that it only made the criminals more dangerous and they had an above-average re-offending rate.

For example paedophiles who took the course had a 25% higher re-offending rate over a 10-year period especially those convicted of attacking children.

The programmes included CBT (which the Ministry believes to be the most effective way of reducing offending behaviour) and group discussions to help the sex offenders to understand their crimes and increase their awareness of victim harm. 

A former consultant on the programme who resigned told the Mail on Sunday that they weren’t adapting the course in line with new knowledge and many delivering the programme weren’t qualified but chaplains, prison officers and other para-professionals.

You can imagine that some in the group would relish the re-telling of their crimes and/or learn from others’ experiences.

Some years ago I remember reading about attempts to teach psychopaths to have more empathy and be more emotionally intelligent. It turned out that it just made them better at convincing victims they could be trusted. I couldn’t find the original source of that and it was a few years ago but in my search I came across Dr George Simon’s blog on this topic.

He wrote: “Times were when empathy training was a required component of most treatment programs for sexual offenders and predators. But the evidence indicated that providing such training had no effect on recidivism rates.

Moreover, some evidence emerged that teaching psychopathic predators about empathy only gave them increased knowledge about the vulnerabilities and sensitivities of others, which, in turn, they were prone to use to become even more adept predators“. (George Simon blog – already tweeted).

And more recent research shows that psychopaths do have an “empathy switch” but choose not to use it leading some scientists to believe it could help their rehabilitation. They need to revisit earlier work in this area if they believe that.

Given that some of these criminals will have personality disorders – notoriously difficult to deal with therapeutically – it comes as no surprise to me that these interventions show such poor outcomes.

Are you teaching your kids to be quitters?

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Not a good thing! Research clearly shows the importance of perseverance in school and in life.

So next time you are struggling with a task in front of your children don’t make it look too easy. By trying and repeatedly failing at a task you are helping children understand the value and importance of persistence.

Many cultures emphasise the value of effort and perseverance. This emphasis is substantiated by scientific research: individual differences in conscientiousness, self-control and ‘grit’ correlate with academic outcomes independent of IQ” wrote scientists at  the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

They wondered if persistence and quitting could be learnt. “Does seeing an adult exert effort to succeed encourage infants to persist longer at their own challenging tasks?”

In an experiment they ran at MIT, reported in the journal Science, 250 15-month old children watched adults perform a task getting a keychain attached to a carabiner out of a box.

Half the time the adults easily removed the keychain but half the time struggled before they accomplished the task.

The toddlers were then given their own task – a music box with a big button to press (which didn’t make the music play no matter how many times they pushed it). The idea was to see if the number of times they pushed the button depended on whether or not they had seen adults persevering.

The experiment was stopped after two minutes or after the toddler threw the box on the floor three times in frustration.

The results seemed to support the scientists’ hypothesis. Those children who had seen adults persevere, albeit in an unrelated task, kept pushing the button for longer.

While they are not suggesting this is the only way for children to learn the value of perseverance – they might also learn by just observing adults completing tasks or by being told about the importance of hard work – the study did suggest “the potential value in letting children “see you sweat”. Showing children that hard work works might encourage them to work hard too

It’s good to be reminded that we are role models for our children in everything we do!

Walk the talk and keep healthier

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Public Health England (PHE) are this week recommending that you hold your meetings outside. This will reduce stress, back and neck pain.

Sitting at your desk all day means companies are “haemorrhaging productivity” according to PHE chief executive Duncan Selbie.

He wants us to get up and move more, have walking meetings (it reminds me of that phrase used by bosses “walk with me” which also seemed controlling to me, but moving on, literally) because we like bursts of energy.

He thinks firms would benefit more by spending less time sitting in a chair and more time moving around. He wants employers to think about how to get people moving more.

They did a similar campaign two years to get people to stand up more, about which I posted. Standing up more is one thing but given our climate holding outdoor meetings could be quite a challenge.

However research shows that being sedentary is linked to all kinds of health problems: obesity, type 2 diabetes, some forms of cancer, and heart disease. So if you take your health seriously you should consider it.

And being outside and seeing some greenery is definitely stress-reducing and can boost productivity.

I remember visiting the BASF factory in Munster a few years ago and seeing the outdoor meeting area (picture below). It seemed to work for them.

Does driving make you dumber?

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Research suggests that driving puts your brain in reverse. Driving for more than two hours a day steadily reduces your intelligence.

The researchers at Leicester University studied more than 500,000 Britons aged 37-73 who were given intelligence and memory tests.

They were actually looking at the effect of sedentary behaviour on brainpower. They found it fell faster among middle-aged people who drove long distances every day.

So middle-aged people should cut out that long-distance commute and find more socially stimulating things to do.

It was already known that sedentary behaviour was bad for your heart but now it appears to be bad for your brain too “perhaps because the brain is less active in those hours (I hope they weren’t referring to driving).

Cognitive decline can happen quickly “(It’s) decline is measurable over five years because it can happen fast in middle-aged and older people. This is associated with lifestyle factors such as smoking and bad diet – and now it’s time spent driving” said Kishan Bakrania.

93,000 of the participants who were already driving two to three hours a day had lower brainpower when the research started – and it continued to decline and faster than people who did little or no driving.

Similar results were found with TV watching. Those who watched 3 hours a day had lower brainpower at the start of the research and it fell faster over five years.

Although studies are suggesting that cognitive decline is linked to physical inactivity using a computer at work or for playing games actually stimulates the brain – whereas watching TV doesn’t. However sedentary behaviour is also linked with obesity, Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular problems. So get off that couch!

The research results were no surprise to the Alzheimer’s Society. Cardiovascular health will affect memory and thinking skills and “staying mentally and physically active hips keep the brain healthy“.